We knew we wanted our participants to leave something behind on Mulberry Street - some small token which acknowledged the people who once lay buried there. Our videographer, Jenny Collins, had the brilliant idea of incorporating Irish linen in these tokens, so we made that our focus. While we wanted there to be a degree of uniformity about the tokens left by our participants, we also wanted to ensure some diversity. So we sourced a range of fabrics: as well as unbleached Irish linen from Cloth Dublin, we chose a selection of tweeds from the famous Donegal firm Magee, and traditional red flannel, and Aran wool, from Vibes & Scribes in Cork City.
We had J. M. Synge's observations from The Aran Islands (1907) in mind as we considered the colours of these fabrics: "The women wear red petticoats and jackets of the island wool stained with madder, to which they usually add a plaid shawl twisted round their chests and tied at the back. [. . .] The men wear three colours: the natural wool, indigo, and grey flannel that is woven of alternate threads of indigo and the natural wool." But our principal visual guide was the painting Mass in a Connemara Cabin, by Aloysius O'Kelly. Although painted some years after the Famine, in 1883, the picture captures a custom which began in the seventeenth century - the 'Stations' - in which Mass was said and confession heard in private farmhouses in rural Ireland. The custom began as a response to the Penal Laws, which forced Catholics to practise their religion in secrecy. During the following century it became increasingly widespread, particularly in the west and southeast of Ireland, but by the time O'Kelly came to paint this picture in the later nineteenth century the disapproval and active discouragement of the Stations by church authorities was common. For some, the painting presents perhaps an overly sentimental view of life in rural Ireland. But, in a brilliant commentary on the picture which appears in Brendan Rooney’s book A Time and a Place, it is noted that it is O'Kelly's "straightforward" and "serious" approach to his subject matter which "enhances its value as an historical document". Among other fascinating details, it is pointed out that "the company are dressed in their best clothes", and further that:
“O'Kelly presents those in attendance as individuals, not as ciphers, and lavishes attention on every detail of the accoutrements associated with their daily lives, which have been carefully prepared to look their best for the event.”
From Brendan Rooney ed., A Time and a Place (Dublin: National Gallery of Ireland, 2006), p. 78.
The pennants themselves carry those inspirations, and the act of tying them to the wooden railing on Mulberry Street involves further references. We thought, for example, of Cross Bones graveyard in Southwark. Formally unconsecrated, this patch of waste ground in London, SE1 is the resting place of thousands. Originally, in the late medieval period, it began as a burial ground for the 'Winchester Geese', prostitutes in the local area. As the centuries rolled on, Cross Bones remained the place where many others who were denied a Christian burial were buried, by the eighteenth century it was a paupers' graveyard, and it finally closed in 1853. In recent years the site has survived plans for redevelopment, and the gates which enclose it are covered in hundreds of ribbons and tokens, left in memory of those the plaque on the site calls "the outcast dead".