Radical Irish Art

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December 10, 2012 by Skiing the band

Ireland’s Brendan Behan is an unsung hero of the modern stage. I first heard about him 10 or so years ago, when I caught Borstal Boy on TV. I fell in love with the whole cast, even for a while adorning my laptop backdrop wall with a scene from the film. Finding out that Borstal Boy is in fact autobiographical, had me on the lookout for a copy of the book. While I eventually found it a tad long-winded, I saw the comedic charm to Behan’s writing. That sent me back to the book store once more. I ordered a nice and used collection of his plays, “The Quare Fellow,” “The Hostage,” and “Richard’s Cork Leg,” among some sundry one-acts designed for the radio.

I was immediately impressed by the cover artwork, which features a woman standing in a clear glass, up to her eyeballs in water, looking on another woman reclining naked on a mussed up bed with “Eire” written in the background. The culprit is none other than Irish artist Micheal Farrell, who entitled this oil painting, Madonna Irlanda, or The First Ever Real Irish Political Picture. Clearly Farrell wanted to incite controversy and I can only guess he might have felt that Irish political art was absent or ripped-off or whatever, and that controversy needed inciting.

Micheal Farrell, Lady Irlanda, or The First Ever Real Irish Political Picture

What I can glean from this piece is that Ireland is being depicted as a naked prostitute in a dirty bedroom, though still holy, as another woman is drowning in a glass of water, while yet another woman is vaginally bleeding while trying to hoist a flag. While it is not clear who the client is, whether England, or the world, or the viewer which is my guess it is clear that the women depicted in the painting are in danger, that their lives are at stake, and that there has been a crime. While the woman on the bed does not at first seem to be in the dangerous predicament as the other two, upon closer inspection she has been spanked, as the coloration on her behind indicates. She is modelled after Mademoiselle O’Murphy, an Irish woman, one of Louis XV’s mistresses, and famously painted by Francois Boucher.

I am impressed by how strong this work is and what it seems to be saying, and how it’s coming from a place of anger and frustration.

Louise O’ Murphy by Francois Boucher

I am currently reading Behan’s Richard’s Cork Leg, which reminds me a lot of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, which both deal with the fertile comedic ground of the funeral business. Where The Loved One contents itself with a parody of Hollywood stardom, and drivelling sentimentality, Behan’s work deals with class, religion, Irish history, including Irish independence, which Behan himself worked towards up to a certain point, and prostitution, which is never solemnizing. Here we have two Bawds who are on their yearly pilgrimage to the grave of their deceased co-worker, Crystal Clear, to sing songs and pour out a shot or two or her favorite booze in her honor, well-met by two charlatan beggars, begging alms and pocketing the money. The whole play takes place in a cemetery that had recently been purchased by a US company which touts itself as being the classiest and classist-ist cemetery in all of Ireland. I haven’t finished it yet, but would have loved to have seen it in its original form back in the day. I don’t suppose Brendan Behan’s works will ever get even the smallest showing here in Berlin, but that’s the beauty of your own mind. There is a showing whenever you want it.


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