Art Goes Back to the ‘Drawing’ Board

The Luan Gallery with Athlone Castle and St. Peter's and Paul's Church In the background
The Luan Gallery with Athlone Castle and St. Peter’s and Paul’s Church In the background

A council motion calling for the removal of an installation at an art gallery will go back to the gallery’s Board of Directors for their perusal.

The most bizarre Athlone Town council meeting in living memory heard Cllr. Mark Cooney put up a motion for discussion requesting that the exhibit entitled “Fragmens sur le Institutions Republicaines IV” be removed from Athlone town’s Luan Gallery.  Cooney, son of former Minister for Justice, Paddy Cooney said the installation is offensive to many people.  The installation at the Luan Gallery in Athlone consists of many black and white text panels, created by artist, Shane Cullen from the smuggled messages of the 1981 Maze hunger strikers prisoners.  The work is positioned along the main wall of the Shannonside gallery.

The story has been watched over by the national media since the day the gallery opened last November, because former Minister Paddy Cooney objected on the day to the H-Block depictions.  Indeed Fine Gael’s Cllr. Cooney admitted during the January council meeting, that his father was “quite agitated,” on the day.

“I would certainly agree it is art, and it has merit, but the difficulty is in what is written there in black and white,” said the Fine Gael councillor.  “We have to consider the families of those who were murdered, and you don’t have to look too far, because there were some families in Athlone and Moate.  We all know the awful circumstances into how Pte. Paddy Kelly’s death came about.  There are many copious references there to prison officers referred to as screws and bastards.  What are we saying to the police service, the army and the Defence Forces with this.”

David Kelly, son of Pte. Paddy Kelly was in the gallery, alongside members of many groupings like Sinn Fein, the artistic community from South Westmeath and ex-Defence Forces personnel, among others.  Local Sinn Fein member, John McNamara talked loudly into a megaphone outside the Athlone Civic Centre meeting venue.  Two audience members had anti-politician banners, and there was much clapping, and heckling from the public gallery, leading to Mayor Jim Henson (Lab) cautioning the public gallery members a number of times.

Sinn Fein’s Cllr. Paul Hogan welcomed the artist, Shane Cullen into the meeting, before calling Cooney’s motion, a “censorship motion,”.

“Shane Cullen as an artist has a constitutional right to express himself, in his art, through his artistic endeavour, in any way that he sees fit,” said Cllr. Hogan.  “To me this is a preposterous motion, and a very clear message needs to be sent out of this council.  Art is there to be provocative, it is there to be controversial, it’s not just about pretty pictures on a wall.  It should be about open emotion, to draw conclusions from.  But where we fall down as councillors is if we take the right off people to let them go in and view it themselves, we are censoring them and we are limiting them.”

Independent, Cllr. Sheila Buckley-Byrne, who is also on the board of directors of the Luan Gallery proposed a counter-motion to the Cooney motion, by asking that the councillors refrain from making a decision on the Cullen installation.  She proposed that the motion be referred to the Luan Gallery board of directors, for consideration at their next meeting, on January 15th.  The majority of councillors agreed with the Buckley-Byrne counter-motion in the expectation that the board’s judgement will come back before the next monthly council meeting, which could be on February 4th.

The counter-motion was seconded by Mayor Henson and agreed with by Fianna Fail’s Cllr. Aengus O’Rourke and Cllr, Kieran Molloy, and Independent, Cllr. Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran, and surprisingly Fine Gael’s Cllr. Alan Shaw broke with his party colleagues on the issue to also support the counter-motion.  It was unprecedented to see Cllr. Cooney and his party colleague Cllr. Gabrielle McFadden and Cllr. Hogan all on the one side – voting against the proposal!  The 6-3 council vote carried the counter motion.

Mayor Henson is Chairman of the Luan Board of Directors, and Cllr. Moran is a board member alongside Cllr. Buckley-Byrne.

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