Margaret of New Orleans

A largely forgotten but inspiringly charitable woman, Margaret Haughery (1813-1882) aka Margaret of New Orleans, was born and raised until she was five in Tully outside Carrigallen, Co. Leitrim. Her charitable work with orphans reminds us of how massive a positive difference even one disadvantaged individual can make in the reality of others.

Due to heavy rainfall in the period (1816 was known as the year without a summer in Ireland) and other factors her family felt little option but to emigrate to the United States in 1818 as it grew increasingly difficult for them to make a living on their small farm. After four years in Baltimore she lost both her parents in an outbreak of yellow fever in the city. As her sisters and brothers had already moved to other parts of the country she became an orphan. She was taken in by a family and worked as a servant there and gradually made her own way in the world, settling in New Orleans. She married but lost both her husband and only child to ill health and therefore lost her family twice.

Having been one herself she was now so moved by the plight of orphans she went to work in an orphanage in the city. Due to her compassion and discovering she had a natural acumen for business she would soon go on to manage and raise the money necessary to keep it open. To fund her orphanage and other charitable actions she undertook she opened a very successful bakery. By the time she died aged 69 in 1882 she was so well known and beloved that she received a State funeral. She was also the first woman in the United States to have a statue erected in her honour, it can still be seen in New Orleans. A more detailed history of her life and details of her restored home-place in Co. Leitrim can be viewed here. (Stephen Rennicks)

Location of her homeplace on map

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Nigel Rolfe at The Dock

During March 2006 there was an exhibition at The Dock, Carrick-on-Shannon of work from the IMMA collection. Connected – Unconneted had been picked by staff from The Dock and Leitrim county council through a series of meetings and discussions with staff from IMMA. It featured work by Clare Langan, Vik Muniz, Caroline McCarthy, Paul Nugent and Nigel Rolfe.

I attended the opening and very much enjoyed the show and that for one month the people of Leitrim and its environs could get to see some of the national collection. I was already familiar with much of it from my frequent visits to IMMA when I lived in Dublin (I must have seen every show they had there between 1998 and 2005). I had somehow not picked up that there would be a performance by Rolfe that night as well (he also had a triptych in the show, Blood of the Beast) but very luckily for me I just happened to be in the foyer and probably about to leave when I saw that the doors to the theatre were open and someone was standing there announcing that they were about to be closed as there was a very limited capacity for the performance that was about to start. I automatically went inside not having any idea what was about to happen or that I was about to witness one of the most significant artistic moments in Leitrim’s history.

Inside I saw a single file of about 20 people standing and circling the edge of the space and quickly positioned myself at the end of this line. I may have been one of the last people admitted and the performance began very quickly after this. At this stage my actual memory of the performance is sketchy and impressionistic but I think that Rolfe was already in the centre of the darkened room and he had a few things set up on the floor. He set a swinging pendulum in motion which at times would hit and spread various piles or maybe containers of coloured powder he had carefully placed on the floor. I seem to remember there was a sound element and that he crawled about, all the while thinking to myself that this was the most unusual and incredible thing I had seen in my life. I know it doesn’t sound like much from this description but by the time it was over, perhaps 20 minutes later or an hour (maybe we are all still there) I would like to think that each one of us were changed in many different ways. On one basic level I had seen a master performance artist in action and anyone else would now have a lot to live up to. I also understood something more about subjectivity, the moment and the magic of live performance but much more importantly something deep inside me had intangibly shifted forever and this would effect how I was going to perceive the world from that moment on.

This performance has now become ‘the’ legendary event of The Dock’s history (with many more people claiming to have been there than actually could) and over the years whenever I meet someone and discover they were really there too they always tell me of having had a similar type of deeply moving and changing experience which lingers to the present day. I have been in that space for shows and performances many times since and my memory of that performance is never far away. To my knowledge no documentation of it exists but I did find an image of a performance of his from 2012 which looks to bear some relation to what he did at The Dock. (Stephen Rennicks)

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Make hay while the sun shines

Every county has its own particular sayings and Leitrim is no exception. ‘Stay between the ditches’ is one I came across not long after I moved here and is said to someone about to start driving somewhere. It’s perfect for somewhere with such small roads but hasn’t caught on elsewhere. One local saying which has found a more universal meaning and gone on to gain global currency is ‘Make hay while the sun shines’. It is said to have been first recorded as a local expression in 1645 but would of course have been in use long before that. Ireland and Leitrim’s weather is such that during the summer a dry and sunny day cannot be taken for granted if the grass is ready to be cut in the fields. Today, as then it has become a proverb to act if you have an chance to do something, before the opportunity expires. Local writer Brian Leyden captured this original meaning very well in one chapter of his memoir, The Home Place (2002). (Stephen Rennicks)

Borderland

In north Leitrim near Kiltyclogher and Rossinver you will find a section of what is known as The Black Pig’s Dyke. It got this name as it’s thought the ditch may have been dug with the tusks of wild pigs and there is a legend that a huge wild boar dug it up. It is a large long running ditch dating from perhaps as early as 390 BC but no one knows for sure how old it is or even what it was used for. It’s thought it may have been to stop cattle raiding which was common in those times or may have been to form a defensive border between kingdoms. While there would have been wide gaps in it if it had been used for either of those purposes one thing for certain is that it eerily traces the current border between northern and southern Ireland. For whatever reason it appears this region has had a man made intersection of sorts for a long time.

Part of Garrett Carr’s project, New Maps of Ulster, follows the border route looking for unofficial crossing points. These form a Map of Connections and were usually a farmers gate in a field, a plank across a stream or a stepping stone bridge. These moving images show that people still managed to live there and would naturally find ways to cross this imaginary fault-line of the mind as I’m sure they would also have done in the past and will continue to do in the future. (Stephen Rennicks)

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Look More Closely

When I lived in Dublin, an anonymous plaque (to Father Pat Noise) was attached to O’Connell Bridge (photo below). What was most interesting to me about this was that no one noticed it at the time until two years later when the people who were responsible sent a video of themselves attaching it to RTE News. This led to some very short lived public outrage and promises from the council that it would be removed. In 2011 I was asked to do an artist talk and I went to see if it was still there as I wanted to use an image of it for my presentation if it was. To my surprise after 10 years or more it was and to my knowledge still is. I saw it perfectly tying into my approach of subtly using public space for art without permission.

Thinking of this I went to the much travelled bridge in Carrick-on-Shannon and looked for a place that might hold a plaque also. To my delight I noticed there was a large rectangular cavity right in the centre of the bridge, from an old plaque perhaps, and I knew what I had to do. I had been on an artist visit to Feely Stone in Boyle in about 2007 and knew they could sand blast text onto a piece of stone for me so I took them my measurements and text.

Within a week I was the proud owner of my plaque and had acquired a hi-vis safety waistcoat, a bucket of readymade cement and trowel. I attached it on a weekday about 3pm during January 2013 and had the whole job done in about 5 minutes or less with no questions asked. Since then no one has ever noticed or commented on it as I guessed would be the case. The text reads ‘Look More Closely’ A Guide To Here Nor There 2013’. You can click on picture for larger image.  (Stephen Rennicks)

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Authentic Experience

“For instance, Ireland is immensely popular with German visitors, who buy up traditional houses and stay there permanently. The motivating factor seems to be a sense of alienation from their own society, and a desire to return to a lifestyle which is perceived as authentic. Thus the contemporary cultural symbols of this new middle class include health food, real ale, real bread, vegetarianism, natural childbirth, wool, lace, cotton, traditional non-western medicines, cycling, mountaineering, and fell-walking rather than contrived, organized leisure. It is this group who seem to be the main consumers of cultural tourism.”

-Moya Kneafsey in Culture, Tourism and Development: The Case of Ireland (1994)

As a county Leitrim is something of a cipher and whatever life people want to live here, what they perceive to be authentic or otherwise, they can. It may take sometime to establish that life as well as others who want to share it, eg. farmers markets, but if the desire is there it can become reality. I wouldn’t think that Leitrim is unique in this however but for various reasons, the price of land and housing being key, it has traditionally been and remains a place where a certain type of supposedly ‘authentic’ experience (like the one described above) can be lived easily enough. Although in this financial respect many more places in the country are currently like Leitrim and for this reason it is something the local tourist board and county council could be wise to exploit.

On the subject of Germans living in Leitrim, it has the highest population of Germans and German-speakers per capita of any county, I would recommend the book Lebensreform in Leitrim (2011) by the artist Sarah Browne. Lebensreform in Leitrim is a kind of surrealist ethnography which addresses the countercultural legacy of migrants to the Northwest of Ireland, and evokes an emotional geography of desired alternatives.” (Stephen Rennicks)

A postcard and print of this image can be purchased at this link.

Tyranny of the Object

As a result of doing the Guide I was given a private commission to make a sculpture in the garden of a home somewhere in north Leitrim. They also wanted it to somehow change the reality of the people who lived there as the Guide, amongst other things, tries to do. I asked to stay for a weekend to get to know them and also to see what materials might already be there for me to use and think about the commission further. They agreed to this and while there I found that the previous owner of the property had left a lot of belongings behind, most of which were still stored in sheds and from looking at them it was obvious they been something of a hoarder. It was something I and the new owner could relate to very well and it sparked a conversation between us about the tyranny of the object and how these things from our past keep us from being in the moment. Some of these objects I found were in the form of a neatly stacked but useless pile of slates from an earlier roof with even the original chimney pots close by. Like every good hoarder knows keeping certain things from the past can be important and often in the most intangible ways can turn out to be useful, but more often are not. I thought that the sculpture could be functional as well and decided to embrace both the impulse to keep this material by making a kind of firehouse from it in which we could also embrace the impulse to let go of these types of objects. We did one burn before I left, of wood and some of the material in the sheds, which is where I took the documentation seen here. They say they will continue this practice whenever practical and necessary to keep them focused on the now and that it will stand for them as a symbol of this concept. (Stephen Rennicks)