Speech at the Launch of the Commemorative 1913 Lockout Tapestry
Liberty Hall, Dublin, 18th September 2013
Is mór agam gur thug sibh cuireadh dom a bheith i bhur gcomhluadar i Halla na Saoirse inniú chun comóradh a dhéanamh ar Frithdhúnadh Mór Bhaile Átha Cliath 1913 agus chun an taipéis álainn seo, a chuir go leor agaibh atá anseo ar maidir leí, a nochtadh.
[It gives me great pleasure to have been invited to join you in Liberty Hall today, as we unveil the beautiful tapestry commemorating the Great Dublin Lockout of 1913, to which many of you present here this morning have contributed.]
This is a wonderful piece of work, remarkable in both the community-based process that led to its completion, and in its powerful visual re-presentation of the milestone event which the 1913 Lockout constituted. It captures the spirit that animated the protagonists in that great struggle for workers’ rights – a spirit of such strength that, a hundred years later, we can still feel moved and inspired by it. May I extend my sincere thanks and congratulations to each and every one of the volunteers who gave a hand in this valuable initiative.
I had the pleasure of being present at the launch of this tapestry venture, almost a year ago. I found the enterprise so moving and compelling that I promised that I would be back to see the completed work. Yet I am happy to admit that the result presented before our eyes today – this colourful cloth fresco of thirty panels – even surpasses my expectations.
The three panels placed on this stage encapsulate the elements constitutive of so many fights for human dignity and greater social justice. Jim Larkin stands as an exemplary leader – a man who, through his extraordinary moral courage, organisational skills, outstanding rhetorical talent and unfaltering commitment to the defence of the fundamental rights of workers managed to galvanise the energy and hunger for change of Dublin’s poor in a collective attempt to establish more decent working conditions for themselves.
The ‘Bloody Sunday’ panel depicts the tragic events of 31st August 2013, when the police brutally and indiscriminately baton charged strikers and their supporters who were gathered on Sackville Street. While the other twenty-seven panels present us with different dimensions and facets of the Lockout, this particular one symbolizes the violence of the unjust established order of the time, the ruthless use of force that those then in control of exorbitant media, economic and financial power had available to them in order to defend their interests – and the determination, courage and solidarity that the locked-out workers of Dublin needed to show in facing such adversity.
The torch panel, which was stitched by school children, represents the inextinguishable flame of the struggle for more justice and equality, and the passing on of that flame to the next generation.
This tapestry thus reminds us that the aspiration for greater social and economic justice lives on. The choice of a hand woven piece of cloth is a most appropriate metaphor for celebrating the legacy of the 1913 Lockout, not only because weaving is one of Ireland’s traditional crafts, a trade emblematic of industrial work, and once a symbol of the unfair trade conditions imposed by the British Empire on its colonies, Here I am referring to the Wool Act of 1698-9, which made it illegal for wool workers from Ireland, but also from the American colonies, to export their wool to the rest of the British Empire. Cf. Jonathan Swift’s 1720 Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture. but also because the symbolism of weaving – the intertwining of individual threads into a meaningful pattern – epitomises the force of the collective.
This project started with an idea, an idea that flourished into a creative collective enterprise, and it is truly impressive to see the fruits of so many people’s labour displayed here today.
The idea itself was first advanced by SIPTU official Michael Halpenny after he had seen the Prestonpans Tapestry in Scotland, also the result of a community art project. It was quickly endorsed by the rest of SIPTU’s management team, and a fruitful partnership was established with the National College of Art and Design, through the support of the College’s Director, Declan McGonagle, and the active involvement of Professor Gary Granville and Research Assistant Angela Keane.
SIPTU and NCAD jointly commissioned two talented artists, Cathy Henderson and Robert Ballagh, who designed the tapestry’s visual pattern. The project was then appropriated by numerous civil society groups, and hundreds of hands have gotten busy over the last ten months giving texture and colour to the initial design.
Over two hundred adult volunteers and about thirty organisations from various segments in Irish society were involved in the making of the thirty panels, including embroiderers, patchwork quilters and other arts and crafts enthusiasts, trade unionists, people who have chosen art as a means of coming out of their addiction, professional and amateur historians, theatre people, and groups of prisoners in the Limerick and Mountjoy prisons. It is also worth mentioning that Córas Iompair Éireann [CIÉ] generously made available the use of Tara House, where work on the Central panel representing Larkin, and on the ‘Bloody Sunday’ panel was undertaken.
Finally, and most importantly, teachers and pupils from five different schools also participated in the project, namely the Central Remedial Clinic School and Clontarf’s Holy Faith Secondary School, St Louis High School in Rathmines, Larkin Community College and the Mater Dei Primary School in Dublin 8.
Together, then, all these civil society groups have crafted a ‘public work of art’ that connects us to a crucial event in our past in the most meaningful way. As we reflect on our working conditions, past and present, the very process by which each volunteer had both a tangible and imaginative share in the making of the tapestry is an inspiring one. This project’s collaborative nature, the time that each volunteer generously allotted to it, the constructive balance between intellectual and manual skills it entailed, and its appeal to creativity and imagination, comprise the many dimensions of what we should regard as constituting ‘good work.’
National commemorations such as this one, honouring the 1913 Lockout, are not mere protocol occasions and ceremonies; they are actions that invite us to reclaim our collective past, to appropriate and reinterpret it so as to broaden our understanding of our present condition and redefine our horizon of expectations.
In this process, narratives play a vital role. Narratives preserve the memory of deeds through time, and in doing so, they enable these deeds to become sources of inspiration for the future – that is, models to be imitated and, if possible, surpassed.
This tapestry can be described as a ‘visual narrative,’ and I wish to salute the work of historian Padraig Yeates, who, as Diarmaid Ferriter acknowledged, “leaves no stone unturned” when it comes to telling the story of Dublin in the decade 1913-23. Padraig provided the lead artists in this project with a narrative timeline that they were then free to interpret as they saw fit. The only condition guiding their work was that all the events related in the tapestry should be historically verifiable. This is a fruitful approach to historiographical work, one that is more empowering than the passive acceptance of authorized versions of the past handed down by academics, official representatives, or the media.
In concluding, I would like to allude to French philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s suggestion that “a tradition remains living …only if it continues to be held in an unbroken process of reinterpretation”. An important aspect of this consists in “discerning past promises which have not been kept,” if I may quote Ricoeur:
“The past is not only what is bygone – that which has taken place and can no longer be changed – it also lives in the memory thanks to arrows of futurity which have not been fired or whose trajectory has been interrupted.”
The century-old conflict which your tapestry depicts so vividly is one such “arrow of futurity.” The end of the Lockout was a dark time for the people of Dublin as poverty and hunger ultimately resulted in capital overcoming labour. However, what was regarded at the time as defeat, takes on a different interpretation when viewed from a historical perspective. Far from being the end, the Dublin Lockout actually represented the beginning of a journey towards human dignity and social justice, an unfinished journey for so many on our planet.
The greatest moments in our history were always those when our people turned towards the future and a sense of what might be possible. It is that vision that sustained the workers of Dublin during the Lockout. It is that same vision of a better future, of a future reclaimed as an arena of hope, that sustains the Irish people during every period of hardship.
Tugann sé ardú croí dom a fheiceáil go bhfuil talamh slán déanta agaibh de chomóradh an Frithdhúnadh Mór 1913 agus go dtugann an eachta mór seo i stair lucht saothair na hÉireann spreagadh dúinn fós. Tá áthas orm an taispainteas seo a oscailt go hoifigiúil.
[It is heartening to see that the commemoration of the Great Lockout of 1913 is in safe hands, and that this seminal event in the history of Irish labour continues to inspire so many of us. I am delighted to declare this exhibition open.]