Yeatsian Legacy Explored at The Model Symposium

A number of internationally acclaimed artists, academics and journalists were at The Model to participate in a symposium exploring the cultural legacy of the Yeats brothers and the impact their lives and work had on cultural identity in Ireland.

The symposium entitled ‘The Outsider: Sectarianism and Identity in Ireland Today’ took place at The Model on Saturday, 11 September.

Listen to audio recordings of the symposium here.
The Outsider: Sectarianism and Identity in Ireland Todayby TheModel

It was organised as part of the Yeatsian Legacy Project, which has seen The Model partner with Sligo Arts Service and IT Sligo on a year-long visual art and literary project, using the cultural heritage of the Yeats brothers as the cornerstone for a broader debate on shared ideas of identity and culture. The project was supported by the PEACE III Programme, managed for the Special EU Programmes Body by Sligo County Council on behalf of Sligo Peace and Reconciliation Partnership Committee.

In his keynote address, artist Brian O’Doherty spoke about Jack B. Yeats’ status as a member of the Ascendancy class who identified with the Nationalist masses.

“A republican urge suggested Yeats’ career rhyme with the national character or a version of it: romantic, imaginative, humorous, passionate, verbal, poetic, impulsive, nostalgic, sentimental, eloquent, elusive, quick,” he said. “It was attractive to think of Jack Yeats’ work which many of these qualities describe as representing ourselves. It projects a flattering image of us as imaginative outsiders.”

Brian O’Doherty also quoted a man he had encountered in Sligo last week, who told him that “giving in to sectarian hatred and resentment is where you drink the poison but you hope the other man dies”.

Brian O’Doherty, during the panel discussion commented on the power of art. Can it effect real change? He doubted the power of a painting or more traditional art forms as a form of political action. La Guernica by Picasso was discussed in the context of this discussion, which was debated amongst the speakers and on the floor. Brian O’Doherty felt his action around changing his own identity to Patrick Ireland for 38 years, was, by far, his most political art action.

In response to Duncan Campbell’s film Bernadette, which was screened in the afternoon, Francis McKee commented on how Bernadette was depicted by the media at the time. The press homed in on Bernadette’s youthful and photogenic nature. Filmed in black and white, the press seemed to bring out a Brigit Bardot-esque quality in Bernadette, thus contributing to the ‘aestheticisation’ of Bernadette and in turn the Northern Irish Struggle. Comments from the floor suggested that Bernadette appeared to be lionessed in Duncan’s film, questioning whether this was deliberate or because the film or only extracts from the film were shown to the viewer on Saturday. There was quite a considerable debate around the film and Bernadette as an iconic figure in the NI political struggle.

In his input, Dr. Mike Cronin, said working-class Protestants had been largely “written out” of Irish history. According to Dr. Cronin, we have a “parlour image” of Protestant members of the Ascendancy “ambling around the Big Houses, painting pictures, writing poetry and dreaming of cultural revival”.

The Protestant Ascendancy including the Yeats brothers had made strides to capture traditional Irish culture through their explorations of the west, he said, and this “traditional” culture became “the official imagery of the State under Cumann na nGaedheal” in the wake of the Civil War.

Noting the sharp decline in the Protestant population in the last century, Dr. Cronin said he believed the 1937 Constitution was “sectarian”, with its special position for the Catholic Church, and seemed to suggest that Protestants were not welcome in Ireland.

In her input, Susan McKay spoke about her experience of being an outsider in Sligo early in her career, while Duncan Campbell recounted how a number of his films  such as ‘Bernadette’, which tells the story of Bernadette Devlin’s election to Westminster at the age of 21  aimed to capture the truth behind “mythic” events and personalities.