If the Ground Should Open... review: Anglo Tapes loom large

Installation focuses on women of Rising and corporate Ireland greed 100 years later

Jaki Irvine: If the Ground Should Open . . .

Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin ****

On April 29th, at about 12.45pm, Elizabeth O’Farrell stepped out of 15, Moore Street in Dublin carrying a small white flag.

A white sheet was also hung out of a window above her. Behind her, were the remnants of the GPO garrison of the Irish Republican Army, including Pearse, the gravely wounded Connolly and Sean MacDermott.


The latter had ordered O'Farrell to venture out to the British lines – a barrier at the Parnell Street-end of Moore Street – to convey a note to Brigader-General Lowe "to the effect that he wished to treat with them".

O’Farrell’s courage and resolution were exceptional. She could easily have been shot. In the event, her message was relayed and she found herself facing Lowe and delivering a return message: unconditional surrender was the only acceptable basis for proceeding.

So it was that, at about 3.30pm, Pearse, with O’Farrell by his side, surrendered to Lowe. Pearse duly signed surrender instructions for the several other commandants and asked O’Farrell if she would agree to deliver them.

She assented.

Lowe, whom she later said she found “most courteous”, promised that she would be well treated and, at the conclusion of the process, would not be treated as a prisoner and would be free to go.

Airbrushed out of history?

She had the extraordinary experience of doing the rounds of the Four Courts, the College of Surgeons, the Grand Canal St Dispensary – where she sought out De Valera, who at first "considered the thing a hoax" – and Jacob's Factory, where Thomas MacDonagh requested, and got, an interview with Lowe.

During all this, O’Farrell’s life was at serious risk: a man immediately behind her was hit by a bullet as she crossed Grand Canal St Bridge.

Having slept well in a room above the National Bank, she woke at six and, looking out the window, "I saw about 300 or 400 volunteers and Miss Grenan and Miss Carney, who had left the Post Office with me, lying on the little plot of grass at Great Britain St in front of the Rotunda Hospital."

Miss Grenan was Julia Grenan, and she and O'Farrell were lifelong companions. Now they were separated for a time, but were soon reunited. They had known each other from childhood and they lived together in Lower Mount Street.

They number among many women who played active roles in the Republican movement and the 1916 Rising but who were initially sidelined in the historical record.

The curious case of the surrender photograph illustrates the phenomenon.

O’Farrell was with Pearse but, in a widely reproduced press image there is no sign of her. Or, rather, there is a glimpse of her shoe. Was she airbrushed out of history?

Jaki Irvine, who was so taken with O'Farrell and Grenan that she wrote a fictionalised account of their experiences in the Rising, Days of Surrender (published by Copy Press in 2013).

She imagines O’Farrell deliberately stepping back to avoid being in the photograph: “Unwilling to claim this wretched limelight.”

With If the Ground Should Open . . . , an Imma commission, she returns to O'Farrell and Grenan and the Rising. Distributed throughout the several rooms of the East Courtyard Galleries, video monitors sit on the crates that protect them in transit, each flanked by a pair of speakers.

As you move through the rooms, the screens spark intermittently to life, in black-and-white. Six etchings, apparently featuring pages from Days of Surrender, are also arranged throughout. There is a musical score played on the bagpipes by Hilary Knox (who appears on video).

Emotionally rich

Irvine wrote the music based, she says, on the canntaireachd system, a means of passing on a tune by chanting it.

The underlying idea is that she uses the letters of the names of O’Farrell and Grenan, and other women involved in 1916, as the basis for stirring vocal chants and bagpipes.

Piano, violin, cello, double bass and drums also come into play. Encountered piecemeal, from room to room, it is very effective, slightly disorientating in a good way. Even the bagpipes, which get a bad press, sound emotionally rich.

Fragmentation is integral to her thinking, as is the improvisational character of the presentation.

Here she is referring to the Rising as a fragmented event, with numerous subjective accounts making up a disjointed picture of confusion and contradictions.

Militarily, the volunteers were amateurs. But the linking thread of her work, in musical terms the ground, is a consistent and steady core, and her way of restoring women to their rightful place at the heart of events.

All of which is set against another recurrent element in the installation: extracts from the Anglo Irish Bank tapes of phone conversations between executives at their most cynically jocose as the country teetered on the brink of financial collapse.

The contrast between the idealism of the 1916 rebels and the supposed cream of corporate Ireland during the boom years, who in the tapes unfortunately but tellingly come across as sniggering juveniles, is stark and clear.

Perhaps a bit too much so. The recordings loom a bit too large in the overall scheme of the work.

Until January 15th. A live performance of If the Ground Should Open . . . takes place at Imma's Great Hall on December 13th at 8pm. Tickets €8 from imma.ie