Siamsa Tíre, Tralee, Co. Kerry, Ireland, 2014
If You Thought You Know, Now You Don’t
An angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
In early 1940 cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote the words you’ve just read as part of his Theses on the Philosophy of History. The essay was his last work, written during the chaos of World War II, and the quote is often referred to as Benjamin’s “Angel of History”. The scene is his interpretation of a print he owned by Paul Klee entitled Angelus Novus. Benjamin never visited Ireland, yet his ideas of the weight of the past left behind pervades much of our collective life on the island. From the dry stone walls to the retail park, from the bells of the church to the screen of an ipad, understandings of the ideologies and continual reinvention of history is central to how we identify who we are and what we do.
Michael Holly is an artist who engages with this broad-ranging topic, and in recent years has developed a series of installations, videos and performances that interrogate the roles history plays in our common consciousness. His exhibition at Siamsa Tire in Tralee is the outcome of a sustained period of research into Kerry’s past, in particular the Ballyeagh faction fight of 1834. While very little is now known about the events that occurred on the site of the Cashen river miles north of Siamsa Tire, it is often recalled in the local knowledge of the area. In January 2013 I sat in the audience of St. John’s Arts Centre in Listowel, as Holly presented a collaborative performance about Ballyeagh working with local musicians and actors. Casually rehearsed with a loose improvisational style, the piece played to an audience featuring, in the front two rows, descendents of the Mulvahill clan who fought at Ballyeagh back in 1834. What a surprise to see his version of the event inspected, mauled over and grudgingly verified by nods in the crowd 180 years later! Yet, everyone present secretly acknowledged that no-one really knew what occurred that day. Its telling is all that can be had today, and so Holly’s work is both medium and message.
Our historical sources do not preserve the fate of the flowers crushed at the site of the Ballyeagh Faction Fight, or the shape of the cloud formations over Kerry at the time, or the anxiety and sounds of birds nearby to the battle. Instead, with an incredibly narrow perspective, we usually only get given what is selectively effective for the glue job of society: triumphant stories, abbreviated versions, and unsure truths glossed over for a concise retelling. Even the spiritual, to the extent it is simply unique, merely personal and intimate, is crudely wheeled over, provided it cannot be considered ‘essential’ for the ghostly-abstract and valueless shifts in states and maps, which the human, mocking himself, in the end calls ‘historical reality’.
Holly challenges these presumptions throughout the framework of his exhibition. His work seems to pluck from Benjamin’s wreckage of history. At Siamsa, a rusty nail attached to a fragment of wood is presented as a possible fragment of a weapon used to kill a man on what is now the 17th tee at Ballybunion Golf Club. A button accordion is presented as the instrument last used to play The Crows Of The Cashen, a slow lament composed by the legendary piper Tom Carthy at the site of the battle, now lost to the mists of time. In Holly’s presentation, it occasionally sounds, akin to an interactive display in a didactic regional museum. Projected videos recall the stories associated with the battle, narrated by American and British voices who have come to hear from the fight’s existence from varied interests ranging from the macabre rituals of crows to snooping around in local history journals. In another video sequence a young golfer believes he is an incarnation of a man who committed murder at the scene, now walking over the playing greens where the fight occurred.
Holly’s version of Ballyeagh is an agglomeration of numerous retellings and possibilities, recounted through interaction amongst a large number of possible social subjects. Rather than relying on inherited guarantees of tradition, we get historical attitude rather than historical identity.
Sean Lynch 2014