Past Projects

Memorial Project

On 15 December 2000, a memorial was unveiled by President Mary McAleese on the junction of Buckingham Street and Sean MacDermott Street in Dublin’s North Inner City. Home, by Leo Higgins is a monument to the memory of all those who died as a direct or indirect result of heroin.

Depicting a doorway made of limestone set around a central flame of gilded bronze, Home was the culmination of a unique project that helped to redefine the agenda for discussions about public art and public monuments in Ireland at a time when definitions of community participation and public art were relatively narrow.

The roots of the project were found when the local support group, ICON (Inner City Organisations Network) expressed the local community’s wish for some form of permanent marker to the memory of their lost children, families and friends. Since 1996, a Christmas Tree had been erected each year on the site, which the memorial now shares. 1996 had seen an antidrug meeting held at Rutland Street School, and a street campaign with marches against the drug dealers who had colonised the area. Stars were placed on the Christmas Tree to commemorate those who had died from drugs. After decades of the kind of official neglect that breeds apathy and resignation, drug dealing had been allowed to take over parts of Dublin’s inner city. These were forgotten areas, where dealing happened openly in the streets, and some families lost as many as three or more of their children. In that first year, eighty four stars hung on the tree’s branches. By December 2000, the tree held one hundred and twenty four stars, each one placed there for someone known to have died locally from heroin. The idea of the Memorial project was not to replace the Christmas Tree, but to create some form of more permanent marker at the site. The relatives had spoken of a sense of loss each January when the tree came down. As Tony Sheehan, then Director of the Fire Station, puts it “the light from the tree created a kind of spiritual presence of loved ones.”1 It also marked a transition, a subtle move from rage and anger towards coping with grief and sadness. Mick Rafferty, local councillor and Fire Station Chairperson, describes the tree and, later, the memorial as “public objects that allow for private emotions”.

Discussions were initiated between the Fire Station and community workers. Then the North City IAP (Integrated Area Partnership) came into the process with their provision of the site, as well as Dublin Corporation’s Arts Office and the Arts Council, who came up with £10,000 (€12,697) as seed money for the project.2 An artistic advisory panel (Pauline Cummins, Robert Ballagh and Eileen McDongh) was set up to support the artistic side of the work, while ICON supported the relatives and facilitated the relationships between them and the artists. Sheehan describes these sets of relationships as “open and organic”. It was decided to invite artists to become part of a process that would see them working with the community over a period of time to develop models for the memorial. From a group of twenty four artists initially contacted by the Fire Station, six came to present five maquettes. These, the result of a long period of collaboration with the community, were exhibited in an exhibition at the Studios in July 1999. It was from these maquettes, memorials in miniature, that the piece was selected for the Buckingham Street junction. The artists were Brian Connolly and Annette Hennessey (who presented a piece together), Leo Higgins, Michael Quane, Jackie McKenna and Louise Walsh. Critically the decision was taken that the relatives would be the ones to select the final memorial in a meeting, which was chaired by one of their number, Tim O’Brien.

The most striking differences in this commission from others in Ireland at the time, were the commitment to a genuine collaboration with the community, the allocation of sufficient time to the project, and the community’s role as sole selectors of the memorial. There were also other ways in which this project was unusual. “A lot of public sculpture is about money and prestige, this was the opposite,” notes Pauline Cummins. . Creating a Contemporary Memorial 

“I don't like getting involved in making judgements,” adds Robert Ballagh. “What I liked about this was that we were mediators and advisors, not selectors. In the beginning we were thinking very widely, wanting to come up with people who wouldn’t necessarily be involved with projects like this. At one time a gardener was suggested, in the end we produced a list of artists to recommend to the project and to the community.” Sheehan underlines another area of significance, “the total honesty of the project. It was an example of careful relationship building, where esteem for each dimension was mutual, and where partnership was respected at all times.” In addition to being ambitious, it was also controversial, as the letters page of the Irish Times bore out in the days following the memorial’s inauguration. Some members of the public found the idea of a memorial to people who were less easy to sanctify, hard to mythologise as heroic, a difficult one.

There was also a political aspect to the decision to site the memorial at the Buckingham Street/Sean MacDermott Street junction. It was a clear signal to the drug dealers as well as to the authorities that the community had had enough. As Paul Maloney, then Manager of the North City Integrated Area Plan (IAP), described it, “by making a very imposing and striking monument and surrounding it with a landscaped area, altering the traffic flow to move around it, it will always serve as a reminder that the fight is continuing. The memorial stands unapologetically in the centre of the street.” Mick Rafferty agrees, “It was important that the relatives and the residents took back ownership of that island, it's an area that had been taken over by dealers; it's shaken and demoralised by the extent of heroin use. This project intends to use the power of symbolism to speak for a community that has been internally damaged.”3 Since the Buckingham Street memorial project, the value of the processdriven, performative aspects of contemporary art, whether communitybased or otherwise, has gained recognition in an arts infrastructure previously more concerned with physical objects to show for their budgets.

The exhibition of maquettes held at Fire Station was more than a simple shortlist of models in a commissioning competition. It could also be read as an exhibition about the effects of heroin on a community, an exhibition about grief, loss, hope and strength, and as an exploration of the means to address tragedy and grief.4 It also illustrated a process of partnership and demonstrated a development of public sculpture that is genuinely public, an aesthetic for memorials that are personal and meaningful to the people for whom they are made. It also presented a way towards harmonising the different roles inherent in creation and ownership, between public, artist, and commissioner.

From this exhibition, a panel of twelve from the core group of relatives who had worked with the artists, coordinated by local community members Sadie Grace and Joe Dowling, selected Leo Higgins’ Home.5 Public sculpture generally survives by public consent. The Buckingham Street project is a prime example of this. Dublin Corporation have altered the traffic layout of the junction to accommodate it. Relatives went around schools and community meetings to talk about Home. Ownership of the memorial is in community hands; the community has worked with the artists to develop it, and it should stand for years, drawing its resonance and meaning from its role as a central memorial to a community coming together, working with artists, and creating a monument to and for themselves. In facilitating this, the Fire Station has, as with the excellent Inner Art project (1997), negotiated that space between art and purpose, between art for its own sake and site-specific work, in a site where the meanings have more resonance than many. The Buckingham Street project is a memorial for today’s less certain society. Realer than men on horseback, realer than triumphant arches and better suited to a time when we cannot be certain that what we are commemorating is truly over.

  1. All quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from interviews with the author during the course of, and after, the project.
  2. The Arts Council later provided £50,000 (€63,487) towards the project, and the North City IAP invested further in the site, including re-flowing traffic around the memorial.
  3. Mick Rafferty, quoted by Kitty Holland, ‘Memorial to Blighted Lives’, The Irish Times, 7 July 1999.
  4. For the participating artists’ responses to the project, and discussions of their projects, see pp 40-49.
  5. For a description of Leo Higgins’ proposal and the casting of Home see pp 42-43, and 53.

 

17 August 2000

There is a beautiful tradition connected with the casting of church bells, where the local community would bring coins and keepsakes to be melted into the metal, so that when the bells rang, it would be with people's memories as well as with sound, creating a permanent connection with the community. Following this tradition, a key part of Leo Higgins’ proposal for the Buckingham Street memorial was that people would be invited to bring memories and mementoes, pieces of the lives of those they had lost to heroin, to be cast into the bronze flame of Home.

An invitation had been issued throughout the community, open to anyone who wished to come along and bring something to remember a loved one or family member. Thus the process of casting took on a ceremonial aspect, as Higgins addressed the group who had gathered at CAST, his foundry on the south side of Dublin’s inner city. Producing his maquette for the memorial, the artist explained the casting process, describing its magic: in all this heat and flame and molten metal, something would be created that did not at that moment exist. Community worker, Sadie Grace, read the names of some of those who had died, and then community drugs support worker, Joe Dowling, began to collect the objects that the families had brought with them; communion medals, photographs, letters, favourite things.

The casting of Home’s flame took place on 17 August 2000 and was a moving and unforgettable experience for all who were present.

Download PDF Home: Creating a Contemporary Memorial (2006)