Athlone councillors' artwork debate: As it happened

Story by Tom Kelly

Monday, 7th January, 2013 5:00pm

Athlone councillors' artwork debate: As it happened

The contentious piece by Longford-born artist Shane Cullen on display at the Luan Gallery in Athlone


Thanks for following our online coverage throughout the evening, folks. It was compiled by editor Tadhg Carey and reporter Adrian Cusack. Please check out this week's edition of our paper, which hits the shelves on Wednesday, for fresh coverage and reaction to this issue, as well as all the latest news and sport from the region.


Artist Shane Cullen was told that 1,200 people have visited the Luan Gallery since it opened in late November and three visitors had recorded their objections to his work.

He replied: "If the work is provocative it's about provoking people to think for themselves and to think about the issues the work raises. I'm sorry there were three out of 1,200 who (were opposed to it). Maybe I should meet with them.

"I wish the content (of the piece in the Luan Gallery) didn't exist but the content is part of the historical record. Those writings are based on writings that were written on cigarette papers and smuggled in and out of prison during the second hunger strikes in 1981, when ten Republican prisoners went on hunger strike and subsequently died. That is a matter of historical record.

"A lot of those cigarette papers and small bits of paper that were smuggled in and out of the prison are now in the collection of the national archives. They're artefacts. They give us an insight into history, and I think the idea of censoring history is a highly ambitious one."


The artist, Shane Cullen, was asked for his reaction after the meeting. He said: "I was shocked and surprised actually because the piece is now 15 years old. It's travelled internationally and it's even been shown in Portadown in Northern Ireland. There were objections to the piece being shown there but there was no question of it being removed from a gallery space or censored in any way.

"The reason I came was no show my support for the gallery, the gallery staff, and the professionals who have been appointed to oversee the programming and the work that's going to be shown in the gallery. I'm very disappointed on their behalf.

"When taxpayers' money goes to fund such a fabulous gallery - and it really is a beautiful gallery, and the Midlands has been waiting a long time for a dedicated visual arts space - I really hope the outcome is a positive one for all concerned."

He said it was ironic that the piece should provoke such a strong reaction in a place so close to his native Longford. "That's the irony of it. You can show the piece in San Francisco, New York, Paris... there's a respect for the autonomy of the artist, and people involved in the arts, in these countries that sadly seems to be lacking (here).

"In the particular political climate in which we are operating there seems to be a climate of fear being created. People are accountable for their funding to public bodies who are interfering with programming and decision making in the arts now in a way that's very unhealthy."


More of your reaction


Art should only be in galleries if it's not contentious? Oh Athlone Town Council, with this thickness you are really spoiling us.

Stick with us and we will have the reaction of the artist Shane Cullen to the decision of the council.

8.10 PM

Just to clarify, the amendment from Cllr Shiela Buckley Byrne called for Cllr Cooney's motion to be referred to the board of Athlone Art and Heritage, which manages the Luan Gallery.

The board meets on January 15 and is due to report back to the council before its next meeting in Feburary.

The amandment from Cllr Buckley Byrne (Ind) was supported by Cllr Alan Shaw (FG), Cllr Jim Henson (Labour), Cllr Kieran Molloy (FF), Cllr Aengus O'Rourke (FF) and Cllr Kevin 'Boxer' Moran (Ind). It was opposed by Cllr Cooney (FG), Cllr McFadden (FG) and Cllr Hogan (SF).

Some online reaction

On our facebook page

Cheryl Mellett: Seriously are there not more important issues to be concerned about than a piece of art

Jackie Gorman: If this piece of art is taken out of the Athlone gallery, we'll be a laughing stock as it's part of the IMMA collection and it creates a dangerous precedent for our wonderful new gallery, that exhibits that are deemed offensive can be removed through a town council discussion and motion.

On Twitter


Sometimes I really, really despair of this country and some of the people in it. #Athlone


Not since the Dadaists turned the 20th century on its head in Zurich 1916 has something rocked the art world like Athlone tonight.


Cllr. Mark Cooney, getting off to nice hyperbolic start, has compared the piece to Nazi propaganda. #athlone #luan


Cllr Mark Cooney says he recognizes work as "art" but considers content offensive to prison officers, their families & victims of troubles


Next week in the Athlone Town Council - Should the Bible be Banned?


Stay with us for reaction and analysis - and more detailed reports from the debate.

Do you agree with the compromise? Is it a compromise? Let us know what you think? Comment below, on twitter at @westmeathindo or on facebook


Cllr Sheila Buckley Byrne's amendment, calling for Cooney's motion to be referred to the board of the Luan Gallery is passed 6-3. The board is to meet on January 15 and report back to the council.


Cllr Kieran Molloy (FF) says a board was appointed to run the Luan Gallery and it's not for the council to tell them what they can or cannot display.


Cllr Gabrielle McFadden (FG) is heckled from public gallery when she says she is supporting Cllr Cooney. She says a publicly funded gallery shouldn't display politically contentious art.


Applause in gallery as Cllr Paul Hogan says a statue of Hitler was allowed in Poland because it was seen to be educational. He asks if we will be burning books next?


Cllr Sheila Buckley Byrne wants Cooney's motion referred to Board of Athlone Art and Heritage. Henson seconds this. Hogan then welcomes artist Shane Cullen to chamber, calls this a "censorship motion", says there has been international controversy over it.


If an artist took the words of Hitler, extolling the virtues of killing Jews, and turned it into art we would rightly call for it to be taken down: Cooney


We are off.

Cllr Cooney said he thought long and hard before putting down motion. He said Cullen's piece has artistic merit but his issue is with its content, the words. He said he was conscious of the Kelly family and others who had suffered similarly


We're now onto the first of the councillors' motions. A motion from Cllr Alan Shaw is first up. Cllr Cooney's artwork motion is fourth on the list so should start very soon.


The meeting is starting to move through the next items on the agenda, but a few more items have to be dealt with before we get to Cllr Cooney's motion. A phone loudly going off in the public gallery is the height of the excitement so far.


Who are the board members of Athlone Art and Heritage Ltd

According to the company's website last July the members were

Chairman of the Board Cllr Alan Shaw (then Mayor), Cllr Sheila Buckley Byrne, Finian Corley (a member of Old Athlone Society), Moira Hardiman, Barry Kehoe (Athlone Director of Services of Westmeath County Council), Catherine Kelly (Westmeath Arts Officer), Michael Mc Donnell, Cllr Kevin Moran, Gearoid O'Brien (Athlone librarian), Dr Ciaran O Cathain (President of Athlone IT), Dr Harman Murtagh, Celine Sheridan, John Walsh (former Athlone Town Clerk)

This may have changed since last July.

Members of the board have told the Westmeath Independent they were not aware of the content of the current IMMA exhibition and prefer to leave the day to day running of the centre to its manager Miriam Mulrennan.


Who are the members of Athlone Town Council?

Athlone Town Council has nine members and is controlled by a coalition of Fine Gael, Labour and an independent, Cllr Sheila Buckley Byrne.

The current Mayor is Labour councillor Jim Henson.

The other eight members are

Cllr. Alan Shaw - F.G.


Cllr. Sheila Buckley Byrne - Independent

Cllr. Mark Cooney - F.G.

Cllr. Paul Hogan - S.F.


Cllr. Gabrielle McFadden - F.G. (sister of TD Nicky McFadden)

Cllr. Kieran Molloy - F.F.

Cllr. Kevin Boxer Moran - IND


Cllr. Aengus O'Rourke - F.F. (son of Mary O'Rourke)



Unsurprisingly, the press benches are also packed with local and national media representatives. Meeting still hearing presentation from Connect Ireland


Speaking a few minutes ago, the former Independent Athlone councillor Austin Berry said Shane Cullen's piece should be removed as it was "totally insensitive and offensive" to the victims of the IRA. Meeting has now resumed. First item on the agenda is a presentation on an initiative called Connect Ireland.

There are only one or two short items on the agenda, prior to the motions. Cllr Cooney's motion is the fourth on the agenda.


Public gallery packed with over 30 people in attendance. Town Council meetings rarely have any audience. One member of the audience is David Kelly, whose father Private Paddy Kelly died alongside trainee garda Gary Sheehan during a joint Defence Forces and Garda operation to rescue businessman Don Tidey, who had been kidnapped by the Provisional IRA.

David Kelly famously confronted Martin McGuinness during the Presidential campaign last year. See full story at this link:


Meeting started at 6.10pm. It's then adjourned for 10 minutes as a mark of respect for the late Nicola Henson, cousin of Athlone Mayor Jim Henson, who died over the weekend.


The location of the Luan Gallery is less than 100 metres from Custume Barracks, the largest employer in Athlone. It's understood that many Athlone councillors have been contacted by army personnel and members of Athlone army families who expressed unhappiness over the artwork.


Check out our accompany picture of the artist Shane Cullen at the bottom of the story at the opening of the Luan Gallery just six weeks ago.


While we are waiting for the debate to start, here's some background on the Luan Gallery, where the art work at the centre of the debate is currently being exhibited.

It is housed in the former Fr Mathew Hall on the western banks of the Shannon right in the centre of Athlone

The project involved the refurbishment of the old Fr Mathew Hall, the town's former library, along with a new modern extension, costing in excess of €3 million.

The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Jimmy Deenihan provided €650,000 from his department's Access scheme while €1.45 million came from the Border Midland and Western Regional Assembly and the balance was provided by Athlone Town Council.

Athlone Town Council had initially contemplated demolishing the historic Fr Mathew Hall, which dates back to 1897, until a campaign by locals, and supported strongly by the Westmeath Independent, resulted in a refurbishment project being agreed.

The old hall was where one of Athlone's most famous sons Count John McCormack gave some of his earliest concert performances.

The name Luan Gallery was chosen by public competition, but Athlone Town Council members sought - and were granted - the right to formally approve or reject the proposed name.

The gallery is run by Athlone Art and Heritage Ltd, a company which also operates the nearby Athlone Castle and the local artists' studios entitled Abbey Road Art Studios.

Athlone Town Council is the primary and overwhelming funder of Athlone Art and Heritage Ltd and a number of councillors are on the board of the company.


We have been told that the artist behind the piece, Longford native Shane Cullen, will be in attendance at this evening's meeting.


Outside the Athlone Civic Centre, John McNamara (a Sinn Fein member) has started his protest against Cllr Cooney's motion. He is using a megaphone and can be heard inside the council chamber, where the meeting is taking place.


Trevor Curtin, posting on our facebook page two hours ago, wrote: "If this is even discussed for more than 5 minutes in the council chamber they might as well move downstairs to the library and start taking books out and burning them outside front door where everyone can see what this country is coming to. Not only are we being lied to by the media and politicians but they want to tell us what we can and cannot appreciate as art."


Cllr Cooney's motion will form part of Athlone Town Council's January monthly meeting, which is due to start at 6pm. The town councillors are currently meeting to discuss the Athlone Town Development Plan 2014-2020. That meeting was due to begin at 5pm but is running a little late.


The Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) has just released a statement saying that the removal of the artwork would be "a retrograde step".

Here's IMMA's statement in full:

"The excellent Luan gallery, has collaborated with the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) in the curation of all of the works in the exhibition Borrowed Memories, on loan from IMMA's permanent collection.

"Fragmens sur les Institutions Républicaines IV is a major artwork by Shane Cullen, one of Ireland's most respected artists who works with text in a conceptual vein of practice. The work was purchased in 2000 for the national collection of modern and contemporary art at IMMA and has been exhibited widely in Ireland, UK, France and the USA.

"All artforms whether written, performed or visually expressed, take a discursive direction. That is their point, their raison d'etre. The gallery space provides a forum in which to raise and address subject matter that invokes cultural, social and political issues and that may not easily be expressed elsewhere.

"IMMA is very concerned to learn of the proposal to remove the work.

It considers that to do so would be retrograde step which would undermine the Luan Gallery's position and remit as a facilitator of contemporary art and culture. "


Athlone's nine town councillors will soon debate the possible removal of a contentious artwork from the Luan Gallery.

The meeting gets underway at 6pm and we will have LIVE updates here throughout the evening.

The motion in question, from Cllr Mark Cooney, has attracted widespread attention and sparked a huge volume of comments.

The motion is worded as follows: "That this Council in congratulating Athlone Art & Heritage Ltd's successful opening of the Luan Gallery and noting that art can be provocative and controversial, requests that the exhibit entitled 'Fragmens Sur Les Institutions Républicaines IV' be removed as it is offensive to so many people."

The piece, by artist Shane Cullen, is a painting of a messages smuggled out of jail on behalf of Republican prisoners in Northern Ireland during the 1981 hunger strike campaign.

We will be posting some of your comments on the issue, so if you wish to add your two cents please email: , leave a message on the Westmeath Independent facebook page or send us a tweet: @westmeathindo

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