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These haunting portraits shed light on the 'strong and tough' women of the Rising

It’s a new way of looking at the pivotal event in Irish history.

AN IRISH ARTIST is shedding new light on the lives of women involved in the 1916 Rising, with a series of haunting portraits.

Ciara Harrison is a Dublin-based textile artist who has recreated portraits of seven women connected with the Easter Rising.

“I wanted to look at the women’s side of the Rising,” Harrison told TheJournal.ie of her exhibition, which is called Shadowed Women. They may look like sketches, but all of the portraits are stitched using a sewing machine – they’re based on sketches Harrison drew.

Kathleen Daly_3

Where it began 

“It’s a great opportunity and it’s been really nice to collaborate with the museum,” said Harrison, who put a proposal in to the Little Museum of Dublin saying that she’d like to explore the role of the women in the Rising.

They were immediately on board, and curator Simon O’Connor encouraged her to read Sinead McCoole’s 2014 book Easter Widows.

“I was interested in looking at how many women were involved at the time, because it’s so male dominated, in our history books at least,” said Harrison. She focused on the seven women in the book – Lillie Reynolds, Maud Gonne, Áine McBrennan, Kathleen Daly, Agnes Hickey and Grace and Muriel Gifford. 

Portrait_7 copy Ciara Harrison

“It kind of evolved, where it was more looking at these women and their loss, what they sacrificed for their husbands,” said Harrison.

“Throughout Sineád’s book you come to see how strong the women were after losing their husbands. It was an interesting circle to see how they evolved as people as well – when they were on their own they really had to stand up for each other and the rights of women, when at the time it was just so difficult.

I really didn’t want to focus on violence in this, or death so much but more the human story of what was happening there.

With the centenary of the Rising being celebrated across Ireland from next month, Harrison notes that people are now taking the opportunity to explore the event from different angles, giving a new view of a pivotal time in Irish history.

“It’s really a great time to be learning about that time in history, because there are so many people interpreting it in so many different ways,” she said.

Tales of a life

Harrison was struck by the women’s stories, like that of James Connolly’s wife Lillie Connolly, who had a number of children, and not a lot of money, but had to do quite a bit of travelling at a time when travelling was not as easy as it is today.

The book explores how she lost a young daughter, and experienced a lot of tragedy.

Lillie Connolly_1 Lillie Connolly

She was also interested in the story of Agnes Hickey, who married Michael Mallin after a seven-year courtship. “She’d be reminding him there were other suitors interested,” said Harrison. “You could see she was tough. She did hold off for him but she wasn’t just going along with it either.”

The portraits were initially charcoal drawings by Harrison – she uses charcoal as it enables her to draw fast and bring a certain energy to her work. Then came a lot of testing to see if she could capture that energy in a stitched piece.

“I wanted to capture a moment - it needed to be fast, like when you take a photo.” She discovered a hand-stitched piece just wouldn’t give that look, so she switched to machine.

Kathleen Daly_5

Harrison described the machine stitching as “a bit like blind drawing - looking at the drawing I’ve done and then interpreting it on the machine”. It’s “a lot of trying and testing, a lot of layers of stitches to highlight shadows”.

As you can’t erase anything, it’s also a labour-intensive process.

The portraits are all stitched onto cotton organdy, which is strong but has a sense of transparency and delicacy about it. “That was what I was trying to show about the women - they were delicate but they were also strong and tough women as well.”

Interestingly, organdy is also used to underlay wedding gowns, and, said Harrison, was sometimes featured in clothes worn by widows (after being dyed black), echoing the ‘shadowed’ women’s marriages and the death of their husbands. 

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“It’s been fascinating learning about their stories, and the idea of doing the portraits of them was to highlight them,” said Harrison of her seven subjects.

Shadowed Women is the first instalment of the Little Museum’s 1916 centenary programme, and is available to view now.

For more information on Ciara Harrison, who is based at La Cathedral studios, visit her website: ciaraharrison.com.

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