We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.


Opinion Shouldn't protest art provoke exactly the response we've seen this week?

Art History and Cultural Policy Associate Professor, Dr Emily Mark-FitzGerald, looks at the controversy this week around a reworked famine-era eviction scene.

LAST UPDATE | 5 Apr 2023

ON 23 MARCH 2023, the day after the Dáil voted to lift the eviction ban, Adam Doyle (a visual artist otherwise known as ‘Spicebag’) re-posted on Instagram his 2021 work ‘The Eviction’ with the caption: “It’s that time again”.

A re-working of the painting An Irish Eviction attributed to Daniel MacDonald (c.1850, Crawford Gallery, Cork), Doyle’s digital work, which he is selling for charity, exchanges the agents and victims of a Famine-era eviction with a contemporary tableau.

Three gardaí, their faces covered by hoods, stand passively to one side as two men in hi-vis break down a cottage door. A prone figure lies helpless on the ground at the feet of another guard and a third figure tramples a heap of meagre possessions as he makes his way towards a white Garda van.

Screenshot 2023-04-05 at 10.51.47

Doyle’s image conflates photographs from several controversial episodes of a Garda presence at evictions in recent years. Although Doyle’s image has been circulating publicly for two years without attracting much attention, its posting on Twitter this week by Sinn Féin TD (and spokesperson for housing) Eoin Ó Broin with the comment “no words needed” has ignited a storm of controversy and criticism, as well as support.

Some see the work as a needless and dangerous critique of Gardaí carrying out their responsibilities – however distasteful—to keep the peace during the process of lawful eviction. Others see a pointed commentary on the abject failure of the State, as represented by the Gardaí (and by extension, the ruling political class) to protect vulnerable tenants via its disastrous handling of the housing crisis.

The spectre of looming evictions, the debates over An Garda Síochána’s policing of public order during recent public protests, and political enmity between the Government and opposition have provided other vectors of applause and invective. Rather curiously, Doyle’s work was criticised as ‘politically motivated’ by the Irish Independent’s Fionnan Sheahan in a heated exchange on the Tonight Show on Virgin Media this week, though it’s unclear how a self-proclaimed political satirist could be otherwise, and surely the point of protest art is to provoke exactly the kind of response Doyle has received.

Old wounds

Eviction – its agents, facilitators, victims, and violence – has gripped public attention and visibility in Ireland for nearly two centuries. Evictions symbolise a fundamental betrayal of the right to home and hearth, and their brutality has long evoked intense public outrage and response.

irish-evictions-1848-the-roof-is-being-dismantled-as-he-distraught-occupants-plead-for-mercy-watched-by-soldiers IRISH EVICTIONS 1848. The roof is being dismantled as he distraught occupants plead for mercy watched by soldiers. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

In the 1840s eviction was often tantamount to a death sentence, with few options beyond the workhouse or forced emigration awaiting those already reduced by hunger and want. MacDonald’s original painting reflects accounts reported widely in the Irish and British press of the devastating effects of Famine-era evictions, albeit in the highly melodramatic style popular in fine art during this period.

In approach, Doyle’s work recalls traditions of Irish political satire past and present, which draw upon and hybridise different cultural forms for effect.

In style, it resembles the contemporary photomontage work of internet-based artists like Cold War Steve. In spirit, it echoes the media wars over evictions fought by the Land League and the Irish National League during the Land Wars of the 1880s. Here the visual spectacle of eviction was highly orchestrated by members of the League in their campaigns for tenant rights and Home Rule, as the League was centrally involved in organising tenant resistance on the ground (via efforts like the Plan of Campaign) as well as mass domestic and international public attention to these events. The increased sophistication of the illustrated press and the arrival of photography also meant this second period of mass evictions was intensely visualised and globally seen to an unprecedented extent, particularly through wood engravings, glass lantern slides, and later photomechanical reproductions.

Dispossession during the Land Wars was enacted by a mixture of public and private concerns. Agents at the site of eviction included private landlords, agents, bailiffs, and ‘emergency men’ for hire; but also soldiers and police dispatched by Dublin Castle to enforce the ‘rule of law’ and protect the interests of landowners.

Culpability and responsibility for intervening in tenant crises were fiercely debated, and here too images were a battlefield.

Photographs of eviction in particular were often accused of being ‘faked’ or staged, and screened during magic lantern shows in Ireland, Britain, the US and Australia by both pro- and anti-Home Rule organisations with competing narratives attached.

Doyle’s insertion of prior eviction photographs (themselves the product of social media) into the MacDonald painting thus recalls a long history of eviction’s mediation, its controversies, and its power to provoke a response. Writing in The Fall of Feudalism in 1904 Michael Davitt called eviction ‘social tyranny in its worst form’: it is the relation of those in power to those in need of protection that defines a modern state, and we are far from achieving any equilibrium.

Dr Emily Mark-FitzGerald is Associate Professor of Art History and Cultural Policy at University College Dublin, where she is completing her most recent book on Irish poverty, visual culture, and social crisis in the 19th century, including the visualisation of eviction, resistance, and forms of social welfare.

voices logo

Dr Emily Mark-FitzGerald
Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel