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Interview: 'Citizenship I learnt from my father': Robert Ballagh on life & politics

Irish artist Robert Ballagh explains when his interest in politics began and why he calls himself a socialist.

Robert Ballagh

In Jude Collins’ new book, Whose Past is it Anyway? The Ulster Covenant, the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme, Irish artist Robert Ballagh discusses politics, citizenship and why he believes democracy is being etched away in Western societies. He says:

POLITICS WERE NEVER discussed in my home and much later on I discovered one of the possible reasons why. On my mother’s side, during the Civil War, my grandmother and my grandfather were on opposite sides and ended up, I think, not talking for about a decade.

So I can appreciate why my mother felt that politics was not a proper subject. In the case of my father, who came from a radically different background (my mother was a Roman Catholic, my father was a Presbyterian), he had no objection to talking about politics at all; but because his wife didn’t talk about politics, certainly when I was a child, I didn’t hear much discussion in the home.

When I became older and I would talk to him and we discussed politics quite a bit. He was what I would call an armchair socialist, an armchair republican. He never got involved in anything but his views would be quite contrary to the class in which he found himself. He was a manager in a wholesale drapery in Dublin and I’m sure the management weren’t too keen on socialism and things like that.

He was also a very keen golfer and I would imagine that sitting at the bar in the golf club, going on about socialism and republicanism, wouldn’t have gone down well with his fellow golfers.

‘My pictures’

It wasn’t until I was a teenager that we discussed things. I think what I got from him more than anything was the notion of being a civic republican. I remember as a kid being amazed when one day I said, “What are you doing?” and he said “I’m going to see my pictures”. I said, “What are you talking about?” And he said, “I’m going into the National Gallery to see my pictures”.

His attitude was that the National Gallery belonged to the people of Ireland and the pictures belonged to the people of Ireland, so they were his pictures. He loved parks and all those civic institutions that were part of the people’s heritage. I think I learnt that from him – that sense of citizenship and that sense of civic pride in the things that belong communally to all of us.

I became interested in politics from the time I was in school and I became a doubter – and at the same time became very concerned about social issues and about inequality in society. I was privileged to be sent to one of the ‘better’ schools in Dublin.

I remember I got into trouble with some other boys at one stage. Believe it or not we were hauled up in front of the whole school – about a thousand pupils, it was a very big school – and were described as disgraceful and guilty of letting down the school. Our crime was to have talked to a group of girls at a football match! Believe it or not, in the 1950s that was a disgraceful thing to do.

‘Future leaders’

The thing I remember was that the president of the college, in criticising us, spoke to the whole college and said “You’ve got to understand, you boys, you are going to become the future leaders of this society, and you have a responsibility to behave properly and give a good example”. And I remember thinking at the time “Is he mad?” Because I was well aware that a lot of my school comrades were not the brightest; how in the name of goodness could he suggest that these were going to become the future leaders of society?

He was right, of course. But I remember that made me think. Why is society constructed like this, where some people whose parents happen to have the desire or the money to send their children to a certain school can guarantee that their kids are going to run the country, whereas other parents who cant afford that and who have to send their kids to to other schools, the Christian Brothers or something like that, they are going to be the drawers of water and the hewers of wood?

So-called Western World

Nowadays, I would say I’m first of all a democrat. I believe in democracy. That’s one of the reasons I’m profoundly depressed at the moment: I see in Ireland and Europe, but also across the world – our so-called Western World – an almost continual hollowing-out of democracy.

We’re given the charade of being allowed to vote every four or five year, but in between that crucial decisions are made, time and time again – in some cases going to war, in our case bailing out banks. Decisions on all of these issues that will impact not only me but on my children and my grandchildren and possibly their children as well, are made without any consultation with the people, or without taking into account the views of the people on these particular issues. That would be a great concern of mine. I suppose I would also be a socialist, but I don’t know how to define socialism nowadays. But if socialism means equality and justice for all, then I’m a socialist.

Whose Past is it Anyway? The Ulster Covenant, the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme written by Jude Collins. Published by The History Press of Ireland.

About the author:

Robert Ballagh

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