Rita Duffy's Soften the Border Project Cushions the Blow of Brexit
The renowned artist's eye-catching textile installation is a colourful commentary on freedom of movement across the Irish divide
Photo credit: Trevor Lucy
There’s a riot of colour on the bridge that links the neighbouring villages of Belcoo in County Fermanagh and Blacklion in County Cavan. The women of the area have yarn-bombed the border boundary between Northern Ireland and the Republic, knitting the two communities together with their crocheted woollen blankets and silken flags. They have hung prayer dolls above the parapet and cushioned the bridge with soft furnishings creating a roadside shrine to sharing and caring. The aim, according to acclaimed artist Rita Duffy who conceived and designed the Soften the Border installation, has been to make this little patch of border soft, colourful, curious and comfortable for the duration of the Belcoo Festival.
Following the 2016 referendum when the UK voted to leave the EU, the idea that border controls might be re-introduced or the freedom of movement currently enjoyed by citizens and traders on both sides of this porous border might be compromised, has become a hot topic in the area. Since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the cementing of the Peace Process, people and goods have moved freely across some 300 border roads like the one at Belcoo/Blackion and community relations have steadily improved. No one here wants to see a hard border again.
Belfast-born Duffy has long felt that art can play a role in moving society towards a better future and has demonstrated that belief in her work with local communities in Belfast and elsewhere. In 2001, in a project called Drawing the Blinds, she involved the residents of the 20 storey Divis Tower in the making of linen cloth panels which were hung in the windows of their flats. In 2011, at Argyle Street, Duffy’s 'Shankhill Mural' depicted local women dressed as suffragettes attending a banquet to celebrate the centenary of International Women’s Day. In the same year, at Quaker Cottage, a cross-community centre on the Ballygomartin Road, she worked with 21 students who took photographs and told their stories for a publication entitled Our View. When many of them described what the Peace Process had not delivered Duffy realised that the divisions in the city have been as much about rich and poor as Catholic and Protestant.
Described as a liberal feminist, Duffy has been a particular champion of women and their power to effect change. Her father was from Belfast and she was born in 1959 at St. Ives Street in Stranmillis. Interviewed for the online site, the Troubles Archive, she said, 'My mother was from Clara, County Offaly, and such was the intense pull to the centre of Ireland and the matriarchy – my maternal grandmother and my mother’s six sisters - that I was 12 before I realized I came from Belfast! The sense of dislocation never left me. That lack of belonging anywhere, and the confusion and my constant observation looking for clues and incongruities, formed the foundations of my art practice.'
Photo credit: Trevor Lucy
Duffy attended St. Dominic’s Grammar School for Girls on the Falls Road where, even as classes were being disturbed by bombs exploding and the sound of gun fire, the nuns were providing and insisting upon the need for an excellent all-round education. She graduated with a B.A Hons degree in Fine Art and an M.A. in Fine Art from Ulster University. Always interested in figurative painting she became a street artist in New York, a sign painter, and illustrator (I first saw her work on the cover of a book published by Blackstaff Press, an eye-catching painting of an Orange parade).
These days Duffy lives near the Crom estate in Fermanagh and works as an artist in residence for Cavan County Council in the former Courthouse in Ballyconnell, an attractive, ivy-covered 19th century building. When I visit I find the courtroom festooned with paint brushes and paints, catalogues and cardboard boxes. On the walls hang an assortment of paintings including a pair of army look-out posts in camouflage green from her Outposts collection.
Duffy introduces me to her two young assistants Mattie Cannon and Anna-Lena Kempton, newly arrived from the Mattress Factory museum in Pittsburg, USA where Duffy’s Souvenir Shop, first shown in Dublin in 2016 to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising, went on display. The young women who were helping with last minute preparations for the Soften the Border project show me the prayer dolls they had made the night before and begin stuffing hessian bags with recycled materials as their contribution to the cushioning effort. Meanwhile, over a cup of tea, Duffy describes her satisfaction at having at last found a physical and spiritual accommodation with her mixed Irish heritage.
'I cross the border twice a day on my way to work here in the studio and twice on my way home,' she says. 'I find the idea of being in no man’s land with one foot on either side of an imaginary border hugely appealing; it is a place full of endless creative possibilities. For me nationality and nationalism, absolute unionism and absolute republicanism have become really problematic and Brexit cannot stop people moving; rather we need to look at why they need to move. Gypsies crossed from India to Egypt and the travelling community are still living around the edges of Irish society.
'Although in Ireland we generally have a masculine patriarchal society there have been major shifts in economics, in education and in the power of the churches and it was great to see a gay Taoiseach attending a Gay Pride parade in Belfast. The biggest shame is that the Good Friday Agreement did not lay the basis for integrated schools. Arts and Culture were on the table but were allowed to slide off it and it is regrettable that the Irish language has been so weaponised for it has a deep significance for our culture.'
Photo credit: Trevor Lucy
When I ask Duffy to define her identity she readily and without batting an eye-lid describes herself as an Ulster woman. To her Ulster is the most fascinating part of the island of Ireland, a place where there has always been internecine argument and fighting and strong women. She likes the story of Macha, wife of Cruinniuc the cattle farmer, who while pregnant was forced by the king to win a race with a charioteer and then gave birth to twins on the finishing line. She took her revenge by cursing the men of Ulster to suffer her labour pains.
Of the original Irish provinces which were Ulster, Munster, Connaught and Leinster, Ulster included the counties of Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal but these remained in the South when the new border with Northern Ireland was drawn up in 1921. Duffy muses on how the emblem of Ulster, the Red Hand, is retained by both communities in Northern Ireland. 'Last Saturday, my husband and I were driving through Lisnaskea (the place of the fairies) when members of the Royal Black Institution, healthy countrymen dressed in their Sunday best, were parading up the main street led by bandsmen in blue shirts with the Red Hand emblazoned on them. Heading in the opposite direction were cars full of Tyrone supporters on their way to a GAA match flying their red and white flags emblazoned with the Red Hand.'
When preparing The Souvenir Shop, a project inspired by the Co-op shop at the bottom of her street in Stranmillis which was blown up during the Troubles, Duffy worked with members of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association who were so helpful she called them her ICA active cell. They busied themselves using their sewing, embroidery and knitting skills to make items which take a wry look at history – products like B Special honey (the Duffy’s lived next door to a part time B man) or King Billy’s baby carrots or peace line clothes pegs. And, among the tea towels, one printed with the text of the letter which Duffy’s paternal grandmother received when her husband was killed serving with the Royal Irish Rifles at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
Some of these same women and others from the travelling community and middle aged farmers wives from around Belcoo and Blacklion helped with the Soften the Border project. 'When they met to sew, knit, crochet and chat together,' says Duffy, 'their conversations inevitably turned to Brexit. They’d say, "It may never happen, let’s hope so anyway; how are the authorities going to secure the border when they failed to police it during the 35 years of the Troubles?"'
The women also shared stories which have passed into local lore, like the one from the 1950s when border checks were in place. The Blacklion undertaker ordered shrouds from a firm in Lisburn, had them delivered by train to Belcoo then donned each of the 25 shrouds one by one and wore them back across the border under his large top coat. And during the Troubles, in the late 1970s and '80s, the so-called 'border busters' – farmers who owned land on either side of the border - would take short cuts across shallow rivers to avoid making a 10 mile journey along an approved route.
The Soften the Border installation was officially opened by Dr. Katie Redford of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in the presence of Cavan County Council’s chairman Paddy McDonald and Anna Rose McCormack, President of the Cavan Irish Countrywomen’s Association. The ceremony took place in Blacklion’s former post office, specially re-opened for the occasion. In a final flourish, Rita Duffy and her husband John Kelly hosted a Post Partition Picnic on the green in Belcoo. Their guests included a delegation of women from the Ards Peninsula, Belfast and Omagh and, unexpectedly, a camera crew from Sky TV.
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