The Síbín installation will run in Galway Arts Centre’s performance space, Nun’s Island Theatre, while a wider exhibition of works will be on display in Galway Arts Centre’s gallery space just a short walk away until August 30th. Photograph: Garry Jones
Stephen Millar is behind the beaten-copper bar in the cluttered, busy síbín. Here, have a can of Southern Guilt, says he, sliding it across. I look at the can while I sip, realising it’s one of the objects in this Russian Doll of an installation. (It’s Galway Bay Brewery’s lovely beer, relabelled.)
I’ll treasure the empty can, I joke. Millar looks me in the eye, quickly. No, he says. Just own it.
Touche.
It’s all touche, or at least making particular and pointed observations, often with humour or lightness, at this síbín. The illegal drinking den (also shebeen) is the installation from Belfast-based Array Collective which won last December’s prestigious Turner Prize in Coventry. It’s currently being seen, or more like, enveloping people, for the first time in Ireland, at Galway Arts Centre.
The Druthaib’s Ball, a síbín installation by Belfast-based Array Collective. Photograph: Garry Jones
Array were the first Northern Irish artists to win the UK contemporary art prize, for The Druthaib’s Ball, an immersive installation reflecting and emerging from activism for social change in Northern Ireland.
After the win, National Museums NI acquired the work for its permanent collection at the Ulster Museum, where the public can see it from January. And even before the Turner win, newly appointed Galway Arts Centre director/curator Megs Morley bagged it; quite the coup.
The Druthaib’s Ball is currently in the west: immersive síbín, separate exhibition that includes the Irish Names 1990 quilt honouring those who died from Aids, and a bunch of public events (storytelling, music, talks, workshops, Galway Pride), all curated by Morley. Presenting this “marks a significant milestone for Galway Arts Centre”, she says.
Druthaib is a buffoon, perhaps a misprint of druídib or druid, and the Druthaib’s Ball a celebration of life and death, a wake for the centenary of Ireland’s partition, in the local síbín. The display represents threads of the North now, but it’s also a place to hang out. It’s pretty fancy for an illegal síbín, with pub tables and snugs and low lighting: a cosy and welcoming oasis. The Russian Doll effect Morley mentions is because it’s a síbín inside a theatre, that’s part of the arts centre, and was once a Presbyterian church on Nun’s Island. “It’s one thing inside another inside another.”
The Array Collective, a group of 11 Belfast-based artists, winners of the 2021 Turner Prize. Photograph: Garry Jones
The ceiling is of banners from myriad protests, and everywhere you turn are items of significance, carefully chosen. Aside from the banners-canopy, there are close to 150 individual artworks or objects, some made specifically, others borrowed. The whole is a vibrant clutter, a sort of life-size cabinet of curiosities: ashtrays, pictures, objects, scrawled-on mirrors. It is both witty and timely.
Miller points to three wee clocks on the wall behind him. Each has a photo-face and is stopped at a significant time: Belfast City Hall, halted at 1921 for partition, Strasbourg in 2016 for Brexit, and Stormont, 2021 “when it last collapsed, and it’s still stuck. They appear to be just clocks, but there’s a deeper meaning to pretty much everything in here.”
On pub-tables are ashtrays printed with Ulster’s red hand, cigarette stubbed out inside. They point to “the continued failure of our mental health provision, while Stormont does f**k all. The red hand is a constant in the psych of all of us. That emblem is everywhere, our shared trauma belongs to all of us.”
Millar talks about some of the material from protests, causes and parades and the causes represented, from mental health to LGBTQ+ rights to abortion provision. “I made that NHS banner there, trying to protest from home, getting really angry at the patronising clapping for the NHS, while not actually fighting for them.” The banner says: Clap for NHS (ticked). Fight for NHS (not ticked).
A huge “The North is Now” originally stretched across Belfast’s Albert Bridge the day after Repeal. “It was amazing that Repeal happened, but the six counties are still waiting, even now, though it’s been formalised. We’re just so behind with everything.”
Megs Morley, director and curator at Galway Arts Centre, at the opening of The Druthaib’s Ball. Photograph: Boyd Challenger
Each of the 11 Belfast-based artists, from Ireland north and south, England and Italy, in Array has their own separate artistic practice: Sighle Bhreathnach-Cashell, Sinéad Bhreathnach-Cashell, Jane Butler, Emma Campbell, Alessia Cargnelli, Mitch Conlon, Clodagh Lavelle, Grace McMurray, Stephen Millar, Laura O’Connor, Thomas Wells.
They knew they couldn’t invite friends and family to their Turner show in Coventry because of Covid, but “we wanted do something to involve them,” says Millar, so they invited performers and “created an event at Belfast’s Black Box, a wake for the centenary of partition, to commemorate or celebrate, whichever way they saw it.” Film from it plays in the síbín.
In the programme Array says Druthaib’s Ball “embodies the complexities that distinguish our Northern Irish/Irish identities, honouring the personal experiences of existence and resistance, despite a litany of human rights abuses against us.
Falling outside the sectarian dichotomies, which have dominated the collective memory of the North of Ireland for the last hundred years, has been dangerous, but the síbín is our shelter.”
Millar mentions they were asked once what would they do if a Protestant wanted to join Array, but “the person he asked was a Protestant. I don’t think we’ve ever thought of ourselves as cross-community, we don’t think of it in that way. Array started as an accident, we were on the streets campaigning, bringing light and liveliness to things that were heavy-going.”
It was made for an English audience, “to tell our stories to them. We’re still conscious our stories are yet to be heard” in Ireland, north and south. “Southern guilt. We live in a very sectioned-off society, deliberately kept apart.”
Ulster Museum art curator Anna Liesching was present for unpacking the síbín in Galway, part of the loan agreement. “Their work is so important, bringing their art on to the streets. What Array has done, something galleries and museums in the North have been trying to do for years, is communicate the complexities of the North beyond green and orange.
“They’ve done this perfectly and in a very succinct and approachable and accessible way, that you couldn’t in an exhibition. There are 11 artists but this feels like it comes from one voice.” It also represents the legacy of artists as activists all over Ireland, she says. “Repeal was started by artists.”
Millar wants only for people “to come and be, and sit in the space, and watch, and look around.” He notices “people spend time here in a way they don’t in a cube” gallery. “People can gather here, can sit, play cards, read the paper, look at the objects.”
The Druthaib’s Ball and associated events run until October 1st
Deirdre Falvey is a features and arts writer at The Irish Times

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