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News, Stories | 05 November 2021

Finding the keys to the cultural kingdom

Finding the keys to the cultural kingdom
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The National Neighbourhood builds cultural projects with communities across Dublin City, connecting artists, groups, and villages with libraries, museums and creative places.

The programme runs all year round and invites individuals and groups to explore, see and make culture in their place with people they know. Each group session is facilitated by an artist and an Engagement Coordinator from Dublin City Council Culture Company.

Aisling Byrne, a theatre artist and educator, joined one of The National Neighbourhood groups earlier this year. Below, she shares her thoughts on the experience, from exploring together in organised creative chaos to feeling that the city is yours.

So many things

It’s February 2021 and a sea of strangers smile at one another through squares on a screen.

We are participating in The National Neighbourhood. A programme of exploration that will see us meeting every Thursday with a cultural gift to unpack. I am here as a facilitating artist and my job is to participate, and to tease out the threads of creative possibility as we engage with libraries, museums and the cultural organisations of the city.

Working with The National Neighbourhood was the easiest “yes” I ever said. As a theatre maker in the midst of a third lockdown, inspiration came dripping slow. The chance to meet a cohort of people from all walks of life and explore the city together shone like a lighthouse beacon through the still dark and increasingly dreary unfolding evenings.

Our cards were marked early on. The “C word” wasn’t welcome around here. “We’re here for a break from thinking about it, never mind talking about it”, Joan, long time Stoneybatter resident and full-time snake-owner emphasized. I found myself nodding vigorously at the laptop. Yes, Joan. Yes.

And besides, we had other things to talk about. A lot of other things. So many things in fact that the hour and 15 minutes we shared each week began to strain at the seams - it didn’t feel like enough. “We didn’t want to say goodbye” laughed Alfreda in our final week as we reflected on the three months past. Strangers no more.

Eloquent storytellers

Connections were fostered early on. As the ‘artist in situ’ it became apparent that I was travelling on the coattails of a particularly eloquent group of storytellers. With each passing week, I not only looked forward to the cultural offering about to be bestowed upon us, but also to the rich oral histories, personal reflections and insights that would flow in its wake.

In Week 2, we attended a talk and discussion about 14 Henrietta Street with guide Colin. As an icebreaker, we asked participants to bring along their own ‘piece of history’, or something they believed could belong in a museum, introducing us to some incredible artefacts and the stories behind them. Thousand-year-old Viking coins and biscuit tins saved from the fire. Our collective attention was rapt as we listened to Colin’s eloquent mapping of how the blighted seeds of famine sowed the seeds for the decline of Dublin – which once held the grim accolade of the ‘highest infant mortality rate in the Western World’. “The ghosts of the past walked with us throughout,” Adrienne would later reflect; and this tale of two cities, and the burden faced by Dublin’s most vulnerable across the ages is a theme we would constantly revisit.

Week 3, an artist-led session, and we further considered the ‘theatre of objects’ with deeper exploration of meaningful personal artefacts. Our conversations were summarised using dramatic taglines. One such:

“A living historian travels through time and meets a mad hatter and an amateur terrorist who is then ambushed by another spirit who has, through her seances, a special connection with animals”

Like I said, storytellers.

Disembodiment of Deirdre

These discussions facilitated our first foray into ‘breakout rooms’ which was largely successful, until we managed to split Deirdre (who for technical reasons had to dial in on two devices), body and spirit into two separate ‘rooms’. This ‘Disembodiment of Deirdre’ as it became known, would serve to mystically foreshadow an exploration of Samuel Beckett’s Not I, as photographed by John Haynes and explored in magnificent detail by guide Jacinta from the National Gallery of Ireland (Week 5).

In Week 6 we took a virtual trip to the National Archives of Ireland as led by our guide Brian. It deepened our thematic considerations of how the past meets the present. We listened as he laid out the records of the workhouses and the ‘distressed districts’ they served. We pored over the records of victims of both famine fever and morbis cordis. A sickness of the heart. The ghosts walked with us again.

Week 7 saw us engaging in a talk and discussion with the Hugh Lane Gallery and the expert insights of guide Aoife. Alfreda shared with us a beautiful mosaic during our discussions, and the conversation turned to the lost mosaics in our city. A passionate plea for the role of citizens in taking ownership of our heritage. “It just takes one person to start it.” We logged off, feeling mobilized.

The ordinary and the profound

By now, a set of themes had emerged, governing so many of our interactions and sowing the seeds of creative possibility. Intersecting stories, cultural discoveries and oral histories began to weave together, elevating the ‘ordinary’ to something significant and profound. A consideration of the past, our heritage, and our own sense of cultural ownership

In our final artist led session (Week 9) we explored the emotional power of storytelling. Joan, movingly, gave voice to a fictional character ‘Maisie’, an imagined child of tenement Dublin. We ruminated on how Maisie might interact with the Dublin of today. Would anything but the sky look the same?

Keys to our kingdom

By Week 10, our descent into organized creative chaos was complete. A soundscape exercise was heartily engaged in as we availed of household objects to recreate the sounds of the city; the clanging metal (of ‘blacksmiths’) and the slosh of a slop bucket. We presented our offerings to our patient host from the National Concert Hall (who surprisingly hasn’t yet invited us to perform). The ensuing talk about trad music was anything but traditional; exploding our collective sense of what the National Concert Hall may once have represented. A rich dialogue followed in which Danny moved us to tears with his eloquent mapping of his personal sense of belonging. He vowed to set foot in a building that he once felt was off limits to him. Others chimed in in assent. There was a powerful sense of renewed ownership. If this journey had taught us anything it’s that the city is ours. We have the keys to the kingdom and these cultural organisations not only thrive but survive on account of us exploring them.

A reluctant goodbye in our final week, clutching the proverbial keys to the newly opened doors of our creative, cultural kingdom; real and imagined. We hope to open some of them together soon.

Bio

Bio

Aisling Byrne is a theatre artist and educator with an emerging practice in filmmaking. She has worked extensively in the fields of inclusive arts - supporting artists with intellectual disabilities, documentary and socially engaged theatre-making. She is the founder and Artistic Director of award winning inclusive theatre collective 'Run of the Mill Theatre', the Artistic Co-Director of Talking Shop Ensemble and is currently resident with Arcade Film developing a number of film projects.

Discover More

We are currently running a series of follow on projects that emerged from The National Neighbourhood earlier this year, and will be sharing more information about those soon.

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