How do you relate the story of the Defence Forces of Ireland and the history of Collins Barracks in one artistic commission?
Initially the brief for the Office for Public Works Per Cent for Art Commission for the National Museum of Ireland at Collins Barracks, Dublin almost seemed like 'A Bridge Too Far' (United Artists 1977) if you will forgive the military cinematic pun!
As a visual artist I was asked to respond to a number of aspects within the brief: the history and architecture of Collins Barracks itself, the new Military History Galleries at the Museum plus their related display themes, and the history of the Irish Defence Forces from its foundation. It was also requested that the historical use of Collins Barracks by the British Army should also be incorporated into the work in some way.
On my initial site visit to the National Museum of Ireland at Collins Barracks my attention was drawn to the dynamic acoustics and the architecture of Clarke Square (formally known as Palatine Square). This square seemed to me to be a natural amphitheatre for a sound based work.
However the real starting point for the work was the original hand painted pace markings located on the walls on both sides of Clarke Square, a historical legacy from a time when the British Army occupied the barracks. These pace markings numbered 0-100 were used to assist army recruits whilst learning drill movements.
That afternoon on the train back to Limerick Junction, I reflected on a number of key elements. There was a realisation that the work needed voices, lots of voices, these voices also had to able to march, sing and drill at the same time. It had to be performed by soldiers, lots of soldiers. By the time the train pulled into Limerick Junction 100 Paces was playing in my head.
The next step in the process was to approach the Defence Forces with an idea to work with a group of soldiers. After submitting a proposal, permission to work with army personnel was granted by Lt. General Jim Sreenan, Chief of Staff, Irish Defence Forces in August 2006.
This proposal was then further developed during a short artist residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig, Co.Monaghan . I poured over research notes on army drill movements and drew on personal experiences of army drill from my days in the old FCA (now the Reserve Force). God knows what my fellow artists must have thought of me as I marched up and down the manicured lawns of Annaghmakerrig bawling and roaring drill commands and lyrics to no one in particular. The shrubbery and herbaceous borders got a good talking to as well.
In August I was assigned to work with a company of soldiers from the Command Brigade Training Centre, at Collins Barracks in Cork.
Over a five month period (August to December 2006) we worked collaboratively together choreographing and developing the work on the square in Collins Barracks.
100 Paces incorporates combinations of regular drill movements that are common to soldiers of the Defence Forces, with non-military based movements that I had designed to compliment the vocal elements of the work.
The lyrics used in the piece are derived from research into the use of Irish Folk melodies and ballads from the musical repertoire of the Defence Forces Band. Other elements I included in the choral composition were variations on the whistle used by the Drill Sergeant for training soldiers and the modulations used in the soldier's voices when responding to these drill commands.
In the performance itself I have also used two separate male voices marching on either side of the square to register and accentuate the pace markings (0-100) these voices act as counterpoints to the main choral work.
The chorus and main section of 100 Paces is a contemporary re-working and interpretation of Amhrán na bhFiann , (The Soldiers Song) the Irish National Anthem.
The final verse entitled What's the News is based upon the peacekeeping missions that the Defence Forces have undertaken over the years on behalf of the United Nations. The concluding section of this verse acknowledges members of the Defence Forces who have given their lives in the service of their country.
This public art project would not have been possible without the assistance of the Office of Public Works, the National Museum of Ireland at Collins Barracks and the Irish Defence Forces. In particular I would like to thank the soldiers from the Command Brigade Training Centre, at Collins Barracks, Drill Sergeant John Thompson and Captain Charles Dineen for their professionalism, dialogue, patience and humour. It is they who transformed this concept into an experience.