On Sunday 30 April 1916, the artist Kathleen Fox (1888-1963) happened upon a scene when she was out collecting a message for her family. She turned into St. Stephen’s Green and witnessed two figures, one of whom was a woman, dressed in green uniforms surrounded by an army of khaki-yellow soldiers. As she drew closer, to her astonishment, she recognised the woman as the same tall imposing figure who frequented the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art in the evenings with her husband and son. There and then she realised that she was witness to something that needed to be documented and even though she was not really sure what exactly that was, she set about gathering any material she had on her and sketched a little tableaux of the scene unfolding before her. The woman of course, transpired to be Countess Constance Markievicz and her companion, Irish Citizen Army Chief of Staff, Michael Mallin (1874-1916). While both were condemned to death following their arrest, Markievicz as we know, had her sentence commuted and went on to become the first woman elected to the House of Commons but did not take up her seat.
In subsequent weeks following the arrest of the leaders and their summary executions, Fox realised that she HAD witnessed something extra-ordinary and she set about creating a document from her thumbnail sketches. She walked through St. Stephen’s Green, examining its layout, the height of The Royal College of Surgeons in relation to the buildings around it and she also sought expert opinion as to what uniforms were accurate for her portrayal. Yet, she did all this in secret; knowing the tensions and trouble that would ensue should her plans be revealed. Her family were from an Anglo-Irish background and they would not have been happy with her if they had known what she was doing.
Her painting is a monumental tribute to her role as ‘witness’. Entitled The Arrest of Countess Markievicz it is housed in the Sligo County Museum. While it is an accurate document, Fox inserted herself into the painting to emphasise her role as an artist, someone whose job is to be a witness to the events of his/her lifetime. Nowadays, social media, smart phones and technological gadgetry purport to play the same role. But would today’s teenagers have the patience and perseverance to stand back and consider the circumstances of their situation, gather evidence and dissimulate material before publishing it to the world? I think not – instant access means instant reaction and the price of fame is too great a temptation. However, Fox’s painting is a reminder that long before technology took over our lives, the cameraman or woman was more important than the camera.
My name is Deirdre Kelly and I am a PhD candidate at the University of Limerick. I am researching a thesis in Art History and my MA thesis focused on visual responses to the 1916 Rising. The piece attached is responding to a prompt ‘In the presence of a witness’ and is an accurate account based on my research.