Cell, by Alice Maher, at Kilmainham Gaol

In a State: An Exhibition on National Identity was a project launched by the Project Arts Center in Dublin in 1991. Twenty-one artists were asked to each create a work of art which would be installed in a cell in the Kilmainham Gaol museum, where the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising had been infamously imprisoned and executed.

The exhibition has since become a legend, known for showcasing the output of a vibrant new generation of artists such as Alice Maher, Dorothy Cross and Rita Duffy.

Maher’s contribution was a work entitled Cell, composed entirely of a ball of heather. “I was living in Cork when I did it,” Maher says. “I had an apartment at Skiddy’s in Shandon. My mother was very ill at the time, so I often traveled to rural Tipperary, where I come from, to spend time with her. I was taking long walks and started picking up brambles along the way. Back in my little apartment at Skiddy’s, I started braiding them into a ball; I remember hanging it from the ceiling to have room to work on it.

When Maher was assigned a cell to work in Kilmainham, she brought the ball with her and developed it. “The OPW was clearing the land and I asked the workers if I could take the brambles. They were only happy to give them to me.

Cell of Alice Maher in Kilmainham.

Maher was well aware of what brambles and thorns could suggest to the viewer. There was the inevitable association with the crucified Christ’s crown of thorns, but you could also see that the work alluded to the sacrifice of the rulers of 1916 and the bloody conflict in Northern Ireland, which was still very much in progress at the time. The filthy protests and Republican prisoner hunger strikes of 1980/81 were still a recent memory, and it would be another three years before the Provisional IRA called a ceasefire.

“When I was weaving the heathers, they were still fresh enough that I could think of them as living organisms. The process was metaphorical; I felt like I was building layer upon layer of history. And then, of course, anyone would see the real work in the prison cell would see him die.

Cell was one of many important works made by Maher during this time. After studying at Crawford College of Art, she went on to earn an MFA at Ulster University and a Fulbright Fellowship at the San Francisco Art Institute before returning to live and work in Cork.

Skiddy’s Almshouse apartment is also where she began her famous series of human hair-themed sculptural works and drawings. “I would go to hairdressers around Cork, take the cuttings and sort everything according to color and length. I also got hair from Belfast and mixed the two together to create a piece called Keep.

Charcoal drawings of young girls brushing or washing their hair followed, or studies of the hair itself, gathered in long braided masses. This series was followed by another in which Maher festooned the girls’ dresses with bees, berries and nettles.

Alice Maher's dungeon was made from hair she collected in Cork and Belfast.
Alice Maher’s dungeon was made from hair she collected in Cork and Belfast.

Maher has become one of Ireland’s most celebrated artists, working in drawing, sculpture, installation and film. She collaborated with musician Trevor Knight on a series of animations, with author Anne Enright and actress Charlie Murphy on the film Cassandra’s Necklace, and with poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa on the book Nine Silences.

Since October last year, The Map, the extraordinary textile sculpture she made in collaboration with Rachel Fallon, has been on display at Red Rua in Tallaght, Dublin.

In 2012, Maher was the subject of a major retrospective entitled Becoming, organized by the Irish Museum of Modern Art at Earlsfort Terrace in Dublin. On this occasion, Maher reconstructed Cell in a darkened room, and it was hailed as one of the highlights of the exhibition.

What is often forgotten is that Maher’s original sculpture remains in situ in Kilmainham Gaol. “Towards the end of the show, the wardens were asked to choose a work that would stay in the prison, and they chose Cell. So he’s still there, although now, of course, he’s almost gone.

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