A political cartoon convulsed the Irish government earlier this month.
When Sinn Féin housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin tweeted a picture that compared 19th-century Irish tenant evictions to modern 21st-century ones, controversy ensued.
Instead of the old RIC constables, this time the 19th-century eviction scene Ó Broin tweeted featured modern Irish Gardaí in uniform, which inspired angry protests from his political rivals, but Ó Broin stood firm.
No words needed (credit Mála Spíosraí) pic.twitter.com/JK6NVcFNeU— Eoin Ó Broin (@EOBroin) April 1, 2023
It turned out the gardaí in question were photoshopped from an actual eviction event superimposed over a historic one, an image that was inspired - the artist Mála Spíosraí (meaning Spice Bag) previously told The Irish Times - by the 2018 Frederick Street eviction where masked gardaí “were involved in clearing people out of a house in north Dublin.”
“The guards in the picture are from a picture from the Frederick Street eviction, it’s not like a made-up thing,” Mála Spíosraí, real name Adam Doyle, added. Artistic license allowed him to superimpose one over the other, he said.
“My work is only satirical,” the artist told Bray People after Ó Broin's tweet. “I feel you’d have to be a moron to think it was a dig at the Gardaí when it’s very obviously a critique of the evictions."
Isn't it a great little country we have all the same, that we can have a man named "Fionnán" debate a man called "Spice Bag" on national television, and somehow the man named after a takeaway order is the calm, polite, intelligent one. ❤️ 🇮🇪 https://t.co/dVBJ49GevJ— M I K E R Y A N (@90mikeryan) April 4, 2023
So if anyone still doubts the power of a modern art image to provoke discussion or uncomfortable reflection, well here was the rejoinder.
But in their haste to have the image censored or removed, the government instead created a Barbra Streisand effect, which describes how attempts to censor information can lead to the unintended consequence of increasing public awareness of that information.
The levels of government fury – uniting spokespeople from all the ones currently in power - were illuminating, however. The cruelty of 19th-century Anglo-Irish absentee landlords, who sent their uniformed agents to do the dirty work of a public eviction, was being compared to our own homegrown landlords sending the gardaí out to facilitate a 21st-century eviction, featuring much the same human misery.
Watching it all play out, I thought of another work of art, this time a poem by W. B. Yeats called "The Great Day:" “Hurrah for revolution and more cannon-shot!/A beggar upon horseback lashes a beggar on foot/Hurrah for revolution and cannon come again!/The beggars have changed places, but the lash goes on.”
This poem considers the value of revolutions and suggests that after all the violence and upheaval have ended, nothing much ever changes. The poor still get the shaft, the rich lash out at them, and all that has really changed is the last names of the landlords doing the evicting.
No wonder the government, the majority of them now landlords themselves, took such umbrage at being portrayed as the very thing we once had a revolution to upend.
But the howls of protest over the picture contrasted sharply with their nail-pairing indifference to the crumbling mica brick homes up in Donegal, or the hastily erected tents that now house the homeless on the capital's streets, or their selling off vast swathes of land to international vulture funds, or to allowing landlords to call their sheds and spare rooms a “home” for rent.
Where is their outrage over, as the press reported last week, 80-year-olds who had served their country in uniform being unceremoniously turfed into the streets?
8,588 people were in emergency accommodation in Dublin alone during the last week of February; more than 2,500 were children.
Nevertheless, the government lifted the ban on evictions, leaving many thousands more families at risk.
Do you remember a time like this in Irish life? Recall that even in the back-to-back recessions of the 1980s we still managed to build social housing, house the vulnerable, and maintain the realistic property and rental prices that allowed that.
Where has all that social compact gone? When did we start kicking our elders to the curb, instead of trying to ensure that their golden years were as stress-free as possible?
It seems as if the image Ó Broin tweeted has held a much-needed mirror up to our out-of-touch parties about the true scale of the suffering they have calmly presided over. It was interesting to note that the public did not respond in the same shocked way that political leaders did. For them, it was more documentary than satire.