Cork as canvas: Exploring intersections of citizenship and collective memory in the Shandon
Big Wash Up murals
School of Management,
QUT Business School,
Queensland University of Technology,
2 George Street,
GPO Box 2434,
Brisbane, Queensland 4001,
Tony Matthews *
Property and Planning Discipline,
School of Civil Engineering and Built Environment,
Queensland University of Technology,
2 George Street,
GPO Box 2434,
Brisbane, Queensland 4001,
* Corresponding Author - email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Urban space has the potential to shapes people’s experience and understanding of the city and of the
culture of a place. In some respects, murals and allied forms of wall art occupy the intersection of
street art and public art; engaging, and sometimes, transforming the urban space in which they exist
and those who use it. While murals are often conceived as a more ‘permanent’ form of painted art
there has been a trend in recent years toward more deliberately transient forms of wall art such as
washed-wall murals and reverse graffiti. These varying forms of public wall art are embedded within
the fabric of the urban space and history. In this paper will explore the intersection of public space,
public art and public memory in a mural project in the Irish city of Cork. Focussing on the washed-
wall murals of Cork’s historic Shandon district we explore the sympathetic and synergetic relationship
of this wall art with the heritage architecture of the built environment and of the murals as an
expression of and for the local community, past and present. Through the Shandon Big Wash Up
murals we reflect on the function of participatory public art as an explicit act of urban citizenship
which works to support community-led re-enchantment in the city through a reconnection with its
SUBTLE INSCRIPTIONS ON THE URBAN CANVAS
Public art can take three main forms: gallery art outside in which objects are placed in a
land/urbanscape where there is no prior relationship between the piece and its location; where an
object responds to its location in some way and becomes indivisible from its location; and public art
which provides critical commentary (Mossop, 2001, p. 21-22). In many respects murals as a form of
public art simultaneously reflect all three characteristics. Despite, or perhaps as a result of, their
contribution to a sense of community and focus on changing relations with public space the creation
(or destruction) of a mural can be an intensely political activity. There has been a great deal of
scholarship and commentary on the politically-oriented painted murals of Northern Ireland which
have figured as a prominent feature of the visual environment since the early twentieth century
(Rolston, 2012). Collectively emblematic of the segregated and polarised working class areas of
Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland (McCormick and Jarman, 2005) these murals have become
internationally recognised as exemplars of political wall art and have themselves been recast as a
tourist attraction (Hill and White, 2012). By comparison to the Northern Irish murals, relatively little
has been written about the contemporary or historic murals of the Republic of Ireland.
Murals can be a tool for space revitalization and inviting artists to work with the local
community to create works in previously neglected, abandoned or overlooked spaces can reactivate
and transform both communities and places. While murals are often conceived as a more ‘permanent’
form of painted art, there has been a trend in recent years toward more deliberately transient forms of
wall art such as washed-wall murals and reverse graffiti. These varying forms of public wall art are
embedded within the fabric of the urban space they occupy and can contribute to the creation and re-
creation of urban memories. In this paper we explore the intersection of public space, public art and
public memory in a mural project in the Irish city of Cork.
Focussing on the washed-wall murals of Cork’s historic Shandon district we explore the
sympathetic and synergetic relationship of this wall art with the heritage architecture of Shandon’s
built environment and social and economic history. We also consider the citizenship processes at play
in the production and consumption of the murals as an expression of and for the local community,
past and present. Through these murals we reflect on the functions of participatory public art as both
‘subtle inscriptions in the cityscape’ (Sharp, Pollock and Paddison, 2005, p. 1008) and an explicit act
of urban citizenship which works to support a ‘re-enchantment in the city’ (Mossop and Walton,
2001, p. 9) through a reconnection with its past.
UNDERSTANDING MURALS AS PUBLIC ART IN PUBLIC SPACE
Public art performs a range of social, community and economic development functions (McCormick
and Jarman, 2005; Grodach, 2009) and has the capacity to enhance or personalise public space and
provide a vehicle for a community to express its identity and engage in civic dialogue. Public art,
particularly through murals which focus on local themes, also has the ability to engender a sense of
pride and community identity by contributing to cultural heritage and responding to local issues
(Becker, 2004) and emphasising local uniqueness. Public art like murals can visually identify and
define a community (Remesar, 2005, p. 7) and contribute to the creation of a sense of place that
distinguishes a community from neighbouring streets and from comparable locations in other towns
(McCormick and Jarman, 2005). Public art of this kind can also contribute to the revitalisation of an
urban area and assisting in the stimulation of local economies and local economic regeneration and
revitalisation through tourism and increased local investment (Becker, 2004; Grodach, 2009;
Remesar, 2005). Public art can also help to manage public space and improve the existing urban
visual landscape (Remesar, 2005, p. 7–8); murals for instance can reduce the proportional amount on
new unsanctioned ‘graffiti’ (Craw et al, 2006). This process is not uncontested and shows the ways
that public art can also establish unintended exclusionary boundaries (O’Callaghan and Linehan,
2007, p. 313) by defining who and what kinds of artistic expression do and do not belong in a given
urban space (Schacter, 2008).
Perhaps the most important social functions of community-level cultural activities and public
art like murals can be the re-establishment of community connection and interest in a given public
space, or ‘common ground where people carry out the functional activities and rituals that bind a
community, whether it is in the normal daily routine or the periodic festivities’ (Carr, Francis and
Rivlin, 1993, p. ix). This may be enhanced by the fact that murals often exist at a human scale, at least
in terms of connectivity, and have an inherent and tangible connection to their site. Public art and the
process through which it is produced is able to create a sense of inclusion and generate a sense of
ownership which has the potential to forge new connections ‘between citizens, city spaces and their
meaning as places through which subjectivity is constructed’ (Sharp, Pollock and Paddison, 2005, p.
1003). As a result of this connection with place, Pearson (2006, p. 120) notes that creating a mural is
an act of generosity towards the built environment, as artists leave to posterity (or at least an extended
period) an addition to the architectural fabric and collective memory of a place. However, rather than
focussing on the painted murals to which Pearson refers, this paper considers the use of emerging wall
art techniques which, while temporary in nature, are no less significant in their ability to contribute to
community and connection with place.
Temporary murals include reverse graffiti and washed-wall murals which involve the creation
of temporary art by deliberately removing dirt from a surface and leaving a clean trace behind
(Truman, 2010, p. 8). Sometimes called artistic power washing, this process can involve the removal
of existing and naturally accumulating urban dirt or may employ the application of a background
screed onto a wall surface before a stencil is placed over it and power-washed to reveal images. This
washed-wall technique was used to create the Big Wash Up murals in the Shandon district of Cork
city, Ireland in 2009 which form the subject of this paper. Most murals represent or reflect the
community in which they are situated (Becker 2004). As such, they are closely tied to their
community and surrounding society. The following discussion contextualises the creation and
consumption of the Big Wash Up murals within their local and historical context before critically
considering the project through the lens of urban and cultural citizenship.
A CULTURAL HISTORY OF CORK AND THE SHANDON DISTRICT
Shandon is an inner-city district of Cork, Ireland’s second largest city. Shandon is one of Cork’s most
historic and culturally significant districts. Shandon’s architectural form includes a mix of buildings
from the eighteenth to twenty-first centuries and boasts an eclectic mix of Georgian, medieval,
Victorian and more modern architecture. Shandon boasts a number of keynote buildings which are
integrated into the streetscape and architectural form of the area including: St. Anne’s Church which
features a clock-tower that dominates the skyline of Cork; the Firkin Crane with its distinctive circular
shape; and the Shandon Craft Centre, housed in the former Butter Exchange building, which boasts an
impressive entryway framed by four imposing Doric columns (figure 1).
Insert figure 1 here
Shandon’s urban form is high density, but not high rise. It is built at the human scale. In
keeping with the area’s medieval origins the street pattern has remained largely unchanged since the
1600s and the principal thoroughfares have medieval origins. The district, once housing Cork’s
working class in its narrow lanes of small terraced houses, is now characterised by a mix of social and
affordable housing, sheltered accommodation, private rentals and private ownership. Despite its
heritage value, Shandon and the centre of Cork became rundown (O’Callaghan and Linehan, 2007)
from the 1970s onward, as a result of a number of factors. Principal amongst these was a lack of a
coherent planning framework which led to under-utilisation, under-appreciation and ultimately under-
investment in the area. In the absence of an effective planning and governance framework, calls for
sensitive development, investment and regeneration of the area which would preserve its architectural
character were often unsuccessful. This prompted a groundswell of activities directed by the local
community, including residents, traders and artists. This movement was keenly aware of the
importance of exploiting the area’s tourism and economic potential while conserving its local heritage
and architectural character (Cork Corporation, no date). Various groups, including the Shandon Area
Renewal Association, formed organically with the intention of reinvigorating the area through
volunteerism, active citizenry, art, design and better use of public space.
A CULTURE OF DEVELOPMENT
Irish local authorities attach significant importance to culture as a tool of development and it has
assumed a major role in Irish spatial planning (Bayliss, 2004). Investment in the arts in Cork aimed at
regenerating the Sharon area has included converting the former Butter Exchange to house the
Shandon Craft Centre, which provided subsidised workshops for small-scale craft enterprises, and the
redevelopment of the Firkin Crane as a performance venue. Cork is widely admired for its flourishing
arts life, which attracts both locals and tourists (Murray, 1995, p. 149) including a vibrant calendar of
annual festivals such as the Dragon of Shandon Samhain Parade, Cork International Film Festival and
the Cork Jazz Festival among others.
There is a sense of civic pride in the cultural achievements of artists and art-workers from
Cork, and a strong interest in experiencing and showcasing the artistic and cultural achievements of
international artists (Murray, 1995, p. 161). This was reflected in Cork’s selection as the 2005
European Capital of Culture (Binns, 2005). However, some Cork residents felt that the program
privileged ‘high’ art rather than the kinds of cultural activities that they valued. In response, a number
of activities were developed by local artists’ collectives to support the official program in either a
formal capacity or as supporting, fringe and underground projects. This can be seen as part of a
broader attempt by some citizens ‘to asset their “right” to have an input in how the[ir] city is both
shaped and imagined’ (O’Callaghan and Linehan, 2007, p. 322). In some respects this work was a
natural extension of the community-led regeneration work undertaken in Shandon from the early-
2000s which reflected the need to make the city appealing to its own inhabitants as well as tourists
(Murray, 1995, p. 161).
WHAT IF… AND THE BIG WASH UP MURALS
Cork Community Art Link (CCAL) is one of the city’s most prominent not-for-profit community art
organisations. Based in Shandon, CCAL undertakes creative arts projects in partnership with
community and youth groups to create processes, interventions and art works in the local area.
Prioritising working with groups who are disadvantaged or socially marginalised in their access to the
arts and in their participation in making local and national culture, CCAL advocates access to the arts
as both spectator and participant as a fundamental right that should be universally available.
CCAL inaugurated its annual What if... public art initiative in 2005 as part of Cork’s
European Capital of Culture program. Utilising a partnership model to engage communities the What
if... program was designed to develop outdoor art works and activities which challenge the dynamics
of public spaces and places (CCAL, What if, no date). The 2009 program was called the Big Wash Up
and featured a series of temporary washed-wall murals showcasing Shandon’s community and
cultural history. The murals were launched on 27th June 2009 during the Shandon Street Festival. The
walls of the Firkin Crane and the Butter Exchange building hosted some of the more spectacular
murals (figure 2).
Insert figure 2 here
MEMORY COLLECTION CLINICS
Community consultation is a vital element in ensuring that public art is ‘both for the people and by the
people’ (Remesar, 2005, p. 8). The recognition of a particular community and their association with a
specific place are integral to this process of validation and inclusion (Sharp, Pollock and Paddison,
2005, p. 1008). While French artist Philippe Chevrinais from Artitillerie joined CCAL for the Big
Wash Up project (Irish Street Art, 2009) it was also undertaken with the support and participation of a
large number of local organisations including St Mary’s Road Library, Northside Folklore Project,
and Shandon Youth Club.
Research for the Big Wash Up focused on gathering information relating to Shandon’s
cultural history from local people to bring ‘stories and memories of the area back to life’ (The Firkin
Crane, no date). Focussing on the area’s cultural and economic history, the images were based on
information collected during a week of consultation workshops, called ‘memory collection clinics’,
held with the local community. The clinics were advertised locally through the library, residents
associations, youth clubs, public notices, and CCAL’s large local volunteer base. Interested
community members shared their experiences and memories of the area over a cup of tea. These
conversations and their impressions of historic local images were audio-recorded to provide a
reference source to inform the stencil design process.
Accounts of events and characters from Shandon’s contemporary cultural and folk history
included stories of shawlies (poor, older women in lace shawls who often ran street stalls), crubeens
(a traditional dish of pig’s feet), corner boys (unemployed and often unmarried young men who
congregated together for company and mischief) and the buttera (the Shandon Butter Exchange brass
band which has existed since 1878 and continues to attract membership of all ages from school
children to retirees). Through this consultative process, the collective memory of a community
inspired over fifty temporary images, each of which told a story of Shandon’s cultural past and
validated the history, lived experience and memories of the contributors.
CCAL also worked closely with children from local schools and youth centres and other
community volunteers to design, create, cut and apply the stencils that formed the subsequent murals
which were created using a temporary reverse graffiti technique. The technique involved applying a
temporary black screed onto the walls before power-washing a stencilled image to reveal a clearly
defined monotone image as shown in figure 3 (Hernandez, 2009). A video of this technique being
applied is available at Hernandez (2009).
The creation of public art, like these murals, can work to integrate the community with the
work of art by engaging people previously held at a distance from the artistic process to participate in
its creation. Miwon Kwon has observed that ‘sometimes this absorption of the community into the
artistic process and vice versa is rendered iconographically readable’ and can result in members of the
community being able to ‘see and recognise themselves in the work, not so much in the sense of being
critically implicated but of being affirmatively pictured or validated’ (Kwon, 2002, p. 95). This can
occur at a conceptual level where residents may see people like them or to which they positively
relate, or where they may even see themselves featured. This outcome was evidenced in the Big Wash
Up where stencils of the faces of youth volunteers were featured prominently in the murals on the
columns at the entrance to the Butter Exchange building. The young people’s names, in their own
hand-writing, were also included at the base of the columns (CCAL, Big Wash Up, no date).
Insert figure 3 here
THE CITY AS A SITE OF CITIZENSHIP
Public art can help to create space in which people can identify themselves by creating opportunities
to reflect on the use of public spaces and how this can affect behaviour or actions within them (Sharp,
Pollock and Paddison, 2005, p. 1004). Weber (2003, p. 7) has observed that murals in particular
‘assert moral claims to public space, claims concerning the history, identity, and possible future of the
surrounding area’. As such they can be used to foster social inclusion in the city and give ‘expression
to the multiple and shifting identities of different groups’ (Sharp, Pollock and Paddison, 2005, p.
1006). This process of identity formation can be understood as an active process of citizenship in
which identity and citizenship are co-constituting; citizenship guarantees an identity (Turner, 1993).
Citizenship can be understood as the set of political, economic, cultural and other practices
that define a person as a competent member of a society, and which consequently shapes the flow of
resources toward or away from them (Turner, 1993, p. 2). Public art offers communities a way to
participate in the planning, design and creation of communal space (Becker, 2004, p. 6). Artists are in
a unique position to support such transformative citizenship ideas through the opportunity ‘to
intervene, to interact with the contemporary community, to research and reveal the past in a subtle and
intuitive manner’ (Sharp, Pollock and Paddison, 1995, p. 1008).
The considerate provision of public art requires close collaboration between artists and
communities (Smith, 2005). Communities are made up of a variety of actors and groups, who often
represent different interests. Community murals, like other forms of public art, can assert moral
claims over public space and can speak to an area’s past, present and potentially future history and
identity (Weber, 2003). Public art can exert significant influence within communities and may provide
positive expressions that galvanise actors or negative expressions that may be contested. Harnessing
community involvement in the creation of public art can therefore be understood as a process of
As the Shandon memory collection clinics demonstrate, the participatory creation of public
art at the community level can also provide opportunities for socialisation and contact across different
sections of the community and encourage greater understanding between groups and increase social
cohesion (Bayliss, 2004, p. 502). Such a process is consistent with a transformative view of
citizenship. Participatory processes, artistic or otherwise, founded on these transformative ideals do
not ask participants to cast aside their individual identity and embrace a common and shared identity.
Such a process allows a wider variety of understandings and experiences to become a resource for
public deliberation and can provide the opportunity for all citizens to learn from each other (Cameron
and Grant-Smith, 2005). As such, the goal of participatory art of this nature is not to present or
promote a homogenised version of the community but rather to progress one which is sensitive to
reflecting and responding to the diverse lived-experiences of others.
CITIZENSHIP AND THE PROCESS OF MURAL PRODUCTION
Notwithstanding its potential citizenship benefits, public art provision can be a contested and complex
process. Common issues that are contested in the development of murals include conservation issues
and image selection processes (Becker, 2004, p. 9). Early proposals for the Shandon murals were
contested by some parties because the Firkin Crane and Butter Exchange building both have
significant heritage value for Shandon and the wider city of Cork. Some Shandon residents and the
Cork City Council were initially opposed to the walls of these buildings being used as a canvass for
the murals fearing that they could damage or negatively impact on the aesthetic heritage of the
buildings. CCAL were able to address these concerns because the murals were specifically designed
to be low impact and temporary, leaving no discernible trace of their existence once removed.
Paradoxically, some parties appeared to be far less concerned by existing graffiti on these buildings
than by proposals for temporary and sanctioned art.
The image selection process also encountered some early resistance. CCAL sought to engage
members of the Shandon community at an early stage in the development of the proposal and
presented a suite of preliminary sketch-ups for the murals to the Shandon Area Renewal Association.
These designs featured triskele symbols. These designs were rejected on the basis that Celtic
symbology was considered trite, over-used in Ireland and disconnected from Shandon’s cultural and
historical contexts. Although CCAL had presented these images only as an illustration of how the
murals might be placed they were misinterpreted by some residents as being indicative of the final
mural design. CCAL assured the concerned parties that the final design treatment for the murals
would speak to directly to Shandon’s history. As a result of these assurances and the comprehensive
consultation process undertaken the proposal to develop murals was actively supported once it
became widely known that the final murals would reflect scenes and characters uniquely associated
with the area.
CITIZENSHIP AND THE PROCESS OF MURAL CONSUMPTION
The selection of an appropriate site for a public art project like a mural must take full consideration of
a number of factors. These include spatial considerations, issues of cultural attachment and identity,
and scale (Matossian, 2005). Like Somdahl-Sands’ (2008) analysis of Mission Wall Dancers
performance the Big Wash Up murals became a dialogue between the location of the murals (both
geographically and architecturally), the subject matter, and the experiences and memories of those
who participate in both the creation and consumption of the murals. The relevance of the murals did
not only arise only from their connection with Shandon’s rich architectural and cultural history, but
also from their engagement with the local community which contributed to a sense of civic identity or
citizenship at both a group and at the individual level (Somdahl-Sands, 2008, p. 329-330). Using the
power of collective memory combined with existing social narratives of the site the murals fostered a
sense of community and shared citizenship through a deliberate act of linking the past to the present.
It has been observed that graffiti artists take an active role in ‘producing and constructing
their lived-in surroundings’ and consciously attempt to ‘permeate their surroundings with their self-
identity and personhood…an attempt to embody themselves in the very fabric of the city’ (Schacter,
2008, p. 38). Indeed Schacter (2008, p. 50) suggests that this may be part of ‘an overt tactic to reclaim
parts of the city, to regain possession of the metropolis which they believe had been sequestered from
them by big business and private property’. Perhaps something similar is at play in the Big Wash Up
Murals, like graffiti, remind us that public art is political (McAuliffe, 2012). Graffiti and other
unsanctioned wall art are often destroyed by painting over it in a conscious act of ‘disappearance’
(McCormick and Jarman, 2005). For instance, at the same time that Shandon was celebrating its past
through the Big Wash Up murals, another mural commemorating a different aspect of Cork’s history –
the 1920 hunger strike death of former a Lord Mayor of Cork, Terrence MacSwiney – was being
‘disappeared’ by the Cork City Council (Indymedia Ireland, 2009). The Big Wash Up installation was
developed from the site and its history, accounting for and taking advantage of the existing urban
form. The murals can therefore be understood as site-specific art work focused on establishing “an
inextricable, indivisible relationship” between the art work and its location (Kwon 1997, p. 86). As
such, the Big Wash Up project took great care not to erase prior ‘art’ such as graffiti and the existing
graffiti could still be seen in place through the murals (Figure 4). This practice of assimilation of co-
existence has also recently been practiced by commissioned artists who incorporated existing tags into
murals immortalising great Irish writers on the walls of the Cork Opera House (English, 2013). Such a
practice is reflective of an understanding of the place of public art in urban space and place as
contributing to the palimpsest; not erasing the past but rather celebrating and building on. However,
an important feature of a palimpsest as a multi-layered artefact consisting of multiple (re)inscriptions
is that each layer both changes it while allowing it to stay the same.
Insert figure 4 here
THE LEGACY OF THE MURALS
Public art has the ability to simultaneously reclaim place while recognising the past. The process of
mural production and design in the Big Wash Up built on the wealth of community assets in the
Shandon area, most particularly the buildings and the people. Focussing on bygone people, practices
and interactions, the murals were purposefully designed to celebrate the area’s social and cultural past
by communicating and connecting it to the present. Shandon’s past is often viewed and discussed by
residents with fondness, as a place full of characters, community and activity. The value of the murals
was their ability to render this history visible and to validate previous lived experiences by
communicating these realities to a contemporary audience of residents and visitors. The murals
allowed Shandon’s built environment to become a display space in and of itself and to celebrate its
history and communicate rich details of its past to a contemporary audience through the process. They
temporarily became another layer of the area’s architectural fabric and re-inscribed historical people
and customs on the contemporary urban form. In doing so, the murals were responsible for
‘reinstating a presence in the landscape and recovering a lost history’ (Sharp, Pollock and Paddison,
2005, p. 1006). Moreover, the imagery of the murals was informed by a process of ‘memory
collection’, which relied principally but not exclusively on older members of the Shandon community,
whilst younger members of the community actively participated in their creation and installation. This
provided another inter-generational aspect of the project that complemented its other citizenship
The stencilled images of the Big Wash Up murals encouraged viewers to imagine the detail
and to further animate the portraits in their own minds. This process led to some unexpected
outcomes, notably in the case of the large-scale images that were stencilled onto the four columns at
the entrance to the Butter Exchange building. Some viewers reported being unsettled by these images
the first time they saw them at night. This was because the area’s low lighting caused some people to
momentarily interpret the images as looming phantoms, surveying the streetscape and guarding the
entrance to the Butter Exchange. This outcome, though unanticipated, provided another talking point
in respect of the murals and offered another layer of understanding and shared knowledge amongst the
community. Like Lippard’s observations on photographs, the murals in this context can be understood
as ‘ghosts or shadows’ (1997, p. 56) concerned with ‘memory—or perhaps about the absence of
memory, providing pictures to fill voids, illustrating our collective memory. So they are an excellent
means with which to trigger concern and soothe anxieties about history and place’ (p20). However,
this practice is contingent on commitment to the idea of community, for without it there is always the
danger that the murals will simply be ‘shadow texts’ which are overly simplistic and promote
misconception and myth (Simon and Eppert, 1997, p. 184). Walter Benjamin is often noted for his
related observation that, ‘There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present
one…we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim,
that claim cannot be settled cheaply’ (1999, p. 245–246). Through Benjamin and Lippard we can thus
recognise that although cities are constant sites of change and that the contemporary is inevitably
overlaid onto the past, if the contemporary city and its citizens fail to pay sufficient and appropriate
tribute to its heritage, and ‘we ignore the concept of community, it will come back to haunt us’ (Chin
in Lippard, 1997, p. 94).
Notions of community can be first and foremost honoured by including the community in
decisions about the public art which is placed in and on it. Community-based and site-specific public
art requires a relationship between the artist, artistic institutions, the community and the local site
which is based on an understanding of the history of the area and the constituency of the art audience,
the social relevance of the project, and the input of multiple stakeholders who ‘end up collaborating
with the artist to produce the work’, thus the project ‘in the end will have engaged the site in a
multitude of ways and the documentation of the project will take on another life within the art world’s
publicity circuit’ (Kwon, 1997, p. 100–101). Indeed the project website is replete with images of
volunteers, young and old, cutting, creating, power-washing and posing by the murals (CCAL, Big
Wash Up, no date).
The Big Wash Up murals involved the initiation of social dialogue and the participation of a
community in depicting valued aspects of their culture. The project was intended to be temporary;
designed to last for only one summer before being removed. However, the life-span of the murals
turned out to be longer than originally intended and they were left in-situ for more than three years.
The Shandon murals were ultimately allowed to fade away instead of being consciously and
deliberately removed from public view. In this regard, the subtlety of their existence and eventual
disappearance was analogous to the memories—and, indeed, people—they represented. They were
ephemeral but vital, temporary but lasting, individual but common, negatives of the ghosts of
Shandon’s streets. They served their purpose by addressing an audience, reclaiming place and
reproducing culture before fading away. In this regard, the life-cycle of the murals may be understood
as reflective of their content and aspirations and their unique presence and departure may be seen as
another vital layer in the unfolding Shandon story.
The Big Wash Up can be also understood as a small part of an ongoing effort of community
artistic endeavour within Cork which continues to this day with continued high levels of community
and volunteer support. A recent expression of this community engagement in the production of
relevant and site-specific art can be seen in the Voices from Shandon project which involved more
than a thousand community volunteers and children designing and producing flags which were used
as part of a temporary public art installation on the iconic St Anne’s Church in June 2013. This
textile-based project allowed participants to ‘create their own visual voice through a creative
exploration of flag making, symbolism and community’ (CCAL, Voices from Shandon, no date).
These projects, alone and as a collective, are not exclusively concerned with the history of the place
but rather with its ‘historical narrative as it is written in the landscape or place by the people who live
or lived there’ (Lippard 1997, p. 7).
WASHED AWAY BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
Cities are sites and places of change. As Barnes (2005, no page) notes ‘the inhabitants, their lives and
their territorial markings are temporary [and] the city is being continually rewritten—like a
palimpsest—layer upon layer, never quite wiping the slate clean’. However, while the Big Wash Up
murals principally depicted everyday scenes and characters from the past, they also spoke clearly to
the present and a collective appreciation among the contemporary citizenry that Shandon’s history is
central to its present urban incarnation. The murals are an artistic expression of the human dimensions
of the city and the fragile and tenuous place and temporary space that individuals hold within it.
Further they are an expression of the city as ‘a layered location replete with human histories and
memories, place has width as well as depth. It is about connections, what surrounds it, what formed it,
what happened there, what will happen there’ (Lippard 1997, p. 7).
Emphasising the role that urban form can provide as a connection to the city and its citizens
present and past the murals both reflected and created memories. The murals created art in public
places and spaces that while not part of traditional art space within the city, could contribute to
fashioning a connection between people’s lives (past and present) and the urban spaces they inhabit.
In this way the murals functioned as an ‘enrichment of urban design through…familiarity and
memory in perceptions and experiences of the city’ (Mossop and Walton, 2001, p. 9). While the
murals may be seen by some as being perhaps trite or playing too much to the nostalgia of older
residents, this resurrection of the past could equally be understood as reflecting Lippard’s (2000, p.
164) rehabilitation of nostalgia as a ‘seamless and positive part of life’ in the city. Similarly the
murals can be understood as a ‘welcome reprieve in the flow of everyday urban life’ (Kwon 2002, p.
65) in which values like authenticity are reworked through site-specific community art to reinforce ‘a
coherent sense of historical and personal identity’ (Kwon, 1997, p. 104) and an ‘unearthing of
repressed histories…and the re(dis)covery of “minor” places so far ignored by the dominant culture’
(Kwon, 1997, p. 105).
Locally-driven site-specific arts projects can contribute to community empowerment as
planning, executing and enjoying such activities can counteract the exclusion of local residents from
local urban decision-making process and can strengthen community institutions and volunteer groups
(Bayliss, 2004, p. 502). The Big Wash Up provided participants with a licence to inscribe themselves
and their history on the walls of their local community and to make their mark on the urban landscape.
As a mural-filled space the walls both have memory and create memory, however, due to their
temporary nature the Big Wash Up murals escaped the fate of obliteration by simply fading away. In
many respects the murals can be understood as social history embedded in urban form and expressed
through public art, however, the temporary nature of the washed-wall murals remind us of the
temporary place that we too hold within the city.
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