In Dublin's Killing Fields - The Irish Times

Brian Maguire, one of Ireland's most celebrated artists, is pacing through a field where up to 20 people have taken their own lives or had their lives taken from them. It’s a bright Sunday morning Finglas where shrines of commemorative photos, mementos and murals glimmer in the light.

Three generations have played in this field, Maguire explains, but it has become a place of death ignored by wider society.

A short drive away is Scribblestown Lane, a narrow, bleak strip of rubbish, tyres and trees that’s colloquially known as “gangsters’ graveyard” for the number of bodies discovered here.

“I get the same feeling here as I do in Juárez [a Mexican city known as one of the world’s most violent areas],” Maguire says in a low growl. “For a start, we are entering a place where nobody goes apart from those who live there.”

For the last three decades, Maguire’s paintings have exhibited across Europe, Asia and the Americas. He focuses on figures marginalised by society or trapped for reasons beyond their control (the homeless, prisoners, mental health patients) and attempts to counteract the process of erasure they seem destined for through a gesture of recognition.

It was while in Juárez, painting portraits of female factory workers whose murders were largely ignored, that Maguire saw an invitation to participate in Dublin Contemporary as an opportunity to highlight a similar situation at home.

“When a young person from the south side dies violently, it’s a major event in the life of Dublin, as it should be. When a young person dies in Finglas, it’s invisible.”

Though Maguire argues that the latter losses cause pain and deserve empathy like any other, they are difficult for him to speak about.

Names cannot be named, sides cannot be taken, lines cannot be crossed. The victims of organised crime feuds in west Dublin is a delicate subject – one where even the question of innocent bystanders becomes clouded with assumptions and judgements.

“You don’t know whether or not someone is guilty of anything unless they’re charged and convicted. You don’t have the full story and cannot assume things of people’s relatives. Are you guilty of what your brother or sister does because you’re in the same family? And even if they have committed crimes, do they deserve to be shot down in the street? I don’t think so.”

Maguire began the project by visiting the sites where young men died. Through contacts he garnered from teaching art in prisons, he spoke to families of the deceased who agreed to participate and developed a sense of their children before committing their memories to canvas.

“In getting to the pain, you go through the story but it’s a private story. It’s not for publication. It means something to me and in the end, I make a subjective thing: my own picture... It's better to do it this way than leave it to the tabloids.”

Maguire utilises portraiture’s traditional role of bestowing importance to redress an imbalance of power, to highlight double-standards and to provide a voice for those who have been silenced. 

As the 60-year-old says himself, his paintings are not for decoration. Rather, the insights they yield confront preconceptions; sometimes subtly, sometimes provocatively.

Hanging on the wall of his studio in the hills above Sandyford is a freshly painted portrait of a boy, drops of red dripping from the bottom of the canvas. There’s an adolescent energy in his eyes – the
kind of glance anyone will recognise from typical family photos. Somewhere along the line, Maguire says, that ordinariness has been taken away violently and discarded.

Sitting in loose denim overalls daubed with paint, a border collie collapsed at his feet, Maguire takes in the portraits along the wall.

“No mother rears their child for this,” he says. “There’s no peace process for these people. When you look for an official response, you find almost nothing.”

Is it any wonder, he asks, that without a stake in society, education or the jobs market, these figures met the same fates as any similar group of young people in urban societies around the world.

Given that they never attended university, Maguire has chosen to arrange their portraits (collectively titled Seed Corn Is Not For Harvesting) in a former UCD classroom at Earlsfort Terrace, a blackboard on one side, a portrait of Scribblestown Lane on the other.

Maguire is hopeful of creating a social programme in one of the affected areas in conjunction with the exhibition.

“What’s the worst thing you’ve done?” he asks. “If you had to wear that on your forehead, how would it affect your life? Think about it. What possibilities would you have? Because that’s what we do to these people. We mark them.” He pauses. “I’m not saying people don’t do terrible things. I’m saying there’s more to it than that.”