THE HELLFIRE CLUB
Stephen Brandes / Diana Copperwhite / Tom Fitzgerald
Sean Lynch / Louise Manifold / Curated by Michele Horrigan
16 March - 25 October 2012 in various locations throughout Askeaton.
Askeaton Contemporary Arts commissioned a selection of prominent Irish artists to produce new artworks based around the town’s Hellfire Club legacy.
Upon an island in the middle of Askeaton, the remains of a Hellfire Club can be seen. Set up in the mid 1700s by the Duke of Wharton throughout the UK and Ireland, most Hellfire Clubs were soon outlawed and shut down. However, the Askeaton club, founded in 1740 and the most westerly branch of the organisation, probably stayed in existence until the end of the century and received visitors from near and far. Known as a satirical gentleman’s club, those who met there considered it as a way of shocking the outside world. The supposed president was the Devil, although the members themselves did not apparently worship demons or the Devil, but called themselves devils. Ceremonial feasts took place, all washed down with alcoholic punch. While lurid tales are often recounted in local folklore of other outrageous rituals enacted, very little remaining information or evidence exists of the activities of the Askeaton Hellfire.
Today, the club building is inaccessible to the public, as the OPW currently tries to stabilise the building from continued collapse since its abandonment in the 1800s. Around this site of physical decay, featured artists have considered the Hellfire history, its non-conformist allusions to the society of the 1700s, and its material presence as a crumbling ruin in the middle of a small Irish countryside town. A downloadable exhibition catalogue is freely available on our publications page.
The House of Earthly Delights
Forty-eight prints, complete with silver leaf, were exhibited in Askeaton library. Echoing the presentation of illuminated manuscripts, a different drawing and its allegorical content is displayed each day, as librarian Maria Sheehan alternates each page inside a specially constructed display case.
Fitzgerald appropriated two paintings to produce the series; sections of James Worsdale’s 1740 portrait of the Askeaton Hellfire members are juxtaposed with details from The Garden of Earthly Delights (c1490-1510) by Hieronymus Bosch. Both artworks might be considered as either moral warnings or a panorama of paradise lost. Fitzgerald, by forensically focusing on and framing specific details, moves beyond these generic propositions and surprising formal intricacies begin to emerge: the curtain drapes, the fleeting glance, a swim at night, a gentle stroke on a chin. His erotic derangement turns all of us into voyeurs, around an intoxicating air of potential liberty.
A Man Of Pleasure
Working closely with historians Aisling Tierney and David Ryan, Manifold identified several documents detailing the activities of Hellfire clubs in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One discovery, an evangelical magazine of 1811, contained an obituary of Captain Perry, a carousing individual and likely member of a Hellfire Club. He suffered the perils of excessive living and radical thinking, an early death and a desperate fight for repentance. Ryan (author of 2012's Blasphemers & Blackguards: The Irish Hellfire Clubs) considers the article to be written from a moralistic standpoint, acting as a warning to readers of the dangers of being involved in such circles. The article became a point of departure for Manifold to produce a mise-en-scène - an aftermath of a local Hellfire meeting. Using a scripted voiceover, shot in Cagney’s Bar with members of the local drama group and employing special effects to feature the River Deel, A Man of Pleasure (HD video, 4 minutes 15 seconds) acts as a speculative representation of morality and decadence, given the scant evidence of what might have occurred at the Askeaton Hellfire.
Diana Copperwhite’s sculpture is sited beside the Hellfire ruin. It features polished stainless steel shapes that formally evoke the profiles of James Worsdale’s 1740 group portrait of the Askeaton Hellfire Club. Copperwhite transposes the outlines of each figure of the group, back to the club’s location, as a reflective, shimmering ghost seen from the town’s bridge. Its’ precise position, in the workyard of the Office of Public Works, is where an active conservation programme continues daily. Here, stones are moved around, lime mortar is mixed and used to reinforce or rebuild walls around the island complex. A sculpture placed at such a site might initially seem like a nuance, but further investigation points to a function similar to the workmen’s presence: both are subtle engagements with the fragmented material histories onsite.
The Hellfire Club. Askeaton - A History Continued
Sited in a yard at the rear of the local tourist office, Brandes’ work formally refers to the didactic presence of heritage plaques seen throughout Askeaton. Along with the Hellfire Club, the town features the ruins of a Castle, Abbey, Banqueting Hall and Knights’ Templar Tower, all built between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries and all featuring contemporary explanatory signage. Rather than describing past events, Brandes’ text instead speculates a future for the Hellfire Club in the 23rd century, involving unregulated planning and a revivalist architectural makeover at the site, the Swiss Government, imports from the Ukraine, and giant slugs. When reading this ramshackle vision of the future, the Hellfire building itself remains in view as a site of unexplained mystery and foreboding curiosity.
A Latin slogan appears as a relief sculpture upon a gable end in the East Square, Askeaton’s most prominent meeting place. While seemingly appearing as an eloquent use of language, discovery of its translation quickly deflates any sense of grandeur. The text, Ecce Signum, is translated as Behold, The Sign.
A sign about a sign? The bibliography on Hellfire Clubs sometimes reports the use of obscure classical phrases and language by its members. Daniel P Mannix, in The Hellfire Club (London, 1978) writes of a “macaroni Latin,” “macaroni being the slang name for an elegant young gentleman (“Yankee Doodle stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni”). Macaroni Latin was a sort of bastard language in which Latin words were twisted to make puns in English or combined in such a way as to create a ridiculous effect.” In this manner, Lynch’s work might well be a linguistic reaction to the relatively recent dominance of Latin in the Catholic Mass, the mainstay of a small rural community in Ireland. Perhaps it acts as a disruption to other signage on Askeaton’s streetscape. Alternatively, it might simply be a glossolalia: a method of speaking in tongues, lacking any comprehension of meaning.