Book Of Evidence

Book Of Evidence

I Swear By Almighty God

I Swear By Almighty God

Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (M.A.D.D.)


Synnott V The State by Seven Judges

S.V.S By 7 Judges

Rights Of Woman Under Brehon Law

Rights Of Woman Under Brehon Law

Ansbacher Bank

Ansbacher Bank

Judicial Suite opening speech by Niamh O'Sullivan - Wicklow, August 2002
See Gallery

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen - and there's children here as well, lovely to see them all - you are all very welcome to the Tinahely Courthouse Arts Centre for the opening of Sally Smyth's work - The Judicial Suite. It's lovely to see so many of you here today.

It is a very great honour indeed for me to have been asked by Sally to open her exhibition today, and one I really hope I have deserved! I first met Sally four years ago in Jail... and we were locked up together for an entire year, which was a wonderful and enriching experience for me. Sally was the artist-in-residence in Kilmainham Jail (where I have worked now for 20 years), and she produced over 35 breathtaking pieces in her Kilmainham Suite. I do not profess to be any expert on art or painting, but Sally shared her work with me week by week until I gained some understanding of the entire process from the beginning to the end - and it was such a generous move on Sally's part to let somebody into her studio (as she said) before everything was ready. I got an understanding of how you conceive your idea right through to how that idea looks when it is finally framed, from the point of view of both the materials used and the appearance of the image or idea.

What I noticed about Sally was her unique method of working - which impressed me greatly - when I first encountered it in Kilmainham Jail. She took nothing with her for the first weeks - no paints, no brushes, no paper, no charcoal - nothing - just herself, and she wandered around the entire prison building, anywhere you might be you'd find Sally by herself just wandering. She followed this by three weeks sitting in the archives looking through the letters and diaries and autograph books and all the old newspapers that spanned Kilmainham's history. Then, when she had absorbed what Kilmainham Jail is, when she had approached the essence of the experience of Kilmainham, and not till then, did Sally actually begin to work and put all her work onto paper. This method of approach shone through her Kilmainham Suite, adding to its variety and richness, and Sally has used the same method of approach again in this body of work on view for you here today.

I was delighted to return to my old world of The Four Courts (I practiced law for five years... it was very, very interesting but Kilmainham always called) when Sally and I went to The Four Courts earlier this year, and I showed her all the old haunts, the courts, corridors, offices, the canteen where the civil and criminal clients, and the solicitors and barristers all mix. But there were two incidents which Sally and I experienced which gave a very good example of both the grandeur and the misery of Irish law. And the misery was... we had to call into the ladies, Sally and I. I don't know if any of you have ever been to the Four Courts in Dublin; there is fluorescent lighting, strip lighting, bright, bright purple lights, and this was only recently installed, so that poor junkies when they are about to face their time in court can't find veins because the lighting stops you from finding a vein... that was the misery of the experience. The grandeur was, we were up just a small flight of stairs, just in front of the round hall there in that majestic forecourts building and one of the high court judges was on his way to his court. He had the wig and the gown, all the paraphernalia and in front of him was his tipstaff. I don't want to criticise too much but it was 2001, and the tipstaff had this big stick and he was just clearing the way so that the judge could part the crowds and get into his court room and start the day's work. And I think both of those incidents, I think I have seen them in Sally's work. If you know what to look for you can really see how she absorbed all this I watched her - she was taking everything in, soaking it in - and I knew that Irish Law was safe in Sally Smyth's hands. And I think she has proven me correct just looking around here today at this magnificent body of work.

This remarkable artist has therefore shared both of my worlds - the legal world and the world of Kilmainham Jail, and she has managed to show them to me in a completely different, yet age old, light. Sally has mastered the eternal conflict between what you say and the way you say it - or what you paint and the way that you paint it. And yet the style is unmistakeably Sally Smyth, you would recognise it anywhere. And I think that was a joy for me because I always wondered, Sally, when I saw your next body would I be able to say "yes" and definitely yes this is Sally Smyth. The depth of feeling in the Judicial Suite is both powerful and stunning. I have been there - when a case you are involved in hurts so much you wish you never had to leave the courtroom, you wish you could hide there amidst all the grandeur and never emerge to have to deal with that case or the outside world again. I saw people, families of accuseds, and their whole body shaking in terror, I've seen young women unrecognisable, their faces distorted with crying - tears of remorse and raw fright. People who were so petrified they appeared as stone statutes. And I used to sit there in my wig and my gown in old Court 14 and when you had time to look around the walls I really thought that they were literally made of elastic, to be able to contain and absorb the pain, terror, fear and agony of the lives of the people who were paraded through it.

Sally's paintings have captured all these emotions, I think with Sally's work the paintings seep into your soul and you feel them - you don't need to undergo a scientific analysis of the textures of the work, or the strokes of the brush or the level of the colour - they go instead straight into your senses. Sally's work touches you right at the core. They are visually beautiful as well, so if you don't care about the law and you have no time for the legal system you can still enjoy every one of these wonderful pieces There is only one technicality I would love to stress, and Sally and I have always had this, it's a new word I only finally understood when it was applied to Sally. She was described as a colourist when she came to work in Kilmainham- and I don't think anybody here needs a dictionary to grasp this concept - just looking around at any of these paintings, it just jumps to life the colour that she uses.

I want to mention just a few in particular, I'd love to mention them all. Now, some of them are controversial, in a concealed manner, and some of them are readily identifiable.

One which is just completely stunning is Convicted. This painting hurls the terror of an accused person right at you. Whatever disgust or contempt you may feel for the crime or indeed the criminal themselves - there is no denying that he or she is a human being filled with apprehension and terror when faced with the full force of the law, when you have studied Convicted by Sally Smyth. It has quite literally grasped the essence of old Court 14.

The Book of Evidence. Even when you criticise I still think that the law is so vitally important - it is all we have, highly imperfect though it might often be. But the majesty of the rules, of the scales that try to be just although they often fail, challenged both from within and without, is simply vital. In a criminal case The Book of Evidence is the case - as a barrister you take that book and that's what you have to work with; are you going to convict or acquit... on that Book of Evidence everything stands or falls - and Sally has captured the solemnity of this exactly in her Book of Evidence.

There's another one which I really have to mention, it's a painting called I Swear by Almighty God. That's perfect; just looking at this old courthouse how many people held that in shaking hand hoping that they'd be able to tell their story properly right here in front of the judge and the jury. I love that one as well, I Swear by Almighty God...

Now, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, (M.A.D.D.) again I think it's one of my favourites; This is in itself an independently beautiful image. You could just take that and hang it up anywhere... it's gorgeous.... However at the centre you could see a deep drop of red blood - the pain of the case on all sides. Was it fair? To both sides? To the Constitution? And personally, as a lawyer I believe it fought for what is ultimately the very best in Irish Law, it only just won. But it did win.

The next one is Synnott V The State by Seven Judges. Again this is a powerful one, this is the civil side of the law and I don't think anyone could fail to empathise with Mrs. Synnott, a mother fighting hard to obtain equal rights for her beloved child. And yet Sally has gone even further, she is reaching through to the terror that that mother must have felt - taking on the entire state, the Judiciary and all the politicians. You see those courtrooms can appear so overpowering, so intimidating - an immense inner source of courage is needed to face into what happens in them, even if it's a civil case and not criminal.

The Rights of Woman Under the Brehon Laws. I love it... just looking at it here today (I had seen a photograph)... it's stunning. Let's just say Sally Smyth can never forget our past, and the treasures buried in it. And certainly not with her parents... May Gibney, one of my favourite Kilmainham prisoners. In 1923 May was a political prisoner in Kilmainham Jail instead of a housewife. And I think May would have loved this one too Sally...

Now, Ansbacher - I just love it. I don't think we need any explanation Ladies and gentlemen it's wonderful!! A very necessary injection of humour, with a biting comment thrown in. I think the gold leaf speaks volumes.

This body of work is thought provoking, intelligent, extremely wide-ranging, and in a gentle sense, I feel very, very much filled with love. The woman who could step into our complex legal world of today, and choose just these subjects, loves people in all their failings and in all their glory. I think, ultimately, Sally Smyth is an optimist. and Irish Law looks very good as reflected in The Judicial Suite again with all its glory and all its failings. Sally Smyth has given me the gift of my old world back with this forceful Collection of paintings and I hope you will all enjoy immersing yourself in her work. There is one last one to mention Ladies and Gentlemen, it's in behind; please go in behind, and it's actually an installation and it's called Messrs Fibre, Fibre and Fibre, Solicitors; and beware everyone you're right in the office for a consultation, there's no smoking. Thank you very, very much!

Niamh O'Sullivan is a barrister and Archivist at Kilmainham Jail, Dublin.

John Harbison's opening speech at The Law Library, February 2003

Judicial Suite gallery