Day of the Straws is a work by the artist Marie Brett, created in collaboration with the writer Katie Holly, the designer Lucia Pola and the producer Kate O’Shea. It emerged from dialogue between Brett and curator Kath Gorman, and evolved with input from curator Miguel Amado.
The work was commissioned, and has been publicly presented, by Cork Midsummer Festival in partnership with SIRIUS, Cobh, County Cork, in 2020. Brett borrowed the title from a social ritual associated with illness, fear and faith that took place in Ireland between 9 and 15 June 1832, during the second cholera pandemic. A vision of the Virgin Mary in the church of Charleville, County Cork, spurred residents to deliver protective charms – ash, turf, stones and straws – to four houses, and from each of those to another four, in a movement that spread across the island.
Fast forward to 2020 and add mass panic, conspiracy theories, fake news and quack cures; the parallels between that phenomenon from the nineteenth century and today’s events surrounding the outbreak of the novel coronavirus are unnerving. The raw materials for the work came from conversations with around seventy-five community participants – historians, healers, spiritualists, storytellers, Elders, druids, singers and other interested people – during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in Ireland in the spring of 2020. The group was assembled originally by word of mouth, then by email, and contacted through phone calls and technologies such as Zoom.
Brett and her collaborators gathered personal stories and ideas, which they then combined with information gleaned from the mass media and transformed into myriad creative outputs.
In forming this digital community of interest, Brett was able to chart the ‘landscape’ of Ireland’s COVID-19 pandemic through the lens of lived experience. She established coordinates by which to navigate both the Irish population’s terrors and their related matrix of ‘hope and cope’ that relies on science and mysticism in equal measure. Day of the Straws takes the form of an online platform – a virtual ‘cyber vault’ of original, contributed and found moving images, writings, spoken word and music.
Evocative songs and soaring vocals as well as otherworldly apparitions and strawing traditions – these are just a few of its manifold manifestations. Brett has distributed these elements into eight sections, situated somewhere between the ordinary realm of the everyday and a more magical level of expression. They operate as distinct zones, each dedicated to a theme, for example soothsaying or self-care. They are interactive, connected via multiple links.
Old customs and habits, crafts, modes of making and notions of the sensible surrounding questions of health surfaced vigorously with the appearance of the novel coronavirus in Ireland. While themes and practices of cultural lore have always been part of the Irish collective unconscious, they have become a decisive element of the current experience of living. Day of the Straws explores this cultural lore associated with the COVID-19 pandemic through references to the supernatural and the politics of care. The work is a response to a collective need to build a sense of belief and resilience in the face of a complex crisis that has been both medical and existential, physical and emotional.