There are only a few moments in history when an idea is so important that it changes our knowledge of the universe and yet it can be traced back to an exact time and place. Hamilton’s Quaternions is one such idea. Thanks to a small piece of graffiti by Sir William Rowan Hamilton on Broom Bridge on October 16, 1843, mankind has been able to fly to the moon and look back across the void and marvel at that tiny blue oval that contains every human being that ever existed or ever will. Hamilton was also a romantic, a poet and a drinker, in short, a regular Irish hero. As well as space travel, he also made possible computer graphics and animation. No minions or Lara Croft would exist without Hamilton.
Dr Fiacre O Cairbre of Maynooth University understands the value of this. That’s why he organises the annual Hamilton Walk from Dunsink Observatory to Broom Bridge, retracing Hamilton’s steps every year for more than 20 years. The walk commemorates a great moment in history for Cabra, maths and humanity.
Three weeks ago I rang the artist Jane Groves to see if she would be interested to work on a mural with local Cabra people about Hamilton the mathematician. An hour later, when I finally got off the phone, I knew that she was hooked.
‘Either she’s a talker or I’m a talker,’ I thought.
In fairness, there’s something compelling about Hamilton’s story that would excite any artist.
I met Jane in person for the first time in Mc Donald’s in Cabra. She promised not to judge me for meeting her in a Mc Donald’s and I promised not to tell anyone she ate a Big Mac Meal. We both lied.
Our first school was the Holy Family School for the Deaf. The children immediately took all eight 4 x 8ft plywood boards out of the van and marched them down the corridors to the woodwork room. A few familiar faces along the corridor recognised me from the drumming workshop in Collins Barracks and high fived me. Hannah from Dublin’s Culture Connects completed our team. Where Jane’s English accent adds in ‘r’s where there are none, as in ‘drawring,’ Hannah’s ignaws all aws completely. They connected immediately.
‘You complete me Jane!’
Hannah schooled me in how to get feedback forms and image releases done, a vital part of the job. She was also a natural with the teenagers.
More children and teenagers joined in. Teachers joined in. Extra teachers came in to see what was going on. We were introduced like celebrities in the staff room. We knew we’d never have it so good again so we savoured the moment and then invited ourselves back in a week’s time to cut the finished panels down to size with the help of Tom, the woodwork teacher.
Next stop, Broombridge Educate Together. We set up the room while we waited for our 5 and 6 year old participants to finish their morning yoga. I used Fiacre and Dómhnal Ó Bric’s clever cartoon of Lara Croft and an astronaut at Broom Bridge to explain Hamilton’s discovery in as much as a graduate of Leaving Cert pass maths can explain Quaternions to 5 year olds. Then I tried to go back to work on my computer while Jane explained the chaos theory and the importance of butterflies.
It wasn’t long before one of the special needs assistants volunteered me to help her charge draw around butterfly stencils.
‘He sometimes gets sick of me doing everything for him and wants someone else to work with.’
Against the odds, I seemed to be an acceptable candidate for the job.
I began to have my doubts on the honesty of Jane’s unassailable positivity as she praised every blob the children smeared on our white 8 x 4 panel. Only later I understood how the raw openness and creativity of our 5 and 6 year-old participants really spoke to Jane’s sense of what art is about and what school should be about.
Hannah had clearly either found her natural level with the 5 and 6 year olds, either that or had tonnes of experience working with this age group. It turned out her mother teaches that age group in Kerry!
When Hannah and I called in to the Cabra Sketchers, they had almost finished their 8’ x 6’ depiction of Hamilton and the bridge. This is an older people’s group that meets every Tuesday under the caring eyes of Eddie (72). Having found that another art class was too demanding for many of the participants, a couple of years ago, Eddie volunteered to run his own weekly afternoon, where the tasks would be easier and judgement non existent. The class is always well attended with 10-12 participants and equal emphasis placed on the social and artistic aspects.
Eddie had already even created a portrait of Hamilton on canvas to be attached to the mural. They added their names and other graffiti to the bridge and even thought of sticking a few cans to the mural to bring it up to date. If you’re ever looking for an oral history of Cabra, this is a group can deliver it all day and there’d be few better ways to spend a day.
With Hannah deployed at Zeminar, Jane had to experience a man’s world at St Declan’s College without her female buddy. For me, the testosterone-filled boys school environment was a familiar, almost nostalgic one. For Jane it was initially an almost intimidating step back to a strange Ireland of decades past, not the Ireland that had seduced her 10 years ago. However, within minutes, the lads in transition year had easily won her over with their high levels of creativity and cooperation and even stayed on well over time to produce some really outstanding work.
In Gaelscoil Bharra Jane had the opportunity to dazzle 4th and 5th class with her Irish language skills; ‘cáca milis’ and ‘gorilla mulligan’ (more or less Irish for ‘cake’ and ‘thank you’). They even found it charming when she called the teachers ‘mentos’ instead of ‘muinteoir.’ We were left in no doubt that this school contains some of the brains of Cabra. One 10 year old casually explained the chaos theory to us in a sentence;
“it’s when a single flap of a butterfly’s wing can cause a hurricane at the other side of the world”
Phil in Cabra for Youth is something of an enlightened being. 11 years into youth work and he says he has still never once looked at his watch and wondered when was work going to be over. Six teenage girls were totally at ease in his company and got straight to work on their section of the mural. He was clearly invested in their participation and progress, deftly parrying their constant teenage attempts at the sexualisation of every situation;
‘That’s a lovely rocket you’ve drawn. It shouldn’t really have hairs on it though, should it?’
Their investment in the project mirrored his and we ended up spending two hours with them instead of one, with great results to show for our time at the end.
Back to the Holy Family School for the Deaf to cut the panels down and we were back with our people again, high fives all round this time.
Even Temocco the basset hound got in on the excitement of viewing the near completed panels from the other schools and community groups.
On Saturday, as we went to erect the mural to try it out and add the finishing touches, John Canning, one of the art teachers from the Holy Family School for the Deaf arrived with his three children to help.
Before long, Mark the carpenter was helping with the painting too and with his side-kick Alphie, was helping explain the amazing Hamilton story to passers by. More than once someone stopped to tell us it wasn’t safe for us to be there, as it was a site of anti-social behaviour, but usually they left with a nugget of local history and a positive story to tell about the area.
Antony, who was power hosing the graffiti off the bridge let us bring our vans in and came back again later with the keys to let us out.
Liam from the Cabra Community Council and one of the elders of the area and the man who first told me about Broom Bridge came down to see the mural in action and I explained how it was all his fault.
‘This is Brian Fleming, one of the best artists in Ireland’ he explained to a passerby. I couldn’t quite agree with my job description or ranking, but who was I to question the de facto mayor of Cabra?
So, October 16 2017 is the day the mural was going to be hung but now it can’t because of a hurricane, Ophelia. Somehow, I’m not disappointed. We’ll put it up another day. In some ways, after an intense week of creativity in Cabra, with 6 groups and 130 people, it feels as though the hurricane has already passed. Next year is the 175th anniversary of Hamilton’s discovery. We’ll be back!
The Broom Bridge Mural will be assembled on Wednesday, October 18th from 9am to 1.30pm and will be visited at 11.30am by some of the 130 people, who took part in its making, over one week in Cabra. This project is just one of many that will be taking place across Dublin in the next few months as part of The National Neighbourhood. Brian Fleming is Project Manager for the North West area of The National Neighbourhood, spanning the Dublin City Council region, and brings together the Public Libraries, the area offices, the City Arts Office and Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, in partnership with National Cultural Institutions, connecting Dubliners in significant ways on projects that are relevant to their expressed concerns. Each project has evolved from a series of conversations and are harnessing the appetites of particular groups for cultural engagement.0