The White Lady Beckons

As you stroll along the streets of Dublin, enjoying the window displays during this holiday season, you might notice a reclining female figurine. Earlier this year, artist Kathryn Maguire worked with the young people of Sherriff Street to explore this particular Dublin phenomenon, and asked me to write a short piece about the Lady of the Rock and her psyche of place.

Karen E. Till

“There is no place that is not haunted by many different spirits hidden there in silence, spirits one can ‘invoke’ or not.”  — Michel de Certeau, Luce Giard, Pierre Mayo. (1998). The Ghosts of Place. In The Practice of Everyday Life Vol. 2.

Our legends and ghost stories about place help us understand the otherwise inanimate bricks and stones that line our streets; we feel a need to be haunted by the silent spirits that animate our material environments with our longings for the past and hopes for the future. In Kathryn Maguire’s ‘The Lady on the Rocks’ collaborative arts project for the 2014 Five Lamps Arts Festival, the sculptures created by twelve young people of Sheriff Street* invite us to walk the streets of Dublin in search of the elusive meanings of the White Lady. They encourage us to make new meanings and stories of our own. How might we begin? French cultural theorist Michel de Certeau suggests that our legends, memories and dreams might help us unravel the mythical and material qualities of the places we most cherish.

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White Lady, Kinsale, Co. Cork (top) and County Tyrone (bottom) [click to enlarge images]

Legends: Between Land and Sea

A White Lady is a female ghostly presence in the folklore and mythology of many cultures, sometimes appearing in rural places or besides roadways. In Ireland, she may be best known as the grieving bride who inhabits Dun Chathail, Charlesfort, a seventeenth-century defensive fortress located near the water in Kinsale where she lost her soldier husband on their wedding night. More recently she has appeared as an elderly woman in a remote part of County Tyrone in Northern Ireland, on Mullaghmoyle Road, near Coalisland, attracting many spirit hunters and paranormal experts jealous of the young people in the neighbourhood upon whom the White Lady has smiled. The White Lady is also a sentinel that haunts and protects our shorelines, such as the weathered, figure-shaped standing stone on farmland in Dunmore East, County Wicklow, located near a cliff between the small coves of Rathmoylan and Ballymacaw. As she looks out across the Irish Sea, we are left to wonder if she became a familiar figure for sailors wanting safe passage and for this reason was white-washed at some moment in the past; today she gives us her gift of inciting stories about her mysterious presence gliding between land and sea.

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White Lady, Ballymacaw, Co. Wicklow [click to enlarge image]

Memories: Urban Myth

Reclining discretely on numerous windowsills, Dublin’s White Lady on the Rock is at once visible and invisible, depending on whether the pedestrian looks up while walking along the city’s quays and streets. As both sentinel and siren, at once heroine and vagabond, her presence reminds us of our historic relationship with the docklands, the River Liffey and the Irish Sea. For locals from Sheriff Street to Cabra, she is said to embody the Virgin Mary, Maid Marian or Molly Malone; for others, her presence is assumed to indicate variously a brothel or a drug house. For still others, she is a beacon of hope, like a lit candle, for families who have a child in Mountjoy prison. Bloggers have suggested other reasons for her popularity: “the twinned statues in upstairs and downstairs windows [function] as a sign that the same person lives on both floors of the house, unlike in tenement times when floors and indeed individual rooms would be occupied by different families”; or: it “means that the mother of the family is single or widowed. It’s a maternal family.” Her mythic status has become a source of intense curiosity for journalists, guiding Totally Dublin’s Karl McDonald to map and document her presence in 2010, and Jessie Ward O’Sullivan to create an excellent short video about our attachments to her (winning a 2010 Darklight festival award for her efforts). You can also find stories about the White Lady on Facebook or catch a glimpse of her as a bauble on Christmas trees; a new tattooed version is the icon for the new White Lady Art Gallery on Wellington Quay, a venue inspired by her to curate the best of traditional and contemporary Dublin art and street culture. Warning: When you decide to buy a statue for your own window at the Dublin Mouldings on Parnell Street, don’t expect an explanation about her meaning: ‘She’s just the Lady on the Rock’.

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Karl McDonald’s 2012 White Lady Map (top); Lady on the Rock Facebook Page (bottom) [click to enlarge images]

Dreams: Decoding the White Lady

Or you can make your own Lady on the Rock. Young people have a gift of seeing the spectral White Lady, so it should come as no surprise that artist Kathryn Maguire would enlisted the help of Sheriff Street youth to help us ‘decode’ her elusive meanings as part of the Five Lamps Art Festival in 2014. What did these ten-year olds have to say about her? She represents: a “Strong Woman”, “a Goddess”, “Strength”, “Glamour”, “Hurt”; “she comes alive at night to watch over me when I sleep”; “she turns her head away in Shame”; she is “Beauty”, “Pretty”, “Naked”. These visionaries intuit what the White Lady means, yet they have also made a present for the public, creating new White Lady standing stones that were on display at the festival and DIT in March and April 2014. Their figures now stand in their own windows at home – as Stars, Hearts, Transformers, Eyes, and through exclamations such as ‘Wow’, ‘Fun’, and ‘LOL’ – and might inspire us to consider new ways of interpreting our city. Might these new White Ladies of Dublin beckon passersby to create other ghost stories and legendary meanings? How might we remember our city’s future differently with these new sentinels?

“Haunted places are the only ones people can live in.” — Michel de Certeau, Luce Giard, Pierre Mayo. (1998). The Ghosts of Place. In The Practice of Everyday Life Vol. 2.

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Five Lamps Arts Festival Sherriff Street ‘Lady on the Rocks’ Artists, March 2014. Photos courtesy of Kathryn Maguire.  [click to enlarge images]

* In March 2014, Kathryn Maguire led a series of sculpture workshops with young people aged 10 years from the Sheriff Street after-schools programme, ASESP. The TEEN PEER GROUP made the sculptures for the project, and the artists involved included: Blaine Darcy, Amber Hutch, Hollie Fleming, Megan Powell, Leah Costello, Clarice Darcy, Jade Murray, Ellie Fay, Jonathan Harris, Alex McCarthy, Fayth Byrne, Jade Fay. Some of them are featured in the attached pictures. Images courtesy of Kathryn Maguire.

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