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Mayo Arts Service

In With The Old / Out With The New (2022) by John Conway

In With The Old / Out With The New is an incantation. Out With The New is a Bealtaine-esque invocation of newness, inviting change, growth, and renewal. In with the Old invokes a space to value and re-engage with culture and heritage rooted in naturism. The work draws on a well-worn expression and seeks to challenge conventional wisdom - it invites us to consider how we positively embrace a modern, post-church Ireland: new attitudes to equality, cultural diversity, sexualities, and bodily autonomy while reconnecting with folkloric and seasonal belief systems originally rooted in worship of fertility and the divine feminine. It hints at an idealised space where harm wrought by the church-state is circumvented, connecting the celebrations and wonder of fertility and seasonal cycles with science, humanism and secular morality.

Below are two texts in response to John Conway's work.  

Clodagh Doyle Keeper of the Irish Folklife Collection writes In With The Old. Clodagh is the Keeper of the Irish Folklife Collection. She has a degree in Irish Folklore and Archaeology and her MA thesis is on the subject of Traditional Hearth Furniture. Clodagh is the museum's longest serving curator.

Claire Brophy writes Out With The New. Claire is an activist, academic and writer. She was a founding member and former co-convener of the Abortion Rights Campaign, a core organiser of the Strike for Repeal, and worked on Mobilisation as part of Together for Yes.

Produced and Curated by Culture Works. Commissioned by Mayo County Council Arts Service, The National Museum of Ireland - Country Life, The Linenhall Arts Centre and Mayo Artsquad. Funded by the Arts Council through the Faoin Spéir/In the Open 2021 - 2022


In With The Old/Out With The New reverses a traditional saying which infers that we disregard the old and embrace the new in a cycle of consumption and obsolescence.

Like our grandparents whose lives relied on the land and their immediate environment, we now seek to connect more with nature and the seasons. After the winter solstice, we look for extra daylight, for the ‘grand stretch in the evenings. After darkness, there is light. The Celtic year started on 1 November and they then welcomed the bright half of the year starting on 1 May, Bealtaine, Bealtaine means ‘bright fire’ - bonfires are a defiance of the darkness and their flames, ashes and embers were associated with protection.

The welcoming of the summer was traditionally associated with bonfires, flowers (especially bright yellow ones and blue ones), decorated bushes, dancing and processions of May queens (the female embodiment of the summer). Goodwill to neighbours was expressed by leaving flowers on doorsteps on May Eve. There was a sharing of the light, warmth and the joy of the growth in nature. This ensured the growth of crops and lush grass for cows. The cow was so important to families for milk, with dairy production intensifying in the summer months and giving a richer milk based on the ripe environment.

The eve of the first day of each season was associated with flux, the closeness of supernatural forces and times were magic was deemed to be particularly effective and a person’s future foretold. The belief in the movement of the fairies from their winter to their summer homes created a need for people to avoid them and protect the home, the family, the farm and the animals - especially the cows.

The ornate May bushes beside homes and in the centre of towns, offered protection to the occupants. Protection of the home, especially the doorways and thresholds with sweet smelling flowers, ensured malevolence could not enter. Wishing evil on others was especially prevalent at May time. Families protected their well with strewn flowers, their family fire, their cows (red ribbons and rowan tied to their tails) and all aspects of the churn and dairying. Very little was taken out of the home or farm at Bealtaine, and people concealed what they could from the malign glance of those with the evil eye.

Christianity has always embedded the pagan festivals and rituals into their calendar. May became the month of veneration to the Virgin Mary and many May altars are the remembrances of so many of our childhoods. The flame of the candle, the fresh flowers each day and the community processions. She takes on so many of the Celtic traditions – ‘Queen of the angels and Queen of the May’. 1954 was designated by the Vatican as a Marian year and that year statues, grottoes, roadside shrine and altars were erected and freshly painted and adorned each year for May ceremonies.

If we want to look to the old ways, we look to protecting our family, our community, to welcoming the summer and new communities to Ireland, respecting the diversity of our nation. We need to embrace light, life and to care for Mother Nature in her time of need.

Clodagh Doyle

Keeper of the Irish Folklife Collection

National Museum of Ireland

For more on May traditions see Folklife Collections 


Out With The New asks us to turn what we know about progress inside out. It draws us into a

circular thought: what is old that we should revive, protect, celebrate and bring with us, and what is new that we can look squarely at, interrogate, and slough off? The circular motion of this thought resonates with the circular rhythm of the seasons, tapping into our shared inherent knowledge that the only true constant is change.

The Old gives us a chance to peer into romantic, collective ways of relating, to tell each other stories about another time when people celebrated and mourned the absoluteness of time passing. And why can’t it be new? What would it look like if we reach back and bring those traditions with us, and move with determination, with deliberation, into a new phase: if we encounter these thresholds of passing time together?

On the eve of Bealtaine, let’s linger on the brink of May: look at the celebration of the workers and of our own sacred feminine. Take your May Queen, Ēostre, your blessed Virgin Mary, Gaia and Maia, Amaterasu and Tsukuyomi, and Zorya, invoke your grandmothers’ grandmothers and the potential feminine energy that will outlast us all, and relish the chance to pass through a temporal doorway into the warm, bright time of year. We are so lucky to be here, together.

Within the knowledge that with autumn comes death and with spring rebirth, we live each day and each night, passing light to dark to light knowing these many small darknesses are only shadows - necessary for rest, for rebirth, for drawing in, for breaking through, for ordinary and intimate primal moments of conception, birth and death.

The artist’s words beam into the darkness like a beacon, alternating cycles every 30 seconds - the still water that separates us is not impossible to pass although it might feel that way at first. Here and now we are given a name for the everyday magic of our lives, reconciling an urge to burst (or tentatively wade) out of lockdown - a once-in-a-lifetime communal experience of isolation, atomisation and loss.

Neon gas, like many people, appears stable and invisible in its normal state, but lights up when charged with energy. Neon, like many people, asserts its presence and glows bright when it is connected to a flow. Neon’s value, like many people’s, was initially doubted because it was equated with its usefulness. Neon, like people, is important because it generates light, warmth, and beauty.

Perched at the end of the seventeenth week, into the second trimester of the year, now we swing, hanging low and easy, heavy and rich like the hour hand on the clock. Like neon atoms, we radiate in great numbers, fully engaged with the circuit, the beat, the revolution. We are into it now - there is heat in the sun, and light stretching grandly before us.

Claire Brophy

Activist, academic & writer


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