Brian O'Doherty

Brian O'Doherty buries the identity of Patrick Ireland. (Photo: James Horan/Mac Innes Photography)

On May 20, after thirty-six years of presenting his art under the name Patrick Ireland, the Irish artist Brian O’Doherty reclaimed his birth name with the symbolic burial of his alter ego in the grounds of the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Here he discusses the project.

WHEN THE BRITISH SHOT down thirteen unarmed civil rights marchers in the city of Derry in January 1972, I was in New York. I thought, What the hell can I do? I decided that if I changed my name to Patrick Ireland and signed my works by that name alone, it would be a provocation, a statement. Every time I exhibited, it would give me an opportunity to tell people why I had taken the name. It was a gesture of solidarity with the nationalist side in the low-grade civil war that was then beginning in Northern Ireland. When young boys, especially young country boys from Ireland, went to work in Britain, they were called Paddies, which is half affectionate and half contemptuous. I decided to make it a name of dignity and substance.

The name was not universally cheered; the most vigorous criticism came from those in Ireland itself, charging me with presumptuousness. The endeavor was certainly an expatriate’s gesture. Nonetheless, in my Name Change performance in Dublin that year, I said I would sign my work by that name until the British military left Northern Ireland and all citizens were granted their civil rights. When that happened, it would mark the end of Patrick Ireland, the end of what could be called my political gesture of no great political sophistication. Not long after Name Change, Lee Krasner said to me, “You will never get your name back.” But with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, I began to hope I might reclaim my birth name. Now that the “evolution,” as they call it, has taken place, and both Sinn Fein and the IRA are represented in Parliament, I am astonished to be able to lay the name Patrick Ireland to rest.

The initial Name Change performance had a limited number of viewers, because all of them had to sign as witnesses. By contrast, the burial of Patrick Ireland was relatively open, insofar as the death mask created by artist Charlie Simmonds, encased in its own coffin, was exhibited in one of the museum’s galleries for two days next to documentation of the earlier performance. The coffin, carried by six young artists, was taken in a procession to a beautiful grave site overlooking a formal garden on the north side of the museum, where Michael Rush, director of the Rose Art Museum and a former minister, performed a brief secular ceremony. Five poems chosen or written specifically for the occasion were recited in their original languages—English, French, German, Spanish, Irish—and the artist Alannah O’Kelly performed the traditional keening, an Irish cry of grief. Her performance was nearly frightening, very primal. At that point, I tossed a spadeful of clay into the grave, unveiled the groundstone that will permanently mark the location, and tossed in the stocking mask I first wore in the 1972 performance. Joyous music broke forth, and we had a feast.

I’ll miss Patrick in some ways. I got very used to him. If you take the notion of naming seriously, as I do, a change like this sends a shudder through your core; subtle, perhaps attitudinal, but nonetheless visceral shifts take place. Nonetheless, I give up the name joyfully. I’m delighted that Brian O’Doherty is reborn after thirty-six years.