The Volunteers

Joe Caslin, 2017

The Volunteers is a powerful new collaborative multimedia piece of public art and film, the first of a three-part series highlighting the importance of volunteerism in tackling some of Ireland’s most pressing issues: drug addiction, mental health, and direct provision. The project reflects upon Ireland’s century of progress, and asks us what battles we must fight in the present to remake the country for the better.

Caslin, known for his large-scale black and white drawings, has chosen to focus this piece and it’s accompanying short film on the theme of decriminalising drug addiction. ‘The Controlled Drugs and Harm Reduction Bill’ is currently before the Houses of the Oireachtas. Both the Bill and this piece attempt to humanise the complex narratives around drug addiction, placing treatment as a health issue and not an offence to be punished within the criminal justice system.

This piece of cultural commentary features Rachael Keogh, an advocate in recovery from heroin addiction, Senator Lynn Ruane, author of the legislation, and Fiona O’Reilly, Managing Director of SafetyNet, a primary care service to people who are homeless. The male figure represents the doctor, a role which is frequently secondary in drug abuse intervention due to failed government policy and the mischaracterisation of drug addiction.

The Volunteers is about the preciousness of life, and the ways we betray it, as well as the ways that we honour it with our time, passion, and attention. Drawing from the example of the 1916 Volunteers, who made their lives offerings for a new world, this piece looks at those who offer themselves to transform their country in a different way, today.

We will let no life be worth less

There is a prologue to each of us.
My history is a drawn line
that stretches behind me endlessly,
and in front of me: unwritten possibility.
The volunteers, mostly their 20s,
from all the various walks, laden
with the burden of centuries:
the tall pillars still hold the scars
of their battles, as they still hold up the roof.
Those elemental arms of survival.
In the face of all of this sorrow,
we offer our work as our proof.

I saw addiction grow in the soil of trauma
a neighbourhood inheritance, poverty
and circumstance, a gnawing loneliness:
an ache clawed of holiness
only some howling chemistry lightened.

It was angry and bottomless
and it wrapped like a lover
but then tightened and strangled.
It smothered. And to others,
that fearsome illness turned me criminal.

Here, the ill get shamed
as though their illness is earned,
marched through halls of justice
as though we haven’t learned
that they’re already in a prison
of their own pain.
And treatment is a domain
for another neighbourhood.

St. Christopher, the burden-bearer,
did what he could: he crossed the river
carrying a weight heavy as the world.
He said, ‘Go your way in safety.
Go on reassured.’

The ink is stark and black and white -
the words all seem dry at a glance.
But their truth is a chance.
What they mean is a life.

These stones hold the echo
of old explosions, but they hold
the sound of us stacking them too.
We’ll mix mortar with sweat and dust
from the rubble of sorrow.
See what we can do.

There are bombs we can make
with ink and with paper:
a bill, a voice articulated,
a truth plain as a picture on a wall:
they hammer out a proclamation for us all,
and in every cross-hatched line, the message:
Life, in all its walks, is precious.

A country reworked for the better,
a path drawn in line and in letters
a prophecy that’s built of our presence
and made of our time:
a life we can look in the eye as we rise.

We inhale possibility
and exhale it as hope,
grateful to the last for the breath as it goes.
Our great cause is to cause an effect:

We will let no life be worth less.
We will let no life be worth less.

The new volunteers,
a nation reflected,
its warrior creed:

“We will be fierce in our compassion and believe”

Written by Erin Fornoff