Careers in the arts: Smashing Times are using the arts to rewrite history

Mary Moynihan of Smashing Times International Centre for the Arts and Equality describes their artistic mission, forgotten Irish heroines and learning from the past, writes Grace Farrell

The Smashing Times International Centre for the Arts and Equality, which also incorporates a Theatre and Film Company and a Youth Arts Ensemble, is an organisation which uses the arts to promote human rights, climate justice and gender equality. Their website states that “Human Rights encompass a theoretical, philosophical, practical and legal system, which advocates the position that individuals are the bearers of basic rights fundamental to human dignity…The arts, particularly collaborative arts practice, play a vital role in promoting gender equality, human rights, intercultural, diversity and peace. Following this, the centre advocates for tactical and strategic approaches to social justice and human rights through the lens of artistic and cultural practice.” Mary Moynihan, Artistic Director of the centre, summarises her priority to use the arts to promote social issues and to develop innovative, practical arts-based programmes in collaboration with a range of organisations. This has led to award-winning projects such as Women, War and Peace, and Women in an Equal Europe, in collaboration with organisations from Spain, Germany, Poland, Croatia and Serbia. Moynihan graduated from Trinity in 1999 with a degree in Drama and Theatre Studies, and is an accomplished playwright with a focus on historical memory, with works including the acclaimed The Woman is Present: Women’s Stories of WWII, with Deirdre Kinahan, Paul Kennedy and Fiona Bawn Thompson.

Moynihan, along with multiple other Dublin-based artists, established Smashing Times in 1991 as a not-for-profit organisation with a focus on arts and culture. Smashing Times aids development in the arts with a focus on human rights, and continues to work regularly across the island of Ireland, as well as internationally through partnering with organisations in countries such as Spain, Germany and Sri Lanka. Smashing Times defines their work as bringing together artists, activists, and communities and implementing an annual arts and human rights-based programme, featuring a range of artistic mediums with a focus on performing and collaborative arts including theatre, film, visual arts, dance and music. 

“…the centre advocates for tactical and strategic approaches to social justice and human rights through the lens of artistic and cultural practice.”

Motivated to do something about the way history is narrativized, subjectified and often forgetful of people worth remembering, Moynihan took action. “I believe that masculinised memories of history are often the norm as the role of powerful women in history has been hidden or denied. In 2016, I worked as an artist on Women, War and Peace which used creative processes of theatre and film to promote a remembrance of European history with a focus on women’s experiences of World War II, supported by the Europe for Citizens programme of the EU.” Through this she created a collaborative piece, The Woman is Present: Women’s Stories of WWII, which features a range of stories from women across Europe who were active during World War II, including the stories of Ettie Steinberg and Cork-born Trinity graduate Mary Elmes.

Moynihan discovered Elmes through Women, War and Peace on a visit to the Irish Jewish Museum as they offered to tell the artists about two Irish women who had connections to World War II. There she learned about these women seemingly forgotten in Irish history and consciousness: “Mary Elmes was the first Irish person honoured as ‘Righteous Among Nations’ for her work saving Jewish children” from concentration camps during World War II, and “Ettie Steinberg was a Jewish Irish citizen known to have been murdered in Auschwitz”. Struggling to find out more about Elmes, Moynihan followed her only lead, a reference on a Quaker website through which she met Bernard Wilson, a man “who had researched the life of Mary Elmes [and] kindly shared his research”. They then wrote a short play called Mary Elmes which premiered as part of The Woman is Present: Women’s Stories of WWII in 2016. And serendipitously, this show inspired writer and journalist Clodagh Finn to research Elmes’ life herself: “According to Gill Books, Clodagh spent over a year travelling throughout Europe and Ireland to piece together the story of this brave, unknown Irish woman, meeting with many of those Mary Elmes saved as children. The result was the launch of a new book A Time to Risk All packed with courage, heroism, adventure and tragedy, as her story finally came to light and she is remembered as she deserves.”

“I believe that masculinised memories of history are often the norm as the role of powerful women has been hidden or denied.”

Elmes graduated from Trinity in 1932 with a first class degree in Modern Languages. She went on to do refugee relief work in Spain during the civil war in 1937, before being one of many to flee across the border to France in 1939. Her efforts to help refugees continued, and in 1940, when France fell to German occupation, Elmes and the Quakers started a campaign to save as many children as possible. “Elmes even hid children in her car and drove them high into the Pyrenees. It will probably never be known how many children and adults she saved.” Finn writes that “an estimated 427 children were saved from the convoys thanks to the work of Mary Elmes and other women working at the camp”. Elmes was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo in Toulouse and released after six months without charge. Wilson wrote that ‘’after almost six months incarceration she was released without having been charged with any offence…and it’s recorded that when asked much later about her experiences she just replied, ‘Oh we all had to suffer some inconveniences in those days!’” Moynihan also emphasises how “Elmes looked for no credit for the extraordinary work she had done. [She] refused to accept the salary, which had accrued while she was in prison, and likewise the Legion d’Honneur, which the French government wanted to bestow on her.”

Moynihan believes her and her fellow artists’ work on Elmes to be a perfect example of how history and art can build on each other to create something important and worthwhile. Moynihan believes it is “important to remember women’s stories of WWII to ensure we do not forget the atrocities committed by totalitarian regimes when innocent people were murdered”. The power of performative arts cannot be understated: “The aim of telling these stories in performance and film is not to glorify war but to acknowledge the human cost of war…and to acknowledge the voices and experiences of ordinary women in order to reveal a wider picture of what happened.” Smashing Times’ artistic focus on human rights is anything but arbitrary, and in a time when fascist ideologies are growing in many parts of the world, isn’t this exactly what we need? Moynihan believes so: “People and nation states suffer when human values such as respect, tolerance and democracy are destroyed. Remembering lessons of the past is a prerequisite for building a brighter future. The aim is to remember and learn from history with a view to preventing similar atrocities from happening…and at the same time to remember the many different roles played by women during World War II who found their own way to stand up against fascism and totalitarianism.”

“The aim of telling these stories in performance and film is not to glorify war but to acknowledge the human cost of war.”

Additionally, as Elmes was a Trinity graduate, Moynihan is understandably shocked that the college has yet to honour her: “As part of Trinity’s ongoing work to address the imbalance in honouring women, Mary Elmes is a powerful consideration for this honour.” Smashing Times has many links with Trinity, including two board members who are Adjunct Professors, Mary Lawlor and Dr Eric Weitz, and creative partnerships for a range of projects, a recent example being the inaugural Dublin Arts and Human Rights Festival. In addition, they are currently working with Dr Charlotte Emma Wilson, an Assistant Professor in Clinical Psychology. Dr Wilson is involved in the provision of evidence based research on the Smashing Times Acting for the Future programme which uses theatre and film to explore mental health issues, and runs annually with over 3,000 participants across the island of Ireland. 

That being said, Elmes’ statue is nowhere to be seen around campus, but at least now her legacy lives on through the work of people like Moynihan. Artists like Moynihan are dedicated to using their voices to tell stories that matter, and organisations like Smashing Times propel these endeavors in providing platforms, resources, and the power of community.

Grace Farrell

Grace Farrell is the current Arts and Culture Editor of Trinity News.