9. Just Looking


Visual Arts Festival August 13-31


Marian Fitzgibbon had visited the town of Quimper in Brittany and had seen there an exhibition which entailed artists hanging their works in the shop-windows of the town and more-or-less using the windows as enlarged picture frames. And while that project succeeded in bringing art into the town, it also succeeded in imposing various works into relatively alien environments. Marian thought it would be more appropriate if artists could first of all visit the town, and then the shopkeepers, and by using the common materials of the shop, or the nature of the business, or the atmosphere conveyed by all of the above, could construct installations which would be in keeping with the character of the business, the shop- front, the shopkeeper and the town itself.

This approach would also guarantee dialogue between the artist and at least one other person in the town, and would put the onus on the artists especially to question their approaches to their art, and to any particular environment.


From the very first meeting of the general committee, a 'Shop Windows Sub-Committee' was formed and it proved to be one of the few sections of the original committee which remained unchanged right to the end. The two faithful members were Kathryn Comber and Pat Wall, both housewives and involved in family businesses, and their brief with regard the Just Looking project was

(a) to get permission from as many shopkeepers as possible for the use of their windows for about three weeks in August, and (b) to foster interest in the preservation of their shop-fronts.

Of these two objectives, the first was the more immediate in the light of the Festival, and also the more daunting because it must be remembered that a shopkeeper's front window is his/her primary source of advertisement, and in many cases the period through the Summer months is the most important time for business. On retrospection, the whole notion was very speculative indeed in assuming that shopkeepers might be willing to give up valuable space to unknown artists for an unproven 'Festival of Art'.

Much credit is due to the two ladies for their patience, tenacity, diplomacy and belief in the final goal.


The first people to be approached were those who were well-known to Kathryn and Pat and who could be counted on for support; and who in turn could explain the credibility of the idea to the more sceptical. Over a period of weeks, visits were paid to over forty premises in the town. The Just Looking exhibition was explained over numerous scones and cups of tea and often a glass of 'something stronger-and it seems that the saving grace of the shop windows project was the intention that each display would incorporate something of the business carried on in each particular shop.

By the middle of Summer, about forty shopkeepers in the town had voiced their approval of the proposed exhibition and in the course of their discussions, Pat and Kathryn found a considerable latent interest in the preservation of the old shop fronts.



Marian Fitzgibbon undertook the job of securing artists for the project. The two art colleges, Limerick School of Art and Design, and Galway Regional Technical College, were both appreciative of the whole idea and promised a number of student artists to work on windows. Individual artists in the Mid-West region were notified by letter and responses trickled slowly in right up to the last minute.

One unfortunate aspect which only came to light in the preparation was that a number of artists in Ennistymon and the vicinity-both professional and amateur-felt discriminated against in that they were never approached about taking a window. This lapse was never intentional on the part of either the committee or the Regional Arts Officer, but rather a sad lack of communication between the two.

The committee had assumed that Marian would be contacting all artists in the region, whereas in fact, she could only contact those who were on the Mid-West arts file. Therefore a number of individuals were unintentionally left out, and the blame must therefore rest with the local committee in failing to ensure that all possible 'window artists' had been notified.

One can only speculate on whether these omissions would have effected the overall entry, but it is interesting to note that there were many more windows offered than there were artists to use them.


The Just Looking project got under way in earnest from about Easter on. Over that holiday week-end quite a few art students descended on the town, and they could be seen walking the streets up and down, chatting with shopkeepers, peering in windows, choosing, rejecting and retracing their steps again. In most cases the artists made a number of return visits to the town before satisfying themselves about measurements, colours, and of course, the attitudes of the shopkeeper. And in most cases the business people were quite accepting of 'their' artists, often giving them carte blanche to use the windows as they wished.

To the credit of the artists it must be said that each of them with one exception-paid their own expenses with regards materials, travel and accommodation.



Most of the installations were erected in the week before the opening of the Festival on August 13. There was an undoubted 'buzz' about the town at this time and it wasn't unusual to see a group of people standing before a half-dressed (!) window, watching with interest as the crouched artists assembled their various works. Dairine Byrne even went so far as to put a notice in her window saying 'Next instalment on Tuesday' and Andrew Kearney's installations over the Archway Bar was a real crowd-stopper as he raised huge domes of plastic and cascades of straw thirty feet above street-level.

But on the other hand there were some non-starters as artists pulled out for various reasons; and there were some last-minute changes of personnel too. Some shopkeepers even found their own artists, so as not to be left out. And inevitably there were the disappointments- three in particular-where the shopkeepers were dissatisfied with the finished work. One felt that too much window space had been sacrificed, and the other two-interestingly-objected to the fact that they themselves featured in their own windows. In both cases a compromise was reached, but not before the two sides had agonised for many hours over the matter. Despite the disappointments, these two cases brought out the real essence of the project in seeking to make a piece of artistic work satisfactory to the artist, the 'man in the street' and the particular environment.


Even though the Just Looking exhibition did not entail any great organisational burden, nonetheless it is generally accepted that it was the key element in the Ennistymon '84 Festival, because it embodied so much of the ideals of the whole project.

One can never forget those warm Summer nights as groups of people walked through the town as they would through a gallery, pausing in front of the revamped windows, discussing, criticising, laughing.. all the time infusing the atmosphere in the town. And in those windows which were specially illuminated for the Festival there was a hint of magic, of wonder, which seemed to affect so many people.

Most of the shopkeepers/publicans expressed great satisfaction with the temporary changes made to their front windows, though some were of the immovable opinion that other window displays were better than their own. This was perhaps inevitable as the nature of the works varied from humorous to graphic to non- representational images, and undoubtedly some had more mass-appeal than others.

It is also interesting to note that a number of premises which are no longer open for business were revitalised with Just Looking installations for the period of the Festival.



One criticism which was voiced during this period- invariably from people outside the community-was that as many of the old style shop-fronts had a powerful character of their own, the Just Looking exhibition was therefore an unnecessary imposition of one art-form over another. Brian Trench, writing in the Sunday Tribune stated that "with few exceptions . . the busy works detract from the understated elegance of the surroundings". Perhaps so, but at the same time one of the main thoughts behind the exercise was to focus attention on those same elegant surroundings. At one stage Mike Murphy said that "Ennistymon is a work of Art". The committee would agree. But we also felt that the visual merit of the town was suffering in the name of progress, and the whole project was aimed at revitalising a visual awareness among the people of this town.

In the space of two years before the arts project, at least three of the old-style shopfronts were lost forever to character replacements. On the other hand, during 1984 two premises were, in effect, saved from a similar fate. This was due to the presence of an active arts group in the town, and we have no doubt that the Just Looking affair has rekindled an appreciation of the town in general, and the shopfronts in particular.

For an eighteen day 'imposition' we may have earned eighteen years appreciation. Surely a small price to pay.


A separate catalogue (some copies are still available) was produced for Just Looking, thanks to the generous sponsorship of Syntex Ireland Ltd. The catalogue was designed by Ennistymon based designer, Niall Timmins, and includes a list of the windows which were used, biographical information on the artists, details of media used, photos of some of the windows before the

exhibition, sketches of some of the artists preparatory work, and extract from diaries which some of the artists kept during their involvement.

Approximately 130 catalogues were sold.

After some last minute changes and additions, the final revised list of shops/pubs and artists involved reads as follows:


Designs' Boutique

Amitaf Dry Cleaners

Byrne's (former private lending library)

Ahern's Bar

McLysaght's (former bar)

Unglert's Bakery

Wall's Tea Shop

Hynes' Bar


Lynn Andrewes Vivienne Bogan

Deirdre Brehony

Anne Brennan &

Peter Cutting

Dairine Byrne Ann McInerney Eamonn Dowd Cora Hennigan

Archway Bar Keane's Bar Honan's Butchers Stack's Bar

O'Brien's Grocery Wall's Boots and Shoes

O'Doherty's Travel Agency

Mal's Country Store

Andrew Kearney Brenda Kelliher John Lalor

Christine Murphy

Liz McMahon & Joe Wilson Keeva Holland

Clare Purtill & Eilis McDonnell Martin Savage

O'Leary's (former sweet shop) Lorraine Wall

O'hEagrain's Bar

McGrotty's Medical Hall (Smiths)

Geraldine's Hair Salon

Marrinan's Bar

O'Doherty's Grocery.

Maighread Tobin

Sam Walsh

Matt O'Connell

Jimmy Blackwell

Theresa O'Brien.

O'Dwyer's Medical Hall: The O'Dwyer family made available their chemist shop, closed for over 30 years, to the artist Deirdre Power who with the help of a friend dusted off the bottles, polished the brass scales, and simply opened this museum piece to the public.



Syntex Ireland Ltd.

Ennistymon Printing Works

Niall Timmins, Dandelion Press, Ennistymon

Mary Murray, Mid-West Arts.


Pat Wall & Kathryn Comber

Marian Fitzgibbon

Limerick School of Art & Design

Galway Regional Technical College

All the artists who participated

All the shopkeepers whose windows were used

All the shopkeepers who offered

windows which weren't used.

And a special mention for those people whose shop-windows are ALWAYS tastefully and artistically decorated. Keep up the good work.

subs@thecourthousegallery.com April 15, 2024
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