The Kilkenny Engagists

The Kilkenny Engagists

Performance artists. A group of musicians and artists working in Kilkenny, 1973-75 approximately.   

The Kilkenny Engagists – known mostly in abbreviated form as the K/E – consisted of a loose affiliation of individuals who came together for a brief period in the 1970s to give performances. The group identified their aesthetic as “engagism” – a political performance art deeply engaged with contemporary issues. The group was formed mainly of graduates of the National College of Art in Dublin who all were inspired to make forays into performance-based, politically motivated art through Brian O’Doherty’s adoption of the name “Patrick Ireland” at the 1972 Irish Exhibition of Living Art in the Project Gallery, Dublin. While the group started staging some small performances from as early as 1973 – their first performance was a version of Christian Wolff’s Stones, performed using stones found on the street after riots in Belfast – their commitment to performance art and the fervour of their work seems to have been intensified by the 1974 visit of Joseph Beuys to Dublin for his “The Secret Block for a Secret Person in Ireland” show at the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art (now the Hugh Lane Gallery).

The K/E were strong supporters of Beuys’s efforts to establish his Free International University in Milltown, Dublin and took on Beuys’s call, in the Free International University’s manifesto, for a “creativity of the democratic” as a central tenet of their philosophy, incorporating large numbers of people, both artists and non-artists in their work. As a result, early membership of the group fluctuated wildly. By late 1974, however, membership of the group had stabilized – core members included Claire Donegan, Malachy Fallon, Nuala McCarthy, Ferdia O’Brien and Maeve Ryan, and the group is best known from the work created by these artists. The K/E’s work now focused on the performance of extremely violent, visceral, theatrical actions, usually political in subject matter, and can be seen as a sister movement of the Viennese Actionists.

The K/E’s pieces show a concern with Irish politics and the Troubles, often expressed using quite violent ends. In Cealachan (performed in October 1974) four members of the group installed themselves in an abandoned farm-house in Kilkenny and starved themselves for three weeks. The fifth member of the group (Fallon) studied Brehon law and force-fed himself the food the starving members would have eaten during this period. All members of the group had to be hospitalized after this performance, an experience which seemed to deepen their commitment to extreme actions. In All Around the Anti-Riot (1974) Donegan and McCarthy took turns firing rubber bullets at each other across a fairy circle (the rubber bullets used by the British Army in Northern Ireland were identified as “Round, Anti-Riot, 1.5in Baton”). The medical documentation of the injuries they suffered was exhibited later.

In Transubstantiate, (1975) the work considered by most critics to be the most significant piece made by the K/E, the group turned their attention to the Catholic Church. The piece consisted of numerous tableaux, with performers entering dressed in lurid costumes as priests, bishops and nuns – what Ryan referred to as “Jack Smith-inspired papal drag” – accompanied by music composed by McCarthy and O’Brien. McCarthy and O’Brien contributed music for a number of K/E performances; the style was primitive and ritualistic, at times playful and deliberately inane, sometimes with a jazz-inflected flavor, often involving the use of traditional Irish instruments. The pair particularly favoured the use of multiple tin whistles, usually played in unorthodox keys or using non-standard playing techniques.

Transubstantiate part I “Introit” (1975) by Nuala McCarthy and Ferdia O’Brien. Performed by Malachy Fallon, Nuala McCarthy and Dave McShea.
Transubstantiate part II “Gloria” (1975) by Nuala McCarthy and Ferdia O’Brien. Performed by Malachy Fallon, Nuala McCarthy and Dave McShea.
Transubstantiate part III “Alleluia” (1975) by Nuala McCarthy and Ferdia O’Brien. Performed by Malachy Fallon, Nuala McCarthy, Dave McShea and Maeve Ryan.

According to production notes, Transubstantiate included actions such as Fallon stripping naked, then using a sharpened crucifix to create an incision in his thigh, before urinating on the incision, and clumsily sewing the wound closed. In other parts of the piece O’Brien attempted auto-erotic asphyxiation, masturbating while using a set of rosary beads, as Donegan stuffed pieces of turf and crushed Communion wafers into her vagina.

Paul Reilly, the chief art critic for The Irish Times spoke about the piece in an interview at the time:

“It was horribly powerful. At first I thought ‘oh, this is ridiculous, they are just trying to cause a stir’ because you see the first part was very funny, parading in with this silly tin whistle music and them all got up as priests. But as they performed, stripping off the habits and showing us weak, pale Irish skin, something we had all been reared to think of as so shameful, as it went on, with them wreaking havoc on their own bodies with a deep sadness and commitment, I began to feel a huge anger building in me. An anger at the way this country has been warped into violence by religion, at the sectarian violence we pursue on a daily basis with aspects of our own psyches being the frontline victims, at a Church who polices and abuses so many.”

The three movements available here are taken from a performance of Transubstantiate given on April 12th 1975. The material has been made available by German broadcaster BWR, who recorded the first part of the performance before the obscene and violent nature of the performance resulted in the technicians refusing to participate further. The material was intended to be included on a BWR documentary on performance art which was never completed.


Dowling, Chris “Dirty Protest: Performance Art in Ireland during and after the Troubles” in Performance Research, Volume 4 Issue 4 (May 1985)

Telford, Martina “Cealachan: Starvation, Brehon Law and the Hibernian Body” in PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, Issue 32 (September 1988)

by Jennifer Walshe