DOUG (V/O): How you doing? I’m Doug Devaney and you’re listening to The Plastic Podcasts – Tales of the Irish Diaspora. Now, as anyone who knows us knows, we here at Plastic Towers don’t so much follow fashion as maintain a nodding distance from it while travelling in the opposite direction. All of that changes today, however, as we play host to Warren Reilly.
Having studied at Manchester School of Art, Warren was creative designer at both Fashioning Our History and the Queer Georgian House Project, and is currently curating The Mixed Museum’s virtual exhibition By the Cut Of their Cloth, which also includes part of Warren’s family archive. But right now it’s 9:30 of a cloudy June morning so it’s time to ask Warren Reilly: how you doing?
WARREN (Int): I'm good. Yeah, I'm good. Thank you. Not too bad. I'm really, really happy to be able to take part in this. And I think it's a wonderful opportunity. And thank you so much for connecting with me through Chamion at the Mixed Museum.
DOUG: Yes, indeed. Well, thank you so much for joining us. What's your day got lined up for you?
WARREN: Well, I'm currently working on a commission for the Queer Georgian Social season. So it's a new event group that wants to kind of highlight, queer history before the Victorian period.
DOUG: Your projects seem to be, like, a theme to examine history and identity through textile and fashion. Would that be fair to say?
WARREN: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So it's something I've always been an interest of mine when I was a little boy. My mum, you know, she's a teaching assistant and she would always go to museums and galleries with her schools and she thought: "Oh, my son would really love this." So, you know, on our summer holidays or half term, she would always make a list of things to do so we would visit the Museum of Childhood or the V&A or the National Gallery. And I was just always enthralled by all the paintings, all the clothes and paintings. And then later on when I was doing my A levels and I started to learn a bit more about people of colour in history, and people that were being depicted in photographs and paintings that were unknown. I started wondering, you know, I'd like to learn a bit more about this, and feel that I'm reflected in the things that I want to study.
So that kind of led me on a route in my dissertation. I created the subject: “Pageboys To Proteges: Three Centuries of Style” and that basically examined clothes within classical art and Victorian photography and how we can use those items of clothing to tell us more about the individuals. And from that point, when I came back to London after university, I applied for funding with the Mayor of London and created the Fashioning Our History project, which was exhibited at Willesden Green Library. And that basically was putting all of that research into practical use. And so we basically encouraged young people in the borough and outside of the borough to come and celebrate what the borough was all about, but also to look back into history and to reclaim a form of fashion that was very much, you know, for aristocratic elite and were, you know, for the few and not the many and wanting to use that as a canvas for social change.
So that's kind of been the line in terms of how I've ended up on this journey. And then obviously with the new project, which is due to launch, By The Cut Of Their Cloth, with The Mixed Museum, that is a kind of thread from fashion art history. So that's a continuation of the project.
DOUG: You mention both your youth and also a mixed heritage. You are of Irish and Afro-Caribbean heritage, yes?
WARREN: Yes. That is correct.
DOUG: Your parents and grandparents are from where?
WARREN: Both of my parents were born here. On my mother's side, my grandmother is Irish. So her father, my great grandfather was from Waterford, and then my mother's father, my grandfather, his family are from Jamaica. So that is where I have my mixed race link. More recently I've done a DNA test to find out that my ancestry, my DNA ancestry, actually originates from Africa, predominantly from Nigeria and other West African countries, which has been highly fascinating. But also quite saddening in the sense of having to understand how and why that ancestry has come to be in the Caribbean, which is sadly through slavery. On my father's side, my grandparents are both Irish, so my grandfather is from Limerick. He was born in Limerick, but was actually brought up in Youghal, in Cork. And my grandmother was also from Youghal in Cork.
DOUG: And you recently went back to Youghal?
WARREN: After about 17 years, I've gone back to Youghal - last week, actually - and I absolutely loved it. It was just so amazing. I got to spend time with my grandmother's family, so my grandmother's name is Phelan. My grandfather's name is Reilly, but what's really interesting actually is: my grandfather wasn't really around that much from (when) my father was a child. So actually I know a lot more about the Phelans and have a lot more connection with the Phelans than I do the Reillys.
During my visit last week, I got to see all my cousins. There are many cousins. Just to put it into perspective, I got to see my great grandmother's house. And she lived in a very, very small two up two down - little, little cottage, essentially, little house. That's had extensions put on it now. But it's kind of the equivalent, I'd say to like a railway house in the UK, like that kind of size. At one time there used to be about, I think over 20 people like living in that house during the summer holidays, because when my father was a child, they'd go over and visit, and they'd stay for six weeks. So that was, you know, all the grandchildren that were living in the UK went over then, you know, all the relatives that were already living there were there as well. And obviously people used to have a lot more children back then. So there are a lot of people staying in that house. And they have beautiful memories. My great-grandmother's house is just outside the town wall. So you know, my , aunties and uncles and my father would always play around that. But yeah, just to put that in perspective of that was the kind of thing. My father was bathed in the sink because he was so small and they used to have another tin bath for the older children, that they used to put in front of the fire.
WARREN: That was, yeah, just lovely hearing all those stories. But yeah, I know a lot more about the Phelans than I do the Reillys, but what was actually really interesting is this time around that I visited, I actually got to spend time with the Reillys. I met my cousins and aunts and great aunts. And for me that was really good because I've always found it a little bit sad that I didn't really know much about the Reillys really. Like I know a bit about the name and the history of the name, but in terms of the immediate family, the only person I'd really met is my grandfather. So actually that was really nice. And they were telling me about my great grandmother and stories with her. And it's quite strange because I know Nanny Reilly as my dad's mum, but actually Nanny Reilly is really my grandfather's mother, which is quite funny, like in the terms - cos obviously my grandmother was Phelan, but I think that was really, really lovely actually.
And also what I really, really enjoyed was going back there as an adult and being able to really link myself to the history of Youghal: the craftsmanship, the textiles and a lot of the buildings, the historic buildings as well. When we were children, especially when my father was a child, they were closed to the public. They weren't things that you could go into and visit and enjoy, whereas nowadays they were. And one of the examples of that is the Clock Gate Tower, which is very famous. And we got to go all the way up that and see like a panoramic of Youghal, which not even my father has seen before and he's gone many times. So yeah, that was really lovely. And just to see it from different perspectives and just to have that connection and to reconnect, that was a really big theme of why I wanted to go back. That was just really, really lovely. And it's just such a beautiful place. The landscape is amazing, and I'm very proud that my ancestry is from there.
DOUG: There's a tradition of sort of, like, going back home to Ireland as a child where you're taken by parents to visit grandparents and so forth. But then also revisiting Ireland as an adult is a very, very different experience.
WARREN: Yeah, definitely. I think in terms of like that theme of home and how I feel about that, like, you know, because I visited as a child and I haven't been for a long time, like Youghal especially is very nostalgic for me, it's a place of comfort. It's a place of happy memories and it's something that I really enjoy, you know, that I am able to link that within my childhood. I feel very blessed. But yeah, it is different. It is different, and there were things, you know, that I wanted to do, you know, that when you're a child, you don't get to really call the shots on, if you know what I mean. So yeah, it is different and there's a lot of things that were different.
You know, my family have had it pretty tough over there, for lots of reasons. A lot of illnesses, a lot of deaths, very sadly, very tragic deaths as well, in some cases, especially for some really young people. And some people that, you know, haven't been able to have children and, you know, I love those people so much because they're just such troupers, the ones that are, you know, still there and thriving and living their lives. But that is something that you do go back to, you know, as an adult and you do have to acknowledge, that place of nostalgia maybe isn't exactly what you think it is. And that, you know, there are people living real lives there. Like it's not just, you know, when we go, it's more like going on a holiday, isn't it? And you go and you do the sight-seeing, and you eat the food and you have a nice time and you go back to your life. But yeah, I think for some of those people that are there, they've had quite hard lives, and yeah, that is also a thing as an adult that you have to accept, , and then take on board and yeah it's something that - you know - in the same breath though, I feel pleased to be able to acknowledge that now.
DOUG: And also as a queer, gender-fluid artist coming back across to family, I don’t know whether they were aware of your journey in this regard or not?
WARREN: Yeah, I wouldn't say I've ever come out to them, especially because like, I just haven't needed to, if you see what I mean? I think it's always been quite clear, but also for the time when I was working that all out, I wasn't visiting there. So I think it was just a case of: we already know. I did feel a little bit nervous because I am at a current point in my life where I'm not really willing to compromise myself anymore. Like I am who I am and I'm not really wanting to kind of like, you know, digress from that. It's been a pretty long journey to get there, but I was very much aware that like there could be some apprehension. But I was pleasantly surprised actually. Everyone was really warm and welcoming, you know - people asked me, do you have a boyfriend? and things like that. So, yeah, it wasn't actually what I maybe thought it would be like. I didn't expect it to be any kind of extreme at all, but I was expecting maybe a little bit of reservation, but actually I didn't feel that at all. But, yeah, obviously I'm not sure if that would be different if maybe I was one of their children or, you know, a family member that was living there. I mean, it was really interesting talking to one of my cousins. She is not queer by the way, but she was talking about dating apps over there, and she was saying like, you know, to just kind of get a date from anyone they're like miles away kind of thing. And so that really makes me think that if a straight woman is finding it difficult to, you know, go on dates or use dating apps, then what is a queer person there - you know - how is their experience coming from that small place? You know, that did make me think that, but yeah, in terms of that, I didn't feel any type of way basically.
DOUG (V/O): You’re listening to The Plastic Podcasts: we all come from somewhere else. Find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. As a queer, gender-fluid artist of Irish and Afro-Caribbean heritage, Warren Reilly’s work is almost inevitably concerned with intersections of identity.
His latest exhibition, By The Cut Of Their Cloth, is co-produced with Being Brent and The Mixed Museum and Warren describes it as an investigation of the nature of mixed race. I wonder what he means by that…
WARREN (Int): Yeah. So that was really the key theme of the project really. When I connected with Chamion after Fashioning Our History, it was something that we really wanted to explore, and I think we were kind of using me as a case study to inspire others to do the same, essentially. ut also the project By The Cut Of Their Cloth is also encouraging multicultural history as well. So it's not just looking at people that are mixed race. It's also looking at that migration and different groups of people and how they come to be in a place and in turn how that then results in mixed race people. But also wanting to explore, you know, a multicultural sense and people mixing - different people mixing - even if it's socially or romantically. We're not just focusing on mixed race people within that, because obviously in order for mixed race people to be here, different groups of people need to mix. So that was also one of the things we were looking at.
But yeah, in terms of the ancestry, the DNA ancestry I did, I decided I wanted to do a DNA test because obviously I was always told my family were from Jamaica and my mother had a very similar story in terms of her father not being around when she was a child. So she had to kind of construct what being Jamaican was for herself. And I'm not too sure she, you know, achieved that or still maybe has achieved that. I think it's still something she is working out for herself. And also if she doesn't achieve it, it's absolutely fine. It's just something which she's discovering and that she will be learning about the whole of her life as, as am I.
So it was something I wanted to do because I would always look at my grandfather and I just always felt that he was African. I don’t know why, it’s just his features. He has very dark skin and has very kind of like regal high cheekbones and just features and build and things. And I'd seen other African people that I knew of, and I thought: my grandad really looks like that, but he's Jamaican. So he can't be.
And then, you know, that was one of the reasons why I went to take the DNA test because obviously, you know, when I went to uni and I started learning about slavery and all these things in the Caribbean, you know, the more and more I was like: no, he probably definitely is. But I really wanted to be sure. So I did a DNA test with 23 And Me - which was really, really great - and I was correct. Because I found out that my DNA ancestry is predominantly Nigerian and different West African countries, but predominantly Nigerian in terms of the Caribbean side of things.
So I'm 73% British and Irish. But from what I know, most of that is Irish. The only people I know in my family to be born in England are my parents' generation and my generation: everyone else has come from elsewhere in terms of great grandparents and grandparents, so that was something that I thought was really interesting. But yeah, the 26.8%, or what have you, is the Afro-Caribbean side of things. So, that was really interesting for me. I was really excited because at the time I was researching in the Brent Museum And Archives in the British Empire Exhibition and I was researching the Nigerian Pavilion and they were looking at all the textiles and the weaving and the natural dying of the fabrics. And that was really interesting, but in the same breath, to find that out - that you have to accept that your family have come from, you know, one of the worst atrocities that the human race has ever seen. And that was really sad and very emotional because it makes me think about my relatives and what they had to endure. But also it made me think a lot about the difficulties that Irish people have also faced as well.
I mean, it not as well recorded that Irish people were also taken as slaves as well in some cases. And just to, you know, accept the fact that I've come from two oppressed people and two oppressed cultures and having to deal with that, you know. It's not nice and it's sad, but in the same breath, I feel, you know, that this is why I kind of have started looking into all this history because it's something that I want to celebrate and I want to feel proud of, and that people should know about, and that: Look at what all we achieved with all the oppression and, you know, austerity that we faced, but look what we achieved and look at what we did, you know, and we've been very, you know, we've been very valuable and very creative and knowledgeable and intelligent and beautiful.
And yeah, that, that's, that's really why I'm doing what I'm doing now with my creativity really.
DOUG: Well, to go to much more recent history, which is your own family life. Your mum and dad, what do they do?
WARREN: My father is a fully-trained carpenter, which is quite an Irish craft as well. He's done that for many years now. He trained making spiral staircases and he's like fitted things into different government buildings. And my mother is a teacher assistant, but she studied fashion at college, at Kilburn Polytechnic. And I think she's always been very, very creative and has used her creativity in her teaching assisting.
DOUG: And you were born and raised in Brent?
WARREN: Yeah. So I've always been, you know, been, been living here apart from when I was in university in Manchester for three years. It's been a challenge being from here. I have a very complex relationship with home in terms of Brent, but it's a special one, nonetheless.
DOUG: How, complex?
WARREN: I don't know. I just feel like - it's weird. It's weird that I come from like, you know, an Irish, Afro-Caribbean, you know, ancestry because I'm queer as well and living in a very Afro-Caribbean area, and I just think there's a lot of - I've had a lot of negative experiences, to be honest. I've had, you know, homophobic experiences, and I think that there are a lot of people in the area that are just very stuck in their ways. And that within the culture, it's just not accepted to be like that.
DOUG: Were you lonely as a child, then?
WARREN: Yeah. In some ways, yeah. In some ways I found it quite difficult to make friends because I moved around primary schools quite a lot. I went to three different primary schools. I have to say my family gave me a fantastic childhood, you know. I was always taken on days out and I was always very, you know, very enriched and my parents always made sure there was food on the table. I have to say we never went hungry. And we always had like, you know, fabulous Christmases and things like that. But in another sense, I think I felt lonely: I didn't know if anyone would understand me and I didn't feel that many people did understand me. And you have to understand I was this child, and this teenager that was hungry for knowledge, really passionate about being creative. You know, really flamboyant, loved to dress up, and I was coming from like a family where even though there was creativity there, there was just not a lot of people like me in the family, if you see what I mean.
And then at school as well, you know, I just - I didn't know many other children like me, if any, really, to be honest with you. I'm a very unique person and I'm quite proud of that, but it has caused a little bit of alienation, I think, in my life.
DOUG: So was going to Manchester an eye-opener for you?
WARREN: Yeah, absolutely. I feel that I had started to understand my sexuality before I went to university, but I feel like I really got to accept my identity in Manchester. I felt like it was such a great place to be a student. It's fantastic. One of my housemates was from Northern Ireland, so that was quite nice as well - my friend, Megan - it almost had like a little bit of touch of Irish home in those three years. Her mum used to send us over Taters and potato cakes, which was really nice, and I went to visit her in Belfast at one point as well, which was really interesting cos it was very different to Southern Ireland, but was lovely nonetheless. And yeah, Manchester was just fantastic. I really started to experiment with wearing makeup and wearing, you know, more experimental clothing and my knowledge and like of music kind of developed as well.
And I really engaged with the queer scene there you know, clubbing on Canal Street and went to different kind of events and yeah, I think that was really where I started to really find myself, I think, for sure. And I came back feeling a much more confident, strong and well-rounded person. I'm very, very pleased I went to Manchester, to be honest with you. I think it was a really, really important process, a very difficult process at times. I had a few mental health crises in the time, and I was really, really pleased that I did counselling at that time.’Cos I feel like there was a lot of things in my childhood, in my past that I had not really processed and I really needed to. And I think that came at such a good time because I felt like once I dealt with that, I just really blossomed. And I still feel that there are many petals to come out of that flower, but I do feel the flower has finally opened and I'm really, really enjoying it.
DOUG: Nice extended metaphor. Thank you. Yes. But it's a very, very Irish story in a lot of ways - that you have to go away to find out who you are.
WARREN: Yeah, I guess so. I always, as I said, you know, when I was talking to my cousin about the dating apps and thinking about the queer people, I just really think about - you know, are there any queer people from Youghal? Well, obviously there are. What were their experiences have been like or are like? And I think you'll probably find that many people from those kind of regional places in Ireland probably did go somewhere else to be more accepted and to be themselves. It is quite strange though, that I was living in London and I felt the need to leave. Most people come to London to find themselves, but this is the thing of what I was explaining about Brent is that in many pockets, it's a very complex place. And there are a lot of people with quite traditional cultural values where being queer is not accepted and I've grown up surrounded by a lot of those of those cases. So it is quite unusual that I've had to leave London in order to do that.
But then also I was thrown into, you know, being with a very experimental, open, life-loving group of students when I was in Manchester that also contributed to helping me be the person I am today, as well. I'd like to take the opportunity right now to thank all of my lovely friends up there so very much because I love them all so dearly. And I really do think that each and every one of them contributed to my confidence and to my identity. And they were always, always so supportive. And you know, I'm always talking about my historical interests. Like, you know, I'm obsessed with Marie Antoinette and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and all these things. And my friends always roll their eyes and like: why are you so obsessed with this Marianne character and all these things, but that's just me and they love me for me. And, you know, they always just listen to me babbling on about historical crap or, you know, queer info and things like that. And they love it. And they love it, and that's helped me love it in myself as well, which has been really nice.
DOUG (V/O): We’ll be back with Warren Reilly in a moment. But now it’s time for The Plastic Pedestal, that section of the podcast where I ask one of my interviewees to talk about a member of the Diaspora of personal, cultural or political significance to them. This week, it’s a Plastic Pedestal with a difference. As we approach our second anniversary, we look back at our first ever interviewee, John O’Donoghue, and his salute to Brian Behan.
JOHN (Int): So the Behans were a famous Irish family. Brian Behan, playwright - sorry, Brendan Behan, playwright and memoirist, Borstal Boy his memoir. Tragically died early of diabetes, I think you'd say, but also alcoholism. His brother Domnic was a famous musician and songwriter, wrote, great songs like The Patriot Game. And Brian then was, as he told me: “I was famous before any of them, John. I was involved in the Shell strike of 1951”, I think it was he said. He was down there on the South Bank, and he said he organized the go slow, for the builders down there - building the buildings for the Festival of Britain, I think it was. He said, “And John, it really was a go-slow. You had fellows there, walking with the wheelbarrow heel and toe John, heel and toe. As slow as they could possibly move while still being in locomotion.”
So Brian was just an amazing force of nature. I remember saying to him once: “Brian, I'm really fed up mate. This job I've got, you know,” and everything like that. He says, “I don't know, what's the matter what you, John?” he says. “You've got a fine family here. You have a wonderful wife, four great children, a lovely house. What is wrong with you?” So I thought to myself, then: God, Brian's really like, Zorba The Paddy. He's kind of like this - it doesn't do to be moaning around Brighton - around Brian - because he was a - well, you knew him, Doug. So he is a marvellous, marvellous, and he put me - we had this festival going on and Brian had this play in the festival, , and at the start of the play, it opens with Mr. Portaloo, a thinly disguised Mr. Portillo, in flagrante delicto with the PM over his desk in the very first moments of the play.
So a friend of Brian's who was a journalist phoned up the Conservative Central Office, posing as a loyal member of the local Conservative Association, to denounce this dastardly fellow be. So the chap on the other end of the line who was being recorded, said, “Well, who is this chap? We'll cut off his grant. (Brian, wasn't getting a grant). We'll do this to him. We'll d destroy the fellow.” So of course, Brian was able to make great capital out of this and had two columns in The Independent, in the Brighton Festival for 1995: got great houses at his play and was a hero of the festival that year.
And he, of course, he turned out for us in the Fleadh. “Oh, I think it's a great idea” he said. He didn't ask me was he going to get paid? He was paid. He didn't ask me was there going to be a contract? There was no contract. He just really took to it. And he came and performed, shall we say, at The Bugle. I said, “Oh, Mr. Behan, will you be reading from your books?”
“No, I shall be speaking ex tempore, John,” he said. And I really got the horrors when he said that, Doug, ‘cos I just didn't know what the heck he was going to say, but luckily in The Bugle, he started off fulminating against the Irish football team. Sadly of course, Jack Charlton’s just died, but Brian's line on that was “Oh, I think Jack Charlton's a marvellous fellow - if only let some of our boys play.” So he was slightly against the diasporic character of the team then. Of course what I did was rather cleverly -because the bugle was absolutely rammed. Honestly, it was rammed when Behan was there - so I choked him off after 10 minutes and said, “Well thank you very much, Mr Behan. Mr Behan will be talking to you again, ladies and gentlemen, after a short interval.“ So of course everyone looked daggers at me, but they all had to go to the bar and get another drink. So we did rather well for The Bugle that day, I think, myself and Brian.
DOUG: What about Behanism?
JOHN: Ah, well, you see, I'd like to characterize Brian's kind of Behanism from the other brothers’ Behanism. I think Brian is an exponent of Brianism, and Brianism differs slightly – well, it was John Cole, the BBC's political correspondent who said that they owed more to Groucho than to Karl Marx in their politics. And I think Brian was the real chief exponent of this because I think Brendan was pretty serious about his republicanism and Dominic was a pretty serious Irish Republican as well. But Brian got more into left-wing revolutionary politics in this country and he suddenly, I think, developed the notion that actually it was quite farcical and it basically came down to his association with an Irishman - Gerry Healy, I think his name was, and the Workers’ Revolutionary Party.
And Gerry Healy had supporters in the Redgrave family. And Brian used to have me in stitches about his tales of Gerry Healy and the, shall we say the interactions he had with the Redgraves. A complete juxtaposition: this very august, English theatrical dynasty, and this short butty Dubliner, who was very unprepossessing according to Brian. I think he was actually jealous of Gerry Healy, but we'll probably go no further there, Doug, ‘cos I might be laying you open to libel. So we'll have to draw a bit of a veil over that, but I think your listeners will probably be able to fathom some of what I'm hinting at there.
DOUG: And with regards to Brian, how do you think he influenced you?
JOHN: Well, he was fearless Doug, as you'll know. He was a man for great schemes. Brighton had this campaign going on, trying to attract tourists I suppose, that Brighton was The Place To Be. Brian, of course, made that, slogan his own. He wanted Brighton to be The Place To Pee because, he said, there weren't enough public toilets down here. And the ones that were were in a complete state and he was right. And that was a great campaign. And I loved that. He also course was ahead of his time. He got into grey power - pensioner power - but perhaps his biggest coup was his SID campaign. You remember that, Doug, SID stood for Shut It Down. He wanted to replace the Houses of Parliament with, as he said, a Swiss referenda – “Votes for everything, to be decided by a reasonably honest computer.” And I loved the qualification of reasonably honest there. So I think, first and foremost, it was the fearlessness of Brian I took to, and secondly it was the mischief. Everything he did politically had this weft of mischief in it. He was serious about his politics, but what made him so engaging and so attractive politically, and on every other level, was the humour.
DOUG (V/O): John O’Donoghue there, and if you’d like to hear more of what John had to say, why not find that first ever Plastic Podcasts interview by going to our Episodes page at www.plasticpodcasts.com? Simply scroll on down to find his name, click on it – and listen, at your leisure. And – hey – while you’re at the website, why not subscribe? Go to the home page at www.plasticpodcasts.com, scroll on down to the bottom, and insert your details in the space provided. One confirmatory e-mail click later, and the plastic loot of the world will be yours. No kidding.
Now back to Warren Reilly. A young man with an overwhelming sense of curiosity, Warren has two twin obsessions – the Duchess of Devonshire and The Titanic, but I’ll let him describe them for you.
WARREN (Int): I remember the film coming out with Keira Knightley in 2008. And I don’t know, it just clicked something in my brain. I don’t know why. I just loved the costume design. I loved all the sets. I just loved the story and everything. And so when I was 15, I read the biography by Amanda Foreman. And what I found so fascinating about her is that she had so many similarities to the modern world, and celebrity of the modern world. And people that suffered in the modern world, like addictions and mental health issues and marital problems. And when I read the biography and I read, you know, extracts from her letters, I don’t know what it was. There was just something about her that I was just - I just really relate to this person, you know? In many ways she felt she was an outsider in the society in which she was living in, and that people didn't quite understand her.
And she found solace in finding, you know, different groups of people that did understand her and was really expressing her identity through fashion and style and her, you know, her friendship with Marie Antoinette and they would exchange notes. And there was just something about her. I can't tell you what it was. There was just something about her that I really, really connected with.
The fashion of that period is just incredible. I mean, the painting by Gainsborough of her, that hangs at Chatsworth, it's just one of my favourite paintings of all time. There's just something about that off white muslin with the black hat, with ostrich feathers, that just absolutely pops off for me. It's just, I don't know. It's just amazing, and yeah, she’s just a very strong woman - a very strong woman. And I just really, really found inspiration that ‘cos I have come from a family of very strong women as well.
But yes, I think that the kind of twin obsessions, in terms of that and where that's come from - when I was on a boat trip on my trip in Ireland, I went past, you know, different kind of, landmarks, if you like. We visited Ballantree House, which is in county Waterford, but it's really near to Youghal - like it's literally just up the river. It's a really beautiful 18th century house. And I noticed this on my travels: that a lot of these houses, they're painted in like a pale yellow colour, which I'd not really seen before. I'm not really too sure of the significance of that. It's not very common in England, this colour. It seems to be very prominent in Ireland. But the house was owned by the Devonshires. And I did not know that and they owned a lot of land at that time, I'm not sure if this is at the time of Georgiana, but I just found it very interesting that, you know, the family she married into andthe Devonshires and their kind of control in that region were linked to where I was from. It was a bit of a weird link for me. I found that really, really fascinating, and it's something I definitely want to look more into.
But I just thought it was really interesting and it made me think: “Did Georgiana ever go to the house? Had she visited Youghal?” ‘Cos it was really, you know, nearby and just gave me all these questions essentially. So that was something that I've thought was really interesting.
Moving onto my next twin obsession. I've always been really interested in The Titanic. It’s something that has been, you know, really, really inspirational for me. I think that comes from the fact my granddad told me as a child that we may have had a relative that was on the Titanic. He kind of like goes back and forth with this. He kind of says we did. And we don't. And we did, we don't. I'm not really too sure what the truth is here. It's a bit of a Reilly myth as I'm calling it. But I was really interested in that when I was in Youghal, I came across a kind of old shop front that closed down. It had a kind of display on there that was a tribute to a man called John Foley. Who's also known as Jack Folly, or Foley. He was from Youghal and he worked on the Titanic as a storekeeper, and he assisted people, - you know, women, children - getting into the lifeboats, and especially helped crew with lifeboat number four and saved 50 lives. And he survived and he lived until 1934 and died in Southampton. So that was really interesting ‘cos that was a direct link to the Titanic from the place I'm from in Ireland, which I had no idea was linked to. So that was really interesting.
And I think for me, you know, the whole - a similar thing with the Titanic is that it was a gateway for a lot of things. So initially watching the James Cameron film, you know, which was made in the same year I was born, is - you know, all the set design and the costume and things that went into that and the creativity and that kind of was the gateway. And it's led me onto, you know, a path of discovery. So to find out that there was , a man actually from the village that my family are from, it was really, really fascinating for me.
And also, my granddad mentioned that we should visit Cobh. And we decided to visit Cobh on the way back to the airport cause we had a bit of time to kill. And I had no idea that Cobh was known as Queenstown, and Queenstown was the last port of the Titanic stopped in before it went on to the Atlantic. And I was just so like excited when we literally drove in and there was the White Star Line ticket office, which I've seen many pictures of, but I just didn't know Cobh was Queenstown. I didn't see them as the same place. So that was really exciting ‘cos it's only half an hour from Youghal. So again, really, really close.
And you know a lot of the people that got on the Titanic, at that time, I think there wasn't as much as I thought there was of Irish people getting on. Actually I think there was only over a hundred, but not above 200. I can't remember the exact number, but that did surprise me. ‘Cos I think many of the other Irish people must have got on at Southampton, which I kind of wondered why. But, yeah, in a way I have to look into that in a bit more detail, but that was really interesting. I got to go in the Titanic Experience, which was in the ticket office, and we were given the tour by a guy called Podric – who, again little shout out to him at Titanic Experience. He was absolutely fantastic - really, really great - and he is related to a third class passenger who played the pipes down in steerage and he sued White Star for the losses of his pipes after the sinking. So just from being from Cork and having those links to my twin obsessions of very, very grand references of history I thought was really, really interesting. And I loved it. I thought it was so exciting, you know, on the boat trip when they were talking about the Devonshires, I just got this buzz and I was like, “Oh my God, I know about Georgiana. She could have been in this house, blah, blah, blah.” And I asked the man, did Georgiana ever go in this house? Did she ever go in this house? And he was looking at me like I was a lunatic. And he was like, “Oh, I really don’t know. You're going to have to look into it.”
And then obviously when you know, all this Titanic stuff - two different references to the Titanic in the county I'm from. Fascinating. I was so excited.
DOUG: No, I get that. This is young Warren coming out with all that voracious need for knowledge.
WARREN: Yeah. And I think it's also come from the fact that, that, you know, I come from a shipping village. Like, Youghal is a shipping village. It was, you know, shipbuilding and a huge port, and it would've had many ships in it. And it's a coastal town as well, and I've always loved the sea and I've always loved beaches and I've - you know - I always collect rocks from the beach and shells and yeah, I just have a feel of connection to the sea. Water is a really big theme that I think has been, you know, a very constant theme in my life, that I feel very connected with.
DOUG: And yet it's not too much of a jump to talk about your twin heritages. The history of slavery, which obviously involves transporting people across huge distances by water, and also the Irish need or imperative to journey from Ireland - again, across the water.
WARREN: Yeah, exactly. That's a really, really good point. I've not actually even thought about that before. That's a really, really good point, actually. It's just a very emotional force, I think, water. But I also think, you know, the link to the 18th century, and that has also come with the acknowledgement and a want to understand slavery and to really want to delve into that, to understand what my family would've experienced. I think as I say, Georgiana and the Devonshires and all that, they were a gateway into that period, but they were also a symbol of that. You know, they're a symbol of aristocracy, they're a symbol of, you know, colonial rule. And that has also been a bit of a weird one to accept as an adult that these people that I was really inspired by are actually, you know, very, very - coming from a dark, dark place.
Even small things, you know, Marie Antoinette, she was painted in the Chemise A La Reine which caused a huge stir in the salons of Paris. That garment originates from Caribbean dress. Speaker 2 It's something that- Caribbean, you know- its fabric and Caribbean style is something that comes from that region it's come from the colonial influence because those kinds of clothing, they're designed to be worn in hot weather for comfort. And that's what kind of caused so much of a stir ‘cos, you know, it was seen that the Queen was like wearing her underwear, almost. But what I found really fascinating recently is it is that style of dress and it's linked to slavery. And so this is the whole thing of me being fascinated with the 18th century. And that's why I feel it’s my responsibility as an artist and designer to reclaim that now.
Like, I want to see people of colour, you know, in these dresses, in these fabrics, because they should have been alongside all of these white aristocrats, as far as I'm concerned. And they should have been able to have their influence in these styles of dress. And so now I feel the need to - and I love things like Bridgerton that are doing that. I think that, you know, the accessibility and the inclusivity of the cast of Bridgerton is fantastic because there were people of colour living in London in the 18th century. I think there were a lot more than people would probably, you know, think. And, yeah, it was something that I discovered when I used to work at Kenwood House, researching Dr. Elizabeth Bell, who was a key source of inspiration and reference for my dissertation. And I think that the 18th century, it's just really much something that in a strange sense, , when I started my journey on that research path with Georgiana, had you have told me you're going to end up back in the Caribbean with your research, I would've been really - I would've laughed at you. But actually there's so much that comes from Africa and the Caribbean, you know, cotton and spice and fabric and dyes. And, you know, we had a huge wealth of resources that contributed to the development of fashion, style, culture, music, everything, everything. And that's been something that has been really - you know - I've really, really enjoyed. And it's something that I want to celebrate and I want to bring that to the forefront now in what I'm doing,
DOUG (V/O): You’re listening to The Plastic Podcasts: Tales Of the Irish Diaspora. Also available on Spotify, Amazon and Apple Podcasts. Warren Reilly is a rising star of the art and textile world. He seems drawn to the connections that surround him and us: connections that drive him ever onwards. While he may describe himself as just another council house kid looking to make a break, such is his forward momentum, I ask if he ever feels as if this has all been somehow pre-ordained.
WARREN (Int): This is something that always makes me feel a little bit anxious, to be honest. I have always been told I was special, like since I was a child. Like, it has been something that - like, I've always been told I was very talented. The amount of times in my life that someone has said to me, like, “I really think you're going to be famous,” but that, for me, it like puts a bit of pressure on me a little bit. It excites me. I don't want to be famous like KIm Kardashian. I want to be loved and respected for what I do. And if that brings fame for that, I will be very, very, very pleased and proud. But I don't want fame like that. I want to be respected for what I'm doing. So, you know, for example, artists that I love - Grayson Perry, I would love to be at that level where I, you know, I'm creating my own artwork, I'm doing TV documentaries, but I'm also creating work with a very social, awareness: a social awareness that allows art to help people as well, and for them to explore their identity. I think that will always be a very key theme in what I'm doing.
It's a bit of a weird one in terms of feeling pre-ordained, because it is something that I feel actually - it's something that I feel that I always fight for. And a lot of people ask me, ‘cos I've worked really hard in my life and I've done loads in my life. A lot of people ask me, do you ever wonder if what you're doing is worth it or, you know, why are you doing all these things? I ask myself that question as well, but there's just something in me where I just know it's what I'm meant to be doing and that I can't imagine anything else. And I feel it's my purpose. I feel like I've got a purpose and that I will fight for this until I die. Honestly, I will be doing this - I will be working in the way I'm doing, I will be researching, you know, I will be doing this until I die 100%.
It's something that I feel has always been like a constant in my life. And I don't want to say, like, I know I'm destined for greatness ‘cos I think that sounds a bit arrogant, but you know, I've always been aware that - it's almost like I receive messages, if that makes sense but not in a kind of like otherworldly sense that I feel a voice is giving me the messages. It just feels that, like, at crucial points in my life where it's a kind of, should you do this? Should you not do this? a lot of the time I have a feeling that I should, you know, go forward.
I'm a very superstitious person, which probably also comes from Irish kind of culture as well. And also, you know, linking that back to water and being from a shipping village. Obviously, you know, there's a lot of superstition around about going to sea and things like that as well. I've been researching this recently as well in this mythology book I've discovered - from the Readers’ Digest that I found on the street - that I'm absolutely loving, which has been one of the Chamion’s favourite books since she was a child, from The Mixed Museum, which is great. But yeah, I have always felt like I've been on a journey. I feel with my identity, definitely definitely have been on a journey. I think a lot of mixed race people will really understand me when I say that is something that you do have to discover. I'm not sure that I can speak for everybody, but I think a lot of the time when people are mixed race, they come from - there's always some kind of brokenness somewhere, where there's like a lack of information or they don't quite know about that side of their family or a loss of contact or a death that has meant that they have not able to go forward. So in that respect of my identity, I feel like I'm definitely on a journey and I've really enjoyed that. And I've been determined to connect with the black side of my family because I've known, you know, a lot about my Irish family, because I've got many family members that are there to tell me about it, but in terms of my Jamaican family, you know, it's only very recent that my mom's reconnected with her family.
One of our cousins Charmaine, who I absolutely adore, came over to England for a few years and she was telling me about my ancestry there, a lot of textile history there, a lot of the women were seamstresses. So in that respect, yes, definitely, I'm on a journey for my identity. In terms of my career, I definitely feel like I am heading to something. And I always feel, I've always felt that I am heading for something. I don’t know what that is. I feel that it's some kind of force, that it's pulling me towards it and that I just need to keep fighting to get there, because I know I'm going to get there. It’s very, very strange and I've felt that since I was a child. Definitely felt that since I was a child, you know, in a lot of ways, and I don't know if maybe, like, you know, this research of the 18th century has kind of been part of that in a sense and also, you know, connecting with art and designers that are of huge interest to me. So, you know, Alexander McQueen being one of them, coming from a really working class background and from a Scottish ancestry and coming from basically nothing and being, you know, one of the most prevalent fashion designers of the 21st century and the 20th century.
It's been a huge thing of me being able to understand how someone's heritage can feed into their work and also to understand that no matter what oppression or a stereotype you are facing, if you are passionate about what it is you are doing, you will get to where you want to be. And obviously I know for him that ended really tragically and that is such a shame. And I think everybody will agree with me that they grieve his loss every single day in the fashion industry. It'd be so fascinating to see what he'd be doing now. But yeah, just, I think that there's been connections with designers and artists that have come from similar backgrounds to me that have proved to me that actually I do have what it takes and I just need to believe in myself that I have that.
And that is a difficult journey. A lot of artists, again, will agree with me that imposter syndrome is very common, and mental health is something - I think personally, I think mental health really runs hand in hand with being an artist and a designer - because it's very difficult to switch off and it's very difficult to step away from your creativity. Like, even now, most normal people would've gone to Ireland, had a nice time with their family and gone home. Whereas with me, I've taken like almost 2000 photos on my phone. So many creative references - of print designs or textures or, you know, garments or things that I'm like, gosh, this, this could go into a collection, this could go into this. This could be a painting. Like, you know, I could do this with that, and it's very difficult to switch off. So actually while that's a really, really fundamental part of being an artist and a very important part, actually I think sometimes that can also result in different forms of mental health issues, such as anxiety, such as - you know, as I just mentioned - imposter syndrome, not feeling that you're good enough. And also depression, I think sometimes I’ve had a difficulty with depression in the past because sometimes I focus on something so much and I'm so excited about it, that I work so much in it. And once it's gone, it's gone in a flash and then I'm kind of left like a rocket that the fuel’s run out, if you see what I mean. Exactly.
So sometimes I have a low period. Some of my family notice about me as well. It just is something that has happened in my life quite a few times, but I thank God I've gone to counselling, so I know how to manage it now. At university, it was something I did struggle with quite a lot because it was a very high pressure environment. But yeah, I think in that respect, it's something that I've acknowledged in my life and it's something - I don't want to, you know, end up like Alexander McQueen and, top myself at a young age. I want to be able to have a full life, but I also want to be able to contribute to the world of art and design in a very big way - a very, very big way. I've got very, very big aspirations for what I want to do.
DOUG: That's lovely. Here's a practical one. What is the secret of great gravy?
WARREN: Cook it down, man! Can't be dealing with people that are just putting water and granules in a cup. No, just can't - I'm sorry. Like, no, the secret is just to cook it down and like, you know, like give it love, add some herbs, like, you know, add a bit of, you know - I like thick gravy as well. That is also a thing. You are not going to Ireland and having watery gravy, I'm sorry. Even now, like, you know, the way my grandmother taught my father how to make gravy, I make gravy. It's kind of something that's been passed down. Gravy is very important. It's the liquid that holds the meal together and yeah - I just, I love gravy. I can literally eat it with a spoon to be honest with you. But yeah, I just think tip for good gravy, I like it thick, and cook it down. Let it have goodness. If you've got stock to add from, you know, an unused carcass from a chicken or whatever ‘ cos I use every single - I don't eat meat a lot, but when I do, I use every single bit of it because you know, it's a precious resource, you know. I know a lot of people with the whole meat industry, it's really, really bad these days through food waste, but I don't eat meat a lot of the time. I'm very, very controlled now on how much I do eat meat. But when I d, that whole bird's being used, trust me. So yeah, I just think, you know, flavour is a very important part of gravy and just make sure you add flavour to it, please. Please and thank you.
DOUG (V/O): You've been listening to The Plastic Podcasts with me, Doug Devaney, and my guest Warren Reilly. The Plastic Pedestal was provided by John O'Donoghue and music by Jack Devaney. Find us at www.plasticpodcasts.com, email us at [email protected]
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