An Artist Takes on the Absurdities of the Irish Public Health System

“One of the things I’m working on now is an interactive game show,” says Áine O’Hara, sitting in La Pausa Caffe, her face framed by a choppy fringe and silver earrings.

The game, as she envisages it, would give audiences the opportunity to “spin the wheel” to decide whether they get essential medical treatment.

“It is something that you can come into the gallery and play and you can win health or lose health. Now, I’m not really going to take away your health,” the artist says, laughing.

That’s just one of many projects that O’Hara is currently working on, as part of her residency at the A4 Sounds arts space off Dorset Street in the north inner-city.

All of them follow similar themes, exploring disability, productivity and the absurdity of the Irish public health system, she says.

Inspired by the Sweepstakes

The game-show idea, and other projects, are inspired by the Irish Sweepstakes set up in the 1930s to fund the nation’s hospitals, she says. It’s a way to highlight how getting essential treatment can be the luck of the draw, still today.

Of course a lot of the money raised by the Sweepstakes didn’t actually get to the hospitals. Among other diversions of the cash raised, three or four times a year, before the organisers plucked a winner from the thousands of tickets, the Sweepstakes threw massive parades through Dublin, which helped to build up hype, she says.

So O’Hara will be “using elements of that to feed into absurdity that is the luck of the draw in trying to get healthcare”, they say. “Will I get picked?”

The idea is also to demonstrate how gender, class and race can all reduce access to healthcare treatment. Research in the US shows that women get prescribed less pain medication than men and studies have also shown that non-white people were also disproportionately refused access to pain medication.

“It is terrifying, but I’ve been coming up with these games, Winning Streak-style, that the audience can come in and interact with,” they say.

Getting treatment for pain can involve a bit of potluck, says O’Hara, who has fibromyalgia. They talk about the difficulties of getting cannabis oil that would help ease their own pain.

That would require a GP or consultant to write to the minister of health for a licence. In the last government that was Fine Gael TD Simon Harris.

“I just want to be in less pain but I don’t want to have to write to Simon and beg,” O’Hara says. “Hey Simon, I just want to be in less pain, could you help me out?”

There are no specialists or pain clinics available to treat fibromyalgia and the other conditions O’Hara has through the public system, they say.

O’Hara has really struggled to get treatment, partly because, like chronic fatigue and a number of other conditions, fibromyalgia is not registered as a disability or on the long-term illness scheme, she says.

But the lotto analogy probably won’t be lost on anyone who has interacted with the public health system recently.

The Residency

O’Hara’s six-month residency with A4 Sounds is part of the north-side art space’s We Only Want the Earth series.

The residencies are there to give people who need it a leg up. “The residency I got was for people who had experienced homelessness,” says O’Hara. “The other person, Chris, their residency was specifically for a trans artist.”

“I did a lot of sleeping on couches, which is a lot of craic when you are in pain,” she says. “No craic at all.”

She spent nights sitting up in a night cafe, too. Then she got a room for a while but ended up couch-surfing again. Having to lean on friends is really complicated, she says.

“You don’t have your own home. Can you make dinner today? Can you do laundry? When are you asking too much?” she says. “You are ruining friendships … It is so dehumanising.”

Throughout the residency, she plans to explore issues of disability, productivity and what it means to be a useful member of society, through performance art, workshops, visual art and installations.

She’s kicking off with a theatrical performance, Calling in Sick, on 20 February in the Smock Alley Theatre, written and performed by O’Hara and exploring theme of productivity and disability.

It is just a snippet, she says. The plan is to build on that to create a longer performative piece on the theme in the coming months.

Getting Political

The government wants to promote Ireland abroad as an artistic and creative place, but essentially they are exploiting artists, says O’Hara. “It is a land of writers and creatives, but they don’t care about us.”

A lot of artists tend to leave Ireland because it is not sustainable for them to live here, and that also has an impact on the type of people who can afford to be artists.

“If you are cutting everyone that is not upper-middle class out of your country, your arts is gone,” says O’Hara. “They are getting rid of all the artists and all the people who have an interesting story to tell.”

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Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at laoiseneylon@gmail.com.

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