Time Standardization, Clock Towers & Colonialism in Ireland and Palestine



In 2016 and 2017, Emily Jacir exhibited a site-specific work entitled Notes for a Cannon at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Commemorating the 100 year anniversary of the Easter Rising in Ireland and the British Occupation of Palestine, she traces time-keeping practices and the standardization of time imposed on these intertwining geographies.

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Details from Notes for a Cannon by Emily Jacir (2016). / G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division).

In 1916, when the General Post Office (GPO) clock stopped at 2.25 p.m. during the Easter Rising — an uprising to end British rule and establish an independent Irish Republic — it was operating under Dublin Mean Time. In London it was 2:50 p.m. (G.M.T). The GPO on O’Connell street had been taken over as the headquarters of the Rising’s leaders and meeting place for the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army, and it was from outside this building on April 24, 1916, that Padraig Pearse had read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. In 1880, the Statutes (Definition of Time) Act had defined Dublin Mean Time (DMT) as the legal time for Ireland. This was the local mean time as measured at Dunsink Observatory in County Dublin, where sunrise and sunset were 25 minutes and 21 seconds later than at Greenwich Observatory in London. In the wake of the Easter Rising, a proclamation by the British government stated that Dublin Mean Time would be synchronized with Greenwich Mean Time for military and commercial purposes. Later in that same year the Time (Ireland) Act of September 1916 defined that the legal time for Ireland was to be Greenwich Mean Time.

In 1917, the British military began its colonial occupation of Jerusalem. Five years later the clock tower at Jaffa gate was removed under the command of Ronald Storrs, the British military governor of the occupied city, in an attempt to make the city match the British imaginary of what biblical Jerusalem should look like. This intricate Clock Tower had been built at Jaffa Gate (Bab al-Khalil) in Jerusalem in 1901. It was built to commemorate the 25th year of the enthronement of Sultan Abdul Hamid II in the Ottoman Empire. The notables who funded the project at Jaffa Gate were all local Jerusalemites. Seven of these clock towers were constructed throughout Palestine in Nablus, Akka, Haifa, Safad, Nazareth, Jaffa, and Jerusalem.

One hundred years later, in the centenary year of the Easter Rising and the Balfour Declaration, I exhibited two site-specific works at the Irish Museum of Modern Art: Notes for a Cannon (2016-2017). The Museum itself is housed in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, itself a colonial site, and indeed it was from his rooms in here that General Maxwell ordered the deaths of the leaders of the Rising. The works came out of an extensive research into the shared history of British Colonial Rule in both Palestine and Ireland, remnants which still abound today. Ireland was the first colonial laboratory of the British Empire and the Irish people lived for centuries under British occupation. Between 1917 and 1948, Great Britain, more than any other nation, helped to lay the diplomatic, governmental, military, and economic foundations for a State of Israel in Palestine. Though both sites were subjected to British colonial rule for very different lengths of time, Palestine’s comparatively late entrance meant that it entered a system with already well-established modes of governing, policing, and administering along with hundreds of years of experience accumulated against fighting anti-colonial movements and counter-insurgency in Ireland. The works examined how this violent colonial history and these invasive disruptions of social, cultural, religious, and political orders played out and how they continue to shape our present condition.

Ireland and Palestine share a history of partition, occupation, and dispossession. Both the land and the culture are marked by imperialism and settler colonialism, as well as by an enduring resistance to them.

Ireland and Palestine share a history of partition, occupation, and dispossession. Both the land and the culture are marked by imperialism and settler colonialism, as well as by an enduring resistance to them. Both are positioned at the edge of mercantile seas and both were/are colonial projects mapped onto a religious conflict to make it appear as a “religious war.” There is a long history of solidarity between Ireland and Palestine, including radical tactics used by the Irish that have served to inspire Palestinian efforts to resist occupation such as the hunger strikes. Though the Irish went on to attain their independence, with the exception of the six counties in the North, Palestine with the Nakba, an event whose repercussions are even more harsh and devastating today, remained and remains occupied. Additionally, refugees who were forced to flee Palestine in 1948 have fled for a second, third and sometimes fourth time due to current events in the Arab world.

Notes for a Cannon had many facets, but it was essentially an exploration into the slippages of and standardization of time, as well as time-keeping practices in public spaces. It explored the ways in which various times are lived and experienced simultaneously.

The passage of the Time Act provocatively followed fast after the events of Easter 1916 and on the executions of its leaders that culminated in Roger Casement’s hanging in August 1916. When, on October 1, 1916, Dublin Mean Time was replaced with GMT, it was met with considerable criticism and resistance at the time including opposition from local councils, politicians, farmers and some business groups. The Irish revolutionary Countess Markievicz complained bitterly about the change, writing that “public feeling was outraged.” She had taken part in the Easter Rising and had been sentenced to death, but her sentence was reduced on account of her gender. In one of the many letters to the newspapers that I collected regarding this one commentator remarked, “an Irish sun was replaced by an English sun.”

At 2:00 am Dublin Mean Time on Sunday, October 1, 1916, time changed forever in Ireland, when British clocks went back an hour for winter, Irish clocks went back by only 35 minutes to synchronize the clocks between Ireland and Britain, thus establishing a uniform temporal regime throughout the “United Kingdom.” All Irish clocks were now officially English.

All Irish clocks were now officially English.

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Details from Notes for a Cannon (2016). / Left. Photo by Denis Mortell (2016). Right. Papers of John D. Whiting (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division).

Time also changed forever in Jerusalem when the Clocktower at Jaffa Gate was destroyed in 1922:

The famous Clock Tower at the Jaffa Gate, in Jerusalem, has been taken down on the grounds that it was ugly and not in keeping with the ancient wall. It was put up in 1907, and boasted of a fine timepiece, giving both European and Arabic times. The tower was removed at the instigation of the Pro-Jerusalem Society, which was founded by Sir Ronald Storrs, the Present Governor of the Holy City, some 18 month ago, and whose object is “to preserve the ancient monuments, encourage technical education, plant trees, and in general beautify the ancient and historic city of Jerusalem.” Harold J. Shepstone “Restoring the Walls of Jerusalem,” 1924.

The clock tower had displayed alafranga (best translated as “european style”) so European standard time on its western and eastern faces and alaturka (best translated as “ottoman style” local time on its northern and southern faces. Alaturka, an Ottoman system of measuring time, goes according to the setting and rising of the sun (sunset being 0 hours and sunrise 12 hours). Alaturka time divides the day into 12-hour periods whose actual duration varies with the season. To me the most important aspect of the clock tower at Jaffa gate was precisely this, that it had kept two distinct modes of measuring time in the same frame rather than seeking to eradicate one over the other. Two temporal systems lived side by side inhabiting the same space. It was this concurrent use of two time systems and their simultaneity that the British colonial power sought to erase. British modernization could not accept the co-existence within the same frame of these two distinct modes of measuring time, a reality that was actually lived in the quotidian experience of the city’s residents.

The removal of the clock tower in the name of aesthetic and so-called “authentic” origins […] erased from Jerusalem the trace of an alternative vision of modernization capable of simultaneously embracing two systems of marking daily time…

The removal of the clock tower in the name of aesthetic and so-called “authentic” origins, had not only erased from Jerusalem the trace of an alternative vision of modernization capable of simultaneously embracing two systems of marking daily time, but also imposed a historical fantasy of the city itself onto itself. Interestingly, in Ireland, despite the officially operating DMT time, each county and city set their local clocks according to true local time or Apparent Solar Time and in some rail stations both DMT time and local time were displayed on two time clocks. Mean time had entered the Ottoman Empire around the middle of the 19th century and was increasingly used in various governmental agencies alongside the indigenous alaturka hour system. The Ottoman Empire used alafranga time mainly for the military and in various agencies handling communications, transportation and foreign affairs.

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Royal Hospital Kilmainham Clock Tower in Dublin. / Photo by Emily Jacir (2016).

Internationally before the age of the railway and telegraph, every community kept its own hour which was derived from the meridian where it was located. By the 1870s, there was pressure both to establish a prime meridian for worldwide navigation purposes and to unify local times for railway timetables and communication. The first International Geographical Congress, held in Antwerp in 1871, passed a motion in favor of the use of the Greenwich Meridian for (smaller scale) passage charts, suggesting that it should become mandatory within 15 years. At the Prime Meridian Conference in Washington D.C. in 1884, the Ottoman delegate declared that in the Ottoman State there would always be two times: mean time dials placed next to alaturka ones on all public clocks.

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View of the exhibition Notes for a Cannon by Emily Jacir (2016). Photo by Dennis Mortell (2016). / The work was comprised of two piece: a site specific sound piece at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham Clock Tower, and a multimedia installation at the Irish Museum Modern Art (IMMA), which includes drawings, videos, texts and photos created by the artist as well as, archival material and objects including photographs from the papers of John D. Whiting; Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division; newspaper clippings from the Irish Independent (courtesy the National Library of Ireland); newspaper clippings from Falastin Newspaper (courtesy Institute of Palestine Studies, Beirut); a document from Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi (The Ottoman State Archives, Istanbul); a 1982 poster issued by the Republican Movement (courtesy the Linen Hall Library); 19th century bell once installed in a church in Armagh, Northern Ireland (manufactured by T. Mears Whitechapel Foundry, London); 19th century Ottoman Billodes/Zenith pocket watch: K. Serkisoff & Co. Constantinople. Commissioned by IMMA for the exhibition Europa at IMMA, 2016-2017.

The Ottoman Clock tower in Akka still exists today. The first time I filmed it in 1999, all the clock faces were missing and all that remained were empty holes. I searched in vain through archives trying to locate images of its clock faces after the State of Israel was declared in 1948, but I found nothing. All that I have from before the so-called restoration is my own video footage. The clock tower was “restored” in 2001 in a special ceremony, where four new clock faces were installed: one in Hebrew, the second with Arabic digits (European), the third with Roman digits, and the fourth Eastern Arabic numerals. The clock tower at Jaffa gate was destroyed in order “restore” the ancient walls of Jerusalem’s Old City and to preserve it as a non-modern and “ancient” biblical site. In Akka the “restored” new clock faces are an example of the Zionist project to backdate the Jewish presence in Palestine, to imply a historical continuity with the ancient sites and the traditions of the area, while simultaneously erasing the actual history and relationships on the ground.

As part of my exhibition at Irish Museum of Modern Art, one of my first proposals was that the museum would run on Dublin Mean Time (DMT) for the duration of my exhibition and to change all the clocks in the public spaces to DMT, all lectures and events scheduled to DMT, and all day-today operations and the website to be in DMT. When that was unable to be carried about by the museum, I then proposed that the Royal Hospital clock would be stopped at 2:25 p.m. on November 24, 2016, and that no bells would ring throughout the duration of my exhibition. The Royal Hospital clock would then resume timekeeping on February 27, 2017, after the exhibition was over. A third proposal was that a cannon shot would be fired at noon alaturka each day for the duration of my show — the museum did actually contact the Irish army in order to try to make this happen.

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Detail from Notes for a Cannon (2016). Free Derry Museum. / Photo by Emily Jacir (2009).

It was my fourth proposal — a site-specific sound intervention — which was realized and which took place at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham Clock Tower. For the duration of the exhibition every day at noon, Dublin Mean Time, a bell struck 12 times from the tower, signaling a noontide 35 minutes out of sync with what is now standard Irish time (GMT). At noon Greenwich Mean Time, the sound of a single cannon shot rang out from the tower. And finally, at noon alaturka time the call to prayer from the tower echoed throughout the area. The alaturka timing of the call to prayer meant that it was gradually shifting in relation to the sun, but also in relation to both DMT and GMT across the duration of the exhibition. The sounds in the installation were thus all, to varying degrees, marking time and correspondences between two divergent systems of recording and marking the hours of the day that were equally displaced by a colonial imposition of standardized time. ■