Colgagh- A Frequently Asked Question

July 15th, 2011


Innocent Landscapes, Colgagh, 1999

If there is one question that I can guarantee being asked about my work on the disappeared it is the one concerning the level of contact I had with the families. I still feel today what I felt back in 1999 when I started all these journeys into these highly localized, anonymous landscapes. In many ways I am unsure as to what value I might be to them. At best I am a silent recorder of recent history and in some way all I can offer them is a memorialized and at times unyielding landscape. I did however have one meeting by accident in the first weeks of starting to visit and look at that initial litany of Ballynultagh, Bragan,  Colgagh, Oristown, Wilkinstown and Faughart. It was one of those ‘what will I do now’ moments, where fortunately you make the right decision.

Driving in the company of a wise woman along the narrow secluded lane to the site, we reached the top of a small incline that held the place from view as you entered the lane, I saw a car parked and some people at the shrine of hope and expectation that now celebrated the return of Brian McKinney and John McClory. ‘Lets say hello’ said the wise woman as I hesitated and feeling like a man who has been pushed out of a plane on his first parachute jump I ventured forward. It was a special moment, an encounter that marked me during my work on this project. Margaret McKinney, mother of Brian, a remarkable woman whose gentle warmth eased my sense of intrusion and her assertion that in a strange way that it was a comfort to her that Brian had been buried with nature in a beautiful place shaped my future approach to this subject. Somehow that combination of location of place and a natural setting acted as a comfort cloak of reflection. We finished our conversation and I offered to make a photograph of her to send to her as a record of her visit. It was one of those blue sky days that I am not entirely fond of and the light was incredibly harsh and yet it manages to overcome this in visualizing as it does her (en)lightened gaze towards the shrine as a counterpoint to the expectant gaze into the violated landscape. Past and present merged in a simple click.

This week BBC Radio 4 broadcast a short documentary on the disappeared taking Margaret as a focal point. It captures the wounds and dilemmas faced by those involved and a simple quote from her daughter perhaps sums up so much about this subject.

‘She wraps the past around herself and rocks with it…’.

colgaghREV09 copy

Innocent Landscapes,  Revisited, Colgagh, June 2009

It can be listened to on playback until next Wednesday (20-07-11)

A Short Walk Home and a Miss-Truth is Revealed

June 29th, 2011


Gallery of Photography, Dublin, 28-06-2011

Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can be carved                   Immanuel Kant

As part of the second PhotoIreland Festival the Gallery of Photography is hosting a group show The Long View that will exhibit the work of Anthony Haughey, Jackie Nickerson, Richard Mosse, Paul Seawright, Donovan Wylie and my good self. It will be the first showing of works from Small Acts of Memory, the title that has attached itself to the body of photographs made at the resumed search at Coghalstown Wood Wilkinstown, which has been extensively documented in this blog since September 2009. The show came together quite quickly so my decisions on print sizes and framing were made intuitively. One aspect I needed to establish was a distanced connection to Innocent Landscapes hence the white border and glass but with a dark wooden frame as a nod to the previous work.  The prints finally arrived from the framer into the gallery space this afternoon and the negotiation of real estate could begin. As I have printed the images myself there are as ever a few things I would adjust slightly on a second print run but the enabling power of digital technology cannot be dismissed lightly.

Having left the photographs to ferment against the gallery walls overnight I walked home reflecting on the long journey through this landscape that has been sifted for a memory that refuses to reveal itself and offer up the remains of Seamus Wright and Kevin McKee who were killed and ‘secretly buried’ in October 1972. The previous evening I had returned to this site, a desire to ground myself in the context of forthcoming gallery activity. All the recently planted saplings had been removed and the thin barrier between this series of fields and an adjacent one had been removed. Was the site being re-possessed by those who own it? As far as I am aware the search has not been formally shut down at this location and consequently it possesses a potent latency – six inches, six feet, sixty feet. How does one close the door on uncertainty and doubt? The desire for closure is ever present. Nature is never finished and the human heart demands peace and settlement.

Arriving home this evening I turned on the radio to hear ‘remains of disappeared located in graveyard’. Another truth has slowly seeped out, as it appears that the remains of Columba McVeigh have been located, not at Bragan, the site searched in 1999, 2000, 2003 and in 2007/2008 but secretly buried at a graveyard within an official plot in a small neighboring townland. This revelation is one of those double secrets of time. A revealed secret that was silenced and secreted again within the earth as these remains were discovered in 1980 when the plot was opened for a burial and like so many things in our recent history it was hushed away. Complicity and fear being the bedfellows that consigned a family to a thirty-six year vigil. A local priest passed on this information to the authorities 18 months ago but it was rejected as unlikely by the ICLVR as it didn’t tally with information from official contacts within the republican movement. As ever sometimes trust and truths are uneasy bedfellows.

71Bragan(bogwlhead),2000 copy

Innocent Landscapes, Bragan, 2000

27_6_09_bragan_rev3_3890 copy

Innocent Landscapes Revisited Bragan June 2009

Oristown – a nagging inner voice

May 20th, 2011

Sligo_30_04_11_1433 copy

Sligo, April 2011

I have continued to visit the resumed search at Oristown initiated last August but with decreasing regularity. The topography of the landscape being searched there, which essentially consists of parallel banks or strips of flat bog give little variation even on a weekly basis and some weeks no new photographs emerged. As a result I have been pursuing with greater clarity some work I have been making as a response to the Crisis. I think I may even have came across the genie (or the genius perhaps) rather than the ghost of the Celtic Tiger,  residing not in a cave in Pakistan or Afghanistan but rather in the basement of a now thrashed apartment block in Sligo. Apparently some people had bought there but were advised to leave as this new development in a scenic location adjacent to a river had already started to sink. In the rest of the development anything that was removable, from sinks to showers, had been ripped out by DIY enthusiasts looking for a bargain.

Last weekend I returned to Oristown and yet again the search appeared to be on pause. A further three banks of turf had been returned without return. On adjacent banks the early summer activity of laying out to dry recently cut strips of turf was well advanced and in some parts the delicated white bog cotton bobbed in the wind. One of the strips examined and leveled just before Christmas was already showing faint green blades of grass like the first furze on a pubescent boys chin. Already nature was actively secreting a recent narrative.


Innocent Landscapes, Resumed Search, Oristown, May 2011


Innocent Landscapes, Resumed Search, Oristown, May 2011


Innocent Landscapes, Coghalstown Wood, May 2011

While there I finally yielded to an inner voice, which for some time has been nagging me to pay a revisit to Coghalstown Wood which had been searched for a year up to the summer of last year without return. On strolling down the narrow lane there were some relatively recent tyre tracks embedded in the muddy entrance but little appeared to have changed. It is adjacent to a field of curious cows so this was not out of place. Many of the replanted saplings had failed to take giving the fields an anorexic look and as I walked past the Swallowing Tree I noticed that on the western side of the fields some recent replanting of young saplings had taken place. Ah yes I thought, an attempt to get the timing right and re-establish the wood in a more coherent fashion and yet the line of mature trees that usually framed this section seemed to have diminished. It was confusing. As I got closer those familiar totems of hopefulness could be seen dotted here and there – freshly painted red bamboo sticks were dispersed among the recently turned soil and the newly planted saplings. In disbelief it slowly dawned on me that the search team had obviously returned relatively recently and had digested another slice of this field, churned it around and returned it flat and unyielding.

It took a while to figure out just how much they had examined but I was helped by locating a small ‘pond’ that nestled in the corner of the field when the search was called off the previous august. It was a sobering reminder of how can one tread through a distant memory and recount the number of footsteps? That all this scratching and scraping of old wounds relies more on the music of chance than the certainty of science or re-collection. And that when we pursue difficult truths, sometimes there are some secrets that wish to remain as a stain or, as might be labeled in old-fashioned catholic terms, that there are some secrets that wish to remain as sins that cannot simply be absolved and forgotten. They should haunt us a little and be a thorn in our memory. So in a week where the Queen paid us a visit and atonement hugged  the air and swirled around us, another less public process was perhaps drawing to a close.


Innocent Landscapes, Coghalstown Wood, May 2011

Oristown – On it Goes

March 23rd, 2011

20_03_11_01471563 copy

Innocent Landscapes, Resumed Search, Oristown, March 2011

Every now and then its nice to be wrong. The impending sense of closure felt on my last visit has for now been pushed into the distance. An impromptu bridge links the first of the three banks of turf that were recently searched and leveled to a new part of the bog that has never been examined. The pattern of activity remains the same. Compressed time expands into heaps of sifted earth that will be returned for future generations to possibly exhume again for heat and warmth. A short distance away a long narrow mound of turf remains atop of the bog. This bank of turf is now level again but there is no room for this ridge of turf. It simply wont fit back in. It stubbornly resists. This small raised scar.  This refusal to go away. Another wee metaphor.

Oristown – Fading Light

March 13th, 2011

5_03_11_3324 copy 5_03_11_3325 copy

Innocent Landscapes, Resumed Search, Oristown, March, 2011

I returned to Oristown last weekend. I had been there a number of times since I last wrote about it but no pictures had emerged on those trips and the voice within was without so no words flowed. In the last few weeks there has been a sense of a veil being drawn on a slow walk to an inevitable conclusion that offered scant comfort. On a rather beautiful misty day that seemed permanently hovering at twilight I was greeted upon my arrival by the soft sound of the JCB’s growling towards me across the bog.  A symphony of swinging and clawing arms were leveling and adjusting the soft dark bog. In no mood for explanations at this point I left them to it and went for a drive returning some time later to a silent gentle breeze that gifted me now with the sound of spring birds.

I walk down the same lane that I have strolled along on and off for twelve years and more recently with consistency since last July. Buds are emerging from the trees that line the route to the three banks of turf that extend for over 300 metres before coming to a bog wall that will be the source of next years fuel. Each bank is about 30 metres wide and I decide to walk along one of them, counting my exaggerated footsteps in order to estimate just how far this slow race has been. I stop counting at two hundred and twelve.

Within this approximate 200m length of a shuffled memory within each bank of turf, nothing has emerged. Already part of the restored bog is resisting recent attempts to give it a respectable shape and attempts have been made to restrain it with trunks of silver birch trees, which remind me of the yearlong unyielding search at nearby Wilkinstown. These sharpened stakes driven deep into the side walls remind me of ribs straining to contain an intake of breath.

5_03_11_34001556 copy

Innocent Landscapes, Resumed search, Oristown, March, 2011

Brendan Megraw according to one truth lies somewhere in this bog – Emlagh Bog, Oristown – but for now, the only truth is that his ongoing absence is an unresolved loss. Later as I return to my car and look back across the memory banks that stretch away from me from out of nowhere I think of the wonderful poem ‘The Shout’ by Simon Armitage.

@font-face { font-family: “Times”; }@font-face { font-family: “Cambria”; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0cm 0cm 10pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }a:link, span.MsoHyperlink { color: blue; text-decoration: underline; }a:visited, span.MsoHyperlinkFollowed { color: purple; text-decoration: underline; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }

And while we cannot hear you some of us are still listening.

77EXH Oristown,2000

Innocent Landscapes, relatives visiting site, 2000

A New Leader – 26-01-11

January 27th, 2011


RHA Gallery, Dublin, 26-1-11


RHA Gallery, Dublin, 26-1-11


RHA Gallery, Dublin, 26-1-11


RHA Gallery, Dublin, 26-1-11

Somehow I couldnt resist. It has been maybe ten or eleven years since I covered a press conference but a little voice whispered in my ear ‘go and have an ould look’ and as I currently have an inkling to cover the forthcoming election as a small project I wandered on down to the RHA Gallery (an interesting seting) to hear Mr Martin’s first words as the new leader of the soldiers of destiny. It was an old memory – the synchronized crush of lensmen at work and the buzzing nervousness of the ‘handlers’ – one of which (a fresh young boy in a suite) informed me that ‘we weren’t doing pictures from behind today’ as he tried to block my way. In those situations it’s best not to waste time argueing but rather duck and dive and find a way if necessary. It was also interesting to try to photograph this type of event with the H3D in available light and as ever with photography the  constraints of the machine brings its own aesthetic.

Oristown – Some Conversations

January 25th, 2011

23_01_11_2618 copy

Innocent Landscapes, Resumed Search, Oristown, January 2011

The resumed search here at Oristown, which began in late summer 2010 continues its slow pace along three banks of turf with a solemn intensity. The bog if not frozen has the consistency of porridge to a depth of six inches or so, which makes walking across it an unpleasant experience. One feels all energy being leeched away into the cold sodden earth and yet this place possesses a quiet beauty that is reassuring. On this late January afternoon many locals are out walking along the narrow road that traverses this landscape nearby, either attempting to fulfill new year resolutions or simply glad to escape the house on such a fine winters day. Some make their way along the small road into the bog to have a look at the ‘the dig’, assess it’s progress and occasionally offer me an opinion if we start up a conversation. All mention that word ‘closure’ and hope for a positive conclusion. At this point in time I am not so optimistic, maybe trudging through that soft dirty bog is getting to me but no matter, on it will go until the ever mobile red sticks that mark the boundaries of the search run up against a natural topographical conclusion. At which point the clawing arms of the JCB’s and patient watching of the time teams will withdraw with a quiet dignity.

23_01_11_2611 copy

Innocent Landscapes, Resumed Search, Oristown, January 2011


January 22nd, 2011


Junior Minister Conor Lenihan being interviewed on BBC TV, Dublin, 20-01-11

To paraphrase or perhaps abuse the words of dear old Sam I can’t go on, I’ll go on and on and on and on …. What a week. A week where our leader attempted to play the politics of old not realizing or caring that there is a genuine desire to distance ourselves from the grubbiness that has passed for political service over the last thirty years. He misread it because somewhat like the institutional church here a public subservience and connivance has nurtured an inward looking, self-serving oligarchy. Thursday was an incredible day where certain ladies and gentlemen of our dearly beloved government who can’t do one job properly ended up with two as a result of a botched ‘stroke’ reshuffle.

Possessing as I do, a curious mind, I sauntered down to the Dail to see would Joe Public finally appear to nudge the lemmings off the cliff. I genuinely thought Yes - now people will slowly gather and circle the Dail – ‘asha, asha we all fall down.’ Sadly, as ever, there were more press photographers than protesters although I had apparently just missed a lunchtime protest about a rural hospital cut back complete with donkeys and Irish dancers – where is Martin Parr when you need him? – however I might have censored myself from yet more Father Ted representations of ourselves – things are bad enough but sometimes I do feel that maybe for a longtime now we have been a nation of Dougals.

As I was about to post this our dear leader, who yesterday said he would be leading the soldiers of destiny into the election he set on Thursday for March 11th, called a press conference to announce that he would step down as leader of the party but stay on as our dear leader. Does one laugh or cry? Probably both simultaneously and at the same time.

01_01_11 New Beginnings, Old Memories and Other People’s Souvenirs.

January 2nd, 2011

01_01_11_2351 copy

View East from Dalkey Hil, Dublin, 01-01-11

‘..ah well – no worse – no better, no worse – no change – no pain – hardly any – great thing that – nothing like it – pure … what? – what?…’ – Samuel Beckett, Happy Days.

It’s a ritual of mine when possible to view the sea in and around dawn on New Years Day. The primordial soup is always reassuring no matter the weather and it’s not that difficult at this time of year for while we are on the way back the sun is still quite  lazy and today only managed to lift its head into sullen clouds at 8.41 and 11 seconds. I have photographed this view many times, once – in a period of prolonged madness or serenity (I can’t remember which) – I photographed it for thirty days in a row before dawn and then for the next thirty days after dusk and this well before I discovered Mr. Sugimoto who has well and truly peed in the corner with this one so it remains a private obsession. This view is one that many of the Dublin illuminati have as a front garden but its free if you bother to walk up a very small hill. Today was special. It began with the above image but others  unfolded as I stood on a small rock nestled in the heather and on it went for nearly two hours, holding me transfixed in the one spot during which time some light showers of rain passed by and some light winds dappled the surface here and there of a now full sea. I have always thought that this wind effect might also explain naturally occurring crop circles as they have a rhythmic pulse. During this brief period, as large ships and ferries moved through the bay and two canoeists headed out for a sea journey around a small island, in front of my framed view nothing moved and yet all moved. At one point a man and his dog working their way through the heather paused momentarily to ask me if he would be interfering if he walked in front of me – they are polite like that in this neck of the woods.

01_01_11_2323 copy

View South East from Dalkey Hil, Dublin, 01-01-11

In between these  events the folly began – I decided that I would look East again (towards Berlin or perhaps Frankfurt – our new masters) and make a photograph every minute for fifteen minutes but that I would enumerate the minutes by counting the seconds outloud to myself  ‘one–elephant, two-elephants, three-elephants,……..’ - aah the old style, nothing like it.

01_01_11_2256 copy

View East from Dalkey Hil, Dublin, 01-01-11, 9.27 and 37 seconds

Fifteen photographs but twenty-five minutes later (so much for elephants, maybe lions next time) as the light has been chased away, evoking a slightly melancholic narrative,  I decide in the spirit of the day to go on for an hour. And

01_01_11_2270 copy

View East from Dalkey Hil, Dublin, 01-01-11, 9.53 and 07 seconds

on the counting and the watching went, until fifty-four photographs and one hour  twenty minutes and nine seconds later  an equilibrium was reached and I could return safely to the shoebox – a new man for a new year.

01_01_11_2311 copy

View East from Dalkey Hil, Dublin, 01-01-11, 10.48 and 06 seconds

Driving home and pondering that possibly the best way to visualize this nascent experience might be a small ‘movie’ of stills transitioning one to the other for sixty minutes, my mind meandered back to a New Years Day in Tokyo in 2006 when, far from the sea and looking for something to mark the occasion, I wandered by chance to one of the large parks to discover hundreds and hundreds of people heading to a temple, casting their Yen to the air as they sought good fortune for the forthcoming year before then posing for family photographs, some of which I borrowed as ‘Other People’s Souvenirs’ for a future that would hark back to a past life.


21-12-10 – Winter Solstice

December 21st, 2010

19_12_10_2069 copy

Dublin, December 2010

Even the sound of those two words – Winter Solstice – has a comforting feeling. It marks the day when those of us in the northern hemisphere begin to swing back and claim more daylight. It is a moment where the presence and absence of light counterbalance each other, giving places above a lattitude of 66.5 degrees north a continuous night, while those below a lattitude of 63.5 south a continuous day. Today in Dublin, as we continue to experience with most of Europe a Climate Change Winter, I noticed four different types of snow and yet it soothes me that I may have more light to work with tomorrow. It all begins again tomorrow and yet


I promise myself.


Unlike today.

Will be another day.

And yet we all know

That tomorrow

Has already been and gone,

And that yesterday will return

As before,

To haunt us, hunt us, hang us

Though not necessarily in that order.

21_12_10_2081 copy

Dublin, 21-12-10