Oristown – provisional traces

December 15th, 2010

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Innocent Landscapes, Resumed Search, Oristown, December 2010

With the premature city snow receding I drive out of Dublin somewhat reluctantly – expecting a frozen and snow-bound landscape but it’s accessible without much difficulty. The wet winter bog is usually a location where you and your footsteps subside and dissolve in time-lapse fashion, absorbing and hiding your presence and with this in mind I hesitatingly trudge along the lane in expectation of an hour or so of squelching and sinking. But a deep cold lies in the bog and it is surprisingly solid and easier than usual to negotiate and in being so it temporarily holds on to the traces of those who walked recently along its surface seeking truth. In spite of the weather the time-team persist in their sifting and probing, moving further and further away from the laneway entrances to the three banks of turf being investigated and already in some instances they are at twice the initial marked out distance. The surrounding landscape has already settled into the season and the trees have the skeletal form of winter. This is a difficult landscape to extract new photographs from on every visit as essentially the same activity occurs on a fixed flat terrain and if anything it is the slow inching along of the background that alters and marks what I was going to term progress – is this progress? – Possibly in a strange way it is, though with only transient hills and ponds and the positive negative of elimination to show for it.

Whenever I have visited any site which has undergone this type of forensic search that wonderful and strange film ‘The Music of Chance’ is never far from my mind; particularly the task that befalls the two protagonists as a result of a card game and the repetitious act they must carry out in a field within a beautiful meadow in order to pay off their debt. Back in September this was heightened at Oristown one Sunday afternoon when, standing on this silent bog, I began to hear a voice speaking through a loudspeaker from off in the distance. As I strained to pick up what was being said all I could make out were numbers being called out as if by some deity, (albeit with a Meath accent) – numbers that beckoned and summoned. It was of course something both prosaic and yet peculiar and not without association to what was occurring here. A new fad of drive-in bingo was taking place in a field a few miles away and the wind was carrying providence towards me. Through erasing or concealing numbers a fortune would be revealed and so here I pondered at what number of days, at what number of metres, at what number of years, at what number of footsteps, would a truth emerge?

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Innocent Landscapes, Resumed Search, Oristown, December 2010


Après Budget 2010 – Back to the Future

December 12th, 2010

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Circa late 1980’s – Photographer Unknown

A significant factor in our recent self-belief as a nation was qualifying initially for Euro 1988 and then more significantly for the World Cup in 1990 where we reached the quarterfinals.  The homecoming reception attracted a claimed 250,000 people – lord knows what would have happened if we had actually won. Maybe this was the seed for the future period of the noughties where according to Mr. Lenihan recently ‘we partied too long’ – indeed. Well with a bit of luck his Party may soon be over too – though I will wait for the votes to be counted first before having my own celebration. This portentous photograph from the late 1980’s – presumably taken for a sponsorship announcement, and presumably to be cropped it its usage (though why some are wearing the whitest of shorts while one wears trousers eludes me) – is a pretty accurate reflection of where we were then and where we are headed for now. It even alludes to the forthcoming building boom of the noughties in that some of the team are standing on what appear to be nine-inch cavity blocks (the stable ingredient of most homes), as we couldn’t afford a bench in those days. And with recent talk of replacing Mr. Cowen, the crude pre-Photoshop quasi Stalinist head pasting of Ray Houghton (front-row second from left) perhaps hints at things to come.

As a result of the current meltdown in our finances and the proposed solution of sado-monetarism that the first of four savage budgets  sought to resolve by further reducing, amongst many things, welfare payments to home carers and the  blind, while not omitting the dubious reduction in the minimum wage and attempting to initiate a system for determining just how disabled one is in relation to one’s benefit (possibly decided by the structural imbalance in leg or arm length) we are, in an inverted sense of one of Mr. Cowen’s favourite phrases, Going Backwards. This journey will not take us back to the notional 2006/7 but rather to a period where some of our top football players may have to play in their own trousers.

As ever we are a resourceful race and rooting recently in my collection of rescued rubbish I came across this comforting note that I found on Dublin street  last year. As they didn’t increase the price of alcohol in the Budget the prices may still hold true.

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So, going forward perhaps all we can do is take some words of wisdom from Mr. Bukowski  in his ‘grammar of life:’

the past is imperfect,

the present is tense,

the future is malign

and immortality lacks evidence.

lay down and eat roses.

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Dublin, August,  2010

Carrickrobin – Confirmation 29-11-10

November 30th, 2010

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Dublin, November, 2010

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

James Joyce, Dubliners

As debates rage here in Ireland about burning bondholders we, like most of Europe, are reeling from an early blast of a forthcoming freezing hard winter. In my living memory I don’t recollect snow in Dublin in November but sometimes it snows in April so I can’t be certain.  It would be nice if this white blanket could cleanse us of bank debt – a blank sheet to begin again but we all know it will soon turn to sludge and slowly melt revealing all that bailout ugliness which wont go away, a malevolence that will possibly burden a generation or two. But while this public story may absorb and consume us, private narratives continue and yesterday some comfort unfolded for the family of Gerard Evans who received confirmation that the remains found at Carrickrobin on the 15th of October were those of their loved one. His funeral will take place this Saturday and in a strange resonance he may be laid to rest under a temporary white-topped soil that echoes the upturned soil at Carrickrobin.

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Innocent Landscapes, New Search, Carrickrobin, August, 2010

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Innocent Landscapes, New Search, Carrickrobin, August, 2010

In the meantime the search at Oristown for the remains of Brendan Megraw slowly consumes three banks of turf in its quest for an ending.

Boom, Boomier, Bust – Sovereignty

November 24th, 2010

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Dublin, November, 2010

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died

Leonard Cohen, Everybody Knows

It is time for a blank sheet; time to initiate another Ireland. The problem is we simply do not deserve it. Our craven desire for self-serving clientelism is at the root of our corrupted system so until we can begin to resist asking our politicians to quietly ‘fix’ this or that for Johnny or Mary, in a trade-off of our democratic vote, we will never be adults, we will never be free. This is a defining moment in our history, a golden opportunity for a Reformation but deep down in my heart I know little will change, there will be no Second Coming – as we have seen as things fall apart the centre will desperately hold. Stoically in true catholic faith and acceptance like Elliot’s Hollow Men we receive our end ‘not with a bang but with a whimper’.

Lay a wreath, shuffle the flag and begin again.

Oristown – A Soft Day between Autumn and Winter

November 15th, 2010

It’s one of those clear blue-sky autumn or is it winter days – hard to know as the recent hardy weather may actually defy the calendar making it feel that winter is back even though autumn has yet to close its door. Mind you Christmas trees are already sprouting within the city – something else perhaps to blame on global warming. Deceived by the clarity and gentle heat from a low-slung sun, I neglect to check the weather forecast online and twenty miles out of Dublin those familiar grey clouds start rolling in from the west. At best it will be a soft day and by the time I reach Oristown the light is steely grey and the rain hugs the air no doubt waiting for that moment when I am far enough out in the bog before letting go.

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Innocent Landscapes, Resumed Search, Oristown, November 2010

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Innocent Landscapes, Resumed Search, Oristown, November 2010

In spite of the conditions three sodden banks of turf are still being scoured and in parts it is like wading through six or seven inches of cold porridge, which you feel at any minute could suddenly become knee deep. One has to sink the tripod quite a bit to get some sort of stability. It’s always a strange sensation when you are out there on the solitary bog to see someone walking deliberately along the narrow road and making their across sludge way toward you. It sometimes feels like a mirage and that this presence has come to you to deliver a message but as ever it’s a local man come to survey the progress and possibly have a curious chat. He’s doubtful but hopeful. Again he mentions, as before with another man, the dearth or is it death of living memory. We chat a bit while standing either side of a drainage trench which he has kept as a small barrier between us and in the topographic history of this place it is in these drainage trenches which were installed and cleared a number of times since the disappearance of Brendan Megraw in 1978 that an unspoken, unheard and unyielding answer may lie.

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Innocent Landscapes, Resumed Search, Oristown, November 2010

Boom, Boomier, Bust – A Shuddering Halt

November 6th, 2010

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Dublin, 2010

Viewfinder a short story by Raymond Carver opens with a photographer (who as it happens has no hands) going around making photographs of people’s houses and trying to sell them the Polaroid. One homeowner viewing the image thinks to himself, ‘Why would I want a photograph of this tragedy?’ Over the last year or so I have tried to research and make initial inroads into some sort of response to the crisis of the demise of the Celtic Tiger. (It’s one of a number of projects that I am pursuing in addition to the main focus of this blog.) The most obvious point of departure is of course the phenomenon of Ghost Estates1 which, according to a recent Government survey (which must be read with a clear knowledge that only developments started since 2007 are considered), amount to 2,800 estates in various forms of occupancy and development and which I have no doubt numerous photographers and non-photographers are actively documenting. Researching this subject via the internet has become so easy as to almost eliminate leaving your chair to make photographs as many visualizations exist already of these tumbleweed towns either as satellite images or even the panning/rotating views afforded by Google Streetview which allows you to cherry pick the really distressed locations if that’s what turns you on.

Sometimes though the obvious is a reasonable point of departure and yet the issue of Ghost Estates is complex as some consist of well built but unoccupied apartments and houses while others just shouldn’t have been built in the first place in terms of real demand and location. So it is tempting to photograph only the ruin porn as after all isn’t that what photography does so well – decline and decay – so this must be pursued judiciously and yet when you get a real gem of a spectre it is like a Halloween Story, haunting, titillating and difficult to resist. I do have this feeling though that the crisis is a subject that cant’ be grasped by photography alone, that somehow a multi-vocal/multimedia  approach is required2 and my own humble attempts here are seen as a beginning of sorts though time will tell if it too comes to a shuddering halt.

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Leitrim, 2010

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Dublin, 2010

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Meath, 2010

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Leitrim, 2010

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Dublin, 2010

Many cities, towns and villages currently exude a visible archaeology of the present, the recent past and the stalled future – this is one thread in the tragedy that I am trying to follow. Some ruins should be preserved Ozymandias-like for future generations and none more so than the stalled Anglo Irish Bank Headquarters on the quays in Dublin. It could become the 13th Wonder of the World – a Colloseum for Dublin – tourists would flock to see it and it could be lit up at night and seen from outer space as a warning to aliens in advance of property speculators and bankers finally reaching them.

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Dublin, 2010

They say that people become desensitized through looking at pornography, a few years back it was property porn now it’s the pornography of ruins. Perhaps that’s why in spite living in a period when as O’Casey said ‘Th’ time is rotten ripe for revolution’- nothing happens. The generation that should care, those in their twenties and thirties seem to be too busy enjoying marketing ventures like Arthur’s Day to be really bothered about something as vital as their future over the next decade which is largely done-for due to the greatest three-card trick ever – Bankers, Builders and Bailouts3.

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Dublin, 2010

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Dublin, 2010

What did you do in the war? I may be asked in the future and it’s a question I put to myself on a regular basis. During the boom I did my own small bit mainly by photographing the hoardings around building sites. They spoke a language that bemused me and they used lifestyle images to imply healthy sweet lives unencumbered by debt or worries. I was also interested in them as physical objects in that I felt that there was an On the Inside/On the Outside aspect to all this development and such hoardings seemed to be an appropriate metaphor. Ah yes, heady times indeed. Nowadays I continue to photograph them but they are no longer image clad or brightly coloured or laden with seductive text – they are not even laden with appropriate graffiti, which is an idea I am working on. A couple of them have mysterious instructions for the stalled future but in some places they are beginning to be dragged down or even, as in one Dublin location, set fire to by bored teenagers revealing as ever that with a three-card trick the punter always loses.

Mind you at least famine will be kept at bay thanks to this considerate government, who on the following day to announcing a further six billion euro in cuts in the forthcoming budget, gleefully rushed a minister to the media to proclaim that cheese (1Kg – i think) would be provided to people in need in the run up to Christmas. This handout occurs every year but such is their desperation and incompetence that this was trumpeted, as it seemed to them to show compassion. It brought forth a magnificent avalanche of puns and wordplay with some of my favourites being that ‘one had no option now but to emigrate so Philadelphia Here I Come’ or that ‘these jokes on cheese are so old they are fromages ago’. Perhaps it was a recognition by our leaders that yes we have been mice so far and while not as cynical as the police marksman, who recently worked numerous song titles into his evidence at an inquest into the shooting dead of an armed man in a domestic incident, it is at best an indication that ‘it’s time gentlemen please, soon we may have no homes to go to’.

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Dublin, 2010

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Dublin, 2010

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Dublin, 2010

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Dublin, 2010

Last Saturday (30/10/10) on RTE Radio 1 Marion Finucane interviewed the property developer Simon Kelly,  who has just published his account of the property boom  and its demise – it’s a fascinating and straight talking interview from the other side of the garden fence and if Breakfast With Anglo is as candid as this conversation it will make an interesting and perhaps valuable contribution to other works by Fintan O’Toole, Shane Ross, Matt Cooper, Pat Leahy and David McWilliams.

Link to Interview with Property Developer Simon Kelly

Finally on a quirky note, David Drumm former CEO of Anglo Irish Bank, who  is currently wanted in Ireland for questioning by gardai over financial irregularities at Anglo and who fled to the United States with his wife and family, recently filed for bankruptcy there in a strategic move to fast track his financial rehabilitation using American law. As part of this process his has to put a valuation on all his assets and liabilities  with the latter being listed as  $14,279,044 (€10,260,144), while  his assets come to just $13,906,395 (€9,992,379). A myriad of detail emerged in the court documents but its the family dog I feel most sorry for as his valuation came to just one US dollar. If I was Rover or Spot I know where I would be cocking my leg the next time I strolled through the house.

1.   Ghost Estates as defined by National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis consist of developments with less than 50% occupancy or completion.

2.   Just before making this posting I saw Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins in which the protagonist has traveled through England filming various landscapes while ruminating on a combination of geography, history, politics, economics, architecture and agriculture, and the manner in which all these collide and interweave during  the global financial crisis. While on one level a scene of a spider weaving a web set against a vocal summary of the early days of the collapse of US and UK banks may be an obvious metaphor it is mesmerizingly delivered visually and vocally. It is definitely worth viewing and re-viewing as the narrated text at times is quite dense to absorb on a single sitting.

3.    Not to be confused with that other recent three-card trick of Ferguson, Rooney, and Agent.

Oristown – resonance

November 5th, 2010

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Innocent Landscapes, Renewed Search, Oristown, September 2010

Like many photographers my preferred way of working be it within the landscape or on the street is to make bodies of work that explore narrative threads. The usual end point for me is the book and if it manages to sustain itself within this format then I feel a project has been ‘successful’. Many of these projects still remain as ‘successful’ book maquettes for various reasons and thus far at least few have been released or have escaped onto an unsuspecting public. No matter. Time will tell.

So while generally not being driven to making photographs specifically for the wall so to speak, occasionally a photograph comes your way that is so charged in relation to your subject of exploration that it deserves a life beyond the printed page of book, magazine or catalogue.  Where possible exhibitions should be distillations of bodies of work possibly dispensing with images that while strong are possibly bridges within the narrative arc or structure of a book. This reduction creates an aligned but different visual exploration. One should install exhibitions not simply hang them and each photograph should resonate within its own space and within the space afforded by the real estate of the white cube.

The above photograph is one such photograph. As I write this text, from out of nowhere but the depths of subconscious meandering it comes to me for the first time that in a small way this image echoes the Jeff Wall image “The Flooded Grave 1998-2000’. (http://www.tate.org.uk/modern/exhibitions/jeffwall/infocus/section5/img2.shtm and http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0268/is_7_39/ai_75761314/). His photograph, a montage of 75 images, took two years of construction  and pre-visualization; my photograph, a single click, took ten years of observation and exploration. His is a fabricated fiction to create a fleeting truth; mine may be a fallible truth that hinges on a fiction, which only Time will tell.

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The Flooded Grave 1998-2000 – Jeff Wall

Waterfoot 2/11/10- A Short Search Ends

November 2nd, 2010

I am doing rudimentary stretches in my friendly gym casting an eye against my better judgment at the scrolling text underneath a silent TV screen showing Sky and its rolling news which I have railed against before when it catches my eye ‘……..human remains found in search for Peter Wilson at Waterfort in Northern Ireland……’. I was unable to make a visit there last weekend and had hoped to go this one so this one has eluded me a little but I will still pay a visit. What matters most is that a thirty-seven year wait has ended swiftly and not become one of these painfully slow yearlong ventures. It is possibly also a sign again of living memory and ongoing movements within the republican movement at a senior level to lever information from people involved in actions that need formal closure. The poignancy of his discovery on ‘All Souls’ Day’ a day of commemoration within the Catholic Church for the faithful departed is one of those fortuitous intersections of human intervention on a spinning planet.

Oristown – occasional conversations

November 2nd, 2010

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Innocent Landscapes, Renewed Search, Oristown, August 2010

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Innocent Landscapes, Renewed Search, Oristown, September 2010

The search at this location began as always with hope and as limited an intervention on the landscape as possible with the drying turf being left undisturbed in its stacked arrangement until absolutely necessary to move it on in the absence of its owner.  During the last three months three banks of turf were slowly sifted into those familiar time cones and by mid-October the search had reached the boundaries of what appeared to be the marked out area from early August. Whether there has been some form of revision since the discovery at Carrickrobin is unknown but in the last fortnight the bamboo markers have been moved further down each bank of turf and on it goes.

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Innocent Landscapes, Renewed Search, Oristown, October 2010

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Innocent Landscapes, Renewed Search, Oristown, August 2010

Collapsing side-walls were a common feature at this location and each time I encountered this I hoped that the bog had decided in the weekend absence of the search teams ‘there you go, accept this, it’s time’. On most weekends I would meet local people some having turberry rights in adjacent plots, some there with their children, others walking their dogs. As ever when one gets into a conversation one never knows exactly as to whom one is talking to. One man I spoke to recently claimed that no living memory existed for this location and that he was fair sure that the man who did know something about this terrible thing died over fifteen years ago  - this would have been several years before this process had even begun back in 1999. And as ever, as I walk down the thin winding road there is a section on the right-hand side where burial might have been possible and of course there are five or six banks beyond those currently being examined and I often remember the words of John the lead forensic archaeologist when we met in Ballynultagh. ‘Show me the right haystack and I will find that needle’. I wish someone would.

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Innocent Landscapes, Renewed Search, Oristown, October 2010

Oristown – Still Lives

October 30th, 2010

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Innocent Landscapes, Resumed Search, Oristown, August 2010

Back in late 2008 when the resumed search for Danny McIlhone was taking place in Ballynultagh I met the search team a couple of times at that location. Conversation with them was limited by legal issues concerning their work and so with successive searches I made a decision to avoid direct contact. I did have a brief encounter with one of the preliminary search teams working with cadaver dogs at Wilkinstown in the early summer, which caused a minor kerfuffle due to a chain of inaccurate whispers making its way back to the commission but fortunately that was resolved. It was a salutary lesson in how a simple conversation can become an incident as a result of the sensitivity of this subject and that no matter how careful you tread things can go astray. As a result my only contact with them has been forensic in its own way by coming across certain repeating traces at each location. There is someone who possibly suffers from back-pain or some ongoing issue in that I often come across the same discarded pain killer packaging; there is someone who drinks water quite regularly; there is someone who smokes quite a strong brand of cigarettes and there is someone with an artistic sensibility who arranges the occasional still life presumably for documentation purposes or maybe just as an aesthetic exercise. These are very minor things but they do create a connection with these invisible teams who are incredibly dedicated and discrete and so in this small way I salute them for their ongoing contribution to healing this wound.

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Innocent Landscapes, Resumed Search, Wilkinstown, February 2010