Journey’s End

 

“For some time now it has seemed to me that the two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else?  And then, vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?”

(Robert MacFarlane, The Old Ways)

 

Back at the ruined gate lodge I duck under a strand of barbed wire, and wend through a short stretch of woodland. Another fence, but a concrete pipe facilitates stepping over into a field.  In the far corner, two final BJBs[1], that have been extended by about one third of their original length by having a section of another gate crudely welded on, to make them wide enough to facilitate modern farm machinery. They are bound with chains to extraordinary posts, festooned with lugs and ratchets, the words ‘FRANCIS MORTON’S PATENT, LIVERPOOL’ embossed on the cast iron of their making. Beyond them, five bullocks graze at a feeder and as I skirt around them they follow me, but out of curiosity rather than menace. Even as it peters out, the railway has thrown up these two hallmarks of its existence, the remains of the 19th century industrial technology that built it, and the cattle that were its chief cargo. These five beasts are the inheritors of the thousands who once thronged the loading dock of this, Collooney Station, the last SLNCR[2] post on the line.

Emerging onto the road, I see traces of the vast cattle yards, all that now remains of the station. Across the road, where the river bends, dumped tarmac and burned out television sets lie where the track once ran. On the far bank, a single stone pier stands at the water’s edge, like the hand of an exhausted swimmer trying to haul himself from the water. Everything beyond has been obliterated by the massive carriageway of the N4 Dublin – Sligo road, the line ending just as it had begun four months previously in Enniskillen, yielding to urban expansion and redevelopment. Manscape, not landscape, was destroying the evidence of its existence, and here the line just faded out, within sight of the Iarann Ród Éireann track that runs on to Sligo. Out in the countryside the SLNCR was at its strongest. Nature, even while subsuming it into itself, was cocooning the line in a cradle of turves and grass, roots and brambles, holding out the possibility of a metamorphosis.

I realised I was looking for a way to end my journey. A setting sun over Collooney church promised me a clichéd finale, but even that had passed by the time I hove in view.  I passed under the N4 as it leaped the Owenmore River, a concrete cavern daubed with Republican slogans. A woman stood in her half open doorway, blowing cigarette smoke into the outside air, wearing a dressing gown and pyjamas. It was 5.30pm. I tramped on, my wellingtons and walking stick incongruous now, crossing the Owenmore on a road I first travelled, by bicycle, in 1985. That journey lead to a chance meeting with members of the Sculptors’ Society of Ireland, engaged in a woodcarving symposium at Hazelwood, outside Sligo.  The connections forged then eventually resulted in me moving to live in the area a decade later, and after a further eighteen years of life’s convolutions, brought my feet to tread this path once more.

I decided I’d walk out to Carrignagat junction, past the 1798 monument, historic progenitor of the Republican Graffiti on the other side of town. It commemorates General Humbert, who landed with a French expeditionary force at Killala, and passed through here on his way to a final defeat by Crown forces in Longford.  At the start of this journey I had stood outside the Orange Hall in Enniskillen, and I reflected now on the fact, often conveniently shelved, that the leaders of the United Irishmen had mostly been Protestants and Presbyterians[3], whose political thinking was formed by the ideals of the French Revolution.

The road jinks left under a railway bridge, and as I scale the ballast scree of the embankment to the ‘live’ Iarann Ród line, I get a wave from a passing car. It is Martha van der Meulen, an artist colleague who lives close to where I left my bike that morning.  We’d talked yesterday, after a meeting about a project we are both part of in the North West Hospice.  Michael Hamilton, railwayman and author of the SLNCR memoir ‘Down Memory Line’, had been a patient there in the earlier stages of the project. I’m reading his book as a sort of guide to the journey, and he might have been guiding my steps on this final leg.  By contrast to the previous stage, the drainage ditches I encountered today were furnished with little footbridges, fashioned from ancient sleepers and in one case a central heating radiator. The only insurmountable barrier was the River Unshin. O’Sullivan Bere must have crossed this same river, a few miles upstream, north of Lough Arrow, on his desperate march in the winter of 1602-3.[4]

Martha doesn’t want to disrupt my search for the location of the junction, but to me this seems a fortuitous encounter. I accept a lift back to the bicycle, but mention the possibility of a pint, and so we drive on to ‘The Thatch’ where I share my day through photos and notes. Martha makes a photograph and when the publican takes an interest, we explain my journey along the route of the SLNCR. “I was on the last ever train, at the age of seven,” he says.  “We had no tickets or anything, the driver just stopped the train up there on the line, and we climbed on”. This was my perfect ending, a real flesh and blood connection with the last days of the railway.

From October 2012 to February 2013, I walked the dismantled SLNCR from Enniskillen to Ballysadare, covering the 50 odd miles (80 km) in 13 stages. The project reflects my interest in the phenomenology of creating and experiencing artworks, and my practice of Body/Landscape. Moreover, the Art in Public course has foregrounded walking practice as a primary tool in research and art making.[5]

There were several reasons for choosing the railway line. It offered a predetermined route through a rural landscape. As a 19th century venture capitalist enterprise, it raises questions that trouble contemporary anthropology, issues of how we exist in relation to landscape, whether as colonial ‘occupiers’ or indigenous ‘inhabitants’. Now effectively a ruin, it juxtaposes wildness with cultivation and management. Not least it represents a personal journey through a landscape topographic and cultural, which has shaped me for almost two decades and on which I in turn have left some traces of my activities. Shadowing the physical journey is a socio-cultural one, that cuts an exploratory trench through layers of history, from the contemporary threat of hydraulic fracturing, through Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’, the partition of the country, the railway era itself, back through the history of colonisation to the early Christian era, and deeper still into the iron, bronze and stone ages.

As a strategy for walking, I developed the persona of the ‘milesman'[6], to justify my presence on the line, not least to myself, as someone who had business being there.  I did not want to appear as some sort of pilgrim, back-packer or long distance traveller.  Consequently I completed my journey as a series of one-day walks, in wellingtons, sports jacket and flat cap, equipped with a walking stick and carrying only the essentials for the day’s walk. The overgrown nature of much of the terrain often meant that literally every step was a conscious and deliberate action as I negotiated some natural or manmade obstacle.  Travel is often now regarded as dead time/space; here every step was both an arrival and a departure. Perhaps this awareness of the present is partly what it means to walk as an artist.

However, as an artist, the experience is only half the task, and walking was interspersed with time spent in the studio experimenting with various techniques of communicating my experience through artistic media. I explored the possibilities of photography, video, sound recording, sketching, writing and map making. There is now a growing sense of the unique and irrecoverable nature, even to me, of the original experience. The task is not to present my journey but to create an opportunity for viewers to undertake their own journey, however constrained, with its attendant experiences of action, discovery and reflection.  Operating the ‘Isolarion’ devices makes map reading a spatio-temporal experience, while the Lost and Found office introduces the personal encounter and individualises the engagement with the material of the exhibition.

 

Select Bibliography.

Chance, Veronica.  The Great Orbital Ultra Run, Project Blogs Artists Talking a-n [blog] 2012.  Available at: <http://www.an.co.uk/artists_talking/projects/single/2018718> [Accessed November 2012]

Frye Burnham, L. and Durland, S., eds.  1998.  The Citizen Artist: 20 Years of Art in the Public Arena. Vol. 1., New York, Critical Press.

Hamilton, M., 1997.  Down Memory Line: The Sligo, Leitrim & Northern Counties Railway.  Manorhamilton, Drumlin Publications.

Ingold, T., and Vergunst, J.L., eds.  2008.  Ways of Walking: Ethnography and Practice on Foot.  Hampshire, Ashgate Publishing.

Keating, R., 2012.  Landscape Aesthetics in Practice,  Journal of Visual Arts Practice 11:1, pp. 15-25, doi: 10.1386/jvap.11.1.15_1

MacFarlane, R., 2007.  The Wild Places, London, Granta Books.

MacFarlane, R., 2012.  The Old Ways, London, Hamish Hamilton.

Sebald, W. G., 2002.  The Rings of Saturn.  Translated from German by

M. Hulse. London, Vintage.

Sprinks, N., 2001.  Sligo, Leitrim & Northern Counties Railway: an Irish Railway Pictorial.  Hinckley, Midland Publishing.

Tufnell, B. and Wilson, A., 2002.  Hamish Fulton Walking Journey, London, Tate Publishing.


[1] BJB refers to a type of iron gate manufactured by Bayliss, Jones and Bayliss of Wolverhampton, who also produced railway fixings.  These gates, of standard design, appear to have been used at unmanned level crossings and occur along the length of the route, sometimes serving me as way markers where the trail is faint.  After Manorhamilton, a variation in the design occurs in some instances.

[2] Opened in 1882, the Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties Railway was a mixed goods and passenger service connecting Enniskillen with Sligo until its closure in 1957, when all stock was auctioned off and the line was dismantled.

[3] The United Irishmen organisation was founded in Belfast, espousing the beliefs enshrined in Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man”.  Nationally its leaders included men such as Robert Emmet, Wolfe Tone, Bagenal Harvey and Henry Joy McCracken.

[4] Fleeing West Cork in the wake of the Battle of Kinsale, he sought the protection of O’Rourke in Leitrim, marching his followers almost the length of the country in two weeks.  Of the thousand strong band that left Beara, thirty-six reached O’Rourke’s castle.

[5] Our first assignment was to devise a walk for the peer group, and we later used the strategy of the collective walk as the basis for our engagement with the show “Vicinity” at Catalyst Arts.  Early reading assignments in the CCPP module introduced the writing of Baudelaire, Benjamin and de Certeau, and the notion of the flâneur and the derive.

[6] Milesmen were employees of the Railway Company whose job it was to inspect and repair designated sections of the line.

My art practice spans a wide range of activities from skilfully crafted stonework to art as research. For me the common link is that Art is activity, a way of making, doing and being. It is a tool for exploring and understanding the world. I believe the artist has an important role in society, to see things differently, to follow the road less travelled, and to hold out the possibility of a different way of being.

 

Art Research

During my MFA art in public studies at the University of Ulster, I became interested in walking as a form of research and art practice.  In this discipline I travel with an artist’s awareness, while documentation and reflection later form more tangible artworks.

Lettercutting

As a stone carver, I have developed a specialisation in cutting inscriptions by hand, using hammer and chisel in this time honoured craft, which marries the design sense of the typographer with the skill of the sculptor to produce beautiful inscriptions in stone, each one a unique and original artwork.

Commissions

A main plank of my activity has been the creation of publicly sited artworks. Commissioned by numerous public and private organisations, my approach is to be sensitive to the historical, social and topographical aspects of each location.  I oversee every aspect of the work from design to installation.

Performance & Bodywork

Before the chisel or paintbrush, camera or keyboard, the body is the artist’s primary instrument.  Experiencing the world through the senses is how we begin to make meaning.  Being present is the first step in making an artwork; sometimes it is all that’s needed.

Professional Profile

I am an artist based in Manorhamilton, Co. Leitrim, in the North West of Ireland since 1995, where I co-founded the Leitrim Sculpture Centre. With a background in sculpture, I have worked in a range of media including stone, wood and bronze, creating a number of publicly commissioned artworks. I have also created numerous smaller works for exhibitions and private commissions, and have participated in sculpture symposia in Ireland and internationally. I have been an instructor in sculpture at the Fire Station Artists’ Studios, Dublin (1993-95) and Leitrim Sculpture Centre (1995-03).

I have been an active contributor to the development of the arts infrastructure in Ireland since my undergraduate days when I became a director on the board of Wexford Arts Centre. I went on to co-found Wexford Sculpture workshops in 1987, and during this period I was also a director of the Sculptor’s Society of Ireland. I was the Chairperson of the Lough MacNean Sculpture Trail from 1997 to 2000, and Chairperson of the Leitrim Sculpture Centre from 2004 t0 2009.

In tandem with my career as a visual artist, I have pursued my interest in movement and performance since the early 1980s, working in collaboration with dance companies, notably Fluxusdance in 2007-2008.  In 2006 I became interested in the “Body Weather” system with Frank van de Ven, and have co-ordinated 4 workshops in Ireland, including Rathlin Island in 2012. I have been the recipient of a number of awards and bursaries from the Arts Council of Ireland (’92, ’08), the Artists’ Association of Ireland (’96), Wexford Co. Council (’06), and Leitrim Co. Council (’01, ’08), including a place on the Trade residency programme in 2009.

My recent investigations have lead to an interest in the wider possibilities for art practice in contemporary society, and in order to develop this, I undertook a two-year Masters Degree at the University of Ulster in Belfast, integrating my studies with my on-going career as an artist. I graduated in June of 2013 with an MFA Art in Public (distinction).

Current projects include the “Ag Cruinniú” programme at the North West Hospice in Sligo, and “Harnessing Creativity” for which I am researching a creative approach to promoting awareness of sustainable energy practices in the Leitrim/Fermanagh area, under the title “Local-E”.

Harnessing Creativity

It’s been a busy week, with last Friday seeing the conclusion, for the present, of the Harnessing Creativity exhibition “Expanded Territories” at the Dock in Carrick on Shannon. This was the culmination of a series of “Creative Labs” which began last May with the aim of assisting thirty creative practitioners in Leitrim/Fermanagh/Tyrone to develop new […]

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