SOME THOUGHTS ON A TRAGEDY IN STRANGE TIMES
Well, what did you do in the boom, I am often asked. Why only photograph the ruins of our great tiger. Where were you when people were on a waiting list for Vuitton bags and bought apartments in Bulgaria off the plans, when decking was a solution to life’s problems and extra shopping treats in New York were the norm whereas new cars were a necessity because an NCT was due on the old one (and these new cars had to be four wheel drives as that hill on the school run can be quite a climb). Well, I did make some critical work during that period, ironically as it happens, as a commission from the Central Bank and I worked on other things, often abroad, but mostly I felt excluded from the consensus narrative and that became my response at the time. I photographed development hoardings that proclaimed a future that I couldn’t or wouldn’t join. I also made night photographs of buildings under construction as they often appeared to be something between ruin and monument. At one point I made a few landscape photographs of fields seeking planning permission and I also photographed some roads under construction and various excavations of Dublin city to lay down a new transport system. I was shaping these explorations in my head under the working title of The Archaeology of the Present an intentionally slightly pompous title reflecting our new found importance as economic player. Somehow, as with many projects that photographers engage with, the work never quite solidfied and I parked it for a possible future reading and went off seeking solace in the landscape.
Some of my refutal was based on not wishing to buy into what I perceived would be the overpriced tenements of the next decade. (I had observed the build quality and the speed at which houses and apartments were erected.) Another aspect of my lack of reponse was a desire not to lapse into what photographically might be called a Parr-esque retort to a society freshly liberated from the Church with cheap credit up their sleeves and cocaine up their noses. Leaving aside the difficulties in making such work – work that is not as easy as it may seem – it felt churlish in some ways to exploit a madness that was an inevitable part of a maturing society – for there was a side-effect that was positive and new, something that had been missing in our overlong history. We were no longer outside but inside, we were on the make. We were Kings of Europe, buying as much as we could in a brief colonial escapade. We invaded London, claiming The Savoy, The Connaught and even Claridges. We no longer just waited for Vuitton bags – we bought the flagship store in Bond Street. This newly found notion of self-belief and confidence was refreshing until it inevitably spilled over into hubris and delusion. It managed for a while to overcome what Brian O’Doherty, in his insightful essay on Jack Yeats, has described as an Irish condition.1
‘In Ireland the future was full of regret and the past full of promise.’
It was also possible to briefly forget the aching sorrow of O’Grady and Pyke’s Ireland – one of exile and loneliness in a foreign country2. ‘Exile is not a word’3 – it is a wound we Irish are born with, more original than original sin. When O’Grady’s protagonist (who has even lost his name), newly emigrated and ironically working as a potato picker, asks his friend P.J., who has been working in England for seventeen years. ‘What’s it like?’. P.J. remains silent for a while, but eventually, as he settles down into the straw bed of the cold stone building that houses pigs beneath them, he replies ‘its like you’re trying to talk to somebody out of a deep black hole’. This destiny to leave perhaps mirrors O’Doherty’s twin concepts of ‘Quest and Expulsion’ being engrained in Irish mythology as a means ‘of escaping the impoliteness of the present’. This might explain why, in the just recent past, we as a nation having dismissed one faith sought and became both victims and believers of the religion of self-regulated neo-liberal global capitalism – where money would begat money and money would begat money, world without end. Amen. And end it did somewhat like as TS Elliot proposed ‘not with a bang but with a whimper’ whispered into numerous dead ends as governments prayed and proposed an apparitional soft landing that materialised into a new term – ghost estate – which isn’t even a decent anagram.
With tragedy endemic in Irish Culture, an artistic response to this crisis is as inevitable and unavoidable as the prophecy of our parents who warned us, when as kids our playfulness got out of control that it will all end in tears. And it has for some, quite a few in fact, even those who didn’t necessarily buy (or was that borrow?) into an aspirational and inspirational future. I have waited for three years to make this work, wishing I wouldn’t have to, hoping that the collapse of 2008 might be contained. It wasn’t. As a result in 2011, I began a series of short road trips around Ireland viewing the post Celtic Tiger landscape. At that point anything still dormant, or latent if you are an optimist, was a valid subject matter. I viewed a lot of places and photographed some. It has produced two works – the one presented here and another titled Twentysix Cul-de-Sacs, A Few Views and A Couple of Roundabouts. It was a solitary journey with few encounters in a spectral landscape. I did however meet a man in Bandon who paid 14.5 million Euros for a field that would stay a field for a very long time. I met a man in Scramogue who took great pride in the precise placement of chimney guards on the ‘homes’ he built – advising me that if what was visible wasn’t correct then what was invisible certainly would never be. I met a group of children in Kilcormac who stood and stared at me but said nothing at all and a man in Kildare who questioned my choice of scenery. Occasionally as I stood there with camera on tripod, people would drive-by giving me the thumbs-up, a silent acknowledgement of my endeavours. What is it about the Irish and silent suffering? (Maybe even in a Post-Catholic terrain all that pre-soaking may condition us.)
I saw beautiful houses in terrible places, terrible houses in beautiful places. Houses built on flood plains and houses built near nothing at all. I saw the Alps in Ballaghadereen. I saw small gardens and stone cages restraining landslides in Leitrim. I heard Leonard Cohen pining in a shopping centre in Edenderry. I visited Haynestown the place with a road and no homes. I peered into a hole rimmed with rusting steel in the centre of Achill and in Gorey read the grafitti of two workmen aiming to get home to Kaunas. In Ballisodare I snooped about in the underground darkness of sinking apartments while in Mount Temple I surveyed a golf course with an oasis of ghostly houses. I touched blank Ogham stones in rear gardens in Kingscourt and stared at weird stranded stones in the heart of Dublin. I saw half-painted homes in Westport and Sneem. Everywhere I went, there was all manor of things empty and pregnant with possibilities. In Tipperary I saw pictures of a fabulous future propped up by the penitent present as it slipped into the pernicious past. There was the smell of abandoned work-clothes in Tullamore and mounds of earth in Clonygowan and pipefittings like the remnants of an ancient civilisation in Kilcock. I saw a playground in Lixnaw still awaiting the push and pull and the ghoulish red house in Bailieborough that kids would tell stories about. Things on the outside – things on the inside. There were calendars in Murrisk and Cootehill stuck on June 2008 and Trojan cars in empty estates. There were views through unglazed windows in Cavan, Mayo, Laois, Longford and in dear old demolished Ballynagore. And there was the sad blindfolded homes in Portlaoise and Ballyjamesduff – ‘ah come back Paddy Reilly…..’ Then finally through the gap in the fence in Tullow, to see avaricious nature as ever at work, reclaiming what hadn’t been claimed. All in all it seemed there was nothing but ‘Ouses, Ouses, Ouses’4 and not even enough people to squat.
It was a draining, dispiriting process, but an essential narrative made more with sorrow than schadenfreude. Apparently ‘we all partied’5 and yet now the socialised guests must pay for the capitalist hosts. A Beckettian tragedy. We wait to be rescued. The days pass. Will night never come?
Strange times indeed.
1 Brian O’Doherty, ‘Promise and Regret’ in Jack B.Yeats The Outsider, The Model, Sligo, 2010.
2 Timothy O’Grady and Steve Pyke, I Could Read The Sky, The Harvill Press, 1997.
3 Peter Woods, ‘Exile is not a Word’ in Timothy O’Grady and Steve Pyke, I Could Read The Sky, The Harvill Press, 1997.
4 John Copper and Sheila Chandra, Ouses, Ouses, Ouses, The Imagined Village, Real World Records, 2007.
5 Brian Lenihan, Prime Time, RTE Television, 24-11-2010