In the thirty years of conflict and atrocity in Northern Ireland, a small group of people stood apart: they were the “missing,” the “Disappeared” – absent and yet somehow still present. Even their exact number was uncertain, though there were at least fifteen people whose whereabouts had remained shrouded in misinformation and doubt since the 1970s and early 1980s. Despite considerable obfuscation, their fate and whereabouts were directly linked to what was colloquially known as “The Troubles.” Apart from Capt. Robert Nairac, an undercover British soldier, they were all Catholics and widely assumed to have been “disappeared” by the IRA through its internal policing of the movement and the wider Catholic community. What separated this group from other “policings” was the silence, the denial, and the absence of a body for relatives, relieved of their uncertainty, to bury. This denial continued for over twenty-five years.
On March 29, 1999, as a result of the ongoing peace process, the IRA issued a statement in which they apologized, recognized the “injustice of prolonging the suffering of victims’ families,” and admitted to “the killing and secret burial” of ten people. Despite internal enquiries, they only managed to locate the burial places of nine of those victims: Brian McKinney, John McClory, Danny McIlhone, Brendan Megraw, Jean Mc Conville, Kevin McKee, Seamus Wright, Columba McVeigh, and Eamonn Molloy.
The burial locations – Colgagh, Ballynultagh, Oristown, Templetown, Wilkinstown, Bragan, and Faughart – contained a final bitter twist: they were all in the south of Ireland. This small group of people had been exiled in death, creating a poignant and, as time progressed, haunting Diaspora of the Disappeared. This became evident when on May 20, 2000, the digs, now in their second phase, were suspended: three remains had been located, three reburials permitted, leaving the remaining families with a site rather than a resting place, a closing rather than a closure.1
My initial response upon visiting the first burial site at Colgagh was visceral. It was some weeks after the discovery of the remains of Bryan McKinney and John McClory, and there was “nothing” to photograph – well, certainly nothing in a conventional documentary mode – but the violated landscape jarred me. It seemed to be a powerful metaphor for the violence that had taken place there over twenty years ago, which only now had become visible by the scarification of the land during the search process. I left Colgagh thinking, “They must be made to see.” Somehow this small group of people epitomized the complexities of political violence, where a society becomes so brutalized that it starts to murder its own in the pursuit of the “rights” of its people.
A thread connected most of the sites, both topographically and somewhat conceptually, to the nature of photography itself. This link was in many ways an essence of the Irish landscape – the bog, that memory bank, that witness of history and trauma. The writer Terry Eagleton has commented on the bog as revealing “the past as still present” and that objects contained within them are “caught in a living death.”2 In a similar way, Innocent Landscapes – like many works that deal with violence and commemoration, in particular those that are by default utilizing what has been termed “late photography”3 – contains a number of dilemmas. How do you photograph something that was intended to remain unseen? How do you photograph something where the referent, which in photography is normally carried forward to any future, has been completely removed from the mise-en-scène, where the experiences undergone by the disappeared were meant to be outside of memory and denied to those who experienced them? How do you photograph “nothing” in the hope that it will trigger a response? How do you photograph “the intangible presence of absence”?
As I began to visit these sites, I was struck by their beauty – they were so typical of classical representations of the Irish landscape in painting, cinema, and even within the commercial world of tourism. They exuded a rich symbol of what in some ways it means to be Irish. At first this beauty troubled me. Would it be possible to essentially aestheticize violence in a meaningful way? Could I usurp this beauty and turn it back against itself? Early within the work, a chance meeting with Mrs. McKinney (mother of Bryan), who commented that she had felt a sense of relief when Bryan had been found with nature in such a beautiful place, made me realize that the location of a place for both an absent memory and an intense loss would be a key element in my excavation of these sites, and that an inherent, almost romantic beauty somehow acted as a comforting cloak of reflection. I was aware that I was possibly questioning not only the medium’s ability to furnish evidence, but also its limits when remembering, representing, and commemorating traumatic historical events. In the end, all I felt I could do was bear witness (to make the viewer bear witness) to what was essentially a framed absence.
As time passed and nature began to reclaim these locations, making them disappear from immediate consciousness, it comforted me to some extent that my involvement with these sites and the people said to be buried there was not a completely futile artistic gesture of protest: my photographs would exist as a monument of sorts, an act of remembrance in the face of voracious nature, human forgetfulness, and the folly of memory.
- Since the publication of my book Innocent Landscapes, the earth itself returned Jean McConville at a location approximately 500 meters (1,640 feet) from the excavated site when the shifting sands of the beach revealed her remains to a man out walking his dog in August 2003. A search was resumed, to no avail, for Colimba McVeigh at Bragan in September 2003.
- Terry Eagleton, The Truth About the Irish, (New Island Books), 1999.
- David Campany