24 May 2017

The Intangible Presence of Absence

Revisits, Renewed Searches and Small Acts of Memory.


In 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 it was thought that there were at least 15 people whose whereabouts had remained shrouded in misinformation and doubt since the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Despite considerable obfuscation by the republican movement it was considered that their fate and whereabouts was directly linked to what was colloquially known as ‘The Troubles’.

Apart from Capt. Robert Nairac, an undercover British Soldier for whom no location would be revealed, they were all Catholic and widely assumed to have been ‘disappeared’ in the main by the IRA through a process of internal policing of the movement and the wider catholic community. What separated this group from other ‘policings’ was the silence, the denial and the lack of the usual hooded body by the side of a country road. This renunciation continued for over twenty-five years.

On the 29th March 1999, as a result of the ongoing peace process, the IRA issued a statement in which they apologised and accepted the ‘injustice of prolonging the suffering of victim’s families’ and admitted what they termed ‘the killing and secret burial’ of ten people. Despite internal enquiries they had only managed to locate the burial places of nine of these people.

Kevin McKee and Seamus Wright – disappeared 1972
Jean Mc Conville, 39 years old – disappeared 1972
Columba McVeigh, 17 years old – disappeared 1975
Eamonn Molloy, 21 years old – disappeared 1975
Brendan Megraw, 24 years old – disappeared 1978
Brian McKinney 22 years old and John McClory 17 years old – disappeared 1978
Danny McIlhone, early twenties – disappeared 1981

 In comparison to other groups of disappeared people from other conflicts the relatively small number involved in this situation gave an intimacy to this tragedy that somehow made it comprehensible. It was possible without great difficulty to not only recount each individual, but also recite from memory their names and the locations associated with them in a litany of remembrance. Unfortunately this list that brought confirmation to some, deepened wounds and heartache for the families of those not mentioned but whose disappearance were thought to have been carried out under similar circumstances. They would have to wait a decade before any information emerged concerning their loved ones.

On the 28th May 1999, the remains of Eamon Molloy, the first person to be located, were recovered in a new coffin that had been delivered and placed under a tree at Old Faughart cemetery just outside Dundalk. Initially other families thought their loved ones would be recovered in a similar way, but this was not to be. The following day the IRA revealed the location of six sites that were said to be the burial places of the remaining eight people. These other locations were just that – sites to be exhumed and searched, aided by rudimentary instructions from distant twilight memories of those involved with the disappearance. A further complication was the shifting nature of landscape and it’s altered memory.

The small anonymous rural townlands of Colgagh, Ballynultagh, Oristown, Templetown, Wilkinstown, Bragan and Faughart contained a simple but final bitter twist – they were all located in the South of Ireland. This small group of people had been exiled in death creating a poignant and as time progressed haunting internal Diaspora. This dark stain lurking under the perceived peaceful landscapes of the South contained a thread that connected the sites, both topographically and conceptually, to the nature of photography itself, a link that is 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’1 and that objects contained within them are ‘caught in a living death’.2 With the exception of Templetown, a seaside location that was itself disturbingly resonant as it was said to be the burial place of Jean McConville a widow of nine children when she disappeared, all the remaining locations were bogs, chosen perhaps for their anonymity and largely featureless terrain. The bog, like photography, acts as a mute witness to history, preserving truths for future generations. Over generations it has been a significant locus for stories and mythologies concerning the interaction between the living and the dead within small communities throughout Ireland.

Innocent Landscapes,3 like many works that deal with past acts of violence and which posit commemoration and reflection, contains a number of paradoxes and visual dilemmas. Is there an inappropriate aesthetic for loss and trauma? Can such images be too beautiful? How do you photograph something that was intended to remain unseen? How do you photograph something where the ‘referent’,4 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 and their families 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? What is the role of allegory and metaphor within this mode of representation? How do you extend beyond the visual trope of what has been termed and critiqued as ‘late photography’?5 How do you photograph the intangible presence of absence?

Much has been written about photography and its relationship to death; Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida explored this extensively – for him all photographs are haunted by their Spectrum. Each photograph has embedded in it the ‘return of the dead’6 and that photography embalms space, time and human flesh in a single click. Susan Sontag has likewise described photographs as ‘memento mori’7 – that in preserving the past they furnish a presence that serves to enhance the disappearance of the original subject or ‘referent’ as would be described in Barthesian terms. Ulrich Baer in his book, Spectral Evidence: the Photography of Trauma also likened photography to the nature of trauma itself. He describes trauma as a disorder of memory and time citing the early work Freud in which he used the metaphor of the camera to explain the unconscious as a place where bits of memory are stored until processed into consciously accessible recollections. Baer argues that ‘because trauma blocks routine mental processes from converting an experience into memory or forgetting, it parallels the defining structure of photography which also traps an event during its occurrence and somehow blocks its transformation into memory’.8 The resulting reprinting of the negative is akin to flashbacks or reality imprints. Furthermore he argues that certain photographs like many within Innocent Landscapes deal with experiences that passed through their subjects (and by default their families) as something real, which due to the denial and secrecy did not subsequently coalesce into memories to be stored and quite possibly ‘forgotten’. Such experiences, such traumas and such images cannot simply be looked at and understood, they must be witnessed and as viewers we are perhaps made responsible for the first time for an event that has been removed from time.

My initial response at Colgagh, the first site I visited, was visceral. It was shortly after the discovery of the remains of Brian McKinney and John McClory at this location and there was in many ways ‘nothing’ to photograph – certainly nothing in a conventional documentary mode – no bodies, no relatives, no police, no ambulances, no hearses. The first thing I noticed was how the field seemed almost to have been violated. There were rough tyre tracks and groups of rocks piled here and there while a solitary silver birch tree lay abandoned on its side, its roots holding onto that circle of earth which had once held it firmly in place. Walking slowly towards the ‘spot’ now marked by a large stone and a crude wooden cross, the contradictory feelings of absence, presence and loss were intense – overwhelming. I stood silently for some time before I began to make a few perfunctory photographs – my attempt to deal with the sensations and emotions I felt. But my camera was not its usual shield. Here was a paradox of beauty and savagery, tranquillity and sorrow. I realized I would have to return, perhaps many times, to be able to comprehend it. Above all the violated landscape jarred me. It seemed to be a powerful metaphor for the violence that had taken place there over twenty years ago that only now had become visible by the scarification of the land during the search process. I left thinking ‘people must see this’. Somehow this small group of people epitomised the complexities of political violence – where a society becomes so brutalised that it starts to murder its own people in the pursuit of the their ‘rights’ and then deepens the trauma by refusing to return the bodies as part of a process of a communal brutalisation. This negation was intensified at times by having to witness very public funerals for fallen IRA ‘martyrs’ therein leaving wounds that will take generations of both remembering and forgetting before it can be left behind and a true healing begin.

Early within the work a chance meeting with Mrs. McKinney at Colgagh, where she commented that she had felt a sense of relief when her son Bryan ‘had been found with nature’ and ‘in such a beautiful place’, made me realize that location of place for an absent memory and an intense loss would be a key element in my excavation of these sites. Somehow an inherent, almost Romantic beauty acted as a comfort cloak of reflection for the bereaved. As I began to visit these sites I was struck by their Arcadian beauty. They were so typical of classical representations of the Irish Landscape in painting, cinema and even within the promotion of Ireland as a green and pleasant tourist destination. They exuded a heady symbol of being Irish and the Irish experience. At first this ‘beauty’ issue troubled me. Would it be possible to essentially aestheticise violence in a meaningful way? Could I possibly usurp this beauty and turn it back against itself?

In writing about the painter Casper David Friedrich, Joseph Koerner argues that certain elements within Friedrich’s Romantic representations of the landscape ‘turns the landscape back on the viewer to locate us in our subjectivity as landscape (art’s) true point of reference is to generate a point of reflection’.9 Within European Romanticism the environment came to be considered as an aesthetic entity to be contemplated by an enraptured subject in a process of introspection. My methodology in a certain way was to draw upon this convention of the Romantic landscape to hopefully engage the viewer in a dialogue with the photographs so that they too might excavate them and seek their meaning. In exploring this future reading it was primarily a subconscious reflex to utilise the aesthetic of what I term a ‘tough beauty’. This beauty possesses an ‘edge’ that creates tension or unease in the viewer in order to evoke a point of enquiry so that photographs are read and reflected upon and not simply consumed as images. It was important to achieve this not just in single images but as a narrative across the photographs in the wider series. I was also aware that I was at the same time questioning the medium’s ability to furnish ‘evidence’ as well as exploring its limits on remembering, representing and commemorating traumatic historical events. With these limitations in mind my main responsibility was to bear witness in order to make the viewer subsequently bear witness to what was essentially a framed absence. In doing this I might perhaps in a certain way not only make tangible this intangible presence of absence but also metaphorically liberate these absent people from the limbo of their purgatorial landscapes no matter what might be the practical outcome of the searches.

I had followed the searches that were carried out in 1999 and 2000, and the resulting photographs were published in a volume entitled Innocent Landscapes in 2001. However I couldn’t walk away from this work. In between the searches made in 1999 and 2000 I had noticed how nature, even in this short time, had begun to reclaim these sites making them disappear from immediate consciousness. In a certain way it was reassuring in terms of the cycle of life and its yin and yang relationship with death. It also provided a complex almost contradictory metaphor; a healing landscape as the evidence of their interrogation slowly subsumed under nature and a mirror of the killers’ original intention to conceal and remove all trace through the avid growth of nature. Likewise, it comforted me 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 at least act as a monument of sorts, an act of remembrance in the face of voracious nature and human forgetfulness – the folly of memory. A minor theme within the revisits would also be the difficulty of maintaining a memorial memory at the locations, which were often at a considerable distance from the families. Many of the impromptu shrines collapsed and withered under the weight of time. Some never materialized beyond an initial bunch of flowers indicating a greater belief as indicated by a comment attributed to one mother of the disappeared – ‘it’s not where the body lies but where the soul goes’10.

While I felt it was important to look at this process of recovery and remembrance and follow its progression, what also made me return was a connection that went deeper than just ‘the work’. Somehow I felt I had a certain obligation to keep a watching brief on these isolated, haunted lands. There was also the unresolved nature of the initial searches given that on May 20th 2000 the digs, now in their second phase, were suspended with only three remains located. There was the possibility of closure for some but for the remaining six families there was a site rather than a spot, a closing rather than a closure.

As a result, every year from 2001 to 2015, usually towards the end of the summer, I would revisit these locations, excavating my own memory and experiences as I walked the land. In observing this process there was a strange warping of the timeline for while the landscape was moving forward in time it was in fact reversing to a strange state of initial ‘innocence’ and anonymity through layers of growth. This turning back of time within these landscapes was not straightforward with fresh wounds and the re-opening of old scars occurring over succeeding years.

In 2008 during my revisits at Ballynultagh I discovered that a low-key investigation, off media radar, had been under way for about a year both there and at Bragan Bog. These new searches were carried out by forensic archaeologists and are considerably slower and possibly more methodical in comparison to the first searches. Areas of land are cleared, assessed with new technology, examined by specially trained cadaver dogs, then gridded and marked out with colour coded bamboo sticks that are annotated with ordinance survey coordinates. Attempts are then made to drain wet bog-land for a period of weeks or months before excavations begin. There is a sense of a patient gardener preparing the soil. This investigation contrasts to the previous work, which felt constricted by time and which attempted to overcome this by throwing itself at the problem hoping for a breakthrough. Nevertheless, beyond technology these new searches rely on human tenacity, endurance and a patient rhythmic sifting of soil and ultimately a little luck. Ballynultagh finally yielded the partial remains of Danny McIlhone giving hope for future returns to other sites.

During my revisits since 2001, Wilkinstown or more precisely Coghalstown Wood, said to be the burial place of Seamus Wright and Kevin McKee who disappeared on the 2nd October 1972, resonated most strongly with me particularly due to the ardent growth that had taken place there over the years. I later learned that this re-birthing of felled trees was due to seeds dispersed during the initial searches and not as I had assumed initially to be a re-plantation of the wood. It was at this location that the idea of revisiting arose after having observed a renewal of this landscape between the first searches of 1999 and 2000 and it was there in 2006 that I discovered the swallowing tree.

In most locations some form of shrine was established at the time of the excavations. At Coghalstown Wood, felled tree-trunks had been formed into a small altar and a wooden cross for a Catholic mass in 2000, and in addition to a small memorial tablet, there was a crimson-red statue of Jesus and some rosary beads together with a small religious prayer that had been pinned to a tree in 1999. These votive offerings sanctified a line of trees between the two fields that were searched in 1999 and 2000, and I had made numerous photographs of these supplications as they too succumbed to nature. When revisiting each location my method was to work off my own memory of the site and not consult a set of photographs from previous years as an aide memoire. As a result the religious image pinned to the tree had vanished from my active memory of this location over the years and I only re-discovered it in 2006 due to being a little early in my timeline of revisiting that year and it not being obscured by the annual growth of ferns that had made it disappear from view on previous visits. While the tree slowly swallowing the prayer presents a powerful metaphor for the killers’ intention of nature subsuming all trace and evidence, it did on the other hand it offered a memory that stubbornly resisted full absorption, a reminiscence that refused to go away.

Access to Coghalstown Wood is by a narrow track that runs alongside the two rectangular fields of the search area which is fronted by farmland growing crops and tail-ended by the remainder of the untouched and unfelled Coghalstown Wood. On the right hand side is a large area of farmland where curious cattle would often pause from their chewing to watch my passage along this path. This farmland had been reclaimed from the bog some time in the 1980’s and was a cause for much speculation among the local people I met, particularly ‘if all those years ago ‘they’ went right instead of left as that farmland was fair moved about a bit and wouldn’t be worth searching now…… sure who knows what people saw when they did that work (sic reclamation) ….. in those days ye said nothing if you saw something.’11

In April or May of 2009, unbeknownst to me, the search resumed at this location. Again I came across it by chance on a revisit in early June. I was confused and uncertain though, as the field where the Garda had stopped in 2000 seemed to have been cleared and explored relatively recently and yet the ferns were already reclaiming this action – nature was already erasing through growth. There was no sign of current activity and yet along the edge of the laneway were what appeared to be small tentative excavations. Red bamboo sticks still dotted the landscape here and there suggesting unfinished business. It was puzzling. Had they found something? And if so how had it passed me by?

One difference these days, in the short distance since 1999, is the Internet and the ease of searching for news events. Nothing emerged. So I parked it, got distracted in other works and decided to return on a revisit later in the summer. This became September and my short walk up the laneway revealed a field that was now stripped bare and covered totally in the grey subsoil of this location. It looked so definite and complete that I assumed I had somehow missed their return. Disappointed I walked on to take a look at the swallowing tree and turning into what appeared at first sight to be the untouched rear field I was taken aback. Thirty metres beyond a bank of the resurgent bunched up trees was a field filled with mounds of earth somewhat like the bottom halves of inverted sand clocks that were sitting still in front of The Swallowing Tree. It was a powerful sight to see all that inverted and dispersed memory settled between small hills and valleys.

And so it began, autumn becoming winter, which turned to spring, (a spring in which my ‘daarlin’ mother departed), and then it was summer and save for a small oasis of trees beside the ‘swallowing tree’ the two rectangular fields were been searched beyond searching. During this period new searches were instigated at Carrickrobin for Gerard Evans and at Aughrim More for Charlie Armstrong, two men withheld from the original list by forces refusing to acknowledge the past. In late July 2010 a short search of six weeks returned Charlie Armstrong to his wife and family from a bog literally across the road from Colgagh where my journey into these landscapes began. In early August the front thirty metres of three of the numerous family holdings of turf banks at Emlagh bog in Oristown were marked out and the clawing arms of the JCB’s returned to search for Eamon Megraw. Meanwhile, the previously untouched wood lying northwards at Coghalstown Wood had been mapped out with blue-painted bamboo sticks bearing grid references in early June and the cadaver dogs paid a visit sampling liberated odours from the subsoil.

I photographed Coghalstown Wood weekly during this new yearlong search, feeling that it was imperative to somehow mirror the patient quest of the search team and actively pursue this site as it moved through the seasons. This resulted in a body of work – Small Acts of Memory – in which duration and longing become central themes. I had no contact with the search teams after my initial meetings with them in 2008. They are bound by a lot of secrecy so conversations were limited as I usually asked questions that they wouldn’t or couldn’t provide answers to. Consequently my work is empirical and involves walking, reading and absorbing the landscape. Over time certain issues would reveal themselves often in quite powerful and evocative ways. I was always puzzled for example as to what was the fate of the newly felled trees which seemed to vanish from the location. Then one day deep into the autumn this mystery was solved. They were buried in the excavated trenches, which were then filled in as the ‘time team’ moved across the landscape. This return to the bog without return was another powerful metaphor as these traces of the search were also being disappeared as the search itself continued – again an ugly mirror of the original violation and yet ultimately returning to the earth that which had been removed in order to continue the cycle of the bog. It gave a sense of history feeding on history. Later as we entered spring, an attempt was made to replant some of the then budding trees that were being uprooted during that period and this soon gave the strange sight of autumn in summer as the thin trees shed their golden leaves in an attempt to re-establish themselves in the rich green landscape of June and July. Despite this intervention, Coghalstown Wood would take a considerable time to fully renew itself and was for now, as a local man described it to me, ‘a grey desert’12.

Then one Sunday towards the end of August I paid a visit on my way to Oristown where I was photographing the renewed search there. The curious cows in the adjacent field rushed towards me as if they were about to say something, but as ever they just stood and stared. The machinery had left and the partly replanted wood was now on its own. Curious as to what might lie ahead I ventured into the untouched wood lying north of the recently searched fields to find the thin blue totems of hope removed. Already the recent odour wounds for the cadaver dogs that punctured the bog floor surrounding the trees were closing up. Perhaps it’s over I thought, this year of scouring and scraping. On leaving, I glanced towards the strip of trees containing the swallowing tree and noticed that a small rectangle of grass appeared to have been scratched away and a small rock had been placed in front of the stump of the wooden cross that for many years had marked this place of expectation, and which itself had finally collapsed to the earth in 2010 as these new searches were taking place. It was one of those small heartbreaking moments of recognition familiar from other locations as I recognised a small gesture of farewell from those involved in this looking and looking. As I approached it another delicate gesture in contrast to the hard physicality of the search revealed itself. Retrieved from the undergrowth and placed on top of this small rock was the memorial tablet dating from the first search ten years previously, expounding the love of a brother for his sibling as also a friend. And this final scraping of the grassy earth to allow this memorial to stand still and clear is perhaps an absolute Small Act of Memory.

Later on in October 2010 the remains of Gerard Evans were recovered at Carrickrobin after another year-long search there and in 2014 the remains of Brendan Megraw were recovered at Emlagh Bog during a second renewed search, but at Coghalstown Wood on the waiting went. Then in early summer 2015 I read that fresh information had been received with regard to Joe Lynskey, a Cistercian monk, who was disappeared in 1973 and who was not on the original list and that the search team had returned to a field adjacent to Coghalstown Wood. This was the field that usually contained the curious cows that would stare at me as I walked the lane leading to the original site. I made a visit noting how yet again nature was reclaiming and hiding the search of 2009/10. But I felt my work was coming to a close on this subject that I had followed for 16 years. I couldn’t give anything more to it nor it to me. I had more than exhausted the possibilities. After some weeks searching remains were located and while they were carefully excavating the bog to extract what was presumed to be Joe Lynskey a second set of remains was located underneath the first. Somewhat incredibly these turned out to be the remains of Seamus and Kevin.This brought to mind a thought I often had during all those years visiting this and other sites that had yielded nothing – had I for many years with my so-called photographic truth been photographing a big lie and did this matter for what is the relationship between art, truth and photography ? the search continued at this location until November 2015 but no further remains were recovered and Joe Lynskey returned to join three others who remain in limbo.


1       Terry Eagleton (1999), The Truth About the Irish, Dublin, New Island Books, p. 32.

2       Ibid.

3       David Farrell, (2001), Innocent Landscapes, Stockport, UK, Dewi Lewis.

4       Roland Barthes, (2000), Camera Lucida, London, Vintage, p. 5.

5       David Campany (2003), ‘Safety in Numbness: some remarks on the problems of “LatePhotography”

in David Green (ed) Where is the Photograph?,    Brighton, UK Photoworks – Photoforum.

6       Roland Barthes op.cit., p. 9.

7       Susan Sontag (1979), On Photography, London, Penguin, p. 15.

8       Ulrich Baer (2002), Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma, Massachusetts, MIT Press, p. 9.

 9       Joseph Koerner (1990), Casper David Friedrich and the Subject of the Landscape,

London, Reaktion Books,p. 20.

10     Conversation with local man at Bragan Bog, August, 2007.

11     Conversation with local man at Coghalstown Wood, September, 2009.

12     Conversation with local man at Coghalstown Wood, July, 2010.