7 June 2017

Small Acts of Memory

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. There was the unresolved nature of the searches and a personal desire to keep a watching vigil on these hidden places. So every year, usually towards the end of the summer, I would revisit these locations making photographs of a double and contradictory metaphor – a healing landscape through witnessing the evidence of their interrogation slowly subsume under nature and a mirror of the killers’ original intention to remove all trace. In the back of my mind I had said to myself that I would try to do this for ten years. However, as it happened, this turning back of time within these landscapes was not as straightforward as I thought it would be and fresh wounds and the re-opening of scars would occur 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 here and at Bragan. These new searches by forensic archaeologists were also considerably slower and possibly more methodical in comparison to the first searches e.g. areas of land are cleared, assessed with new technology, examined by specially trained cadaver dogs, they are gridded and marked out with colour coded bamboo sticks and attempts are made to drain wet bog-land for a period of weeks or months where necessary. There is a sense of a patient gardener preparing the soil. Scientists, in pursuit of their truths have remarkable patience and tenacity – they could empty a swimming pool with a spoon in their quest to verify a theory. This current investigation contrasts to the previous work, which while methodical in its own way, felt constricted by time and attempted to overcome this by throwing itself at the problem hoping for a breakthrough


I visited the team several times in Wicklow as they searched, postponed the search and then resumed the search with success in November 2008 when they located the partial remains of Danny McIlhone. I had always tried to convey to people the difficulties involved in these searches by employing the ‘looking for a needle in a haystack’ metaphor and during a conversation the lead archaeologist repeated that phrase to me but added succinctly ‘but if you show me the right haystack I will find that needle’.


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 avid growth that had taken place there over the years. I later learned that this rebirthing of trees was due to seeds dispersed during the searches and not as I had assumed initially to be a re-plantation of the wood. It was at this location that the initial idea to revisit arose after having observed the renewal between 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 searches. At Coghalstown Wood, felled tree-trunks had been formed into a small altar and a wooden cross for a mass in 2000 – there was also a crimson red statue of Jesus and some rosary beads together with a small religious image that had been pinned to a tree in 1999. These votive offerings sanctified a line of trees between both fields that were searched in 1999 and 2000 at this former wooded area. Over the years I had forgotten about this image and 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. It’s a powerful metaphor for the killers’ intention of nature subsuming all trace and evidence and possibly summed up everything I had been attempting to explore at all the locations during my revisits. On the other hand it is also a memory that stubbornly resists full absorption, a reminiscence that refuses 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 land 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 land was fair moved about a bit and wouldn’t be worth searching …… and sure who knows what people saw when they did that ….. in those days ye said nothing if you saw something.


In April or May of 2009, unbeknownst to me, the search resumed at this location. Again I came across it quite 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 relatively recently and the ferns were already reclaiming this action – nature was already erasing through growth – and yet along the edge of the laneway were small and what appeared to be 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. I parked it, got distracted in other things and decided to return later in the summer. This became September the beginning of autumn and my short walk up the lane revealing a now naked field from June, flattened with the grey subsoil at this location now sitting firmly on top of what had been brown bog. ‘Bugger’ – I thought – ‘I’ve missed it’ – it looked so definite and complete. I walked on to examine the swallowing tree and turning into what appeared at first sight to be the untouched rear field I was taken aback. Thirty meters beyond a bank of the resurgent bunched up trees was a field of earth mounds like the bottom halves of inverted sand clocks sitting still in lines appearing to be almost bearing worship in front of the swallowing tree. It was a powerful sight 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 rectangles had 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 banks of turf at Emlagh bog in Oristown were marked out and the clawing arms of the JCB’s returned. Meanwhile the untouched wood lying northwards at Coghalstown had been mapped out with blue-painted bamboo sticks bearing grid references in early June and the dogs paid a visit sampling liberated odours from the subsoil. A replanting of the fields from trees not returned to the temporary trenches began in spring and continued in summer. The fields were returned without return.


During all these searches I wrote a regular blog for SOURCE Magazine documenting the process and progress of my work, which drew me even closer to the project. A moment that still resonates particularly strongly from Wilkinstown was the day I solved the small puzzle of the fate of the felled trees, which I had assumed were taken away as they were never visible. One day deep into the autumn the mystery was solved they buried them in the excavated trenches. This return to the bog without return was quite powerful as these traces of the search were being disappeared as the search itself continued – 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 the Spring an attempt was made to replant some of the budding trees that were being felled during that period and this later gave a strange sight of Autumn in Summer as the skinny trees shed their leaves as they tried to re-establish themselves. But this wood was now, as a local man described it to me, a grey desert.


Then one Sunday towards the end of August I paid a visit on my way to Oristown. 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 to find nearly all those thin blue totems of hope removed. Already the odour wounds that punctured the bog floor were closing up – hmmm – 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 had been scratched away and a small rock had been placed just in front of the stump of the wooden cross that for many years had marked this place of expectation. It was one of those small heartbreaking moments of recognition familiar from other locations most recently at Aughrim More. A small gesture of farewell from those involved in this looking and looking stood before me, and 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 a memorial stone 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 perhaps the absolute small act of memory. And on the waiting went.


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.


DF July, 2015