A key moment of the film In The Mood For Love is a scene where one of the protagonists is told a story about how in older times, when you had a secret that could not be shared, you would travel high into the mountains and carve a hollow in a tree. You would then whisper the secret into that small empty space and cover it with mud, sealing this truth forever in a place that was itself a secret. This act somehow extorted an intriguing form of confession and concealment from kindly nature.
I made my first photograph of what I would subsequently term The Swallowing Tree during the first official search for the bodies of Kevin McKee and Seamus Wright at Coghalstown Wood, Wilkinstown in 1999. These young men belonged to the Disappeared, a small group of people that had been killed and secretly buried by the IRA during the conflict in Northern Ireland. These disappearances, which occurred during the seventies and early eighties, were the result of a policy of internal policing of the Republican movement and the wider Catholic community with Kevin and Seamus being amongst the first to endure this fate in October 1972. The revelation in ’99 that this place and other locations associated with the missing people were in the south of Ireland came as a final twist – in death they had been exiled from their homeland, north of the border.
Another photograph was made after the second unsuccessful search in 2000 (an image I subsequently used in Innocent Landscapes). These straightforward photographs, documenting a simple shrine at this location, displayed typical totems of hope – a prayer card with an image of Jesus pinned to the bark, rosary beads and some flowers – a record of familial visitation and remembrance.
Upon returning to the site during the second search I noticed how nature had begun to reclaim this place, making the evidence of the first search disappear from view. It struck me as a double metaphor – a mirror of the killers’ original intention to use nature to erase all traces of their actions, but also nature’s proclivity to heal through growth, through cycles of life and death. With this in mind I decided to make annual re-visits to all the sites and follow this process of re-absorption in the years subsequent to the largely unsuccessful searches that ended in 2000. Coghalstown Wood was of note because of the avid growth of trees from seeds dispersed in the first search, so much so that within a few years a dense growth of 12 ft saplings readily swayed with the wind in what had been a voided wood.
Starting then in 2001, I re-photographed certain aspects of this landscape over the following years, but working solely from recollection by trying to remember each year exactly where I had taken photographs the previous year. I wasn’t interested in an accurate typology, but one that varied with my inconsistent memory and reflected the slippage that the passage of time brings to perfect recall. Some years, due to the previous year’s growth, I was unable to position myself where I thought was correct and this also shaped the photographs I would make.
As a result of the fallibility of memory I had forgotten about the religious image pinned to the tree and had made no photographs of it from August 2000 until one day in June 2006 when I made my usual re-visit a little earlier in the summer than normal. The ferns had not quite grown to their annual height, and there it was, waiting to be found. It was a significant moment and I instantly thought of an old photograph by Marialba Russo of a religious ritual in southern Italy. The photograph shows a young boy being passed to and fro by relatives across the bark of a young tree that has been partially split in half. Having completed this action the family would then place a religious image within the tree trunk, which would be subsequently re-bound. As a result of this ceremony the image, as a representation of the child’s spirit, would reside protected deep within the tree as it grew.
Standing there, in what had become a familiar landscape and observing this process of ingestion for the first time, a renewed sense of the essence of what this location represented shook me from the habitual routine of my re-visit. Here was visibility and invisibility of traces, clues and evidence, the significance of hidden and partially hidden things. Without knowledge, was the protruding image, swallowed evidence or a vomited truth? What might I see each year there on when I would return and try to find this exact tree among a line of others? And how long could I continue to look at this latent landscape before walking away from the ritual of sustaining a memorial memory?
While the resulting photographs of The Swallowing Tree are not aesthetically beautiful images but rather direct documents of an ongoing natural process, they are loaded with a deeper meaning. In and of itself, this swallowing is a powerful metaphor for the Disappeared – a memory being slowly subsumed by voracious nature and the passage of time. And yet, its resistant protrusion proclaims a small act of defiance, a punctum of remembrance in opposition to confession and concealment in an isolated wood in County Meath. At the time of writing and in spite of a further yearlong search from 2009-2010 at Coghalstown Wood, as explored in Small Acts of Memory, the remains of Kevin McKee and Seamus Wright have not been located and returned to their expectant families.
They haven’t gone away, ye know.
DF – March 2014