The Cold Hard Facts Of Life

This piece is on show as part of the Artists At Work 2 exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery until February 12th 2023. I had originally intended to show one of the works from the Three Views of A Border exhibition but I couldn’t get the dates to work. Three Views was still touring in Ireland when the work had to be delivered so I wavered, vacillated, huffed and puffed and decided to show this, which is the most complex of a series of related pieces that pull together memory fragments of the 1970s in a playful way.

It has a number of familiar elements. The lead and bitumen are there, as are George and Pat and the rusty drawing pins but there are ideas there that are still emerging and which I’ll develop in future. The gallery gets quite a high number of family visitors and the lower panel is hung at a child’s eye level which I really like, hopefully the magpie nature of the collage will be appealing to young visitors. That’s an approach I want to develop in future. In keeping with a lot of recent work the title ‘The Cold Hard Facts Of Life’ comes from a countrypolitan song, Porter Wagoner’s finest moment in this case, although the phrase ‘Pressure Cookers! Pressure Cookers!’ appears in typescript on the upper panel and I was almost swayed to use that as a title. One visitor has already likened the piece to ‘an explosion in a junk shop’. If that isn’t a title waiting for a piece I don’t know what is.

The Sin Eater

The Sin Eater, dimensions variable, ballot box, table, instructions, 2022

A lot of us carry our guilt around. It weighs us down. Almost everyone has done at least one thing in our lives which we’re deeply ashamed of and which we have an unhealthy habit of letting define us. The Sin Eater is a piece which aims to empower the viewer, or the actor because you interact with this work far more than you view it, to absolves themselves of that burden. First shown as part of Three Views of A Border in An Tain in Dundalk, The Sin Eater then travelled to the Cityside Arts Festival in Belfast and a second iteration is currently part of the Iontas incarnation of Three Views of A Border.

When an exhibition ends I unseal the ballot box and burn the ballots before encasing them in wax to produce a permanent record of those absolved sins.

I would love this to have a life independent, or semi-autonomous at least, of me. You don’t really need the ballot box, any box which can be sealed will do. If you contact me I’ll send you an instructions poster, and if you send back the ballots in a sealed envelope I will burn them and transform them into the outworking of the installation as you can see with The Sins Of Dundalk below.

The Sins of Dundalk, 14 x 8 x 3cm, Burnt ballots, wax, tin, 2022

Three Views Of A Border

Myself and my friend and fellow artist Anna Marie Savage have talked for a number of years about the possibility of exhibiting bodies of work together as we both grew up along the border and both have frequently made work in response to the experiences and memories of how life was and is there. We approached the Tain Arts Centre in Dundalk and they suggested we add Ciaran Dunbar to the mix. The resultant exhibition brought together three very different views of life in proximity to the border. Anna’s work is extremely painterly. Her sensuous use of paint and ink is a very effective counterpoint to the harsh, often angular intrusions into the landscape that serve as her visual starting point; Ciaran’s work as a documentary photographer interrogates life along the border in a detached fashion while my work examines how landscape and memory are codependent in our own experience of an ambivalent past. I’ve gathered together the body of work I made for the exhibition in the ‘It Only Hurts If You Look At It’ page of this site.

The exhibition was warmly received and a second venue came on board with the exhibition moving to the Iontas Theatre and Arts Centre in Castleblayney, Co. Monaghan in August. The modern space of Iontas gives the exhibition a radically different context from the exhibition space of the Tain Arts Centre which was originally a set of cells under Dundalk Court House. The exhibition continues there until October 25th 2022.

The Fourteen Stations

The Fourteen Stations, each panel 60 x 60 cm, 2022

The area from William Street through Rossville Street and Glenfada Park to Abbey Park in Derry, where 14 people were shot dead on Bloody Sunday, 30th January 1972, has been extensively redeveloped – a common issue with ‘sites of memory’ in Northern Ireland – but as close as I could manage it, these fourteen images document the places where the fourteen dead of Bloody Sunday fell. I made these fourteen images when I visited Derry to install Fourteen Silenced Bells for Derry at the Museum of Free Derry. Until you have walked around these streets it’s difficult to grasp how condensed a space the events unfolded across. In their account of the events the Museum of Free Derry succinctly describe it as a space the size of a football pitch. ‘Sites of memory’ in Northern Ireland have often been erased as a conscious political decision. Weaver Street in Belfast where four children playing were killed by a blast bomb, the R14 checkpoint on the Belfast to Dublin road, emblematic of British coercion and control, for example, no longer exist. The UDA drinking den at Hunter Street in Belfast where Ann Ogilby was beaten to death no longer exists. These are just a few examples from a long list. In Derry, the streetscape has been altered for a number of reasons. In the case of Rossville Street flats they were demolished as they were unfit as housing. The obelisk commemorating Bloody Sunday stands on the site. I felt it was important though to try and find a locator for these memories, for this communal grief. By the time the centenary of Bloody Sunday comes around, no-one with a living connection to the events will be here to give an account. Now, at the half-centenary, it’s imperative that we try. Although fourteen people were fatally wounded that day, as the list below shows, the scale of the rampage by 1 PARA was much wider.

John Johnston (died 16th June 1972)

Damian Donaghy (injured)

Jackie Duddy (died 30th January 1972)

Peggy Deery (injured)

Patrick McDaid (injured)

Patrick Campbell (injured)

Michael Bradley (injured)

Mickey Bridge (injured)

Patrick Brolly (injured)

Daniel McGowan (injured)

Hugh Gilmour (died 30th January 1972)

Michael Kelly (died 30th January 1972)

Michael McDaid (died 30th January 1972)

John Young (died 30th January 1972)

William Nash (died 30th January 1972)

Alex Nash (injured)

Kevin McElhinney (died 30th January 1972)

Joseph Friel (injured)

Daniel Gillespie (injured)

Michael Quinn (injured)

Joseph Mahon (injured)

William McKinney (died 30th January 1972)

Patrick O’Donnell (injured)

Jim Wray (died 30th January 1972)

Gerald Donaghey (died 30th January 1972)

Gerard McKinney (died 30th January 1972)

Fourteen Silenced Bells For Derry

Fourteen Silenced Bells For Derry, Lead, Wax, 2022 (collection of Museum of Free Derry)

I was an eight year old child when the British Army’s Parachute regiment shot 26 Derry civil rights protestors on 30th January 1972. Thirteen died where they lay, one lingered for almost five months before dying on 16th June. Even as an eight year old I can remember the stunned silence in which we watched the grainy black and white news reports. The gunshots fired that day have reverberated down the intervening five decades. The experience of everyone living in Northern Ireland, everyone who grew up in the violence and collective trauma that followed, has been shaped by what happened in an area barely the size of a football pitch. Everything that came after had its beginnings there. Although Bloody Sunday wasn’t the first mass shooting by the British Army – 11 innocent people had been shot over the course of three days in Ballymurphy the previous August – it marks a fulcrum where the optimism of the civil rights movement dips out of sight and insurgency rises into view.

In light of this I feel humbled that my installation Fourteen Silenced Bells For Derry has entered the collection of the Museum of Free Derry and will be on display there on the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

I came to the idea Silenced Bells as a way of articulating what I wanted to say about those robbed of their voices, cut short in their prime, taken from their loved ones, denied justice. I wanted to make something human in scale, something that might fit in your hand, that you could feel the weight of on a personal scale. Objects to contemplate loss. The dead of Bloody Sunday deserve a public monument but I tend to work on a more intimate scale and wanted to make something that would keep the individual identities of the fourteen people who died in view.

The main function of a bell is to make a noise. For as long as people have been able to work metal we’ve made bells to warn of danger, to express our joy, to give voice to our anguish. Silencing a bell has long been regarded as a serious transgression. In the early Irish text Buile Suibhne, tells Sweeney is cursed for throwing Saint Ronan’s bell into the lake.

The bells I make are similar in form to early monastic bells but they are made from lead, with its funerary associations- lead is used to make bullets, to line coffins, and they are filled with wax which is associated with the preservation of relics, the embalming of the dead. By rendering the bells incapable of ringing I hope to relocate their voices in those who contemplate them.

It Only Hurts If You Look At It

The Disasters of War, 28 x 28cm, mixed media, 2021

Sometimes examining our own pasts can be the most difficult thing we do. If we’re to do it honestly we have to give equal weight to the things that make us different and to the things that make us the same. Familiy, social circumstances, history unfolding around us all forge an identity but it isn’t always clear if 2 + 2 + 2 totals up to 6 or if the sum of the parts succumbs to a different arithmetic entirely.

In these new mixed media works I’m trying to build a language with which I can look at my own past and that past that I share with my near contemporaries. The lead and wax are carried across from the Silenced Bells and I’ve used the metal grid as a mnemonic for home or a sense of place in Green Green Grass of Home but by combining other collaged elements I’m hoping I can build an intuitive sense of narrative into these new works. They are meant to be read literally but hopefully the resonances are there for others to tune into.

It Only Hurts If You Look At It, 43 x 43cm, mixed media, 2021

Innocence + Loss

Many cultures have death rituals which involve an attempt at preservation and memorialisation. The ancient Egyptians are the culture we associate most with this, with their mummies and pyramids. We think the ancient people who lived before history in Ireland may have disinterred bones of people who had a particular meaning from them and that they carried these bones with them. We have grave markers and memorial cards. Finality is difficult. It’s human to want to hang on to the memory but it’s also impossible. We’re flawed, imperfect creatures and time and grief have us in their grasp.

In continuing to work with lead and wax I’m trying to harness a range of materials that allow me to speak of innocence and loss. The flowers in this work are also dipped in wax, freezing them in time but concurrently transforming them into a grotesque, barely recognisable, travesty of their original beauty. We try to hang on. We try to make it all perfect. We can’t.

They live on, perfect, in our hearts, 32cm high, lead, wax, roses, ox-eye daisies, 2021

Silenced Bell

Silenced Bell (for Noah Donohoe 21/06/2020)

A bell is meant to speak. Or call. It has a tongue, a voice. In mediaeval Ireland bells were invested with significant symbolic power. They were associated with saints and some of these early bells were guarded, hidden and passed down intact to modern times. This bell is based on the form of those early mediaeval Irish bells but rendered in lead rather than iron and bronze. Its voice has been stopped, its call trapped, the tongue held immobile in wax. I’ve used lead and wax before in my work. Lead for me is bound up in death, used to make bullets and to line coffins. Wax too has a hint of the mortuary, used to embalm. Wax however also connotes innocence and preservation, like the wax dipped flowers French brides kept as memorials of their wedding days and the waxy incorruptible features of glass casketed saints.

I first started thinking of making sets of silenced bells in the context of memorialising the dead of the Ballymurphy massacre, and those who were killed on Bloody Sunday but Fiona Donohoe’s raw grief at the loss of her son Noah moved me to make this standalone work.

If you aren’t from Northern Ireland, or don’t have connections there, you may not know of Noah Donohoe. On June 21st 2020, Noah, a fourteen year old, left his house in Belfast to meet some friends with whom he was preparing for the Duke of Edinburgh’s award. He didn’t arrive. Six days later his naked body was found in a storm drain. The autopsy findings indicated that he died by drowning and the Police Service of Northern Ireland were quick to assert that no-one was being sought in connection with his death but after ceaseless campaigning by his distraught mother CCTV footage emerged that showed him cycling naked through central Belfast. Someone tried to pawn his laptop. Some of his clothing is yet to be found. His body was recovered from a considerable distance inside a storm drain that was meant to have been locked. Obviously his death raises many questions but the official response remains that there is nothing further his mother, his family, needs to know. What, or who, is being hidden. And why?

Hare Bone Black

Alchemy

Nowadays a painter can get virtually any colour imaginable straight from a tube. It’s easy but there’s little by way of mystery involved. It wasn’t always like that though – the tube is less than two centuries old – and for centuries painters, or their apprentices, made their own paint. There’s something alchemical about transforming some everyday substance into a tool for creative expression. As I painted the hare skeleton it struck me that bone black is one of the colours painters would traditionally have made for themselves and that, as pigment, the hare could continue to have a life.

Chemistry

The first step was to collect as much of the skeleton as possible, all those smithereens of femur included, and to break them into manageable fragments. Bones are white (well, whitish) so how come bone black is, well, black? The answer is the alchemists’ old friend fire. As with making charcoal, the essential process is to burn the bones in the absence of oxygen.

The bones are tightly wrapped in tinfoil to exclude as much oxygen as possible from the reaction. This packet is then put into a tin with a blow hole punched into it so that the escaping gas from the burning bones can burn off. The tin is placed in the hottest part of the fire. I couldn’t find any exact timings so I left the tin in the fire until it had died down late in the evening. By morning it was cool enough for the next stage.

The burnt bones are a glossy black and even before the grinding process they have an elegance to them that hints at the beauty of the marks that they might one day make.

It’s striking at this stage how little material is left of the hare.

After a half an hour of grinding with the mortar and pestle the bones have been reduced to a powder but you may be able to see a few reflective points where there is still enough surface on the fragment to bounce back light. The pigment needs to be finer so another spell with the mortar is called for.

Another half an hour later and any breath in the direction of the pestle sends tiny plumes of dust upward. Enough grinding. The bones have been transformed to pigment. Adding a little linseed oil will make paint but I have different plans. The hare and I are going to make prints together and over the winter I’ll prepare plates. When the light improves I’ll make ink with my hare bone black pigment and proof them.

The Hare’s Tale

A death

About a year ago, driving home, I saw the car in front of me clip something. There was a lay-by I could pull into so I stopped and walked back along the roadside, cars careering past. It didn’t take long to find the hare, thrown into the ditch by the car that had spun it from the road. It was still alive, its chest pumping, its eyes flared. I thought I might be able to save it but as I lifted it I saw that one of its back legs was pointing in the wrong direction and there was blood leaking everywhere. By the time I got it to the car it was dead. I put it in the boot and brought it home, thinking that I might paint it, to tell its story and make its place in the world something tangible.

Hare diptych, oil on panel, 2019 – 2020, 60 x 40cm each

An entombment

As I painted it I started to dwell on how serene it looked for all that it was broken and bloodied. I built a cairn of sorts over it on an old garden slab down the side of the shed so that the rats wouldn’t carry away its bones and as the days past I found my self thinking about it and I knew that as the flesh fell away the broken bones would fall away and it would tell a much clearer story of its grim end.

A resurrection

Exactly a year after I built the tomb around it I uncovered it again. Some of the bones had fallen in unexpected ways and some had moved far farther than I would have thought possible but it was the bones of its pelvis and back legs that spoke most clearly of the violence of its demise. I painted the hare a second time.

The Anatomy Lesson, 2020

With that second painting complete I set about itemising the bone fragments, 535 pieces, some no bigger than specks of dust. I may have missed some in what remained of the rotted down carcass but what remained I decided to try and coax one final act of transcendence from by making bone black pigment. I’ll tell you about that another day. For now contemplate the hare’s tale.