What Became of the People We Used to Be

On Saturday I went to Inis Bearachain in Conamara with my sisters, their husbands, two small people and a friend whose father came from the island. We were going to visit a very particular art exhibition as part of Tulca, a multi-venue visual art festival. This is our afternoon in pictures.

We drove to Leitir Calaidh, got on a boat at the pier and sailed out to the island.

Our boat couldn’t dock on the island so we climbed down into a curach and were pulled into the seaweedy shore. From there, still wearing our life jackets, we walked up the hill to the old schoolhouse.

We were there to see a site specific art installation by artists Ackroyd & Harvey that was part of What Became of the People We Used to Be. You can read more about it here. We arrived at the old schoolhouse which has been empty for years now. Its square, almost contemporary flat-roofed structure somehow fits this wild place. Inside, layers of paint were peeling from every surface.

The old fireplace was in use and there were people there to hand us a cup of tea, as we all stood in the school’s only class. The huge portraits hanging on the walls were breathtaking.

They were made of grass, living embodiments of people who used to live on the island, which is now uninhabited. This is the description provided by the artists:

The old schoolhouse, built in the thirties and last used by pupils in the 1960’s presents an intimate setting where the artists will create a series of unique photographic portraits. Grass grown from seed is the material of the artists’ photography; chlorophyll, the green pigment initiating a photochemical response is the primary medium, giving rise to images of a subtly evanescent kind. The seduction of visibility and the inevitability of change are implicit in Ackroyd & Harvey’s photographic work, and by skillfully manipulating grass’s properties and connotations, they articulate and actualize notions of ephemerality, duration, and memory.

They were beautiful, eerie, haunting. No lessons have been taught in that room for over forty years, yet there was a definite sense of life because of the presence of those faces.

It was like seeing faded images through a pool of water. It was another world, as though we’d stepped through the back of the wardrobe into a place forgotten by time.

There’s something wonderful in the idea that these pieces of art are as temporary as we are. There’s no way to preserve them so once this exhibition finishes… well, they’ll be gone forever.

Below is a side view of one of the portraits: grass all the way.

The schoolroom was beautiful in its dilapidation.

I imagine life was hard at times in this now nearly deserted place, but the view outside the school was stunning.

We had time, just about, for a wander. The houses were empty, some still with their windows and doors, some falling down. Lives were lived here. People loved and fought, ate and drank, grew food and suffered famine here. There’s a particular silence in places that are no longer inhabited, a vague feeling that you’re encroaching on ground that’s resting.

I love this, the patches of lichen like badges of honour on the old walls.

We met a young man there who’s been renovating the old family house. He invited us in. We saw the original stonework he’s painstakingly exposed, the windowsill he’s planning to have his kitchen sink in front of, the floors and ceilings he’s reclaimed. He’s proud of the work he’s doing and he’s immensely proud of the place. He walked with us a bit and we made our way, through a shower, back to the shore. It was lovely to end our visit with that: new life coming back to the island.

It was a gorgeous experience, made all the more special by the fact that a family of us went together. I highly recommend a trip, and if you go, stop in Tigh Phlunkett on the way back for a pint.

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16 Responses to What Became of the People We Used to Be

  1. What beautiful photographs! Love the view from the school.

  2. Jessica Ziegler says:

    So neat! I saw a bit of a program about this on TG4, but they didn’t show any close-ups of the grass, so thanks for that. Looks like you and crew had a wonderful day for it, too. 🙂

    • silelooksup says:

      Hey Jessica! Oddly enough it did pour a bit on the day but I seem to have left the camera in my pocket for those! Did you see the portrait of Johnny Phádraig Pheter? 🙂

  3. wow girl, you can write! I love your blog!

  4. Reblogged this on franceskaywriter and commented:
    My friend Sile sent shivers down my spine with this post. It’s like the haunting tune of ‘Cape Clear’ – yearning, joyful, lonely, questing.

  5. La Stranezza says:

    “The schoolroom was beautiful in its dilapidation.” I love this phrase. Beautiful post. I shall incontinently follow your blog, good madam.

  6. Diane Flaherty Martin says:

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful art installation, and these beautiful photos. I’m trying to research this very Island, because it’s where my grandmother, Mary Cooney, was raised, according to her immigration ship’s log. I can almost view the amazing landscape as I’m sure she must have seen it. Family and heritage should be enjoyed and preserved. God bless!
    Diane Flaherty Martin

    • silelooksup says:

      Hi Diane,

      Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m so glad you found the post! Have you found any information on your grandmother – what year she left etc? I know a man in his sixties who was born and raised there – he may have know her family, if you’d like me to enquire?
      Best wishes,

      • Diane Flaherty Martin says:

        She immigrated much earlier than the 50’s, I’m afraid. She came to Boston in 1900. I have information on her here in the States, but am still researching her family. Someday I hope to find information on her parents, Thomas and Mary Jane Cooney. When I make a trip back to Ireland, I’ll be sure to visit the area and enjoy the beauty of the place, as in the words of John William Seoighe, “Ligfeadh an taoile tuile ort a’ breathnú uirthi,” – “One would let the tide come in while looking at it”. And since my grandfather was from nearby Lettermullen, I’ll be sure to stop there as well.
        Thanks again for sharing your day there…you’ve given me a greater connection.
        Keep writing…it’s good for the soul. Diane

    • Kathleen Cooney says:

      Hi Diane,
      I hope you get to read this. My family are from inisbearachain. I am pretty sure you are probally talking about my dad’s aunt or great aunt. Know one lives on the island any more but we often visit. We live on the main land. We can see the tip of the Island from our kitchen window. Most of my aunts and uncles live in Chicago and I believe there is relatives in Boston too. Let’s try to get in touch and see we are related. I myself immigrated to Victoria B.C. Canada. Most of my siblings and my parents still live in Ireland.
      Slan go fóil

  7. Diane Flaherty Martin says:

    Hi Sile – A follow-up to your earlier post on Inishbearachain. Kathleen Cooney and I are indeed related. Our great grandfathers were brothers! Thank you again for posting what became part of my ancestral journey!

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