About “The Otherwhere”

“When the soul of a man is born in this country, there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets”

(James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)

James Joyce’s autobiographical novel “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” is an example of a ‘bildungsroman’. The German term (meaning to shape, formation) refers to the way in which philosophy and education combine to result in a maturation of the main character both physically and mentally. In “Portrait”, the main protagonist, Stephen Dedalus’ quest to become an artist sees him freeing himself from the shackles of family, religious and social constraints and eventually leaving Ireland for good.

Bildungsroman usually end in an epiphany and at the end of the novel Dedalus declares:

“Amen. So be it. Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

This body of work, “The Otherwhereis intended as a kind of photographic bildungsroman. The German word ‘bild’ means picture. It is an artistic, poetic and sometimes whimsical journey through a watery landscape in which themes of childhood, religion, migration, a quest for home and the complexities involved in finding ones place within the world flow through the pages in an oceanic rhythm. Using a non-linear elliptical narrative, the work relies on symbols and motifs to represent these ideas through a carefully considered placing of portraits, landscapes and still life images. It is a body of work, not based on the straightforward recording of reality of everyday life, but one that provokes wider and more complex questions around nationality and belonging. The water, a metaphor for the Island, symbolizes how the country is both freeing and enslaving. It is represented most clearly in the changing light on the ocean- the light and darkness of the sea becomes bound up with the hopes and despair of a nation.

“ This, I think shows what being free means. Not cutting off ones ties with others but making networks out of these connections in cooperation with them.  Emigres become free not when they deny their lost homeland but when they come to terms with it. “

(Vilem Flusser)

The German philosopher,Vilem Flusser examined the notion that communication and identity are rooted in the concept of self-determination and self-realization through recognition of the other. As I embark on a journey away from Ireland to set up home somewhere else, I set out on this final road-trip to understand the place I have grown up in and am leaving. Instead of focusing on the familiar things we leave behind- home, family, friends- I decided to rely on chance encounters with strangers who in turn become representations of other journeys, like the inward one of the poet who constructs words on a page or the ‘messiah man’ who wears a crown of thorns that I met sitting in an outdoor café on a hot summer afternoon. The portraits of these strangers -short and intimate- occur on streets, at beaches, in forests and along rivers and bogs, in baths and on beds.

Connecting with strangers allows the work to also explore the concepts of chance and determinism and their relationship to human freedoms and happiness. Many of the portraits represent a quest for an ‘other’. The four year old girl growing up so fast, stands like a model before the camera representing how fleeting our childhood is. In contrast, the two workmen show a vulnerability in their pose, a reference to the fragile economic state of the country and the uncertainty of employment. The

work also makes references to escapism as a form of protest. While one man uses dressing up and recreating battles to escape from daily realities, another man’s escape from personal grief is represented by his nakedness.

The Naming of Things

Coney Island

The Naming of Things

The Irish word for rabbit is coinín. There’s a tiny island off Sligo bay, Inis Coinín which was named because of the abundance of rabbits there. It is one and half miles long by three quarters of a mile wide. You can drive over there during low tide when the water recedes to reveal the sandy flats, home to the lugworms and fourteen stone pillars jutting out of the salty sea bed to navigate travellers safely across 5km of sand to the other side.

Before the famine, the Island had a population of 200 people, by 1960 there were 11 and today, only one family live there, the McGowans. I remember when they finally got electricity and the family could use a washing machine and buy light bulbs in 1999.

A native of nearby Sligo, Capt. Peter O’Connor was master of the schooner Arethusa, a merchant ship plied between Sligo and New York in the 1800’s. He carried famine victims over to New York to begin new lives and brought back Canadian timber for use in his saw mills. On one of his voyages, after noting the similarities in size of an American Island, he named it after the Island of the rabbits and the translation in English-  Coney.

Coney Island. Twins. But not identical.

The Otherwhere

From the Bog

Out of the Otherwhere

The Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney in an interview in 1976 to celebrate UNESCO World poetry day describes the bog as “a feminist goddess ridden ground.”
“The symbols by which we identify our sense of ourselves as a nation, as a culture, came out of the bog. It preserves things, it preserves human flesh”
he says.

And so on a bright autumn day, I drove to a tiny place called Doohamlet in Co. Monaghan where the sticky sundews dance in a light breeze while the pondskaters walk on the briny surface like Jesus, and the water boatmen carry tears of air under their wings on their way to perform in an underwater orchestra. Their symphony is disturbed in September by neoprene people flippering their way through the tobacco- coloured channel as hummocks of frog-green moss gather in their plastic tubes denying them a breath of the fresh bog air.

Jacuzzi in the Bog

Jacuzzi in the Bog

Competitors in this strangest of contests complete two consecutive sixty yard lengths of a water filled trench cut out of the peat bog. Using flippers alone for power, no conventional swimming strokes are allowed, and snorkels must be worn.

Heaney, in his poem “Bogland” sees the bog as an Irish version of the American prairie and suggests that by digging deeper into its ‘black butter’, ‘inwards and downwards’ we unravel that infinite layered history of identity and culture.

BOGLAND

We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening–
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Encrouching horizon,

Is wooed into the cyclops’ eye
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun.

They’ve taken the skeleton
Of the Great Irish Elk
Out of the peat, set it up
An astounding crate full of air.

Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and white.
The ground itself is kind, black butter

Melting and opening underfoot,
Missing its last definition
By millions of years.
They’ll never dig coal here,

Only the waterlogged trunks
Of great firs, soft as pulp.
Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,

Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.
The wet centre is bottomless.

Seamus Heaney

I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Heaney not long before he died and we discussed his bog poems and the Tollund man, one of the mythical bog bodies of ancient Juteland. I was asking him what it was like as a young child to work in the bogs, what kind of a place was it. “The bog, is like an ‘Otherwhere’ he answered.

An Otherwhere.

White Wash

Clothes left to dry in barn.

Clothes Dryer, Co. Sligo

Six white knickers pegged perfectly in a neat row. The smell of freshly washed clothes dried in the open air, of freshly cut grass, the scent of Spring! Rinsed, clean and free. Fresh and crisp, Reborn.  No Magdalene laundry here. A place where washing lines meant something else. Tethered, like the towel with six pegs holding it down, with no chance of escape..

Bundoran, USA.

Ballybeg.. a small town in Co. Donegal. It doesn’t exit as a place except in Brian Friel’s mind where his 1964 play ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’ was set. His main character Gar O’ Donnell is struggling to find his place in the World… which he thinks lies amongst the beautiful girls and big cars on the gold plated streets of America. The play centres around the relationship between him and his uncommunicative father and confronting his past and future decisions on the eve of his emigration to Philadelphia.

He holidayed in Bundoran once.. not a fictional town.. a holiday town filled with caravans and golf courses along the North West Atlantic coast.

Away from the bumper cars and the chair-o-planes and the West End streets where ‘American House’ sells football specials (a soft drink unique to Donegal) and where ‘Paris’ is a nightclub, there’s a narrow pathway. It rises up towards the sea and swings around a steep bend.. where a pair of damp stripey underpants lies on the ground amongst the withering thistle flowers and the jaundice dandelions that we used to call piss-a-beds. I walked this path once, with another useless lover, not noticing then the surfers dressing and undressing by the grassy bank.

Loris, Bundoran.

Loris, Bundoran.

Or how, from the cliff edge looking down on Tullan strand, they go as leafcutter ants in neoprene, carrying their impossibly large weights on their backs towards the foaming waves.

Surfers © Kim Haughton

Surfers © Kim Haughton