The ethos behind the Tír Sáile Symposium and Sculpture trial was formulated on the notion of a ‘Meitheal’, which is a traditional way of working by which groups of people would come together to work towards a common goal. This principle informed all aspects of the development of the project, from the collaboration of artists, the community engagement, to the donation of sites both public and private for the siting of works and the hosting of the artists. The local community involvement and collaboration with the artists was crucial and contributed to the unifying of people and place in an expression of their identity which promoted a deeper understanding of their cultural heritage.

Key to the commissioning was the use of natural materials and environments by the artists, working in harmony with their surrounding. Of course a natural consequence of this (and one which was anticipated) has meant that a number of works have since degraded back into the environment.

‘The interaction of artist with the natural environment by way of imagination and physical endeavour achieved the primary aim of Tír Sáile which is to celecbrate the past, relish the present and embrace the future.’

A State of Flux

Twenty five years ago, when the Tir Saile Public Art Trail was initiated few people had begun to take climate change and globalisation seriously. Yet the 14 projects, by artists from all over the world, selected for an art ‘meitheal’ in conjunction with communities around North Mayo were deeply connected to and informed by the historical flux of melting ice and land formation that happened at the end of the last ice age, and in particular the legacy of 5000 years of human activity in the area. The area was soon to be confronted with some of the modern equivalents of that flux as the oil and gas industry and digitisation impacted on the community and their environment.  The artists then were asked to respond to that older 5000 year period in relation to geological, ecological and human developments. The idea of a meitheal, was central to the brief, because of its place in the indigenous culture of North Mayo and as a vehicle for social engagement.

The artists responded magnificently, with works scattered along the coastal area from Ballycastle to Blacksod, ensuring that their audience, whether they had been involved as co-workers or as viewers, had to actively engage, over time,  with the place, its weathers and its people in order to fully experience the work. The Tir Saile projects pulled no punches. This was not about monuments on the village square or plaques on prominent buildings; some were so subtle that sometimes it was difficult to recognise them as art, some were deliberately bio-degradable and have suffered the fate of such work, accelerated by the fierceness of local weather events.

In 2017 a new group of artists, Gareth Kennedy, Joanna Hopkins and Noah Rose and Selma Makela were selected to propose residencies that would look at creating new works, in response to the earlier projects, in the process interrogating where public art has gone in the 25 years in between. In choosing to engage with archival remains from the area, in the form ofmaterial culture held both locally and in museums, Gareth Kennedy, acting alone, and Noah Rose and Selma Makela working in partnership have opted to create ‘time capsules’, Kennedy’s to be buried for now so that it will in time be the subject of future archaeological investigation, paralleling local historical processes; Rose and Makela’s to be performed and developed from now into the future as an intangible presence, echoing the tantalising fragments of culture that bring us into active communication with the past.  Joanna Hopkin’s project directly engages with the physical environment, in particular with issues of coastal erosion and connectedness. She and meitheals of local people are making paper to send messages, from Marram grass grown on Claggan Island, the status of which is itself, constantly changing as a result of climatic activity.

The value of their research, especially when seen in the context of the earlier projects will mark another great contribution to the visual culture and historic fabric of North Mayo, which will be further enriched by work that Dorothy Cross is currently engaged upon. An important underlying question now is how has the concept of public sculpture changed and hopefully developed in the intervening 25 years, and here is where North Mayo really breaks ground. The 14 projects, taken collectively, represented the best of cutting edge, socially engaged practice and the biggest public art project in Ireland in 1993.  It resulted from local initiatives, and each individual artwork, drew on information gathered and shared by the people of this special and unique place. They did not require of the artists that the projects be permanent or fixed, that they attract attention as significant markers of anything other than the place itself, that they should fit into any recognisable tradition of public sculpture or give instant satisfaction. Instead of roundabout monuments, artists and communities produced a public art trail in North Mayo that is of and for their place, its physical and human stories. In doing that, they created a blueprint for public art in Ireland that was speedily taken up by other places, locally and nationally. Because this project was significantly ahead of its time then, it is challenging to expect that this new phase of the Tir Saile work will match the previous one in terms of new developments in the genre. The three residency occupants were invited not just to make new work but to respond to the original projects, the new work offers a re-enforcement and critique of the radical founding principles. That is itself revolutionary. That explains why Joanna Hopkins, Noah Rose and Selma Makela and Gareth Kennedy had to contend with such strong rivals for these residencies. Serious artists want to work with the people and landscape of North Mayo.  That rapport between artists and communities will help us all to keep our place in a changing world.


Catherine Marshall

August 2017