Walking with Ghosts


From Ballyvaughan to The Rodd (and back again)

An extract from a constructed interview between David Ferry, curator of The Celtic Image exhibition currently showing at the Burren College of Art, Ireland, and the writer Stephen Clarke.

Stephen Clarke: What was your first encounter with the Burren?

David Ferry: It was about fifteen years ago, to give a lecture at the small art school in Newtown Castle, Ballyvaughan. I remember distinctly driving in on a road called the New Line, a military road, and in parts wholly straight. The landscape changed after the town of Ennis and the main Galway road, the limestone pavement providing a distinct difference to the verdant green of regular pasture. A sense of bewilderment and exploration in equal parts; stone walls dividing stone fields!..... The Celtic chieftains were haunted by their own predecessors whose scattered dolmens make their presence felt on the landscape.[iv] At the end of the twentieth century, cartographer Tim Robinson provided contemporary explorers with a map of the terrain.[v]

Stephen Clarke: How did you as an artist respond to this environment that is both extraordinary in terms of nature and mysterious in relation to its distant past?

David Ferry: I use Tim Robinson’s Folding Landscape map every time I venture into this place. From the outset, the Burren and its geology, its flora and fauna, and its prehistory, present a remarkable tapestry of image and form. The idea of a visual tapestry, interwoven layers of the sights and wanderings in the Burren, become collage and montage ingredients for artists. After my initial visit, I predicated student projects on the interplays of legend and time in specific places and encounters using firstly, Ingmar Bergman's epic masterpiece The Seventh Seal (1957), the Burren’s backdrop of the medieval, and the coast so reminiscent of the film; and secondly, Ken Russell's horror comedy The Lair of the White Worm (1988), what may lurk in those caves of the Burren, so to speak! The Burren area seems to resonate with narrative, clinging and binding the landscape.

Stephen Clarke: What impact did the Burren have upon Nolan’s Celtic Image paintings?

David Ferry: Nolan would have been as fascinated as much by the interaction of man on this strange landscape as the environment itself. Perhaps it is something to do with the fact that early man settled on a once seabed, and that in itself makes for a kind of fantastical encounter. It is no wonder after a lifetime of global travel that Nolan was able to distil and digest his own account of the Burren in his Celtic Image series. The ruins and their sentinel-like stone carvings, the humanoid faces and characters seemingly impervious to ruination and the weather, provide 'romantic', and 'gothic' readings… It was pretty clear he was charged with an emotional recognition of the area through ancestry and sheer guttural visual fascination. These paintings resonate with prehistory but are made by our modern creative algorithms that can align the past and futures together. It seems to me that Nolan navigated ancient time and space as well as modern intercontinental travel, and fused recognition and personal understandings together…

Click HERE to read the full essay.

Sidney Nolan, Celtic Image, 1987, spray paint on canvas © Sidney Nolan Trust