Friday, May 18, 2012

Honoring Irish Women of Our Past: Q&A With Artist Rachael Flynn

The Book of Names is an Internet-based project to recognize the women in our past who have migrated from Ireland. By adding the names of your Irish mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and so on, you will have the chance to ‘light a candle’ in their memory.

The effort is the brainchild of Rachael Flynn, who was born on the east coast of Scotland and grew up in the coastal village of Barry. Studying fine art and specializing in sculpture, she graduated from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee and headed south to Goldsmiths, University of London, were she was awarded a Master of Arts degree.

Rachael has worked with independent filmmakers, artists, research groups and production companies, and is using skills gleaned from that experience for her Ph.D. work at the Scottish Centre for Island Studies. Her dissertation, in the discipline of Visual Arts Practice, is focused, in part, on the personal narrative of her Irish grandmother and the family that her grandmother left behind. Returning to her parents’ native Glasgow area, she currently teaches filmmaking at the University of the West of Scotland. The Wild Geese’s Preservation Editor Belinda Evangelista e-mailed her some questions about the project. WG

The Wild Geese:  The Book of Names project was inspired in part by the letters from your Glasgow grandmother from Donegal to the family she left behind in Ireland.  Is there anything you have learned about her that stands out from reading the correspondence? 

Flynn: I think one of the most important things that came from reading the letters was hearing the conversations and correspondences of a woman. What I mean by this is that, for me, my grandmother was very much the character of a grandmother. She passed away when I was 8 and still a child so to read these letters as a young woman meant I got to hear the voice of someone who -- although facing a different set of circumstances -- was reflecting and discussing some of the same age old things as I do. Although always remembering her fun and energetic ways, this strong character suddenly became located amongst the experiences that formed such a headstrong spirit. To read this prevailing determination to cope and to make things work was something that made me incredibly proud when reading the letters. As with many old letters the handwriting is beautiful and very gracefully scripted. This reinforced my sense of a woman who had great academic gifts who, although pushing the boundaries of opportunity, didn’t have a chance to study further than childhood. This again translated as reigniting a sense that my research and studies were as much for her as they are for me, as I partake in activities in which she would have thrived. This is something that I hope underpins the Book of Names project, as we recognize our positions now as things made possible due to these brave women of our past.

The Wild Geese:  Would you describe the experience of migration as bittersweet for most of the women and could you explain why that is? 

Flynn:  I think that for the people who are sharing and contributing such stories of migration within their family histories, there is this strange mix of feelings. In my own ancestry, both my maternal and paternal lines quite quickly lead back to Ireland; a trail weaved from stories of McBrides, Shevlins, Gallaghers, Laffertys, and Flynns. With such a mass exodus, there is both a sense of sadness, and at times anger, at the sacrifices and hardships which were part of their fate, alongside feeling a great sense of pride at their determination to create better lives for the families they were to create. Furthermore, in bringing these stories to the fore, there is a humbleness when comparing our daily trials with those that these women would have had to cope with. At a recent event that I held at Glasgow Women’s Library, during which people were invited to share similar stories of Irish migration within their families, this bittersweet sentiment was again echoed.  We discussed that despite these women having the accomplishment of creating more hopeful futures, and of, against the odds, rebuilding homes for their families, many left behind ancestral landscapes which they would always feel a great longing for. In many ways this displacement is something that is repeatedly experienced as a cultural memory which is inherited through the generations. The idea that we belong somewhere, and that the place from where you belong is somewhere that your family had to depart from bred a notion in me that the place where I now was represented something of a holding ground; somewhere that housed me but that was separate to the land ‘where I came from.’ This obviously was a feeling which was steeped in the fables weaved by family members and of a cultural people who represented to me a poetic lineage filled with romantic, tragic and courageous trials that were bravely faced.

The Wild Geese:  Besides honoring these women, what do you hope that, as women, we can glean from the project?

Flynn: I recently had to deliver a talk at an academic conference. I had known in advance that the majority of people in the audience were studying aspects of science and engineering, and were engaged in research that operated using approaches incredibly different to my own. I had pictured the sea of faces in my head and was becoming increasingly nervous! I had phoned a friend for some reassuring words and she told me that if my grandmother can run away from home at 15, arriving in a city to make a new life for herself, finding work, a home and raising a family against the odds, then I could stand up and give a presentation! I hope that whilst creating a place to house the memories of these women, the project serves to represent the lineage of women who above all kept going and coped. This sense of determination and strength is something which I feel enriches us throughout our daily lives and remains a sort of inherited ‘backbone’ that allows us to tackle and fight for the things we believe in.

The Wild Geese: Would you agree that your approach to documenting history is in itself a softer and more feminine way to archive this material?

Agnes In Her Tram Conductress Uniform
Flynn:  Absolutely, for me it is about creating an embodied and personal ‘documentation.’ This idea of empathy -- often considered a more feminine approach -- is core to my handling.  When I first sat down with the various letters, I came across an envelope that was thick with various correspondences regarding the death of Agnes’ 7-year-old son Stephen. After spending some time with them, I asked my father about them -- who had been 9 at the time of Stephens’ death -- and asked if he had read them. He told me he remembered my grandmother sitting by the window reading them and hiding the tears that they were causing. On several of the pages, there are marks of these tears as the ink has run. I feel these visible signs on the paper help to reveal the emotive histories within my study of her story.

These ‘hidden’ factors allow me to then engage in making work which responds to the layered narrative of a woman who was continually striving to create a better future for herself and her family, alongside a wider set of people who were attempting to overcome the social difficulties and prejudices that could face migrated communities. In the Book of Names, it is my intention to develop this notion. Through the book, people will be able to add the names of their ancestors to a record that will start to build up a collection that seeks to move beyond formal data to create a human document. By adding the names of their Irish mothers, grandmothers, great grandmothers, aunts, cousins etc., those who engage with the book will have the chance to effectively ‘light a candle’ in their memory. Indeed, in the very way this historic commentary is portrayed, I am articulating historical information through alternative methods. Bridging approaches such as creative writing, sculptural spaces, visual imagery and group activities, I hope that people will be able to access a sense of this history through personally relating to them and ‘experiencing’ a sense of history rather than just assuming another person’s textual account. Core within the work is creating a ‘space’ in which the reader can experience a sense of separation, loss, distance, absence and the edge of a personal landscape. All of which are wrapped up within the aspects of personal migration.    


The Wild Geese:  As an artist, do you have a visual image in your mind as to how your art might document this material or will that image evolve with the project?

A cottage on the Donegal coast.
Flynn:  I am wanting to, with permission of those who want to be involved, develop an artist’s book and set of artist’s prints using the names of these women. I feel there is a different experience associated with reading the actual names of such women -- and acknowledging that a relative submitted them -- which is different from reading the recorded statistics and typed data of state records. They live on as individuals, each receiving a page in the book for them to own and occupy. I also want to create a photographic and video sculptural work. I am going to put a call out to those who have submitted a name to the Book of Names who want to be involved in an interactive piece. For those who wish to, I will send a tea light candle and ask them to either photograph or film on their phones or cameras, the candle burning in their relatives memory.  I have already lit a candle for Agnes in front of her ancestral cottage in Donegal -- which is far harder than first imagined with such strong Atlantic Coast winds! I will then use these images to make a work that captures this living and continued presence of such memory in all of our Irish cultural psyches. I also hope to physically visit various sites where these boats would have come in or departed from and have a mass collection of candles burning to form a site-specific sculpture. The first location of these will be at the docks in Glasgow, but will grow as more names and locations are submitted. Depending on funding (as ever!), I also hope to take candles to the various counties and docks within Ireland where these women departed from. Traces of temporal elements and of frail yet enduring materials exploring a conversation between past and present generations lies beneath all of these activities.

The Wild Geese:  Is there anything else you would like the Diaspora to know?

Flynn:  Although as an artist I have launched this project, I would just like to underline that I feel this work is a collaborative work and would welcome any thoughts and reflections. It is one that will make its own journey as it stops to pause at various points. It is exciting to work on something that continues to grow and hopefully allow others to engage in their own histories. I myself feel that my journey into my Diasporic lineage is in its infancy. But something that has struck me as I have gone deeper into my grandmother’s narrative, and indeed the wider social background, is that I wish I had been prouder of all their achievements and unwavering strength sooner! WG

You can include names of the Irish women among your immigrant ancestors in the Book of Names Project, at

Friday, May 11, 2012

Making Art By Ulster’s Sperrins: Q&A With Aine MacAodha

Aine MacAodha is Irish for Ann Keys, who was born in 1963 in the small town of Omagh, Tyrone County, in Northern Ireland. Aine is a writer, a poet, a photographer and artist, and has been published widely in Ireland, United Kingdom and the United States.
MacAodha lives at the foot of the Sperrin Mountains -- her inspiration in any season. She has two poetry books published: “Where the Three Rivers Meet” and “Guth An Anam” (“Voice of The Soul”). 
Aine started writing poetry as a child, when she also became enamored with photography. Between her mother’s collection of ballad books, which intrigued her, and her inquisitiveness about her father’s darkroom in the family home, she was destined to become the accomplished ‘poet-ographer’ that she is today.
A mother of three grown children, MacAodha is also an artist not afraid of taking chances. She personifies the key ingredient for achieving unique beauty in her work; that is, not necessarily doing different things, just doing things differently. She is drawn to mountain ranges, old ruins, churches, castles, Celtic burial sites and rural scenery. She is a master at pairing images with her poetry.
The true genius of her work is the timeless quality of it, much like Ireland itself. MacAodha is able to capture the spirit of nature and emotion in words and through the lens of her camera. We e-mailed her some questions, which she addressed hard by the Sperrins that so inform her muse.– WG Visual Arts Producer Maryann Tracy

The Wild Geese: Have you always had an interest in both poetry and photography?

Aine MacAodha
Aine MacAodha: I always had an interest in rhyming words and phrases together, loved reading and often upon reading old ballad books my mother collected, changed the words to suit my own, this [taught] me the ballad form but my love of photography started as soon as I realized what father was doing, he had a darkroom and developed his own photographs. I was always at his sleeve questioning everything.

The Wild Geese:  Which came first? When did you decide to combine the two?

I suppose poetry came first; growing up, songs surrounded the home and poetry and song are very alike to me. The combination was always there; when words fail me I have the camera in hand to capture some of nature’s often-overlooked wonders. Lately, I have combined Haiku with a photograph -- poetography -- if you like, they fit so beautifully together. Haiku are my favorite poem to write, very difficult to get them right; but when I do it’s magical to see them combined on screen.

Joseph Mary Plunkett
The Wild Geese:  Are there certain poets that inspire you?
There have been many. The first poets to really inspire me were the 1916 poets, [for example, Joseph Mary] Plunkett; especially his story, I like this poem “I See His Blood Upon a Rose,” and I really admired his wife, Grace Gifford Plunkett. [I was] greatly inspired also by Yeats, Seamus Heaney and the Celtic revivalist era of Yeats, Katharine Tynan, and Alice Milligan, who was a native of Omagh. I also love Rumi, the 13th century mystic poet. I'm very fond of the beat poets of America and read quite a bit lately of Emerson and Whitman. All fascinating.

The Wild Geese: You are obviously tremendously inspired by your surroundings. Tell me about that creative or spiritual feeling you experience when you find that special place, like the Sperrin Mountains.
MacAodha: The Sperrin Mountains are my inspiration in any season. Here in Omagh surrounded by the mountains you are never very far from a mountain spring or lough or place of sacred ground, that's the good thing. As I walk out over the Pigeon Top or the lakes area of Gortin Glens, my spirit flies too, the blanket bog soft under foot and surrounding hills and mounds have a supernatural pull for me. It’s instinctual for me to go visit the ancient Beaghmore stone circles or holy wells -- it does the soul good. I feel at home in the solitude of the views.

The Wild Geese:  “Voice of the Soul,” your second book of poetry, published in 2011, includes some haiku that I particularly enjoyed. What is "soul voice"?

“Voice of the Soul” was my second book, and I have written quite a few haiku in that collection. Haiku are a beautiful way to write short forms of poetry, I began reading Basho, the Japanese haiku poet, and it had me fascinated [as] it looked so simple yet quite the opposite to do. I was thrilled to have a few published in the Shamrock Haiku Journal and Haiku Ireland.
Holy Well, Co. Clare
So back to your question on what is “soul voice.” I think for me its the outpouring of a deep inner knowing or feeling; perhaps love for something beautiful like a poem or a landscape that you feel at home in. Your soul soothes in it. It’s a voice that is intuition and whispers from within -- you need to be very still to hear it.

The Wild Geese: What is the essence of "Where the Three Rivers Meet"?

“Where the Three Rivers Meet' was my first collection. It took a long time to put [it] together, as I wanted most of the poems within to have been published in as many poetry publications as possible. Many of the poems touch on The Troubles, and growing up amid this, your surroundings were bleak. This collection is an 'awakening,' if you like, to the beauty that surrounds Northern Ireland, now that peace has come it looks and feels more freer and beautiful.

The Wild Geese: Tell me about your poem “Denied.”

I … was asked to write a poem on [the Cillini – typically, unconsecrated burial grounds for unbaptized babies], and “Denied” was the result. I found this very interesting and heartbreaking, [with] so many parents having to go through this with no support from church and family at that time.

The Wild Geese: Tell me about your involvement with the Derry Playhouse.

I was involved with the Derry Playhouse back in 2000, under the guidance and facilitation of writer Margie Bernard (author of “Daughter of Derry”), a wonderful woman who I and others met at a creative writing master-class tutored by theatre director David Gothard, held at The An Creggan center here in Tyrone. From that was formed The Derry Playhouse Writers, which is still going as strong today. You can visit the site here at . For me the playhouse opened my mind and gave this country girl a voice. There were weekly meetings and various workshops and master classes, which helped my writing go forward.

The Wild Geese: Is there anything you would like to add?

At the moment, I am sending new poetry out to magazines, with recent publications in Outburst Magazine and The firstcut [the on-line magazine of the Listowel Writers Group] and I recently interviewed with Frank Hanover of the University College Cork radio show “Words on Top.” On the back burner is a kind of semi-autobiographical book on growing up in Omagh, with the background of music not war. I hope to get to work on that in June when I take up my residency at The Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Monaghan. WG
Barnes Gap, Sperrins Region

Carved centuries ago
by the powerful elements
of wind and ice slicing
through the countryside.
Glazed now by a carpet of moss
and haunted by the hills of
Mullaghbane and Mullaghbolig
seem untouched by modern man;
apart from the odd sheep
that wandered under the fence
leaving clots of wool waving
Tense atmosphere only solidifies
the cheek of my intrusion.
Sun plays hide n. seek
behind rocks and crevices
cooling schists once again.


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Helping The Dead Find Their Voices: Q&A With Historic Graves’ John Tierney

The Dominican Priory - Athenry
John Tierney is the director of the Historic Graves project in Ireland, taking place in historic graveyards across Ireland.  With a combination of GPS, smart phone, and Internet technology, local community groups are documenting individual graves, and creating links between those graves and the stories of their occupants on the project’s website.

John and his partners at Eachtra Archaeological Projects provide the technology and training for local community groups to do the groundwork, a hi-tech meld of archaeology and genealogy research.  Tierney hopes the new technology will enrich the experience of historical tourism in Ireland.

The Wild Geese’s Daniel Marrin e-mailed a few questions to Tierney about his work with the Historic Graves project.

The Wild Geese:  What inspired you to take this project on, John, and how did it get started?

Tierney (left): We have been working on historic graveyards as field archaeologists for the last 15 years, but we felt that conventional surveys were missing the rich oral histories of each graveyard. We built the historic graves website to connect surveys with rich, hyperlocal heritage media.

A geo-located headstone photograph is uploaded to the website and associated stories (audio or video) can be attached to that grave memorial. People have been recording and publishing Irish graveyard memorials for the last 300 years, and we have applied modern technologies to that tradition. We see ourselves as following in the footsteps of those previous researchers -- but digitally enabled. A 5 MP digital photograph of a headstone is a very detailed record: Imagine it also geotagged as searchable within a database!

We are field archaeologists and we apply the techniques we have learned over the years to community training and community surveys. Some people love the project because of its local history benefits; others love the genealogy or the archaeology. We leverage modern technology to benefit each community and at the same time build a scientifically rigorous database.

The project is a collaboration between field archaeologists, local communities, local authorities and local development agencies throughout Ireland. Community groups have long been engaged in recording and caring for their local graveyards, and we provide them with training and digital tool-sets for achieving their goals.

Ardmore, Waterford
WG: When is a grave considered historic?  Are there any graves that would not be historic?

Tierney: Irish historic graveyards are considered to predate the early 20th century. Many of the graveyards we work in are medieval in origin – in some cases encapsulating over 1,000 years of continuous usage. (My own neighboring graveyard in Ardmore, County Waterford, is one of those, and the small graveyard we worked on today in Killea, north Tipperary, may be another.)

Other graveyards we work in may have only been founded in the late 19th century, but headstones from the 1860 to 1920s can tell us a lot about our recent history. We study those also -- in one graveyard we had an Old IRA member buried alongside an officer in the Royal Navy -- these reflect the geopolitical complexities of Irish history. Many Irish graveyards were closed in the 1930s, and we will survey those also. In some graveyards, a modern graveyard exists alongside an historic graveyard and we do not survey the modern graveyard.

Kilmacduagh, Co. Galway 

WG: The information on the graves and the stories of their occupants are openly available online.  Given that some people get uptight about even their homes being viewable on Google Earth, I'd imagine there could be even greater sensitivity about such public information about their dead relations. Is the research always being done by friends/relatives of the deceased?  If not, is there any risk of families seeing a violation of privacy in putting this information online? 

Tierney: The surveys are done by the local communities themselves. We address issues of sensitivity by relying upon the judgment and knowledge of the local community groups. Most of the memorials we record are well over 100 years old.  If newer headstones are recorded, it is because they represent the modern usage of an ancient site. We regularly have family members recording their own family graves and telling stories of their ancestors. In the last one-and-a-half years, we have had no complaints about privacy, but if asked to unpublish individual headstones it can be done in an instant.
WG: Can you tell me anymore about the headstone you were led to of an apparently 219-year old man in St. John's Graveyard in Knockainey?

Knockainey graveyard
Tierney:  Knockainey graveyard (has been the subject of an excellent survey led by a retired school teacher and field archaeologist named Michael Quinlan. Michael led us to the wonder of the oldest man in Ireland.

People in south Limerick have a reputation for longevity, and maybe this man was the kingpin of longevity. Alternatively, the stonecarver was given bad information or even made a mistake in the carving. Mistakes in headstone carvings are a fascinating side-issue of the project.

WG: John, good luck with the project and thanks for your time!  More information on the Historic Graves project, including links to Irish historic graves, maps and stories, is all available at .