The landscape is the physical context within which we all have our being; we are perpetually in a landscape, and we have our own individual and collective effects upon it. We cannot exist without impinging upon the shape and character of the land around us, whether by felling trees for fuel or shelter, tilling fields for food, or making our structures upon it. The debate cannot be about using the landscape, but only about the nature and degree of that use. A small society of hunter-gatherers may alter their landscape very little; millions of people living on relatively small islands will sculpt the land continuously and comprehensively. If humans need roads, then rock must be blasted from cliffs, and gravel dug from eskers.
But there can be an ambiguity in our approach, a tension or balance between reckless exploitation and careful minimalism, a balance between what we choose to alter and destroy, and what we choose to conserve. For we must never forget that much of the world’s landscape, however wild and forgotten it may seem, is human landscape; the bare moors of the Scottish highlands were once the great Caledonian forest, long since felled, and the lush woods of Glengarriff are only the successors of the great, lost oaklands which fuelled industry and built an English navy. Yet we can make always choices about our use of the land, even if a wholly untouched wilderness is chimeral.
Often and often, however, the choice is made by conflicting pressures, or by neglect. Many landscapes are determined by a barely controlled mixture of interests; many by accidental failures to carry through projects of development and redevelopment, exploitation, and rehabilitation. And the landscape is never still, never pristine, never unchanging. An exploitation begun in one generation may be abandoned in the next, and the larger forces of weed and rust and colonisation by creature large and small will overtake the instruments of intervention and the landscape of intervention itself.
Any image recording these processes will, correspondingly, contain ambiguities; does such an image record, in its single moment, the spoliation or the recrudescence? There is no simple message in a superficially simple image; the decisive moment (and all moments are decisive within their own chronologies) lies between one sort of past and a different sort of future, and the image will have different arguments, different messages, for different observers.
A landscape is a confusion of footprints, recording in a muddled way the impressions that generations of humans have made upon it. Every stone or brick laid in a wall, every square yard cleared or tilled, every acre grazed, represents the work of some man or woman long dead. Not just the work as we see it—a particular stone in a particular course in a particular wall—but a work with purpose and background, carried out by people with motives and emotions and a cultural baggage at which we can barely guess.
Often we can barely guess even at the limited purpose of the landscape features as we observe them. The more detailed features are the more explicit; we can make plenty of deductions about a romanesque church, or a neoclassical villa, or a uPVC conservatory. But the more elemental a structure is—a shape in the ground or a pile of raw stones—the less we are likely to know of its true function, although it may be the more picturesque and acceptable (the cruel walls of an ancient fortress are seen favourably, when the benign portacabins of a burgeoning school are regarded as aesthetically offensive). Standing stones may be memorials, or boundary markers, or ritual altars; shadowy trenches may be defensive positions or drainage ducts; even an apparently obvious construction, the cashel or rath, may have been a religious centre, or a communal farming enclosure. The stone walls which straggle across the bare rocks—the Burren in County Clare is the great examplar, but there are plenty of smaller analogues on Beara—are ambiguous in both function and chronology; are they enclosures for grazing cattle or sheep on this inhospitable terrain? Or are they marking the boundaries of tiny whole estates on which households eked out a starvation diet with raised lazy-beds of potatoes? Hence, are they the symptoms of desperately dense population in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, or the lasting traces of a prosperous pastoral community from earlier ages? Some of these walls are two hundred years old, some of them two thousand; only the observer with prior knowledge can attempt an informed judgement.
Further, the landscape has to accept the structures and shapings imposed upon it as entities in themselves. Any building conveys, first, its own integral design and function: as a gothic cathedral, a neo-brutalist secondary school, a wooden bus shelter—its essence, divorced from context, is carried from the drawing-board or the mind of its designer into a three-dimensional reality. It bespeaks the compromise in design between form and function, between the sculptural invention of the designer and the limitations of budget, materials, and use. This compromise is infinitely variable; the islander needing a field boundary turns to the only available building material, and the resultant stone wall’s aesthetic qualities are incidental and perhaps unthought; the sensitive observer sees a harmony of form and texture within the landscape, where the wall’s builder might have preferred a fence of posts and wire.
Second, a building brings itself into its host landscape, making a visual (and perhaps an environmental) impact on its surroundings. Upon this impact alone it is often judged: does it blend with its background or obtrude upon it? is such an obtrusion welcome or unwelcome? do the materials and architectural idioms conform to the locality or rebel against it? Yet, again, sensitivities brought from outside may belie the preferences of necessities motivating the native. Who is the outsider, the blow-in, to say that a barn of stone is more appropriate than one of breeze-blocks and corrugated iron? There are, to be sure, traditional sensibilities and crafts and notions of the fitting, but it is easy to project upon a weathered architecture a spurious idea of what the builder intended.
Last, a building tells a story, now unknown but once of significance to the nameless folk who conceived and built and used it. Here, most of all, the imagination of the observer—the artist or the passer-by—is both free and fallible. The structure in its landscape is a palimpsest upon which the message of the builder has been overwritten by weather, chance, successions of ownership, and, lastly, by the fancy of the outsider’s eye. The ruined village of Aillenacally in Connemara is said, romantically, to have been abandoned when its tenants left for America in 1940 because their fishing had finally failed; in fact, the residents migrated piecemeal to be nearer the main road a mile away, with the last leaving in 1970. The same story is written all over rural Ireland on a smaller scale, where thousands of farmers and cottagers have found it simpler to abandon an obsolete house and build a modern one next door—sometimes literally adjoining, often within twenty or thirty yards. Emigration is a reality in depopulated areas, but the emigration may be a symptom of prosperity or optimism rather than of despair. The artist’s art can convey the emptiness of the window, but the desolation of the soul may be an artifice in the eye of the beholder.
For the artist as observer is looking skin-deep, at the geometry which the walls impart within the viewfinder or the canvas, and the textures which stone conveys into the print. The content of the image may allow for interpretation—indeed, it may be used as archaeological or anthropological evidence—but it will also be an exercise in visual effect. From this visual effect the culture and context of the structured landscape will remain in part preserved, and in part mysterious and concealed. Depending on the viewpoint and other creative decisions, the minds and hands and souls of those who shaped that landscape will seem noble or base, sympathetic or intrusive; whatever the artist presents, there will be a concealed otherness at the mercy of the observer’s imagination.
A NOTE ON NAMES AND LANGUAGE
Irish names and phrases are a hazard, especially for an author who does not speak or read Irish. I know something of the ways in which language, and placename derivations, work; but the complexities of Irish (and, it has to be said, the many local variants, and the vagaries of the linguists) mean that I shall surely have offended somebody before many pages are read. My rules, for what they are worth, are as follows. Placenames, where they exist on the Discovery Series of Ordnance Survey maps, are given in the form found there—partly as a clear standard to follow, and partly because it will make it easier for readers to navigate to the places I mention. The only exception is Castletownbere; although the Ordnance Survey prefers Castletown Bearhaven, and An Post until recently used Castletownberehaven, I use the spelling adopted by Cork County Council, and by most locals. The historical names of tribes, and gods, and legendary folk, I spell according to good and knowledgeable authorities, even if these forms conflict with other good and knowledgeable authorities. Otherwise, I have tried to ensure that words and phrases in Irish are given in acceptable, even if not universally preferred, forms. For the errors, I apologise.