INNOCENT LANDSCAPES REVISITED: 11 / DEC / 2009
AN ATTEMPT AT READING A LANDSCAPE
Posted by David Farrell
Back in mid October (A Slight Change of Plan – 17/10/09 posting) I discovered through a press statement that fresh digs for Charlie Armstrong and Gerard Evans were being carried out at two new locations and began to look at these landscapes while also tracking the search at Wilkinstown. These men, who had been considered disappeared were not on the original list released in 1999. It is thought that the South Armagh IRA was responsible but they have refused to come forward with either information or formal admission of involvement. There had been a search for Charlie Armstrong in 2003 about a mile from Colgagh, (an official site during the searches in 1999/2000), which lasted about two weeks but proved fruitless. The only information I had to go on was that these two new locations were at Colgagh and Carrickrobin and while both are within miles of each other they are in separate counties.
Assuming, as with the other resumed searches, that the search for Charlie Armstrong would mean a return to the landscape of 2003 I decided to start there. Back in 2003 I had only managed to visit this location once before the search was called off so I only had a vague notion of where it was, however I felt it would be obvious if they were back there as the site was a field right at the edge of a narrow, twisting country road and would be easy to spot. I drive around for forty minutes but cannot locate the original site and then something makes me stop to read a small roadside shrine which I assume is a traffic accident but turns out to be a memorial to Charlie Armstrong.
The adjacent field is completely overgrown and there is no sign of activity. Puzzled, I then decide to drive to the Colgagh site of 1999 and see if there had been activity there, but apart from what appears to be a recently completed clearance of roadside ditches on either side of the main road adjacent to this site, there is no sign of people, no sound of earth removers – nothing. Confused I return to Dublin to do a further online trawl of recent newspaper archives, which yields no further useful information.
The next day I decide first of all to try to locate Carrickrobin, which is one of those non-signposted townlands, that one can drive through without realizing it. It consists of a handful of houses on a straight country road. The main difference between now and 1999 is that I am facilitated by a Google map print out which has a photograph of a disused house for sale in the townland of Carrickrobin so as I drive along this road I realize I am there when I pass this forlorn structure. It’s a start and fortunately I then see two women out walking so I stop to ask them if they know where the site might be. Initially puzzled one of them then digs into her recent memory and gives me directions to a small laneway that I had passed "where people were digging some months back". This confuses me as the digs have apparently just started there but I follow her instructions and locate the narrowest of lane entrances which takes me down to a hidden piece of tranquility – a wetland bog area with tall reeds, an aged yellow colour in the autumn light, that shift with a low whistling sound as the wind blows through them.
There appeared to be no sign of activity save for drainage work similar to Colgagh but I follow what appears to be a moat in and around this area and walk further down the lane to find an area that has been cleared of reeds and that contains those small indicators that shift this landscape from passive to latent. Small bamboo sticks, that have been painted red or white or purple, dot sections of what is roughly a 100 metre x 80 metre area – I am in the right place and, as ever, what you read in the newspaper may not always reflect the true actuality for no dig is actually taking place.
The work that has been carried out here is months old - it has the sense of a stage set awaiting its protagonists. However it makes me reflect on my misreading of Colgagh yesterday and I decide to return there to examine the ‘drainage’ works more closely. Yesterday I had looked at these works from the road, scanning for sticks, but saw nothing to that effect so this influenced my reading of that landscape. It is late afternoon as I enter the field at Colgagh, which is essentially quite close to, but on the opposite of the road to the site, which yielded up Brian McKinney and John McClory back in 1999. With these short days the sun never lifts much in the sky and everything is covered in a golden light for most of the day but as we slide to dusk it becomes quite melancholic. I make my way down and around a small hill and bingo – it’s like finding a symbol from a Dan Brown novel (which I haven’t read, so forgive any inaccuracy) – but there it is, an unmistakable confirmation – a short solid red stick – the start of the area to be searched.
Continuing past this there are no further markings but a similar scenario to Carrickrobin with another moat system encircling what is a smaller area of bogland. Now I understand the moat system, it is an attempt to drain the land to facilitate the search and this practical intervention has quite a dramatic impact in that it creates and echoes a beauty reminiscent of 19th century landscape painting – enhancing the perverse and "terrible beauty" of this location.
Again while this drainage work may have been done months ago, it is still extremely wet. It is a landscape that is being prepared. Time and this small stream will reveal whether this new location for Charlie Armstrong, situated about one mile from the site examined in 2003 and it's now misplaced shrine, is the holder of real truths.