Romantic Ireland is Dead and Gone
by Fintan O'Toole
At the level of common sense, nothing is as real as a place. Roads, buildings, rivers, mountains, fields and bogs can be seen and touched, traversed and inhabited. Unless we are followers of Bishop Berkeley, we know that they are there even when we are not looking at them. Indeed, for many people, they are most real when we are not looking at them but rather recollecting them from the distance in time and space that is exile.
The problem with this common sense view, though, is that imaginary places have as much reality as existing ones. Places that are pure invention or that once existed and have long since died, still exert the grip of the real. And, even if we find ourselves in the actual living landscape that has replaced the absent one, we see it through the frame of what has been previously imagined. Our mental viewfinder excludes whatever contradicts or complicates this vision, and seeks an image that accords with the one that is in our heads.
So it has long been with an invented place called Ireland, and so it still is. A certain landscape of mountain and bog, of river and rain was invented by eighteenth and nineteenth century Romanticism, brushed up by early 20th century literature, rediscovered after the Second World War by Germans seeking solace after the shame, anguish and brutality of the Third Reich and reinvented by Hollywood and the tourist boards of North and South. lt has persisted so long and remained so impervious to social and environmental change that there is now no point in denouncing it as a travesty of reality. For it is, to all intents and purposes, real. A good working definition of reality is that something is real if its status is unchanged whether or not you believe in it. The images of Ireland collected in the photography books that are produced for the international market meet this definition perfectly. Whether or not any of us choose to believe in them, they carry on regardless.
One way to confirm this is to gauge the gap between text and image, and between the good intentions and actual achievements in some of these books. Often, the publishers and text-writers (and perhaps even the photographers) know that Romantic Ireland is dead and gone. They know that the island is inhabited by complicated, sometimes fractious people, that it has endured a vicious sectarian conflict, that it is an increasingly prosperous bridgehead for American transnational capital in Europe, that it is, perhaps, the most thoroughly globalised society in the world. But this knowledge makes no difference whatsoever to the photographs they produce.
Consider the German photographer Bernd Weisbrod's collection of black-and white images, Irish Moments. ln spite of the spectacularly freckled young girls on the cover, the publishers Edition Stemmle seem anxiously aware that Ireland is not the terrain of Man of Aran, The Quiet Man or Heinrich Boll's Irish Journal of the 1950s. The blurb assures us that Weisbrod's pictures do not reflect a preconceived image and that he was captivated, not just by the landscape but also by the gradual changes taking place in highly traditional Irish society. The text, meanwhile, is by the poet Cathal Ó Searcaigh, whose sensibility is far from sentimental. He can write, as he does here, about cruising around Piccadilly Circus, London in the mid-seventies as well as he writes about the Donegal Gaeltacht. The choice of a young, gay, complex poet to write the text seems to signal a genuine desire to reflect some notion of contemporary Ireland.
Weisbrod, moreover, is a genuinely accomplished photographer in the downbeat documentary tradition who eschews the lavish, filtered colours of some of the other photographers in the lrish imagery business. He is capable of producing an image of tourists at the Cliffs of Moher or one of three dislocated men looking at the sea from a beach in County Clare or another of a Rolls Royce on a strand that suggest an awareness of the social context of representations of the Irish landscape.
Yet, in spite of all of these reasons to be hopeful, Weisbrod's book ends up being just another collection of well-crafted clichés. Though the images were made in the 1990s, there are precious few that could not have been made in the 1920s. All the pre-existing images are included - the donkey looking over the stone wall, the turf-cutter, the sheep in the twilight, the down-home traditional musicians, the Galway hooker, the oulfellas on bicycles, the Legion of Mary caravan, the rake of pints on the bar counter. When even a photographer capable of the witty and perceptive vision that occasionally emerges here ends up retailing the stock images, it is clear that something profound is going on.
Even starker disjunction between the intention stated in the text and the images on the page is evident in Jan Morris and Paul Wakefield's Ireland: Your Only Place. Norris is a deeply sophisticated writer, whose work is imbued with a subtle and ironic view of the relationship between places and power.
She confesses at the outset to seeing Ireland through its hazed allure and feeling, though she is from Wales, that no 'Arctic mere' could be more exotic. Yet she knows that such mythological visions say more about the visionary than the object of their imaginings. At one point, standing on a hill outside Athlone, she starts to dream that 'The seasons must always have passed, one might think, benevolently from one to the next, while the crops ripened and were harvested, the cows were milked, the country houses elegantly aged, the dry-stone walls disintegrated and were reconstructed.' And she immediately adds that '...even as lthought these thoughts, I knew what rubbish they were.'
Morris goes on to write, often brilliantly, about the perpetual unfulfilment of Ireland, and of the way the landscape surveyed had experienced incessant jolts of history.
Yet, again, this admirable resistance to the allure of timeless romantic clichés is mocked by Paul Wakefield's accompanying images. Wakefield's work, as the blurb boasts, is used extensively in advertising campaigns and even if you didn't know this you could guess it from his sumptuous, beautifully vacuous colour images of mountains, stones, seashells and fields. The photographs are in fact perfect illustrations of the daydream that Morris has just dismissed as rubbish. This is a timeless, people-less landscape, immune from the jolts of history. Of the tiny number, of human images that intrude on this landscape, one is of the inevitable turf-cutter, another is of a boy on a horse, and a third is, interestingly, precisely the same old man, a one-man band merchant with a set of dancing dolls, as appears in Weisbrod's book. That two photographers of starkly different aesthetic sensibilitles come home from Ireland with images of the same oullad surely says something about the power of pre-conceived notions of what lrish people are like.
This same tension between text and image is evident in Jean-Pierre Gilson's Ireland. While Fergus Linehan writes of a place where the farmers live in modern bungalows and their children work in New York, Brussels and the urban bourgeoisie is to be found in estates with names like Westminster Lawns and Stratford Downs, Gilson points his camera at the place in his head. Remarkably enough, that place consists of empty mountains, statues of Saint Patrick, horses looking over stone walls, oul lads with bicycles, sheep in the twilight, monastic ruins and crashing waves. Modernity? Well, there's a few Cranes in the background of a picture of a swan in Cobh, and there's a Shell sign in a corner of a picture that also has, just to be on the safe side, an oullad, a bike, lots of sheep, a mountain and a church. Westminster Lawns is probably much grittier.
The allure of this imagery is so strong that it even over-rides what might be thought of as a normal impulse of nostalgia. In a compendium of images like the German-produced Ireland: A Photographic Portrait, some old photographs sit side-by side with new images, mostly by the almost uncredited Fritz Dressler. You might expect that the old images would be warm and nostalgic and the new ones more complex and downbeat. But the opposite is the case. The archive pictures, because they are there to illustrate history, are mostly highly charged political images resonant of conflict and struggle: Bonar Law speaking in Belfast in 1912, Eamon de Valera in Dublin in the 1920s, panic on the streets of Dublin during the war of Independence. But the supposedly new images are of soft landscapes, pretty houses, colourful cattle marts, Georgian doors, monastic ruins. Strikingly, the publishers deal with the problem of representing the Northern Ireland conflict, which they can hardly exclude from what is essentially a guide to the island, by using only black-and- white archive images, even when the events depicted are actuaily contemporary with many of the nice colour photographs of landscapes and quiet small towns. The effect is bizarre; actual recent events are made to seem like part of a long-closed archive of upheaval. The timeless images of romantic Ireland, meanwhile, are in vivid, living colour. The viewer is invited, quite literally, to be nostalgic for the present while confining any awareness of nasty power-struggles to the past.
A different kind of paradox surrounds one of the books that succeeds best, at least in its own terms. One might expect Klaus D. Francke's Ireland: Aerial Views to belong in the same genre of romantic landscape photography that is represented best by Ron Rosenstock's pristine, abstract and curiously placeless black-and-white images of rock, sea and trees where the only signs of human habitation are a thatched cottage and an ancient stone circle. Of its nature, aerial photography with its inevitably Olympian point-of-view tends towards a haughty abstraction in which the presence of mere mortals is no more than a blot on the landscape. Some of Francke's images live up to this expectation. Yet it is a mark of how far the other books in this corner of the marketplace tend to be from representing the Ireland which most of its inhabitants experience that Francke Comes across, by contrast, almost as a gritty realist.
Along with the intensely vivid images of islands, coastlines and ruins, Francke does manage to acknowledge that the country is not merely inhabited but worked. Uniquely, his bog is dotted with multicoloured plastic bags. He gives us a striking, phantasmagoric image of a scrapyard in county westmeath filled with the battered corpses of old JCBs. His eye is drawn to the stark geometry of a fish-farm off the coast of Connemara, the regular rectangles, grids and circles of its structures forming a strangely beautiful contrast to the irregular shapes of rocks and rivers that abounds elsewhere. He is not repelled by oyster beds and mussel farms and turns the purification plant at a midlands peat-fired electricity station into a luminous Rothko canvas. Looking at these images, you can't help noticing the irony that the closest these photographers get to the texture of contemporary Ireland is flying over it in an aeroplane.
These books at least acknowledge, however tacitly or reluctantly, some sense of tension in the representation of Ireland. Beyond them, of course, there is a sub-genre of pure hokum, innocent of any doubts, hesitations or avoidance strategies. Walter Pfeiffer's Ireland, as represented in L'Irlande: Un Art de Vivre, for example, is straight out of a Yeats poem, all Big House ascendancy on the one hand and colourful, heroic peasantry on the other, with nothing in between. Marc Berger's Ireland, meanwhile, deals with the problem of urban life by showing us three images of Dublin. Each of the three shows the same building, the custom House. Presumably all his snaps of Ballymun and Westminster Lawns didn't come out. As for John Mock's abysmal collection of holiday photos, all anyone needs to know is that its called Celtic Portraits and comes with a CD of his own compositions inspired by the beauty and wonder of the Irish countryside.
Yet, we come back to the fact that the photographs in these books are, in one sense, deeply realistic. To accuse them of misrepresenting the island would be to miss the point. For they are not, in the first place, pictures of an actual inhabited country. What is being photographed is not really a mountain, or a river, or a girl with freckles, or an oullad on a bicycle, or even a donkey. It is a purely mental terrain, a fantasy land that continues to haunt the imagination of some Europeans and Americans. We may have helped to create that land, and we have certainly colluded in its survival, but it has by now gone way beyond us. It has a life of its own. It exists out there, at some dreamy confluence of memory and desire where people mourn the banality of ordinary existence and dream of a place that is its opposite. In that sense, these photographs have to be seen, not as the printed images, but as negatives. Their point is not to show Ireland but to conjure up the reverse of New York, Hamburg or London. As we ourselves live more and more in that same international ordinariness, this Ireland is becoming as exotic to us as it is to Jan Morris. we, too, can visit it on our holidays, content in the knowledge that we don't live there and can go home when ever we want.