The library multimedia room was filled with students in the late afternoon of February 7, 2011 as they eagerly listened to the lecture of Deirdre O’Mahony entitled “New Ecologies Between Rural Life and Visual Culture in the West of Ireland: History, Context, Position, and Art Practice.” A full-time lecturer in painting at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology in Galway, Ireland, O’Mahony is currently researching a Ph.D. through practice at the School of Arts and Architecture at the University of Brighton in the United Kingdom. She travels around the world speaking of how the cultural representations in Western Ireland play a strong role in identifying the region as uniquely Irish, and explains how the region is more complex than it looks due to the multitude of small communities and their own interests.
O’Mahony believes that what draws many artists to Western Ireland, especially areas such as the Burren which is located on the coast, is its untouched wilderness and native culture. The landscape has provided a subject for hundreds of artists, including Paul Henry, who promoted the West as an idyllic urban retreat, and Charles Lamb, who mostly focused on Western Ireland’s iconographic imagery. There has been a rapid change in pace in the culture of rural communities in the West over the past 20 years, however this is not reflected in much of the landscape-based art produced about the region.
O’Mahony chose to live in the Burren, a unique region noted for its flora and fauna, as well as its natural resources for self-sustenance. She began as a painter in the area but later decided that “painting wasn’t enough to cover the complexity of the place.” Her work evolved, moving into site-specific artworks. A temporary commissioned public art project, “The Cross Land,” explored the ecological effects of the growth of hazel scrub, a plant that can be used as a source of renewable energy and which contains very rare forms of lichen. The hazel scrub has spread rapidly in the Burren, covering limestone pavement as well as archeological sites, and the traditional farming in the area was coming under pressure by the heavy regulation of the country. O’Mahony decided to cut a cross, each arm 60 meters long and 1.5 meters wide, through the dense hazel scrub near Carron, and use kite aerial photography to document the changes in the area of the ‘X’ over time.
O’Mahony learned much from this project, including unexpected discoveries about farming practices and regional culture. Artistic interventions under a program called Ground Up were taking place in the area, yet many of the local population were unaware of them. For one month, O’Mahony set up a temporary office in a particular pub a few nights a week to speak to the locals about the Cross Land project, but on any given night there were no more than 2 in the pub. She speculated that rural pubs, traditionally points of social contact for people of these small communities, were slowly dying out.
O’Mahony’s clarity of purpose in the work she and her colleagues do inspired me at this early stage in my academic career. I only hope that my passion will lead me, as hers did, to the place in the world that will matter most to me.
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