Co. Kilkenny artist reels in the reality of the ‘new rural’

A visual artist who lives in the rural uplands of north-east Co. Kilkenny recently launched a film, ‘You Cannot Climb a Hedge’, in The Community Field near Castlewarren village. This event put the ‘new rural’ under the spotlight as part of the Alternative Kilkenny Arts Festival.

Drawing on the rural as a myth and the countryside as offering an antidote to the urban through its physical and moral attributes, Pauline O’Connell’s three-screen installation reflected on changing rural identity around the hill where she lives.

The project, exploring the ‘new rural’, came about after she researched boundaries locally.

“I was looking at practices of marking these out and came across one practice called ‘beating the bounds’. This ritual was practised in China and in Vienna to prevent the plague entering the city and is still practised in places in the UK today.

“It ultimately aids an understanding of where you come from,” she said.

“Overtime, working with the Castlewarren Cultural Development Group, we undertook deep mapping exercises locally, looking at parish boundaries.”

Sometimes, the parish boundaries are delineated by rivers, streams, walls and trees, but it was the psychological boundaries which these created that Pauline was interested in.

The ‘New Rural’

“The creation of parish boundaries originated as a structure to collect tax and the hill is where three parishes and two dioceses converge, it seemed.

‘You Cannot Climb a Hedge’ was made in response to finding a position in the ‘new rural’, whereby many new homes are built in the hills. However, outside the church and GAA, there are few binding forces  – apart from the bad weather – that bring the spread-out population together.

“The cine-poem asks the viewer: How can we traverse these so-called natural boundaries? This is stratified: layered politically; socially; and environmentally while being aesthetically presented.

“Politically, because the hill is not on the electoral map, it provides a space for the index on tourist maps and the rural identity is flattened out in general.

“The politics of a rural identity requires a re-examination – the pastoral scene no longer represents a rural identity. Socially, it asks the viewer to find their own position. Environmentally, the hedge becomes a metaphor for these so-called natural ‘psychological’ boundaries,” Pauline said.

“For the cine-poem, I asked Michael Somers, who lives on the other side of the hill where I live, to attempt to climb over a 12ft hedge owned by Michael and Betsy Rice.”

The camera man who filmed this was artist Jonathan Sammon from Birr – a drone expert.

“There is what I call a macro piece depicting the depth and breadth of the hedge; a micro piece depicting very close up details of how the actor tried to negotiate the task and a portrait piece which depicts him balancing on a post, contemplating the task at hand.”

The work was displayed in a portacabin in The Community Field, near Castlewarren, and was open to the public for over three days, Pauline recalled.

An estimated 50 people attended the launch of ‘You Cannot Climb a Hedge’ with Michael Somers, who is a forester with Teagasc, speaking about hedgerows.

Catherine Marshall, curator and art writer, highlighted changing rural identity as well as the role of art and artists and community. The following two-day showing coincided with the annual Castlewarren family field day.

“I answered questions and conversations developed that could tease out further questions about the future of the rural,” Pauline commented.

“This all feeds back into my PhD practice-led research looking at post-rural identity, which I am undertaking at the University of Amsterdam School of Heritage, Memory and Material Culture (AHM).

“I have been working in many rural contexts for over 20 years; mainly on public art commissions. While these places in geographical terms differed, they shared what seemed to be a close knit community.”

However, this all changed during the Celtic Tiger.

What was traditionally a migration from the rural to the urban for education and work purposes became a counter-urban migration due to the economics of selling up ‘in Dublin’, making a profit and moving to the countryside.

Many first-timers bought newly built houses in housing estates on their periphery of these towns and villages and these ‘new places’ became commuter belts.

As part of a public art commission, Pauline carried out research in Milltown, Co. Kerry. “As I began to meet people, I felt an underlying disconnect, but couldn’t put my finger on it.

“Overtime, as the project developed, my key focus centred on ‘The Spout’ – a meeting place. This was a social repository, a place where clean free water was provided by the landlord during famine times.”

‘Drawing the Water’ – the project title – highlights how a small town became fractured by the Celtic Tiger peripheral housing developments, and this was an attempt to bring together old and new, young and old, local and so called ‘blow-ins’.

“I created a cine-poem that was shown in The Community Hall, and a book to accompany the limited-edition DVD and we held a ceili.

“The place was packed to capacity and it was received very well. The piece, as artefact, is housed in the archive department in Kerry county library,” said Pauline.

Tug of War

“In terms of looking deeper at what I call ‘community ecology’, ‘Heave-Ho, an invitation to community’ and ‘Heave-Ho, pub-pulling league’ were created in response to where I live on the hill.

It aimed to dispel any perceived equilibrium within the community through the game tug-of-war as you can’t play it alone – you need an opposing side.

“This was a popular game locally and we revived it. Three local pubs with ten men each side took part in the project and a final was held in December 2012 in The Community Field.”

This again brought out the masses for a social art project acting as a symbol for community, Pauline commented.

This in turn led to the revival of the 2.5ac Community Field, bought in the 1980s for sporting purposes. Community events are held there, managed by The Castlewarren Cultural Development Group, which Pauline co-established.

Female Labour

Another project was ‘The Milk Well and the Tea Well.’

“This took its name from two pre-famine wells on my land. One stored a can of milk for the creamery; the other was used to make tea. The project developed in the form of a research residency award and I was based in The Leitrim Sculpture Centre, Manorhamilton.”

Over a six-week period, the historic research revealed a significant contribution that female labour made to the farming income.

Butter making was a significant contributor to the household. I was amazed that the contribution of the dairy maid, usually the only female in the creamery, and the so called ‘farmer’s wife’ was otherwise not acknowledged.

“I looked at the creamery as a social system and at how the Shannon free trade zone of the 1950s impacted the once common practice of dairy farming.

“The resultant work was a large scale sculptural installation using butter boxes. Photographs were displayed of defunct creamery sites, with wall text indicating the shift in farming practice through incentives and disincentives, and two audio repositories.

“I did a radio interview where I invited those interested to my studio. I met with and recorded many stories from past creamery workers and women who made butter. I travelled the highways and byways to create a picture of the social economy that milk as the binding element provided.”

The resulting art work was exhibited in the LSC Gallery during the Manorhamilton Agricultural Show.

“Chatting to people at the opening gave permission for many conversations to take place; especially between mother and daughter.

The female responses were overwhelming. I was told that the public acknowledgement empowered many of them.

The show later travelled to Roscommon Art Centre, and last year the two audio repositories and texts were exhibited at Taylor Gallery in Dublin 2.

Meanwhile, Pauline hopes to tour the triptych cine-poem project around Ireland and abroad in a bid to open up and broaden the conversation about the future of the rural: politically; socially; and environmentally.

“I also want it to develop its own audio narrative specific to the locale in which it is shown,” she said.