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Devil in the Detail: Latoon
In 1999, folklorist and storyteller Eddie Lenihan campaigned to save a whitethorn bush from being destroyed by the construction of a €90 million road scheme in Latoon, County Clare. He claimed that the bush was an important meeting place for supernatural forces of the region, and warned that its destruction could result in death and great misfortune for motorists travelling on the proposed new road.
How did Lenihan know about the significance of this site? For decades, he has sought out and interviewed ageing individuals and older generations around rural southwest Ireland, committing to tape many voices that reveal the folklore and shaking his hands around and becoming more animated as the narrative would heat up towards a heady conclusion, one that was likely to be thought-provoking, amusing and grotesque in equal measure. As the reputational economy of modern Ireland solidified itself in the last century, the fledgling nation state and the need for a position of international accessibility eclipsed the anarchic, ‘backward’ versions of aurality and storytelling, turning them into Paddywhackery and other novelty acts for tourists. Lenihan’s shamanistic laments consistently refute these conservative progressions of modernity. They scoff at any attempts at a stable identity; instead they remain malleable, eclectic and libertarian. I always remember his recollection of a man who opens a gate and enters a field. He walks around inside it, but soon can’t find his way back out – the gate can’t be seen and he is trapped. Panic and inertia soon set in, in equal measure. Caught in this maze, being lost becomes an existential condition as much as a geographical one. There is no happy ending. Predictably, despite Lenihan’s heartfelt ostentation towards his subjects and the impression he left on many impressionable minds of my generation, his television programme didn’t find favour with the genericism of Irish broadcasting, and lasted for only two seasons.
While his process of gathering these narratives inevitably involves asking the right questions and drawing comparisons with research he has already gathered, Lenihan’s primary working method is often to simply turn on the voice recorder and listen. Story after story is then told, and Lenihan often returns for several visitations. Yet, after the interviewee tells everything in his or her repertoire of fireside stories, only then can other things be mentioned. The murmuring of unrepeated repressed histories, those that reside at the margins of the mind that cannot synthesize into a concise start, middle and end might be heard. The hardship of the land and the pain of humanity come to the surface. One of the most harrowing encounters Lenihan refers to is a ninety-six-year-old women recounting to him her childhood and the job of clearing dismembered bodies after the exploding bombs and machine gunfire at one of the great atrocities of the Irish Civil War, the Ballyseedy Massacre. She had hardly ever spoken of it during her lifetime. Catastrophe can never be adequately represented – it can only ever be alluded to in indirect ways. This plays an important part in the rise of fairy culture. In an Irish context, a lack of scientific knowledge to help mediate environments on the geographical periphery of the Enlightenment, and the general misery of hegemonic colonial rule are both contributing factors. Symptoms of disease were explained as curses by fairies upon man. Crop failure was not only about inconsistent land management policies of the crown, which for centuries ignored indigenous agrarian society – instead it was a fairy’s revenge. If God did you good and gave you hope for the next life, then the fairies are portrayed as ‘pookas’ or devil-like figures who persecuted you in this one. Known as belligerent and vindictive, each one appears about five feet tall. Unlike popular myth, they have no fluttering wings or any sense of dreamy enchantment. They travel using Bronze Age stone forts and ruined Norman motte-and-bailey castles as entry points into a subterranean transport system, with a comprehensive network of paths crisscrossing the land above. In almost all of Lenihan’s accounts, you are better off not confronting them.
Lenihan knows very well that a story does not expend itself. It can preserve and concentrate its strength and is capable of releasing this even after a very long time. After noticing a single whitethorn bush on a hilltop beside the Fergus river estuary, now positioned directly in the path of the new motorway, Lenihan began to ask around. He encountered an old man nearby who told him that the bush was indeed associated with the supernatural. All the fairies of the Munster region would come to this precise location and begin to organise themselves for battle before flying off into the sky. After the fight, wherever it would be, they would all return, often carrying their wounded and dead with them. The old man Lenihan spoke to described visiting the bush early one morning and finding a sticky green blob on the ground beside it. It was fairy blood! There must have been a battle the night before! With the bush gone and a new motorway present, the fairies would surely become disorientated and angry, and curse motorists speeding by.
Taking this scenario as the basis for his
campaign, he started calling up local newspapers and radio stations,
Eventually, Clare County Council, under mounting pressure from such prominent international media outlets and keen to dissolve any further coverage of this surreal crusade, decided to slightly shift the direction of the road away from the bush. Standing on the overpass bridge close by, one can observe it subtly veering north to avoid any clash.
In 2006, Lenihan agreed to be interviewed and further explain the significance of the bush, now at the site of Junction 11 of the M20 motorway. Initial visits to the site were thwarted by the continued construction of yet another road nearby, with no access possible due to heavy machine works in and around the vicinity of the bush itself. The construction company refused right of entry, and Lenihan made genuine concerns towards the bush’s safety in this environment. Eventually, on a Saturday evening after the last man working overtime left the site, he and a local television production crew broke in. In front of the camera and surrounded by earthmoving equipment, Lenihan described his research, efforts and frustrations with the bush now once more in danger…
Sean Lynch's 'Latoon' and 'What is an apparatus?' were at Helston Folk Museum between 5/5/18-2/6/18 as part of 'Groundwork'.