29 December 2012

The Star Factory

I heard Iain Sinclair on BBC Radio 4 lately given his personal view of the term psychogeography. Basically, psychogeography was whatever you wanted it to be. This got me wondering if there is an official definition of the term. As a concept, it has been around longer than one might expect. It seems to have its roots in 1950’s France. The theorist, writer and filmmaker Guy Debord said psychogeography was: "the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals."

This concern with precision and laws is not usually found among those who would define psychogeography today. The contemporary trend is it towards playfulness, inventiveness. Most are happy to accept as psychogeography almost any creative effort that makes us look at our surroundings afresh. One writer suggests that to play psychogeographer you could open up a street map … “place a glass, rim down, anywhere on the map, and draw round its edge. Pick up the map, go out in the city, and walk the circle, keeping as close as you can to the curve. Record the experience as you go, in whatever medium you favour.”

Oregon - Orient - Orkey - Palestine - Paris.
Whatever the definition, Ciaran Carson’s book The Star Factory is a psychogeography of Belfast. One observation I particularly enjoy in the book is about the index of street names accompanying a map or atlas. Carson points out some of the strange juxtapositions that indexing creates for Belfast. Places far apart in the solid material of the city are thrown together and new connections spark in the mind “like the way we could hear the roar of the crowd at an international fixture in far-off Windsor Park.”

Carson goes on:
... streets named after places form exotic junctures not to be found on the map of the Empire: Balkan and Ballarat, Cambria and Cambrigde, Carlisle and Carlow, Lisbon and Lisburn, and so on, though Madras and Madrid, till we eventually arrive, by way of Yukon, at the isles of Zetland, whereupon we fall off the margins of the city.

30 November 2012

Reclaim the Westlink

Forum for Alternative Belfast is a Community Interest Company that campaigns for a better and a more humane built environment in Belfast. One of their current projects is attempting to improve the Divis Link intersection. This is currently a patch that really lets you know this city is for cars, brutally excluding any other mode of getting around. "It is important that people in the city challenge the design of these over-scaled junctions that disempower the walker and the cyclist," says the Forum.

From the website of Forum for Alternative Belfast.

This diagram of the existing (blue) and proposed (yellow) pavements shows the Forum's proposal of what space could be reclaimed at the junction, helping to make it walkable and a living link between the west and the city centre. This is just a small part of their proposal, see the Forum for Alternative Belfast website for more.

31 October 2012

Belfast Sound Map

I love the Belfast Sound Map. Go, listen to the city. A factory's quitting-time siren on the Duncrue Road; cyclists and walkers on the Lagan Towpath; wind blowing through tubular-steel gates on Black Mountain; road works on Cromac Street. It's all there, and more.

The overview map, clicking on a tag plays a recording.
The long whine of a siren breaks the quiet on Duncrue Road. Time to go home.

Anyone can contribute a digital recording of their own to the map. You upload it via the website. The Belfast Sound Map continues to grow.

The URL is www.belfastsoundmap.org.

11 September 2012

Another Internment

20 years ago this year saw another kind of internment in Ireland, very different to the one Northern Ireland came to know in the 1970s. A case known as the X case set a striking precedent, a young female was barred from exiting the country because she was believed to be on her way to get an abortion. This cartoon map commenting on the situation (below) was publish by the Irish Times originally in 1992 and reprinted by them earlier this year. The newspaper reports that marches and demonstrations against the ruling extended from Dublin to Irish embassies and consulates around the world. In the netherlands politicians spoke against this "gross violation of human rights." An Australian senator called the situation "barbarous." It lead the French press to question Ireland's membership of the EC.

Eventually, fear that the girl might take her own life was considered grounds enough to allow her to travel. Fallout from this decision reverberates on but 20 years later the judgement has not yet been legislated for.

In Northern Ireland abortion is not available either. However, as this cartoon map indicates, there is no fence along its shore stopping anyone traveling to Britain for an abortion.

28 August 2012

In Carrick-on-Shannon

Two my maps are being exhibited at The Dock, Carrick-on-Shannon, Co. Leitrim. They will be there for a few more days only. The Map of Connections has been painted onto a large wall at the top of the gallery's central staircase.

I introduced the map on the opening night of the exhibition.

9 July 2012

The Map of Connections at the Dock

Right now a couple of my maps are being exhibited at The Dock, Carrick-on-Shannon, Co. Leitrim. The Map of Connections has been painted onto a large wall, it is the first thing you see as you enter the gallery. Images of each individual connection are projected beside the map, running in a looped slide show. The skilled job of rendering the map was put in the hands of John O'Hara. He is a mural-painter and sign-writer and also works for the Ordnance Survey.

So, all in all, John had the prefect skill set for the task. I am delighted with how the map has turned out. The Map of Connections has been exhibited in various ways over the last few years but this is by far the most handsome.

First, John outlined every part of the map, using pencils of the corresponding colours. The font used was Garamond.

Then everything was painstakingly filled in.

The finished map is about four metres tall.

The image above is Manus McManus installing another part of the show. It is a photo journal of my journey along the border from Lough Foyle to Carlingford Lough.

A new version of The Map of Watchful Architecture is also in the exhibition. It has not so radically evolved since the last version, I've just added lighthouses. Canoeing by some lighthouses in Carlingford Lough last year, I realised that they belong in any collection of "watchful" structures.

The show runs until the end of August.

To accompany the exhibition, I brought a group of people on a hike along a nearby stretch of the border. One participant says a few words about it here. Kindly, he does not mention how I got us lost for a while.

Thank you to John O'Hara and everyone at The Dock who helped put the show together, Claire, Martin, Alice and Manus.

12 June 2012

Text Message Map

Earlier this year the artist Susan Lynch walked from Malin Head, Co. Donegal, to Mizen Head, Co. Cork. She recorded her journey in various ways and some were recently on view in PS squared, Belfast. Walking as artistic practice is not a new idea but one thing makes this project different. She often walked with company of one sort or another, her experience seems to have been more about connection than isolation.

Richard Long's stone circle on Aran Mor, Co. Galway.
More usually artists take on landscapes alone, perhaps seeking the singular quality of a spiritual or meditative experience. The artist Richard Long, for example, always walked alone. He would leave stone circles in his wake, the very form of which seem to reinforce the isolated, inward-looking, mode of his creative process. The walk as ritual. Werner Herzog, in a journey recounted in Of Walking in Ice, walked weeks by himself. He was sometimes overwhelmed by loneliness yet it is impossible to imagine he would have done it any other way. My own walks along the Irish border were always done without company. After three or four days and nights by myself I would return to Belfast starry-eyed and socially awkward (even more than usual). Yet, I would have considered walking alone necessary to having an authentic experience of the borderland. I now find it difficult to justify that notion. What harm if I had had another person's influence to spice up the experience? No harm, there may even have been gains.

The poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts teamed up to explore peripheral spaces for their rich and enjoyable book Edgelands. Walker/writer Iain Sinclair also bucks the trend of walking unaccompanied. He brings pals and sometimes his wife on his explorations.

During her journey, Susan Lynch stayed with people every night, members of her family walked sections with her and she was interviewed by local radio along the way. She was also in near-constant text message communication with many people, including her mother. It was print-outs of these text messages that formed the basis of her show, ‘A Malin Head to Mizen Head Approach.’ They were pinned up along wall drawings of the routes she traveled.

This map recounts the journey from Pettigo, Co. Donegal to Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh and on to Clones, Co. Monahagan.

Heading south out of Pettigo.
In Clones.

Lynch's maps have a warmth about them. They are not the trails beaten by solitary types, they are the transcripts of a walk supported all the way by a friendly network. In the exhibition notes the artist emphasizes connections and friendship over personal revelation or meditation. She mentions aiming for the nightly beacon of a glowing window, the house where she would pass the night. "The comfort of the light from each B&B, arrival was imminent, warmth and generosity was certain.” The idea of always moving towards a light takes fullest form when Lynch realises that for the whole journey she was constantly moving towards one big light, the lighthouse at Mizen head.

10 May 2012

Fictional Ulster: Expanding

For a new map, I am collecting the names of fictitious sites in Ulster, places invented by writers and artists over the years. I am using this pin board map (pictured below) to locate the names and to draw attention to my project. It is installed in the Seamus Heaney Centre, Belfast.

I am also interested in fictitious sites from plays and films but so far most I have found or being sent are from books. They include (placename followed by the author's name):
'Greywater', - Malachy Doyle
'Drumnay', - Patrick Kavanagh
'Ballygullion', - Lynn Doyle
'Carn', - Patrick McCabe
'Tyreelin', - Patrick McCabe
'Tumdrum', - Ian Samson
'Rathard', - Sam Hanna Bell
'Ballycarnamaghery', - JC Pedlow
'Aghnascreeby', - Mat Mulcaghy
'Crossmaheart', - Colin Bateman
'Ballybucklebo', - Patrick Taylor
'Kiltarragh', - Martin Waddell
'Ballyutogue', - Leon Uris
'Puckoon', - Spike Milligan
'Port na Rón', - Erin Hart
'Butlershill', - Shane McConnaughton
'Tailorstown', - Christina McKenna
Please get in touch if you know of any others.

3 May 2012

McCabe Country

I am making a map of Ulster's fictional sites, places invented by writers and artists down through the years. It will be called Fictional Ulster.

One writer who invents localities is Patrick McCabe. His novels are set in the south of Ireland but I am sure at least a few of his fictitious towns will go on the map as they will be in Monaghan or Cavan. Both these counties are in the Republic of Ireland but also among the nine counties of Ulster. They are counties that, accurately or not, McCabe's novels have become associated with. I have read that the town of Carn - setting of this 1989 novel of the same name - is based on Monaghan's Clones, McCabe's hometown. Tyreelin, the setting of Breakfast on Pluto (2001) is described as a border town so it may be reasonable to place it in Monaghan too, or in Cavan.

Where is Barntrosna? Where is Scotsfield?

Online can be found a Guardian interview with McCabe from 2003 where McCabe expresses annoyance that he had become associated with County Silgo.
Journalists always come over and end up writing all this stuff about Sligo and its relevance to my work. But Sligo has absolutely nothing to do with my work. There is no mention of the sea in my work, and very little of the terrain that you find out here. It just so happens that I've lived in Sligo for the past few years, but that's the extent of it.
This would be unsurprising to anyone who has read McCabe and also knows Ireland. His novels have the feel of the midlands, landlocked and boggy. They evoke a oppressive landscape of close horizons, none of his characters get the relief of resting their eyes on the far Atlantic. His characters often suffer personal limitations that seems reenforced by their closed geography, bitterness, small-mindedness.

Names of fictitious sites in McCabe's work include: Carn, Tyreelin, Cullymore, Scotsfield and Barntrosna. There could well be more. I will have to get reading McCabe's back list.

17 April 2012

Belfast Radius

This map shows the trail left by participants from the Art in Public course at the University of Ulster. Doing some “walking as research”, they set of to walk a circular route. The walkers kept their circle close to a one mile radius, using Catalyst Arts, near Queen Street in the city centre, as the axis point.

They report: "This circumferential journey intersects a wide variety of city neighbourhoods, ranging from Queens University quarter in the south, west via Donegal Rd. to the Falls and Shankill, intersecting the Crumlin and Antrim Roads in the north of the city, through the docklands and the Short Strand before completing the circuit by way of Ravenhill Road and Ormeau Park."

27 March 2012

Fictional Ulster: In Development

Ballybeg, the fictitious setting for Brian Friel’s plays, is more famous than most real villages in Ulster. Despite not existing, the village has a kind of geographic life. This is part of what the map Fictional Ulster is about. Fictional Ulster will locate and chart Ulster’s fictional places - places invented by writers down through the years.

The map is made from thick pieces of cork. It does not include County Cork, I mention this as it has confused some people.
So far, I’ve got a dozen or so localities for the map. A few, I’ve come up with myself. Others were contributed by members of the public, via this blog or by email. Some were contributed via a pin board map that I have installed in the Seamus Heaney Centre, Belfast. I have invited staff, students and visitors to the centre to pin the places directly where they think they belong.

Tumdrum is in North Antrim, it is the setting of Ian Sansom's Mobile Library series.
Fictional sites located so far include: Tumdrum, Buggleskelly, Weirtown, Newtonhamilton, Carn, Puckoon, Ballycarnamaghery and Belfast's Eureka Street.

Thank you to everyone who has helped.

12 March 2012

Introducing Fictional Ulster

So far I have made three maps of Ireland’s border. Now I am beginning a new project, this time covering the nine counties of Ulster. Fictional Ulster will locate and chart Ulster’s fictional places, places created by writers and artists down through the years. I hope the map will be fun and intriguing and that it also might offer an insight on how we see ourselves and how others see us. In addition the map may reveal themes in the naming and placement of fictional sites in Ulster.

Where is Ballybeg? Where is Ballycarnamaghery?

Mining the entire history of Ulster literature is too big a task for one person. I welcome contributions from anyone who has knowledge of such fictional places. Perhaps you recall one from a book you’ve read or a film you have seen? Please email me or comment on this blog. The places could be from any art form. Movies and plays as well as books, in or out-of-print. The sites could be towns, rivers, forests, estates, streets, mountains or any other sort of locality.

I’d also like to hear your views on the exact location of sites. Where exactly, for example, is the setting of Brian Friel’s plays, Ballybeg? Where is the setting of the 1937 comedy film ‘Oh, Mister Porter’, Buggleskelly?

Messing about in a border train station called Buggleskelly. Oh, Mr Porter, 1937.

In Belfast, I am attempting to tap the knowledge of the Seamus Heaney Centre to gather the elements for this map. I have made a pin board map of Ulster, cutting each county from a thick piece of cork to produce a wall map a metre and a half wide. I will be installing it in the Seamus Heaney Centre this week and inviting students, staff and visitors to pin up their suggestions directly to the map.

I will report on the progress of Fictional Ulster on this blog in the oncoming months.

7 February 2012

Northern Ireland Without History ...

... is hard to imagine. But Google Maps, for a while at least, can help us imagine such a thing. Google Maps' aerial photographs lag behind the true development of Belfast. In this image it seems that the public record office is nothing but brownfield, utterly vacant.


Fig2, zoomed in a little.

In reality, of course, a shiny new edifice now stands here, the new Public Record Office of Northern Ireland is open for visitors and researchers. But on Google Maps the site is empty. As if Northern Ireland has decided against keeping records and wiped the slate clean.

12 January 2012

Watching the Border

The French Geographic Journal EchoGéo has just published a paper where I discuss my map, The map of Watchful Architecture 1.0. The paper is online at this link. It is illustrated and in English. Apart from details from my own map the paper is also illustrated by this Crown Copyright map, below. It shows Division H, the area under the supervision of Brigadier Peter Morton when he was sent to head up 3rd Para in South Armagh during the Troubles. Dealing with the border was a major part of his duties. The border along Division H was not so long, most of it within view of Slieve Gullion, a peak 273 metres tall. Yet it had 43 cross-border routes.

Click on the map for a closer look.

The perforated border was a security problem for Morton's troops. It was a convenient escape route for attackers. It was not well marked, leading to the occasional southern straying of the troops themselves, causing diplomatic incidents with the government of the Irish Republic.

During those years many political figures were calling for the complete sealing of the border with a fence or wall that would then be patrolled and defended. Morton, who daily felt the effects of the open border, nonetheless rejected such ideas. In his memoir of his time in South Armagh he remarks that such a construction would have been "against democracy." This makes best sense in the context of the time. Winston Churchill's use of Iron Curtain metaphor was still reverberating across Europe. The closed border to the east and Berlin’s division were powerful political symbols. The government of the United Kingdom was not going to build anything comparable to that Soviet instrument.

In 1976, shortly before Morton’s deployment to Northern Ireland, Margaret Thatcher made a speech to the Finchley Conservatives. It was to become a well-known speech as it was when the soon-to-be prime minister embraced the term Iron Lady. Who better to do battle with an Iron Curtain? In the speech she said “Socialism is the denial of choice, the denial of choice for ordinary people in their everyday lives … Socialists don't trust the people. Churchill did. We do.”

The border area between Armagh and Louth. A detail from The Map of Watchful Architecture 1.0. Other views of the map illustrate the full paper at EchoGéo.

The military operation in Northern Ireland during the Troubles never did involve a large-scale sealing of the border. However, especially in South Armagh, many towers and checkpoints were built to guard over the area. We trusted people, but some people needed watching.