When we first moved to Ireland (15 years ago), Pat and I did a great deal of exploration. This mostly had to do with history, ancient history. We bought topographical maps and sought out everything from old burial grounds to prehistoric sites. We were intrigued by standing stones and wedge tombs. We became sensitized to the landscape. When the sun hung low at certain times of the day, it would cast long shadows on the hills. Within those shadows, the land would reveal the remains of marks from mounds and rings. We soon realized that what we were seeing was raths (pronounced “raah”). These raths were early bronze age dwellings, once covered with roofs of turf. We have one of these raths a couple of hundred meters above our house, and it always makes me wonder who lived there. But, it was the standing stones that seemed to be the most significant symbol of all that had gone before. They stood proud, and they stood the test of time.
In the bottom of this valley, where we live, is an old burial ground. It most certainly was being used during the bronze age. There is a standing stone with Ogham carving on it. These early marks, a series of grouped lines, told who might lie there or who it was honoring. But this particular stone has a cross within a circle carved on it; this carving has obscured the Ogham markings. It was most likely made by early Christian monks as if to say that we do not recognize the old ways, and we will do everything within our power to eradicate this pagan belief.
History tells us that almost all ancient indigenous cultures suffered these same consequences: the eradication of their way of life, only to be forced into one that was ideologically alien. Most recently, there was a discovery of a mass grave at Kamloops Industrial School, British Columbia, where the bodies of 215 Indian children were discovered.* Why? Because they did not fit into what was expected of them. Those who sought to conquer wielded not only their swords but their beliefs.
In 1992, the UMVA sponsored an exhibition to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. The exhibition was organized and curated by Union member Natasha Mayers. Around this time, there was a cultural awareness of what it was to be American. It was only 15 years prior that America celebrated its bicentennial. Who were we? And what did we lose on this journey to become what we call American?
The exhibition was titled Columbus and the New World Order. It opened on 23 September 1992 at the Ellsworth Public Library, Ellsworth, Maine. 31 artists contributed to the show. The show touched on issues of dominance—a dominance waged against cultures that appeared inferior to their conquerors. It also highlighted inequalities existing in the modern world: “This show includes images of Hopi women and starving children in Ethiopia and refugees in contact with consumer society. It includes images of the disappeared, of slaves on a plantation and in silver mines, and prisoners being strip-searched.” The artists involved pulled no punches. Through the use of paint, wood, and words, they made a case for a universal reckoning. Subsequently, the exhibition traveled to various venues around the State, bringing with it a fresh look at who we all were and what we destroyed in the process.
People don’t just land somewhere in life, plop, bang, ok . . . this is it, I think I’ll get on with it! We have a responsibility to look for the signs that came before us. Call it history if you like, or mythology, or some long-forgotten bit of gossip. To attempt to understand the place we live, or the history of the people that made this place we now inhabit, can make a case for who we are, and in so doing, maybe keep us from making the same horrible mistakes all over again.
In a UMVA newsletter, October 1992, Union member Abby Shahn wrote:
And why should artists bother with this stuff? Isn’t this the realm of history and not of art? I believe that one job that many artists take on is that of understanding ourselves. If we can dig deep and discover our own feelings, our own roots, our own vision, etc., then hopefully, if we’ve dug deep enough, we’ve reached an area of common ground, of feelings and visions that we share with other people.
Art finds itself buried deep in matters like these. Even artists who do not consider themselves political will, from time to time, make some form of political statement. It is inescapable. Those statements might seem tossed off, but something lurks below the surface of everything we do and live, everything we see and hear. It all leaves its mark on us, and we carry it home.
The standing stone in our valley was not destroyed by the monk who carved that cross. I suppose the monk could have pulled the stone down, or broken it in two, or used it to build a church (this was known to happen), but he wanted to make a statement that said, “I have a better idea, I am far more educated than you. What I hold true to myself is a belief in something greater than me and far greater than you could ever be, so bear witness to this mark.”
And time moved on. Centuries came and went. The earth rose around the stone, almost obscuring the markings, but it is still visible. Time, wind, and rain are slowly exerting their hand over the surface. Eventually, the cross and the Ogham will disappear completely. Yet, those who look to conquer will persist and leave their marks on us all. And the artist . . . the artist will always find a way to call them down, judging them for what they are and deliver a verdict of truth.
We, as a people, must continue to learn from our past mistakes, and along with the Tribal Nation of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, (previously known as the Kamloops Indian Band), look for the truth and hold accountable those who conquer.
Pat and Tony Owen live in the West of Ireland and do their best to make art.
* The Kamloops Industrial School in British Columbia was operated by the Roman Catholic Church from 1890 to 1969. Nearly 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were removed from their families, where they often faced neglect and abuse. The schools banned Indigenous language and traditions (from the Washington Post, 29 May 2021).
Image at top: Standing stone, Killduff, Co. Kerry, Ireland.