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Discovering the Tír Sáile Sculpture Trail

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

IT’S often said that when something’s on your doorstep, you’re more likely to take it for granted than you would if it were elsewhere. We’ll travel miles to see art and sculpture and landscapes, yet the greatest treats are often to be found right here. Such an example is Tír Sáile – the North Mayo Sculpture Trail. For 24 years it has sat on my doorstep, and it was only a few days ago that myself and himself finally set out on this treasure hunt along the north Mayo coast.
Have you heard of Tír Sáile? No? Well, it is probably one of the most visionary and ambitious projects ever undertaken in Mayo. Developed in 1993 during the Mayo 5000 celebrations – a year-long cultural celebration of life in Mayo, inspired by the historic Céide Fields landscape – it was the largest public arts project ever undertaken in Ireland. It consists of 15 commissioned, site-specific artworks, created using a specified, limited range of organic materials, placed at intervals along the north Mayo coastline from the Moy Estuary to the tip of the Erris Peninsula. Tír Sáile was designed to explore a number of themes, including the role of art in the making of community and place, and themes related to human activity on this historic landscape – agriculture, settlement, mythology, folklore, life and death. Part of the initial brief given to artists was that some part of their work might remain through the next five millennia, to be celebrated during ‘Mayo 10,000’.
The beauty of North Mayo is rooted in its wilderness. It is raw, unpolished; often bleak. The solitude and exposure to the elements grounds you to the earth and sea, and Tír Sáile reflects that. Indeed, finding these structures often takes you away from the beaten path, right into the heart of the landscape and to the stark cliff edges where waves pound the shore relentlessly. It is perhaps fitting in this light that some of the artworks of Tír Sáile have also become victims of the landscape.

Education and discovery
We discovered treasures we had been driving past, oblivious, for years. Right there, were these incredible stories, buried in the landscape, under our noses. Interpretations of how land and sea interact, how the elements battle, the stories of these lands preserved in sculpture for eternity - in theory. Sadly, over the years, many of the sculptures have been neglected. Some have disappeared entirely. No on-site interpretation exists. This theme of abandonment and neglect followed us throughout the journey; a theme that ironically reflects the tale of a region that has witnessed its share of economic abandonment.
Our two days exploring Tír Sáile gave us an education. We learned about artists, the land, the geology, the history. We walked for miles along the coast. We took in an overnight stay in the wonderful Coastguard station on Claggan Island, and met Laurence Howard, who played a huge role in telling this story in the excellent detailed guidebook. We took a few selfies at each site. We made memories.
It is a terrible shame that awareness and engagement with Tír Sáile is so low. For years, the only information available has been in paper form, via the original guidebook. Yet externally, its value is recognised – it has featured in National Geographic Magazine as one of the top sculpture parks worldwide.
Happily, in order to celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2018, Tír Sáile is currently undergoing a maintenance programme. New signage is being erected, and a website is in development, incorporating a number of new works. A two-day symposium takes place in Áras Inis Gluaire, Belmullet, at the end of this month to launch the website and to celebrate and reflect on the original project. And celebration it deserves. We should be shouting about this project from the rooftops.
The original Tír Sáile project was founded on meitheal principles – where landowners and communities came together, donating land and time to putting the artwork in place. On the eve of the 25th anniversary of this ground-breaking work, it would be good to revive that spirit, so that those closest to this incredible project can work proudly together to maintain it, protect it and most importantly, share its incredible story with the world.

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