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Sculpting heritage

County View

County View
John Healy

It is 25 years ago this year since we celebrated Mayo 5000, that festival of heritage and music and artistic achievement which coincided with the launch of the Ceide Fields Centre. And it was a festival which did full justice to our county’s origins, underlined by a palpable pride in our sense of place.
It was from Mayo 5000 that the phenomenal Riverdance was conceived; the Mayo night at the National Concert Hall had an original music composition from Bill Whelan and breathtaking dancing from a then hardly-known Jean Butler and Michael Flatley.
And Mayo 5000 also brought us Tír Sáile, the largest public arts trail ever undertaken in Ireland, an odyssey of sculptural milestones stretching from Ballina across the north Mayo coast to Blacksod.
Based on the old meitheal idea of communities coming together in common endeavour, the fourteen sculptures captured the essence of the mythology as well as the grandeur of our sweeping, rugged and largely undiscovered landscape.
Those among us who may have been growing concerned that Tír Sáile’s time has moved on and that the light has gone out on the imaginative project need worry no longer, it seems, as more recent events are showing. Eleven of the original fourteen pieces of sculpture still remain as part of the North Mayo Sculpture Trail, but, perhaps more significantly, the project has been enhanced and added to under what can be seen as the next phase in its evolution.
Travis Price, an architectural professor from Washington DC, has been building mythological portals in remote areas around the world over the past 20 years. From Nepal to the Amazon basin to Machu Picchu, his ‘Spirit of Place’ installations are the physical representation of the heritage, mythology and ethereal nature of his chosen sacred sites. And it was on a family holiday in Ireland that Price first discovered the truly stunning beauty of the western landscape and especially the prehistoric footprint of north Mayo.
The result is eight ‘Spirit of Place’ projects installed by Price and his students from the Catholic University of America over the past decade, with the full co-operation of local communities, landowners, development groups, statutory agencies and Mayo County Council. But they are more than just physical constructs. The students spend a long time exploring the stories, history and myths of each chosen site.
They write their own reflective poetry on what each place means to them before words become sculpture and then architecture.
To date, then, eight ‘Spirit of Place’ installations have been completed, almost all in north Mayo. But surely the most striking has to be ‘The Crossing’ on Downpatrick Head, a huge mound of earth shaped as a ring fort, within which a metal paling fence surrounds the dark, ominous, tragic blow hole in whose depths the thundering ocean rushes in to dash angrily against its sheer sides. And then, just beyond, one climbs the hill towards the cliff face off which stands Dun Briste in splendid isolation, cut off from human life as it has been for 600 years, one of the wonders of our north coast.
‘The Crossing’ is now a waypoint of the Wild Atlantic Way initiative, a magnet for visitors. But no Mayo person should let this year pass without communing with our heritage at Downpatrick, and feeling moved by the patrimony of this sacred place.