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No December 21 sunlight shining on Achill-henge

Achill Henge
Some of the curious onlookers at Achill-henge at dawn on December 21 last.Pic: Ray Ryan

No December 21 sunlight shining on Achill-henge

The traditional shortest day of the year drew people to the controversial Achill-henge development last Wednesday

Edwin McGreal

So intrigued were they by the Stonehenge-esque structure on Achill Island that a group of friends from Dublin came down to the island on the traditional shortest day of the year, last Wednesday, to see if the controversial project was synced with the rising sun on the solstice as claimed.
They were there at 7.30am on the hilltop in Pollagh, Achill where one-time property developer Joe McNamara last month built what has been dubbed Achill-henge, the controversial concrete structure which has been the subject of High Court proceedings by Mayo County Council for it’s lack of any planning permission.
McNamara refused to be drawn on the purpose of the development when approached by The Mayo News during it’s construction, although he did later say in the High Court that it was a ‘place of reflection’.
But sources close to the Achill native did say that he had designed and planned the towering structure so that it would align with the solstices - on June 21 and December 21. The sun would rise on those mornings over the mountains in Achill and shine through one of the gaps in the outer ring and light up a centre-piece.
However that centre-piece has yet to be built as construction on the site ceased on Sunday, November 27 and the following day McNamara gave an undertaking in the High Court not to recommence any work.
The fact that the centre-piece was not in place, combined with the cloud cover at sunrise on Achill Island, meant a solstice surprise at Achill-henge was extremely unlikely. It is even more so the case when it became apparent afterwards that the solstice took place on December 22 this year - see box below (right).
Yet still there was a feeling that nothing was impossible. Not with Joe McNamara involved. The man, once dubbed ‘The Anglo Avenger’ for a series of high-profile protests against Anglo Irish Bank, whom he reportedly owes €3.5m, has made a name for the grand gesture.
From driving a concrete-mixing truck emblazoned with the words ‘Toxic Bank’ and ‘Anglo’ at the gates of Leinster House to parking a cherry-picker hoist to the same location on Budget Day, 2010, covered in protest slogans, he has always managed to make his point.
This latest project has arose the greatest curiosity with questions about it’s purpose, cost, inspiration and future. It was not impossible to imagine some sort of message there at dawn last Wednesday, December 21, traditionally the shortest day of the year.
It’s why the group of friends from Dublin were there. So were another handful of onlookers and a collection of reporters and photographers. The Press Association were there filming a news package which will be sent to TV stations around the world.
But all had to be disappointed. There was no message, mysterious or otherwise, to appear at the crack of dawn. It was, of course, a very late dawn compared to mid-summer but making it to the hilltop in Pollagh at 8.30am is still not easy. The group from Dublin were still impressed by what they saw. A few of them are artists and saw artistic merit in it and were still glad they made the journey. Another of their crew, Nick Russell, a designer, said they were so intrigued by the story that they felt they had to visit.
“It’s cool. It’s very impressive. It’s big,” he told The Mayo News.
Whether it should be left standing or not - Mayo County Council have applied to have McNamara take it down while he has applied for it to be an development exempt from planning - was one Mr Russell was unsure about.
“I don’t know if I could make that call. We were talking about it last night. It has artistic merit but that’s one separate argument to the legal end of things. You can see the potential for a precedent being set for hiking random stuff up like this without having permission. I don’t think it is that offensive. I think it could be quite a nice space but then what could someone do next door to it (laughs). Where would it stop?
“That aside it is a cool space and has artistic merit. The controversy of it gives it a sort of extra power. I mean we probably wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t controversy around it. If it was all above board … it is the controversy that’s giving it the extra attraction. But I would be inspired by it. Inspired to do what I don’t know yet,” he laughed.
Reaction on the island itself is still hard to gage. Many of the locals are unwilling to comment. Some will say off the record that they would prefer if something was done about McNamara’s vacant construction site in the centre of Keel while others consider it to be causing no harm.
One man we spoke to on the way down was unequivocal. ‘The Henge’ as he called it was ‘great’. Will it be taken down we asked him?
“Who can afford to take it down? Who will let them up [the hill] to take it down,” he said, firmly.
The matter is due before the High Court again in January. It remains to be seen if there will be an Achill-henge in place on June 20 or June 21 to see a bright sun shine through the controversial structure.