Path to Cuilcagh Mountain
No Way Back
I am writing during a political catfight over how the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. A common hope recently has been that Brexit would be cancelled somehow but now – late 2018 – that hope is fading. The daily dramas in Westminster are fascinating yet curiously forgettable. Gripping, yet somehow boring and rather sad. I think this is because language itself has lost its stability in the debate. Currently backstops have backstops, Brexit means Brexit – even though no one can realistically say what Brexit is, and technological solutions for Ireland’s border are constantly suggested but never specified. Words have lost their meaning so wordsmiths – politicians and journalists for example – can no longer convince. Despite the bluster and strident words, they mostly come across as helpless.
It is at time like these that artists are most vital to society. A single image, if it is strong, can cut through the babble and the confusion and bring understanding. Tristan Poyser turned his lens on perhaps the thorniest issue of the Brexit thorn tree: Ireland’s border and what it becomes when it is the UK’s only land frontier with the EU. Poyser showed admirable commitment in the time and attention he gave Ireland’s border, travelling it closely in his van. He has returned with moody and evocative landscapes, all in the border’s muted tones. I know this place and recognise it, empty roads; abandoned houses; spruce; gorse and a loaded atmosphere. Ireland’s border landscape is rarely dramatic in an obvious way: it is mostly bogland and farms. A rural environment, tame, slow, small-scale and damp. There are few natural impediments. You can easily wade the few rivers. Cuilcagh Mountain is by far the highest point of the border but only the 165th tallest peak on the island – some wouldn’t call it mountain at all. Poyser didn’t find any unnatural impediments either: he photographed a border made soft and open by Ireland’s peace process and the EU’s single market. No customs posts and certainly none of the army watchtowers that stood over the border in the 1970s and 80s. At the time of Poyser’s journey the borderline has almost no presence on the ground at all.
Poyser went further than just photographing the route of this invisible frontier. He has taken hold of the physical photographs and ripped them along the borderline. Each tear is, I think, a stroke of brilliance. It is more of an act than a mark, although it has left a visual record of itself, and it is more eloquent than one hundred newspaper articles about the border. The tears capture something of the uneasiness of the border, and suggest a deeply felt misfortune. It is usually divorces or family estrangements that make us tear photographs, something has to have gone badly wrong for us to make the tear. We must have abandoned hope; we must have accepted that something is not getting put back together. Nobody meant it to turn out this way, but yet there it is and there is no way back. Although Ireland’s border is currently much discussed by politicians and journalists its land and people are little known or understood. This landscape is at a far remove from the garbled debates that are shaping its future. Ultimately, I think, Poyser’s work speaks of the hidden damage that can be done when places are forgotten.
Garrett Carr is the author of The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland’s Border (Faber & Faber)