MAYBE it’s the march of technology that ensures the automated church bells don’t project a sound as loud as the hands on bell-ringers did long ago, or maybe it’s a case of the sounds being toned down to reflect the church’s less bombastic and dwindling influence over our lives.
Whatever the reason, the church bells in Bansha, Tipperary Town and Galbally don’t ring the way they used to — if you’re in the heart of and up high in the Glen of Aherlow that is and have your ears cocked, as artist Fiona O’Dwyer explains.
“My father came from the area,” she reveals, “and when he and his siblings were out collecting wild berries they’d judge the time by church bells in Bansha, Tipp Town and Galbally. On hearing them they’d know the time and then they’d come down the mountain and have tea at the bottom”.
Over the last number of years, the Ennistymon-based artist has retraced those same steps taken by her late father and his uncles, the fruits of which are being brought to Helsinki this week in a solo exhibition of new work entitled ‘I Went Up The Mountain With Someone Else’s Story and Came Down With My Own’.
“The story I went up with,” explains O’Dwyer, “is that my father would have collected berries as a child all around the area — foraging was a big part of the his life, the long trek up and down abut six or seven miles, collecting what they called herts (wild blueberries) and then selling them when they came back to town.
“He would have told me the stories and written them down for me, so it was always really important to me. That was the story I was looking at, researching and thinking about for a long time, but what’s happened is that you start with something that you think you know and then what becomes interesting is the bit that you don’t know.
“I went back and walked around the area a lot — I did a lot of sound recording, did some drawing and took a lot of photographs. It would have been over the space of a least four or five years and the work that comes out in the exhibition is out of revisiting that place.
“When you get into making work, you never know what’s really going to happen. It is still very much his story, but it isn’t narrative work — it’s contemplative, just thinking of the history of a family, about migration as he went to live in London very early and how those early memories of home were very important to him,” she adds.
In the exhibition, O’Dywer’s work homes in on what she calls “the reality of human movement” taking as a starting point, her connection to her family’s migration and displacement in 1950s Ireland.
These ideas are articulated through the works’ performative nature, its relation to place and time, and its materiality. The exhibition is comprised of sculpture, video installation, drawing and photo works. The subject matter and imagery are very much rooted in a visual and sound language of an Irish landscape and the work possesses a musicality and an experiential poetic nature.
“The materials and processes I use are always of precise importance. It has become ever clearer that the materials and processes I return to come from my father,” she says.
“In these works I use berries, bronze, fur, tea, and performance, singing, drawing, collecting. The hurts and rabbit fur are for me materials of nourishment and necessity, the ritual of tea, speaks of settling and reflection.
“These are slow works in their drawing out and what is extracted, through process, from the layers of memory is something new but still with trace. This tracing seems to stretch further than me in all directions, further than my time or experience, further than my knowing or narrative relayed.
“So in turn this new exhibition is to be contemplated rather than defined. It is an ever changing thing depending on where you are standing.
“This idea is contained in the making with the action of looking and listening from three shifting points on a landscape becoming a defining one. What comes through as a result are echoes of a distant space in time, transposed from real points on a landscape in which a narrative or sound once existed and was played out,” she adds.
The exhibition comprises seven large landscape photographs of the Glen of Aherlow area, small drawings, a series of videos and sound recordings that relate to the photographs, while the three bronze bells are a nod to the distant sounds from Bansha, Tipperary Town and Galbally.
“I went up with someone else’s story and came down with my own story,” says O’Dwyer of the body of work that’s being brought to Helsinki thanks to the support of Culture Ireland, Clare Arts Office and the Arts Council.
The Helsinki connection with O’Dwyer’s work as an artist was fostered last year when members of the ‘Outrider Artists’ in north Clare were invited by Clare County Council to take part in a European project centred around art residencies.
As part of this initiative ‘Outrider Artists’ invited Finnish artist Johanna Lonka to take part in a shared art residency in Ennistymon last year.
“We all stayed together in a house working for the week,” recalls O’Dwyer, “and I spent the week drawing work that was tied into my trips to the Glen of Aherlow and retracing my father’s steps.
“Through that residency I heard about an open submission for exhibitions in Gallery Hutu in Helsinki, applied and was accepted for a show there.
“The gallery itself is interesting — it’s an independent artists collective made up of 100 members and have four gallery spaces and organise 70 or 80 exhibitions a year,” she adds.
And as part of the exhibition, O’Dwyer and her fellow ‘Outrider Artist’ Maria Kerin will host what’s called a ‘4 O’Clock Teas’ event this coming Saturday.
“It comes from the farm,” says O’Dwyer, “the 4 O’Clock working tea on the farm — you wouldn’t stop work, but you took a break, came together and talked about what needed to be talked a about. In this case it will be tea drinking and talking about cultural connections and conversations with Irish, Estonian and Finnish curators and artists that will be attended by the Irish Ambassador to Finland, Colm Ó Floinn”.
Of course, the 4 O’Clock tea will also be a nod to the bells that could once be heard from on high in the Glen of Aherlow.

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