Hung by the Hawthorn
Miriam de Búrca exposes societal divisions using folklore, draftsmanship and installation in Enniskillen
Covering an entire wall of the Higher Bridges Gallery is a large and shocking image, the one that gives its name to Miriam de Búrca’s current exhibition. In the knarled branches of a giant hawthorn tree, a stag hangs limp, 'Hung by the Hawthorn'.
The artist – whose drawings and experimental video installations have been shown in capital cities around the world – lived for an extended period on the Crom estate in south Fermanagh. Seat of the Earl of Erne, who retains the Castle but has given over his lands to the National Trust, Crom is situated in a fairly remote area of the Fermanagh Lakeland not far from the border with Southern Ireland.
Born in Munich of a German mother and Irish father, de Búrca came to Ireland when she was three years old and is currently based in Galway. A graduate of the Glasgow College of Art, she completed a Masters degree and PhD at the University of Ulster.
Preoccupied by the enduring divisions in Irish society, de Búrca spent time on a Catholic-Protestant interface in north Belfast. At Crom, she encountered another divide – that of class – and soon discovered that the idyllic landscape concealed unsettling and sinister tales related to the recent past and the country’s fractious history.
Her conversations with members of the local farming community unearthed stories of drowning and hanging, of wicked fairies and furtive hideouts, which would seem outlandish had de Búrca not reproduced them verbatim in the exhibition, signed with the teller’s initials.
The power of her work lies in her ability to absorb the atmosphere, feel the vibe and then create drawings of exquisite artistry to comment on the experience.
On the matter of the stag found hanging in the hawthorne – a tree which many country people believe should never be disturbed because of its association with the fairies – her interlocutor confirms: 'There was no sign of rope or blood or nothing. The stag shouldn’t have been there. It was trespassing. It had come across the water from the Big House.'
'Drowned by Faeries' depicts a reported encounter with ‘the little people’. A fully-clothed man floats face down in seven inches of water. S had been walking home late one evening with his friend F, who was dallying behind when five faeries, emerged from the scrub, grabbed S and drowned him.
In a country lane, a farmer comes across a car which has broken down. He tows the stranded driver back to the estate. She expresses her gratitude but then, out of the blue, asks him, 'Do you know the binman?' 'I suppose,' reflects the farmer. 'We all come from the same class in her eyes – us farmers and binmen; peasants they would have called us back in the day.'
There’s a subtle suggestion of the Fox hunt, the traditional pastime of the privileged in DE Búrca’s stylised drawing of a horse and a fox facing each other down under an oak tree. And then there is de Búrca's miniature drawing of a velvet-coloured chair, possibly from the Queen Anne period. She gives it the title 'The Queen of NI'.
'The Lake' portrays five trees standing tall on the water’s edge, reflected in a heart-shaped lake. The storyteller relates how five young men drowned, the first on the darkest day of an ‘awful long winter’, the next within a month and by the time nine months had passed three others. 'I noticed every time a body was found the water was peaceful as a mirror. Somehow the lake called them in one at a time in a way that they couldn’t help the draw of it.'
Billowing black Clouds fill the sky behind a row of trees. A farmer tells how in the morning he considered the clouds standing over him like a giant and knew they were a bad omen. That day a favourite sheep broke free from the field and was grazing peaceably on the side of the road when it was hit by a passing car. The careless, not to say callous driver, didn’t even stop but sped away leaving the hapless animal with a broken leg.
The dramatic image of a bearded creature with long twisting horns and a face like a goat conjures up the story of another real life event when 'The Devil came to Her Door'.
There came a scratching on the cottage door and the woman, who was at home alone, opened it, whereupon the strange animal leapt across the threshold and began howling and circling around the room. It seemed to her that the horns grew longer and more twisted the more frightened she became. Eventually the animal left the house and galloped away.
To further illustrate the predicament of the animal world, de Búrca displays the skeleton of a stag’s head, its muddy forehead and antlers lassoed in blue twine. Yet her colour drawing entitled 'Homage to Blue Twine' is as cool as a jazz blue note. A farmer vaunts the virtues of blue twine saying, 'It locks gates, it mends all things that are broken; if truth be told it ties my whole life together.'
The Troubles are referenced in 'The Hollow Hideout', the story of a man on the run with a gunshot graze on his shoulder. He negotiates a path through rushy fields, mearns and the mud, which was 'a holy terra'. Finally he knocks on the door of a farmer he has known since childhood, who hides him in a hollow near the lough shore.
There he remains for 11 days, safely protected by the same brambles, nettles and hawthorn hedges which had hindered his escape. 'In the front was the lough. I never saw it so still as in those days and nights, like the water was keeping stumm, just for my sake.'
This is an eerie, exceptional exhibition which will resonate with viewers from all over the country – after all, divisions exist in towns, cities, villages and even buildings across Northern Ireland.
Hung by the Hawthorne continues at the Higher Bridges Gallery, Enniskillen until July 11.