Nothing is Lost, Everything is Transformed
Building upon research into pilgrimages, iconography and ecclesiastical architecture, Darran Anderson has written a response to Fiona Hallinan’s film piece Making Dust. Taking as its starting point a ruined church in Donegal's so-called ‘Poisoned Glen’, Anderson considers the legacy of ecclesiastical architecture, its relationship with International Modernism, and the potential for these sites to continue to have meaning beyond their original purpose.
Nothing is Lost, Everything is Transformed – On Fiona Hallinan’s ‘Making Dust’
It was the name that took us there. The Poisoned Glen. Escaping the Troubles, seeking freedom, or at least a brief reprieve from the claustrophobia, but still drawn to cataclysm. Young and wayward enough to pay little heed to the beauty of the place, its history. It was simply a place where we could camp, light fires, fish, hike, hallucinate and drink under the stars, before the orbit of life forced us to return.
Places seep into you though, whether you want them to or not, and they return when you are far away, in space and time. Almost thirty years later, the image of the lake in the middle of the Poisoned Glen is imprinted vividly in my mind, and, above all, the ruined chapel on its shore. The old derelict church of Dún Lúiche or Dunlewey. Just as there are landmarks in the landscape, there are timemarks in life, the resonances of which may not be immediately discernible. The silhouette of that church against dozens of variations of sky, in a county where the seasons often change multiple times a day, returns to me periodically across decades, even continents. Why that memory and not another? Why that place?
It could have been the name, how the Poisoned Glen clashed with its appearances, filled as it was with life, however hidden nature is. Stories swirled around the location – the famine, banditry, rebels hiding from the empire, and much older ones of Balor of the Evil Eye whose gaze could sow discord and ruin. As always words hold secrets and etymology suggested mistranslations, bastardisations, in this case the Gaelic word for heaven being close to that of poison. It was not just the name though that caused the image to appear and reappear in my mind as if developing in a dark room. Rather, it was a feeling that the church ruin did not just belong to the past, some lost era like the abandoned medieval churches of the desolate Armenian city of Ani, with its vanished congregation, but instead that it somehow felt like a time to come, postapocalyptic perhaps, a world after faith, a different Ireland entirely.
Though I longed for it, locking horns as my father had with the church, in schools run by priests and nuns of varying degrees of benevolence and malevolence, I did not necessarily believe a new Ireland would come in my lifetime. And though it looks different, I’m still not certain it has fully arrived. The church’s power has certainly waned. There has been a gradual quiet revolution. Really, it was not quiet at all. It was powered by those who bravely spoke of what had happened, been allowed to happen, been covered up and facilitated, in laundries and dormitories, schoolrooms and vestries, mother and children homes, orphanages. It was powered too by the forced silences, so many in number and so terrible in depth that they became seismic. Secularisation followed, amplified by mass global media and the victory of consumerism, but we all know why the fall in numbers of churchgoers occurred. Cruelty and dysfunction no longer had a grip on every aspect of life, at least no longer from that quarter. The feeling should have been one of relief, even satisfaction, but the feeling was one of melancholy rather than triumph not least because it was no consolation to the victims. There was a loss too, though what it was I did not quite know. And new ills, no doubt, gained. What of the congregations? Had their actual faith, in God, in ritual, in community, changed? Where would they go?
Perhaps this was a question of contingency. Other Catholicisms were possible, and you need not go back to the synods and schisms of two thousand years ago to find them. One was in the curious, unlikely and remarkably fruitful alliance between the Catholic Church and architectural modernism in the 20th century. This may simply have been a marriage of convenience (buildings that humans pass through rather than live – airports, stadia, cinemas – always have more space to dream) but at its best the effects were astonishing, from the interstellar Église Notre-Dame du Raincy by the Brothers Perret to the ominous mountainous Maria, Königin des Friedens by Gottfried Böhm, Niemeyer’s hyperbolid Metropolitan Cathedral of Our Lady of Aparecida to Tadao Ando’s the Church of the Light. Buildings that laid claim to their times, or stood outside them, as much as any gothic cathedral.
This adventurous approach gave rise to architectural wonders in Ireland too, of a more modest scale but still immensely impressive. Barry Byrne’s Art Deco Church of Christ the King inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and reminiscent of the basalt organs of Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavik, and Grundtvig’s Church, Copenhagen. The Romanesque-tinged Our Lady Mother of Divine Grace, Raheny, by Peppard and Duffy, which was inspired by the beguiling triangles and eerie disembodied heads of Clonfert Cathedral. Others merged modernism with the vernacular and topography of place, in what has been called the critical regionalist wing of modernism, such as Liam McCormick’s superlative Donegal churches, inspired by their local environs as much as Le Corbusier and Fritz Metzger. Such churches became a touchstone in the internal debates and arguments in the church of modernism versus traditionalism, which still persist, as if the church’s ills were down to the Second Vatican Council and not their abject failure to honour and enforce Matthew 18:6. That mistranslation came back to mind. Not heaven mistranslated as poison but the administering of poison presented as the promise of heaven.
In Fiona Hallinan’s remarkable multifaceted work, we piece together fragments of ruin, of the now intangible, from what was a colossal building, now demolished. What survives of it is scattered fragments, disjecta membra. There is an intoxication in these parts, sanctified by destruction, just as ruins are cursed and blessed by dereliction. What is that in us? The tantalising attraction to illegible writing, to rooms that can no longer be visited, to books that are lost, music unheard. The allure of the no longer possible. What is it that gives it the edge over the actual, the tangible, that which we can possess, that which we can nurture? Is it a kind of sweet torture to wish for that which cannot be had. Or is it simply how life already is, a reflection of how time cascades, how our lives are lived partly in memory, almost within reach of unrecoverable scenes, like trying to put your hand through the swirling dust and light of the projector’s beam of memory?
What really survives, what really rises from Hallinan’s work, are those who attended the demolished church. The things they, and the things we, seek – pilgrimage, iconography, ritual, prayer, redemption, community. And the things they embody, the spirit that survives all societal change, all belief and disbelief. And the places they seek these things or seek to give voice to these things together need not be constrained by the diktats or neurosis of the anointed. It is already there in them and where they congregate. It is a lifetime since I set eyes on the Poisoned Glen church. Yet the exceptional layers and angles of Hallinan’s work has brought it back to me. I remembered a forgotten memory, of standing in its roofless centre and looking up and experiencing something that language cannot convey – words like ineffable and numinous falling infinitely short – a feeling no catechism or ideology could contain and yet utterly sacred, as close to the sacred as I have ever felt, staring upwards, stunned at the sight of a fathomless sky.
Darran Anderson is the author of Imaginary Cities, a psychogeographic tour of cities real and imagined worldwide, and Inventory, a memoir of growing up in Derry. He is a 2023 winner of the Windham-Campbell prize for non-fiction.
Fiona Hallinan’s video work Making Dust forms part of her exhibition We Turn Towards an Ending and Pay Attention, running at VISUAL Carlow from 4 February – 14 May 2023.