All at Once Collapsing Together

All at Once Collapsing Together is a new body of work by Caoimhín Gaffney. Spanning across film, photography and writing, All at Once Collapsing Together uses fiction to imagine new ways of relating to the natural world. Images throughout the exhibition act as mirrors to the healing and relief the environment can offer, with narratives fraught with climate anxiety interrupting and reframing these as temporary and fragile.

All at Once Collapsing Together is a Butler Gallery National Tour travelling to Highlanes Gallery and Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre.

Images and text unfurl across the two-screen film, with fragmented depictions of the human figure trying to become part of the ecosystem again. Characters share sublime encounters with previously common birds like the corncrake and golden eagle, and speak as the voice of the earth itself to conjure a more-than-human perspective. The potential for the characters to become more-than-human themselves is explored further when the native carnivorous round-leaved sundew consumes one of the women into a bog. After she dissolves, she emerges as a new multiplicitous entity that spreads across the land.

Text pieces in the form of poetry and short stories reflect on the relief from trauma that immersion in the natural environment can bring but, because it is in distress itself, questions are raised for the protagonists about their sense of self and their place in the world around them.

The film and texts are without traditional narratives or character arcs, aiming to create an unsettled terrain that reflects the uncomfortable emotions and sensations they discuss. The work asks us to consider how important natural sensory information is to our sense of self: what does it mean for a sound to go missing from our ecosystem? When we no longer hear our native birds, which parts of ourselves will be forgotten?

Uphold presents three new editioned photographic prints from this body of work. These medium format photographs reflect on the restorative power of nature alongside the reality of climate change – and resulting climate anxiety – through a fragmented representation of the landscape. The photographs engage a quiet register to examine the subject and were shot throughout Ulster: on Rathlin Island and at Lough Sheelin and its adjoining bog in Cavan.

I can still taste the lake water in my mouth, feel it in my ears

Medium format photograph, 2023. Giclée printed on Hahnemühle Photo Rag paper, 35 cm x 28.7 cm, edition of 5.

Emerging too damp to catch fire.

Medium format photograph, 2023.

Emerging too damp to catch fire.

Medium format photograph, 2023. Giclée printed on Hahnemühle Photo Rag paper, 35 cm x 25.6cm, edition of 5.

Uphold is an iniative based in Northern Ireland, run by Household, that sells work by contemporary artists in a not-for-profit model: when you buy from Uphold you are directly supporting the artists and their work.

The bog released all that it was holding.

Medium format photograph, 2023. Giclée printed on Hahnemühle Photo Rag paper, 29cm x 35cm, edition of 5.

Short story: It all began with the turlough.

First published and broadcast on RTÉ as part of the Short Story Competition. Read by Aaron Monaghan.

The turlough appeared now in early summer instead of its autumn arrival as the 30 years previous. Blow-ins would be forgiven for thinking it was a lake that belonged here, but locals know it had taken over the depressed field that lay off the main road beside the graveyard. A house, which no one had ever seen anyone living in, sat on the other side, with yellow gorse peering over it from the hill known as Carrick, or the Rock. The turlough’s water bounced light around the hills, with the neighbours opposite complaining that it was reflecting sunlight into their sitting room and moonlight right into their bedroom and, either way, they could see too much or they couldn’t see anything at all.

If you walked past the turlough and followed the gorse’s coconut suncream scent drifting in the air, further down the road, and take the small potholed lane lined with CCTV cameras to discourage dumping, you would arrive at Kilgolagh bog. Sitting on the edge of Lough Sheelin, the bog has many small family plots, and areas of accidental nature restoration due to disinterest in said plots. As usual frogs and spiders jump out of your way, red tipped matchstick lichen and minty white bearded lichen hug close to the ground. Yet, alongside the turlough claiming its place out of the season, the bog was also growing and changing out of turn, its delicate system undergoing a metamorphosis. The dry cut ground is now busy with old crusty bog holes spilling over, swallowing the brittle heather and the white cottongrass. Each time the sun threatens to set a dry grass on fire to alight the cracked layer of turf on the surface, another bog hole belches forward, smothering the sparks in a thick slurry of rotting vegetation.

When the turlough failed to disappear by the next April, people became agitated, as with a guest who decides to extend their stay when you were ready to see the back of them. Its water, reaching the bottom of the trees, swelling up and out, slowly encroaching on the boundary hedges that separate it from the church graveyard. The turlough watched and pushed against the aggressively mowed and strimmed grass, the plastic flowers, and the crumbling green foam that holds them, on gravel-covered graves and the memory of Famine graves. Families burying relatives, families visiting neglected graves and the priest all viewed the irrationally lapping water with growing unease and suspicion. And so, the turlough became an observer of- and intruder on- grief. The church grounds became damp, with black plastic funeral shoes squelching embarrassingly as people gathered around open graves. One day, sharp screams arose when, on lowering the coffin on strings into the ground — always an uncomfortable and rough procedure — muddy water quickly surrounded it, swallowing the coffin in a burp.

It seemed the turlough was making moves below their very feet, so the council sent a sewage company to drain the now not-disappearing lake. They were worried that the edge of the graveyard would soon start sliding out from under the hedges, with coffins floating on the surface of the turlough or rolling down the hill and, either way, becoming a viral meme. The sewage truck came and went multiple times a day, multiple times a week, with no visible depletion of the turlough. Cavan has three hundred and sixty-five lakes and eventually the council decided this one was taking up too many resources. Anyway, since it was on paper a disappearing lake maybe it was not even counted in that official 365 and the expense could not be justified. The sewage truck deposited its last container of turlough water into a lake on the border of Fermanagh. Soon, the locals there noticed the water rising too, but presumed the truck was continuing its daily deliveries.

Meanwhile, following that 10-minute walk down the bog road, which people don’t take as often anymore, the bog holes continued to splurge over like porridge heated for too long in the microwave, re-filling the deep machine-cut ridges used to drain the bog decades ago. The stacks of uncollected cut turf, dried out over multiple summers, began to bulge like wet cardboard. If you were quiet, you would hear a constant reshuffling of animals, insects and amphibians being flushed out by the newly arriving under-bog, with hen harriers and white-tailed eagles feasting on their panic. By the time people realised the bog was rising — due to a sort of swampy smell that sifted across the drumlins — the turlough had spread itself out across the main road and up the hill to kiss its first gravestone. Next to be kissed were the graves of my family, who did well enough to have a headstone, but were not well-to-do enough to have a prime plot for our death. So, at the edge of the graveyard, the water lapped at their graves, their names filling up with algae and scum.

The turlough’s creep up over the main road led to long detours, and a growing stench from the bog inflicted a simmering rage amongst the locals. One man who had left his turf to dry on the bog for three years was apoplectic that the bog had stolen it back from him! Everyone knew he had been too lazy to collect it but, at the same time, they agreed with him on the principle of the thing. Together, their rage made a sort of electrical hum that resonated with the huge dragonflies and the bright blue damselflies breeding on their expanding, rising, bog. This hum started to vibrate through the water in both the turlough and the bog, and their edges met as a slopping dog’s tongue. A local person described seeing the bog roll itself up the sloping road before it climbed the ditch to fall into the turlough, but another person described seeing waves on the turlough forming without wind and heading towards the bog.

One morning, an old man emerged from the house beside the turlough (well, now on the turlough), and pushed an empty turtle-shaped sandpit from his front door. Climbing in with his fishing rod, he began to row with a frying pan, ignoring the upwind calls for his attention from the people gathered at the church. The church had never been so busy, except during the funeral of a local landlord when people arrived in the hope that the inheriting family would not evict them. The priest’s campaign for stopping the right-of-way across the parish fields had been belatedly successful, in a sort of way, as people now rowed to the church across drowned fields. The cause for this sudden religious zealousness was that last night, Lough Kinale — known for its dangerous marshy reed beds — had slid across several hectares of fields to meet the turlough and the bog. They bumped against each other slowly, making a sound that was somehow dirty. Emboldened, the small lakes of Lough Derragh and Bracklagh Lough both moved to join them, their sharp cold water licking the soft, muddy flesh of the wetland. With the loughs now connected with farthest edge of the bog, they would all rejoin their ancient mother Lough Sheelin, after more than 250 million years apart.

Discovering this, people’s anger and distress sent the hum up several octaves. The insects, who had expanded their breeding ground across the integrated turlough, bog and lake waters, added to the vibration in their new expanded numbers. Soon the hum was causing little ripples to form across the bog and lake waters; even the holy water basin was vibrating. Nobody had counted, but there were now significantly less than 365 lakes as they had continued to yoke together and elope as people panicked and took up swimming. With the area no longer recognisable, both people and government could not see it returning to normal. Superstition returned to levels most suited to children, with swans being regarded with deep suspicion due to increasingly ominous retellings of The Children of Lir.

Cut off from the rest of the country, people were unaware that elsewhere rivers were moving faster to meet their sea, caves were filling, springs were releasing, and canals were breaching their confines. Blue and green water, brown bogs and white rivers, bulged and spread until they were all conjoined. Everywhere, water was meeting other water, with the country being so submerged it might as well have sunk under the waves and spray. Locally, they knew everything they had and could see was waterlogged, from their socks to their carpets, and that the sun would have to shine even brighter before it all would be dry again. Following the full moon, the bog released all that it was holding for 7000 years, with offerings and remains floating to the surface and circulating in the currents formed by the new bodies of water. The remains of more settlements at Lough Kinale emerged to the surface after 6000 years, and the graveyard eventually let its dead go from their marked graves to join the unnamed Famine masses in a tangle of bones. The dead amplified the bog’s rotting smell, the bones’ rattling adding a percussion to the loud, incessant hum.

With the crops soaked, the roads long since visible and the former fish population depleted through poor fishing practices and chemical runoffs, people found themselves hungry while being surrounded by the ghosts of the last Great Hunger. A woman with good intentions tried to make a human bone broth, since there were so many bones going around and all, but it was unfortunately tasteless and dusty. Having no vinegar to draw the minerals out of the bones, she had used Holy Water, hoping to compel nutrients from whence they came. It was a way to honour the dead, she said, isn’t that why they have come. The priest, on hearing this, went redder than when he had heard the lakes making themselves a place in each other. He preached about the nutritional value of frogs, insects and the many birds gathered in the treetops. But no-one could hear him above the hum of the insects, the slapping of the waves against bones and the angry blood in their own ears. The church’s large doors and high ceilings lent itself to becoming a makeshift boatyard, and then a permanent boatyard, with the extravagant bog oak alter pieces planed down for practical use.

As our remembered and forgotten ancestors roamed the area once again through the currents of the waters, the Carrick Rock hill behind the boatyard, being made of limestone 330 million years ago, tried to absorb the excess water. While it groaned under the pressure, a light was attached to the cross that stood on top of the hill, functioning now as a lighthouse for the many people traversing the waters in their small boats and bathtubs. The once insignificant turlough, now part of the great lakes, continued to rise, aiming to absorb the rock into itself in return.

This project was funded and supported by the Arts Council of Ireland, Cavan Arts Office, Arts Council of Northern Ireland (through the National Lottery), Platform 31 and University of Atypical.

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