Deasghnáth Crua / Hard Ritual.
Gaulstown Dolmen & Cnoc an Chailleach Bán, Kilmeaden, Co Waterford.
Artistic collaboration between Co. Waterford, IRL artist Maria Tanner Cohen and Iowa, US Artist Cynthia Ahern.
Temporary Art Intervention/Ancient Site Activation, May 22nd-23rd 2022
Portal Tombs also referred to as Dolmens were built between 3000 BC and 2000 BC. Archaeological consensus holds that human burial was one function of the portal tombs, but they were not merely graves the also had important ritual significance. The extent of their ritual purpose is not known to us however artifacts found, including human bone, pottery fragments, and flint tools trace these sites as places of construction, labor, assembly, ritual and deposition.
The enigmatic stone structures we see now are merely the skeletal remains of what would have originally been covered in earthen mounds, with the area below the capstone forming an entrance leading into the tomb enclosure.
In the county of Waterford alone, there a 14 standing dolmens, one of the most beautiful of which is the Gaulstown Dolmen. It stands in petrified magnificence asserting silently its ancient stories. Of its ancient stories, I held but one thread to an Dinnsheanchas an áit / the lore of the place which I learned from a local woman who knew the area well. She had told me that the hill rising up behind the dolmen was known as Conic an Chailleach Bán the Hill of the White Witch more lore that that she didn't seem to have.
The threads of knowledge carried on the living breath through time called for greater exploration and understanding, yet no online archival searches or library books on local Neolithic sites revealed more.
Who was legendary Chailleach Bán? Was she a medicine women and priestesses who lived on the hill? Did people pilgrim across the Island to receive healing through her knowledge of plant spirits? Was she honorarily buried within the Portal Tomb for her gifts and service to the Déise I gCúige Mumhan.
Vivid Images and ideas began to weave and art called for the making.
While attending The Wild Art Retreat in The Burren over the May Eclipse weekend, I met fabric artist Cynthia O Ahern from Iowa, USA. Our connection was a kindred kind and I invited her to join me in making a piece of work that engaged with both the Dolmen and the single thread of lore that we held about the Hill.
Drawing on Cynthia's knowledge of large scale felt making and my work with Neolithic monuments of ancient Ireland, we came together in collaboration with the aligned intention to draw up the spirit of this ancient place.
With raw wool supplied by a farmer in West Kerry,we had material enough to begin our quest in earnest. Surrendering to process and the intuitive nudges, the concept of the work was born.
To create a form as ambiguous as the lore it was built upon. A long tapering piece of white felt would be made and installed to rise up and out of the entrance to the dolmen, as though flowing in the direction of the hill behind. The felted white wool would form an oblique suggestion of a spirit form emerging out from the Portal Tomb but also perhaps suggestive of the long white hair of the Chailleach Bán drawn in the wind.
Using an old lino table cloth as a work surface on the ground, we laid and stretched out the wool into the imagined shape. On top of the wool we laid the gauze and with water and soap we began the process of rubbing the surface of the wool. The continual rubbing of the wool with soap lathered hands was what enabled the hairs to migrate into one another creating a felt fabric. This aspect of the work was incredibly labor intensive. Waterford Artist Tamsin Jay thankfully joined forces with us for the day, the extra hands and determination lightened the labor and enriched to the collaborative experience as we shared songs,stories and craic.
From thousands of rubs over and 8 hour period we had created a nine foot tapering piece of felt, it was a great days work.
As we were leaving the site late that evening, the idea struck, to completely cover the inside facing stones of the dolmen with the remaining wool.
The following day we did just that, we placed the wool white wool on the upper section of stones and brown and black wool on the lower section. The dark wool grounded and rooted the aesthetic while the white wool created that sense of continuity and levity between the interior of the dolmen and the 9 foot piece of felt emerging out from it.
The hard cold stone interior was slowly transformed into a warm and womb like space, a portal space where meditation seemed a natural condition of mind. The dolmen was now radiating in amplified sense as a resting place for both the living and dead.
It was beautiful how the stone and wool rested together in such sympathetic resonance. By bringing these two natural materials together, something alchemized, we felt the re- activation of something ancient. It made me think that we were not the only ones to bring wool to soften the interior chamber of the Dolmen. Travelers taking shelter for the night may very well have done the same many hundreds of years ago. Over the thousands of years the Dolmen has remained standing, perhaps seekers entering the chamber with intention to connect with the otherworld and the ancestors may well have done the same as us.
Installation of the piece was complete by sunset on Sunday and as a twilight atmosphere settled over the dolmen we lit some beeswax candles inside its chamber. It was then that the unforeseen aspect of the work revealed themselves.
The candle light cast on the wool morphed into forms like stalactites growing out from the stone. The illuminated interior of the dolmen and the the extending felt form created a singular silhouette that appeared like the outstretched hand of a Crone reaching towards the hill in the distance. The light became and element of the work.
We titled the work Deasghnáth Crua / Hard Ritual, a title that speaks as Gaeilge to the ritual site of the Gaulstown Dolmen, the enduring hardness of the stone and the hard work of our collective hands, the thousands of years and the thousands of rubs that produced a ritual coming together to draw up and out the spirit of this ancient place.