Geographical Poetics 4: Borderlands and Identities in Suspension: Thinking with Kate Nolan’s Lacuna

Figure 1. © Kate Nolan LACUNA –  installation at Gallery of Photography September – October 2017

Kate Nolan’s Lacuna has images and stories from Pettigo, a village that straddles: the River Termon, the counties of Donegal and Fermanagh, the states of the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom, and thus soon very likely the EU and the non-EU. [1] Let me begin with what the images suggested to me, and then move on to some of the words.

Troubling the Living Stream

The images include two large portraits each of a child, one looks right (Figure 7), the other left (Figure 8), and between them is a gap, a gap occupied by a pair of images, one is of what looks like an uprooted tree with boughs lying against it in the fashion of a shelter or hide (Figure 6), while the other is an image taken down through the water of the river with rocks to the side and a reflection of the sky in the virtual distance below the riverbed (Figure 1). There are also several images of skies, of trees, of a river. There is a video installation in a room where we sit between rustling trees and a riverbank with shrubs, to face weaving water (Figure 9). The soundtrack calmed me but also made me aware of the pulse of my breathing and the rhythm of wafting branches, of rolling water, of waving leaves, and flowing grass. [2] There is also a photograph of a pool, or perhaps a bend in the river (Figure 2). We look down through the play of light on the peaks of the swirling waters and through this we see a reflection of clouds perhaps, through a darker filigree of the shadows and reflections of the branches of overhanging trees.

Figure 2. From Lacuna by Kate Nolan, used with permission. © Kate Nolan LACUNA –  installation at Gallery of Photography September – October 2017

When I asked Kate about one of these images (Figure 3), a beautiful layering of reflection and shadow, a fractal-like recovery of the anastomosing networks of lichen on rocks, of branching trees, and in the virtual maps that imagine a river and its tributaries, she told me something of why she was drawn to it:

I spent a lot of time looking at reflections on the river beds trying not to fall in and find a way to visualise the abstraction of borders. The idea that you don’t quite know what you’re looking at. That the rocks are the only clear division but the water can just pool over them. (email: Kate Nolan to Gerry Kearns, 19 October 2017)

Figure 3. From Lacuna by Kate Nolan, used with permission. © Kate Nolan LACUNA –  installation at Gallery of Photography September – October 2017

Together, these images brought me back to the title of the work, lacuna, a gap, but also, as Kate Nolan reminds us, a word derived from the Latin for lake. We are told that we are in Pettigo and that this is a bordertown. My first reflection, then, was that over the wound that we cut in the cause of politics, an organic scab could grow.

We might think of that uneven battle between the living stream of nature and the stone of history, that will trouble it but will neither hold back the stream nor resist its patient abrasion. With this thought I felt the company of Yeats and was perhaps at least prompted to the reflection not only by the images, but by the memory of his poem, Easter 1916, and particularly his criticism in the third stanza of the fanatics who would make history, by hardening their hearts against the trouble of complexity:

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of it all.
(W. B. Yeats, Easter 1916 [written 1916, published 1921], ll 41-56.

I’d Rather Not

But, I’ve never really been convinced by this, because the choice is not between nature and history, but between different futures that in turn appeal for legitimation to different versions of history. And the landscape at Coole is as much a work of artifice, and of violence, as any rebellion or republic, not only in its making but also in its remaking and maintenance. Exclusions are neither naturalised nor justified by long use. The oppressions of time out of mind are reimposed by the advantages claimed as their consequence in the present.

Figure 4. From Lacuna by Kate Nolan, used with permission. © Kate Nolan LACUNA –  installation at Gallery of Photography September – October 2017

And, so, we go back to the images and to the texts. The video installation and some of the images are given in black-and-white, as we customarily say. But, of course, the density and beauty of these images is really given in sheens and shades of grey. There is something diffuse and continuous about the tones in a photograph. It incites and seduces our attention with anything but mere black and white, even when by deliberate choice of the artist that might be all we seem first able to see. Is this in black-and-white or, in the evocative word that Kate Nolan used for another project, is this neither. Neither was the title of an earlier work through which Kate Nolan investigated the relations between place, memory and identity for women living in Kaliningrad. [3] Once again, the images are of individuals, and in these cases they seem to me to be detached from their own context, refugees in their own homeland (Figure 5).

K_NOLAN6 from Neither
Figure 5. From Neither by Kate Nolan, used with permission. © Kate Nolan

Kaliningrad is a Russian enclave sitting on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania, in some ways maybe a little like Pettigo by Lough Derg, on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. We might imagine people offered a choice, only to reply, in the manner of Bartleby in Herman Melville’s tale, “I would prefer not to.” [4] The children talk as if the border meant little to their lives. They muse on its reintroduction—will this inconvenience them in getting the Chinese take-away for which they usually cross the border; will they only get home with cold food.

You see, the thing is the best Chinese is in the North. If they have to stop at the border it’ll take ages. Plus it’ll probably be freezing. (Milly to Kate Nolan, text exhibited as part of Lacuna)

Figure 6. From Lacuna by Kate Nolan, used with permission. © Kate Nolan LACUNA –  installation at Gallery of Photography September – October 2017

Perhaps the very name Pettigo offers hope, derived as it is from a Latin translation of the Irish place-name, An Tearmann, Sanctuary. Perhaps this holy place with its Pagan and Christian associations, sitting just west of Lough Derg, offers the chance of a gap in the geopolitical cloth that is laid over our lives like a shroud. Perhaps. And, as my second reflection, then, perhaps at the border the intensity of interaction belies the geopolitical logic. Perhaps out of contact comes friendship as a gap along the very line of division, a welcome lacuna. Perhaps.

Figure 7. From Lacuna by Kate Nolan, used with permission. © Kate Nolan LACUNA –  installation at Gallery of Photography September – October 2017

The Fate of the Border

Perhaps. But, the children also speak of going to different schools and of promising friendship despite separation. The violence we do to children by recruiting them to our adult tribalisms is inexcusable.

Figure 8. From Lacuna by Kate Nolan, used with permission. © Kate Nolan LACUNA –  installation at Gallery of Photography September – October 2017

And borders do have consequences. In the part of the village lying in the Republic, 31.5% of those aged over three claimed in 2016 some ability to speak Irish, while in the part of the village across the invisible line the figure for the most recent census (2011) was only 10.7%. The 2016 census for the part of Pettigo that is in the Republic records that 90.37% of the population are Catholic with a further 6.3% having no religion. The rest are given as other, largely because the numbers are so small that further detail might get down as low as identifying individual families. Across the river in Northern Ireland the 2011 census recorded a lower share (73.9%) of the population as Catholic and a significant 22.7% as Protestant.

The tribalism of the way equity is defined and policed in the North means that people are pushed into the binary and “Neither” is discouraged. The census question in the North asks what is your religion or that in which you were brought up. This makes it more difficult to register the disengagement from religion that is reflected in the growing number of people in the Republic who report themselves as being of “No Religion” (one-in-ten in 2016). [5] Disenchantment with religion is not made visible by the census from the North and “Neither” gets less encouragement. My third reflection, then, is that the indifference of organic nature, the living stream, stands little chance of pooling a lake to push back the claims of its territorial and confessional shores.

video installation
Figure 9. © Kate Nolan LACUNA –  installation at Gallery of Photography September – October 2017

Ironic Identitites

And so, back once again the images and the texts. In a room with an image of a cowshed, in a recording of an interview, one young person from Pettigo recalls many aspects of the border including the farmer who got prosecuted for grazing cattle on the wrong side of its jurisdiction. And this leads me back to geopolitics and to the relations between law and land because this border has always been a rather odd one. Under British rule, Ireland was governed in a manner quite different from the rest of the United Kingdom. It had different rules about poor relief, about the use of juries, about the arming of police, and the garrisoning of troops, and so on.

Figure 10. From Lacuna by Kate Nolan, used with permission. © Kate Nolan LACUNA –  installation at Gallery of Photography September – October 2017

With the amputation of six counties during the process of independence a new set of exceptions were created that left both dispensations with something of an ironic sovereignty. The Republic was independent and yet its economic reliance upon Britain produced a political dependence reflected in a degree of policing, diplomatic and military cooperation that belied its separation in all but the form. Thus we got the formal and disgraceful respect paid to the memory of Adolf Hitler as a legitimate head of state, with de Valera very publicly going to the German Embassy to sign a book of condolence, even while Irish men and women were under the hail of German bombs in Coventry and London, and while Irish police and military cooperated in the retention of German airmen and the repatriation of British. [6] Thus we got a government some of whose members oversaw gun-running into the North even while its embassies cooperated with the British in refusing entry into the Republic of some of the very people for whom the guns were intended. [7]

In Northern Ireland for more than half a century after the creation of the Province there was a religiously based fiefdom that could only survive by separating itself from the basic principles of British law: trial by jury, no religious test for public employment, no armed militia, an unarmed police force, and so on. The Republic was not properly independent and the North was not properly British. The lacuna at the heart of both identities is failure to resolve or dissolve the border. There is a sort of suspension, an incompleteness, that affects the lives of the children on both sides of the River Termon and as long as it can mobilise political fealty it will be reproduced in the present. The lacuna was produced by an act of political violence that was, whatever else it might have been, certainly a British punishment for an anticolonial insurrection; a lesson to others. And a lesson that was, as Joe Cleary showed us in Literature, Partition and the Nation-State (Cambridge University Press, 2001), taught again in India/Pakistan and in Israel/Palestine.

Partition will not be healed by the living stream, we will have to return to the duty we owe to the children and interrupt the murmuring of name upon name. Now in that respectful quiet there might be a lacuna to listen to and inhabit, a sanctuary that might be a worthy gift to the children of An Tearmann.


[1] Lacuna was at the Gallery of Photography, Meeting House Square, Dublin 2, 9 September – 22 October 2017. There is a book of the project published by The Library Project of the PhotoIreland Foundation. I want to thank Kate Nolan for her help in the preparation of this piece. I also want to thank Trish Lambe, co-Director of the Gallery of Photography, for an invitation to speak about Kate Nolan’s work.

[2] The soundtrack is a composition by Gavin O’Brien.

[3] Neither was published as an art book in 2014 and won the Alliance Française Photography Award 2013 and the Magnum Graduate Award 2015.

[4] Herman Melville, Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (1853). There is an online version of the 1856 edition in the Gutenberg project.

[5] Patsy McGarry, It’s official: Offaly is the most Catholic county, Dún Laoghaire the least, Irish Times (12 October 2017).

[6]Dermot Keogh, ‘De Valera, Hitler and the visit of condolence May 1945,’ History Ireland 5:3 (Autumn 1997). Douglas Hyde (President) also paid a visit of condolence to the German ambassador to Ireland at his home in Dún Laoghaire; Hyde (and de Valera) offered condolences on Hitler’s death, Irish Independent (31 December 2005). The partiality of the Irish government when it came to detaining stranded airmen is described in John Duggan, Herr Hempel at the German Legation in Dublin 1937-1945 (Irish Academic Press, 2003).

[7] The gun running is described in Sean Boyne, Gunrunners: The Covert Arms Trail to Ireland (O’Brien Press, 2006). The agreement that Ireland and Britain would enforce travel exclusions that either imposed is described in: Bernard Ryan, ‘The Common Travel Area between Britain and Ireland,’ Modern Law Review 64:6 (2001) 855-874.