Culture in the cutaway

Sat, Apr 3, 2010, 01:00

SCULPTURE:Sculpture in the Parklands at Lough Boora, in Co Offaly, is frequently praised abroad and deserves to be better known here at home, writes GEMMA TIPTON

SOME YEARS AGO, I flew to El Paso, hired a car and drove out into the desert to look at Donald Judd’s epic works of art, installed in a series of former artillery sheds as well as outside in the wild Texas landscape. I planned other trips, not yet taken, to see Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field, a vast area of lightning rods in New Mexico that occasionally (very occasionally) attracts a play of electricity from the sky; and to Utah for Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels. But strangely enough, I never thought to go to Offaly. That was a mistake and, now that I have rectified it, I would urge everyone to go there – specifically, to Sculpture in the Parklands at Lough Boora, roughly midway between Tullamore and Birr.

Art in the landscape can be a difficult thing. In truly beautiful settings, you may start to wonder how much better the view might look without a bit of art in the way, and you can get frustrated with the idea of mankind messing with nature (although you seldom blame the path you walked along to get to admire the view). Equally, at the sides of motorways, you don’t have a proper chance to look at what you’re seeing, as objects fly past in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it blur of tarmac and sky. But when it’s right, art outside can add to, and alter, how you feel about where you are. It can also be great fun. All of which is where Sculpture in the Parklands comes in.

The parklands in question are a massive tract of Bord na Móna cutaway bog – “cutaway” being the term for an area of peat bog that’s left after all the commercial peat has been taken out. Lough Boora is one of the oldest, and therefore has had the longest to return to nature, although man has had a hand in this too, as Bord na Móna has dug lakes, planted trees, and cultivated some parts as farmland. Bord na Móna has also worked with Kevin O’Dwyer to establish an unique and amazing sculpture park.

Better known as a silversmith, O’Dwyer was born in the US, although his Irish parents moved back to Ireland when he was in his teens, and he went to school in Cashel, Co Tipperary. An early career as a biochemist ended when he took up metalworking, eventually studying at the Art Institute of Chicago. As a silversmith he creates intriguing and beautiful objects and jewellery, which are held in collections around the world, including in our own National Museum. So what led him to this project? “I moved, with my family, from Dublin to Durrow in Offaly,” he explains, “and realised that there weren’t so many opportunities for artists in the locality, so I set up a meeting to look at changing that”.

Sculpture in the Parklands began with an international sculpture symposium, held in 2002. Irish and international artists were invited to make large works of art, arising out of the history, materials and setting of the boglands. Uniquely supported by being given access to Bord na Móna’s workshops and labour resources, the artists were able to realise works on a scale and ambition seldom seen in Ireland.

Now, almost a decade later, visitors are greeted by Michael Bulfin’s Sky Train, a little yellow turf train arching over a man-made mound; they may wander through Patrick Dougherty’s intricate maze of woven willow, Ruaille Buaille; or walk through Passage, by Alan Counihan, a dramatic cut into the black earth, lined with red metal, rusting, with a velvety look. All make you look at the land in a new way.

“We finally learned to live and let live. When will the tree grow taller than the sculpture?” asks Japanese artist Naomi Seki, in a panel beside her piece, in which a tree grows through a hole in a wooden board, beside a tall angled series of railway sleepers. The tree is still small, but one day it will tower over the rest of the work.

The art is made as a result of residencies, during which the artists stay in a local bed and breakfast and drink up the landscape and sense of the bog. They make a couple of visits and take a look at what is available in the workshops before preparing their ideas. They are then given three weeks of time and assistance from Bord na Móna workers to realise their projects. It must be a little like Scrapheap Challenge when they see the old machines, railway sleepers and tracks, all available to help inspire them. “Some of them can’t believe it,” says O’Dwyer.

Materials aren’t just industrial either – there is also Eileen MacDonagh’s Boora Pyramid, a six-metre mound of glacial stone, which had lain under the peat for millennia until the turf-cutting works uncovered it; and Jorn Ronnau’s Lough Boora Triangle, a meditation chamber, constructed from chunks of 4,000-year-old bog wood. Walking through Counihan’s Passage to emerge and see a strange monster emerging from the waters of a canal, there’s a sense of the fantastical that makes you alert to all the histories (human, natural and mythical) of this place. The monster is Julian Wild’s System No 30, which O’Dwyer tells me is based on the bounces of a skimming stone.

I wonder why this place is not more famous. “I think it is, just not in Ireland,” O’Dwyer replies. Supported since its inception by Bord na Móna and Offaly Co Council, and variously by the Arts Council, Heritage Council and Crafts Council, among others, Sculpture in the Parklands is an enormous undertaking. O’Dwyer’s own works here are 60 Degrees, a series of huge triangles that align from particular points, the centre one glistening in changing light. He has also made a part-bridge-part-seating area from an old circular machine that once loaded turf into the little trains.

There are temporary commissions too, as well as music and dance pieces that have come out of residencies. Naturally, there are some works I like more than others; equally, some that I love will be another’s least favourite. The bog and the works change with the seasons too – recently shrouded in snow, summer will see a carpet of wild orchids appear. The bogland being flat, with paths laid out, it is an ideal visit for anyone not so sure on their feet, or in a wheelchair. Kids can play at will; as O’Dwyer puts it, “this is art we encourage you to touch”, and I challenge anyone not to be transfixed by the wild beauty of a landscape that is justly famous around the world, and of which we, in this country, should be far more proud.

More artworks are added each year, so go now, while the yellowed grasses are bright against the black bog; go in summer to wonder at the wildlife and orchids, and to see Brandon Ballengée’s curious Love Motel for Insectsappear; in autumn go to see works rising ghostlike out of the mist; and in winter, for magical snow. Just go.

Open all year round, admission free. See Kevin O’Dwyer’s work is online at