Shack love: bothies built in the spirit of art and adventure

A team of mainly non-builders has constructed four shacks in unspecified locations in Ireland, each with a specific purpose. In the remote Library, for instance, adventurers who find it can place books they love


A bothy is a rudimentary, weatherproof shelter, often an abandoned dwelling that has been patched up and left unlocked as a refuge for travellers and those working the land. Most often associated with the Scottish Highlands, bothies can also be found much farther afield, including Ireland. Not that long ago, Luke Franklin, a film-maker working in advertising who is based mainly in London and occasionally in Dublin, was working on a job for TG4. It involved many visits to Glencolumcille in Donegal.

Plying the roads back and forth, one day he registered an extensive tract of forestry in the distance. You could build a shack in there, he thought, and no one would ever know, unless you told them. “At that stage,” he recalls. “I’d never really heard of a bothy and didn’t know what it was.”

That fleeting thought was the beginning of what became a gruelling, lengthy project involving him and four friends and collaborators in the creation of 4 Bothies ( in various far-flung corners of Ireland and, in one case, off the west coast.

Franklin is originally from Lucan, and he studied at Dún Laoghaire IADT. By the time of his graduation, he had expanded from one aspect of film production to encompass every role in the process. He’s still relatively young, and there is a sense of contained energy about him.

He was drawn to film, he says, “because it’s creatively, technically and physically demanding”. His final-year assessor prompted him to gather the different strands together and aim for directing. Contacts in the advertising industry advised him that London was the place to be, so off he went.

There he set about learning the business from the ground up. “I was the runner: I made tea and coffee, I answered the phones.” But gradually, working for Moxie Pictures, he gained experience of every aspect of production. There came a point where he was caught between two worlds.

“I’d get calls and put them through to myself.” He was told they’d have to let him go, but then they immediately took him back on as a director. His breakthrough was doing the McDonald’s ads for the London Olympics, a big assignment given his relative inexperience, which was extremely well received. That, he recalls, “legitimised me massively”.

He is not precious about the distinction between commercial and personal work. “I feel I have the best job in the world,” he says sincerely. “I mean, if I won the Lotto tomorrow, I’d still do what I’m doing.”

When people ask him if the courses at IADT were that good, he has a ready reply. “I always say, well, are you good? It really does depend what you bring to it and what you take from it, the use you make of it.”

He was busy, fulfilled and seemed well on the way to a thriving career. Yet between the intensity of working on a production and the sudden absence of pressure afterwards, something like boredom crept in. “It sounds terrible but it’s kind of true. I did an MA because I was bored.”

He applied to Central Saint Martins to do an art and science master’s. “I was pig-ignorant in fine art, but I knew I had an aptitude for it.” Still, he was surprised when he was accepted.

A shack in the woods
The notion of building a shack in the woods grew into his master’s project. It wasn’t coldly conceived. When you talk to him you realise it’s characteristic. He has a romantic streak. He is fascinated by the heroic age of exploration. He’s very taken, for example, with the spirit of the British Everest expeditions of the 1920s that eventually led to the deaths of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine who, he points out, may have made it to the summit. Wade Davis’s 2011 book Into the Silence sees their quest as a sacrificial exorcism of the horrors of the Great War, substituting a noble aim for the madness of the war’s butchery.

That seems consistent with Franklin’s attitude. “There’s no real reason for us to climb or to explore,” he wrote of his own motivation, “but yet we still do. We have to, it’s how we express ourselves, just as much as art is. But then, art is just as worthy as any endeavour.”

It’s something as real, he means, and his art entails idealism, hard work, commitment, endurance and adventure. 4 Bothies is a concept, but one “made tangible and worthy to non-artists. I hope it’s a concept that everyone can get.”

The camaraderie of an Everest expedition is as central to his professional life as it was to 4 Bothies, which entailed the long-term commitment of the group. “Making films, you’re dependent on the group.”

He makes a point of depending on people. He’s not one of those auteurs who’s convinced he can do everything better than anyone else. “My attitude is: you surround yourself with experts, you make sure everyone in the room with you is better than you are at doing what they’re doing.”

The team
The group on 4 Bothies comprised himself – “the boss” – producer Michael Donnelly, photographer Eoin McLoughlin, writer Dave Tynan and builder Adam Ozmin, though as you can imagine demarcations were not strictly adhered to.

One shack grew into four bothies, symbolically (but not geographically, strictly speaking) dispersed to the four corners the island. Each has a specific identity and purpose. They are The Library, The Study, The Studio and The Gallery. They could have been made in a symbolic way, but that would have been window dressing. The integrity of the project demanded that they be accessible, dry and usable.

“I’m not a builder,” Franklin admits. “To achieve what we wanted we adopted a belt-and-braces approach. They are not pretty buildings, but they are solidly built.”

The Library, resulting from that first moment of inspiration, entailed serious planning, a visit to a building provider, formidable logistics, a breathtaking amount of physical labour, “two vans loaded with 15 railway sleepers, Chinese ply, builder’s plastic, 4x2s, carpenter’s pencils and 592ft of stained cladding”.

And it is a library. With books. It is based on the principle that you don’t put a book there that you don’t seriously like and value. It is remote, it is in a challenging location, but awareness of it has spread though the local population. People visit, and they respect and contribute to the ethos.

The Gallery on Inishark
The Gallery is on Inishark and has become the best known of the bothies. The island is unoccupied, having been evacuated in 1960. The Gallery is built in the shell of the schoolhouse. “We didn’t realise initially,” Franklin notes, “that the government deliberately took off the roofs of the church and the school, so that there would be nothing for the islanders to go back to.”

The Study is a wood-panelled cargo container. The Studio is the most ephemeral structure, a dome.

Apart from Inishark, locations are unspecified, but there are many clues and indications on the website. And many people know by now. Franklin has often been asked, especially by artists, who funded 4 Bothies and did they have the requisite permission? Yes and no is the answer to the second question. He funded it himself is the answer to the first. He grimaces when asked how much. “It was hugely expensive.” But he’s happy with it. It was also, as he says, “the hardest thing I’ve ever done”.

It earned him a distinction in his MA and, in September this year, he took the overall Lowe and Partner’s Award for graduates of Saint Martins from a shortlist of 15, drawn from the college’s 50 courses. That was gratifying, if not quite as gratifying as having done it in the first place.

“What’s great is that it’s done. It will never not have happened.”

A solo show in planning for Folkstone’s Strange Cargo Gallery next year will pick up on the apparently opposite ideas of a solitary, non-participatory artwork “with trite disregard for its audience”, and a piece that is entirely, fundamentally dependent on participation.

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