A solar-powered boat, skippered by artists, is making its way across Ireland’s inland waterways this summer, engaging with scientists, artists and local communities about climate action along the way.
This novel project began last summer when Paris-based Irish artists Denis Connolly and Anne Cleary travelled up the Shannon-Erne waterway from Limerick to Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, on their converted sailing boat, the Mayfly, creating pop-up events en route.
On April 22nd this year, Connolly began a second voyage west to east, starting from Askeaton on the Shannon estuary with the aim to reach the Irish Sea at Howth on September 9th. Cleary will join him along the second half of the journey in late July.
The Irish Times caught up with Connolly in the Co Laois village of Vicarstown recently.
The bright colourful boat with its solar-panelled roof, playful wind turbine and flag is moored close to a bridge on the Grand Canal in this serene spot.
Swallows flit in and out of the eaves of the heritage buildings on the canal-side of what is now part of the Barrow Way cycling route. Meanwhile, local people are gathering in the nearby community hall to listen to Connolly speak about his adventures.
Speaking in advance of his talk, Connolly explains how he and Cleary moved to Paris following their studies in architecture in Dublin. “We practised architecture through the 1990s and then we drifted towards art. When our twin daughters finished school, that gave us the freedom to travel so we decided to integrate the environment into our art practices,” says Connolly.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Cleary and Connolly came up with the idea of travelling on the inland waterways of Ireland in a zero-carbon boat and got funding from local authorities, the Arts Council, Creative Ireland and the Science Foundation of Ireland for their expedition.
In 2022, scientists engaged locals in a pop-up umbrella-domed tent alongside the boat. Topics ranged from rewetting bog lands to fracking, foods and sounds of the forest to An Crannog Ceoil, a musical installation by Paul Berg on Lough Derg. Pieces of music and art were commissioned along the route.
In 2023, the couple is drawing larger crowds to community centres and libraries at their stop-offs. “The idea is to make people aware of both the qualities and the problems of our inland waterways and interconnections between freshwater, farming practices in catchment areas and the seawaters,” says Connolly. He also mentions the risks of bringing invasive species such as zebra mussels on the inland waterways and how important it is for boat users to clean their gear and their boats before moving from one waterway to another.
In his talk in Vicarstown, Connolly shows people video footage from last year’s voyage from Limerick to Enniskillen. “We knew nothing about boats and rivers when we started. Artists are naturally inclined to look at small things which is why so few artists tackle climate change but following the advice of Indian writer, Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, we began with what we know.”
Cleary, who is involved with the French Green Party (Europe Écologie les Verts) adds that for her, it’s important that people see that taking on climate action doesn’t have to be difficult. “We’ve met people cleaning rivers, tackling invasive species, baking and farming sustainably and rewilding – the more people who do things, the bigger impact it will have. We are tapping into these networks and giving them a forum on our journey.”
In Vicarstown, freshwater ecologist Rachel O’Malley is helping children identify the tiny swimming insects in a basin of water she took from a nearby river earlier that day. “It’s important that children understand what lives in the river and these macro-invertebrates are vital fish food and important for us to have a healthy ecosystem,” says O’Malley who is part of the Mayfly team at several of its stop-offs this summer.
In advance of their visits to towns and villages on their route, Connolly and Cleary seek out local artists to engage about environmental issues. For instance, in Askeaton, there was intense debate about the “red mud fields” left over from processing bauxite into aluminium at the Aughinish Alumina plant there. “It’s like a wet red desert and artist Michele Horrigan spoke about how she discovered high levels of aluminium in her blood which led to an hour-long row,” explains Connolly.
At Dromineer, Co Tipperary artist Aideen Barry spoke about her concerns about soil pollution from mining near her home on the side of the Silvermines mountains.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. In Vicarstown, artist, Emily Miller shows some of her miniature paintings inspired by her father’s organic farm nearby. “I so appreciate the efforts farmers put in to give us food. It can be challenging, isolating and not always financially rewarding work yet we’ll need farmers more than ever with more plant-based diets in the future,” says Miller.
Miller also creates large framed taxidermist pieces made from hedgehogs, squirrels and other small animals she finds dead on the road. “I want to give dignity to these creatures who didn’t receive dignity in their lives,” she explains.
Irish-Indian harpist Anna Tanvir and her chef/musician Indian husband Maninder Singh make vegan treats and chai tea for everyone before performing songs in Irish, English, French, Swahili, Hindi and Malagasy. They will join the Mayfly again in Carlow town (July 20th) and St Mullins (July 29th). “It’s a very generous thing that Denis and Anne are doing – providing a platform for people to listen free to artists and musicians while also giving them an insight into the environmental issues,” says Tanvir.
Listening to Connolly speak and watching his enthusiasm for bringing local artists and scientists together, one gets the feeling these journeys will continue. “Next year, we hope to go along the Irish coast to tour the lighthouses of Ireland. We will continue to live in Paris but we are happy to have a more itinerant lifestyle too,” he says.
Some of the stops on the Mayfly eco-showboat’s journey are: St Mullins, Co Carlow (July 29th), New Ross, Co Wexford (August 5th), the Grand Canal Dock, Dublin (September 2nd) and Howth (September 9th).
- See schooloflooking.org for full details of the itinerary.