The Potential of the New Gaelic Revival in Bríanna Ní Léannacháin’s film-installation Tonnadh // Fuaim an Toinne | Written by Sarah Long

‘History tells of Clíodhna, a member of the Tuatha Dé Dannan/ was drowned on the shore of Glandore as she slept/ by a wave sent by Mannanán Mac Lír/ She was turned into a wave, ‘Tonn Clíodhna’/ Prophecy foretells that one day she will return to reclaim her Land/ Can ye hear that?/ listen to her voice’

Bríanna Ní Léannacháin presents her film-installation Tonnadh // Fuaim an Toinne alongside a wall text narrating the lore of the supernatural, Gaelic being, Clíódhna. There has undoubtedly been a renewed interest in Irish mythology and Celtic culture in recent years; writer and curator Iarlaith Ní Fheorais has described the phenomenon as ‘a new Gaelic revival’. The resurrection of pre-Christian symbols and stories is, she argues, unlike typical nationalism harnessed by the political right, it is instead an attempt ‘to preserve and recover indigenous knowledge and move towards pre colonial restitution’. 1 Bríanna’s work, embracing the Irish language, landscape and legends, situates itself within the complexities, contraries and contradictories of this revival.

People do not trouble to ask you questions if they know the answer is a foregone conclusion. Thoughts which have no chance of succeeding do not take the trouble to come into your head at all. 2

Her black and white film is not quite that— it is neither black nor white but a stratified world of eldritch greys. The film’s sensibility creates a world of mamilated surfaces connecting micro and macro patterns forming what cartographer and writer, Tim Robinson would term a ‘network of being, which consists of tangle within tangle within tangle, indefinitely, but of which nevertheless we can tease out a thread or two here and there’. 3 Bríanna’s rendering of the Irish landscape is a layered fusion of traditions that can be ‘teased’ out and explored. The film blends the three different elements of Romantic landscape painting tradition. There is a Pastoral quality in how the film is mediated to the audience— the mechanical camera has tamed the unbridled natural world and framed it for our aesthetic appreciation. Is this the artist attempting to pluck at our heart strings to invigour us with a sense of beauty in Nature that we will feel obliged to protect? Or is the black and white aesthetic a desire to harken back to a timelessness, a prelapsarian knowledge? John Berger’s critique of Jitka Hanzlová’s Forest Series described the artist’s world as capturing ‘the intricacy of crossing paths and crossing energies’. 4 Bríanna’s mise-en-scène holds a similar expression of multifarious energies: the sound of water moving, of leaves rustling; here are insects that flit for a day and trees that are fixed for a lifetime.

There is a sense that this scene would create a dense etching that would require an infinite amount of mark-making — following the line as it moves this way, then that, then back over itself, as energy shifts, sweeps and soars around the picture frame. Here, in the pictorial quality of the film, a different tale enters the tangle: the language of the Picturesque. The bough of the tree, the running water, the serene beauty wilfully juxtaposed with wildness—there is order and obstreperousness; the scene has all the ingredients of Gilpin’s schematics. This is an aestheticized view. By perpetuating a rose-tinted imaging of Nature is the artist referencing the origins of the Picturesque (a tradition associated with 18th century English upper class and early tourism)? The Picturesque— inextricably linked to the structure of the Empire that had such devastating effects on the Irish landscape—still permeates how we view our relationship with land and Nature today. We situate ourselves and our actions outside of the picture frame and outside of Nature.

Three hands appear along the tree’s bough however as if to disprove this detachment and to further complexify the scene. These not-quite-white but eerily illuminated, spindly, creature-like limbs introduce a hybrid version of the last category of the Romantic landscape tradition to the film, the Sublime—or the uncanny Sublime. The formal quality of a natural awe-inspiring phenomenon mixes with ‘a fear originating in what is known of old and long familiar things.’ 5 Here, we arrive at the crux of the film; are these hands of this world or the other—the ancient faerie world of the Tuatha Dé Dannan? Do these limbs belong to something sinister or simply indifferent or even salubrious? Or, perhaps, is the story some version of all three? Three hands—the number three of course a sacred number in Celtic mythology and a blessing (or a curse depending on your persuasion) in the symbolism of the Catholic Church’s Trinity. Irish mythology is brimming with blended tales of Catholicism and Paganism; from Brigid goddess of Spring as Saint Brigid benevolent maiden of infinite virtue to Cú Chulainn, the man of many miracles who died at 33 years of age, mirroring the life of Christ. These are great tales whatever way you spin it and Irish mythology is spun and spans in many directions. In some versions of the tale Bríanna’s film references, Clíódhna is drowned, in others she survives. Often, these more tragic endings that befall ‘uppity’ women are a Christanised retelling of a more hopeful story of Celtic tradition where death does not follow life but rather precedes it. There is an ancient story here—how are we going to tell it?

Bríanna seems to intend the story to allude to the ecological crisis we are now in. The film projection is accompanied by a pool of water on the floor which reflects the screen and echoes the story of the ‘drowned’ goddess, the eponymous personified wave of Tonnadh // Fuaim an Toinne (Motion of Waves rising, surging through the Sea // Sound of the Wave). The flood of course is a familiar origin story of man, the creatures we are surrounded with and indeed the shape of the landscape we find ourselves in. More recent flood narratives are understandably connected to scientific conversations around Climate Change and our fate should we fail in our attempts to reconcile with the consequences of our actions. With the line ‘Prophecy foretells that one day she will return to reclaim her Land’, Bríanna seems to suggest Nature will have her revenge for the crimes committed by man. This can be understood as a retelling of the Genesis flood story through Irish mythology to warn against climate inaction. On a recent episode of the Blindboy Podcast, he proposed an interesting theory as to why ‘the flood’ story looms large in our psyche, across all cultures. 6 Using Irish mythology to understand quantum physics he speculates that if time collapses on a quantum level; past, present and future become redundant terms and so a cataclysmic flood may have already occurred thus explaining the mythology’s universality.

This is clearly complex and confusing thinking but as writer Manchán Magan explains in his most recent book Listen to the Land Speak (2022,) ‘much of mythology is about breaking free from the stranglehold of society and our conditioned mind to embrace wider possibilities’. 7 This is the exciting potential of the new Gaelic revival it advocates for a possibility of new worlds. Within a tradition of story-telling that has always allowed for modifications, speculation—the adding on arms and legs—and multiple outcomes there is the potential for broader ideas of existence, anarchist thinking and a multiplicity of being.

Bríanna ultimately presents us with four different stories. The film is split screen; the image synchronised along with the scene of the beautiful bough hanging over running water is a close-up scene of the river’s froth. The foam bubbles with breath, perhaps there is a being down there. A fourth pair of hands appear in this scene grappling along the underbrush of the woods. Are these hands clinging to the earth or caressing it? The scenes are reflected back to front to us in pools of water, expanding the narratives of her work and our worlds. The artist seems to adhere to philosopher David Lewis’ school of thought that all worlds are possible. There is even a fifth narrative within the work if you consider again the wall text that accompanies it. Can ye hear that? Listen to her voice. What is she saying? The answer is not a foregone conclusion. The future potential and usage of folklore and Gaelic traditions is in their joyous capacity for multiplicity.

1 Iarlaith Ní Fheorais, Commissioned Text for ‘Culchie boy I love you’, Project Arts Centre, 2023.

2 Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman (London: Harper Perennial Reprint Edition, 2007), p.32

3 Tim Robinson, Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage (London: Faber & Faber, reprint 2008) p. 47.

4 John Berger, “Into the Woods” in The Sublime: Documents of Contemporary Art edited by Simon Morely, (London: White Chapel Gallery & Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2010), p. 127.

5 Simon Morley, The Sublime: Documents of Contemporary Art, p. 17.

6 Blindboy, “Speaking to a Quantum Physicist about Quantum Computers and Irish
Mythology”, The Blindboy Podcast, (Sweden: Acast), 2, November, 2022.

7 Manchán Magan, Listen to the Land Speak: A Journey Into the Wisdom of What Lies Beneath Us (Dublin: Gill Books, 2022) p. 43.

 

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