The Why?s Man

"My art is place specific and people specific." George Wyllie

Back to 32 Spires for Hibernia


Sticking up for peace George Wyllie and two artistic accomplices set out to unite Ireland
with a scul?ture made up of sticks and stones from all 32 counties

By George Wyllie

The Scotsman Weekend, 8 August, 1994

Uniting Ireland is easier for artists than politicians, but it still needs thought.

For myself and fellow sculptors Kenny Munro from Edinburgh and Michael Donaghy from Belfast, the thought was an impoverished spiral at high speed round every one of Ireland's 32 Counties to collect the sticks and stones which would be the components for the scul?ture that would unify Hibernia.

We would call it 32 Spires, and the idea behind it is to strip away all confusions and begin again with the stability of nature - like stripping out dry rot and getting back to good wood. From this new base we might unhurriedly live together, why can't we? The sticks and stones of the 32 Spires represent a distillation of all that is positive on this island and is a simple flexible barrier to the negative.


DAY 1: Antrim (1), Londonderry (2), Tyrone (3)
In the Irish rain we start collecting sets of "Spire" components, to be repeated in each county.

These comprise three branches, two straight ones at 9ft and 4ft, and another 4ft forked one, plus a stone the size of a pigeon.

Rain-soaked in Derry City - we are well received by the Orchard Gallery, who seem to know that art can happen beyond galleries. In just over a week we will return to Derry with our 32 Spires and erect them across the Irish Land Boundary between Co Londonderry and Co Donegal.

DAY 2: Donegal, (4) Fermanagh (5), Leitrim (6)
We recce the proposed cross-border site, then visit the nearby hilltop fort which kept the ancient watch over five counties. At the check-point down below, a bored British soldier keeps a less romantic watch on the traffic bumping over the road humps to and from Derry City. Later on, in Fermanagh, a soldier is alert at crossroads near the border. His pal is taking aim from a ditch. I have a chat with the RUC man who checks the car. There has been a recent "incident", but we crack about using trees for art and get a forlorn, homesick smile from the young soldier.

DAY 3: Sligo (7), Mayo (8), Roscommon (9), Longford (10), Westmeath (11), Offlay (12), Laois (13)
Sligo was great - and no wonder Lord Louis Mountbatten loved the place and it seems the locals liked him too. So says Owen Leonard, an 83-year-old authority on local matters who gives me a ride in his donkey and cart - aren't both of us out collecting wood? Here in Yeats' country, old Owen and the locals seem keener on politically sensitive Louis than poetically sensitive Yeats - albeit that WB is much loved by the Tourist Office.

DAY 4: Galway (14)
Only one "Spire" today, for we have to rendezvous with Murray Grigor who will film 32 Spires for BBC2's Edinburgh Nights Festival programme. The "Spires" will be making a furtive visit to Edinburgh and will briefly become a fort high on the Carlton Hill where they will be filmed looking towards Inchcolm Island - once a safe house in real historic Scotland for politically sensitive travellers, but now heritaged for the nation and tourists. The 32 Spires have been refused leave to land on the sanctuary, and are also a bit too troublesome for the front lawn of our Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Despised, rejected - even by the happier trees in the Royal Botanic Gardens - they now seek a safe house.

DAY 5: Clare (15), Tipperary (16), Limerick (17), Kerry (18), Cork (19),
Waterford (20) Travelling fast, we end our day deep south in Durgarvan. Daily de-briefing always takes place in a pub then it's digs and deep sleep. Here we chance on Clancy's Bar, where the art gallery in the toilets is worth a visit even if you don't need to go.

DAY 6: Kilkenny (21), Wexford, (22) Carlow (23), Wicklow (24), Kildare (25), Dunlin (26)
Before leaving Dungarvan, we interview the barber cutting my hair - I have been called a bishop and the severe trim is to put an end to that. The ageing Astra's exhaust necessitates a pit stop at the town's one-man Exhaust Centre. During the repair we interview the owner/fitter/welder and, impressed by our intention to unite Ireland, he refuses to take our money. At last, a sponsor!

DAY 7: Meath (27), Louth, (28), Monaghan (29), Armagh (30), Down (31)
The questionable circuit is now complete. In Meath we make our only tourist diversion to the Hill of Tara which is the navel button of Ireland. Here the hill forts command a view of 12 counties on a clear day after rain. This is the seat of the pre-Christian High Kings of Ireland, who understood rites and rituals as well as politics, and would mediate between their people and their allies and their enemies. There's a thought... To encourage the return of such enlightenment I assemble my portable "Spire".. Like 32 Spires, it indicates the strength of flexibility and compromise. I place it high on Tara's Mound.

DAY 8: Belfast (32)
32 Spires collected, we return to Michael Donaghy's studio to prepare the sticks and stones for assembly into scul?ture. We go to a pub at night and are told that all reference to politics is banned.

DAY 9: Londonderry and Donegal
We collect Murray Grigor and thence to Derry City to commence filming. The film will last about 10 minutes and I desperately want it to be good. During the fifties I spent four years patrolling the Irish Land Boundary where Customs men wisely refused to carry guns. Even now the thought of that suggestion is abhorrent. Holes are being blasted and barriers erected across unapproved border roads. A devil of a job for the locals, whether north or south, for tending cattle or crops and living their lives. I know that someone somewhere will confidently justify this but, it is all so stupidly pathetic and grotesque. Returning to the border after 30-odd years, it seems we have become conditioned, as we were with the Berlin Wall, to the acceptance of absurdity. There is a monument to mark this on the old Groarty Road which once was the direct route from Donegal towards Derry City. It represents the school of classic impedimenta, comprising a steel shuttered block of concrete measuring 10 metres long and a metre thick and high. Dragon's teeth, fashioned from stubs of old railway line, protrude from the top and the whole is painted in big squares of yellow and black. You can't miss it. In the warm and beautiful afternoon we set up the 32 Spires in a grassy field on the line of the border defined here by the trickle of a stream. We erect 26 "Spires" in the south, and six across the stream in the north. The trees don't seem to notice the difference, so we run a red line down the centre of the stream. Borders are so difficult. Overhead an expensive army helicopter hovers and casts its eyes over our show for about an hour. It buzzes off without a glass of wine. We think it recommended our show to the Gardai, for they turn up later in a smart car and inquire about our "sticks" after we have dismantled them.

DAY 10: Journey Home
The accrued Irish tension dissipates in Scottish air.

Our 32 Spires will be seeking a safe house in Edinburgh for as long as political sensitivities can be tolerated. Richard Demarco, bless his heart, says he'll find a place for them if they'll share a bed with Beuys and six artists from Sarajevo. We are all in the business of "Bridging the Gaps". Borders are big business - and I mean that in more ways than one. Talking of big business, our thanks to The Exhaust Centre, Dungarvan, Co Waterford, for sponsorship.

* 32 Spires appeared at Calton Hill, Edinburgh on Sundays at 1pm on 14, 21 and 28 August, 1994 and was associated with Bridging the Gaps at the Demarco European Arts Foundation, 13 August-3 September.


The process was also recorded in photographs, as well as being filmed by Murray Grigor for a BBC arts programme. George Wyllie also recorded audio interviews with local people, as her went, hearing their views of the 'absurdity' of the barriers along the land border.

On the land border
On the land border
32 counties
Calton Hill, Edinburgh
Calton Hill, Edinburgh
Calton Hill, Edinburgh

Edinburgh Nights video extract


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