In mid January I travelled by bus from Ennis, in Co. Clare, to Achill Island, off the coast of Co. Mayo, a journey of 120 miles that took all day. I had great aspirations that day to make a dent in Sebald’s Austerlitz, but after reading the following passage, near the Galway–Mayo border – ‘somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins’ – I started to feel nauseated and closed the book. I listened to two old women who’d travelled to Galway to get their hair done speak knowingly about the residents of almost every house along the N60 until we reached Castlebar. The thirty-eight-mile last leg – Westport to Achill – took two hours. Pensioners got off at the side of the road and disappeared up driveways towards unlit bungalows. The darkness that night in western Mayo was absolute. No stars, no moon, no streetlights, no houses on the horizon.
My purpose in going to Achill was to investigate the massive circular structure erected in late November 2011 by the property developer Joe McNamara. McNamara, who reportedly owes €3.5 million to Anglo Irish Bank, first came to public attention when he parked a cement mixer with the words ‘Anglo Toxic Bank’ painted on its side at the gates of Dáil Éireann in September 2010; three months later he abandoned a cherry picker with its arm extended into the sky and its radio blaring Morricone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly soundtrack on Kildare Street. He was born and raised on Achill, and the site he’d chosen for his grandest provocation was a scenic boggy hilltop about five miles from the western tip of the island. Photos taken at daybreak of the concrete ring appeared on the front page of the Irish Times and in the Irish Independent, and some cultural commentators declared it to be a work of art. Like many pieces of large-scale public art commissioned over the past twenty-five years – Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North being probably the best known – McNamara’s structure, to judge by photographs, attempted to enact a dramatic reimagining of the landscape. But Achillhenge, as it came to be known because of its rough resemblance to Stonehenge, was not commissioned by a local authority. It was built over a weekend on commonage, without planning permission. Mayo County Council quickly secured an injunction from the High Court to have construction stopped; McNamara would spend four days in Mountjoy prison for refusing to halt work on the structure. He applied to Mayo County Council for a Section 5 planning exemption, claiming that what he had created was an ornamental garden, but the application was refused in mid January. The council’s application to the High Court for an order to demolish the structure had not been adjudicated at the time of writing. Among many other things, I hoped a visit to Achill might explain why McNamara had gone to the trouble.
The Annexe, the only pub trading in Keel during winter, was my first port of call. Before ordering a pint, I had to announce myself and my intentions to the bar. It was January, after all, and strangers were thin on the ground. ‘Just off the bus. Here for the weekend. Hoping to see the henge.’ The men at the bar spoke freely of the structure and provided me with directions to it but no one mentioned its architect by name. I hoped that people might open up after a few drinks, but McNamara was clearly not a subject of discussion, at least not with outsiders. I asked Marty, the barman, how the pub got its unusual name. ‘Because that’s what it was called a hundred years ago,’ he responded curtly.
I headed out for Achillhenge the next morning, walking west from Keel along the island’s main road, towards the villages of Pollagh and Dooagh. Clusters of bungalows, most of them empty, lined the road. Planning permission notices had been posted near the front gates of many of them. To the south, Achill’s desolate beauty extended itself. Minaun, a monstrous mound of rock, rose out of Keel Bay, and behind her were the imposing Mweelin cliffs.
McNamara had promised ‘no more protests’ after charges of dangerous driving in relation to the cherry-picker incident were withdrawn last May, but the Achill project involved months of planning. Acquaintances of the family were warned of ‘something big’ during the summer of 2011. Work began on Achillhenge during the last weekend in November. The concrete had been cast in Galway and was transported up to Achill on thirty large low-loaders. The low-loaders were stationed at the car park of the Achill Head Hotel, McNamara’s listed address on the island, which was about a quarter mile from the site where the structure would be built. Achill natives saw the fleet and wondered what McNamara was up to. The woman who ran the B&B where I stayed guessed he was building windmills. He employed five people during the construction process: a welder, a crane driver, and three men to drive the low-loaders.
Just after St Patrick’s church, I came to a small sign that said ‘Achillhenge’, painted in white on black slate, pointing uphill at Mary’s Lane. There were ore hand-painted signs along the way, guiding walkers towards the new attraction and away from private roads. At a junction, I encountered a black sheepdog who led me past an orange house with children playing in the front yard and then past two identical unlived-in houses, a large shed and a red Daewoo sedan with four flat tires. The paved road gave way to something muddier. Soon I caught my first glimpse of Achillhenge, framed by two massive piles of earth.
The structure comprises 120 slabs of concrete. Three slabs had been cast together to create each of the ring’s thirty columns, standing about twelve feet in height and positioned at intervals of about four feet in a circle of about a hundred feet in diameter. Thirty smaller lintel slabs were laid horizontally on top of the columns, creating thirty portals.
McNamara did not simply plant Achillhenge on the land. His team dug about five feet into the ground, through a top layer of grass, then some buttery, boggy topsoil, and finally into layers of earth and limestone. A foundational circular road was paved so the low-loaders could operate and the structure could be erected. The earth was discarded casually around the site, and now forms an outer ring that is as tall as the structure in places. In the untidy state it was left in, Achillhenge echoed the layout of many Neolithic earthwork henges, which are defined by a raised bank and a flattened ditch. The land itself is commonage, though McNamara claimed his family had a right to build on the site.
It was impossible not to marvel at the structure. It looked unshakeable. It had clearly been inspired by Stonehenge, but it had an eerie contemporaneity because it was made of cold, cheap concrete. A hillwalker who knew nothing of Joe McNamara might stumble upon Achillhenge and presume it was the skeleton of an audacious summer house. But its circularity suggested something monumental. Perhaps it was, as one man on the island put it, a ‘boom tomb’.
McNamara’s solicitor described the structure to the High Court as a ‘place of reflection’. A report in the Mayo News cited ‘sources close to the Achill native’ as saying that McNamara ‘had designed and planned the towering structure so that it would align with the solstices – on June 21 and December 21. The sun would rise on those mornings over the mountains in Achill and shine through one of the gaps in the outer ring and light up a centre-piece.’ It seems unlikely, given the design of the structure, that such an effect would be confined to the two solstices; in any case, the county council intervened before the centrepiece could be erected. Instead, the middle of the ring is covered in mud and rock, bar the odd undisturbed tuft of grass.
The site on which McNamara built would have been an ideal position from which to view the stunning scenery around the west of Achill – Slievemore, Achill’s highest mountain; Minaun; Keel Bay and its minor islands; the vast Atlantic; acres upon acres of unspoiled commonage and what looked like the turret of an ancient castle beyond the north-westerly horizon – but viewed from within the structure the landscape is reduced to a series of framed, muddled vantage points. I tried to turn my thoughts inwards, but this was made difficult by the inane graffiti on many of the stones: ‘Arse!’, ‘TITS ARE GREAT!’, ‘Balls, Love It!’, ‘Wot do you think?’, ‘SLAB’. Three games of tic-tac-toe had been played and a CCTV camera had been drawn with a black marker.
Flaws in the structure became more apparent upon closer inspection. The slab resting on the column bearing the ‘TITS’ graffito, for instance, sat unevenly, at an angle of about ten degrees. Metal support beams that had been laid horizontally under the cement bank had emerged from the ground in places.
Two months after its construction, public curiosity about Achillhenge was still strong: nine other people visited the site during the two hours I spent there. They were of different ages, and all spent about fifteen or twenty minutes observing the structure as if it were something you might find in an art gallery. A video filmed on a blustery afternoon and uploaded to YouTube on 5 December shows two teenagers walking its circumference atop the lintel slabs. There’s no evidence of how they managed to mount the structure, but the footage captures a few gusty moments of Achill’s raw beauty.
Achillhenge sits exposed on high ground, and a bitter south-easterly wind (which someone would later describe as ‘summery’) left me freezing. I headed back to Keel to explore McNamara’s other building projects on the island. About a mile from Achillhenge, you’ll find a Celtic Tiger burial pit of the sort that you’d expect to encounter on the fringes of a midlands town. A quiet pub called the Village Inn had once stood there, and McNamara bought the site and had the pub knocked. He’d planned to build a hotel, then tried to change the planning permission so that the size of the hotel could be increased; this application was unsuccessful, and work stalled. McNamara had borrowed the money for the job from Anglo Irish Bank. This was 2006; the work would never be finished. The site stretched about a hundred metres from the main road towards the sea, and was dug about twenty feet into the earth. When I visited, a large cement mixer sat rusting, visible from the road. Most of the ground had been paved and metal support beams jutted out of the cement in groups of five and six, forming a grid. Layers of fencing, covered with green mesh and rope, had been placed to keep people out, and were bordered by parking barriers along the roadside. If it had been completed, the hotel would have had remarkable views of Minaun and the nearby beach. Instead it was not so much an eyesore as a void. Someone in the Annexe suggested relocating Achillhenge onto this site.
In Barrett’s CostCutter in Keel, I noticed that thirty people had signed a petition to save Achillhenge. Achill’s population is 2,700, and I’m still not sure if the petition reflected rousing support or indifference. The media have portrayed McNamara as something of a heroic outsider artist – Achillhenge was pitched for the Turner Prize and described as a ‘Reason to be Cheerful’ in the Irish Times in December – while a Mayo News report from the site on a cloudy winter solstice morning suggested that McNamara had the power to make the sun come out: ‘There was a feeling that nothing was impossible. Not with Joe McNamara involved.’ I got a slightly different impression on Achill. Most of the people I talked to spoke with a sort of awe at the brazenness of the undertaking of Achillhenge, but in the same breath would politely ask me if I’d seen the site in Keel. Some people were surprised at the media’s positive portrayal of Achillhenge. One man I spoke to likened McNamara’s national public profile to that of James Lynchehaun, an Achill native who, after being arrested for beating and disfiguring Agnes McDonnell, a landlord for whom he worked as an agent, in 1894, escaped from custody and hid out on the island for months, becoming something of a legend in the process. J.M. Synge heard the story during his visits to Achill and partly based Christy Mahon in The Playboy of the Western World on Lynchehaun. Perhaps our desperate need for a rebel during this time of national shame has distorted our assessments of McNamara, a property developer with an interest in pre-Christian spirituality and a fondness for concrete.
The next day, I decided to revisit Achillhenge. This time I took a shortcut overland from my B&B. There were few boundaries on the land, and the fences that did exist had been kicked over in places. The ground was marshy and I started to doubt my own footing. Step wrongly and the black earth itself would swallow me whole, or so it seemed. The only other living creature I encountered was a startled hare. Eventually, I joined the old train-line road and followed it towards the top of a hill that surveyed the western tip of Achill, with the sea beyond it and Clare Island at the edge of the horizon, looking like a pregnant woman lying on her back. From that vantage point, McNamara’s ring took on a magical quality. The sun had cracked though the clouds and a thin layer of mist had settled around the ring. Seen from a certain distance, Achillhenge seemed to mirror the timelessness of the mountains and the sea.
I continued my approach overland, passing some fenced-in bog and an abandoned grey car about a quarter mile from any driveable road. Its windows were smashed and its seats were ripped up. The ground got wetter and wetter. I climbed a tall mound of earth that put me at eye-level with the top of the structure. Someone had climbed Achillhenge in the twenty-four hours since my last visit and left two small cairns atop it. There was new graffiti as well: ‘Ná scriostear é!’ and ‘Teach Solais’. Five children had signed their names.
The purpose of the enterprise remained unclear. Surely McNamara expected the Mayo County Council to do everything in its power to make sure Achillhenge was not allowed to stand. But even if the High Court was to render it a ‘temporary installation’ (to borrow the language of contemporary art), McNamara had made a mark on the land that would take years and years to cover up. Many on the island doubted that the county council had the logistical and financial ability to remove the structure. I departed feeling that despite the fascinating things it does to and within the landscape, and the public interest it has generated, Achillhenge is first and foremost a monument to its creator. In its disrespect for the law and the environment, it embodies the spirit of feckless development that has crippled Ireland.
An older woman and a teenage girl were doing a lap of the ring as I prepared to leave. ‘I hope they keep it,’ the older woman said as she passed me.
At the southern base of Slievemore there is an abandoned village, and I decided to explore it in the two hours I had to kill before my bus left. En route, I passed a house that McNamara had built for himself. It, too, was unfinished, though it looked inhabitable from the outside. Most of the houses on Achill were white bungalows, but this was a two-storey villa clad in ostentatious orange brick, with verandas looking out towards Minaun. Its most striking feature was the imposing wall at the front of the property, which stood about ten feet high and was topped in places by metal railings with arrowhead-shaped tops. The wall also featured odd circular and semi-circular brick arrangements – more evidence, perhaps, of McNamara’s aesthetic.
I reached the abandoned village half an hour later. It was beside the island’s graveyard. From afar, it looked like a field exposed limestone, but as I approached I could see the foundations of houses. A sign said it was called The Abandoned Village because nobody knew its original name. Heinrich Böll had lived nearby in Dugort and had written about the village in his Irish Journal: ‘No bombed city, no artillery-raked village ever looked like this, for bombs and shells are nothing but extended tomahawks, battle-axes, maces, with which to smash, to hack to pieces, but here there is no trace of violence; in limitless patience time and the elements have eaten away everything not made of stone, and from the earth have sprouted cushions on which these bones lie like relics, cushions of moss and grass.’ Even in Böll’s time on Achill, more than fifty years ago, there was confusion about what had happened to the village and its people. ‘No one could tell us exactly when and why the village had been abandoned,’ he wrote.
A man in his twenties, finishing his descent of Slievemore, stopped to talk to me outside the village. I asked him how high he had to climb to see Achillhenge. He pointed to one of the mountain’s uppermost ridges. From that height, it didn’t seem to have made much of an impression on him.
The bridge that links Achill to the mainland is not long. The tide was out when my bus drove over it and a narrow channel of shallow water divided the island from the rest of Mayo. The only people on the bus were myself, the mountain-climber and a middle-aged man with rosary beads wrapped around his wrists. I watched the scenery pass and tried to imagine some point in the future, generations from now, when Ireland’s economic collapse was a matter of history, no longer a reality to be negotiated daily. Perhaps Achillhenge will be viewed, like the deserted village, as just another Achill ruin. The power of its presence may grow. I remembered a conversation I had had with a woman in Lourdie’s pub in Dooagh on Saturday night. She had been walking towards Achillhenge along the old train tracks with a friend. As the structure appeared on the horizon, she said to him: ‘What will they say about it a few hundred years from now? What will it say about us?’
‘Twenty-first-century concrete,’ her friend replied.
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