Exhibition Text
Eimear Walshe’s work traces the legacies of late 19th century land contestation in Ireland and its relation to private property, sexual conservatism, and the built environment. While their research is deeply grounded in the specificities of the Irish context, the historical and cultural forces it describes resonate transnationally. Their practice speaks to the violence, humiliations and losses of colonisation – and tells parallel stories of complicity, disavowal and betrayal.

ROMANTIC IRELAND comprises a multi-channel video installation and an operatic soundtrack housed in an earth-built sculpture. The video stages soapy, melodramatic encounters between character archetypes from the 19th to 21st centuries. These figures occupy an abstracted ruin, a site under simultaneous construction and demolition.

“This project emerges from a period where I was learning rudimentary building skills, with the aim of gaining the ability to house myself and my friends in the future. At the same time, we were witnessing an escalation in the breaking apart of buildings during evictions, so that tenants can’t return and landlords can demolish, sell or hoard vacant buildings. The demolishing evictions constitute a resurgence of a 19th century practice which cleared millions of Irish tenants from the land, from their way of life, and means of survival.”

The video depicts a frenzied and fraught engagement with the ancient practice of earth-building, a form of construction with an eleven thousand year history and local iterations across the world. This vernacular architecture, hyperlocal and with materials drawn from the very land on which it stands, involves making timber shuttering into which earth is packed and tamped. In ROMANTIC IRELAND we see the oxymoronic building of a ruin, an encounter between anticipation and aftermath.  

The soundtrack is a five-voice opera describing an eviction, composed by Amanda Feery with a libretto by Walshe. An elderly man, dying in his bed, speaks to the young men who arrive to evict him. The scene takes place on the night of a well-known radio broadcast from 1943, when Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Éamon de Valera gave his Saint Patrick’s Day speech The Ireland That We Dreamed Of (or On Language & the Irish Nation). In the aftermath of partial independence, partition and a bloody civil war, de Valera (aka Dev) paints a picture of a nation bound together in “frugal comfort”, cared for financially in their “cosy homesteads” and safely conforming within conservative family structures. This vision is in sharp contrast to Ireland’s contemporary state: a hostile economic environment coupled with claims of social and sexual liberalism. 

On the edge of both death and dispossession, the man recounts a relationship to his home that runs counter to an understanding of a house as ‘property’; a relationship closer to a mutual friendship. This structure has sheltered him and cared for him just as he has maintained and sustained it. Built with traditional processes of collective community labour, it is imbued with a set of deep social, material and metaphysical relations and histories. 

“We learn to build while watching homes around the country be physically destroyed. It made me think in turn back to the builders who made those homes, the people employed to break them apart, you start to sense a familiar cycle of colonial history. The pavilion tries to hold these temporalities in one space – the building site, the eviction scene, and the ruin.”

Walshe’s project considers the complex politics of collective building through the historical Irish tradition of the ‘meitheal’: a gang of workers, neighbours, kith and kin who come together to build, harvest and cooperate in mutual aid. The earth-building process depicted on screen is echoed in the structure that holds both the work and the viewer within the exhibition. 

“There is something powerful about remembering that for millennia, communities across the world have come together to build with local variations of cob, adobe and, rammed earth. The process is slow, labour intensive, very sensory, and visceral. It’s also amazing that structures using compressed earth have survived so long. These social, environmental, and historic elements are keys to understanding shifts in building, labour, and domestic practices through time, and are what led to this material becoming such a central part of the exhibition.”

Filmed on four mobile phones passed between the performers, breaching the traditional distinction between director, actor and cinematographer, the video work was shot on location at the sustainable skills centre, Common Knowledge, in County Clare on Ireland’s west coast. Led by choreographer Mufutau Yusuf, a group of seven performers including the artist, depict characters in constantly rupturing relations. Below the neck, their costumes evoke the politically instrumentalised category of ‘ordinary decency’ from various modern eras – archetypes of the representative subject, the common citizen, the social orthodoxy, the legible dyad. Above the neck, olive-green latex masks stretch each performer’s face into an open-eyed stare and partial immobilisation. In contrast with the claims to ordinariness and decency in the clothing, the masks – which are a common fetish wear object – evoke the deviant, the criminal, the militaristic, the alien.

“The performances pull the costumes towards and away from their associations in relation to decency, sex, labour, militarism, monogamy, secrecy, class stratification, and deviancy, by moving, sometimes sharply, between tones of banality, romance, teamwork, domesticity, conflict, mutation.”

Made in the shadow of the ongoing housing crisis in Ireland, the installation in ROMANTIC IRELAND becomes variously, a building site of possibility; a wrestling ring for Ireland’s generational and class antagonisms; a space of tender care, and a structure made into a cold ruin by the social death of eviction. The exhibition forces encounters between historic moments, drawing out their parallel power dynamics and affective registers; their forms of labour, conflict and pleasure, and the entangled histories of sexuality, property and the state.