Art and archaeology meet in Clifden Festival show

By the Water's Edge' by Augustine Coyne. The title of the photograph gives its name to the group art exhibition that’s running part of Clifden Arts Festival. The exhibition runs until Saturday, September 30 and also features paintings and mixed media work.
By the Water's Edge' by Augustine Coyne. The title of the photograph gives its name to the group art exhibition that’s running part of Clifden Arts Festival. The exhibition runs until Saturday, September 30 and also features paintings and mixed media work.

Arts Week with Judy Murphy

It’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow someone good – and that certainly proved true in Summer 2014 when Clifden-born archaeologist Erin Gibbons took a walk on the east side of Inishbofin island. Her discovery that day has resulted in an ongoing archaeological excavation as well as a unique art exhibition.

By Water’s Edge, currently showing at Clifden Arts Festival, features the work of Joe Boske, Brian Bourke, Jay Murphy, Dolores Lyne, Margaret Irwin West, Olwen Kelly, Scott Christian Ward, Marie Fitzpatrick, Augustine Coyne and Audrey Murray.

The terrible storms of winter 2014 disturbed the sand on Inishlyon and exposed the remains of a settlement on the western edge of this tiny tidal island beside Bofin. It was just above the shoreline, facing Bofin’s east beach.

Erin was excited and went out for a look. Although she couldn’t say for certain how old the site was without carbon dating it, experience told her it was relatively recent. The fact that it hadn’t been completely buried by an overfill of sand indicated that it was unlikely to be prehistoric, she explains.

A small grant from the National Monuments Service in 2015 allowed her to survey what she’d seen – it revealed two definite houses and probably two more.

In 2016, Erin and a group of students and artists returned to excavate the most vulnerable site, which had lost its end wall in the 2014 storms. They certainly weren’t houses as we’d recognise them – rather they were pit-houses, built by the poorest of the poor.

A pit house was built by digging a hole in the sand dunes, then facing the internal walls with stone. Those walls were built up using sods, then roofed with driftwood and scraws from nearby bogs before being thatched.

The tiny Inishlyon house, roughly 13 feet by seven, would have been accessed via a sloping stone pathway. Erin’s next challenge was to discover if this had been a dwelling house or an outhouse. A fireplace or hearth would signal that people rather than animals lived there – and the archaeological team discovered a hearth close to the entrance.

This dwelling had no chimney, so smoke could only escape via a hole in the roof and through the door. Hence the hearth’s location. A half-door let in light when the top half was opened – there were no windows.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.