Dara McGrath Captures the Afterlives of the Irish War of Independence

Stemming from a new investigation into the fatalities of the Irish revolution in County Cork, 'For Those That Tell No Tales' at Crawford Art Gallery reminds us why memory is important

BY Nigel Swann in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 21 JUL 21

Photographer Dara McGrath’s latest exhibition, ‘For Those That Tell No Talesʼ at Crawford Art Gallery, documents sites across Cork where the lives of IRA volunteers, British armed forces and civilians were lost during the Irish War of Independence (1919–21). McGrath’s photographs serve as testament to those who died a century ago, connecting their histories to the present topography. Since no witnesses to these events are alive today, we are now the guardians of these memories – and soon, others will be.

dara mcgrath cross douglas road-douglas road
Dara McGrath, 14, Cross Douglas Road-Douglas Road, Corporal Leonard Douglas Hodnett, British Army, 2021, photograph of where Leonard Hodnett was shot dead on 28 February 1921 by the IRA who were seeking retaliation for the execution in Victoria Barracks of six of its members earlier in the day. Courtesy: the artist and Crawford Art Gallery, Cork

McGrath’s practice is concerned with the traces of human intervention on the landscape, frequently combining photographs with texts that document the shifting social histories connected to a place.  In her essay ‘The Generation of Postmemory’ (2008), Marianne Hirsch describes the process through which a ‘hinge’ generation of writers and thinkers relate to their past. Developing this idea, she explores how memories are passed between proximate generations through received, transferred knowledge. Bolting down the facts of each site depicted in ‘For Those That Tell No Tales’ is the rigorous research carried out by Dr Andy Bielenberg from University College Cork and Professor James Donnelly Jr. from the University of Wisconsin. Short but concise texts, based on the extensive studies of both historians, accompany each photograph. Their research is part of an ongoing project to document all the fatalities of the Irish revolution in County Cork, between 1919 and 1923, of which 840 have been identified so far of the thousands that died. Bielenberg intends to create a document as vast as the exceptional Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women and Children who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles (1999), a colossal study of lives lost during the Troubles featuring heartrending accounts of witnesses and victims’ families.

Without Bielenberg and Donnelly’s data, many of McGrath’s images might easily be mistaken for works from the new topographics school of photography – coined in 1975 by curator William Jenkins as the title of a group show that included images by Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher and Stephen Shore. While echoing these photographers’ post-industrial urban landscapes, McGrath focuses his lens on the architectural remains of war, recalling Asta Gröting’s ‘Berlin Facades’ (2016), for instance. But there are no bullet-hole constellations or splashes of shrapnel; instead, we have Bielenberg and Donnelly’s statistics undergirding the photographs’ roles as mediums of historic transmission.

dara mcgrath 8 blarney constable thomas walsh
Dara McGrath, 8 Blarney, Constable Thomas Joseph Walsh, Royal Irish Constabulary, 2021, photograph of where Constable Thomas Joseph Walsh was killed in an IRA ambush. Courtesy: the artist and Crawford Art Gallery, Cork

Of the more than 60 works in the show, the dozen or so that are entirely devoid of people encourage viewers to focus their gaze on objects and traces: tangled barrier tape; traffic cones, with one lying flat; discarded prams; a stained and patched footpath. The opening lines of Polish poet and World War II resistance fighter Zbigniew Herbert’s ‘To Extract Objects’ (published in Mr Cogito, 1974) come to mind: ‘To extract objects from their majestic silence takes either a ploy or a crime.ʼ In McGrath’s 8, Blarney, Constable Thomas Joseph Walsh, Royal Irish Constabulary (all works 2021), abandoned car tyres become building blocks for one of the city’s ubiquitous burning barricades, while in 14, Cross Douglas Road-Douglas Road, Corporal Leonard Douglas Hodnett, British Army, a stain on the road transfigures into a pool of spilled blood.

In 59, French’s Quay, Josephine Scannell, Civilian, a glimpse through the window of the old Beamish and Crawford Brewery conjures up an olfactory response. Was the summer air thick with the sweet smell of hops from the brewery on 23 June 1921, when 19-year-old Josephine Scannell was shot while working at home on her sewing machine?


dara mcgrath french's quay
Dara McGrath, 59, French’s Quay, Josephine Scannell, Civilian, 2021, photograph of where Josephine Scannell was killed in the shooting that followed a bomb attack by an IRA unit on 23 June 1921. Courtesy: the artist and Crawford Art Gallery, Cork

Although the majority of McGrath’s photographs have people either in or just entering the frame, their presence never dominates; it is the sense of place that pervades. A large graphic street map of Cork on the gallery wall identifies the location of each of McGrath’s images and, as you leave the exhibition with the weighty knowledge it bestows upon you, you tread the city streets with a more conscious step.

Main image: Dara McGrath, 38, Lychester Lane Private Albert ‘Bert’ Edward Whitear, British Army, photograph of where Albert ‘Bert’ Whitear died off-duty after a retaliatory attack from the IRA following the execution of six of its members of in Victoria Barracks in Cork, 28 February 1921. Courtesy: the artist and Crawford Art Gallery, Cork

'Dara McGrath: For Those That Tell No Tales' is on view at Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, until 29 August.

Nigel Swann is an Irish photographer and producer based in Co. Louth, Ireland. Recent exhibitions include ‘Reframing 100', a cross-border collaboration between Nerve Centre, Derry, and the Gallery of Photography Ireland, Dublin, 2021.