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Editorial: no man is an island

001 ar cover june

Choosing to encompass instead the entirety of ‘the islands of Ireland’ is itself a provocation – one that nevertheless proves productive, as we ramble and rove around collapsed seams and difficult terrain to cast an eye over a land in the middle of something

Standing on a moss-laden rock encircled by crashing waves, looking back at the Old Continent from a comfortable distance, the islands of Ireland are ‘not so much densely inhabited as densely remembered, densely imagined’, writes Andrew Clancy. The confines of the islands and its geographical situation at the edge of Europe help to explain this ‘unspoken need to understand where we stood in relation to others’. While Leo Varadkar has expressed his government’s desire to ‘be an island at the centre of the world’, being at a slant to the centre is also a privileged position – it helps to build perspective. 

The AR regularly devotes entire issues to specific geographic entities. Over the last year, we have cast a light on the architectural landscapes of places such as Belgium and Korea. While relatively small in scale, these incredibly complex and divided nations are the homes of fertile architectural cultures. The deliberate indeterminateness of appellations such as ‘Korea’ or ‘Ireland’ is productive in its ambiguity. This month, we thought ‘the islands of Ireland’ was both a more poetic and more accurate definition of the issue’s spread – one of the buildings visited and reviewed in these pages is in the remote reaches of Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands.

‘Buildings are crucial and vulnerable repositories of identity and memory, but there is no “Irishness”’

Ignoring the rigid, often arbitrary, frontiers dividing countries, and choosing to encompass instead the entirety of ‘the islands of Ireland’ is in itself a provocation. In times of interminably painful Brexit negotiations, with the looming spectre of ‘no deal’ never out of sight, the Irish backstop is arguably the most sensitive point, at the heart of much controversy. The language of the border has been abstracted and its scars covered over, writes Maria McLintock, yet ‘borders can contain and produce more than just its one cartographic “line”’. Border lines are always abstract reductions; border lands are the messier reality, ‘precarious and pulsating at [their] seams’. The thread the AR started to pull in last month’s Periphery issue unravels further here: beyond the tangled jargon of trade deals and custom unions, there are the tangible experiences of everyday lives. 

By scheduling this issue for June, the idea was to send it to press two months after the UK would formally exit the European Union – as per the original divorce date of 29 March. After three years of political turmoil, and with no sense of being closer to a resolution, oppressive unknowing overshadows the horizon – the latest turbulent political episode in the island’s long and troubled history.

Inscribed on an almost parallel timeline, inevitably affected by unstable socio-political climates yet simultaneously carving their own paths, architectural histories are being composed. And in less than half a century Irish architecture emerged ‘from rarely published insular backwater to global recognition’, observes Shane O’Toole in the keynote, before warning us that this critical culture, growing and evolving over four and a half decades, is now in peril of starvation, with a generation of architects languishing on a diet of house extensions and small pavilions. 

Buildings are crucial and vulnerable repositories of identity and memory, both symbols of power and focal points of resistance, but there is no ‘Irishness’ argues Darran Anderson as there is ‘no single definitive lineage of Irish history or architecture’. Clancy concurs and adds: ‘If there is a canon in Irish architecture, it seems to be one of ambiguity, of refined cross-pollinations, of great thought in small things. Of conversation as a site of knowledge’.

Thumbnail image: George and Mary Mahon at Salthill, County Galway, c.1914. National Library of Ireland / Flickr Commons

This piece is featured in the AR June 2019 issue on the islands of Ireland – click here to purchase your copy today