Knoxspark Forever: After Regeneration

KNOXSPARK FOREVER3Knoxspark Forever/After Regeneration

Revisiting and responding to the public art project, Regeneration (2000), by Martina Coyle, Hilary Gilligan and Pauline O’Connell at Knoxspark, Co. Sligo.

If you are going towards Sligo on the N4 Dual Carriageway, after the Collooney roundabout and after the road bends and cuts through a small tree-lined mound, get ready to pull in at a lay-by. You might, as I did the first time, have to squeeze pass a speed detection van that is sometimes parked here, then you just have to climb over a gate to get into a field. I had originally planned to come here to quickly investigate what I took to be the remains of a stone circle, that if you are very eagle eyed you can spot from the road. Instead I got a big surprise when I found an orientation stone that quickly identified that what looked to me like a field of sheep and rushes was actually a park designed by artists for a project 17 years ago called Regeneration.

I have been living in the north-west of Ireland since 2005 and have been driving this road regularly and had heard nothing about this project until now. However, thanks to the orientation stone I searched the Internet later that day and discovered more about it. On this first visit I only had time to find just one of the two stone benches and also didn’t realise I could cross under the road bridge to the other half of the site, where the other bench and orientation stone are placed, along with an eight tonne ‘Pillow Stone’ and more native tree planting.monolith2However, I could quickly see that there are issues surrounding accessibility, maintenance and promotion of what appears to be a very under used but potentially valuable public amenity, especially to the people of nearby Ballisodare and Collooney. There is now a flock of sheep being kept here, which perhaps indicates that ownership of the land has changed, but if this is the case there is no sign to show that the land is now private (a right of way could have been established). I have since found out that the land still belongs to Sligo Co. Co. and the land is rented to a sheep farmer but it is still open for the public to walk here. While the sheep are doing a useful job at keeping the grass low, obviously it would no longer be suitable for people walking dogs and only the able bodied can climb over the gates to gain access. One of the three stones from the ‘Pillow Stone’ is missing and the benches need to be weeded, rushes cut regularly etc at the very least. While there is a standard picnic/rest area sign just before you get to each of the lay-bys (which in my opinion are placed far too late to safely pull in unless you are already aware of them) there is nothing to announce Knoxspark and indicate it as a place for walking. The east-side of the park is marred by two over-head electric cables and numerous utility poles (which I have since learned were always there, on this very contested site). orientation stoneI love what the artists did here, all of the stonework is beautiful, the sensitivity they have shown to the landscape and their collective vision to see the project through in collaboration with the local community and wildlife and archaeological experts is still very evident and appears to have been very thorough (link to background of project below). I made contact with one of the artists, Pauline O’Connell, to try and find out more about the park’s current situation and it appears there was a 10 year management contract with Sligo Co. Co., which appears to have come to an end at some unknown time. As the project was originally funded through the Department of the Environment and Local Government, the National Roads Authority Per Cent for Art Scheme and the European Cohesion fund, we all own it and have every right to use it and have a say in its future. I’ve come to really like the park and don’t think it deserves to be left as it is and hope that by bringing some attention to it again this might be a small start towards its second and hopefully final regeneration or be just another naive (place in which to) dream.oxbow benchI would recommend going to the Sligo Arts Office webpage and reading the original catalogue for the wider project, Placing Art, that Regeneration was a part of (pages 49-60). This archived news story contains what looks to be a press release about the launch. I had originally actually spied not the remains of a stone circle but a promontory fort from the road, as this site is also very rich in archaeology according to this excavation report. Also, Eamon P. Kelly, Keeper of Irish Antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland has stated that, “I would say that Knoxspark is not just a monument of national importance but of considerable international importance,” due to his theory that it was at one time a Viking stronghold. Here is a section by Dr. Gavin Murphy from Placing Art that explains some of what Regeneration set out to achieve…

‘The project aims to regenerate a site in the town-land of Knoxspark. The site is a large expanse of land divided by the N4 dual carriageway. The idea of three artists, from diverse backgrounds, to collaborate on a venture of this kind is perhaps unique in Ireland. It is unique in that it not only sets a precedent with its collaborative element, which extends from the three artists to the teams of workers, experts and local participants involved, but that the nature of the intervention questions what we normally hold to be art.

The challenge to invigorate the area centres on the development of a public path through the site. Various artistic features and utilities have been added to enhance the walking experience. Two large orientation stones placed on sites at dual entrance points of the path open the viewer to various aspects of interest along the way. Seating, made from semi-honed fossilised limestone, has been added to enhance the enjoyment of views to Union Wood and the Knocknarea Mountain. An eight tonne, limestone ‘pillow stone’ has also been placed near the raised mound and indigenous trees and shrubs are now to be planted to enrich the terrain.

These aspects fulfil the utilitarian demands of the project. However, Regeneration is grounded by a weightier ethos. Its value is rooted in a sensitivity to the locale. To undertake the walk is to be opened to matters of archaeology, ecology, aesthetics and the community. Including these into the mindful drift of a stroll binds these wider considerations to disparate elements of everyday life.

To work Regeneration into this history is a delicate matter. The site demands solemnity and artistic intervention runs the risk of undermining such reverence. The key, for the three collaborating artists, lay in adopting an understated approach to art-making. Several engravings on the orientation stones alert the visitor to the archaeological significance lying beneath their feet. The ‘pillow stone’, a large boulder with a step cut into it, invites the visitor to engage with the site. Stepping up, the visitor can lie back on the boulder with their head cushioned in three water rolled stones that are set onto it. Lying in an east-west position, the visitor mirrors the orientation of the burials below. This helps tint the view of the Union Rock with knowledge of the initial significance of pillow stones. To adopt this low-key approach to the site is less a matter of limiting intervention than of understanding the gravity of the slightest adjustment to the locale.

Regeneration seeks to nurture ecological awareness, archaeological significance and community spirit through art. Each decision – whether it be to echo the contour of the river in the shapes cut out of the oxbow seats or encouraging imaginative flights as viewer’s lay their head upon the pillow stones – is grounded in this principle. The site will take many years for the planting to flourish fully. This extends the life of this artwork. In the end, Regeneration, is a matter of participation. To walk this site is to be enveloped in a locale sodden with history. It is to be treated to a journey where an art with its low-key aesthetic seeps quietly through the veins. To return again and again to this locale enables one to set personal affairs against minor shifts of a grander natural force.’bench west2For me there is an obvious question to ask; as beautiful, environmentally and archaeologically rich as this location is, having a park beside a busy dual-carriageway was always going to come with major noise problems. It is far from peaceful here and while trees were meant to soak up much of the noise this is not happening, certainly not in winter or even in summer. It is possible that not all of the tree planting occurred or was successful, there was also supposed to be a pond in the original plan, which is not here. These problems are not insurmountable however and with clever planning could yet be fixed to some degree. It’s not clear to me if the park was ever fully accessible to all, promoted and widely used. There may have once been access to the park from Ballisodare at a point on the old Sligo/Dublin road but there is no designated parking, no signage, two gates to climb and the route under the railway line floods if there is much rain. If these things were (quite easily I think) put right, then this route, in my opinion, would be the safest way for locals to access the park, as from the lay-by its often tricky to get back into the fast flowing traffic on the N4. union rock viewI have returned to the park many times and have yet to meet anyone there, those I see pulled into the lay-bys are usually using their phones. Knoxspark on any given day is a different experience and not everyone will care how it was originally planned or if it is fully accessible or not. A part of me likes how secret it has become but then I think of all the public money, the importance of the site and the effort of the artists, the local community etc. If Knoxspark is ever to have a chance at becoming what it was originally envisioned to be, it’s important that more people know it exists, experience it for themselves and come to their own conclusions about it and take action. pillow stoneI am realistic to know that not all public art projects, especially one as ambitious as this, can always be maintained and managed indefinitely. 17 years is a longtime and in many ways we are now living in a very different country and world since this project was first commissioned. By a strange coincidence, 5 days before the park’s official opening, ‘911’ happened, but more relevant to the park’s current situation could be the economic crash of 2008 and that by 2014 the debt of Sligo Co. Co. was estimated to be €120 million, according to this article. At this stage I have yet to contact anyone in the council directly about it as I want this piece to capture how I felt on discovering the site (as hopefully many more will do) and am using it as a way to gauge public awareness and gather opinion.orientation stoneeastMy own feeling is, these stone interventions, tree planting etc aren’t going anywhere and Knoxspark itself as a piece of land is here forever, so it’s not too late to put this right. Until some future date when it might be possible for the council to relaunch the park, raising awareness of its existence and beginning to use it again (even in a limited fashion) could be a first step towards this. If anyone knows more about the current situation of Knoxspark and Regeneration, or its history that I have missed, please get in touch. I am very open to helping with any future efforts which may arise to renew the park . oxbow thinking3On a number of visits I sat on the benches and one day climbed up to Union Rock to write the following edited notes as my main artistic response to Regeneration and Knoxspark. 

Everywhere is an ancient landscape, while Knoxspark might be no more special than any piece of ground, it does have its own unique history and perhaps, for those who are sensitive to these things, its own energy or feeling.

Only because the townland of Knoxspark was going to be upturned and cut in two by an extension of the N4 were artists ever invited to ‘regenerate’ this location. Their now truly wild park had always been designed for nature to complete but human nature has inevitably brought its own influence to bear here as well.

However, once you know that the park still exists, it remains open for the public to use and walk its ground. You can even slip unseen under the road itself and still connect with the whole site as you explore this place which lies so close to modernity yet is so far removed from that way of life. 

Even with the native tree planting it currently still looks to the casual eye like nothing more than a rushy  field. Coming on one of the benches and marvelling at its beauty and design for the first time was like discovering the Monolith on a morning stroll. Despite the problems there is still a very positive bold artistic vision on display here and on one level Knoxspark could be viewed as a secret site of artistic and cultural resistance in the face of bureaucracy, funding, public indifference and encroaching nature. In the same way that its incredibly rich archaeology lies long buried underground, so do far more recent cultural artefacts lie forgotten here as well This is a patient place, waiting to be discovered and rediscovered.

Its two benches invite us to sit and contemplate the slowly moving river, caught in its oxbow bend. Perhaps this can trigger our own thoughts to slow down and become more concentrated? Then to rise and walk along this curve and come to rest again. Perhaps to appreciate anew how we fit into this place or check if anything inside of us has already shifted as we listen again to the sounds of nature and traffic.

I found Knoxpark to behave like a changeling, on a chilly overcast day in March my photos made it look like the deserted and neglected place it has become but on a warm sunny day in May it not only looked like heaven, if the road was not too busy, it could even feel like it too.

While Knoxspark as a location would have gone on quite nicely without any interventions, regeneration is an ongoing process. Only by using this place can it stay alive and evolve as a particular location distinct from others. Not as any one person or group sees fit but how many conflicting people, forces and influences dictate as time passes. To have any effect we must all stake our own individual claims on this public amenity.

The Pillow Stone faces Union Rock, Knoxspark as viewed from that high, birdlike vantage point, can be seen as one small patch on the landscape, just a part of the wider fabric of all that currently surrounds it. A patch of green with a reflecting river along its edge where cars, vans, trucks and buses move quickly through, creating a constant airy drone that reaches even here.

Stephen Rennicks

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