Interviews

Techology, Land, & Machines

Question: You’ve spoken to me about how your relationship with technology started when you were seven years of age on Achill, there's some recordings of that elsehwere. You also spoke about how you somehow became drawn towards using technology and working with various types of machines throughout your life. You use and re-use those phrases Gramophone and Grammar phone interchangeably throughout parts of your work, Can you maybe say something about that?

As children we don’t analyse much, we do try to understand or comprehend but we don’t have that much knowledge or experience that we can consult some inner register to allow us depth or breathe of comparison, we simply don’t have the intellectual tools or the material. Well I didn’t anyway, I wasn’t well educated, we were poor, my big job at seven years of age was to cart my mother’s gramophone around the houses and then stand beside it and keep it going as per the instructions of my mother. I can now almost sixty five years later look back at those times, the formative years as I’ve heard them called, and there I was hauling it around, standing to attention, supporting this machine. But was I? I sometimes think that the machine was the one providing me with support, there was this piece of electrical equipment and but for it, I’d no part to play, certainly no central part in the social proceedings of the evenings, maybe outside receiving the usual pats on the head and that. But along came this equipment and I found out who or what I thought I was supposed to be really quick, stand there and do that. It was to me a way of grasping the language of adult instruction, there was a vocabulary of rules of behaviour that I learned travelling around the neighbours’ houses, certain people would want the records in certain order, they’d want the machine to be in a special place, usually well away from the picture of the sacred heart. While I never really wanted to do much talking, people would ask you questions and then when I’d answer them, the first thing they’d do was correct me and tell me, this is the right way to say that, this is what you meant to say. When I reflect on that period today I think of it in the sense of a megaphone which I’d usually associate with barking instructions, on building sites anyway, and the fact that I kept getting corrected while learning these rules of good behaviour, it became a sort of grammar of behaviour phone, and I was glad to have it.

Question: You’ve also spoken to me about pride in the land of Achill and your early relationship with it. Those two themes, your relationship with the land and your relationship with machines seem to, in some way, also seems to inform a lot of your work, can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Well the land is the land, it’s the source of all, no land, no all, in truth no land no anything. As I told you my father’s generation were very poor, like everyone else on Achill back then. People lived off the land, the land provided them with food and fuel, with work and a means to live. When times got tough and there just wasn’t enough to go around, or even to share a bite to eat, a lot of the families would head over to Scotland and spend a few months there digging and collecting potatoes for Scottish landowners. We did it so we could get money yes but also for the potatoes too. If you went to work there and took your whole family with you, then that was a couple of months you didn’t have to look for food for them, it was awful hard work but the good side of it was that you were fed and you were all together. The land provided us with everything and as soon as I was able as a child to hold a spade or a slain, I was out digging, cutting and collecting with the rest of them, spreading seaweed and all those things. I never noticed that, I never noticed the land until I went away to England to work at fourteen. As you know I’d been on Achill all my life, up and down it, in as far as Newport, Westport and Galway, up to Belmullet. In a lot of ways the whole place looked the same, a wild beautiful windswept landscape of struggle and survival. I never noticed it until I saw England and Wales and then it came back into my memory and imagination, but all that came with a kind of soft focus over it, for the first weeks it was my tears that were causing that, but even after the tears slowed down that filter remained. When I went over to England on my own as that boy of fourteen I saw real machines for the first time, and when I went to sleep I heard their songs too. I was put to greasing the big machines in an open cast coal mine, I spent my days listening to the noise of them grading, crunching out and rattling, it was only when it went quiet at night did I actually hear them, during the day it was noise, noise and heat and dust, sweat and slagg and fellas shouting this and that, it all rolled into the same ball of noise. At night I could remember the noises by separating out the different sounds in my head. Later I could close my eyes during the day and know which of the machines was beside or close to me, just by the noises they made. And sure after a while I called them by their names, names I’d put on them when I was greasing them and keeping them going and that. I learned stuff about them unknown to myself, the mechanic would come along and start shouting for me to hold this bit or get that bit or hand me this tool or hand me that dofor. That’s what I was getting paid for, working with machines. The job of those machines was to rip out the heart of the land, I often saw bogs, drains and holes on Achill but the scale of the mine was far beyond anything I ever dreamed of. Maybe like when I was child, I felt safest or at least I knew my place when I was beside those machines and just trying to do what was my job.

Question: You have had a lot of subsequent jobs you said and most of them if I remember correctly involved working land or working with such machines?

When I was seventeen they put me to driving the bigger machines, I was in my element, it was the early sixties in Britain and they were starting to build the motorways. I moved to another job and there I was back at the land digging it up again and getting real money to do it for the first time in my life. As I explained to you we were doing double shifts and raking it in, we only got the odd weekend off and that’s when we’d go hell for leather at drinking and playing up, you’d save up for a couple of weeks and blow a pocket load of money in a night or two. Yes I worked the land and I worked with machines and I spent a whole lot of my life working at land using machines, as I told you I dug bogs at twelve or thirteen and the land was offering itself up to us, to keep us warm in winter. When I started driving the machines it was just shifting the dirt and the muck, then I ended up digging it up and moving it, the land in England wasn’t giving anything freely. There was rocks and shale and stones the size of cattle, all the time churning out of the ground and I was stuck in the middle of it, seeing the destruction and uprooting of it all, yet I was loving it. Or so I told myself, loving it but buying books of poetry instead of pints