Last word an intimate guide to belturbet

‘In the Current’ is a new art installation in Belturbet from artist YVONNE CULLIVAN, comprising a series of abstract films delving into her experience of the border town. Here, she tells the Celt’s DAMIAN MCCARNEY about man-made waves, a farewell trip for trains and her new passion for Belturbet.


An evocative childhood memory retold to artist Yvonne Cullivan set her off on an exploration of Belturbet that would result in an ambitious arts project which has so far spawned a series of short films, music and poetry.
“One man spoke of a memory of being a child and running down to the edge of the Erne, where he would hear the only motorised boat in town, coming up the river. He and his brother wanted to get the waves from the boat lapping against their ankles and they would feel like they were at the seaside.”
She met the local man, George Morrissey, during a ‘site visit’ organised by the Cavan County Council for artists interested in submitting an idea for an artwork under the ‘Per Cent for Art Scheme’. This is where the National Roads Authority re-routes one per cent of the funding for a capital project - in this case the Belturbet bypass - to an arts project for the local area. George’s story made a lasting impression on her.
“I came away thinking of that, and thinking about the very intimate knowledge of a place that you would only get from having lived there, or having spent a lot of time there. So that is what I decided to focus on, to engage with people on the ground to get that information about Belturbet - sensory, experiential stuff that you wouldn’t get off a tourist website.”
The Cavan Town artist then embarked on an exploration of lesser spotted Belturbet.
“I took off on a 16-month project looking for that information, working with locals and with specialists, heading out in kayaks, and going out into the bog, and getting a lovely sense of the place.”
Having met and discussed the hidden charms, stories and recollections of the area with over 50 residents and specialists, she created eight short films titled ‘In The Current’. They range in duration from three-and-a-half to seven minutes, and she describes them as an “alternative guide”.
“It is quite abstract, but for people who don’t know Belturbet it is one entrance point to getting to know it. The films look at the history of the town, the era of the Troubles, the bombing in Main Street, they look at the archaeological finds uncovered when the bypass was built, which were quite substantial, they look at the officers’ houses in ‘The Lawn’ and the interconnecting doorways between them that was an escape route for the officers of the British Army, they look at Aghnaguig bog, which is an EU-designated area of conservation - they are things which are very, very particular to Belturbet. They are quite interesting but not broadly known.”
Pushed on her favourite film, Yvonne admits to being “particularly moved” by a piece about the Cavan-to-Leitrim railway line.
“It’s quite special because I got my hands on the original 8mm footage that was shot on the last day the train left Belturbet for Arigna in 1959.”
She learned of the film’s existence from George again and tracked down the original footage to Dublinman Norman Campion. Norman captured the priceless film while working for An Taisce.
“So, there is this beautiful 8mm footage, grainy, in full colour of the train itself travelling through the Cavan-Leitrim countryside.
“The carriage was packed, I think it must have been a big thing that it was the last journey. So there’s loads of children and grown-ups hanging out the windows of the train waving at Norman who’s filming them from his car.
“And that footage has been interspersed with my own footage of a directors’ carriage, which is currently housed in Belturbet Railway station - it’s a really beautiful, opulent carriage from the Great Northern Railway. So, it is a very poignant film, I guess, about the loss of that; the loss of that industry. People have been very moved by that particular piece.”
Does Yvonne long for the return of the railways?
“If that landscape was open to me on a train journey, I would certainly take that train often. I think if we were networked up to Sligo, Donegal, Leitrim it would be a beautiful journey and would be very beneficial to all of those counties as well. But I’d settle for a Greenway!”
Another track of ‘In the Current’ is a custom-designed app, which Yvonne created in collaboration with Irish company Mobanode, one which she hopes will go live on the AppStore in the coming weeks. “I had been thinking about a guide - a guide that you would carry with you. I would work with audio and visual material anyway, so it made sense to me to make something that was digital, that was portable, and that was both something you would listen to and watch.
“The app holds the films but also all of the contextual research - all of the background facts, which people on the ground shared with me. It’s an art project first and foremost but it is quite an educational project in many ways. There is a lot of information embedded in the films about the place.
“We’ll see how it goes down.”
It also contains an audio recording of ‘Field Notes’, a long narrative poem written by Ballyhaise poet Tom Conaty in response to the films and research. Tom’s recital is accompanied by music written and performed by his son, Finn Conaty.
So is Yvonne an expert on Belturbet now?
“Well, I don’t know,” she says with a laugh, “it’s one aspect, it’s one person’s angle on it. I said on the launch night - I made eight short films, I could have made 16, I could have made 24 - it’s a very rich terrain down there and I don’t think people realise that.”
‘In The Current’ was launched in front of a huge audience during the recent Culture Night and runs in the Civic Centre (above the library) during opening hours until Sunday, October 5. This will be the last chance to enjoy the pieces, along with the specially composed electronic soundtrack by Carlow’s Jimmy Behan, in their intended large-scale format for a while. However, Yvonne hopes the project will live on.
“I hope that it will go further than Cavan and I hope it will go outside of the country as well. The films are specific to Belturbet but they could be read in a number of contexts so they can travel. The app itself will be permanently installed in Belturbet library so people will be able to view the work always in that space. It’s just the beginning to be honest.”
After all her research, Yvonne happily admits to having nurtured a soft spot for Belturbet.
“I do, absolutely,” she cheerfully confirms. “People think I’ve gone a little bit mad but I think it is a beautiful place down there, absolutely stunning.”
And then there’s the people who gave her a “really quite phenomenal” welcome.
“I have worked in a lot of other towns and it is a lot more challenging to get people to participate - but there were over 50 people involved in this project, which is a testament to their generosity, enthusiasm and open-mindedness.”