The Tonnes

Watch Video of the Tonnes

The Tonnes, a Meeting of the Waters , will engage the residents of the area along the Foyle River on both sides of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The act of making art in community gives participants access to intense and complex experiences. It is our hope that as people engage in this project of animating the public space of the Foyle River and Lough Foyle, they will take a step towards strengthening their attachment to the place where they live, towards a vision of this place as a community to which they all belong. Such experiences are one way to build lasting changes in attitude, laying the groundwork for peaceful coexistence and productive social relations.

The Tonnes is a site-specific public art project to animate the public space of the Foyle River and Lough Foyle. It invokes the myths, history, and energy of the border area encompassing Strabane, Derry, Donegal and Limavady, from the source of the Foyle River to the North Atlantic. The project invites the 300,000 people who live in this area to engage in the creation of a work of art in community. We will invite them to animate this public space as a way of connecting to their individual selves, to each other, and to their land, to home.

A floating sculptural installation will be built on a vessel that will travel down the Foyle from its source at Strabane all the way to the place where Lough Foyle meets the Atlantic. These waters have always been associated with myth and legend. This place is called “The Tonnes”, or “The Meeting of the Waters”, and is the legendary burial place of the Celtic sea god Manamman Mac Lir. And Ii is said of St. Columbcille that the surging waves, at times as high as mountains in tempest, became quickly quiet and smooth in response to his prayer, and so his ship reached its destination in a perfect calm.

The vessel will be a square barge with its middle open to the water of the river. Over the opening a well house will be built, lined with silver tiles burnished in a Celtic key and step pattern. Passengers will be able to enter the house and walk around the periphery inside on a balcony. The river water will be illuminated, and its moving reflections on the silver will create an illusion of being underwater, perhaps on a visit to the Tir na n-Og, the Irish otherworld, said to lie under the sea.

There is a proverbial saying alluding to the old Irish tradition of building memorial cairns: Curri mi cloch er do charne. I will add a stone to your cairn, meaning when you are no more I will do all possible to honor your memory. While the vessel is being constructed, people in large and small communities along both sides of the water route will be provided with stones engraved with words they have chosen. With these stones they will build cairns on the keys, or piers, along the banks of the river and the lough. Local organizations will be enlisted to sponsor the organization of the cairn building, and to schedule forums or discussion groups in connection with these activities.

For the main part of the project, the vessel will begin its slow journey north, stopping along the way at keys on both sides of the river. An event will take place at each docking. The cairns will be dismantled, and participants will lay the engraved stones out on the decks. There will be a reading of the messages on the stones. Coastal and border communities will express their traditions, from Scots Irish to Gaelic and from Loyalist to Republican, and will be invited to celebrate and understand their differences as well as their common roots and experiences. These are the building blocks for what Ireland North and South will become in the Post Peace Process era.

Finally, when the vessel reaches its destination at The Tonnes, the stones will be dropped overboard into the turbulent waters. They will sink to the bottom and re-emerge over the years as they wash up on the beaches along the northern coastlines of Donegal and Northern Ireland.

The Tonnes project will animate a large geographical space, the body of water that divides the North from the Republic. It is a space that can hardly be ignored, that is part of the daily lives of everyone in the area. During the year of the project (2007-8) the active presence of the barge as it moves along its route will be a visible reminder of its purpose. We hope to find ways to keep the barge on the river in the years following the initial project, and to organize an annual event around it that will serve as an occasion for the renewal of reconciliation. Public participation will be organized in as many towns along the way as possible, with local community groups and organisations taking charge of organising the engraving of the stones, cairn building and reception of the barge. We are also in the process of enlisting the collaboration of a number of larger organisations, including the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the Arts Council of Ireland, Donegal County Council, and Derry City Council. We are also in discussion with the Community Arts Forum.

We have confidence in the potential of the project to enhance other types of peacebuilding efforts that are going on at the same time. Working together all these efforts can change attitudes and build a basis for reconciliation. This should have positive reverberations in the economic and social life of the region, making it, in turn, a more attractive place for investment and tourism.

More and more in the literature on peacemaking there is a recognition that the achievement of a durable peace involves people in processes that are more intuitive than rational. John Paul Lederach, in The Moral Imagination (Oxford, 2005), goes so far as to characterize the peacemaking process itself as intuitive rather than logical. He says, Time and again, where in small or large ways the shackles of violence are broken, we find a singular tap root that gives life to the moral imagination: the capacity of individuals and communities to imagine themselves in a web of relationship even with their enemies (page 34).

Craig Zelizer observes: In prevention and post-conflict peacebuilding, community arts can be an especially effective tool to bring together identity groups through sharing common cultural experiences, raising awareness about past suffering, and engaging the community in creative projects. Often in a post-conflict or highly escalated conflict environment, it can be too difficult to engage communities in direct discussions about the harm and suffering resulting from conflict. It is only recently, that arts-based processes have begun to be more widely used as a tool in peacebuilding work. (“Alternative and Critical Voices: Creative Visions of Civil Society in Bosnia-Herzegovina”, paper for International Studies Association Conference, New Orleans, March 27, 2002) In “A Shared Future” (Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, March, 2005), it is pointed out that, “Relationships are central. There is, therefore, an onus on all of us to play part in initiating, encouraging and developing dialogues. We need to ensure that the ‘spaces’ where we have a responsibility are really safe for everyone and that they are used actively to create those conversations to build relationships.”

The Tonnes project aims to develop a dialogue through art in the community space of the waters of the Foyle, to literally create a safe place for everyone, where they can engage in “conversations” on a higher plane, where they can sense, without the need for explanation, the connections between their personal stories and the stories of the larger culture, its myths and legends, its history and its future. It aims to bring the dialogue to a level beyond conflict by evoking images and associations that are already common property in the consciousness of the people of the area. These include the water itself, with all its historical, environmental, recreational and mythical associations, and traditional Irish elements woven into the art, such as cairns, Celtic patterns, and the legend of Mac Lir. People on both sides of the conflict and both sides of the border will work together on various aspects of the project. They will be encouraged to bring their children and grandchildren to participate in the building of cairns and in boarding the barge when it stops at their town. The project also addresses the problem of acknowledging and dealing with the past.

The cairns will be built using stones which have been engraved with phrases that people have chosen. Some of this may raise emotions about the past. The objective is to channel expression away from violence and into the meaning of the stones. Every statement has equal value. All bear witness to the conflict. But where does one go beyond radicalism? One answer is to go beyond conflict to a place of common ground, a future. The barge will carry the weight of these stones. At the end of the project, the stones will be buried in the sea, perhaps to wash up on the beach years later.

It is hoped that the project will foster the development of a shared vision of an interdependent and fair society. This is a long process. The long-term goal of keeping the barge on the river for several years and having repeated events associated with it, drawing in tourists, having people meet there year after year, as they do at Medicine Wheel in Boston, will contribute to this process.


Read about Tir Na Nog

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