Capturing the mythology and magic of the Irish countryside

View Gallery 10 Photos
© Iollann Ó Murchú

This article is part of the Education collection, a series of interviews highlighting student and early career photographers. 

Irish photographer Iollann Ó Murchú’s graduate project offers a poetic, black-and-white exploration of his homeland

“The solitude that a camera brought me while growing up was missing when I was studying in London. Like many people within this 21st-century urban landscape, I had a desire to return to a slower, more natural way of thinking and being,” says 24-year-old Irish photographer Iollann Ó Murchú. “I missed my landscape and language, having spoken Irish throughout my childhood. There was a fear of loss for so much of what Ireland had already lost.”

Ó Murchú recently completed his MA in photojournalism and documentary photography at the London College of Communication. His final body of work, Tarraingíonn Scéal Scéal Eile (One Story Leads to Another) is a poetic black-and-white exploration of his homeland, inspired by its myths: “This project was born from a want to engage with certain facets of Irish land and identity, particularly our history of storytelling and its respect of our landscape.”

“Mythology and folklore transcend that which is visually obvious and unmistakably there”

Growing up in Laytown, County Meath – a village on the east coast of Ireland – Ó Murchú was always curious about his surroundings, and as a teenager he would spend his weekends exploring and photographing abandoned places with his friends. “Nature had started to reclaim these areas, and flora and fauna grew within the walls of the derelict buildings,” he recalls. “Later, I went further away from the city and its edgelands and committed myself more fully to nature, creating images of trees, water, mountains, mounds, beaches and animals in the Irish countryside.” Ó Murchú completed a multimedia degree in Dublin before moving to London to continue his studies, which, he says, equipped him with “the flexibility to explore different visual languages”.

Once in London, Ó Murchú found himself researching and reading about the relationship between man and nature in Irish culture. This led him to consume more of his homeland’s classic mythology. What he found, he says, is a perpetual feeling of the fantastical that he wanted to emanate from his pictures. “Mythology and folklore transcend that which is visually obvious and unmistakably there into something that allows us to step into a different world,” he says. “As I delved further into the world of Irish mythology, I became more engrossed in it. Everything around me seemed magical.”

© Iollann Ó Murchú.
© Iollann Ó Murchú.
© Iollann Ó Murchú.

Shooting in black-and-white for its atmospheric quality, Ó Murchú returns to certain motifs in Tarraingíonn Scéal Scéal Eile repeatedly, including trees and water, which, he says, “flows throughout the work”. When deciding on locations, he explains, “I landed somewhere between making images within famous mythological sites like the Hill of Tara and the River Boyne, and making images where I place importance on an ‘insignificant’ space, for lack of a better word” – places such as the forest closest to his home or his mother’s birthplace in rural County Donegal. In this way, he was able to weave his own myths from the landscape, making them a part of a story “bigger than just my own”, he says.

The many animals and insects Ó Murchú photographed, meanwhile, are richly symbolic of Irish stories too: “The black dog can talk to ghosts and fairies and protect them. Butterflies are souls of the dead waiting to pass through Purgatory. Seagulls are the messenger of their fertility god, Aengus. They all hold significance.”

To echo what he calls the “lyrical, ever-changing” nature of Irish oral storytelling, Ó Murchú chose to make an interactive photobook as his final output for Tarraingíonn Scéal Scéal Eile. Handmade with a multi-folded cover, including three pamphlet-bound books inside, the publication “asks readers to move with the work”, he explains. Each viewer can take their own route through it. And ultimately, he says, these tactile and engaging qualities are meant to allow for pondering – of “images, words, and the connections between them”.

Joanna Cresswell

Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London