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  • Achillhenge: Liquid Modernity and an Archaeology of the Irish Anthropocene*
  • Nessa Cronin (bio)

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Joe Caslin, Our Nation’s Sons (2013), transient site-specific public-art installation of drawings applied with potato wash to property developer Joe McNamara’s prefabricated concrete columns on Achill Island (2011), now popularly called Achillhenge. Copyright by photographer Gavin Leane. Reproduced by the kind permission of Gavin Leane and Joe Caslin.

the heart is open planwired for alarmbut we never thoughtwe’d end like thisthe whole countrya builder’s tipif you lived hereyoud be home by now.

william wall, “ghost estate” (2011)1

In November 2011 Achill Island, off the west coast of Ireland, found itself with a new tourist attraction that had been built overnight. A circular, concrete structure that cloned the idea of Stonehenge was erected on a hilltop location on the western side of the island. While the design of the structure emulated the archaeological world of a British past, its sudden appearance and very materiality (in concrete, iron, and steel) offered a stark, visual reminder of an Irish present: a landscape that had been marked by the wreckage wrought after the 2007–8 global financial crisis. Built in one weekend by the well-known local property developer Joe McNamara, who was aided by [End Page 19] a team of construction workers, a series of 120 prefabricated concrete slabs were sunk partway into the Achill landscape to form a circle of thirty columns (see figure 1). Outline plans for the site with Mayo County Council indicate that McNamara intended to place a tomb within the circle to represent the demise of the Celtic Tiger, but that aspect of the monument remained incomplete. The construction had not received planning permission, and so the council instructed McNamara to immediately halt work on what subsequently became known as “Achillhenge.” McNamara refused to stop work on the site, claiming that it was an “ornamental garden” and was therefore exempt from any planning obligations or restrictions.2

Achillhenge fast became a national talking point and a global internet sensation, so much so that it now has its own Facebook page, Instagram account, and Twitter feed, and it has become a social-media meme.3 Although Irish comedian David O’Doherty calls it “Ireland’s weirdest cement turd monument,” it is now established as an unofficial tourist attraction for those traveling along the Wild Atlantic Way.4 It is listed on Tripadvisor as being “number 14 out of 18 things to do” on the island, with a post from visitor “Paul H.” from Tipperary noting the conjunction of the past in the present in that “this strange construction has become part of Ireland’s mythology.”5 Adding to this sense of mythological origin and impermanence, there are no longer any clearly visible signs to direct tourists to the site, and the only way to find it is by making local inquiries or searching for its virtual location on Google Maps (see figure 2).

In one of only two articles written about Achillhenge, Donald Mahoney explores the conflicting responses to the edifice and considers the origins, impact, and legacy of the structure and what it tells us about contemporary Ireland. In weighing up the very different [End Page 20] responses to the site, he concludes that “despite the fascinating things it does to and within the landscape, and the public interest it has generated, Achillhenge is first and foremost a monument to its creator. In its disrespect for the law and the environment it embodies the spirit of feckless development that has crippled Ireland.”6 The edifice became known locally as the “boom tomb,” and in many ways it can be regarded as being a “new ruin” of Celtic Tiger Ireland, a category devised by Rob Kitchin, Cian O’Callaghan, and Justin Gleeson to describe the phenomenon of failed property developments in postcrash Ireland.7

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Figure 1.

Achillhenge, Michael McLaughlin, 2011.

Reproduced with kind permission from the artist.

As a contested site and visual symbol of the franchise of “Global Ireland” and its spectacular failure...