About Visitation Scenes
(extract from introductory essay in the Visitation Scenes Book)
The background to this work was developed while I was working on a previous series, Life Story Work, exhibited at Street Level, Glasgow in 2012. During these journeys I discovered things about my heritage that I had not known.
The more I found out about my family, I discovered that my stories were shared with many other people from that time with similar backgrounds. For example, in the late 19th Century in Ireland, it was common for ordinary Catholic men to sign up to the loyalist Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). At that time the organisation was accepted as an effective police force for Ireland. It was also common for policemen to marry women of a similar class. My great grandfather's father-in-law, John Fagan (1826–1900) was a teacher in Glenville, County Cork. The fact that this was a republican family did not seem to matter. However, over time the RIC became more and more hated, and many of them, along with their families, had to leave Ireland — as did my great grandfather and his family around 1912 — moving to England.
Like many in his situation my grandfather Augustine joined the British Navy and was based at Chatham Docks in Kent. When war broke out, he and his family were relocated to the Scottish Naval Base at Rosyth (near Dunfermline). It was a similar story for many naval workers who had been based at Chatham.
My great uncle and aunt who were killed at Auschwitz concentration camp shared that fate with almost a million other Jews. What was different for them was that my great uncle was a World War One veteran, and this category of Jew was protected from deportation and extermination in the early years of the war. However, in 1943 he and his wife were deported to Theresienstadt with other war veterans, and in 1944 murdered at Auschwitz four months before the camp was liberated, during the Nazi killing frenzy towards the end of the war.
Meanwhile my grandfather escaped to Shanghai with 17,000 other refugees, and my father escaped to the UK on a Kindertransport alongside 10,000 other children.
So, this work is not just about my family. It explores themes of dislocation, relocation and alienation which have affected countless people over the years. The after-effects of these traumatic experiences are felt across generations. For myself, although I was born in Britain I was not 100% sure I was British or really belonged in this country. That experience is shared by most second generation immigrants. To know how common that experience is, and to have had the opportunity to explore my mixed heritage, has been helpful for me personally.
In the UK we have been many spared major border changes, but in carrying out this project it was humbling to see just how much upheaval there has been for large populations in continental Europe. Lviv, for example, was in Poland but is now in Ukraine. Most of the Jews there were killed or fled, and all the Polish citizens had leave the city after the war. Many Polish towns, including Lignica, used to be German towns. Similarly to the Poles in the East of the Country, after the war around two million German citizens in Silesia had to find a new life for themselves elsewhere. And yet in roughly the same period of time the front door of a cottage in Pitlochry in Scotland has remained almost unchanged.
It was fascinating to witness people from the present, wearing the masks of people from the past who had connections to the location. In some images, this was particularly poignant. For example, the pub landlady in Ireland who owns the land where the Royal Irish Constabulary Barracks once stood before it was bombed by the IRA in 1920; the current occupant of the house in Pitlochry wearing the mask of the person who used to live there; the young Polish people in Legnica who wore the masks of German Jews who had lived there in the past; or the Chinese citizen who was working where Jewish Refugees once lived.