The Blue Pit

Fragments of Breda’s personal memories bifurcate into tales of other Irish women whose stories were portrayed on TV, written in books or passed along generations through oral history. From the occult to the occulted, Breda and Krzysztof talk about feminism, LGBTQI+ and women’s rights in Ireland and Poland, magic, catholicism, power shifts, an overthrown Amendment, Magdalene laundries, cyanotypes, masks and silencing. Lynch’s written voice brings with itself a choir.

Breda Lynch in conversation with Krzysztof Gutfrański — Mrz 17, 2021

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Blue Pit

Blue Dyke, Cyanotype/digital print on photo rag paper, A1 size, 2018

Krzysztof Gutfrański: There is a surge of interest in spirituality and mysticism at the moment, currently manifesting in both art practice and gallery programming. In truth, the interest in the occult has always been present in the arts. The ongoing wave of spirituality is rooted in explorations of feminism, anti-colonialism, and alternative power systems. Do you think pandemic anxieties connect stronger the occult with politics lately?

Breda Lynch: There has always been an interest in art and society with the occult, esoteric, spiritual, and mystical, and the many different ways in which that is described. To me, the interest in the occult, the spiritual, and the mystical is a part of art practice. It’s part of the engagement with the imagination. Channeling, possessing, and directing what could be construed as the indefinable, the metaphysical. This personal understanding is from an engagement with alchemy, esoteric personalities, theosophy, histories around paganism, modern occultism, witchcraft, mediumship, and satanic feminism. Knowledge gained from these engagements has been directed through art practice in different ways over the years.
As both an artist and educator based in Ireland, I have encountered over time a kind of prejudice toward such content, knowledge, or alternative practices of making art and developing artistic content. Themes created through these types of channels were sometimes considered at best unfashionable within creative communities, institutions, or art colleges. The engagement with such subject matter was sometimes demeaned, dismissed, or greeted with a degree of incredulity. For some, this was not the zeitgeist in contemporary art.
This is an area of practice that’s vital and vibrant. It can be difficult to understand, it may be contentious, challenging, all of these things. It is interesting how these areas of knowledge, once on the fringe, have recently had various attributes or methodologies absorbed into the social and political fabric of everyday life.

When physical shows were still possible, you took part in Elliptical Affinities: Irish Women Artists and the Politics of the Body, 1984 to the Present. Can you tell us how your feminist position began in Ireland?

I’ve always described myself as a feminist. Growing up I had to purposefully seek out my own history, a feminist history. Lesbian and queer stories were not available to me and I realized that at a young age. I did not fit into established narratives and expectations; I did not want to engage with predetermined roles and behaviors that were expected of me by a paternalistic state.
I would have had that very typical Irish country upbringing, Catholic of course. I would not describe myself as a Catholic now; more a pagan. Thinking of the past, there were a number of memories in my childhood or coming into my early adulthood, which had a profound influence on me. And certainly would have influenced me from the point of view of having to position myself as a feminist. Part protection and part protest against the cultures of misogyny and patriarchy within my own family.

How would you describe these memories?

My father seemed to recognise my difference at an early age. Around the age of eleven or twelve, probably twelve, I was summoned into the kitchen one evening. Both my mother and my step-grandmother were sitting while my father was standing by the fire. I was the topic of this conversation, but I didn’t feel included in the conversation.
My father was advocating that I should be sent to »New Ross.« I had no idea what was at New Ross or what New Ross was about. He was making reference to the Magdalene laundry in New Ross. My mother had said very little, it was my step-grandmother who said to my father, no, I would not be going there. In hindsight I had a lucky escape, not being sent to a Magdalene laundry.
At that time, in the 1970s, Magdalene laundries were places where bold girls were sent. »Fallen« women were sent there, pregnant girls, »troublesome« girls, and old women. They were slave houses where many women languished and never left. Families preferred to abandon them, as they had apparently brought shame on the family. For a lot of these women, all they needed to leave those institutions was two signatures, the signature of a local parish priest, and the signature of a male member of a family, a father, an uncle, a grandfather, a brother. But for so many of the Magdalene women they had no possibility of getting those two signatures. These church state institutions only closed their doors in Ireland in the 1990s.
Where I work, Limerick School of Art and Design, is a former Magdalene laundry that was repurposed as an art school at the end of the 1990s. The past is still present there. The women who were contained there are either dead or still seeking redress from the state or church bodies. The long-promised memorial to the women who were incarcerated there is still not onsite after more than 20 years of occupancy by LSAD. More evidence of the persistent culture of silencing still prevalent in Irish society.

What was happening in Ireland in the years before the Magdalene laundries shut down?
In 1983, I was 13 going on 14, there was the story of the death of Ann Lovett. News broke on a cold January, in a little town called Granard. She was a 15-year-old school girl who died while giving birth to a baby boy at a grotto dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. A national debate ensued about women and plenty of misogyny was aired during those conversations. Another event from 1984 was the Kerry Babies case, the public denouncing and demonisation of Joanne Hynes. At 24 years of age, she attempted to conceal the birth and the subsequent death of her baby in remote County Kerry. Parallel to these events was the grim discovery of a dead baby on a remote beach in County Kerry. The Garda1 decided that Joanne had killed her own baby and the dead baby found on the beach. They attempted to maintain that she had also given birth to both. »Superfecundation« was the term being used by Garda superintendents and media reporters. The Kerry Babies case became long-running and was given main headlines, detailing grotesque speculation around her anatomy and misogynistic shaming of her as a woman. Only in 2020 did the state apologise and compensate her and the family for the damage and trauma inflicted.

It is hard to imagine such a level of hatred toward women. How has it improved?

These tragic events that happened in 1980s Ireland deeply impacted me at the time as a young woman growing up in Ireland. Memories of those cases still haunt me to this day. But Ireland was not a safe place for women in the twentieth century. Even now, this country still has much explaining and redress to do. The recent botched apology for the legacy of the Mother and Baby homes in Ireland by our current Taoiseach2 being an example. »Everyone was to blame,« he said, which of course had everyone echoing the phrase »if everyone is to blame no one is to blame.« Of course we know who is responsible: the church and the Fianna Fail and/or Fine Gael state.3
A legacy of misery, exploitation, abuse, human trafficking, and death. All giving the silent treatment, which our state has demonstrated in its continued silencing and controlling of the past. The Catholic church has done its best to control and silence victims, still shaming after years of abuse perpetrated against citizens of Ireland. I once heard said that »modern Ireland was forged on the anvil of women’s suffering.«

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Blue Pit

The Pit, Detail of the installation view of the video, 2:00 Min., 2013

How do you combine research within your artistic practice?

My work is very informed by research, and research is an open term to me. Multiple sources are considered and explored for material, images, and meaning. Hidden histories, folklore, obscure archives, popular culture, mainstream media platforms, social media platforms, collective memories, underground information structures, and so forth. Appropriating, finding, or foraging images that »resonate« being a key feature of my process. The cut-up becomes a transformed thing capable of new meaning. Detournement and culture jamming are strategies that also find their way into the practice. For me, it is an intuitive process. Ultimately it allows for the pursuit of spiritual and existential meaning through knowledge and craft.
An example to explain a little more is a short experimental moving image work/installation I did a number of years ago called The Pit (2013). It uses approximately 20 seconds of original film footage from the black-and-white movie The Snake Pit (1948). The footage itself is picked, as it is a remembered dream sequence having watched the movie in my childhood. Later in adult life I wondered if I had dreamt this memory or if it were a film at all. This was an itch I had to scratch so I went about trying to find the movie, which I did. On rediscovering the dream sequence, I was compelled to work with it.
The sequence is one of the most visually compelling in the movie. It uses a long POV take. A God’s-eye view showing us what looks like a pit, reveals distant contorting figures, but gradually the camera zooms in to the face of the main character, Virginia, who, we then realise, is in a chaotic asylum ward surrounded by other distressed inmates. This POV shot is important as it moves from the omniscient God’s eye view to an intimate closeup.
Splitting the screen in two, I presented two iterations of the sequence. The left is the camera moving from the distant shot to the intimate closeup, as seen in the original clip, while the right-hand-side shows it in reverse, the camera moving from Virginia’s distressed closeup to eventually the omniscient view looking down upon the distressed inmates. The next manipulation is the timing of the footage and the muting of the sound. Whereas the appropriated film segment originally was 20 seconds, it was slowed so that the 20 seconds played out over two minutes. Finally, the two split-screen channels are looped into one final projection.
The cinematic sequence is selected for its psychological impact. Once doubled and manipulated in the manner it is, the left side plays forward while the right side plays simultaneously in reverse, creating a dizzying effect and the looping never brings it to closure. The simple and direct manipulations in editing the original footage creates an uneasy relationship between the self and the other. Or as my friend Dr. Jenny Keane suggested in earlier discourse on The Pit, that it »generates liminality between presence and dispossession.«

Do images can »dis-enchant« reality or personal perspective?

Now more than ever. With the undercurrent of disenchantment in the world there is a necessity to engage with the world of the imagination, paranormal ideas, the esoteric; and to visualise new inclusive realities, as in the western world, the old ways are inhabiting, declining, and corrupting. The last hundred years or so in the west have seen the development of new ways of thinking, expressions of spirituality, alternative philosophies, communities and modes of being, not allied to a state or established theologies. This activity has only accelerated in the beginning of the twenty-first century.

In your recent works you have a series of female »masked« Blue Dyke portraits. In cyanotype minimalistic form, you apply semi-anthropomorphic abstraction, which is reminiscent of Indigenous imagery in relation to magic. Who are these women, and what kind of change do they offer?

There is an ambivalence about these works and who these folk are. On one level, the masked appearances may remind us of old pagan or folk customs of mask-making and wearing that were pervasive across Ireland, Europe, and elsewhere. Masking has plenty of references in the Celtic or pagan past of Ireland, used as part of custom and celebration tied to the pagan calendar. Despite both British colonialism and Roman Catholicism, these folk customs have proved resilient over time. Some of these traditions have persisted into twenty-first century Ireland, through the activities of the Mummers, the Straw Boys, and other folk groups that engage in reenactments of these old folk traditions.
On another level these images are about the present. These are images that have been appropriated and accumulated from fashion images distributed and circulated online. Sourced from documentation detailing clothing collections from catwalk shows by Martin Margiela, amongst others, who have a reputation for deconstructing and queering fashion. These appropriations for me are presentations of selves that explore the non-binary, genderqueer and androgyny in an emancipatory manner. Identities are simultaneously sartorial and fabulously glamorous. These Blue Dyke characters are ambivalent and ambiguous identities.
Lastly, these images visualise a utopian future. Imaginings of female and queer personalities and collectives. Cyan sci-fi phantoms of the imminent future.

Cyan absorbs red light and as such is the complement of red. We can trick our mind into seeing cyan where it doesn’t exist by forcing the mind first to see everything as red.

I’ve heard it described as a borderline colour. It is the mixing of green and blue light. Sometimes the colour has a spectral, shadowy quality that allows one to move beyond the image. To me, I see these cyan images as ghosts. They’re ghosts of ghosts, sometimes three or four times removed through the copying and reproductive processes. I am interested in what finds its way into an artwork that was not intended and what does not find its way into an artwork that was intended.

When I think about my country, Poland, I see recent pro-choice struggles in borderline color. As Silvia Federici and others have suggested, we can also look at reproductive rights from the occult perspective. What do the witchy and wayward women of the past teach us in these truly substantive struggles for reproductive freedom?

Poland’s current government imposing bodily autonomy strictures on women and persons identifying as LGBTQI+ is state violence against women and queers. Looking back on our proclaimed independence from British rule, the Catholic church moved into the center of power, enabled by the new free state government at that time. Substantial power and even government portfolios, such as education and health, were given over to the church administration. This church and state entity imposed such strictures on Irish bodies for decades, all to maintain a church and state authority.
Remembering the »Repeal the Eighth« movement for the legalising of safe abortions in Ireland from 1983, the acceleration of organisations and representative groups in support of repealing the Eighth Amendment is notable. More than 15 years ago there would have been a handful of pro-abortion/Repeal the Eighth think tanks advocating and campaigning for change. More than 30 years of campaigning, activism, and protests by the feminist grassroots movements in Ireland eventually paid off. At the time of the referendum, there were approximately 66 such groups campaigning for the legalisation of abortion in Ireland. These groups were representative of communities, occupations such as Artists for Choice, Lawyers for Choice, Teachers for Choice, Doctors for Choice, Farmers for Choice, etc., or geographies such as Tipperary for Choice, Limerick for Choice, and so on. The two referendums, on marriage equality in 2015 and repealing the Eighth Amendment in 2018, were watershed moments in the recent history of this country.
Interestingly, after these referendums, the life of one of Ireland’s important saints, St. Brigid, seems to be reclaimed by the beneficiaries of both of these movements. Little-known aspects of her life, such as being a pagan Goddess, a healer, a mystic, an abortionist, and a lesbian have been spotlighted, much to the disgruntlement of pious Catholic church leaders and others. St Brigid’s legacy is at times obscure. Meave Brigid Callan, who is a professor of religion and medieval studies in Iowa in the United States, maintained in her scholarship that Brigid performed the first recorded abortion in Ireland in 650 AD. Here Callan maintains that Brigid was noted to have helped a »woman in a difficult situation.«

You grew up in Kilkenny, were there witches?

There was a curious case of Dame Alice Kytler, the Kilkenny witch who escaped being burned at the stake as she shape-shifted and escaped to England and was never heard from again. I grew up with this story, but the reality of her case was transformative to Irish history at that time.
This was medieval Ireland of 1324, and Alice was a woman of property and had been married four times and widowed. Children of one of the deceased husbands were disgruntled with their lack of inheritance and pressed for an investigation into Alice and her business dealings.
Eventually, accused of being witches and practicing witchcraft and sorcery, Alice and her maid Petronella De Meath were arrested and tried for heresy in front of an ecclesiastical court. They were also accused of worshipping the devil and fornicating with a demon, arguably the first record of devil worship being associated with witchcraft. Later, Alice escaped for a second time to England but her maid Petronella was arrested and burned at the stake outside what is the Tholsel in Kilkenny’s city center.
The aforementioned historian Maeve Brigid Callan discusses the story of Alice and Petronella in her book The Templars, the Witch and the Wild Irish. According to her this was not »real« heresy but »artificial« heresy, as these were fabricated charges against adversaries. She also presents an argument that this case also represented a type of transformation in the perception of Ireland having up to that point been seen as the island of »saints and scholars« to now being promoted by the Normans, the Roman Catholic church and the English, all settlers, as a land of »heathens and heretics.« Up to this point the Irish did not practice Christianity in the form of the Roman Catholic church. According to Callan, this story of Alice and Petronella reflected the »conflicting interests and shifting identities« on the island. Eventually this conflict was performed on the burning body of Petronella. This incident of burning a woman at the stake as a heretic and witch occurred well before the mass burning of witches across Europe in the fifteenth century. The context for these early trials were conflicts created around ethnic identity between the Irish, the Anglo-Irish, and the English.

Connecting to W.B. Yeats’s poem »The Second Coming,« do you think that pandemics gave Brexit an occult dimension?

Conflicts around ethnic identity are not uncommon in the histories of this island and our neighbors. In ways, art and magic have played their own roles in that history. An important writer/poet/magician who wrote about some of these conflicts was W.B. Yeats. I was always fascinated with Yeats’s life story, in particularly his engagement with practical magic, Celtic mysticism, the great wheel, and historical time. He was a high-ranking initiate of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. I loved reading about his psychic collaborations with George Hyde-Lees, whom he married in 1917. These activities included his translations of her automatic writing and automatic speech. Much of this activity led to the writing of a seminal text titled A Vision, written incorporating George’s automatic utterances and »scattered sentences« and contributions from etheric and higher spirits.
In 1919 during the Spanish flu pandemic, while a pregnant George was recovering from the flu, Yeats wrote what would become his most often quoted poem, »The Second Coming« (originally titled »The Second Birth«). Because of its vivid apocalyptic imagery, it has been quoted and referenced in twentieth and twenty-first century popular culture: television, film, music, and so on. In the poem he refers to history moving in 2,000-year cycles; »twenty centuries of stony sleep« coming to an end. A few years ago, the contemporary Irish journalist and writer Fintan O’Toole proposed a notion called the »Yeats test.« Here he maintained that the more Yeats was quoted in media and politics, »the worse things are.«4 Indeed it is obvious the political shenanigans of the past five years between Ireland, the UK, and the EU that change is afoot, Brexit being part of that change. For anyone observing domestic politics in Ireland during this Covid pandemic, change will come. Our current government is a Frankenstein monster, which presents quite the spectacle of the establishment clinging to power. And in doing so demonstrates in the words of Yeats that »the center cannot hold.«


Breda Lynch is a contemporary Irish artist born in Kilkenny and based in Limerick city, located in the west of Ireland, working in a variety of media, including drawing, photography, print, and digital media, video, and installation. She is a full-time lecturer in Fine Art at Limerick School of Art and Design. She engages with dialogues and discourses on queer feminisms, the western mystery tradition and occulture, appropriation, and the economy of the image.

Krzysztof Gutfrański is curator, editor, and researcher. His contextual research practice is pivots on issues of social engagement, alternative education, theory of value, and non-functional thinking in the era of systemic and technological transformations. Krzysztof was a fellow at the Akademie in 2020 and is co-editor-in-chief of this issue.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Blue Pit

Church and State, Cyanotype/digital print on photo rag paper, A1 size, 2019

  1. The national police service.

  2. The Republic of Ireland’s Prime Minister.

  3. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are major political parties in the Republic of Ireland.

  4. Fintan O’Toole: »›Yeats Test‹ criteria reveal we are doomed,« in The Irish Times, July 18, 2018 (accessed March 7, 2021).