This series of limited edition prints have been created specifically for WWT Castle Espie. Artists from Seacourt Print Workshop visited this important wildfowl reserve in May 2009 and were given a tour of the site by its Director James Orr. At that time there were still a lot of mechanical diggers re-sculpting the landscape, returning it to its natural state pre man’s intrusions and in the process revealing stories imprinted in layers of soil, clay, and limestone. It was these stories that the artists at SPW were asked to respond to; the fossil records of sea creatures which swam in warm equatorial waters before the human eye had evolved to witness them, the piles of oyster shells left by Mesolithic hunter gatherers over 9,000 years ago, the early outposts of Christianity which gave Castle Espie its name, the Victorian entrepreneurial spirit that enabled the building of largest chimney in Ireland at Robert Murland’s state of the art brick kilns and the present day safeguarding of the site as a protective host for the wildlife that inhabits Strangford Lough. This wildlife includes the 35,000 light bellied geese that make their heroic journey from Canada each winter to feed on the bountiful eel grass that grows on the Lough’s mudflats, an astounding story in itself and one repeated over millennia.
Twenty seven artists decided to mine this rich historical seam, exploring the strata to locate those stories that would best suit the printmaking techniques they were going to employ. Certain patterns and forms emerged as significant. The spiral in its concrete form as the structure of a shell and with its symbolism of balanced growth was incorporated by several of the artists. Uroboros and lemniscates point to the cyclical nature of migration and hint at eternal return. Although the past was touched upon by some, the present seemed to resonate more strongly, with most artists being drawn to the birdlife that inhabit the foreshore and are maintained at the reserve. This is perhaps a testament to the work of the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust which has in a few short decades established Castle Espie in the common consciousness as a safe haven for birds. This is in no small part down to the vision of its Director, the professionalism of the staff and the community of volunteers who work tirelessly in raising the public’s awareness of the importance of safeguarding our environment for future generations.
History of Castle Espie By James Orr, NI Director WWT
The townland that is Castle Espie, covering only about one square mile, is one of the smallest townlands in Ireland yet its importance over centuries on the social, physical and cultural fabric of Northern Ireland and beyond has only recently been unearthed.
A unique red and pink limestone is the geological secret behind this exaggerated influence. Rare in Co Down, limestone has been extracted at Castle Espie and burnt into a lime powder for use by farmers for ‘sweetening’ the land and by builders for mortar. Evidence of at least three lime kilns exists on the Castle Espie site, one of which towers over the landscape and is being restored by WWT, one is a ruin and another is submerged beneath a lake.
The earliest known use for the stone can be traced back, nearly one and half millennium, to the tidal mill at Nendrum. This beautifully preserved monastery, one of the most important early Christian sites in Ireland used Castle Espie limestone as a base stone for this mill, the earliest known tidal mill in the world. Other uses for stone were as gravestones, some have been traced to Co. Monaghan in the 17th century, baptismal fonts, keystones, and as polished fireplaces, most notably in the burnt out remains of Rockingham Castle, Co. Roscommon. This connection with churches, graveyards and monasteries is also rooted in the presence of a bishop’s castle on the site. Castle Espie is a translation from the earlier name ‘cailselan an espaig’, which means the bishops’ castle. Evidence of a bishops’ house or castle is now long gone.
Tables were also made for a few local farms, the polished stone being so cold that dinner had to be eaten extra quickly - a method used by farmers to get the labourers back into the fields. The stone polished into a beautiful smooth marble and was embedded with the remains of fossilised plants and animals the most remarkable of these being Rayonaceras Espeyense - a giant squid like creature that existed 320 million years ago and which has been found no where else in the world.
It was post famine Ireland that drove the labour for massive technological design in unprecedented parts of Ireland and the unstoppable pioneering spirit and conquering psychology of the industrialists. The Murland family was one such family who developed a massive enterprise in the 1860s and 1870s developing factories, pumping stations, brick works and pottery works all protected by a new sea wall. The water birds were there at the same time as the earliest Hoffman Kiln in Britain or Ireland was built from a revolutionary design, allowing bricks to be fired in a massive structure with a daily capacity of 24,000 bricks per day, serviced by probably the tallest chimney in Ireland. Radical change and redemption are two concurrent strands of the Castle Espie story and almost overnight the industrial activity failed probably from a combination of competing industries developing closer to Belfast, the lack of reliable transport links, an over extension of the family’s business interests, the inability to keep out the sea and the early death of young Robert Murland from ‘a disease of the mind’.
This fragment of over-industrialised countryside did not stand still. In the twentieth century, not only was it a working farm, it was a playground where many learned to shoot, swim, fish and sail. The row of terraced red brick houses called the Red Row blossomed into a community with its own boatyard, receiving evacuees from the blitz in Belfast and welcoming the home guard who camped there during the second world war. Tennis courts were built in 1927, the sea wall was breached by storm tides, and a private runway again radically transformed the site in the 1960s when vast amounts of earth were moved and reshaped. How different this would have looked to the stone age settlers whose occupation of the site 7,000 years ago was only recently discovered. To these Mesolithic people, this was a harsh exciting and undiscovered forested land, rich with shellfish, bears and boars and at a time when sea levels were much higher and much of what we now know of Castle Espie lay underwater.
Today nature has re-colonised the site in a post industrial landscape of limestone grasslands and wetlands where rare animals such as Rudd, otters, eels, black tailed godwit and sea trout can be seen. In addition to the landward Castle Espie site, WWT now control around 5 miles of shoreline, one of the best bird habitats in Ireland where tens of thousands of migratory birds, the most important being Canadian Brent geese come each winter. This bird spectacle remains the heart of the Castle Espie experience.
The current changes, though dramatic, aim to restore and ecologically heal this remarkable site, not just through the re engineered landscapes but by giving WWT the opportunity to convey wetland conservation messages in an innovative way through the immense historical, archaeological, social and cultural legacy the site has given to Northern Ireland. The evidence of Mesolithic people and Victorian industry on the site give major opportunities for broadening audiences and communicating more rounded conservation messages addressing in particular the need for use to adopt low impact, ‘slower’ lifestyles now and in the future.
There have been many negative changes in the ecological value of the site due to the physical nature of the post industrial wetlands, enclosure and shading from plantations, water quality deterioration and most importantly, the loss of the ecological connectivity with Strangford Lough. The opportunities to restore this connection will result in the most creative and important wetland reserve of its kind in Ireland.
Central to the project therefore has been the restoration of degraded coastal habitat, giving people and wildlife the opportunity to reconnect with the shoreline of Strangford Lough. In addition, the refurbishment of existing buildings for informal learning and formal education spaces, some of which, such as the old lime kiln are striking features of both industrial archaeology and cutting edge ‘green design’, will create a more accessible and meaningful visitor experience linking nature, culture and the sustainable use of wetlands.