The Persistent Return

In 2015 a residency for Workhouse Guild led to new research and a commission to make The Persistent Return, a film project that represents the culmination of almost a decade of research for the SPUD project. The artwork is a partnership production between Workhouse Union and VISUAL Carlow and supported by an Arts Council Project Award with residency support from the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

The two-screen installation follows the migration of potato from the Andes to Europe and the role it played in consolidating and concentrating power in the northern hemisphere. It seeks to describe the human cost of privileging scientific and political rationalism - the bedrock of modernity, at the expense of practical, place-based knowledge.

Chuno Deirdre OMahony Still the Persistent Return Film

Chuño Film still from The Persistent Return Photograph by Tom Flannagan Copyright D. O'Mahony 2016

Filmed at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, the former Workhouse in Callan and agricultural research centres in Ireland, it reflects on technologies that helped alleviate famine but also enabled the establishment of empires and created a disastrous dependency on monoculture in Ireland. The camera probes the architectural structures that enabled the regulation of biopolitical power but also resulted in scientific improvements to health and living conditions.

Deirdre O'Mahony The Persistent Return film still, Chapel IMMA  Photograph Tom Flannagan 2016 Copyright D. O'Mahony 2016

Vocal improvisations by Branwen and Julie Kavanagh have an electronic counterpoint in Alexandru Trendler's musical score, highlighting tensions between the imperialism of the Enlightenment project and tacit knowledge. Poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill drew upon material from the National Folklore Collection for a voice over in Irish accompanying Irish Loy (foot-plough) expert Gerry Mullins, making  a perfectly straight potato ridge, acknowledging that the skills of both head and hand that are needed if we are to actively respond to the challenges presented by climate change to food security and the environmental effects of industrial food production today.

Workhouse Hall, Film still from The Persistent Return Photograph by Tom Flannagan, Copyright D. O'Mahony 2016

Potatoes are potent images to evoke in relation to food and food security revealing conscious and unconscious attitudes to land and otherness, both in Ireland and beyond. The film presents a poetic understanding of the potatoes' cultural and economic role in our histories, and a reminder that real sustainability lies in our capacity to provide for ourselves.


Co-produced by Workhouse Union and VISUAL Carlow

Writer/Director: Deirdre O’Mahony

Camera: Tom Flanagan

Editing and Post Production: Connie Farrell

Irish Script: Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

Vocals: Branwen Kavanagh and Julie Kavanagh, Twin Headed Wolf

Electronic Score: Alexandru Trendler

Voiceover: Deirdre O’Mahony, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

Sound: John Brennan

Audio Post Production: Brendan Rehill, Outer Limits Post Production

Special thanks to:

Desmond Byrne, Silversmith Kilkenny Design Centre

Gerry Mullins, The Irish Loy Association, Ennistymon, County Clare

Eamon Tobin, Basket Maker, Tullogher, Co Kilkenny