Dr. Moira Sweeney, Film Supervisor for the Portalis project, reflects on the telling of this story and how the film balances a delicate ecosystem of scientific evidence-based knowledge with ritual, creativity and citizen action.
The Llyn Peninsula and Wicklow Head are only twenty-seven nautical miles apart and on a clear day I can see Snowdonia from my home. I swim in this Irish sea all year round, something that has given me a visceral love of shorelines. In the intense heat of summer 2022, long days of filming for Portalis were rewarded with sunset or full moon swims in Dunmore East on the Waterford Estuary or Aberaeron in Cardigan Bay. These watery adventures were even more spirited when I discovered that the earliest depictions of swimming poses are in The Cave of Swimmers in Egypt and have been dated by archaeologists to 10,000 years ago.
When travelling between Rosslare and Fishguard by ferry, I imagined a small boat like a curragh, built by Mesolithic people to make their own journeys across this sea. Unlike the assemblages of artefacts that have been uncovered on the Waterford Estuary or at Talsarn, this was entirely speculative. The archaeological and geological evidence-based proof of the existence of Mesolithic people in these areas offers a critical part of a jigsaw that demonstrates what life was like for these communities. When I set out on this filmic adventure, the Portalis project explorations of the earliest connections between Wales and South East Ireland were at a very early stage. This prompted the conceit of a journey where I could tease out other threads that connect the people, places and stories of these two geographical spaces.
The team filming in Ireland and Wales and in good hands! Séamus Hayes on camera and Finny Byrne on Sound.
Starting in the thick of the project’s archaeological dig in Talsarn, this cinematic journey follows a guided pilgrimage along the Aeron Valley down to Aberaeron, before heading out into Cardigan Bay to observe marine conservation activity. Crossing the Irish sea to the Hook Lighthouse, the journey then continues up the Waterford Estuary to a citizen science project with school children and settles on the geological coring of the Forenaught Strand landscape in the shadow of Creadan Head. The Portalis project was inspired by the many thousands of artefacts uncovered in this area of the Estuary over the last fifty years. As a consequence, Creadan Head and the surrounding areas on the Waterford Estuary are now recognised as having some of the most important pre-historic Mesolithic sites in Ireland.
Weaving together the seemingly disparate stories of this journey took place in a dark edit suite in the heart of Gaeltacht na nDéise. The TV production company takes its name from Nemeton, a sacred space in ancient Celtic culture. Nemeta appear to have been primarily situated in natural areas, and, as they often used trees, they are interpreted as sacred groves or sanctuaries. Other evidence suggests that they may have been ritual spaces. It was a fitting environment for the alchemic process of creating a documentary film out of footage of field walking, unearthing artefacts, coring landscape, explorations of fragile marine life and creative ventures. Methodologically, the film’s structure marries expert testimonies with community and citizen-based science initiatives; it demonstrates how professionals, amateurs and local communities are involved in protecting their natural and cultural coastal heritage within the context of climate change.
More shots from Ireland and Wales of filming taking place both on land and water
Visually, the distinct commonality between The Waterford Estuary and Cardigan Bay is a shared rich heritage of lighthouses, forts, fishing ports and harbours, which provide traces and evidence of early coastal settlements. In our film journey, the communities and stories of each place share a deep connection to the natural world. The archaeologists, geologists, zoologists, citizen scientists, dancers and artists of the film navigate their way through landscapes, forests and seascapes, giving meaning and value to them.
Mesolithic people of these areas are recognised as hunters, foragers and fishers; they followed the salmon and eels up and down the rivers or exploited the resources of the forest, hunting boar. As I learned from archaeologists on this journey, they were also craft workers, artists and musicians who had a deep connection to their landscapes, forests, river valleys, lakesides and coastlines. Like the participants of our film, they inhabited rich cultural, social or spiritual worlds and offer hope that we can adapt and survive today’s climate change. In the telling of this story, the film balances a delicate ecosystem of scientific evidence-based knowledge with ritual, creativity and citizen action.
Dr. Moira Sweeney filming on Creaden Head with archaeologist Dr. Thomas Kador
Dr. Moira Sweeney, Film Supervisor, Portalis
Dr. Moira Sweeney is a documentary and feature series producer and director. Her work has been broadcast on RTÉ, BBC, Channel 4, TG4, ZDF and screened at film festivals including London, Edinburgh, Berlin, Melbourne, Cork, Galway, Dublin, Viennale, Bonn, Hamburg, Tokyo, Madrid and Manila. Recent broadcasts include Mná na bPíob | Women of the Pipes (2021, TG4) and Starboard Home (2019, RTÉ). Her films and programmes have received Best Documentary nominations from the Irish Film and Television Academy, the Kerry Film Festival and the Boston Irish Film Festival, as well as an honorary screening at the Retina Film Forum and a Merit at the Cork Film Festival for Imaginary. Recent screenings include the Yokohama Art Museum, Japan and the BFI Southbank (2016), Tate Modern (2017), Dublin’s Lab (2018), Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art (2018), the Irish Film Institute (2017, 2019), and Doc Fest Ireland and Cork Film Festival (2021). She has received film awards/bursaries from the Arts Council of Great Britain, Dublin City Council, Wicklow County Council, Business to Arts and a FujiFilm Script Scholarship for her first short drama