We’ve had the incredible honor of connecting with Sadbh Winters who is sculpting a path through Irish History, from her home studio in Dublin. She regularly crafts sculptures to reclaim memories of Ancient Ireland and spark Irinn – the feeling of joyous relief when something long lost is returned to you. She is an absolute pleasure to speak with and know but also one of the most incredibly knowledgable people on a number of things but particularly Irish history, mythology and culture. Her art is like none other in the world where she is sculpturally recreating many of Ireland’s treasured Neolithic or historical sites. Sadbh is additionally really bringing a wider diversity as well as depth to the idea of a memento or souvenir that symbolizes the land of Ireland. These beautiful pieces undoubtedly can hold much greater meaning than say a mass produced keychain as the idea of really connecting into ‘place’ and the land is steeped throughout Irish folk tradition. What better way is there to connect into the land than an illustration, sculpture or other work that is personally crafted on the land. Her art makes incredible additions to ritual spaces that hold important meaning, regardless of our religious beliefs.
What is your background?
I actually studied Cultural Studies, a modern form of anthropology, and I had always planned to work in government, developing multicultural growth policies.
Art and history were something I enjoyed but never imagined working in, but then the pandemic completely re-routed my life towards Irinn, which feels like where I was always meant to be.
Where did the name ‘Irinn’ come from?
It’s actually a word of my own making to which I’ve given the meaning “The feeling of joyous relief when something long lost is returned to you” which is the feeling I want to create with every piece I sculpt. I knew I wanted a name linked to the Irish language from the beginning, and I also wanted a name that held echoes of what I was trying to do.
So I combed through several dictionaries and asked native speaking friends for the word that would fit. Irish has a really wide and specific range of words to describe emotions, but there wasn’t one that spoke to what I was thinking of.
So I thought about the feeling for a while, about how I feel when I learn a new word in Irish, or piece of Lore and ‘Irinn’ was the word that presented itself.
Where did your love for art begin?
My parents met at art school so it was always a part of my everyday life growing up; my childhood was filled with making things – toys, clothes, decorations, presents for other people, it was just something we did without thinking.
Because of this I’ve always considered art not just as something to be enjoyed or admired, but as a solution to problems – the problem I’m striving to solve with Irinn is the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of Irish heritage so often found in the glittering green of tourist shops and I love that art is one of the ways that can be used to solve this problem!
What was your first piece of artwork you did when you said to yourself I want to do this as a career?
I actually did this the other way around. I wanted tangible representations of ancient Ireland for myself, but I hadn’t been able to find them, so I created them. I knew other people would be looking for them too so I always had it in mind that whatever I’d make for myself I’d make available for others too.
My Newgrange Treasure Box was the one I started with as I felt it was the most glaringly obvious gap when it comes to representing Ireland’s ancient history. I’d lived in France and England for years and was always struck by how easy it was to pick up a souvenir of Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower. I consider Newgrange to be our national monument and so it’s only right that there should be a version of it that we can bring home. But like with most of my sculptures I wanted it to be more than something that looks nice on a shelf, I wanted a way of interacting with it so a relationship that required maintenance could be formed. That’s why I made the roof and chamber as separate pieces; it shows off the corbelled roof nicely but also allows people to keep jewellery, medication, keys and all sorts in the chamber so they come back to it every day.
What do you find is your biggest inspiration for your art?
I primarily think of myself as a heritage activist, rather than an artist, so for me seeing the work and impact of other heritage activists drives me on.
There are some great historical examples of this that completely changed the world we live in; like Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, the Brothers Grimm, who went around collecting German folk tales that today form the basis of much of Europe’s children’s literature. Then there’s Eliezer Ben-Yehuda who almost singlehandedly revived the Hebrew language.
In the modern world I’m a huge admirer of Chenyney McKnight, an African-American living history interpreter and Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer, a Choctaw novelist, both of whom shed fantastic light on cultures that have been virtually buried.
Recognising, reviving and restoring history is the reason for Irinn and it gives me such a thrill to see others do this in fellow cultures that have been hidden.
Which mythological characters inspire you the most?
I am drawn to Bríd, Medb and Sadb but generally, I like to think of the ordinary historical people in my work. When I’m working on a Newgrange order I like to imagine myself as part of the team who constructed Newgrange, those Neolithic artisans who chiselled away at the stone, the conversations they would have had, the prayers they might have said, and then that moment when it’s finally done and they step back to look at this temple that’s taken generations to build.
I love thinking about the millions of people who may have touched or knelt in front of one of the stones that I seek to re-create, or how they might have deciphered the carvings to pick a date to perform a ritual. Those tiny moments witnessed by those stones are just magical.
What is your favorite ancient Neolithic site(s) and why?
Without a doubt the Hill of Tara. I know Newgrange seems an obvious choice given my work, and I do love it, but the only way to see it is as part of a tour group. So I love the Hill of Tara because on the surface it’s just a big empty field that anyone can walk into, but that means it’s quiet.
There’s a particular spot in it that is always empty that I just love and I go there several times a year. I love lying in the grass and soaking it all in. The place just hums with the energy of the thousands of nobles, druids, and artisans who lived, traded and worshipped there.
If people donated to any charity on your behalf what would you want it to be?
There’s quite a few I believe in but with my ‘Irinn hat’ on it would have to be the Gaelic Woodland Project. Restoring Ireland’s forests is crucial for both our culture and ecology and I think the Gaelic Woodland Project in particular acknowledges the cultural significance of trees to Ireland rather than the purely ecological.
If you had a main goal regarding your art, what would it be?
So much of Irish history has been hidden by time, and then a lot of what has been recovered has been locked away in academia, so my aim is to bring something more tangible to the forefront. I ultimately want people to know that there is so much more to Irish heritage than we have been led to believe which is why for example that when creating my Newgrange Kerbstone sculptures I deliberately created three. Most people are aware of the larger Entrance Stone, but the lesser know Kerbstones 52 and 67 at the back of Newgrange are often missed though they are no less fascinating.
What do you want your imprint on Irish Celtic art to be?
We produce a lot of fantastical work on this island that is deeply tied to our cultural heritage, the paintings, carvings, jewellery etc that all speak of time long ago.
And in recent years as more manuscripts are translated and more sites excavated the quality of that work progresses.
However, there is often a great sense of loss that comes with creating these works; we’re drawn to create them for the sake of restoration and in researching them we become even more acutely aware of what has been lost.
And yet, with every artist bringing something to the surface again eventually all that can be presented will have been and we can reach a place where if we choose to create heritage art it will be from pure contentment, without any sense of loss. And I like to think that my sculptures, whether people have one for themselves or just know they are there, will have played a part in that.
What’s your favourite part of the work?
Learning is my happy place, and Irinn is an ideal excuse for spending an eye-watering sum on books and then spending weeks falling down a wondrous rabbit hole of archaeological tidbits.
I’ve always been a bookworm and I’ve always considered myself well-read on the subject of Irish history, but my God is there so much more to learn! I love that through research I meet places, people and traditions that I never knew existed.
What’s your favourite work to date?
My Ballycarberry Castle sculpture, for sure. I love castles in general but Ballycarberry was originally built for the O’Shea Clan, and as I’m an O’Shea on my Mam’s side it’s really special to me. I’d been there when I was very young but it’s no longer accessible to the public so I really wanted a version just for myself to hold, and imagine that if history had gone a bit differently I might have grown up there.
I love how with every bit that I carved away I could see how life was lived there; from where the servants might arrive to bring food to the great hall to the route that guards might have taken on nightly patrols. But the best thing about working with ruins is that you get all these beautiful crumbled shapes and there was a curved area that just suggested itself as a place to hold a tealight and that’s why I decided to make all of Ireland’s clan castles as candle holders which then brought them to life even more as you can see the candle light dance through windows.
What are your future plans for Irinn?
Once the sculpting side of things is properly underway I’d like to develop a whole range of products in all sorts of mediums. Sculpting was not actually how I imagined starting, but just because of space restraints it made the most sense to start there. I don’t want to give too much away but as I keep saying there’s just so so so much to be explored and no limit on the ways to do it!
Eventually though my dream is to create a heritage art collective – I know as a consumer that I’d ideally like to be able to order Celtic sculpture, jewellery and clothes for example all from the same place so it all arrives together, and I’d love to think of Celtic artists with their various specialisations working together on a joint venture. And even more broadly I’d eventually like to be part of a collective for all cultures, but especially post-colonial ones, where for example you could come to a website and select ‘Celtic’, ‘Choctaw’, ‘Xhosa’ etc and see a whole world of corresponding items!