Caoimhín Breathnach (1934-2009)
Irish outsider artist Caoimhín Breathnach lived in Knockvicar, Co. Roscommon, as a recluse for most of his life. Upon his death in 2009, a huge archive, including diaries, drawings, photographs and tapes was found in his cottage.
The main focus of Breathnach’s artistic practice was the creation of his unique brand of “subliminal tapes.” This was a two-fold procedure – Breathnach began by recording sounds onto cassette tapes, before subjecting the tapes to a wide range of physical processes, such as burying, burning or encasing them in various materials such as velvet, paper or moss. In most cases, these physical processes rendered the tapes unplayable, so that the sounds recorded on them can now only be imagined.
Breathnach’s extensive diaries detail his bizarre methods for making the tapes and the wide range of behavioural changes and experiential benefits he felt them to have had on him. Decoding Breathnach’s diaries is a tricky task, as he used the Ogham alphabet to write in a mixture of Irish and English.
For tape 79, Breathnach notes how he rose at dawn on the summer solstice (“grian-stad”) in 1982 to record himself playing a series of chords on the harp against the backdrop of his radio broadcasting at 1485 Khz. After sleeping with the tape under his pillow for a night, he then wore the tape strapped to his abdomen for a week, noticing significant improvement to his “strampail” and “glórghail” (both obscure words are defined in Dineen as referring to stomach noises).
Subliminal Tape #86 (1985 ca.) by Caoimhín Breathnach
Breathnach’s notes for tape 80 begin with a description of a series of recordings Breathnach made of himself playing harmonica. He then wrapped the tape in masking tape and “screened” several kung fu films for it. On 13th July 1982, he buried the tape, with the intention of unearthing it on May 31st 1984, a time period which coincided with the 1982-84 eclipse of Epsilon Aurigae. Early in his notes Breathnach uses the term “luanchad” which refers to a lunar eclipse, and then later changes to “dorchacht” which is a poetic term for an eclipse of any sort. This shows both his depth of knowledge of Irish linguistic nuance and his astronomical knowledge about the eclipse of Epsilon Aurigae, which was not caused by the moon.
Breathnach did not limit his use of Ogham to his Lab Notes – he also employed it to inscribe many of his musical instruments. The Book of Ballymote (1390ca.) details over a hundred different Ogham “scales” – different variants for writing the alphabet, many with esoteric implications. Breathnach’s violins are usually inscribed with characters from these different Ogham scales.
Breathnach’s interest in Ogham also extended to his personalised set of divination tiles, similar to runes, which he had inscribed with the Ogham alphabet. Breathnach used these tiles to carry out chance procedures and compose pieces such as the Song Rolls series (see below).
The physical processes Breathnach subjected his tapes to often transformed the tapes from sound recordings into contemplative objects. Breathnach treated the tapes as corollaries of Catholic religious relics – for him they were sonic relics, complete with special powers of healing.
DREAMIC INFUSION & THE PATRÚN
Breathnach believed his mental state affected tapes in close proximity, and so often slept with tapes under his pillow to effect what he called “dreamic infusion.” He would frequently tuck small pictures into the pillow-case with the tapes. Breathnach refers to these pictures as “patrún” in his diaries. It is a curious choice of word, as while “patrún” means picture or photograph, the word is more commonly used in the phrase “tógaim patrún leat” which means “I follow your example.” The linguistic implication seems to be that Breathnach saw the pictures as examples for the tapes to follow.
Breathnach was an avid amateur astronomer, and often buried tapes for periods of time aligning with certain astronomical observations. His enigmatic calculations and notes on these “adhlaicthe réaltaí” or “star burials” can be seen on these star charts.
Breathnach believed that if a person carried certain objects in their hand or upon their person, over time the object would come to “bear” whatever energies, thoughts or feelings the individual wanted to be rid of. He thought the best candidates for this practice were nuts, chestnuts, pebbles, shells and even very small fireworks.
Breathnach carried one “bearer” chestnut in the pocket of his coat for over 30 years, and was buried with it upon his passing in 2009.
In the 1980s, Breathnach began annotating piano rolls. Abandoning the use of Ogham, Breathnach wrote exclusively in the English alphabet, using pencils, stamps and transfers. He called these works “song rolls” in his notes.
Breathnach’s interest in astronomy and music intersect in the song rolls, as he traces constellations and crystallographic forms with pencil and needle to create a new type of score.