Dara McGrath

Featured Artist

Dara McGrath

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PROJECT CLEANSWEEP

-Beyond the Post-Military Landscape of the United Kingdom

Taking its name from a Ministry of Defence report issued in 2011, that assessed the risk of residual contamination at sites in the United Kingdom used in the manufacture, storage, and disposal of chemical and biological weapons from World War I to the present day.

Looking beyond the risk assessment to the ways that landscapes are psychologically charged by their history. Examining the sites of the official investigation and many more including sites used for both chemical and biological weapons activities during the Cold War. Following traces that lead, predictably, to military bases and government facilities and, more surprisingly, to grocery stores and holiday parks. The images take us into the country lanes of Dorset and Devon, the Peak District, the woodlands of Yorkshire and out across the open rolling countryside of the Salisbury Plain, all the way from the coastlines of East Anglia, the West Counties and Wales to the remote Scottish Highlands and the Irish Sea. When over 4,000 sq km of the landmass was appropriated for military use in the 20th century.

Marking the influence of military activities upon British landscapes and provoking deeper consideration of their lasting social and environmental impacts. Locating unexpected vistas that challenge conventional understandings of place.

They also remind us that war is domestic, one that employs thousands of people in production processes that are surely akin to activities in other industries.

As we recognise the inheritances of the past, the places pictured here become interstitial; they seem to exist between past and present, public and private, civilian and military. Here, too, the pastoral myths of the bucolic British landscape — of simple nature, a golden past — are disrupted by material realities embedded in the landscape itself. As we contemplate these images, our perspectives shift, and yet a different kind of beauty persists

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Avonmouth Bristol 2012

This site was part of the National Smelting Works, which at one stage during WWI was the main centre of the production of mustard gas. In 2012 workers clearing the site for the building of a large ASDA supermarket distribution facility suffered from skin irritations and nosebleeds after discovering some buried munitions. The site today has been given the all clear and building has recommenced.

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RAF Hullvington Wiltshire 2015

On the 22nd July 1954, Zinc cadmium sulphate was sprayed over the base by a low flying aircraft to simulate the effects of a biological weapons attack by the Eastern Bloc countries, as they possess similar dispersion properties to actual biological weapons. Today part of the site is still used for military parachute training and part of it is leased as a go-kart track.

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HarpurHill Derbyshire 2011

In 1940, Maintenance Unit No. 28 was the biggest chemical weapons reception and storage depot in the UK. Up to 46,000 individual chemical weapons were stored on the 500-acre site and surrounding country lanes. Wholesale burning of chemical weapons took place there after the war. In 1960 the site closed, and since then the underground tunnels there have been used to store cheese and alcohol and to grow mushrooms. Today it is used as a base for the National Health and Safety Laboratory and much of the site is still scarred with historic environmental pollution.

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Norwich Norfolk 2015

In the 1963-64 Norwich Biological Trials, aircraft sprayed 120 pounds of zinc cadmium sulphate in an arc 15 miles west of town. Military scientists sampled the air throughout the region, sometimes disguised as traffic pollution monitors. The tests came to light in 2005, as local health officials reported esophageal cancer rates 50% higher than the national average.

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Chesil Beach, Lyme Bay Dorset 2016.

The Dorset Biological Warfare Experiments were conducted in the south Dorset area between 1963 -75. They took place under the control of the Microbiological Research Establishment from Porton Down. Numbering scores of individual trials, where both live and dead bacteria were sprayed from ships off the coast and from the air onto large sections of the surrounding countryside. Monitored by mobile detection sites at over 60 designated sites. Four types of bacteria were used: E. Coli, Bacillus globigii, Bacterium aerogenes and Serratia marcescens. Clusters of health abnormalities downwind from the test sites have been reported over the last 3 decades. In a 2005 report The Defence Evaluation Research Agency said in recent years, “that they cannot rule out conducting larger scale trials in the future to try to ensure the protection of the UK from attacks by people of states using chemical and biological weapons”.

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Spalford Warren Nottinghamshire 2011

Maintenance Unit 93 was a satellite of the Norton Disney chemical weapons site. It stored mustard and phosgene filled weapons during WW II to supply the many local airfields. After the war the chemical weapons were disposed of by burning at Spalford Warren. Areas historically used for disposal of mustard are still fenced off today. The post military site is on 36.5 hectares of a wind blown glacial sand anomaly, which is one of the rarest habitats in the country. The poor soil, derived from aeolian or wind-blown sand is material deposited after the last Ice Age gave rise to an unusual plant community for an inland site. The name, ‘warren’ dates from the medieval period as a place to raise rabbits, for both its fur and its meat.

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Shingle Street Suffolk 2013

Anthrax-laden bombs were tested in 1942-43 on a pebble beach outside this small coastal hamlet, where civilians had been evacuated two years earlier. Rumours of a failed German invasion helped keep visitors away from the secret site. To this day, little is known about the true military activities that happened here. Shingle Street is still a quiet seaside hamlet of about a dozen houses

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Gruniard Island Scotland 2013

Located 1 mile off Gruinard Bay, between Gairloch and Ullapool on northwestern coast of Scotland It was the site of a notorious biological warfare test by British military scientists from Porton Down in 1942. Eighty sheep were taken to the island and bombs filled with anthrax spores were exploded close to where selected groups were tethered. All were killed during the testing. For many years it was judged too hazardous for the public to access to the island In 1981 a group of activists called Operation Dark Harvest an affiliate of the Scottish National Liberation Army left a sealed package of a soil sample from the island outside the military research facility at Porton Down; tests revealed that it contained anthrax bacilli. Dark Harvest wanted to draw attention to the contamination of the island and the inaction of the authorities to deal with the situation. A few days later another sealed package of the soil was left in Blackpool, where the ruling Conservative Party was holding its annual conference. Starting in 1986 a determined effort was made to decontaminate the island, with 280 tonnes of formaldehyde solution diluted in seawater being sprayed over all 196 hectares of the island and the worst contaminated topsoil around the dispersal site being removed. On 24 April 1990, after 48 years of quarantine and 4 years after the solution being applied it was declared safe for the public. Today the island remains uninhabited and is also known as Anthrax Island


Dara McGrath is a photographic artist based in Cork City Ireland. His photo works look at transitional spaces, in-between places where architecture, landscape and the built environment intersect, where a dialogue – of absence rather than presence – is created. Recent exhibitions include: Belfast Exposed,  Format Photo Festival, Espace Lhomond Paris Photo, New Irish Works II, PhotoHof Salzburg, Gallery of Photography Dublin, Photo Biennale Thessalonika, Centre Des Beaux Arts Brussels, Voies-Off Arles, Venice Biennale of Architecture, Landeskrone Photo, Kaunas Photo Days, Singapore Photo Festival, Photo Week DC, Copenhagen Photo Festival. McGrath is the winner of the inaugural RAC Photo Award 2017, the AIB Arts Prize, European Now Award, a Solas Award and was recently nominated for the Prize Pictet 2016