We pass them every day: every field has an entrance, and most have gate posts. Most rural houses have gate pillars of one sort or another, and we take them for granted. But what if they are more than just a necessity? What if they say something to us about ourselves and the people who came before us?
The Austrian modernist architect Adolf Loos said that ‘ornament is crime’, while the American skyscraper pioneer Louis Sullivan believed that ‘form ever follows function’. Perhaps they are right but people have always had the impulse to decorate their possessions to make statements about themselves. Gate pillars from Japanese temples to the Piazza San Marco in Venice have more symbolic importance than practical value. Loos and his fellow modernists in the 1920s and 1930s abhorred any kind of ornamentation, and while they produced many beautiful buildings some of those were not liked by the people they were built for, because they lacked any kind of personal touch. I wonder what the great modernists would have made of these gate pillars in rural Donegal? The pillars are much larger than they need to be to hold up a slim metal gate, and the little finial on top of the capping is, in modernist terms, completely unnecessary from a functional point of view. At the same time I am sure the modernists, many of whom had a great interest in primitive forms, would have had an interesting discussion on ideas of marking place and ownership, of identity and belonging, and the rituals and rhythms of daily life. Perhaps it would be best to move on before they began to discuss pagan fertility symbols, and instead just imagine the pride a small farmer felt in his land, and his desire to articulate that pride and show something of his own character through big, heavyweight pillars marking his field on the side of the road.