That He Might Better Rest

In my time browsing and photographing stained glass windows I have come across many WWI memorial windows in Protestant churches, but only three in Catholic churches – an extraordinary ratio, given that over two hundred thousand Irish men fought in that war, with Catholics far outnumbering Protestant Irish soldiers (simply because they represented a far greater portion of the population). It is estimated that thirty five thousand Irish soldiers died in that conflict. 

The O’Keefe War Memorial window in the Church of the Assumption, Wexford town, by Harry Clarke (above, and detail top image) 

There are many reasons for the lack of memorials in Catholic churches – for example, the vast majority of Irish soldiers in the British Army came from poor families who could not have afforded such a memorial. But also it has to do with the collective amnesia we developed about our participation in British wars. As I wrote in Outposts of Empire, returning soldiers came back to a new Ireland, one in which nationalist aspirations dominated, and many young Catholic men preferred not to speak about their British Army service.

A figure, possibly St Anthony, in the top tracery light of the O’Keefe window

But the three windows I have seen are beautiful and interesting, using some different icons from so many Church of Ireland windows, which tend to feature Michael the Archangel defeating the dragon or a knight in armour fighting “The Good Fight” with regimental standards and lists of engagements in the bottom panel.

St Aidan of Ferns

I have started with everyone’s favourite, Harry Clarke, who designed and executed this window in the Church of the Assumption in Wexford town. The fallen soldier was 21 year old Lieut Henry O’Keefe and Harry travelled to Wexford in Sept of 1918 to meet his mother and discuss the window, which was installed the following year.

St Adrian, Patron Saint of Soldiers

The design is classic Harry Clarke. Serenely floating high on the left panel is the Madonna and child, clothed in an elaborate and bejewelled blue gown which extend across to the second panel where two saints have come to pay homage. The image of the Madonna evokes the bond between mother and child, while the two saints are carefully chosen: St Adrian is the patron saint of soldiers and St Aidan of Ferns represents Wexford. Above, in a tracery light, a monk, possibly St Anthony, gazes out in an attitude of prayer.

The O’Keefes were a prominent Wexford merchant family and their coat of arms is shown in one panel. Numerous tiny details – a ship, leaping fish, crucifixion images, a tiny image of the Church of the Assumption itself, as well as Harry’s ubiquitous floral ornamentation, fill every section. The overall result is highly emotive. I can imagine the O’Keefe family visiting often and finding comfort in the beauty and compassion of the imagery.

Harry Clarke designed two WWI memorial windows simultaneously and they are completely different. Above is the cartoon for the O’Keefe window and, on the left, for a window, Angel of Hope and Peace, for the Holy Trinity Church of Ireland in Killiney, Co Dublin

Our second example is from the West Cork Church of the Immaculate Conception in Enniskeane. Probably by Watsons of Youghal, this window is a memorial to Dr Thomas J Fehily, a native of the parish who qualified and practised medicine for many years before enlisting.

Local historian, Anne Lynch has given a good account of his life in a Southern Star article. She writes, Ballineen was a long way from the action when World War I started in the summer of 1914. However, two local brothers, both medical doctors, saw the war as an opportunity to utilise their medical skills. In doing so, it cost one brother his life, while for the other, it was the start of an illustrious career in the British Empire. The doctors were the Fehily brothers.

This is an Ascension window and at first I was puzzled by this choice for a war memorial window but as I thought about it, it became clear – Jesus ascends to heaven having sacrificed his life for his fellow man, while his sorrowing mother weeps below.

The final window is in the neo-Romanesque church of Spiddal in Co Galway and is dedicated to the memory of George Henry Morris, a hero of the war, and second son of Lord Morris.  A painting of George Henry by William Orpen ends this post.

There is an affecting account of a visit to his grave by his grandson Redmond Morris with his own children, where they even manage to take a photograph in the very spot that George himself was last photographed. By all accounts a brilliant man and a highly respected officer, George died within two weeks of arriving in France. Read more about him on his Wikipedia page and note that he was the father of Lord Kilanin, for many years the esteemed President of the International Olympics Committee.

The window is by Catherine O’Brien, one of the artists of An Tur Gloine.  See this post about Loughrea Cathedral for more about this design co-op: Edward Martyn was also involved with the design and furbishment of this Spiddal church. O’Brien has depicted a golden-haired figure reaching upwards to a divine light, with the words lux perpetua luceat ei – Let Perpetual Light Shine Upon Them. The figure is a rider (denoted by his spurs only) and a riderless horse is seen at the bottom right. The location in Connemara is captured with thatched cottages and sea cliffs.

One of our most famous War Dead was the poet, Francis Ledwidge. His poem, A Soldier’s Grave, has given me my title, and I will leave it here now in honour of the many brave Irish men who gave their lives in WWI.

Then in the lull of midnight, gentle arms
Lifted him slowly down the slopes of death
Lest he should hear again the mad alarms
Of battle, dying moans, and painful breath.

And where the earth was soft for flowers we made
A grave for him that he might better rest.
So, Spring shall come and leave its sweet arrayed,
And there the lark shall turn her dewy nest.

George Henry Morris, painted by William Orpen

Bloodshed and Fenny Poppers – the Legacy of Martinmas

If the wind is in the south-west at Martinmas (10 November), it keeps there till after Candlemas (2 February) . . .

I’m writing about St Martin again! I’ve already put up posts about this character and his fascinating legacy over the past few years. He can take another – after all, we celebrate St Patrick year after year and that’s ok, because this is Ireland . . . But St Martin never set foot in Ireland (as far as we know) although he is well remembered in many Irish traditions, including that piece of weather-lore above. And here – as elsewhere in Europe – there’s a phenomenon known as St Martin’s Summer, or Martin’s Little Summer, which describes an unseasonable spell of warm weather, sunshine and clear blue skies that occurs around about now, in mid-November. In fact today – Martinmas or St Martin’s eve – has dawned warm and clear.

Header and above – looking across Rossbrin Cove from the garden of Nead an Iolair early this morning – St Martin’s Eve – conforming with the tradition of ‘Little Summer’ associated with the saint

The English poet John Clare (1793 – 1864) – sometimes called the peasants’ poet – wrote a very long poem about  St Martin’s Eve: I’ll quote some verses as we go along. It’s worth noting that Clare was a great champion of traditional rural life, and was known as “. . . the greatest labouring-class poet . . . No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self . . .” That’s according to his biographer Jonathan Bate. Although some of his work was well received in his lifetime, he was unable to make enough to keep him, his wife and seven children – and his alcohol consumption – on an even keel. He suffered from ‘strange delusions’ and spent the last twenty seven years of his life in asylums where, nevertheless, he continued to write.

Now that the year grows wearisome with age 

& days grow short & nights excessive long

No outdoor sports the village hinds engage                                                                                Still is the meadow romp and harvest song                                                                               That wont to echo from each merry throng

At dinner hours beneath high spreading tree

Rude winds hath done the landscape mickle wrong

That nature in her mirth did ill foresee                                                                                       Who clingeth now to hope like shipwrecked folk at sea . . .

 

(John Clare, St Martin’s Eve, 1823)

Here’s St Martin, looking every inch a medieval knight – although in fact he lived in the fourth century. He was St Patrick’s uncle – possibly accounting for his popularity in Ireland. In this Italian representation he is shown cutting his cloak in two and giving half to a beggar: the act that has made him famous. He was a Roman soldier but gave up that calling to be consecrated as Bishop of Caesarodunum (Tours) in 371. Although he lived a long life, he is said to have died a martyr by being thrown into a mill stream where he was crushed by the wheel. He achieved acclaim as the patron saint of soldiers, but also managed to become the patron saint of conscientious objectors!

The Basilica at Tours, France (above). St Martin served as Bishop here from 371 – but reluctantly. It is said that he tried to hide from those who wanted to install him as Bishop, but his hiding place was given away by the cackling of geese – which have been associated with the saint ever since. Other stories tell how the saint destroyed pagan temples and cut down sacred trees: in one instance, the pagans agreed to fell their sacred fir tree, if Martin would stand directly in its path. He did so, and it miraculously missed him. There’s a relic in the St Catherine’s Convent Museum of Religious Art in Ultrecht, the Netherlands, which claims to be a hammer which St Martin used to fell pagan sites including sacred trees.  Archaeological analysis has shown it was probably made in the 13th or 14th century from a late Bronze Age stone axe dating from c 1,000 – 700 BC. The handle contains a Latin text saying Ydola vanurunt Martini cesa securi nemo deos credat qui sic fuerant ruicuri (‘the pagan statues fall down, hit by St Martin’s axe. Let nobody believe that those are gods, who so easily fall down’). Here it is:

Beside the fire large apples lay to roast

& in a high brown pitcher creaming ale

Was warming seasoned with a nutmeg toast

The merry group of gossips to regale

Around her feet the glad cat curled her tail

Listening the crickets song with half shut eyes

While in the chimney top loud roared the gale

Its blustering howl of outdoor symphonies

That round the cottage hearth bade happier moods arise . . .

 

(John Clare, St Martin’s Eve, 1823)

It seems a little incongruous, perhaps, to come from a world of basilicas and silver hammers to ancient folk-customs in rural Ireland, but not so long ago Martinmas was greatly celebrated here. Kevin Danaher quotes Mason’s Parochial Survey:

On the eve of St Martin (who is one of the greatest saints in their calendar) in November every family of a village kills an animal of some kind or other; those who are rich kill a cow or a sheep, others a goose or a turkey; while those who are poor, and cannot procure an animal of greater value, kill a hen or a cock and sprinkle the threshold with the blood, and do the same in the four corners of the house; and this ceremonious performance is done to exclude every kind of evil spirit from the dwelling where this sacrifice is made, till the return of the same day in the following year . . .

Danaher also mentions a writer, Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin, commenting in 1830 from County Kilkenny:

The eleventh day, St Martin’s Day. No miller sets a wheel in motion today, no more than a spinning woman would set a spinning wheel going, nor does the farmer put his plough team to plough . . .

The tradition undoubtedly refers back to St Martin’s death from being ‘ground by a mill wheel’. Significantly, there are numerous entries in the Dúchas Folklore Collection, dating from the 1930s, which show that these customs were still remembered and – on occasion – practised:

One of many examples from the Dúchas Folklore Collections which remember the importance of Martinmas customs

Martin King used kill a fowl every St Martin’s night in honour of St Martin. One year Martin forgot it and when he awoke in the morning the floor from his bedroom to the kitchen was covered with blood. Martin washed out the floor, but when he awoke again the following morning the floor was covered with blood again. This went on for three nights. Martin was very troubled about it so he told his story to an old woman that lived near him. The old woman told him it was because he had not killed something in honour of St Martin. Every year after that till he died Martin killed a hen or something in honour of St Martin . . .

 

(Eileen Donegan, Knockane, Listowel – collected for Dúchas 1935)

Another from Co Kerry:

St Martin’s day is held on the 11th of November. It is held as a feast day in honour of St Martin. The night before St Martin’s day people kill a goose or a chicken or some other kind of fowl, and they draw the blood and dip a piece of flax in it. They keep the piece of flax because it is said to be a cure for a pain in one’s side.

 

St Martin was a saint who was ground in a mill for his faith.

 

In olden times the mills used not work on that day The women in olden times used not work. No one would turn a wheel not even of a car.

 

(Mrs Walsh, aged 90 years – Tullamore, Co Kerry – collected for Dúchas)

The next piece is particularly interesting as it mentions St Martin’s association with a white horse:

It is a custom in Ireland to kill a cock on Saint Martin’s Night.

 

There was a man who emigrated to America. On St Martin’s night he was very sad. He was telling his friends that he would like to be home in Ireland, because if he were home he would kill a cock in honour of St. Martin.

 

He went outside and he went down the street. He met a man on a beautiful white horse. The man asked him would he like to go home. He said he was just wishing to be at home. He told him to get up on the horse. He did so and the next place he found himself was at his own door in Ireland.

 

The man told him to come out at a certain hour. He killed the cock and came out at the hour that he was told to do so. The man was waiting for him at the door. He got up on the horse and rode away. It was said that it was St Martin who brought him home.

 

(Maura Keating, aged 82 years, Passage East, Co Waterford)

St Martin’s Eve celebrations are still observed all over Europe. This is a festival in Italy, where children carrying lanterns watch out for the saint arriving on his white charger

What about Fenny Poppers? I hear you ask . . . Well, we have to go across to Northamptonshire, in England, for this surviving – and most curious – custom. St Martin’s Church, Fenny Stratford is to this day the scene of an event which has no apparent origin, nor any particular purpose. I won’t try to offer you an explanation – just to point out that it happens every Martinmas come hell or high water. Here’s a somewhat eccentric account of the event from a Movietone News snippet c 1950:

That’s probably enough about St Martin and his special day to last you another year. The subject is by no means exhausted!

Oíche Shamhna Shona Daoibh!

That means ‘Happy Halloween’ in Irish – more or less. Samhain – pronounced ‘sow-in’, with the emphasis on the sow, literally means ‘summer’s end’, while Oíche Shamhna is ‘the eve of Samhain’ (Shamhna is the genitive form of Samhain). If today (I’m writing this on 31st October) is Samhain’s eve, then  tomorrow – 1st November – should actually be Samhain. And that’s true because, in Ireland, Samhain is also the name of the eleventh month. And, before we move too far on, I should tell you that those difficult words Oíche Shamhna are pronounced ‘Ee-hyeh How-nuh’ and the correct way to say the whole title of this piece is ‘E-hyeh How-nuh Hun-uh Dee-iv’ literally summer’s end evening, happy, to you all – I’ll bet you’re sorry you asked! So, we are on the eve of the eleventh month, and it’s always been a time of great celebration in Irish culture: the time of the year when we begin to sense the darkness creeping in; the trees are losing their leaves, the sun is getting noticeably weaker, and it’s a season of dampness, mists and grey shadows. No wonder, surely, that the imagination turns to arcane, otherworldly – even ghoulish – matters. And no wonder, also, that this time is associated with the spirits of the dead – and the Other Crowd.

Our little community of Ballydehob in West Cork takes Samhain very seriously – of course! So I thought I would give you a short overview, mainly in pictures, as to what you can expect to find in the village on this day. Earlier in the week I gave a talk about folklore, customs and traditions in the Bank House Talks in the Vaults series and – to acknowledge that we were nearly at Samhain – Finola provided barm-brack for everyone.

While preparing the talk, I reflected on this time of the year – and what it had meant to me when I was growing up in England. There – back in the 1950s – we had no concept of Halloween: we didn’t even know the word. For sure, we had a celebration at around this time (the beginning of November), when we lit bonfires and got excited by throwing firecrackers and bangers around. We called it ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ (sometimes Bonfire Night or Fireworks Night). We made ‘guys’ – life-sized effigies – which we carried around the town collecting pennies to buy fireworks with (and we later burnt those ‘guys’ on the bonfires – it all seems a little gruesome now). As I got older, I was told (but didn’t really understand) that it was all about celebrating the fact that a man had been prevented from blowing up the Houses of Parliament in London with gunpowder. This was a fascinating concept to me and I could never understand (and still don’t) why we remembered a man who failed to set out what he intended to do, while the then attractive spectacle (to me) of succeeding in blowing up the Parliament would, surely, have been a much more justified cause for remembrance and celebration . . .

When I moved to the western counties of England I discovered that the Bonfire Night celebrations there were far more elaborate, probably far more ancient, and included blazing tar barrels being pulled through the narrow streets by crowds of young people. These seemed much closer to the outlandish atmosphere of Halloween which we find in Ireland now. Here’s a couple of pics showing the spectacle which happens at dawn every early November in Hatherleigh, Devon, where I lived for many years.

Anyway, I’ll let you have a look at the images which we have taken in Ballydehob this week, and you can see for yourselves what a dynamic, exciting and explosive place we live in! Thank you to the many residents, shop owners and publicans who have joined in and worked so hard to bring this ancient Irish festival to life today.

A very special event this year was the transformation of Bank House – Ballydehob’s former bank and now a centre for community events owned by the village – into a very scary ‘blood bank’, where visitors were invited to sample nasty food and to donate blood via the spine-chilling doctor! It was a unique experience!

The topsy-turvy world is an aspect of folk culture that goes back a long way – and deliberately sets out to upset the norm, making us all feel a little less comfortable. This is Budd’s cafe in Ballydehob today.

Ballydehob Garda Station has a haunted look about it this week! And the display there included a very appetising stew… (Pics above)

Remember that celebrations take place every year at this time around the world. In Mexico, for example, they have a ‘Day of the Dead’ on November 1st:  Día de los Muertos. It is a time to remember the ancestors, and welcome them back to their homes. During Day of the Dead festivities, food is both eaten by living people and given to the spirits of their departed ancestors as ofrendas (offerings), and decorations. In some parts of the country children in costumes roam the streets, knocking on people’s doors for a calaverita, a small gift of candies or money; they also ask passersby for it. The fiesta (which can last for three days) is filled with marigolds, the flowers of the dead; muertos (the bread of the dead); sugar skulls; cardboard skeletons; tissue paper decorations; fruit and nuts; incense, and other traditional foods and decorations. All this bears a remarkable similarity to the goings on in Ballydehob – and all over Ireland – today: skeletons and skulls are very much in evidence!

So I’ll leave it up to you to wish all your family, friends and ancestors Oíche Shamhna Shona Daoibh! next time you are involved in Halloween activities. But remember, also, the ancient origins of this festival, and the fact that very much the same thing – honouring the ancestors and the coming of the dark time of the year – is being enacted all across the world at this time.

Making a Willow Basket

I first met Rosemary Kavanagh at our Irish immersion course last summer in Ballyferriter. We enjoyed a long chat on one of our outings and she told me she was a basket weaver. Her knowledge of the natural world around us was impressive and I responded to her ready laugh and her gentle, slightly ethereal presence.

We had lots of colours to choose from and soon found out that some were bendier than others

More recently I was invited by my oldest friend in the world to take part with her and two of her daughters in a basket workshop, and I realised that Rosemary was the teacher. I signed up, and last Sunday spent the day in Clonakilty making (well, almost making) my first willow basket. It wasn’t my first try at using willow – years ago in Northern Canada I had made a bockety chair under the guidance of my talented friend Sandy. It lasted for years in my garden, slowly disintegrating in the harsh winters and eventually returning gracefully to the soil from whence it came. But those were tough cut-from-the-woods willows, suitable for furniture.

Rosemary is a gifted natural teacher. I know what I am talking about – I spent several years training teachers in pedagogical techniques and I recognise good teaching when I see it. And good instruction is essential for something like this, as you guide novices through an intricate process, building their skill and their confidence bit by bit.

How to sit, how to hold the willow as you worked it, safely using a sharp knife (above), knowing when to discard something that wasn’t working – we were led through it all. As the right brain (creativity) took over from the left brain (process, logic) we descended into near-silence, each of us deeply concentrating on the shape that was emerging under our hands.

Although there were chairs for everyone it wasn’t long before many of us gravitated to the floor to work

Choosing what willow to work with was part of the process and I was humbled by Rosemary’s knowledge of her materials. She grows her own willow, coppicing and cutting it herself. I never knew there were so many kinds – four native species and several non-native that adapt well to Irish habitats. She knows intimately the characteristics of each kind – colour, strength, straightness – and therefore its suitability for different tasks.

Once harvested, Rosemary allows the willow to dry completely and then re-hydrates it to retain a fraction of its original moisture. This is what gives it its pliability for weaving. But it’s still strong: to see Rosemary flicking a weaver through the frame – in-out, in-out effortlessly – is a wondrous thing and an insight into what years of practice and trained hands can accomplish. Alas, for us neophytes it’s an altogether sweatier business of poking and pushing and hoping to God that the weaver doesn’t develop a kink and have to be discarded AFTER ALL THAT EFFORT.

Anne – my friend from the cradle. Doing something like this with old friends makes it extra-special

But some of got there and even finished our hen baskets, to the cheers of all. Others nearly finished and took away some willows to do it at home. 

Jill finished hers the next day – looks great! You can see the ‘bum’ shape that gives this basket its alternate name of a Bum Basket

Me? I almost finished, and decided to leave it as is, as a reminder of what I had learned and a memento of an amazingly enjoyable day. I have, however, positioned it on a high shelf so that anyone looking at it would think it was indeed finished. Cheating? Never!  Er, tromp l’oeil?

Rosemary teaches courses across Ireland and in North America too. If you’d like to make your own basket, get in touch with her at her gmail.com address that starts belongingtothewillows. You can also follow her Instagram page, full of lovely basket images.

Well done Kiara!

Casino Marino

It’s a perfect little building: a gem of Irish architecture. It lies in an oasis of parkland on the outskirts of Dublin city – all that’s left of an expansive eighteenth century country house demesne, now all but engulfed by housing estates. But – perhaps in homage to the eccentric conceiver of this environmental idyll – the housing estates which have stood below it since the 1920s are quite out of the ordinary. Have a look at the layout on this contemporary plan of Merino townland, carved out of the larger Donnycarney which was granted to the Corporation of Dublin following the dissolution of The Priory of All Hallows in the reign of King Henry VIII. 

This plan is showing the location of Casino Marino, with the green areas around it being the remnants of a 238 acre demesne. The housing below the surviving Casino was Ireland’s first example, in the newly formed Irish state, of an affordable housing project and was the first local authority housing estate in the country. It was heavily influenced by Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City movement, originating in the UK with the two revolutionary developments at Letchworth Garden City and Welwyn Garden City. This Dublin estate of about 1300 houses was built on the site of a planned formal garden for Marino House and the original design was followed when the streets were laid out. This gives the Marino estate its symmetrical layout. When it was first built, purchasers of houses were restricted to large families, while alcohol and dogs without leads were banned from the parks, as were children after dark.

Ebenezer Howard, To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform – diagram of the ideal city, dated 1898

Back to the eighteenth century, and the heroes of our piece today: James Caulfeild, 1st Earl of Charlemont (1728 – 1799), and his friend, the architect Sir William Chambers (1723-1796). James (left, below – a portrait by Pompeo Batoni) was a cultivated man who disregarded the conventions of court and openly pursued Irish nationalism, having taken a leading part in the formation of the Irish Volunteers. He was the first President of the Royal Irish Academy and was a member of the Royal Dublin Society. In 1783 he was made a founding Knight of the Order of St Patrick. Like most of the wealthy young gentry of his time he went to Italy on The Grand Tour: he fell in love with that country and classical Roman culture and stayed away for nine years. When he returned he determined to bring the spirit of Italy to Dublin. Acquiring tracts of land by the coast that afforded unrivalled views over the entire bay and city, he poured his energies into creating an ideal landscape: he named his demesne ‘Marino’.

William Chambers (on the right, above – this portrait by Joshua Reynolds is in the Royal Academy) was also a great traveller: he was born in Gothenburg to a Scottish father and visited and studied architecture in China, Paris and Italy – where he met Charlemont. He established a practice in London, where he was appointed architectural tutor to the Prince of Wales, later George III. As the leading classicist of his day, it was unsurprising that Charlemont should turn to him to realise his dream of an Italian arcadia in Dublin. It was a commission that took many years to come to fruition, partly because of the Earl’s seemingly limitless ambitions and his attention to fine detail.

Charlemont’s Marino estate enjoyed fine unrestricted views across Dublin Bay. The culmination of the Earl’s work on his estate (and now the only surviving element) is the Casino, and this is sited on the highest point on the land: the painting above shows the view from the roof of the Casino, which was fully accessible from the building interior. So – what is a casino? It’s simply the Italian for small house, and in this case has been built as a garden room or, perhaps, a gazebo. Ornamental, but eminently functional. From the outside it appears small, but exquisitely detailed on all its elevations. In fact, the simple building houses 16 rooms over three storeys – plus the roof terrace.

Exercises in architectural scale. Upper – an almost contemporary view of the Casino painted by William Ashford (1746-1824), National gallery of Ireland: here the building seen in its landscape context looks like a miniature folly. Centre – a close-up of the roof detailing includes life-size statuary. Lower – Ava and Hugo, willing participants in our expedition to the Casino, help to give an impression of its true size.

The Casino is guarded by four large lions. Originally they were intended to be fountains – as you can see from the original architect’s drawing, above. In this drawing you can also get a good sense of how the designer plays tricks with scale: the doorway is perhaps three times the height of a normal door, and only a small section at the bottom is, in fact, an opening.

Symbolism and hidden messages abound: the architect, Sir William Chambers, left his signature – in the form of a ram – in many parts of the house. Every moulding, coving, frame detail has a meaning in terms of architecture and freemasonry – and also pays homage to the Greek and Roman classical orders – at the behest of the client. The parquet flooring is magnificent – and is at present kept covered by a vinyl replica to protect the original exotic woods.

The detailing of every element has been fully considered. I was impressed with the curved timber doors, which follow the line of circular wall partitions inside. And, particularly unusual, is the use of vertically curved glazing which causes reflections when seen from the outside, meaning that no shutters or blinds are needed at the windows.

Look carefully at these windows: they are crafted with vertically curved glass which make them reflective externally!

Examples of the plasterwork within the Casino include agricultural harvest symbols, every classical moulding motif and Apollo the sun-god. It would take several visits to absorb and catalogue the complete variety of images: every room has a different visual character.

There are hidden elements – and enigmas – to the building. These include ‘secret’ tunnels in the basement: one was used by Michael Collins to test-fire submachine guns during the War of Independence. The picture above shows a reconstruction. The basement of the Casino, including the tunnels, is currently undergoing further restoration and refurbishment and was not accessible during our visit. It is said that there are many other tunnels, including one that linked the Casino to the big demesne house (now demolished) – and some that, according to legend, run to the coast – miles away!

Charlemont was a liberal and believed that everyone should have access to his parklands: there were no gates. He was so protective of his project, however, that he married in middle age, having been a confirmed bachelor. He had overheard his then presumed heir (his brother) talking about how he was going to exploit and commercialise the demesne once he got his hands on it: this prompted Charlemont to ensure he produced an heir that he could have some direct influence over! Evidently, the marriage was a happy one. The image above shows the Casino in a sad state of disrepair around 1900: the estate was broken up by the third Earl in 1876.

The Casino was adopted as a National Monument in the 1930s, and a full restoration was begun in the 1970s. A further phase of this restoration is currently under way, and the property is only open on limited occasions when suitable areas are accessible: we were fortunate to get there on one of those times. If you plan to visit, contact the Office of Public Works to make sure that you will get in. Charles Topham Bowden made the journey in 1791, and recorded it in his journal A Tour Through Ireland: here is an extract:

. . . This is one of the most beautiful and elegant seats in the world, happily situated, and in a demesne improved in the highest taste, comprehending 238 acres, laid out in plantations, lawns, and a delightful park . . . The temple is situated in the park – a monument of his Lordship’s refined taste. The Gothic room is a very curious and beautiful structure. The hermitage is nature itself. Art and nature unite in rendering this a most desirable residence. What obligation are not the citizens of Dublin under to his Lordship for having the gates of this terrestrial paradise opened to them whenever they chuse [sic] to walk through it . . .

The Boa Island Figures – Mysterious Carvings From Our Pagan Past

We’ve been thinking lots lately about Northern Ireland and how much we enjoyed our time there. One of our truly memorable experiences was a trip to Boa Island in Fermanagh to see the mysterious carved figures in the Caldragh graveyard.

Despite the fact that this is one of Northern Ireland’s most important archaeological sites, we had the place to ourselves when we were there, in October 2016. In fact, it looked like any peaceful rural graveyard, with higgledy piggledy gravestones behind a hand-forged iron gate, lush grass, and an air of benign neglect.

But there’s one big difference – in this remote place are two of the most enigmatic carved figures on the Island of Ireland. The first one has two faces – it’s been called a Janus figure, or simply bilateral, carved in a style that is reminiscent of Early Medieval carvings, but also different. Different enough so that one can see these as pre-Christian figures, and that is how they are most often interpreted.

Boa Island itself may be named for the Goddess Badhbh (pronounced Bov), a potent character in Irish mythology. The figures do not bring saints or clerics to mind – there are no croziers, no fingers raised in blessing, no tonsures or crosses. We’ll look at the bilateral figure first. It has two faces, back to back, with a groove in between. The groove collects water and in recent years people have started to leave coins in the puddle formed by the groove, perhaps echoing its original purpose. The heads are joined at the side by herringbone or plaited lines that may represent hair.

One side has been interpreted as male and some point to a stylised penis that rests between the legs. Although I have seen photographs of this side when it had been recently cleaned, where a carved element is denoted as the penis, it is not in any way obvious now that the statue is once again covered in lichen and badly weathered, with moss growing in this area. The face is long and triangular, the mouth open and the eyes wide and staring. Two arms cross across the body, over a belt which runs around both figures.

On the other side the mouth is open and a tongue protrudes. Apart from that, the figures are almost identical. The statue is broken just below the belt on this side, so it is impossible to say that there are any female, or indeed male attributes present.

The carving has been mounted on a plain base but leaning against it is what might be the original base, or part of it. If it is, then the arms extended down into hands, resting on either side of the base.

There is a second figure, brought here from nearby Lusty More Island. This one is much more worn, or perhaps not even totally finished, but it’s possible to see that it bears a strong resemblance to the others in its triangular face. The arms are not crossed but appear to be holding something. Visitors leave coins in front of this one.

What does it all mean? In short, we don’t know, but current consensus appears to fall in the area of calling these figures representations of pagan deities. The smaller figure, rather than holding something, may be female and pointing to her genitals. This would place it in the tradition of the sheela-na-gigs, although presumably much earlier than the majority of sheelas, which are thought to be medieval.

Whatever they are, they have inspired poets and artists – even filmmakers. One of our favourite films, the marvellous Song of the Sea, has taken much of its artistic design from prehistoric Irish art, including the Boa Island figures. Watch this teaser for the movie and see if you can spot the Boa Island figure at 46 seconds.

And the poetry? Seamus Heaney, of course, himself from Northern Ireland, drew inspiration from the landscape around him and often wrote about archaeological themes. His poem, January God, captures the mysterious sense of the two-faced God and makes a shift to summon the idea of Cernunnus, the antler-headed pagan god of wild things depicted on the Gundestrup Cauldon.

Then I found a two-faced stone

On burial ground,

God-eyed, sex-mouthed, its brain

A watery wound.

In the wet gap of the year,

Daubed with fresh lake mud,

I faltered near his power –

January god

Who broke the water, the hymen

With his great antlers

There reigned upon each ghost tine

His familiars,

The mothering earth, the stones

Taken by each wave,

The fleshly aftergrass, the bones

Subsoil in each grave.