The Castle of Rossbrin

It was just Raven and I, down at Rossbrin today. We were both inspecting the O’Mahony stronghold which has stood here for, perhaps, 800 years in one form or another. Peter Somerville-Large explored the area and its history in the early 1970s:

Down beside a narrow inlet which empties at low tide stands Rosbrin, the most easterly of the O’Mahony castles. Like the O’Driscolls, the O’Mahonys had a passion for building castles: they built twelve, and six survive, all overlooking or right on the edge of the sea. They shared with the O’Driscolls one of the finest fishing grounds in Europe, controlling the waters and exacting dues from visiting fishing boats in much the same way. ‘None of the fisheries of Munster are so well known,’ wrote an observer in 1688, ‘as those of the promontory of Ivaha, whereto a great fleet of Spaniards and Portuguese go, even in the midst of winter . . .’

The Coast of West Cork, 1972

Neither Raven nor I would be deterred by the winter weather. On a day of hard frost followed by blue skies and sunshine, nowhere could be more beautiful than Rossbrin, and nothing could be more poignant than the quiet remoteness of this western corner of Ireland, once considered ‘the greatest centre of learning in Europe’. I walked in the company of the wisest of the corvids over the vanished ruins of a great university.

Finnin O’Mahony – Taoiseach, or chieftain, of the clan – as he may well have looked in the latter part of the fifteenth century (above): cultured, fashionable, flamboyant even, and powerful. It’s sobering to think that, while Columbus was following in the footsteps of Saint Brendan to rediscover the New World, scholars and scribes were busy on the shores of Roaringwater Bay writing and translating treatises, medical manuscripts and historical accounts of travellers busy in their quests to prove the earth may not be flat after all . . .

The Annals of Ulster tell us that Finghinn Ó Mathúna of Rossbrin Castle who died in 1496 was an acclaimed historian of the then known world. And, the Annals of Connaught lauded him as ‘a great scholar in Irish, Latin and English’. The Annals of the Four Masters referred to Finghinn Ó Mathúna as being unmatched in Munster for hospitality and scholarship. The O’Mahony territory was inclusive of today’s parishes of Dromore and Caheragh and all the lands westwards to Mizen Head. Finghinn made Rossbrin Castle both his residence and a rendezvous for Irish scholars . . . Most writers who laud the scholarship of Finghinn Ó Mathúna lament the loss of many of Rossbrin Castle’s manuscripts . . .

From an article by Alfie O’Mahony in the Skibbereen and District Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, 2010

Roaringwater Bay – the view to the south, today, from Rossbrin. In the foreground is Horse Island, and beyond is the profile of Cape Clear, also a place of learning to this day: students of the Irish language spend time on the island, one of the Gaeltacht areas where Irish is still the native tongue. One of the reasons for Finghinn being so expert in languages himself was the need to communicate with the visiting fishermen whose needs provided him and his clansmen with a good living. As well as a celebrated place of learning, Rossbrin Cove would have supplied fish palaces and all the trappings of the industry: barrels and salt for preserving, victuallers, alehouses, brothels . . . It must have been a boisterous and vibrant place.

Peter Somerville-Large gives a commentary on the more recent history of the castle:

One wall of the splintered tower has a crack running down the side. Another was partly blown down by a storm in 1905. If there is another great storm like that one, Rosbrin might well disappear without trace, like the O’Mahony castles at Ballydevlin, Castle Meighan and Crookhaven. It is sited on an area which is very difficult to approach from either land or sea, standing on a rock. Contrary to what might be written in Holy Scripture, buildings on rocks have little in the way of foundation, and when they fall down or are swept away there is nothing left of them except a memory . . .

To the south of the rock on which the castle stands are the vestigial remains of an ancient stone quay (above), still in use as a landing place. The Cove itself – a natural haven – would have been the main harbour area serving the fishing fleets. The castle stands sentinel above the harbour entrance, ensuring that no-one could approach unseen.

I have been looking for older illustrations of the castle, in order to ascertain how much erosion is taking place as the years go by. Here’s a fascinating record of an O’Mahony Clan Gathering, photographed in 1975 by Michael Minihan of Skibbereen. There is a lot more of the building intact at that time. Can you see the spectators high up on the walls and roof?

As most of you will know, we look down on Rossbrin Cove and Castle from our eyrie up at Nead an Iolair. We consider anyone living on or by the Cove a neighbour. One of these is Julian, the first to welcome us when we arrived here many years ago. On my walk today I called in on him – he lives next door to the Castle Farm. I was over the moon when he showed me a portrayal of the Castle which his mother, Geraldine, painted in the 1970s, only a year or so after the gathering above. Clearly, a substantial part of the castle walls has gone in that short time.

Rossbrin Castle, painted by Geraldine van Hasselt in the 1970s (above). Best of all, though, is a photograph of Julian – her son – taken at Easter, 1969:

Julian van Hasselt on Rossbrin shore: behind him is a clear view of the castle. You can see the vertical crack which eventually led to the collapse of half the tower.

At this time of the year we get excellent sunsets when the weather is right. Today’s was a good one! I reluctantly said goodbye to Raven, my companion whose constant cronking seemed to follow me as I perambulated this place of deep history. I wonder: was it just Raven? Or might it have been Finghinn himself, speaking to me in yet another of his languages? I think I’ll have to return to Rossbrin to find out!

With many thanks to friends Julian and Raven . . .

Murphy Devitt in Cork, Part 2

In Murphy Devitt in Cork Part 1 I introduced you to the main players in the Studio – Johnny Murphy, Róisín Dowd-Murphy and Des Devitt. Together they set about doing something entirely new and different in stained glass in Ireland, bringing with them their art training, their modern aesthetic sensibilities, and their deep knowledge of and commitment to their craft.

Both photographs above are from the Church of St Michael, Blackrock, Cork. The windows comprise large areas of breakouts with small images placed in the top half. A close up of the pictures chosen for this window reveal Noah’s Ark and Christ Calming the Waters (Contrast this with our final photograph in this post, which is in Caheragh)

Although the Studio was dissolved as a business in 1985, the three continued to work together in a loose arrangement, often under the heading of Des Devitt and Associates. This creative partnership went on for over 50 years: it was so finely attuned that Johnny could describe his vision over the phone and Des knew how to actualise it.

Johnny, Réiltín and Róisín – Réiltín was already a fixture in the Studio at this age

Everyone was pulled into the slipstream – Réiltín Murphy had to stand on a box to reach the drawing table when she started out first. Anthony Devitt* was just a kid when Des warned him not to fall off the scaffolding or his mother would kill him. They all loved it, as did the endless stream of students from the National College of Art, where Johnny was now teaching, who came to help in the summer or to learn how to paint on glass or assemble windows. Other artists came to help when the pressure of work got too much – Terry Corcoran, Rosaline Murphy (not related) Celia Harriss, Paul Britton, Ann Fitzgibbon, Michael Biggs, Michael Timlin to name some.

The only different window at Blackrock is this one, and it’s pure Roisín. There was a fire in the church and this window was rescued and re-installed in a side room once all the new windows were installed by Murphy Devitt Studios. We don’t know what the original ones were like, apart from this one

Johnny was the main designer, hugely respected by Róisín, Des and everyone in his orbit. His was the overall vision for a whole scheme for a church or for a one-off window. Róisín was happiest left to paint, either from Johnny’s designs or from her own – she was a painter at heart and exhibited into her 70s.

This window is a whole family project. It dates from 1974: Róisín painted the figure, Johnny did the little scene of Gougane Barra and Réiltín did the lettering. It’s in a convent chapel in Crosshaven, now closed and inaccessible 

Des had a couple of years of art college under his belt too but his genius lay in management and in translating Johnny’s designs (or sometimes just thoughts) into finished windows. He pitched for business, kept the budget under control, delivered work on time and ran the Studio in a completely non-hierarchical way that would be the envy of many a modern management guru. All of them read voraciously, educated themselves in progressive art theories and in how the spiritual could be expressed in glass. Perhaps this isn’t so difficult when the subject is the Passion, or the Life of Christ, or a particular saint like Francis. But many churches requested non-figurative windows, whether for budgetary reason or out of preference. Here the challenge became creating a space that suggested the transcendent, without the aid of obvious imagery.

In the same chapel are many windows that are either entirely non-figurative or with small hints of symbolism. This one looks like the lilies often carried by St Joseph

These mostly or entirely non-figurative windows became one of the hallmarks of Murphy Devitt Studios, instantly recognisable, and capable all by themselves of creating an atmosphere of drama or tranquility. An oval becomes the window to the soul, a series of them leads the eye upwards, thus capturing the notion of the elevation of thoughts and prayers. A sunburst denotes the glory of creation, light falling from heaven.

Ballyhooly Church has all non-figurative windows. This photograph is courtesy C Cashman and R Gem

Some have small elements within them that are complete pictures, mostly Christian symbols, sometimes mere hints. There were favourites – I’ve seen similar ones crop up here and there, although their context leads to fresh treatments. Some churches are a mixture of figurative and non-figurative. Although it’s not in my remit for these posts, if you are near Dun Laoghaire visit St Michael’s church and marvel that expanses of ‘coloured glass’ can create such a calm and devotional atmosphere.

Caheragh Church has a mixture of figurative, non-figurative and non-figurative-with-symbols. This window is one of the latter

Anyone who visits Irish churches knows that what we want in them are our own saints – Patrick and Brigid certainly, but after that they must be local. So along with every other stained glass artist who ever worked in Ireland, Johnny had to study the hagiographies of our obscure legendary saints and satisfy a demanding congregation familiar with the stories.

St Kieran of Cape Clear is one of our treasured West Cork saints

At Caheragh (north of Skibbereen) and Rath (just outside Baltimore) in West Cork two small rural churches demonstrate how well he succeeded. The windows in each are quite different, although both were completed in 1963. In Caheragh the figures are situated in the lovely wavy-lined breakouts that we saw Murphy Devitt use to such effect in Mayfield, in tones of red and yellow.

And here is St Facthna of Rosscarbery

In Rath we see the introduction of a new breakout design, the square or rectangle with grey shadow around the edge, seeming like a solid glass brick. It’s another Murphy Devitt innovation, used to great effect in many of their windows. They used it again the following year in Blackrock (see above).

The Sacrament of Confession gets the Murphy Devitt treatment in Rath

A stained glass technique that was introduced to Ireland in the 60s was that of Dal de Verre. Blocks of coloured glass were faceted to increase their reflectivity (this was done by knocking spalls of glass from the edges and surface of the blocks) and then cemented together with resin, and sometimes concrete. Dal de Verre enabled actual walls of glass to take the place of masonry and to create dramatic expanses of colour as an integral part of construction, rather than as windows.

Chunks of coloured glass, faceted for additional refraction, float in a bed of resin. This is a detail from the Lowertown window below

Murphy Devitt were early adopters and we have one of their examples in Cork, at Lowertown, just outside Schull. It’s a dove of peace/Holy Spirit creating a glowing corner in the baptistry.

I still have two churches to tell you about, in Rochestown and in Mallow. They deserve their own post, and that will conclude this series. See you next week.

From Caheragh, across a two-light window, an image of Christ calming the storm. Traditionally, Christ is shown in one boat with the 12 apostles. However, Rembrandt famously included himself in his depiction of this scene, so I am tempted to think that Johnny is in there somewhere, since there are thirteen apostles in the boats

*This post benefitted greatly from information generously shared by Anthony Devitt.

Murphy Devitt in Cork, Part 1

A couple of years ago I visited the Catholic church in Caheragh, just north of Skibbereen, specifically to look for an image of Thaddeus McCarthy about whom I was researching at the time (see my post Thaddeus McCarthy, the Bishop Who Never Was). As I stepped into the church it was immediately obvious that the stained glass was not the usual traditional images based on renaissance paintings that I had been seeing in most of the churches I had been in. No, what greeted me (above is the Thaddeus window) was something entirely new and different – modernist, colourful, idiosyncratic, painterly, beautifully designed and expertly executed windows, each one identified as the work of Murphy Devitt of Dublin and installed in 1963. I fell in love.

The stained glass windows in the rest of this post (except for one) are all from the Church of Our Lady Crowned, in Mayfield, Cork. This one represents the Risen Christ

There are Murphy Devitt windows in ten Cork churches, and why not? Johnny Murphy, after all, was a Cork boy, brought up in the city and starting his art education at the Crawford School of Art in the 1940s when the life-drawing classes still revolved around the Canova casts. He was a standout student, winning a scholarship to the National College of Art in Dublin. There he met a fellow student, the beautiful Róisín Dowd, whose parents had fled the Belfast blitz to settle in Dublin. Together and separately, they travelled to Paris and Rome, doing what art students do – visiting galleries and studios, studying centuries of European painting, absorbing and responding to those influences (think Botticelli for Róisín, Klimt for Johnny), finding their artistic voices and refining their own styles.

The Presentation in the Temple (detail)

Returning home, they had to wait for several years to marry. Their daughter Réiltín suspects that Grandfather Dowd insisted on Johnny having gainful employment and that may have been why he joined the Harry Clarke Studios in 1952 and began to seriously study the craft of glass painting. Harry Clarke died in 1931 but his studios carried on making stained glass until the 1970s. There was plenty of work for anyone in the ecclesiastical provisioning business as new churches were going up all over the country to serve the burgeoning, and pious, population.

Dessie Devitt, Paddy McLoughlin, Mickey Watson and Johnny Murphy in their busy studio in the 60s

One of the glaziers Johnny worked with at the Harry Clarke Studios was John Devitt, universally known as Des or Dessie. Becoming fast and lifelong friends, they decided to strike out on their own, taking some of the men from the HC Studios with them. It was the late 50s and they couldn’t have picked a better time. Working from a mews in Monkstown and later a custom-built studio in Blackrock, they started to tender successfully for new commissions. This also allowed Johnny and Róisín, who now joined them as well when she could escape motherly duties, to develop their own unique approach to designing and painting stained glass, very different from what had become a somewhat hidebound atmosphere at the Harry Clarke Studios. For an example of what I mean by that, and to illustrate the contrast with MD, take a look at my post Time Warp, featuring a set of Harry Clarke Studio windows from the late 1950s. Below is a detail from one of them – far, indeed from the genius of Harry Clarke himself.

Detail from a Harry Clarke Studio window in Drimoleague. Although this window is interesting for lots of other reasons, the quality of the glasswork and the artistry of the painting had declined over the decades since Harry’s death. 

What Johnny always called their ‘first big break’ came with the Church of Our Lady Crowned, in Mayfield, Cork, completed in 1962. According to The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage:

Our Lady Crowned Roman Catholic Church was built to the design of J.R. Boyd Barrett’s firm and when completed in 1962 comprised the final of five new churches constructed to the north side of Cork city and named after the five Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary. The design and construction of the roof is of technical importance while the extensive stained glass windows, from the workshops of Murphy & Devitt in Dublin, are of particular artistic merit.

Too often, stained glass windows are one-off commemorative objects, mounted in an available opening. But when you see a whole scheme of windows in one church, designed to fit and complement the architecture throughout the building, the effect can be breathtaking. And so it is with Our Lady Crowned. The church is wedged-shaped, with enormous glass panels occupying at least half the space. Scenes from the Life of Christ range around the walls, from the Annunciation to the Crucifixion and Epiphany, with the huge area over the main door taken up with a choir of angels heralding the crowning of Mary on one side and Christ on the other.   

The day we visited the church was full of children preparing for their Confirmation

When I told Réiltín Murphy*, Johnny and Róisín’s daughter, that Our Lady Crowned was my favourite of the Cork MD churches, she responded that it was her parents’ favourite too. It’s not hard to see why – it’s a triumph of imagination, artistic vision, craftsmanship and above all collaboration. As I get more familiar with MD windows the distinction between a Johnny Murphy window and a Róisín Dowd Murphy window is sometimes quite clear: Johnny’s style is more angular, with loose dark brushstrokes, strongly marked facial features, heads tilted at an angle, while Róisín’s figures are more curvy and flowing, with greater attention to fabric and to musical instruments. Réiltín characterises the difference thus: Róisín’s figures, I always think, are too busy to pose for their photo while Johnny’s are usually quietly aware of just who they are and what they symbolise.

Nativity, Presentation and Jesus in the Temple windows

In Mayfield, all those elements are present: at first glance it’s impossible to tell where Johnny leaves off and Róisín begins. But we do have evidence, in the form of an original cartoon, that links Róisín directly to the Assumption window and once you see that, you see her hand in other places too – the heavenly choir, for example, has many of her hallmarks.

Róisín’s cartoon for the second angel from the bottom on the right, and the finished window

I am tempted to see Johnny in the passion images – the sombre figure of the suffering Jesus (below) exudes a quiet power alongside the mocking soldiers.

But many of the windows defy easy analysis. Look at the Nativity window (below), for example, and see if you can figure out whose hand is where. Complicating all this in Murphy Devitt windows is that when times got busy they took in extra artists to help with the workload.

In this window note how the ‘break-outs’ (the areas of coloured glass) are used to separate two long panels, which are then unified at the top. The composition, which manages to include all the major figures in two tall narrow panels, is impressive, as is the integration of those panels with the break-outs.

As with most of their commissions, Johnny was the one who sketched out the overall design and decided on the ratio of figurative panels to ‘break ups’, those areas of coloured glass that allow the eye to rest between scenes, to register the passage of time between events. Non-figurative schemes became important elements in the Murphy Devitt style – more about  them later, but for the moment note the highly original way in which the expanse of coloured glass are treated. Nobody else was doing anything like this at the time – it was a unique and beautiful Murphy Devitt innovation.

In this window, the Finding of Jesus in the Temple, the separating device is the break-out panel and the unifying device is the floor

Not for Murphy Devitt the regular quarry glass with its dependable lozenge shapes, or static grids of straight lines. Johnny loved the wobbly, the wavy and and the irregular. Réiltín says, He was interested in music: the fugue, he said, whereby the same melody/image is played in different keys – his abstracts are often flipped, turned, twisted to be similar but not identical. He loved glass as a painting medium. He loved its kinetic effect in its flaws, its trees moving outside, its changing light/colours from passing clouds, its seeming to be alive.

A window where the break-outs serve as background, with the two main figures occupying panels and the cross stretching across the space

It’s a lot easier to cut regular shapes and fit them together, of course, but you don’t need an expert for that. This is where Dessie Devitt came into his own as a master glazier. Choosing the glass to match the colour scheme, assembling it all harmoniously, cutting and leading the thousands of pieces that went into a scheme like this – none of it would have been possible without Dessie Devitt and the men who worked alongside him.

The heavenly choir, above  one side of the main door, with Our Lady Crowned on the right. Below is a detail from the other side

By all accounts it was a charmed workplace, a happy environment where everyone worked hard but where laughter and The Chat abounded. Des in particular was gifted with the ability to recognise the absurd and could hardly leave the studio without coming back with an entertaining story.

About the same time as Mayfield, Murphy Devitt won the commission to design a set of windows based on the Canticle of St Francis for another Cork church, this one attached to a Cappuchin Friary. We’ll take a look at that one and some others next week. For the moment, the Mayfield church will serve as an introduction to Johnny, Róisín and Des, their modern aesthetic and their collaborative approach.

*Many thank to Réiltín Murphy for much of the background information, for answering all my questions and for additional photographs, including the people pictures and Róisín’s cartoon.

Getting Into the Art!

Uillinn – the West Cork Arts Centre gallery in Skibbereen – has just opened its first exhibition of 2020. It’s a riot! I have seldom seen such enthusiasm in an art show from the lively crowd who had gathered for the launch event, billed as an indoor picnic.

We went along, and were delighted. It’s advertised as an exhibition for children: take no notice of that! Just go and join in the fray – we all have a child in us. And it is a fray, in that it’s totally participatory. You can’t avoid taking apart everything you see, and putting it all back together however you want to. How amazing, to be encouraged – no, commanded – to get involved and act out the child. I wish I could show you the expressions of delight on the faces of all the ‘real’ children who were there, but today’s privacy laws mean that we can’t publish those. Instead, through some skilful juxtaposing and a little bit of PhotoShop, we hope that we can get across the sheer exuberance of all the activity.

The ground floor gallery was full of shapes – many recognisable, some abstract – all brightly coloured, attractive and tactile. Each one could easily be a piece of ‘modern art’. The fun comes when you realise they can all be taken apart and put back together in unlimited combinations. There are no restrictions: everything has hooks, slots, sockets. This is your chance – everybody’s chance – to build sculptures, make murals, hang things on walls (or on each other!). There’s not a single Do Not Touch sign anywhere . . . Imagine the excitement!

If you wanted to, you could enter the exhibition through a tunnel – it looked invitingly organic, if not somewhat anatomical. You were disgorged into a forest of sweets hanging on strings. Towards the end of the afternoon there were lots of empty strings and very few sweets. But, surely, that’s what it’s all about: consuming the art; embracing it, encountering it, making of it what you will.

It was interesting for us to note tidy-minded adults busily untangling the hanging strings, while their offspring revelled in getting them as muddled as possible. Meanwhile, we overheard a fraught parent exclaiming “I can’t believe you just ate the art!”

Art in Action is the brainchild of a group of Polish artists, and was first curated at the Municipal Art Center, Pomorska, Gorzów in 2019, with the intention of travelling on to Skibbereen. One of those artists, Tomasz Madajczak, has been based in Ireland since 2003, and has contributed to previous exhibitions at Uillinn. He provided the liaison between the two arts centres which resulted in this collaboration. He seemed completely at home among the exhibits:

I need to persuade you all to visit this exhibition, so I won’t give away too much in this little preview. I will just mention the upstairs galleries, where some ingenious devices are available to ensure full interaction between art and spectators, including a modern take on the epidiascope (remember those? – you will if you are anywhere near my age!), pop guns for shooting down technological detritus, and over-aweing human voice amplification. Here are some further images to whet your appetites . . .

Don’t be shy about coming into this show and being part of the action! That’s exactly what it’s there for. All the better if you can bring along a group of children – or aim to be there when there are children in the gallery: the Arts Centre has a continuing programme of involving schools and other community groups. It’s the children, particularly, who will show you what being uninhibited means.

Art in Action is on at Uillinn, Skibbereen until 22 February 2020. It is curated by Bartosz Nowak, with work by Basia Bańda + Tomasz Relewicz, Ewa Bone + Ewa Kozubal, Tomasz Madajczak, Krzysztof Matuszak, Aleksandra Ska and Hubert Wińczyk. Open Monday to Saturday, 10.00am to 4.45pm daily. Special thanks must go to Uillinn’s Director, Ann Davoran, and her technical team for bringing this show to fruition, with special mention to Ballydehob’s Stephen Canty – who solves every problem! Uillinn receives financial support from the Arts Council and Cork County Council.

Fingal Mummers

On Stephen’s Day we went up to Fingal County to see the Mummers – it’s a mere hare’s leap from Nead an Iolair. Until 1994 there was no county of Fingal: the area was part of Greater Dublin. Since that time this county has recorded the highest birth rate and population increase of any community in Ireland. Why? I would like to suggest that it’s because Fingal has , for countless generations, been the home of a Mummers tradition.

On our new green last evening here was presented the drollest piece of mummery I ever saw in or out of Ireland. There was St George and St Dennis and St Patrick in their buffle coats and the Turks likewise and Oliver Cromwell and a doctor and an old woman who made rare sport till Beelzebub  came in with a frying pan upon his shoulder and a great flail in his hand threshing about him on friends and foes, and at last running away with the bold usurper whom he tweaked by his gilded nose – – and then came a little Devil with a broom to gather up the money that was thrown to the Mummers for their sport. It is an ancient pastime they tell me of the citizens . . .

This account of Mummers in Cork is supposed to date from 1685, and is found in a manuscript collection in the Library of Trinity College Dublin, lodged by Thomas Crofton Croker in the 1840s. It is probably the earliest recorded portrayal of the custom in Ireland or Britain. Three hundred and thirty four years after this description of ‘an ancient pastime’ was written down, recognisably the same ‘mummery’ is happening every year across these islands around midwinter.

The Fingal Mummers ‘entering in’ (above). Following a revival in the 1950s, this group travels around several towns and villages on Stephen’s Day, performing their play to crowds who gather to see them. We tracked them down to their starting point, O ‘Connors Inn, Ballyboughal, which seemed a quiet little settlement until we walked through the door of the pub and realised that every resident of the village – and quite a contingent of visitors – was crammed inside waiting expectantly for the visiting players. The excitement was tangible, and everyone was in good spirit, enjoying the Christmas cakes, puddings and treats that were being freely handed around.

It seemed that the visit to O’Connors was a purely ritual appearance, as the crowds and the noise were too overbearing to permit a performance of the play. There was music and singing, but the group eventually moved on – with us following – to the next venue: Man O’War! This bar, which also gave its name to the scattering of houses around it, was evidently established in 1595 and became a toll point on the turnpike section of the main Dublin to Belfast road in the 1700s. The road has long since been superseded and is now a quiet lane. The pub, however, has grown in size and reputation and, on Stephen’s Day was packed: a large number of musicians was seated around an enormous table, and post-Christmas festivities were in full swing, with an air of expectancy leading up to the arrival of the Mummers.

It was at Man O’War that we saw the Fingal play performed. There are around a dozen characters, which include St Patrick, Prince George, The Doctor, The Butcher, Jenny Wren and Beelzebub. The main protagonists, Patrick and George, fight with swords until the former kills the latter (obviously!). A quack doctor is brought in and raises George to fight another day. There is considerable humour, innuendo and – always – music and dance. A most important aspect, however, is the appearance towards the end of the play of a character – Slick-Slack – who carries a large family on his back (usually dolls and teddy bears).

From upper picture – heroes Patrick and George, fiercesome Doctor and musicians

For me, it was just slipping back to old times: from when I could barely walk we attended the Mummers play at Crookham Village in Hampshire, England, every Boxing Day, and I absorbed the tradition into the rhythm of 1950s life. Here are the Crookham Village Mummers around that time:

A mid 20th century photograph of the Crookham Mummers, Hampshire: could the little boy on the right be me? The characters in this play, left to right – Roomer, Slasher, Trim Tram, Doctor, Turkish Knight, King George, Old Father Christmas

Into adulthood I never questioned the existence of the Mummers: they were just an essential part of Christmas – like carols, bells and reindeer. As soon as I was able, I joined the Mummers myself and now, after decades of performing it, carry the complete play in my head (the Hampshire version of it, anyway). It was only when my interest in folklore became academic that I asked myself: what is all this about? And then I became aware of the significance of mummery in the traditional cultures of northern Europe, Scandinavia – and beyond – and saw its place and relevance to the season when the sun gets to its lowest point and then has to be encouraged back again: cold and darkness have to be replaced in the natural cycle with light, warmth and regeneration. The old spirit of winter has to be supplanted by the young fertility character who carries his wife and (large) family on his back. In Fingal that is Slick-Slack; in Hampshire it is Trim-Tram who rounds off the performance:

In comes I, Trim-Tram, left hand press gang: press all you bold fellows to sea to fight the French and Spanish. Although my name be Jolly Jack, wife and family on my back – although my family be but small, I thinks myself best man of all . . .

Trim-Tram fights with Old Father Christmas and kills him, causing some consternation to younger members of the audience. Trim-Tram concludes:

Ladies and gentlemen, see what I have done: killed my poor old Father Christmas, just like the setting sun. So, while I sits and takes my ease, good people – give us what you please . . .

At which point the hat is passed around, giving the watching crowd a chance to partake of the ‘luck’ which the Mummers bring to the communities they visit.

The Butcher is on the left – replete with carving knife and turkey!

Masks and straw headpieces are common in the Irish Stephen’s Day traditions. Remember the workshop we had in Ballydehob a few weeks ago? That was in preparation for a Wranning there this Christmas just gone. Unfortunately, we couldn’t magic ourselves to be in two places at once on the day, so we will have to wait for next year’s event. Meanwhile we were very happy to have the Fingal experience. Long may that county continue to hold on to the luck, and perpetuate its fecundity!

A Wildflower Year

2019 was a good year for the wildflower watcher. This January pine cone looks otherworldly, having lost the seeds along its length.

February – Alder Catkins

I run a Facebook Page called Wildflowers of West Cork. It’s on its winter break right now, but take a look at the photographs and you’ll see the amazing variety of flowers I have seen this year. For this post, I have chosen one photograph for each month that represents something for me about that month, or that brings back a memory of my year of wildflower observation. It’s a personal selection, a bit quirky perhaps.

January (first photo) and February (above) are all about the waiting, with hints of what’s to come peeping out every now and then.

March – Colt’s-foot

I was pleased to find these Colt’s-foot flowers in March, but not in West Cork. Although distribution maps show it as occurring here, I’ve actually not seen it here at all yet. Must look harder!

April – Early Dog-violet

I found this one in Kerry. You have to look closely to see the difference with the Common Dog-violet (which we have in abundance). Don’t worry – I didn’t pick it, I’m just holding it steady for the camera.

May – Yellow Rattle

I planted these myself from seeds ordered from Sandro Caffola at Design by Nature and I was thrilled to see them coming up, especially after a crowd of pigeons showed up to feast on the newly-sewn seeds. Yellow Rattle parasitises on grass, loosening the soil and creating bare patches. I’m trying to cultivate a wildflower meadow in one part of my garden and this is one of the recommended strategies for encouraging wild flowers to drift in and take root.

June – Bee Orchid

This is a spectacular and relatively rare native Orchid. Altar Church at Toormore on the Mizen was practising a Don’t Mow, Let it Grow philosophy in the spring and early summer, and all kinds of flowers were flourishing there, including this beauty.

July – Figwort

This is such an easy-to-overlook plant – the red flower is tiny and unobtrusive and it’s only when you see it silhouetted against the sky like this that you realise how exotic it is. The tallest one I’ve seen towered over me.

August – Yellow-horned Poppy

I had a wonderful day on Long Island in August with my friend Damaris Lysaght, helping her do the annual count of this Poppy population. It grows on shingle beaches, but only in occasional locations around the coast, so it was a real privilege to be involved in monitoring such an important species. I had failed to find the Poppy in May when I took a reconnaissance trip to Long Island so I was thrilled to be with Damaris, the expert, on this occasion.

September – Wild Clary

Watching Damaris, I realised I had a lot to learn about counting wildflowers so I signed up for a day long monitoring workshop conducted by the botanist Paul Green for the Biodiversity Data Centre. It took place near Youghal and this was one of the flowers we counted. I really enjoyed the day – observing wildflowers is normally a very solitary activity for me so it was wonderful to hang out with simpatico folks and talk wildflowers all day.

October – Flax

Once widely grown in Ireland for the linen industry, Flax now crops up here and there, often as a result of birds distributing seeds from feed mixes. We had walked cross-country to find a stone circle that day – I wasn’t expecting to see so much Flax in the final field, and wonder if it was sewn as part of a green manure mix.

November – Pixie-Cup Lichens

This was the year we discovered Lichens and Little Things in the Woods and ever since I’ve been keeping an eye out for them. I’ve discovered the rock faces in my own garden hosts quite a variety, including these tiny Cladonia that look like they’re ready for a fairy party.

December – Winter Heliotrope

Introduced into Ireland by Victorian beekeepers to provide winter nectar for bees, Winter Heliotrope has become invasive, covering the ground in large kidney-shaped leaves and leaving no room for native species. Nevertheless, they do introduce a welcome note of colour and scent in the depths of winter.

I leave you with another image from the Altar Graveyard – an Early Marsh Orchid (see comments below – I had mis-identified this as a Common Spotted Orchid – thanks, Paddy for, er, ‘spotting’ my error) growing in a sea of Bog Pimpernel. Here’s to another great year of Wildflower Watching!