1950s Ireland

1950 happened 70 years ago – obviously. My earliest substantial recollection of the 50s era was a visit to the Festival of Britain, London, in 1951: I was five years old, and the memory has lasted. Incidentally, that year also saw my very first day at school, a traumatic experience from which I have never fully recovered – but that’s a story for another day!

I suppose that the seeds of an interest in building and engineering structures must have been in me then, because it is the architecture of that Festival that has stayed with me – and which probably influenced me in my own later career. Not that I ever designed a Dome of Discovery, or a Skylon – more’s the pity, but I think I have always related to the throwing off of tradition and the embracing of new and exciting shapes and colours which came out of the Festival. I believe we are overdue a revival of that bravado to lift our spirits once again.

I was pleased to find these contemporary picture postcards of the 1951 Festival of Britain: everything is exactly as I remember!

In the words of the Festival’s Director-General, Gerald Barry, it represented “a tonic to the nation” after twenty years in which Britons had successively endured economic depression, total warfare and acute post-war austerity. However, the Festival of Britain was the product of a left-wing government and it has been said that Churchill (then leader of the opposition) held the view that the whole venture was “three dimensional socialist propaganda”. I’m not sure that this is really true, as he attended the Festival and evidently spent all day riding up and down the escalators – then a novelty – with great delight! I also remember those escalators: we called them moving stairs (I still do – just like I still call the cinema the pictures). Finola clearly remembers riding on Ireland’s first moving stairs, in Roche’s Department Store, Dublin. But that was 1963; today’s post is all about the 1950s, but in rural Ireland.

The Half Door, an image from rural Co Clare by Dorothea Lange

On a recent trip to Dublin we visited Ireland’s Museum of Decorative Arts & History at Collins Barracks. We went specifically to see an exhibition: Ireland in Focus: Photographing Ireland in the 1950s. This features “rare images of forgotten Ireland” by three world renowned documentary photographers, one from France and two from North America. Each of them visited Ireland during the 1950s to record a traditional way of life that was perceived to be vanishing as the twentieth century progressed. For anyone interested in Ireland and its recent history, this is not to be missed: it runs until April. In this post I shall show some examples of the work of one photographer: Dorothea Lange. The others will get a showing in future posts.

Dorothea Lange, a portrait taken by her husband Paul S Taylor on the Texas Plains in 1935

We had already been introduced to Dorothea Lange as my good friend John (also an expert photographer) recently gave us a copy of a book of her Irish photographs. Sponsored by Life Magazine, she visited the western seaboard in 1954, staying for several weeks in County Clare. She took over 2,400 photographs, which are now fortunately archived in the Oakland Museum of California. In the introduction to the book Dorothea Lange’s Ireland Eliott & Clark Publishing, Washington, 1996, Daniel Dixon writes:

. . . Dorothea Lange was not an avid reader. But among the few books which became her favourites was a description of the sort of culture that drew her attention time and again throughout her career, a rural society where customs, beliefs, and the way of life itself were tied to the soil. The book was called The Irish Countryman. Written in 1937 by a young anthropologist from Harvard, Conrad Arensberg, it documented and analyzed the social and economic traditions of Irish rural life and discussed how they were affected by religion and superstition. In it, Arensberg located the family farm at the hub of this complex system and explained how each generation placed an overriding importance on ‘keeping the family name on the land’ . . .

Why is it that we are so drawn to old photographs? Lange’s pictures paint a view of rural life in Ireland that is barely a lifetime away – yet it seems far longer ago. But, living in rural Ireland today, we can so easily relate to those times and – most probably – regret that they have passed. Of course, if we lift the veneer of nostalgia, we know that life was harsh, then and – for all the problems of this world – it is so much easier now. We doubtless have regrets principally for the loss of the people that are portrayed; moments preserved for all time on film, but that can never be recaptured.

Quite apart from the people, we do like to see how places have changed. These images of 1950s Ennis, now a sizeable county town, hark back to simpler times, for sure, in Lange’s work:

You won’t see every one these pictures in the exhibition – I have taken some from the book. They all complement each other. But it’s all only a small part of what Dorothea Lange recorded. What of the several hundred other images? At least they are kept safe, although not available on line. Lange was born in 1895 and succumbed to cancer in her seventieth year, 1965. A few months after her death the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted a retrospective of her work. It was the first one-person retrospective by a female photographer held at MoMA. She is remembered far more for her images of the Great Depression years in the American West than she is for her visit to Ireland, but here we should be grateful for her documentary work that has added to our records of Irish rural life in the last century.

Top – Tulla, Co Clare; above – going to the Creamery, Co Clare, 1954. Below: Dorothea Lange in Ireland

Irish Romanesque 3 – Monaincha, the Isle of the Living

There are places on this island that seep into your soul. You come away with a sense of having visited another world, of having passed through a portal and been lucky enough to come back to tell the tale. Such a place is Monaincha in Tipperary.

We made this trip because I was studying Irish Romanesque architecture and Monaincha is a fine example, but we had no real idea what to expect and it caught us off guard. An ancient signpost directed us down a rough track through the trees and then by foot across the fields. Our first glimpse was of what looked like an island in the middle of flat land.

We weren’t wrong – this had been an island, called Inchanambeo (Incha na mBeó) which translates as Island of the Living. Curious name, but of course, this being Ireland, there’s a story to it. Here it is from Dúchas, the School’s Folklore Collection, collected by a 12 year old in the 1930s:

On this lake were two islands; the Island of the living which was the smaller of the two was a place to where saints went who wanted to live alone – with God. It was called the Island of the Living because it was said that no one could die who went on this island. Of course this is not to say that their bodies could not die – it meant that their souls could not die, because Our Lord said “He that eateth of this bread shall live for ever”. No woman could go on the large island because she would die. This was often experimented, when men brought female animals on the island but they dropped dead the moment their feet touched the island.

Hmmm – as a woman, perhaps I did indeed go through some kind of portal, since I managed to live through the experience. That explains the Otherworldly feeling!

The top image and this one are from Ledwich’s Antiquities of Ireland, published in 1790. His map clearly shows that both islands were still there at that time, with a building still in place on the small island, while the first illustration shows the second building on the large island, no longer there

For this and more Duchas stories about Monaincha, go to this link on the Dúchas website. You will see that Cromwell sacked the monastery, that the woman who gave away the monks’ location was turned to stone along with her cake of bread, that the lake contains hidden treasure, that the water if used improperly would not boil, that many miracles were associated with the saints who lived on Monaincha, and that a white lady roamed the area until banished by a priest but not before she left her mark on him (read the story).

And here it is – the cake of bread that was turned to stone

One of those was St Canice, who came on retreat to this sacred spot:

He did not let anyone know where he was but he got letters and messages each day by means of the Garnawn Bawn. This was the White Horse which passed each day without a guide from Agherloe to Monahinche.

St Canice (second from right) in good company with Sts Patrick, Brigid and Eugene. He’s holding his cathedral. the window is in St Eugene’s church in Derry

But it was St Cronan who built the church:

St Cronan and his monks sought a place where they could build a residence. They proceeded to the parish of Bourney to a place called Bogawn  but looking towards Monahincha they saw the sun shining on it and so fixed the site of their future home on Monahincha. St Cronan lived for a long time in Monahincha and while he was there he prayed a great deal and performed many miracles.

For a more academic history of Monaincha we turn to the bible of all things Romanesque, the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture. From it we learn that:

Originally known as Inis Loch Cré, the name Mona Incha was only given to the site in the in later centuries. The earliest monastery here was founded by St Cainneach of Aghaboe in the 7thc as a hermitic settlement. Column Mac Fergus died on Inis CrÈ in 788 as did Elarius, anchorite and scribe, in 807. The latter was St Elair, or Hilary who was patron of the monastery in which the Culdees were instituted in around the 10thc. In 902 Flaithbertach, King of Cashel, came here on pilgrimage. An Augustinian community was established at Mona Incha during the mid-12thc.

In 1397 the monastery, containing a prior and eight canons, was taken under the Pope’s protection and released from paying Episcopal dues because of its extreme poverty. At about the same time the Book of Ballymote described Mona Incha as the 31st wonder of the world! In c.1485 the prior and convent finally moved to Holy Cross at Corbally, as the canons found the vapours from the marshes surrounding the island unhealthy. Following the Dissolution the church was used as a penal chapel. 

Much of this is based on the erudition and scholarship of Harold Leask, whose three volume book Irish Churches and Monastic Buildings has a section on Monaincha. He also authored, along with C MacNeil, an article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland which is a very comprehensive account of all that can be gleaned from annals and hagiographies of the history of Monaincha*.

Leask’s plan of the ruins at Monaincha

He cites Gerald Barry’s (better known as Giraldus Cambrensis) Topographia Hibernia (written in 1188), to show how ancient is the tradition of the Isle of the Living.

There is, he says, a lake in North Munster containing two islands, a greater and a less. The greater has a church of an ancient religious order and the less has a chapel served by a few celibates whom they call Celicolae or Colidei [Culdees – an ancient hermetic order]. No woman or animal of the female sex could enter the greater island without dying immediately. This has been put to the proof many times by means of dogs, cats, and other animals of that sex, which have often been brought to it as a test, and have died at once. As regards the birds of the district, it is wonderful how, when the males settle at random on the bushes of the islands the hen birds fly past and leave the males there and avoid that island like a plague, as if well aware of its natural power.  No one ever died or could die in the smaller island, whence it is called the Isle of the Living; yet from time to time persons are afflicted with deadly ailments and suffer agonies to their last breath. When they feel there is no longer any hope of really living, and by the increase of their disease they are in the end so distressed that they would rather dies outright than continue in living death, they have themselves brought at last in a boat to the greater island, and they give up the ghost as soon as they touch the land.

Leask and MacNeill go on to state that the place had been the site of pilgrimage formerly and some stations were still visible in 1848, and that the proprietor of the place had drained the lake in the 1820s or so and forbade all access to the church either for burial or pilgrimage, destroyed tombstones and erected round the church a circular mound, composed, the people say, of the mortal remains of the hundred generations deposited in that favourite churchyard.

What was once the larger island (there is no sign now of a second one) is still, as Leask described in the 1920s, a circular raised platform, due to the draining of the surrounding land, but there is still very much a sense of travelling across an open expanse to get to it. Marooned in the middle of a large field, the island is visible as a group of very tall trees and it’s not until you get close to it that you begin to see the structures.

As with many such sites in Ireland, the graveyard surrounding the ruined church, despite what Leask asserts, appears to be still intact. This adds to the reverential feeling of the place, as do the enormous trees, which must be hundreds of years old. A partly reconstructed high cross stands at the entrance – Robert wrote about this one in his post Fading Treasures.

The church is a Romanesque gem. (For more about Irish Romanesque architecture, I have provided a list of previous posts at the bottom of this post.) Dating to the twelfth century, it is a nave and chancel church, fairly typical of the time. there is a later addition on the north side, referred to as a sacristy in Leask’s plan. The sacristy is shown in the Ledwich drawing (first image at top of post), which dates from the 1790s.  As could be seen also in Ledwich’s site map, there was much more to the whole site than there is now.

The main door has three (or four, depending on who’s counting) orders, each one carved in the Romanesque fashion with chevrons, zigzags, pellets, floral motifs within lozenges, and some scrollwork. Although weathered, most of the the carvings are still clear to see and very attractive. There are hints of animal heads but they are difficult to discern.

One of the pleasure of Leask’s accounts is his wonderful line drawings. In his plan of the door M stands for ‘modern’ – the doorway was repaired, probably by the Office of Public Works, at some time before his visit

The door is much plainer on the inside, with only one order and no visible carvings. This is normal in Romanesque buildings – the difference between the elaborate entrance and the unadorned exit is often quite startling.

Above the door is a narrow window that was modified in the 15th century by adding an ogee head to the top of the frame

Inside, the nave has some fine windows, although not all of them bear scrutiny as original to the 12th century period of construction.

Only the smallest window is recognisably Romanesque

But it is the chancel arch that dominates the space. It separates the small chancel – the area where the altar would have been and mass would have been celebrated – from the nave where the monks and the faithful would have gathered.

Photograph taken in 2017 and drawing done in 1790. In Ledwich’s drawing the entry to the vaulted sacristy (probably 15th century) is on the left

The arch is characteristic – three orders with carvings on both the arch and on the jambs, which are slightly inclined. The capitals are scalloped. The decoration is similar to that on the main door, indicating it was probably carved at the same time and maybe by the same hands.

The experts at the Corpus compare the carvings to the Nun’s Chapel at Clonmacnoise and say, The squared patrae on the outer order of the doorway find an almost identical parallel at Clonfert (Galway), although at Clonfert the floral decoration of the motif does not vary. The closest comparisons to the chevron ornament are found at Killaloe and Tuamgraney (Clare). These comparisons suggest a construction date of c.1180, perhaps to coincide with the establishment of the Augustinian canons at the site.

Another view of the chancel arch, this time from Archiseek

The ground floor of the sacristy is vaulted and contains tombs. This one memorialises A Sincere Friend and An Humble Christian and dates from 1832

The vaulted sacristy was added in the 15th century (Leask comments on the inferiority of its construction) and several other later modifications are visible to windows. There are  now no other buildings on the island, and of course no trace of the second island or of any other structures that one would associate with a 12th century monastic settlement, such as a round tower or an enclosing circular wall.

No matter – what is there is magical. We spent so long at Monaincha that the light was declining as we were leaving. It added to the atmospheric feeling of the place, and a sense that we were travelling back to ordinary life from the storied Isle of the Living.

In this, I share the emotion with Harold Leask, whose love of this site shines out in his writing. In his book he states, Perhaps no other church ruin in Ireland is so attractive in site, interesting detail and appearance. . .  In the Architectural Notes that follow the JRSAI history he writes, I first saw it. . . upon the afternoon of a summer, its walls golden in the rays of the westering sun, the little green mound with its circling wall and groups of beech trees forming a perfect setting in the level bogland, bright with ragweed and and bordered in the distance by woods. The whole effect was very suggestive of a Petrie water-colour sketch, with just that delicacy and precision which is the great charm of his work.

Leask may have been thinking of this very sketch, which although it was done for Petrie was actually by our old friend George Victor Du Noyer. It is marked ‘unfinished’ and indeed the later sacristy is entirely missing

*McNeill, C., and Harold G. Leask. “Monaincha, Co. Tipperary. Historical Notes.” The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, vol. 10, no. 1, 1920, pp. 19–35. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25514550. Accessed 16 Feb. 2020

More about Irish Romanesque Architecture:

Irish Romanesque – an Introduction

Irish Romanesque 2 – Doorways

Cormac’s Chapel: The Jewel in the Crown (Part 1)

Cormac’s Chapel: The Jewel in the Crown (Part 2)

Off the M8 – Kilree Monastic Site

Mizen Magic 17: Delights of Dunmanus

As we often do, we set out on a sparkling day last month to explore a part of the Mizen we aren’t familiar enough with yet. Our plan consisted of pouring over the OS Number 88 map and having an AHA! moment of realising that we haven’t been to a particular spot. This time, the dart landed on an area just northeast of Dunmanus Castle (seen above from Mount Gabriel), where it looked like there was a trail running along the water that would afford magnificent views of Dunmanus Bay and the Sheep’s Head. Things didn’t go quite as planned. . .

Red line: the trail we wanted to walk. Blue line, the trail we actually walked.
Arrows – yellow, Dunmanus Castle; pink, boulder burial; blue, Killhangel Church

We’ve written about this area before – specifically, in Mizen Magic 13 Robert described the promontory immediately to the northwest of the castle, with its ancient stone walls and its spectacular sea arches. This area has recently been re-fenced and isn’t as easy to access as it was.

The Castle and bridge from the promontory

The Castle, of course, is the most prominent landmark in this area. Built by the O’Mahony’s in the 15th century, it is a classic early ‘raised entry’ type of tower house, with complicated internal architecture that allows restricted access to different parts of the building at different levels – including to an oubliette. My post When is a Castle..? has a good description of these kinds of castles, typical of West Cork.

But today we were heading away from the Castle, towards the townland of Knockeens, where, on the map, we could see this promising trail. But you can’t just go right there – a little meandering is always in order when you’re in countryside this beautiful and this interesting.

So we stopped to admire the Dunmanus boulder burial (its the rock in the lower left of the photograph above). Boulder burials are Bronze Age monuments, although they may have been used for purposes other than to mark burials. See my post Boulder Burials: a Misnamed Monument? for more about this intriguing group of archaeological sites, more widespread in West Cork than other parts of the country, and often associated with stone circles or standing stones. This one is unusual in that it is low-lying (most are in more commanding positions) and the base gets covered at high tides.

Crossing over an unnamed stream that rises on Mount Gabriel and empties into the sea here, we arrive at the point where we can leave the car and proceed on foot.

A short walk up an old boreen leads us to a clachán – a tiny settlement of houses, now all in ruins. The residents had magnificent views back down to the bay in their day, but as people say around here, you can’t eat scenery and the families who lived here are long gone to a better life elsewhere.

Just beyond the clachán we ran into our roadblock – an enormous puddle extended over the path. It was too deep to walk through and the boreen was fringed with thick gorse bushes we couldn’t push past. Stymied, we decided to climb up above the path and look for a way around. Easier said than done – between stands of gorse, boggy patches to go around (or sink into), sheep paths that went nowhere, we spent an hour or so wandering around the hillside and finally admitted defeat.

It wasn’t wasted time though – it was wonderful to be out in the crisp air, surrounded by all the magnificence of the Mizen, thinking about the generations who had wrested a subsistence out of that unpromising land. When we finally got back to the car we decided to see if we could approach the trail from the other side, and set off in that direction.

Looking across to the Sheep’s Head

Along the way we had a quick stop at the ruined late-medieval Kilheangul Church (Church of the Angels). It’s a special little spot that deserves a post of its own someday, so I won’t say much about it now. This photograph of it was taken in the summer.

By the time we arrived at the other end of the trail, beside a small pier, it was starting to get dark, as befits a January afternoon, so discretion dictated that we leave the rest of the adventure to another day. 

The day started out to be about walking the trail – it ended up being about everything around it. That’s the thing about the Mizen – the journey is the destination. 

 

Seán Keating – Escaping the Storm

Storm Ciara was upon us as we headed over to the east coast – a mere few hops from Nead an Iolair. But it wasn’t all black clouds and thunder and lightning: winter storms here in Ireland feature high winds and spectacles such as this rainbow (above) which seemed to hang in the sky over County Wicklow for hours. When the rain comes, we often find refuge in a church – especially if it helps Finola’s quest for new stained glass windows. Sometimes they seem to reflect the weather patterns:

This panel, which could be seen as an indoor rainbow, is in an impressively large church in Ballyroan, Rathfarnham Parish, County Dublin: it was built in 1967 to seat a thousand. What caught my eyes was not the array of windows by Murphy Devitt (Finola has written extensively about this creative partnership), but two murals high on the walls of the crossing. I was delighted to find that these were painted by one of Ireland’s great artists working through the turbulent twentieth century – Seán Keating.

Seán Keating’s ‘Baptism of Christ’ mural in the Church of the Holy Spirit, Ballyroan

I am always surprised to find that Keating is under-appreciated: yes, he gets mentioned in books of art history, and is reasonably well represented in the state’s galleries. Yet you will also find terms such as ‘not great art’ applied to his work by critics and commentators. This is possibly because he is best known for his documentary work and, particularly, for his raw representations of the tempestuous years of Ireland’s struggle to gain independence. Here is ‘Men of the South’, dating from 1921 when there was a ceasefire in the Irish War of Independence while the Anglo-Irish Treaty was being negotiated and out of which the Irish Free State was born.

Top: Men of the South – Seán Keating’s documentary portrayal of the North Cork Brigade of the Irish Republican Army. Below the painting is one of the photographs taken in Keating’s Dublin studio in preparation for the work. Two versions of this painting were made by the artist: the one above is in the Crawford Gallery, Cork City, while the other (which depicts eight men) is now in Áras an Uachtaráin, the official residence of the President of Ireland.

After the War of Independence and the abhorrent Civil War which followed it, Keating’s work concentrated on documenting the founding and burgeoning of the new State. Scenes of conflict were replaced by works showing industrial development, such as Ireland’s largest ever civil engineering contract: harnessing the power potential of the State’s major waterway, the River Shannon. The construction of a dam and hydro-electric generating station at Ardnacrusha, County Clare, together with a country-wide electric distribution infrastructure, was a symbol of major importance to the nation’s fledgling government. Keating began recording the work in 1926, soon after inception. No-one had commissioned him – he saw the significance of making dramatic documentary work of this nature, but his vision was eventually recognised by the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) – which now owns the largest collection of Keating’s paintings in Ireland. Above is one of the artist’s working sketches of the dam under construction.

Seán Keating painting en plein air at Ardnacrusha, 1920s

Keating studied under William Orpen in Dublin. He was to become one of Orpen’s important pupils (and, latterly, his assistant) and his documentary painting style owes a debt to his teacher. One of his famous early paintings is Thinking Out Gobnet (below), a portrait of his good friend Harry Clarke, dating from 1917. Keating and Clarke frequently visited the Aran Islands together. The painting shows Clarke sitting on a grave slab within the ruins of Teampall Chaomháin (St Kevin’s church) on Inis Oírr, along with a holy water font at his feet, and a holy well to the bottom right of the image. The suggestion is that Clarke is finding inspiration for his series of eleven windows for the Honan Chapel, Cork, which include a fine representation of St Gobnet. The ‘healing’ symbolism of the holy water and well are deliberate references to Clarke’s TB, the illness which ended his life at the age of 41.

Seán Keating was always a committed Catholic, and we have seen many examples of his artwork in churches, including the murals at Ballyroan. Most striking, perhaps, are the Stations of the Cross which he painted for St John’s Church, Tralee – the church which features in Finola’s wonderful Irish Arts Review article (and RWJ blog post) about Ireland’s Newest Stained Glass Window.

Stations of the Cross by Seán Keating in St John’s Church, Tralee, County Kerry

Back to Ballyroan: while we were sheltering from the tempest and admiring the church architecture, and the murals, I was delighted to find out that Seán Keating had lived for much of his life just down the road, in Ballyboden, in a house which he had designed himself. He attended mass regularly at Ballyroan until his death in December 1977, aged 88.

Keating’s mural The Descent of the Holy Spirit in his own church of Ballyroan, Parish of Rathfarnham, installed in 1967

We discovered that Keating is buried in the nearby Cruagh Cemetery, so we had to head out into the storm again to find his grave. It is as unassuming as he apparently was in life: a visitor would not be aware that herein lies one of modern Ireland’s greats.

Cruagh Cemetery, Co Dublin (top) is the resting place of Seán Keating. His grave is shared with his wife, May, and son Michael

Our little artist’s memoir is almost over. The gale continued with ferocious lashing rain: cold and hungry we made a beeline for the local pub – the Merry Ploughboy, evidently a famous music venue. It was warm and welcoming, and full of a crowd watching Six Nations Rugby on the big screen (Ireland won the match).

In the lounge we were intrigued to find an oblique reference to Seán Keating – a painting which has a nod to his style but is by a different artist!

We agreed that our day trip to the east, in the teeth of the gale, was a memorable way to discover the life, work and death of one of Ireland’s significant artists.

Brendan in Bronze

Do you know the story of St Brendan? He – ‘The Navigator’ – went to North America long before Columbus. Nearly a thousand years before, in fact: Brendan was born in the fifth century. The story of his voyage, and his remarkable adventures with his fellow monks, has inspired art, music and song ever since then. Here’s the beginning of Christy Moore’s version:

A boat sailed out of Brandon in the year of 501
’twas a damp and dirty mornin’ Brendan’s voyage it began.
Tired of thinnin’ turnips and cuttin’ curley kale
When he got back from the creamery he hoisted up the sail.
He ploughed a lonely furrow to the north, south, east and west
Of all the navigators, St Brendan was the best . . .

We went to Tralee, Co Kerry, to visit the Church of Our Lady and St Brendan: Finola was looking for windows by Murphy Devitt (which are spectacular) and I chanced upon a set of bronze roundels laid into the paving leading up to the main entrance (above). I felt I had to record them here, as they illustrate and tell the whole story of the Saint so wonderfully well. The large medallions were designed and made by Eithne Ring and Liam Lavery, and were installed in 2010. As far as I know this is a unique record of the voyage: well worth a visit – but don’t miss the windows!

St Brendan: part of a huge stained glass installation by Murphy Devitt in this Kerry church

I’m showing the roundels in the order in which you encounter them as you approach the main doors to the church, and giving a very brief description of the subject of each. At the end you will find a commentary provided by the designers, which gives more detail.

1 St Brendan visits St Enda prior to building his boat

2 On a rocky island, Brendan’s crew are led by a hound to a miraculous hall of food

3 The monks find an island inhabited by giant sheep

4 Brendan and his companions land on an island, light a fire and celebrate Mass; they discover that they are on the back of a whale!

5 An island of white birds: one is ringing a bell

6 The monks take meat from a beast that has been slain by a monster

7 On the Island of Grapes the monks witness a battle between a gryphon and a bird: the bird is victorious

8 All the fish in the ocean come to listen to Brendan while he sings

9 Brendan finds a huge crystal pillar rising out of the sea

10 The sea is boiling like an erupting volcano

11 Brendan and his companions meet the unhappy Judas chained to a rocky island

12 The travellers find a hermit who has been fed by an otter for forty years

13 Brendan returns to Ireland to prepare for his death

So now you know the bones of Brendan’s story. Now listen to the music! Saun Davey’s Brendan Voyage, a suite for uillinn pipes and orchestra, is a masterpiece inspired partly by the Saint himself, but also by Tim Severin’s 1976/77 recreation of the journey across the Atlantic in a leather clad boat:

Tim Severin pictured with a model of the boat in which he recreated the Saint’s journey

Let’s give the last words to Christy Moore, and the chorus of his Brendan song (you can find all the lyrics here):

“Is it right or left for Gibraltar?”
“What tack do I take for Mizen Head?”
“I’d love to settle down near Ventry Harbour”,
St Brendan to his albatross he said . . .

Imbolc – How Our Ancestors Welcomed Spring

February 1 – we celebrate it as St Brigid’s day now, and support the call for making it a national holiday. But we have celebrated it in Ireland forever as Imbolc, the calendar marker that heralds the arrival of spring.

St Brigid by Harry Clarke in St Barrahane’s Church, Castletownshend

What follows was originally a Joint Post by Finola and Robert, written way back in 2013. We have edited it to update the links and added some new photographs and are republishing it now.

Archaeologists have long been aware of the astronomical siting of some Irish megalithic sites, such as at Newgrange, and Loughcrew Passage Graves in Co Meath and Drombeg Stone Circle in West Cork.

Inside Cairn T at Loughcrew

We have become intrigued by the work of Michael Wilson, a talented amateur astronomer who is singlehandedly documenting the astronomical siting of many monuments in this area. Recently he has turned his attention to prehistoric rock art. Mike’s website contains an astonishing body of work, meticulously researched and rigorously recorded, along with explanatory notes.

Michael Wilson and his Whole Horizon Analytical Technique (WHAT)

Michael Wilson carries out his Whole Horizon Analytical Technique (WHAT)

His thesis, in a nutshell, is that the builders and carvers of Neolithic and Bronze Age times were keen observers of the day and night skies and were intimately familiar with their surroundings. They situated their megaliths and rock art in places where the contours of the horizon allowed them to mark significant solar and lunar events, such as solstices, equinoxes, lunar settings and risings, and intermediate points. Thus, the sun at the winter solstice might rise at the highest point on a nearby mountain, or set in a deep notch in the hills at the spring equinox.

At Drombeg Stone Circle people gather on the winter solstice to watch the sun set over the recumbent stone

The solar calendar has four quarter days (the solstices and the equinoxes), four cross-quarter days (the half way points between the solstices and the equinoxes) and a further finer division into points half-way between the quarters and cross-quarters: an ancient 16 month calendar.

A few days ago [in 2013], Michael posted this:

Imbolc, the spring cross-quarter, is almost upon us. It will be on Feb 1st by the Gregorian calendar, where it is commonly known as St Bridget’s Day or Candlemas, but this is not the correct day. By day-count, the times to celebrate will be sunset on the 3rd and sunrise on the 4th. Astronomically, the sun will be exactly half-way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox at about 16:13 GMT on Feb 3rd, while Feb 2nd is the day to see the sun rise and set at the prehistoric positions for marking this festival.

We set out for our favourite rock art site, Ballybane West, before dawn on Feb 2nd, feeling incredibly lucky to have a clear sky. As the sky brightened, and the nearby hills started to receive the sun’s rays, the carvings on the rock surface became clearly visible.

The sun is already hitting the high ground across the valley

Then, the sun rose, exactly where Michael’s predictions said it would, at the highest point of a rounded hill on the horizon. As people had been doing 4000 years ago in this exact spot, we marked the cross-quarter day of Imbolc – a time when the land starts to warm up, the first spring flowers appear, and the ewes are visibly pregnant.

The carvings light up in the dawn rays

The slanting rays of the rising sun provide perfect lighting for seeing rock art, which is often difficult to observe at other times

If Michael is correct, we have to incorporate a new possibility into our thinking about rock art. There have been indications before that the location of the carved rocks was significant. For example, there is often a view of water or of a significant mountain, some theorists have posited that they are ancient boundary markers, and some rock art sites are inter-visible with each other.

But this way of looking at rock art elevates the actual siting of the rock as most important, and allows us to view the carvings themselves as a way to indicate the purpose of the site – a means to an end rather than an end in itself. The motifs, though, will probably remain as enigmatic as ever.