Just along the road from us in West Cork lies Liss Ard Estate. One of Ireland’s ‘big houses’, it was built in 1853 and was for generations the home of The O’Donovan, leader of that Gaelic clan. During the ‘cold war’ era of the 20th century it was owned by the Swiss government, who saw in West Cork a potential safe haven if the world descended into a nuclear holocaust. Just recently it has been taken over by an American company who will continue to run it as a hospitality venue. Finola’s eagle eye picked out the other day that Liss Ard were opening up for outdoor Sunday brunch! How could we resist?
Here’s the brunch group: George, Una, Finola, myself, Con and Clair. We thoroughly enjoyed the occasion – partly because it was like being let out of jail (although I doubt – but can’t say for certain – that any of us has experienced that particular phenomenon), but also because, as customers, we were able to follow the excellent breakfast and coffee with a walk around the 163-acre estate.
Finola and I have special feelings for Liss Ard, as we were married there in 2014 in an ancient ringfort! So, easing ourselves out of our chairs in the summer sunshine our first port of call was the feature after which the house is named: Lios Ard = High Fort. At our wedding the souterrain which was an integral part of the fort was not visible: today it can be seen, from above (at least, the entrance to it can be seen). The souterrain is a series of underground chambers, and this one – cut from rock and clay – has survived for well over a millennium. It was fully explored by a good friend of ours, Lee Snodgrass and her partner Paddy O’Leary – both archaeologists – back in the 1980s, and an information board just beside the fort tells the story in their words.
Above: Lee and Paddy’s survey drawings of the fort and souterrain, with a view of the entrance at the west side of the enclosure, and the cave-like structure which can be seen today, surrounded by ferns. Below is our group standing in the circle of the fort: such structures were probably high status homes defended by banks and timber palisades. They would also have provided protection for domestic animals who would have been predated by wolves.
Another feature in the grounds of Liss Ard may also seem like something ancient, but actually only dates from 1992:
. . . The Liss Ard Project brings together the conservation of nature and contemporary art: it will combine animal wildlife preservation, controlled ‘wild’ gardens and a contemporary art project – the Sky Garden . . .
The Irish Sky Garden is an incomplete work of art by Californian James Turrell (born in 1943): I wrote about him and his work a few years ago, here. Turrell had West Cork connections:
. . . Turrell traced his wife (Julia)’s ancestors to Castletown Bearhaven. He had his two youngest children, Sophie and Arlen, baptised in the church there . . . This (West Cork) is the countryside that inspired his Sky garden. It could not be realised anywhere else. Jim is responding to what he has found in Liss Ard, and his sensitive response will enhance the attraction of the site even more. Jim and Veith (the Zurich art dealer who bought the estate in 1989) study the site like two conspiring brothers. Both radiate assurance. Something unique and shared is being created there. The joy of it shows in their faces . . .
from the exhibition – Long Green, Turske & Turske, Zurich 1990
The Irish Sky Garden is an as yet incomplete work of art. The whole project was set to incorporate other ‘land works’ including a pyramid and a vault. Turrell’s most famous work, perhaps, is the Roden Crater in the Arizona desert. It is also work still in progress: construction began in 1977.
Quite apart from the ancient history and modern art, the gardens at Liss Ard have so much to offer. There is a maze of paths and steps, lush – almost tropical – growth and views across the substantial lake which forms part of the demesne: Lough Abisdealy.
As we walked beside the lake I was entranced by the sound of the wind in the reeds, and have tried to capture it with this little recording: you can imagine the combination of the swaying reeds, the crescendo of the light wind, the distant birdsong and the lapping water.
I can only give you a brief impression of our sensory experiences from the day: much is left unsaid and unseen but – all you need to do is book your Sunday brunch, and you stand a good chance of following our footsteps. I only hope that the day is as brilliant for you as it has been for us!