An Artist’s Encounter with West Cork

Perhaps this book review is a little late arriving? The book was – after all – published by Brandon of Dingle in 1990: thirty two years ago! The artist, and I, were in our forties then. But – don’t hesitate – although it’s out of print you can find copies readily available on many booksellers’ websites. You can spend a Euro (the postage will cost four times that!) or many Euros: but it’s well worth whatever you have to pay.

Here it is: a modestly sized paperback volume. But it punches well above its weight. It is beautifully written, and exquisitely illustrated. For everyone who is interested in West Cork, Ireland or the art of engraving it’s a must for your bookshelves. And, historically, it’s fascinating: the cover picture, above, shows Tig na nGaedheal (locally known as Brendan’s) – once described as ‘the greatest and most famous sweet shop ever in Skibbereen’. Sadly, Martha Houlihan, who ran it with her husband Brendan, passed away a little while ago and the shop is no longer trading. It’s still a significant feature in the town streetscape (below). Note the figures looking out of the door and window in Brian’s etching – a typical humorous touch.

The book includes nigh on a hundred of Brian’s engravings. This is only a fraction of the huge body of work he has created in his lifetime to date, and he’s never idle. It’s good to know that Uillinn – the West Cork Arts Centre gallery – has a retrospective of Brian’s work in the pipeline. It will be impossible to show more than a fraction of the art he has produced so far, but we certainly look forward to experiencing that selection.

What I personally enjoy about Brian’s works in this book is the atmospherics that they create. Take, for example, The Dark Edge of Europe, above. The breadth of its content is overwhelming: it’s the landscape of West Cork summed up in gradations of grey, with coastline, lanes, settlements, hills and distant mountains, focussed on a foreground which features an ancient hill-fort. A tale of occupation and morphology: an eternal human story. The illustrations in the book are accompanied and amplified by wonderfully crafted written descriptions.

. . . Defining the high spots in the ribs of land, and distributed with apparent regularity all over this landscape, were lush green rings. Single, and occasionally double or triple concentric rings of grassy banks, these features resembled a giant’s game of quoits, forgotten and left to decorate the landscape. The gargantuan quoits are of course the ring forts or fairy rings of the Irish countryside, and outlined the forms taken by the rural farmsteads and dwellings from pre-Christian times down to the sixteenth century. Each ring represented an earthen rampart on high ground, with perhaps a dry moat or further rampart encircling some wattle huts. Simple and utilitarian, this form of dwelling satisfied the political and practical exigencies of the day – or aeon, for that matter. Rural life was lived in the midst of the land, without congregating in towns or villages . . .

The Land of Heart’s Desire: West of West, Brian lalor

Mount Gabriel dominates much of the landscape in our part of West Cork. Brian’s view, above, is titled Mount Gabriel Gorse Fires. The artist ‘discovered’ remote West Cork back in the 1970s. In the book he describes the journey:

. . . The road wound away into the distance, a ribbon of reflected light, and the weaving shapes of the blackthorns threw a black Gothic tracery across the landscape. The immediate surrounding had a silvery sharpness, the precision of a lunar landscape; brightly outlined walls enclosed pools of darkness. We were no longer at the door to West Cork but in its very interior. We had arrived . . .

Well Met By Moonlight: West of West, Brian Lalor

Essential to the intimate knowledge of West Cork’s landscape is the sea – and the coastline which encompasses it. This view is titled Rock Island & Crookhaven. Brian enhances the rendering with a description:

. . . From the heights of Brow Head the outline of Rock Island at the mouth of the harbour resembles a partially submerged submarine, its twin customs-observation buildings the conning towers of this strange naval mammoth. An ill-assorted collection of buildings adhere like barnacles to the back of this submarine: the roofless lighthouse barracks, a defunct fish factory and an abandoned, rambling Victorian mansion suggest an unfavourable location. Wedged in the little cove in front of the mansion is the hulk of an old wooden trawler. A graveyard of vanished days and forgotten hopes . . .

Coastline: West of West, Brian Lalor

Ballydehob’s 12-arch bridge – or railway viaduct – must be one of the most profusely illustrated and photographed features of West Cork. The Schull, Ballydehob and Skibbereen tramway was a significant piece of transport infrastructure that ran from 1886 until 1947. It’s a fascinating piece of Victorian engineering, the first 3ft gauge railway line to be built in Ireland. Everything about it was eccentric: here’s one of my RWJ posts setting out the history of the line. Brian has a little anecdote well worth the recounting:

. . . As it is one of the most pleasing architectural features of the local landscape, I drew the Twelve Arch Bridge on many occasions and it reappears in a variety of forms amongst these etchings. One village magnate commissioned me to do a large picture of this monument for his new house. The price was agreed and the picture eventually produced. I had chosen an angle which showed the bridge emerging as it does from thickets of brambles and conifers on either side of the water. Delicate fronds of foliage wound in the foreground of the picture and the subject itself basked in the distance, looking solid and ancient. I was quite pleased with the results. When I presented it to my patron he gazed at it in silence for a long time. Then with a large and calloused hand he ran his index finger across the view a number of times, shaking his head slowly as he did so. ‘No. no good at all, It won’t do,’ he muttered more to himself than me. He had been counting the arches. In my enthusiasm for the atmosphere of the piece the accurately rendered number of the arches had become obscured, those on the extreme edges becoming partially lost in the undergrowth. The commission was rejected. If you are paying for twelve arches you don’t want to be short-changed with ten and two halves!

Coastline: West of West, Brian Lalor

Fastnet. An iconic silhouette – perhaps a fish-eye view? The lighthouse is a ubiquitous element of structure which can be seen from all the waters and islands of Roaring Water Bay. Brian’s words:

. . . Roaring Water Bay encompasses an area of about a hundred square miles of water between Baltimore in the east and Crookhaven in the west. The tortuous coastline of the bay, as of much of the rest of West Cork, is punctuated by small coves, each with an old stone pier or miniature harbour. Up to the mid-nineteenth century these were the arteries of communication and trade and a wide array of lighters, barges, rowboats and yawls plied the coast, ferrying freight around the rim of the land rather than through it. Never far from the safety of land, they darted from port to port with the assurance of safe harbours at frequent intervals to reduce the threat from treacherous seas. Today, however, only the yachtsman holds this perspective on the land; it is a medieval cartographer’s view of the world: good on outlines, vague concerning the interior . . .

Coastline: West of West, Brian Lalor

The eye of the artist searches out ways to tell a story or unfold a scene in graphic simplicity. This is St Brendan Crookhaven: a simple church that is dear to the hearts of mariners, and has long been so.

Stone Circle and Child Sacrifice is a thought-provoking piece. These ancient sites date back thousands of years: there are many here, beyond the West. We wonder at them, and can only guess at the significance they had to their constructors.

. . . The Landscape of the mind, which co-exists, interlocks and overlaps with the geographer’s vision, is an intangible, ephemeral thing. You may encounter it unexpectedly on a moonlit night or on some deserted headland, or perhaps in the dim light of a public bar. In this part of the world, soaked in memories and half-memories of the past, much is implied rather than stated. Like the collective unconscious, the landscape, too, is composed of a multitude of intertwining details. This collection of etchings of West Cork is concerned with those details: with small corners of towns and villages, with oddly-shaped fields and erratic skylines. Each etching is a vignette of landscape, architecture or environment. The pictures are organized around a number of themes yet the material as a whole has such an overall unity that what illustrates one section also has relevance for another. The point which they make is a collective one . . .

WELL MET BY MOONLIGHT: WEST OF WEST, BRIAN LALOR

Brian’s book is as much about the human side of West Cork as it is about the natural or supernatural. He illustrates towns – Kinsale, above – and the landscape. For me, this is a very significant little volume: the travels described within it echo my own journeying through this most special of places. Thank you, Brian, for so vividly enhancing my appreciation of West Cork.

Kilcoe

11 thoughts

  1. I wonder if Gaedheal was purposely spelled incorrectly by the artist? Or was the second “e” missing back when he painted the picture? BTW you have a typo on the “d” of “Gaedheal” in your article (which I enjoyed very much, (the article, not the typo))

    Liked by 1 person

    • Many thanks – it’s good that our readers have sharp eyes! I have corrected my text, but obviously cannot correct Brian’s interpretation. I think the shopfront has been fairly recently painted – as you can see in the photo – so it’s possible there was a mistake there earlier. Brian himself has a good knowledge of the language.

      Like

  2. yes Brian’s work is excellent I had a full set of his etchings of Kilkenny but gave most away as presents , still I have a few left.. .like the slip ways between streets

    Liked by 1 person

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