Mizen Magic 14: Lissagriffin

Lissagriffin (the fort of Griffin) lies on the south-facing slope on the northern side of the salt marshes behind Barley Cove. It is a sunny spot with panoramic views back to the hills beyond Goleen and across the salt marshes below to the dunes of Barley Cove and the sea beyond.

The Barley Cove salt marshes – sit on the wall and just listen to the breeze in the reeds

Nowadays, it’s a peaceful place of farms and pasture land, but there are clues in the landscape and the old maps and records that there was much more going on here in times past.

The most visible reminder is the ruined church, surrounded by a graveyard. Once, these lands were in the possession of the Rev Fisher  – remember him from my Saints and Soupers saga? They were associated with the Glebe Lands accruing to the Church of Ireland, which means that the rector was also the administrator of the graveyard, to whom you had to apply for permission for burial. The church and graveyard is known as Kilmoe (pronounced kill moo, meaning the the church of Muadh, although I haven’t been able to identify this saint), like the parish of the same name which occupies most of the Mizen west of Schull.

The graveyard has headstones going back to the 1700s, although I couldn’t find any from that era on my searches. All the local names are represented here, including the Burchills and the Wilkinsons of my Cousins Find Each Other post. It was in use as a burial plot during the Famine – a memorial plaque on the wall attests to this.

A feature of graveyards from this time was a watch-house, a reminder that bodysnatching was a lucrative trade. During the famine watch-houses also enabled people to be on the look out for dogs – there are accounts of dogs attempting to get at bodies barely covered by soil during this terrible time. There’s a ruined structure just inside the gate at Kilmoe (below), probably a watch-house from this time.

Like all historic graveyards around here there are many plots marked by simple stones, headstones and foot-stones, where people could not afford the services of an engraver. Remarkably, the knowledge of who is buried in some of those unmarked graves still resides somewhere, whether in church records or in the folk memory of local people. You can browse the listings of the graves here.

At the centre of the graveyard is a ruined church. It’s a very interesting structure to me, because I believe it is actually older than its normally-ascribed date. It was occupied, according to Brady’s Clerical and Parochial Records in 1581, when Dermot McCormack McCarthy was the rector and the church belonged to the College at Youghal and was dedicated to St Brendan. The Down Survey described it thus in 1700: Kilmoe : the church is ruinous, the walls that are standing are bad, built with stone and clay. The church stands about a mile from Crookhaven, to the westward near the head of Barlycove bay. 8A. of glebe on the north of the church; good land, set for £20 per an. There are the ruins of a vicaridge house joining to ye church-yard.

There are hints in the structure of the Romanesque style, which would place it in the 12th century. The east window is clearly Romanesque in construction, while the door, with its plain lintel and ‘relieving arch’ also appears so.

I am seeking some confirmation of this and will update this post if or when I get a response. The west end appears to have been two storey – the joist supports are still projecting from the wall, which means that the old ground level was lower than it is today and that the window was in the second storey. That window (below) is ogee-headed – a clearly gothic element, which means (if I am right about the west end) that it was inserted later. The whole church may have been modified many times over the years it was in use.

There is a record of a cross-inscribed stone inside the church – we have looked for this but cannot find it. It may be gone, or it may be partially buried in the long grass. There’s no sign of the vicaridge house joining to ye church-yard.

The unusual ‘buttress’ feature on the north wall

But the landscape around has other elements too – or rather had other elements. There used to be an O’Mahony Castle just to the east of the church, of which no trace remains today. We know of it from Griffiths map of the 1840’s, (below: apologies for the blurriness, it seems to be the best resolution one can get) where it is clearly marked as a ruin. While many of the O’Mahony castles were closer to the shore, this one would have benefited from all-encompassing views of both land and sea, and from proximity to the church, for worship. According to James Healy’s The Castles of County Cork, it was probably tenanted by the O’Meighans, a bardic family associated with the O’Mahony clan. Although there is nothing left, local people told Healy in the 1980s that the site was cursed and that bad luck attached to it.

The view out to sea from the church

Even older still are the numerous standing stones that dot the hillside to the east and north. The photograph below shows one – a rather stumpy example. And probably even older than those are the cupmarks reported on the rock face just to the east of the graveyard. We have searched for these too, but were defeated by the gorse and brambles.

Of unknown vintage is the bullaun across from the graveyard gate. Although bullauns are often carved in free-standing boulders, this one was scooped out of the bedrock: it is known locally as a wart well. Dip your finger in, say the requisite prayers, and your wart will disappear. We even found a small bottle for Lourdes holy water left by it on one of our visits, showing that it is believed to still possess curative powers. Robert agrees! Amanda has included it in her Holy Wells blog.

Next time you’re headed out to Barley Cove on a fine day, take a little detour up to Lissagriffin church. The views alone are worth it, although a little wander around the graveyard will do a lot to soothe your soul. 

 

Cousins Find Each Other – Through Roaringwater Journal!

I don’t know how to put it in words, but it it means so much to have this connection to our past and our common ancestors.

These are the words of Barbara Baxter, who found her cousin, Sylvia Whitmore-Jones, when they both responded to my post on Rock Island. Their common ancestors were the Burchills of Crookhaven. Here’s the story, as they have each sent it to me, and as I have put it together. It is deeply embedded in the history of this part of West Cork and directly related to the building of that iconic lighthouse, the Fastnet Rock.

Two brothers, Charles and Arthur Nicholls, experienced stonemasons, came from Penzance in Cornwall to help build the Fastnet Lighthouse. According to Aidan Power’s book on Rock Island (Available from the author, we can put you in touch), they were employed by  John Albert Freeman who supplied all the granite for the Fastnet Lighthouse from his quarry at Penryn, Cornwall. Nicholls’ job was to assist in the erection of the tower.

The building of the Fastnet. I’d like to think that the Nicholls brothers are in this picture (Photo courtesy of Irish Lights)

It took five years to build the Lighthouse (read more about the Fastnet here) and during that time all the men were housed locally and it seems integrated well into the local community. So well, in fact, that the Nicholls brothers married two sisters: Charles married Elizabeth Burchill and Arthur married Sarah Burchill. The Burchill sisters’ parents, Michael and Sarah (Hegarty) were Church of Ireland, and lived in Crookhaven.

A third sister, Anne, married William Wilkinson (more on her below). If I am understanding the history correctly, her aunt, Michael’s sister, also called Anne, had herself married a George Wilkinson. That Wilkinson family had a farm at Gortnacarriga, just outside Goleen. The photo below is of Barbara Baxter on a visit to that Wilkinson farm a couple of years ago. 

Let’s start with Charles and Elizabeth – they are the couple in the photograph at the beginning of the post. The 1901 census has them in House number 8 on Rock Island, with a baby daughter, Annie, who is just one. When the Fastnet project was finally over, in 1904, Charles and Elizabeth went to live in Wales where they had at least one more child, a son, in 1911. Sadly, Charles, who had served in the First World War, died in the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1919 (echoes of my own family history here – same thing happened to my grandfather).

The Rock Island lighthouse and housing, seen from Crookhaven. Charles and Elizabeth lived in one of these houses

Charles and Elizabeth’s son eventually moved to Southhampton, and worked as a draughtsman in Thornycroft’s shipbuilding firm, married and had four children. The eldest of these was Sylvia Whitmore-Jones, an active and youthful 78 year-old. Here she is.

But let’s go back to Charles and Elizabeth, living in the Fastnet housing on Rock Island in 1901. Did you notice they had a daughter named Annie? I think she was so named after yet another of Elizabeth’s sisters – Anne Burchill. Anne married William Wilkinson (I think they were cousins – not uncommon in those days), an officer in the Royal Irish Constabulary.

They had a daughter, Sarah Anne. They were great at keeping names in the family – no doubt Sarah Anne was called after her aunt, the Sarah Burchill who married Charles’ brother, Arthur, as well as the numerous Annes in the family. Sarah Anne Wilkinson must have been close to her Aunt Elizabeth Nichols because eventually, as a young married woman, she and her husband, John Miller, from Bantry, moved to Wales.

Sarah Anne Miller, nee Wilkinson, with her children

This photo (above) must have been taken then, when Sarah Anne and John had two children. Sarah Anne is Barbara Baxter’s great-grandmother and her grandmother is the little girl in the photo. Perhaps this was during the time when John was away in the war – he was apparently decorated three times for his service as a bombardier.

Eventually the family emigrated to America, finally settling in Connecticut, which is where Barbara Baxter grew up. Barbara is now 57 and lives in Virginia. She has led an active life filled with animals, especially horses. She wonders if her love of horses might be connected to John Miller – apparently before he left for Wales with Sarah Anne he worked with horses at Drombrow House, near Bantry. Drombrow, not surprisingly, was owned by the Wilkinson family.

Graveyard attached to the Church of Ireland (no longer in use as a church) in Goleen – Babara said in one of her emails: ‘I am related to all of the Wilkinsons and Burchills buried at the Goleen Church’ 

Sylvia and Barbara had been independently interested in their family history but had never known of each other or met (at least virtually) until both of them contacted us at Roaringwater Journal when they each saw our Rock Island post.

On her trip to West Cork in 2017, Barbara visited Three Castle Head. The Wilkinson farm is close by

I am beyond pleased that Roaringwater Journal has been the cause of bringing these two cousins together, but there’s another reason for my interest. My own dear cousin, Shauna, is also a Burchill! Although she has lived in the United States most of her adult life she is Irish and her father grew up in Bandon as a Prebyterian. She is likely to be connected to Sylvia and Barbara at some point way back in the family tree – the Burchills first came to West Cork in the 1620s as part of the Plantation of Munster. It’s a tenuous connection, but it adds an additional frisson for me – we are all connected somehow.

Shauna (right) and I, on one of her visits to Ireland

Thank you to Sylvia and Barbara for generously sharing their family stories, and to Aidan Power, whose book on Rock Island was the ultimate catalyst for all of this. It’s been a privilege to be a tiny part of it. If I have made mistakes in my relating of their stories, I hope they will weigh in with the corrected version. 

Now all we need is for the descendants of Arthur Nicholls and Sarah Burchill to join the party. C’mon – we know you’re out there.

Cashelkeelty – More Than Meets The Eye

It’s on the wild and remote Beara Peninsula and it’s a bit of a trek to get up to it – but so worth it. We are fortunate that we know quite a lot about Cashelkeelty, which is in the Kerry section of the Beara, not far from Lauragh. There were excavations here in the 70s and 80s led by old friends, John Barber and Anne Lynch. Pollen analysis in the region has added to our understanding of the environment during the Bronze Age.

You can see both the multiple stone circle (the closer set of stones) and the 5-stone circle and stone row from the knoll near the site

But none of this is obvious on the ground and there are no explanatory signs, so I’m going to lay out what we know about this marvellous complex of monuments, so that when you go (Yes, do go!) you’ll know a bit more about what you are looking at. Make it part of a day trip, like the one that Robert is describing this week.

Park in the little car park about 2 km west of the turn off for Derreen Garden. Someone has handily marked it on Google Maps as ‘Parking Place Stone Circle’ and take the path that runs upwards through the woods, turning left (and ever upwards) when you come to another path. It’s a Robert Frost experience – the woods are not only lovely, dark and deep but also mossy and mysterious, with hints of old walls here and there.

When you emerge into open country, you are actually on the Beara Way and this stretch was beautifully described by Peter Clarke in his Hikelines blog.

Peter Clarke’s sketch of the 5-stone circle and stone row ©Peter Clarke/Hikelines

In fact, you are walking now along or beside a medieval road that once ran from Kenmare to Castletownbere. Once you know this, you can pick it out and imagine walking or riding along it in rough woollen garments, or perhaps the  flowing robes of a monk, or the full armour of a knight. But this road is actually one of the newer items in this landscape.

The landscape itself is Bronze Age. People made their living here by growing some cereals (probably barley and emmer wheat) and by herding cattle and sheep. Pollen analysis tells us that forest cover declined – that is, it was cleared by the early agriculturalists – beginning about 1500BC and intensifying around 1100BC. Pre-bog field systems are everywhere here – look for the lines of upright boulders defining walls and small fields as you walk.

According to Billy O’Brien in his Iverni (got your copy yet?) deterioration in the climate and higher rainfall about 1000BC led to increased acidification and the spread of bogs in many areas. So what we are looking at here, in the Mid to Late Bronze Age, is an open pastoral landscape. This is important because the views from here are panoramic and significant, and they would not have been obscured by trees.

Ancient fields

And in this open landscape these early farmers lived in houses of which no traces remain, probably of wood and thatch. What does remain are the monuments they built of stone – they meant them to endure and endure they do. There’s a five-stone circle, and a stone row right beside it, and about 30 metres to the west another set of upright stones.

The stone row was built before the 5-stone circle, possible hundreds of years before. There are three stones now, but the Lynch excavation established that there had been a fourth. Like most of  the stone rows on this part of the world it is oriented ENE/WSW, or towards the morning and evening horizons in summer. As regular readers know, I am always intrigued by the way the shapes of the stones seem to mirror the landscape behind it and this is no exception.

The 5-stone circle now only has three stones, but the sockets for the remaining two were found in the course of the excavations. In the centre, covered by a stone slab, was the cremated remains of a person in his or her 20s. Radio carbon dates (later re-calibrated) established the construction to about 1300 to 700BC, placing it in the Late Bronze Age. Mike Wilson of the Mega-WHAT site has analysed the orientations of both the stone row and the 5-stone circle – you can see the results of that here.

Visitors love to leave little offerings at sites like this. You are looking into the 5-stone circle, towards the recumbent. The slab is more or less where the cremated remains were discovered in the excavation

From here you can clearly see another set of stones to the west. What looks like another stone row is actually the remaining uprights of a multiple stone circle, as Anne Lynch documented in her account of the excavation. There were either 11 or 13 stones originally. The tallest stone now standing must have been one of the portals. The middle stone was originally lying down but was re-erected in the course of the excavation.

Once again, I am struck by how these three stones appear to mirror the horizon behind them. Can this really be a coincidence? If so, it’s a an eerie one. To understand how and why multiple stone circles were built, read my post Ancient Calendars.

To round out the Bronze Age monuments, there’s a Fulacht Fia just south of the 5-stone circle – you can read more about these ancient cooking places in my post Ballyrisode Fulacht Fia.

This little road leads to a stone building, perhaps originally a cottage. It’s the green roof you can see in the second photograph

Cashelkeelty is an amazing site – so many monuments, such evidence of Bronze Age activity from daily living and farming to monument-building. We still have their stone edifices to remind us that these people were sophisticated builders who wanted certain of their practices and rituals to endure for centuries. What we no longer see easy signs of, we can imagine – the forest clearing, the planting and herding, the communal feasting. Take a little while at this site and ask whether our own efforts will endure for thousands of years.

 

Local Heroes: Ballycommane Gardens – and Bronze Age Site!

This week we were privileged to meet with Andy Stieglitz and Ingolf Jungmann at their home, Ballycommane House, between Durrus and Bantry. We’d been once before, several years ago, when we had met Andy, then busily engaged in renovating one of the sheds. Now the house has been extended and modernised, along with various outbuildings. Andy and Ingolf, both retired and living here full time, are running the house as a bed and breakfast, with an adjacent self-catering cottage, and have opened their garden to the public.

I don’t know the names of most of these flowers, although the one above is from one of their heritage-variety fruit trees

They have taken a few acres of scrubland and pasture – and turned it into a little piece of paradise! Both keen gardeners, they have been working now for fifteen years to develop their arboretum and lay out different areas of the garden connected by meandering paths. Here and there open spaces invite you to lounge and simply take in the sights and the scents.

This Gunnera is, thankfully, the non-invasive variety

Or you can keep strolling and discovering. They specialise in plants from the Azores, where they like to winter, and have discovered that many Azorean species flourish in this mild climate. Of course they have had to learn to deal with the wind, as parts of the site are quite exposed, and with the unpredictable Irish climate.

But Andy and Ingolf value all plants and also celebrate the humble wildflowers that are my special interest. Ingolf has learned to propagate the wild primroses and the colourful borders he has created are a joy.

Wild Primroses are generally pale yellow, but pink varieties also occur. Ingolf tells me the pink ones are a little harder to propagate 

Wild spurges mix with the Azorean ones – the Euphorbia genus is one of the largest and most variable on earth, and while we know it mainly from our wild Spurge varieties they can range from tiny to huge and from colourful (Poinsettias!) to shades of green.

A native Euphorbia (top) is flourishing while below an Azorean import looks very comfortable also. Note the tiny native spurge that has sprung up underneath it – a study in contrasts

Now in March, the garden hasn’t quite come into its own yet. Nevertheless, there is plenty to see and surprising hits of colour here and there. Wherever you look, the eye is caught.

Above: We decided it was an Azorean daisy. Below: I think it’s Green Alkanet, a garden escape that has naturalised widely in Ireland

Ballycommane House is part of the marvellous West Cork Garden Trail and is open from March to October. Andy and Ingolf love to welcome visitors so plan a trip to see this treasure. And when you do, there’s a surprise in store – Ballycommane is also home to a Bronze Age Boulder Burial and Standing Stone Pair!

Andy (left), Ingolf and I contemplate the boulder burial

Regular readers of this blog will know that Robert and I worry about loss of and damage to our ancient monuments due to neglect, lack of knowledge, and occasional wilfulness. That’s why I am calling this post Local Heroes because Andy and Ingolf, quite apart from the enormous work involved in developing their house and garden, have embraced the challenge of celebrating and safeguarding these monuments for all of us.

The Boulder Burial is a large erratic of quartz. Quartz was highly prized in prehistory and was used in various ways. Not surprising, given how it gleams and sparkles in the sun. This one is visible from across the valley

Today was the official unveiling of their Visitor Centre – a converted piggery now in use to display a set of explanatory posters developed by Prof Billy O’Brien and Nick Hogan of UCC. Billy has excavated this site and two other Boulder Burial sites and is more responsible than any other researcher for what we know about the age and possible functions of Boulder Burials. You can read my posts, Boulder Burials: a Misnamed Monument? and Standing Stone Pairs: A Visit to Foherlagh for more about these kinds of monuments.

The standing stone pair is of the local slatey sandstone, chosen to be flat on top – no doubt this served some kind of purpose

Billy was there to do the honours and to give us a talk on the site. When he excavated here in 1989 it rained, he told us, every day of the dig. Although no carbon-datable material turned up he was confident in assigning a mid-to-late Bronze Age date – it’s about 3,000 years old.

Cutting the ribbon to officially open the Visitor Centre

He asked us (there was quite a crowd!) to consider the setting of the boulder burial and standing stone pair in the landscape, and spoke about their use to memorialise high-status individuals and to mark locations from which sunrises and sunsets might be observed at solstices and equinoxes.

Unfortunately tree plantings have obscured the view from the boulder burial, but this is what it looks like. You can see all the way down the Sheep’s Head to Seefin Mountain

Ballycommane is a very special place indeed and we are very fortunate that Andy and Ingolf are committed to being good stewards of the prehistory they have inherited. Thank you, Andy and Ingolf – and for that yummy cake too!

 

 

New Court Bridge – a Hidden Wonder

New Court Bridge has been badly damaged recently. Why does that matter?

The damage from behind the wall. Now you can see that this is a bridge – but a most unusual one!

Most people driving by this dangerous bend, where the Ilen River meets the N71 just west of Skibbereen, notice the funny arches on top of the wall, but don’t think twice about them. It’s too risky to stop and take a close look, after all. Most people, in fact, probably don’t realise that they are driving over a bridge, although that’s a bit more obvious now as the County Council have put in one of those concrete pads that are going in front of all bridge walls at the moment (see lead photograph).

Water under the bridge

Does anyone know how the damage happened? Did a car take the bend too fast and hit the wall? Did the concrete work loosen the structure of the wall? Let us know if you have information. I hope nobody was hurt. All I know is that one morning I was driving into Skibbereen and there was a chunk of the wall – gone!

Early Ordnance Survey map of the New Court Estate, bounded by the Ilen River on the east and south. The red dots indicate the locations of the belvederes (marked as towers) and the bridge

We tend in Ireland to think of old estate walls like this one as ‘Famine Walls’, erected during the mid nineteenth century as work projects. But this wall was far older than that, and it hid a secret – an elaborate facade on the back with decorative arches and niches. It was part of the plan for a pleasure garden undertaken by Henry Tonson at his newly acquired ‘seat’ which he called New Court, to distinguish it from Old Court, across the river. Originally, there was a matching wall across the road, but it was demolished in a truck accident many years ago. EDIT: I misinterpreted this – rather than a matching wall across the road, in fact there were matching arches on either side of the road, west of the entry to New Court. Both are now gone, one at least due to the aforementioned truck accident. Thanks to Sean Norris for this information.

The Ilen floats by – a navigable river was a must for transporation to and from these early estates

The Tonsons had arrived in the 1660s. According to Burke’s Peerage, Major Richard Tonson received a grant of land in the county of Cork from Charles II for his distinguished exertions in favour of royalty during the Civil Wars and purchased the castle and lands of Spanish Island, in the same county. If he built anything on Spanish Island, just off Baltimore, no traces remain, and indeed, although strategic in marine terms at that time, it is hard to imagine how the island, mostly bare rock, would have made for comfortable accommodation.

The stump of one of the belvederes, overlooking the river

It appears he, or his son, Henry, bought the land on the west bank of the Ilen and Henry set about establishing his dwelling there. This included building the wall around the estate. Eventually, and we are not sure when, one of the Tonsons (over time they acquired a title, Lord Riversdale) developed the area around the house as a vast pleasure garden.

The most complete belvedere. This one also functioned as a dovecote

The fashion for designed landscapes is an eighteenth century phenomenon. As I said in my post on belvederes, in that century

. . . a different style of landscaping. . . dominated garden design in Britain, pioneered by William Kent and Charles Bridgeman and reaching its peak in the work of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. The effect they strove for was naturalistic (as opposed to natural) – a planned layout that mirrored but enhanced their idea of a ‘wild’ and romantic landscape. Large expanses of grass, strategically placed lakes and ponds, plantings of carefully chosen tree and shrub species, and clever little structures such as temples, summer houses and belvederes all combined to delight the eye, create a romantic mood and, of course, attest to the taste and wealth of the owner.

A closer look at the construction of the bridge. It would be fascinating to attempt a reconstruction drawing. The niches may well have held statuary or decorative urns

Although the grand houses at the centre of the estate have now gone (see this photograph in the National Library for a glimpse of the last one), there is lots of evidence still of such a designed landscape. Originally lawns sloped to the river – no need to build artificial ponds as the Ilen provided the perfect watery scene. Little round towers were built to be used as gazebos or belvederes (and in one case a dovecote): three in all, of which the stump of one and a fairly complete second are still to be seen. The bridge with its elaborate facing was the crowning glory of the estate wall.

The York House Water Gate as it would have looked originally on  the Thames (Wiki Commons)

What did the bridge wall look like originally? We don’t know, but Peter Somerville-Large in his Coast of West Cork says it was modelled on the ‘water gates at Hampton Court’. I can’t find any images of this online, but I have found the water gate at York House, which is still there. It was built as a ceremonial landing place on the Thames (above) although it is now a long way from the river.

The York House Water Gate in an early photograph (www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/work-of-art/O18442 Credit, Royal Academy of Arts / Photographer William Strudwick )

Of course, it is larger and more elaborate, but you can still see the basic shape, with its curved arch on top and the arched niches in the wall. The arches at New Court may have been plastered, perhaps, or faced with some material. The York House Water Gate dates to 1626 and it’s all that left of the York House estate – the Tonsons may well have been familiar with it or with similar water gates along the Thames. Building such an edifice would have been aspirational, indicating a desire to impress.

This was what it looked like in 2016 – taken by a camera with spots on the lens

The likelihood, therefore, is that the bridge at New Court is most probably eighteenth century, and early eighteenth century at that – about three hundred years old. We don’t have a lot of structures in West Cork dating to then. Surely it’s worth preserving those that still exist? I am hopeful that the National Monuments Service (they’ve been alerted and have notified their Monument Protection Unit) will come riding to the rescue. I’ll be keeping an eye on it all – you do too. But note that this is private property, so no walking or driving through the gates without permission.

UPDATE, MARCH 20, 2019. This notice was received from the National Monuments Protection Unit: “Cork County Council (Bridge Management) have indicated it is prepared to repair the wall as a Reactive Maintenance Incident and will ensure repairs meet any necessary heritage requirements.”

Celebrating George Walsh

Robert and I are just back from a magical celebration in Dublin – the launch of a solo show by the stained glass artist George Walsh, at the Trinity Gallery. It was a joyful occasion and a huge success. As one of the organisers said afterwards, “It’s a long time since there was a queue outside a Dublin gallery for an exhibition.” The piece above, Ancestral Fields, is a good example of the vibrant and glowing glass – stained, fused, painted – on display.

At the exhibition opening at the Trinity Gallery: Imelda Collins and Loretto Meagher, Gallery Owners, Janet and George Walsh, Yours Truly and Eamonn Mallie (Photo by Stephen Walsh)

This month, my piece on George was published by the Irish Arts Review – I have been waiting for that to come out, and for this exhibition to open, before I write too much about him in the blog. It’s been difficult to sit on it all, because I’ve been studying his work seriously now for a couple of years, growing more and more entranced with every window.

The March 2019 Irish Arts Review, featuring my 6 page article about the art of George Walsh

Regular readers of the blog, or our Facebook Page followers, will recognise George’s work right away from the occasional image we share on either platform. We ‘discovered’ him on a trip to the Beara five years ago, and have been encountering his work all over the place ever since, initially by chance and more recently as part of a concerted effort to document his body of work for a specific project – more on that project later.

Saints, from a window in Kilcummin, near Killarney

Researching and writing the Irish Arts Review article has been a fascinating journey, as it involved capturing images of George’s work, interviewing colleagues and gallery owners, and most of all getting to know George and Janet as I peppered them with questions and as Robert and I spent time in their company.

George apprenticed with his father who, in turn, had apprenticed under Harry Clarke. They (father and son) worked together and separately both in the United States and in Ireland, producing wonderful windows for several studios and finally, in George’s case, settling down in Ireland and going out on his own. George’s son, Stephen, also an artist and currently living in London, is developing a website to showcase George’s work – visit it here as a work-in-progress – and also runs an Instagram feed full of gorgeous images.

George is inspired by Venice – another exhibition piece

George has collaborated with several architects to design and decorate new churches. His work with Holly Park Studios is breathtaking, demonstrating as it does what can be achieved when a project is conceived with stained glass as an integral part of the design from the start.

This screen door is but one of the stained glass pieces in the award-winning Church of the Holy Family in Belfast designed by Holly Park Studio. The mosaic flooring is by ceramic artist Laura O’Hagan, whom I was delighted to meet at the opening

But even where windows have been added over time (as is more normal in church architecture) George’s work shines and is instantly recognisable. First of all, his windows blaze with colour. What I have discovered by spending time with them is that he has this amazing ability to convince you that he is using primarily bold and primary colours but in fact any section taken at random in any of his windows reveal a host of colours, many of them subtle and gentle – it’s the way his choices of colour combine that result in the vibrancy and energy that are so typical of his windows.

The second thing is his complete mastery of his chosen artistic medium – glass. Perhaps this is best revealed in the complexity of the leading. Only an artist that has been classically trained in stained glass techniques could produce such incredibly complex images.

Larger expanses of a single colour (always painted and textured in subtle and not-so-subtle ways) are balanced by areas of the window is which each colour is a tiny sliver of glass, all cut and shaped in different ways and all leaded together to produce a final exciting effect. Just this week I stood in front of a Last Supper (below), which George had decided to depict in a field of wheat. The wheat occupied more than a third of the window and I estimate that it contained hundreds of different pieces of glass, all separated by twisted and swirling lead lines. it spoke to a level of skill and experience, a practice of perfectionism, and an acceptance of nothing less than the full realisation of the vision that only dedicated artists attain.

Finally, he is as comfortable with the transcendent as he is with the everyday. While most parishes want specific sacred images, he also makes himself familiar with the area so he can convey that sense of place that is so characteristic of his windows.

Above: Moses in the basket, Galway Cathedral. Below: St Catherine of Alexandria, from St Maur’s Church in Rush, Co Dublin. Catherine is shown with her usual attributes – the martyr’s palm, the sword which was the instrument of her death and the wheel which was used to torture her. But the Catherine Wheel is also a firework – called after St Catherine’s torture wheel, and George has introduced a subtle reference to that in his depiction of the wheel 

He loves to add in quirky little items that keep you searching through the windows for things that make us smile – pterodactyls and construction cranes, butterflies and elephants, rats and hares, flowers and insects, beehive huts and Brendan with his whale, a postman on a bicycle, water that flows from window to window around the church.

Above: A reference to church renovations. Below: A mouse and a fly are both characters in the story of St Colman Mac Duagh, and these little critters are from his Kilmacduagh window in Tirneevin, Co Galway

Lately I have come to recognise his model for his Madonna and Child images – in one of his explanations of his windows he refers to the “tender figure of motherhood” and that is exactly what he captures – and the Marian figures always manage to look remarkably like Janet.

And the ultimate project? My friend and relation-by-marriage, David Caron, is bringing out a second edition of the Gazetteer of Irish Stained Glass, and George is to be included. The first edition, long out of print, was written by David, and by Nicola Gordon Bowe and Michael Wynne, both of whom have passed away. The original Gazetteer listed the works of Harry Clarke and the artists associated with An Túr Gloine (The Tower of Glass). David will update this with a listing of artists of the mid- and late-twentieth century who chose to work in stained glass (many of them worked in other media as well) and who made a significant contribution to the art form.

This window is in the National University of Ireland, Galway, Chapel of St Columbanus. It depicts a conversation or debate between students and God

If you’d like to follow David’s progress, he maintains a great Instagram feed as he tracks down stained glass windows all over the place. It’s at Irish Stained Glass and it’s always got something new!

Some of George’s windows are simply enormous. This one is in the Augustinian Church in Galway City

I have taken on the task of documenting George’s windows for this new edition. I’m only part way through my quest – I have several more on my list and keep discovering new ones all the time. George has been amazingly prolific, so much so that he hasn’t kept track of all his windows, so if any of you out there know of any, let me know. I don’t think you will have any difficulty recognising a ‘George Walsh’ if you find one!

George, Imelda and Loretto outside the Gallery (Photo by Stephen Walsh)

Drop into the Trinity Gallery on Clare Street in Dublin if you are in the area – the exhibition runs until the 19th of March. But if you can’t make it to that, there are at least two examples of his work in West Cork – the famous Eyeries windows that turned us on to all this in the first place, and a more recently discovered set in the little country church of Darrara, near Clonakilty.

St Michael window from Darrara, near Clonakilty

I will leave you with one of George’s exhibition pieces, below, just to remind you that there is more, much more, to stained glass that what we see in churches. It is a complex medium, difficult to master, but so rewarding in the hands of a true artist/craftsman. This one was titled Masks and reflects his love of all things Venetian.