Brabazon of Tara

Brabazon – that’s an unusual Irish family name that’s been around for very many generations. In fact, Finola’s maternal grandmother was one. A  Jacques le Brabazon was in the service of William the Conqueror in 1066 and the name is said to mean an inhabitant of the former province of Brabant, in Belgium. The current – 15th – Earl of Meath (of Killruddery, County Wicklow), John Anthony Brabazon, claims descent from Jacques. In 1534, Henry VIII sent Sir William Brabazon of Leicester to Ireland to serve as Vice-Treasurer – he founded the Wicklow dynasty. In the troubled Cromwellian times, another branch of the family settled firstly in Ballinasloe and then in Swinford, County Mayo. Earlier this year, Finola and I went up to Swinford for a family gathering and, for the occasion, I had to learn to play the two Planxty George Brabazon pieces by Turlough O’Carolan on my bosca ceol: here they are played – more appropriately – by a harp ensemble.

When I first learnt that the name had Irish connections I was fascinated, as I had known the word Brabazon from my early years in England and it’s one of those that is so striking, you just don’t forget it. I knew it in connection with an aeroplane – the Bristol Brabazon: it was the largest airliner ever built in Britain, something that impressed this four-year-old boy who saw it flying at the Farnborough Air Display in 1950. Not only was it large – it was elegant: my memory is of a gigantic all-silver bird, rising in a stately fashion over the crowds and disappearing into a blue sunlit sky. I demanded – and received – a model of it for a birthday or Christmas, sadly now gone the way of all such treasures. So, why the name? I didn’t know then – but I do now – that it was named after the grandly-styled Lieutenant-Colonel John Theodore Cuthbert Moore-Brabazon, 1st Baron Brabazon of Tara GBE MC PC, who in 1943 chaired the Brabazon Committee which planned to develop the post-war British aircraft industry – one product of which was the factory in Bristol which produced and housed the behemoth.

Header – The Bristol Brabazon landing at the 1950 Farnborough Air Display: I was in the watching crowd! Upper – an excellent short documentary on the life and death of the Brabazon Aeroplane project. Above –the enormous Assembly Hangar at Bristol which was constructed to allow the Brabazon aircraft to be built. Outside stands the incomplete fuselage.

Brabazon’s Committee correctly anticipated that there would be a major development of civil aviation following the war, particularly for trans-Atlantic crossings. The plane was designed with two decks and luxurious accommodation: each passenger was to have a space equivalent to the inside of a modern car! Consequently the Brabazon had room for only 100 passengers, even though it compares in size to a present day Airbus A380, which can accommodate from 600 to 800 passengers, depending on the configuration. This shows up the fact – which the Committee didn’t seem to anticipate – that air travel would become accessible to all, and not just to those who could afford luxury. Another innovation of the Brabazon was the use of eight engines buried in the wings, coupled in pairs driving four sets of contra-rotating propellers to give a very low noise level in the passenger cabins, again to achieve maximum comfort.

Passenger accommodation in the Bristol Brabazon: comforts also included a dining room, sleeping berths and a cinema

That’s probably enough of my obsession with beautiful but impractical aeroplanes. This one ‘didn’t take off’ in that the post-war world wasn’t ready for it: there weren’t long enough runways, service facilities etc. Having been airborne only for publicity events between Bristol, Farnborough, London and Paris, the whole project – and the plane – was scrapped in 1953.

Let’s go back to the man himself – John Moore-Brabazon. Although he spent most of his life in the UK he was a descendant through a female line of Edward Brabazon, 7th Earl of Meath. He wasn’t shy of publicity: here he is in 1909 in Kent making porcine aviation a reality. He fixed a wicker basket to a wing strut of his Voisin biplane and carefully strapped a pig into it. The basket had a hand written sign . . . I am the first pig to fly . . . Then he took the bemused animal for a journey of about 3.7 miles from Shellbeach, the Short Brothers airfield at Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey. Brabazon’s family wealth had enabled him to learn to fly and to posses his own gliders and planes. He is noted as the first Briton to fly in Britain and, also in 1909, won the £1,000 prize offered by the Daily Mail for the first closed circuit of a mile in a British aeroplane. He was also the owner of the first pilot’s licence issued in the UK by the Royal Aero Club. In the First World War he was a pioneer of the Royal Flying Corps and had a leading role in the development of aerial photography. He also raced cars, together with Charles Rolls (of Rolls Royce fame) and was an unconventional yachtsman.

Apologies for the quality of this image, but it’s the only one available of Brabazon in 1930 with his gyro sail boat. Fiona Sinclair of the Amateur Yacht Research Society gives us the following information:

. . . this boat was adapted by John Brabazon in 1933. It is an autogyro, which means that the blades are not driving a propeller – the wind turbine is being used the same way as a sail. This is the earliest autogyro boat that I have found, and I think that we can safely credit Brabazon with the original concept of using the turbine force to drive a boat directly, since all the other people before him had only thought of using the turbine to drive a propellor. After all, the aircraft autogyro was only invented a couple of years earlier in 1930. This boat is called KESTREL, and the hull is an1896 Bembridge Redwing. This class has an unlimited sail plan – you can do whatever you like as long as the area is less that 200 sq ft. So Brabazon tried a whole lot of different sail rigs, including this one, which had a blade area of only 30 sq ft. King George V, who knew a lot about yachts, said “I have never seen a yacht sail so close to the wind”. . . Unfortunately, there was an accident in Cowes Harbour – Lord Brabazon shouted out “Let her go”, and his crew let go of the rotor instead of the boat, and then it could not be stopped, because the brake wasn’t strong enough. It was eventually stopped, after demolishing the next boat along. The moral of this tale is that you should be a bit more specific when giving instructions to your crew . . .

The boat was, and remains, dangerous but, as suggested above it was probably the first ever auto-gyro boat. The boat is currently in the collection of the Classic Boat Museum at East Cowes, Isle of Wight, and still ‘sails’.

A rather unexpected publicity item for Lord Brabazon of Tara – a fridge magnet base on a cigarette card image

Brabazon had a career in Parliament – both Commons and Lords, however he rather blotted his copybook when in 1942 he publicly expressed the hope that Germany and the Soviet Union, then engaged in the battle of Stalingrad, would destroy each other. Since the Soviet Union was fighting the war on the same side as Britain, the hope that it should be destroyed (though common in the Conservative Party) was unacceptable to the war effort, and Brabazon was forced to resign. His political affiliations were somewhat doubtful in any case as he had been associated with Oswald Mosley before the outbreak of war. Readers might remember my reporting on an Irish dimension to Oswald Mosley in an earlier post.

Left – Lord Brabazon wrote an autobiography in 1956; right – a portrait of Brabazon in his role of President of St Andrew’s Golf Club (Alfred Egerton Cooper – courtesy Royal Air Force Museum)

I haven’t mentioned other aspects of Brabazon’s sporting life: he excelled at golf and bobsledding. I found a curiosity in that he narrated the background track of an EP about British history in 1960. A reviewer has remarked:

. . . George Formby & Adolf Hitler on the same record, with Mussolini on backing harmonies apparently . . . A soundscape of the last century starting with the clip clop of a horse drawn cab and ending with the bleep bleep of Sputnik. In between the voices of Churchill, Hitler, Marie Lloyd, Caruso, Gracie Fields and Formby to name but a few. Commentary by Rt Hon Lord Brabazon of Tara whose fruity tones link one voice and sound effect to the next in a weird yet strangely comforting way . . .

An entertaining little taster – hopefully – about somebody who had Irish antecedents, but was essentially an English eccentric.

Bohemians in Ballydehob!

My first visit to Ballydehob wasn’t until around 1990. I remember being struck by how busy a place it was then – I only wish my memories from nearly 30 years ago were clearer. I now know, of course, that this vibrant little community has a history of being a cosmopolitan creative hub of the arts going right back to the middle of the last century. It’s a fascinating story, and Ballydehob is celebrating it by establishing an Arts Museum and permanent collection, with the first exhibition opening this week in Bank House: please come!

Above: two batiks by Nora Golden. Left – The Rock of the Rings (rock art at Ballybane West) and right – detail from a work depicting Loughcrew-type passage grave art. Nora and her partner, Christa Reichel were early arrivals on the arts scene in Ballydehob. In the 1960s Christa bought a farmhouse and set up the region’s first studio pottery in Gurteenakilla then, with Nora, opened the ‘Flower House’ in the centre of the town: you can see it illustrated in the exhibition flyer at the bottom of this post. All this is well documented in the excellent book by Alison Ospina (herself a talented furniture maker) ‘West Cork Inspires’ (Stobart Davies, 2011).

These denizens of 1970s Ballydehob are not a Heavy Metal band (to my knowledge) but in fact four important artists who had settled here: John Verling – artist, ceramicist and architect,  Pat Connor – ceramic sculptor, Brian Lalor – artist, writer and printmaker, and David Chechovich – watercolourist. They are wearing the uniform of the time. Here’s Brian Lalor in his studio today (photo by Finola) – you can certainly see the similarity . . .

Brian still lives near Ballydehob, and is the mastermind and Curator of the new collection. And, if you can begin to see it all fitting together, John Verling (on the right of Brian in the exhibition poster above) took over the Gurteenakilla Pottery with his wife Noelle and together produced striking ceramics, examples of which are in the header photograph.

Gurteenakilla is lived in today by Angela Brady, an artist who works with fused glass. She is also an architect. And – she’s performing the most important task of opening the first exhibition in our new Arts Museum on Friday. Finola wrote about Angela and other artists who contributed to the 7 Hands show on the pier in Ballydehob two years ago: have a look at her post and see if you recognise any other names.

Beautiful stoneware goblets by Pat Connor, who is well represented in the collection. His maker’s mark is a memorable graphic. Another well known West Cork ceramicist represented here is Leda May, who with her husband Bob found Ballydehob in the late 1960s when they were invited by Christa Reichel to set up a pottery behind her own shop. Leda is still working in the area today, producing very fine painted porcelain ware (an example of which is shown below).

Above, from the exhibition – two earthenware mugs by Etain Hickey and Jim Turner, Rossmore Pottery 1983 and two Raku lustreware pieces by Jim Turner 1982. There are more stories to be told – to add to Alison’s comprehensive volume: the rise and fall of the Cork Craftsmans Guild, establishing the West Cork Arts Centre, exhibitions in far-flung places including Zurich, enigmatic repousee work – as yet we can’t trace its history . . . But all that is for another day, once the Ballydehob Arts Museum (BAM) is under way.

Below, posters by Brian Lalor and Repousee work by Shirley Day.

So here’s yet another reason to come to West Cork! This ‘taster’ exhibition starts on 10 August and continues through Heritage Week and Ballydehob’s Summer Festival until 26 August. We have to commend our Community Council in Ballydehob who are giving us the space in Bank House – right in the town centre (the former AIB Bank building) which they acquired for the permanent enjoyment of the local community. Also we have benefitted from Cork County Council who have given us a grant under the Creative Ireland Programme to help get the whole project off the ground. And most of all we have to thank local people who have freely donated pieces for the permanent collection – all will be acknowledged when the Museum is up and running.

Bohemians in Ballydehob! opens at 6pm on Friday 10th August at Bank House, Ballydehob

 

‘Ye Citie of the Seven Crosses’

As you will know from these pages, ‘Ireland of the Saints’ is a country rich in treasures dating from medieval times. Architecture and stone carved ecclesiastical monuments were prolific on the island of Ireland, with many examples and fragments remaining. Finola has a series covering Romanesque Architecture, while I have always been on the lookout for High Crosses from the early medieval period. Over 250 examples of High Crosses are said to survive in Ireland, either complete or broken – a remarkable number. Without fail, all are beautiful, and wonderful examples of early art and craftsmanship.

When we are out and about, we usually don’t have to go very far off whichever route we are travelling to find more examples to add to our archive of The Irish High Cross. Last week was no exception: we were off to the Burren in County Clare to see a new exhibition of the work of our friend Keith Payne, and it was no trouble to take a little detour in County Clare to view ‘Ye Citie of the Seven Crosses’ – Kilfenora. A wonderful carved capital on the Cathedral there is shown above (the drawing of it on the right is from Duchas). I knew the place because of its famous Ceilidh Band, but I am now aware that even this admirable institution must take second place to the Kilfenora High Crosses.

The most detailed description of the Kilfenora crosses was written by historian Jack Flanagan (1921 – 2014) and it’s available online, courtesy of Clare County Library. Jack lived most of his life around Kilfenora, and charts the fortunes of the High Crosses through the 20th century, mostly from his personal experience. Now they are well looked after – some are under a glass roof – but they have suffered various misfortunes throughout the last Millennium. Above are all that’s left of two of the crosses – both now protected.

You would hardly think of Kilfenora as a ‘city’ – but the hamlet of thatched dwellings was an important monastic centre from the days of  Saint Fachtnan (from County Cork) who founded it around 650AD. It has its Cathedral (above), although . . . it was the smallest with the poorest diocese in Ireland . . . (Flanagan). However in 1111 the Synod of Rathbreasail snubbed the claims for diocesan status by Kilfenora, and the O’Connors and the O’Loughlens came together in their desire to remain aloof from the Diocese of Killaloe which was very much under the patronage of the O’Briens. There was history here, as it was the O’Briens who had burned Kilfenora Abbey and its inhabitants in 1055. At the Synod of Kells in 1152 Kilfenora did succeed in its claims, and attained status as a separate diocese. It’s said that some of the High Crosses were carved and erected to celebrate this achievement.

If this is the case, then the Kilfenora High Crosses are relatively late examples of the art. This would seem to be borne out by the style of the finest of them – now known as the Doorty Cross – because the interlacing designs on the shaft are undoubtedly influenced by Scandinavian motifs. This, then, must have been a time when the Viking invaders were not only accepted but also assimilated into the artistic culture: this would have been the case by the mid twelfth century.

The Doorty Cross (upper, details from west and east faces and lower, Duchas drawing) has a partially traceable history. Jack Flanagan remembers when the main part of the shaft was in use as a grave slab of the Doorty family in the burial ground of the Cathedral, while the head was lying under the chancel arch in the sacristy. In the 1950s the two parts of the cross were reunited by the Office of Public Works, and the restored cross was erected next to the Doorty grave – hence this cross is now known as the Doorty Cross. Interestingly, there is an inscription on the base of the cross shaft which dates from 1752: this was buried when the cross was re-erected, but is now visible as the cross was removed into the new glass roofed shelter in the mid 2000s. The upper picture below shows the inscription visible today – it’s upside down on the raised cross: the lower picture shows a drawing made by Westropp in 1910 when the shaft was still used over the grave: the inscription can be read as IHS X V n D – the V n D stood for V ni Doorty.

The battle between the diocese of Kilfenora and Killaloe wasn’t quite won as they became combined in later years. Dr Richard Mant was appointed Bishop of Killaloe and Kilfenora in 1820, and in that year he set out on a visitation of his two diocese. In early August he arrived in Kilfenora which he described as “the worst village that I have seen in Ireland and in the most desolate and least interesting country” . In a subsequent letter to a friend he describes;

. . .  On a visit to Kilfenora in 1820 where there had been five or six stone crosses I found two or three broken and laying on the ground, neglected and over-grown with weeds. On expressing my concern that these remnants of ecclesiastical antiquity were left in such a state, a clergyman of the parish proposed to send me one of them, which he said might be done without difficulty or danger of giving offence, as when they were brought to that state the people had no regard for them. One was accordingly sent to Clarisford, and I caused it to be erected among some trees in a picturesque spot, between the house and the canal, having inlaid the shaft with a marble tablet bearing the inscription annexed below. When my daughter was at Clarisford about three years ago, the cross was still standing, being considered “an ornament to the grounds” . . .

Upper picture – the High Cross which was taken from Kilfenora by Bishop Mant in 1821, and which has ended up – after a series of excursions – in St Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe. A translation of the Latin on the marble tablet which was placed there by the Bishop:

. . . R.M.S.T.P. (Bishop’s name and title) of both diocese, being solicitous for church antiquity, took care to erect at the See of Killaloe this cross which you see, and which collapsed at Kilfenora lest it entirely disappear through neglect, and by reason of the site A.D. 1821 . . .

It seems there was still little love lost between the two diocese. The Kilfenora Cross on the Hill has now been moved into the St Flannan’s Cathedral at Killaloe – and that’s where we saw it back in September last year. When you speak to local people in Kilfenora you get a sense that there are grumblings – they feel they would like their cross back: it would be one of the finest in the collection.

Left – the West Cross (see header picture and below) in 1910, possibly taken by Westropp: it’s still in situ to the west of the Cathedral today – the cathedral building is on the right of this photo. Right – the Doorty Cross standing beside the Doorty grave in 1980.

The West Cross at Kilfenora has escaped capture under the glass roof and still stands – probably where it always has – on a prominent knoll to the west of the Cathedral. It’s open to the elements, but seems to be in good condition. In some ways, the protection of these ancient pieces does in some way detract from their magnificence, but there’s no doubt that constant exposure to the weather extremes that we experience here in Ireland must ultimately adversely affect them. It’s a conundrum – and a debate we have touched on before.

Perhaps my own response to these protected High Crosses in Kilfenora is that I feel they are under-appreciated. I saw – at the height of the tourist season – coach-loads of visitors disembark, enter the sheltered enclosure, stand and look at the old stones for a few minutes and then file out. What did it all mean to them? There are interpretation boards but I doubt they get the message across: these are great monuments of the world, to be revered, respected and wondered at: these representations take you back through a thousand years of history: we are fortunate that we can still be in their presence.

Coming Home

It may seem strange to commemorate ‘The Great Hunger’ – the Irish famine years of 1845 – 1849 – with an art exhibition. Yet, when we look back on that time, 170 years ago, the only possible reaction to the starvation, mass graves and wholesale emigration which happened within the boundaries of the great British Empire (and not too far from its capital) is raw emotion: it’s a subject that can’t be intellectualised. The 1.4m high work above, by bog oak sculptor Kieran Tuohy from County Galway, is an example of an emotional response: hands hold up a group of anonymous and vulnerable figures.

John Coll’s piece, Famine Funeral (above), is also evocative. The exhibition at Uillinn in Skibbereen opened on Thursday and attracted a large and excited crowd; since then, record numbers of visitors have come daily to the town’s iconic gallery. The work is all from Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, which has the largest collection of Great Hunger-related art, and will be shown here in West Cork until 13 October.

Skibbereen was one of Ireland’s worst affected towns during the famine years, which makes the visit of this exhibition entirely appropriate. It has shown that our gallery is able to display a collection such as this of the highest calibre, giving the community an asset unique in rural Ireland. All credit must go to the Director, the staff and the Board of the West Cork Arts Centre who have worked hard to raise funds and make all this possible. Also Cork County Council have to be commended for finishing off the flood relief works and the associated landscaping around the gallery in time for the opening: Uillinn now features a significant architectural setting in the town centre. The photographs above were taken outside and inside the building on opening night.

With some exceptions (Glenna Goodacre’s bronze – Famine – is one, above), I am only showing extracts from the works in this review. The whole exhibition is so powerful that it has to be seen in real life, so I’m hoping that these tasters will persuade you to visit.

The artist Micheal Farrell (1940 – 2000) is well represented in the Quinnipiac Museum and some of his works have come to Skibbereen, including the enormous Black ’47 (4.5m wide and 3m high) a detail of which is shown in the upper picture above, with a detail from The Wounded Wonder below it. The Irish Times described Farrell’s largest work:

. . . Farrell’s canvas seems to float on a wall by itself in the museum. It is the trial of Charles Trevelyan, the British official who was in charge of Famine relief. Trevelyan stands in a searchlight shaft, a hand on one hip, embodying the arrogance of empire. The prosecutor gestures towards Irish skeletons rising from an open grave, evidence against the man who called the Famine “the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence” and a “mechanism for reducing surplus population” . . .

Dorothy Cross – Basking Shark Curragh (a comment on the vulnerability of Irish coastal communities in famine times) with Micheal Farrell’s The Wounded Wonder and Kieran Tuohy’s Thank You to the Choctaw beyond.

Also extracts: the upper image is from a powerful bronze work – The Leave-Taking by Margaret Lyster Chamberlain – and the lower image is part of The Last Visit by Pádraic Reaney.

Lilian Lucy Davidson’s Gorta (upper image) and Hughie O’Donoghue’s On Our Knees (lower) are both powerful statements on hunger and our own attitudes to the problems of the contemporary world.

At the opening of Coming Home – Art and The Great Hunger – Cyril Thornton, Chairman of the West Cork Arts Centre made the following observations:

. . . We are formed by our memories, experiences, the voices of our ancestors carried through the ages that carry into the soul of who we are. When we refuse to listen to the voices of the past or learn from our ancestor’s achievements and mistakes we lose a piece of our soul.

In a world that appears to becoming more soulless and intolerant it is now more important than ever to shine a light on our past for another generation, not to blame or recriminate but to help them to shape a world where humanity will never accept that injustice, poverty or hunger can be imposed on those in need of support.

The memory of the death of over 1 million people and the subsequent emigration of another 1.5 million defines us as a nation. The bringing home of this exhibition in many ways is a cultural reconnection. Art in all its form captures emotions and feelings, this exhibition in so many ways captures the tragic emotion of An Gorta Mór – The Great Hunger . . .

Detail from William Oliver Williams The Irish Piper 1874. Although painted after the ravages of The Great Famine this picture is said to imply that, despite hardship, the joyful side of Irish life was always irrepressible . . . whatever the occasion there was music and dancing . . . Below – powerful juxtaposition: a Rowan Gillespie figure seen against West Cork artist William Crozier’s Rainbow’s End.

Skibbereen Celebrates: Arts and Artists

There’s seldom been as much sunshine in Skibbereen as we are seeing this summer: every day feels like a holiday, and there’s so much for residents and visitors to do – it’s going to be hard to keep up with it all! Coming soon is the launch of the Skibbereen Arts Festival (I love this great graphic!) –

On Friday night we were treated to the ‘Preview’ of the ‘flagship exhibition’ for the Skibb Arts festival, running from now until 6 August at The O’Driscoll Building, Old Quay in the centre of town. It’s titled Elements: West Cork Landscape and features works by 30 artists from the area. In fact, the sunshine and the excitement brought out practically every artist, anyone connected with arts, and a whole lot of West Corkonians and visitors to see what’s on offer.

The exhibition has been put together by Catherine Hammond (above, right, with Finola – standing in front of a Christine Thery canvas) and it’s great to see Catherine curating in Skibbereen again. The art here is strong and looks good on the bare concrete walls of the building, the vacant shell of which is a reminder of Celtic Tiger days, but it always works so well as a gallery.

The work of two artists struck us as soon as we entered the building on Friday: the bold, simple architectural forms of Helena Korpela (two examples above); Helena has connections with West Cork and Helsinki, which emphasises the breadth of art makers working here today.

Personal favourites in this exhibition, for me, are two new pieces by Michael Quane. This Cork born artist now based in Leap is well-known for his large public sculptures, but I like the dynamics of these two smaller works (header picture and above). Roaringwater Journal has reviewed many of the artists currently on show at The Old Quay: have a look at these posts on William Crozier, Terry Searle and Cormac Boydell – and let’s see some examples…

Upper – Crozier; middle – Searle; lower – new ceramics by Boydell. It was also great to see works from elsewhere in Cork: this canvas – by Jill Dennis – is impressive.

It wasn’t just the artists who produced the work that came to the opening: other familiar names in Ireland’s contemporary art world were also well represented. See who you can spot… *

So, everyone is here, everyone is enjoying the summer and Skibbereen is swinging! Art events not to be missed include the opening of Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger exhibition at Uillinn, and the related performance pieces and installaions which Finola is discussing in her post today, and also mentioned in her post last week. But those are only a fraction of the whole Skibbereen Arts Festival this year – we haven’t even started on the music, film, poetry or workshops: get hold of a programme and book up now – while there are still tickets available.

Angela Fewer – Off Heir Island

* John Kelly, Brian Lalor, Penny Dixey, Jim Turner, Keith Payne, Eion McGonigal, Peter Murray…

Off the M8 – Searching out Péacáin

Once again we followed in the footsteps of our friends Amanda and Peter – she of Holy Wells of Cork and he of Hikelines. They had visited the Glen of Aherlow in County Tipperary and pointed us to St Berrahert’s extraordinary site at Ardane which I described in this post. Not far away is another site, which Amanda reported on fully in her own post, here. It is equally remarkable, and related to St Berrahert’s Kyle in that they were both restored by the Office of Public Works in the 1940s. They are also both very easily accessible in a few minutes from the M8 motorway at Cahir.

We were delighted to be travelling again through the beautiful Glen in the shadow of the Galtee Mountains (above) as we searched out a boreen that led us down to the railway, as directed by Amanda. We parked and crossed at the gate, watching out carefully as this is the Waterford to Limerick Junction line used by two trains a day (except on Sundays!)

Once across, we were in an idyll. It’s a private lane, running alongside a gentle stream, but the Bourke family allow visitors to walk (as they have done for centuries) to the old church, the cell and the holy well of Saint Péacáin. Ancient stone walls line the way, and trees overhang, shading the dappled sunlight in this most exceptional of Irish seasons. We met Bill Bourke, who regaled us with tales of his life spent mostly far away from this, his birthplace – but who returned to rebuild the family home and to enjoy perpetual summer in what is, for him, the most beautiful setting in the world. He also told us of the crowds who used to come to celebrate St Péacáin at Lughnasa – 1st August – paying the rounds and saying the masses.

In her monumental work (it runs to over 700 pages) The Festival of Lughnasa – Oxford University Press 1962 – Máire MacNeill points out the harvest feast day was such an important ancient celebration that it survives as the focus of veneration of many local saints who would otherwise have been known for their own patron day, and she particularly mentions Tobar Phéacáin in this regard: a place well away from any large settlement where the great agricultural festival was so critical to the cycle of rural life.

The rural setting of St Péacáin’s Cell can be seen above, just in front of the trees; the church and the well are nearby. MacNeill provides a description of Tobar Phéacáin and includes some variant names:

. . . Tobar Phéacáin (Peakaun’s Well), Glen of Aherlow, Barony of Clanwilliam, Parish of Killardry, Townland of Toureen . . . On the northern slope of the Galtee Mountain at the entrance to the Glen of Aherlow and about three or four miles north-west of Caher there is a well and ruin of a small church. About a mile beyond Kilmoyler Cross Roads a path leads up to it . . . In 1840 O’Keefe, of the Ordnance Survey team, reported that the old church was called by the people Teampuillin Phéacáin, or just Péacán . . .

. . . The well, which he described as lying a few perches south-east of the church was called Peacan’s Well or Tobar Phéacáin. It was surrounded by a circular ring of stonework. He stated: ‘The pattern-day still observed at this place falls on the 1st of August, which day is, or at least until a few years since, has been kept as a strict holiday.’ Devotions were also, he said, performed there on Good Friday . . .

A hundred years after O’Keefe wrote this, the church ruins were tidied up by the Office of Public Works. As at St Berrihert’s Kyle, it seems there were numerous carved slabs on the site and remnants of high crosses, implying a significant ecclesiastical presence here. All these have been fixed in and around the church ruin for safekeeping, and in an intelligent grouping. It’s wonderful to be able to see such treasures in the place they were (presumably) made for, and to experience them in such a remote and peaceful ambience.

McNeill continues:

. . . Nearby is the shaft of a cross which tradition avers was broken in malice by a mason who was then stricken with an inward pain and died suddenly as a punishment for his sacrilege . . . O’Keefe was told a story of a small stone, 6 or 7 inches long and 4 or 5 in depth, having ten little hollows in it and resting in a hollow of the ‘altar’ of the old church. Christ, or according to others St Péacán, asked a woman, who had been churning, for some butter; she denied having any and when the visitor departed she found the butter had turned into stone which retained the impression of her fingers . . . Nuttall-Smith speaks also of a cave where the saint used to practice austerities . . .

The carved fragments are quite remarkable and are in all likelihood well over a thousand years old. I have yet to see anywhere in Ireland – outside of museums – which has such an extensive collection of fascinating medieval antiquities as these sites in the Glen of Aherlow. Here you can also see cross slabs and a sundial said to date from the eighth century.

Nuttall-Smith’s ‘cave’ – quoted by MacNeill above – is likely to be St Péacáin’s Cell, set in a field on the far side of the river. This was probably a clochán, or beehive-hut, of the type once used by anchorites. It is protected by a whitethorn tree, but was quite heavily overgrown on the day of our visit. We could make out the ballaun stones inside, said to be the knee prints of the Saint who made his constant devotions there. Amanda – in her post on the holy well – reports that Péacáin would also stand daily with arms outstretched against a stone cross, chanting the psalter.

McNeill discusses the significance of weather at the August celebrations:

. . . Paradoxically for a day of outing so fondly remembered, no tradition of the Lughnasa festival is stronger than that which says that it is nearly always rainy. No doubt this has been only too often experienced. Saint Patrick’s words to the Dési: ‘Bid frossaig far ndála co bráth’ (Your meetings shall always be showery) must be as well proved a prophecy as was ever made. Still there must be more significance in the weather beliefs than dampened observation. Certainly it was expected that rain should fall on that day, and sayings vary as to whether that was a good or bad sign . . . There are a few interesting beliefs about thunder, which was also expected on that day: the loud noise heard at Tristia when the woman made rounds there to have her jealous husband’s affection restored; the prophecy that no-one would be injured by lightning at Doonfeeny, a promise also made by St Péacán . . .

The holy well is tucked away in a stone-walled enclosure hidden under the trees on the edge of the field which contains the Saint’s cell. It’s also a tranquil place, obviously still much visited: the water is crystal clear, refreshing and will ensure protection from burns and drowning.  This is a magical setting to complete the day’s travels in the beautiful Glen of Aherlow.