The Twelve Arches of Ballydehob

As we are approaching the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas I thought it fitting to give you Twelve views of Ballydehob’s iconic viaduct. Our West Cork village of Ballydehob has many claims to fame. It has been the centre of a great Irish art movement in the mid-twentieth century (have a look at this site). But earlier – between 1886 and 1947 – it was an important stop on the Schull & Skibbereen Tramway. This was a three-foot gauge railway line which must have been a great wonder to those who witnessed it in its heyday. There are fragments of it still to be seen, but its most monumental structure remains with us: the twelve-arched viaduct at Ballydehob.

Above: Brian Lalor was one of the creatives who settled in Ballydehob back in the artists’ heyday (he is still here today). The railway viaduct was a great source of visual inspiration to him and to his artist colleagues.

Here (above) is another Lalor work depicting the viaduct (many thanks, Brian). Behind the arches in this print you can see the former commercial buildings on the wharf, now converted to private use. At first glance you might think what a fine masonry structure this is. In fact, most of it is mass concrete. Look at the close-up view of the arches below: they are cast and faced in concrete, albeit the arch-stones are made to look like masonry. Only the facing infills and the parapets are actually of stone. This is quite an innovative construction for its time. Barring earthquake it’s certain to endure.

I was not surprised to find how often images of this engineering feat have inspired artists and others working in creative fields. Here’s a particularly fine example from the days of the artist settlement around the village in the mid-twentieth century (below): this one is a batik by Nora Golden.

I really like this moody photograph by Finola: it demonstrates the elemental nature which repetition and shadow gives to the scene. (Below): we have to see the way over the top, now a public footpath. The railway was a single track narrow-gauge at this point.

The ‘Tiny Ireland’ creator – Anke – has sketched this wonderful caricature of our wharf area, showing the 12-arched bridge in context. Finola has written about Anke. You can buy your own piece of Tiny Ireland through her website, here.

How better to look at the bridge in context than this view from Aerial Photographer Tom Vaughan. Thank you, Tom, for allowing us to use this magnificent image. Here’s the link to his own website. You will find excellent gifts for the connoisseur here. The last of our ‘Twelve Arches’ (for now) has to show us the bridge in its rightful use. I think this postcard – from the Lawrence Archive -dates from the early 1900s. I can’t resist quoting the caption for the rail buffs among you!

. . . A Schull-bound train has stopped especially for the photographer: this is Ballydehob viaduct looking north. The train comprises GABRIEL, bogie coaches Nos 5 and &, brake vans Nos 31, 32 and 38 . . .

The Schull & Skibbereen Railway – James I C Boyd – Oakwood Press 1999

Ships in Churches

You’ll have to look carefully at the photo above. It’s inside the ruined church which stands in St Mary’s graveyard, Colla Road, Schull.

Here’s the church – a view taken a day or two ago, in a spell of clear, cold weather. It has a fascinating history, which you can read here. Go in through the old main entrance, and immediately look to the wall on your right. Scratched into the plaster there is the ship image. But it’s not the only one.

There are more ship images visible on this porch wall; the first – shown in the header – is the most clearly defined. Here are more detailed views of others (I have counted five in total), including further examples on the opposite wall. There may once have been more.

Of course, we would like to know the story of these carvings: who made them? When? And why? As to the ‘when’ we have to sift through the history of the building, although what is known is somewhat fragmentary. One record states that what we see today was built in 1720, but there must have been something there before that, as there is an ogival window in the north-eastern part of the building which is thought to be fifteenth century, and some further architectural features which suggest an even earlier construction:

The north porch – where the ship scribings are – is likely to date from the early eighteenth century, so the ships could not be any older than this. They could have been drawn any time, perhaps, over three hundred years – but are most likely to have been from the earlier part of that period. It has even been suggested that they could have been made by the craftsmen who rendered the walls. Interestingly, ‘graffiti’ which shows ships in churches is not uncommon: there are further instances in Ireland, Britain, and other parts of the Christianised world. The following were traced from St Spas church, Nessebar, Bulgaria. They are possibly the closest examples I have found so far that resemble our main Schull scribing. Interestingly, only one is shown in ‘full sail’. Most examples of this type of graffiti show the vessels without sails, or with the sails furled. Our Schull example is undoubtedly under full sail – and this makes it rare. I attach a further image below the Bulgarian scribings: I have tried to enhance the contrast of the photograph.

What about ‘Who Made Them’? We don’t have an answer to that. We must remember that the Schull examples are a very small part of a very widespread phenomenon and, as I mentioned, there have been suggestions that the ships were a deliberate part of the construction process of the churches: they might have been drawn by the plasterers themselves. Masons left behind their own ‘marks’ on stone walls, ever since medieval times. A British project was started in 2010 to survey all types of ‘informal’ marking on stone and plaster found specifically in Norfolk.

These stone inscribed Masons’ marks are from the Norfolk survey. Below – from the same source – two images of ship graffiti from Cley-on-Sea, Norfolk:

Where do we go from here in our little review of this strange find in Schull? Well, it’s worth noting that these are not the only ‘ships in churches’ image that we find in the corpus of European-wide church architecture. I often remember going into churches and noticing model replicas of ships hanging from the ceiling! I don’t remember seeing such a thing in Ireland, but certainly in Britain and Scandinavia. Here is one from Denmark:

Strangely, I have never looked for an explanation of these. When you start reading about them, it is suggested that they are always in churches which are associated with the sea and with maritime communities, and the church models are seen as prophylactic votive offerings: representing and honouring the ships that the community sail in will prevent them from coming to harm. That begins to make sense, as does the idea that the plaster ship graffiti is also, perhaps, a preventative measure against disaster or ill-fortune.

That theory could be presented as a strong likelihood for finding ship graffiti in churches – but there’s a problem. There are as many examples of ship graffiti in churches which are located far inland as there are on or close by the coast. If you would like my own opinion on this whole quandary, take a look at the photo of Schull church, above. It is built on a mound, perhaps natural but maybe not, with its east wall facing outwards like a ship’s prow. Could there be a far wider symbolism in all this when it comes to the nature of a church building? Is it a stone representation of a vessel, captained by priest or parson, and crewed by the faithful of the community? A final thought on this: when you go into the main body of a church, you enter the Nave. Definition of a nave:

. . . The name of the main public area of the church, the nave, was derived directly from the Latin word navis, meaning ‘ship’ or ‘vessel’, and references dating back to the very earliest days of the Christian church direct that a church should be built ‘long . . . so it will be like a ship’ . . .


MATTHEW CHAMPION – MEDIEVAL SHIP GRAFFITI IN ENGLISH CHURCHES, 2015

The Down Survey – Closer to Home

Last week we gave a brief introduction to the wealth of historical material that we can find in the website devoted to the 17th century Down Surveyhere’s a link to that site, and another (here) to our previous article. The subject – and some of the deeper detail we can discover in the website – is well worth a further look.

The Down Survey (the above view of some of the islands out in Roaringwater Bay is extracted from it) was carried out between 1656 and 1658, and thus gives us an excellent picture of how terrain we are so personally familiar with was perceived pictorially in the mid 17th century. We don’t know who the surveyors were, except that they were under the command of Sir William Petty, ‘surgeon- general of the English army’. Ireland became one of the most-mapped countries in the world at that time, following the Cromwellian and Williamite land redistributions. The beneficiaries were the new landlords of the Ascendancy, who wanted to know exactly what they had acquired, and the initial emphasis was on boundaries and basic land-measurement.

We wanted to know what our little bit of West Cork looked like on those earliest maps. Our view is down toward Rossbrin Cove, below where we live, and our house is a mere blip on the contemporary aerial view at the top of the page. In the first example from the Down Survey mapping – under that view – the cove of ‘Rofsbrinine Harbour’ is marked, and the castle, whose remains still guard the harbour entrance to this day (above), is clearly shown.

This view looks across the channel from the site of Rossbrin Castle. Immediately in the foreground is Horse Island, while beyond is the distinctive profile of Cape Clear. Let’s look at the Down Survey entry for Cape Clear – with. for comparison – a modern map of that island below it.

That map, above, is taken from a nautical chart. It’s understandable that a 17th century map wouldn’t have the level of accuracy we would expect from a modern survey, but take a look, now, at this contemporary aerial view of Cape Clear Island:

It’s remarkable, I think, how strikingly the early map resembles the profile – if not the fine detail – of the modern chart – and also the shape of the island as shown on the aerial view. For example, the ‘Bill of Cape Clear’ shows up very clearly on the chart – the beak-like protrusion on the far western end of the land-mass – a feature which is represented as very similar on the 17th century version, and of course on the modern prospect. Here’s a view of Dún an Óir – Cape Clear’s castle – today:

Just to add to the experience, the above satellite view gives a more ‘flattened’ impression of what is really going on locally: compare this to the expanded view of our coastline from the Down Survey – note that ‘Cape Cleare’ is included on this extract:

As a further example, to finish off this brief overview (which will be continued in future posts) let’s have a look at the Down Survey entry for the Baltimore area – a little further along our coast, travelling east:

This is in fact the Down Survey entry for the Parishes of ‘Tullogh & Baltimore’. The first thing to note is that the north point is facing downwards! If you look at many of the survey pages the orientation varies considerably, and is probably more to do with what conveniently fits on a sheet than any attempt to be consistent. So that we can make an easier comparison with today’s terrain, I have also switched the orientation of this aerial view:

In my opinion it’s remarkable that the Down Survey maps do bear a very reasonable resemblance to the reality. Obviously, a great deal of detail is missing, but the purpose of the maps – to delineate land ownership – is satisfactorily served (albeit that this is to the benefit of the incoming English lords and landowners).

Here’s a view of the site of the medieval fish palace at Baltimore. The Down Survey comprises more than maps: there is other related material, including terriers. These particular terriers don’t have legs or tails – it’s a term for a written, descriptive survey of an estate: some english examples are recorded from the ninth century. Here’s the terrier for Baltimore within the Down Survey:

The terrier in this case is mainly a description of parcels of land, their owners, and the values. Here’s a closer example, from a terrier for ‘Skull’:

There’s a lot more of West Cork within the Down Survey archives. A future post will turn in greater detail to some of this material.

The Down Survey

Here’s a fascinating title block. What are these cherubs doing? The couple on the left are excited about the operation of a magnetic compass; the little drummer is wearing a plumed helmet and has a decorated sash around his torso; cherub number 4 is bearing a spherical astrolabe, while the three on the right are actively engaged in surveying – using a Gunter’s Chain. This latter instrument – by the way – achieved, in the seventeenth century, something we seem to find tricky in our present day: the simple reconciling of imperial and metric measurements!

The cherub image, and the two above, adorn and decorate a remarkable document: the Down Survey map of Ireland. As this survey was ordered by Oliver Cromwell after an cogadh a chriochnaigh Éire (the war that finished Ireland) it seems strange that the north point of the compass is a fleur-de-lis: usually a symbol of the Virgin Mary. Cromwell himself was, of course, a Puritan and a Protestant and his actions in Ireland were aimed at subduing the rights and practices of Catholics, driving them ‘to Hell or Connaught’ – the poorest lands to the west of the Shannon river.

The decade following the Irish rebellion of 1641 witnessed a particularly turbulent period of warfare in Ireland between Catholic families and invaders from England, who were led by the dispossessed followers of the crown during the Civil War, which lasted through most of that period. The Act for the Settling of Ireland (1652) imposed penalties including death and land confiscation against Irish civilians and combatants after the Irish Rebellion and subsequent unrest. British historian John Morrill wrote that the Act and associated forced movements represented …perhaps the greatest exercise in ethnic cleansing in early modern Europe…

Sir William Petty – in charge of the Down Survey. Portrait by Godfrey Kneller, courtesy Romsey Town Council.

. . . Taken in the years 1656-1658, the Down Survey of Ireland is the first ever detailed land survey on a national scale anywhere in the world. The survey sought to measure all the land to be forfeited by the Catholic Irish in order to facilitate its redistribution to Merchant Adventurers and English soldiers. Copies of these maps have survived in dozens of libraries and archives throughout Ireland and Britain, as well as in the National Library of France. This Project has brought together for the first time in over 300 years all the surviving maps, digitised them and made them available as a public online resource . . .

http://downsurvey.tcd.ie/

We are very fortunate to be able to freely access – through the internet – this website which contains all available copies of the surviving Down Survey maps, together with written descriptions (terriers) of each barony and parish that accompanied the original maps. These bring out for us very detailed information on what the surveyors recorded in Ireland three and a half centuries ago.

Examples from map extracts, showing the quality of reproduction which can be obtained from the site. These show our own West Cork, with local names that have a familiar ring: Ballidehub, Skull, Rofsbrinie, Affadonna. Having discovered this resource, we know this site will be invaluable in our history researches. Look out for my next post exploring the fine detail of the survey.

Creswick’s Cork

I’m fascinated by how artists captured Ireland through the centuries and have recently discovered a new one – Thomas Creswick. We mostly know Creswick’s Irish work through the engraving of his Irish landscapes for nineteenth century books on Ireland.  

First – who was Thomas Creswick? He was born in Sheffield in 1811, but is always associated with the Birmingham School of painters. Victorian loved their romantic landscapes and Creswick was a favourite, thanks in large part to the innovation of engraving, through which paintings could be reproduced in black and white and mass-produced. His self portrait shows a darkly handsome young man, fashionably dressed and coiffed. 

Here he is as an older man, in a photograph from the British National Portrait Gallery (used under license). He was painted at around this time by his friend William Powell Frith and the painting shows the same distinguished gentleman. However, the painting, on the Royal Academy website, is accompanied by a pen-portrait which is less complimentary than the painting.

William Powell Frith counted Creswick as one of his best friends, describing him as ‘good nature personified’. This tasteful portrait, composed in muted tones, certainly depicts a man of benevolent appearance and dignified bearing. However, this portrayal is at odds with many accounts of Creswick’s appearance and personality. Frith’s daughter recalled a ‘festive, rollicking and amusing’ man whose conversation was peppered with swearwords and who ‘was too fond of both food and drink to be always in the best of health’. Creswick’s larger-than-life character was not universally appreciated. Other landscape artists, in particular, accused him of exerting his influence amongst the Academicians to exclude his rivals from the institution. Creswick’s detractors made much of his unkempt appearance and reputed aversion to soap and water, nicknaming him ‘the big unwashed’.

Whatever about his personality, his skill as a painter was never in question, and drew high (and rare) praise from Ruskin for his attention to detail and his ability of draw directly ‘from nature’. The only other landscape artist Ruskin praised was Turner. Creswick did indeed draw from nature, doing many of his sketches and some finished paintings en plein air, a rare enough approach in those days.

Although most of his paintings were of rocky glens and pastoral river scenes in England and Wales, he travelled to Ireland and visited many of the famous beauty spots then becoming favourites with British tourists. His illustrations (engravings of original paintings) can be found mainly in two volumes. The first is Picturesque Scenery in Ireland (no publication date) with all the illustrations by Creswick, and the accompanying text by “A Tourist”. The other is Ireland, Picturesque and Romantic, published in 1837/38 with text by Leith Richie. Both are available on the marvellous Archive.org. Some of the illustration are the same in both books and some are different.

I’ve chosen to confine the illustrations I’m using for this post to Cork. Let’s start at the far east of the county and move west. So – first up is Youghal. Having been in Youghal recently for the excellent Youghal Celebrates History, which concentrated on St Mary’s Collegial Church and its 800 years of history, I loved Creswick’s depiction. He captures the roofless (now roofed) ruin, rendering the complex tracery of the tall window very accurately. His polite and well dressed ladies and gentlemen, visiting the romantic ruins, must run a gauntlet of begging women, one of who is wearing the Cork hooded cloak.

Moving westwards, we come to the ferry at Passage West – a journey Robert and I took only yesterday. For us it was a quick trip on the ultra-efficient car ferry, but Creswick shows an altogether more leisurely affair involving a rowing boat. The view of the boat is framed between trees. Figures in the foreground include a woman drawing water from the River Lee in a ewer – not something I’d want to do today.

The Passage Ferry Scene is a good example of the Picturesque Idiom, which had its conventions. According to Simon Cooke on The Victorian Web, artists such as Gainsborough and Constable

followed the compositional rules of the Picturesque and Creswick similarly adheres to its iconography. Drawing on the many examples of the type, he deploys a semiotic made up of trees (typically placed as framing devices), a well-defined foreground (usually populated with peasants or cattle), a stream, river or pathway, an architectural feature (castle, house, church), a large expanse of sky, and a prospect (often of mountains), or a vista reaching into the far distance. 

Next stop is Cobh (below, then called Cove, afterwards rechristened Queenstown, and finally reverting to Cobh). Creswick’s image is of an older town, before extensive docks were built, and captures the steepness of the roads and the precipitous way the houses cling to the hills.

Those steep narrow streets are still there, in Cobh. Below the seated figures is the area of fishermen’s cottages known as The Holy Ground. There’s no sign yet of the magnificent St Colman’s Cathedral, which didn’t get started until the 1860s. See the lead image in this post for a closer view of Cobh.

Blackrock Castle has to be one of the most painted pieces of scenery in Cork – so romantic, as it sits on its watery outcrop on a bend of the River Lee. In the foreground a family rows out to do what – set a lobster pot? – while a gaff-rigged sloop makes its way upriver.

Our final scene is Bantry Bay. St Finbarr’s Church was built already in the 1820s, even before Catholic Emancipation, and sits proudly on an eminence above the town. In the foreground is an enigmatic scene in which a soldier (with other soldiers advancing up the hill) is grasping the shoulders of a woman, who sits with a young girl under a tree. Are we witnessing an arrest, or a compassionate gesture of assistance?

Bantry Bay is spread out beyond the town, which slopes down to the water. The Battery on Whiddy Island, long in ruins, is clearly visible. The mountains of the Beara rise in the background, including the Sugarloaf on the right.

There is a full-colour painting by Creswick of Glengarriff but it is not copyright-free. You can view it here. If you want to see more of his illustrations, take a look at the books on archive.org – Dublin and Wicklow are well-represented.

Michael Collins Commemoration

It would have been hard to miss the centenary of the death of Michael Collins over this past week. He was killed at Béal na Bláth, West Cork on 22 August 1922, during the Irish Civil War. His passing – and his life – has been the stuff of legend ever since. He’s buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, but the events this week were focussed on the place where his life ended – not far from where we live.

Micheál Martin – Taoiseach and Head of Government in Ireland – (on the left, above) and Leo Varadkar – Tánaiste and Deputy Head of Government – (on the right) presided over the ceremony at Béal na Bláth this week (picture courtesy of The Independent). This was an historic get-together as both men lead different parties – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael respectively: these are in coalition at the moment, together with the Green Party. The Taoiseach said in his speech that the willingness of those of differing political views to try to find common ground was one of the great strengths of modern Ireland. In Collin’s time, a century ago, such coming together would have seemed extremely implausible.

This bust of Michael Collins is sited at his home place, Woodfield, Sam’s Cross in West Cork. There’s nothing left of the main house now (below): it was burned down during the Irish Civil War. But the original cottage still stands as a shell (it’s behind the trees in the background of the lower photo, to the right of the Public Works signpost). It was there that Collins was born.

We didn’t go to the official ceremony at Béal na Bláth on the 21st: many thousands of people attended. We were interested to visit a bit later in the week, to see how the site has been upgraded to mark the centenary. Previously, the memorial itself was gaunt and severe: here’s a pic from our visit in 2013:

It’s significantly different now: car parking has been rationalised and the commemorative cross is the main focus, with some significant hard landscaping. In our opinion, the works (by Cork County Council) have succeeded in focussing the main elements, and the scale is more human.

The new walling defining the edge of the memorial site is built from huge blocks of slate from Valentia Island Quarry, Co Kerry: “. . . the most westerly quarry in Europe . . .” The material is fittingly monumental. When we visited Valentia back in January 2019, we recorded the fact that this quarry has its very own Marian grotto:

We were interested – and pleased – to see that the upgraded memorial still gives space to ‘popular’ offerings. We maintain that Michael Collins is on his way to beatification, and he is already being treated as more than a fallen warrior (although that status is, in itself, heroic). Amongst the floral tributes are religious symbols, messages, and ‘relics’.

And – of course – the fateful spot (above) where Collins fell is still marked by the simple white stone which has been at this site for generations.

‘The Moment’ at which Collins was shot by an enemy bullet, captured in a dramatic painting (above), now on display in the Michael Collins Centre at Castleview, Clonakilty. No one has ever been held to account for the shooting, which was the only fatality on that day, and some have suggested that Collins was not intentionally targeted, and may have been the victim of an accidental ricochet. It’s most likely that we will never know the true story, but there’s no doubt that popular folklore has stepped in to fill the gaps.

The Michael Collins Centre (above) has been run for over 23 years by members of the Crowley family who are directly related to Collins. Visitors are given a comprehensive presentation on his life and times – and his death. There are many artefacts and memorabilia, including replicas of the vehicles which were in the convoy at Béal na Bláth. It’s also well worth looking out from the Museum grounds to the spectacular view across the Argideen River valley (below). Argidín means Little Silver River, and it flows from Reenascreena to Courtmacsherry.

We are keenly watching the progression of Michael Collin’s journey towards sainthood – or further. During the narrations we attended, we noted the descriptions of some of his followers as ‘apostles’. Also, we can’t ignore the fact that he foretold his own death (after he was sent to England to negotiate and sign the Anglo-Irish Treaty). His sister Mary Collins was nine years old when Michael was born in what she said were ” … miracle conditions, as there was no doctor and no trained nurse … mother and baby were well and comfortable … ” Michael was adored by the family, with his old Uncle Paddy predicting the future upon his birth, saying: “Be careful of this child, for he will be a great and mighty man when we are all forgotten” …

(Above) – a reminder of the ‘glory days’ – Michael Collins addressing huge crowds at a Free State demonstration in Cork City, 13 March 1922 (Wikimedia Commons). (Below) – Collins (behind the driver) leaving the Eldon Hotel, Skibbereen, 22 August 1922: the last known photograph of the hero (Cork Public Museum).