Where Art and History Meet

Perhaps I should say where they collide! West Cork has both, in abundance, and we’ve just lived through one of those once-in-a-lifetime conjunctions of  the artistic and the historical that leave you stimulated, thoughtful and reeling all at once.

Clockwise from top left: Coverage of the Festival in the Southern Star – the headline says it all; Roy Foster delivered an acclaimed opening address; Finola introduces Kevin Vickers, Canada’s Ambassador to Ireland; Canon Salter and his daughter Brigid at the screening of An Tost Fada, perhaps the most controversial (and certainly one of the most interesting) moments of the Festival

First of all, as our readers must be tired of hearing by now, we participated in the brand new West Cork History Festival. It was a great success, with well over 400 people enjoying a huge variety of talks, films, and panels, augmented with lashings of food and drink. It was so well planned, in fact, that the rain showers obliged by only appearing during the talks, and clearing off when it was time to be outside mixing and mingling and moving between marquees. The Festival wasn’t short on controversy. Sparks flew at several sessions, mainly between speakers and audience members, proving, if we didn’t already know it, that history is very much alive in West Cork. Depressingly, it also signals that, 100 years on, some people are still fighting the old battles. However, to judge from the general climate, those folks are in the minority.

John Kelly the Irish/British/Australian artist, and West Cork resident

Two days after the Festival, we moved on to art. Or so we thought. We had signed up for a guided tour of Reen Farm, the Sculpture Garden that is the home, studio and inspiration for the artist John Kelly. This event was part of the marvellous Skibbereen Arts Festival that has been running all week.

Two upside-down kangaroos in the tennis court – don’t ask me to explain this one, my head was spinning at that point

We’ve met John a couple of times and had seen an exhibition of his at Uillinn that focused on his experiences in the Antarctic. We were aware that, as a sculptor, a painter, and a writer John is internationally esteemed and has exhibited world-wide.

The Turrell-inspired crater with passages leading through it to the sea. (We have our reason to relate to John’s version of the famous Sky Garden at Liss Ard Estate in Skibbereen)

You’ve probably all visited a sculpture garden at some point – but I guarantee you, you’ve never had an experience like this. Being led around by John himself was a privilege, but it’s also a must in order to understand his inspirations, because it’s all about history, and eclectic history at that. 

His Tate Modern piece (above) was a response to the famine in his townland, Reen, as reported in 1846 by a local resident, N M Cummins. Now, looking at it, you would never arrive at that conclusion by yourself, but once you stand there and listen to John recounting the grim happenings that took place there 170 years ago and how that led him to contemplating the food abundance that made Henry Tate a millionaire around the same time, it all starts to come together.

Robert and the Cow up a Tree – just to give you a sense of the scale of the sculpture

I won’t recount the story of the Cow up a Tree, because you have to go yourself and hear it from John in all its convoluted glory. (If you really need to know you can read about it on John’s website.) It’s the highlight of the tour, but definitely only one part of a whole fascinating set of experiences that goes on and on. 

Besides the art (some of which will make you laugh out loud), stunning views greet you as you follow the trail, and finally Christina’s garden and John’s studio round out the day. The Garden is now part of the West Cork Garden Trail and is open from August 7th (tomorrow) until the 13th.

The Golden Hour at Bantry House

Urns

You know that amazing quality of light just after sunrise and before sunset?  Well, photographers call it the Golden Hour (or Magic Hour), when the light takes on particular hues and becomes softer and more diffuse. There are scientific explanations, of course, but for most of us, we just know it when we see it.

Long Shadow

The low sun produces a golden glow and anything lit by it takes on those same reddish and amber hues. The harsh midday sun, which results in glaring highlights and deep shadows, is replaced by  gentler and longer shadows. Everything looks warmer, more romantic.

Roses

The perfect place to see this in West Cork is Bantry House. Because it faces due west, it is bathed in the low evening light. The construction materials, stone and brick, are warm-toned to begin with, but in the twilight hour they take on a mellow blush that is particularly entrancing. The sunsets over Bantry Bay, needless to say, are spectacular.

Ready for Zorro

Waiting for Zorro

We  had the perfect opportunity to observe this on several occasions. We attended a performance of Zorro on the lawn in August, and we usually take in several of the concerts at the Masters of Tradition Festival each year.

Back of the House

This photograph was taken during an interval at a Masters of Tradition Concert: the Library, at the back of the house, is the concert hall

Bantry House dates from the 18th century. The gardens were laid out in the second half of the 19th century in the formal continental style, with parterres, stepped lawns and avenues of statuary. The Second Earl was a great traveller and came back from his grand tour with ideas and artefacts to make the best use of the elevated site.

Up the steps

Rear Garden and StableIt  was he who added the stable yards with the cupolas, and laid out the gardens, including the hundred steps. All of this was somewhat at variance with the prevailing fashions in garden design at the time, which favoured more naturalistic settings with sweeping lawns dotted with groves of trees. However, it suited the restricted site and its formality has stood the test of time.

Statuesque

Restored Stable BlockA visit to the gardens at Bantry House is a wonderful experience. It’s open from March to October but the gates close at 5, so if you want to experience the Golden Hour, you’ll have to attend an evening event. Fortunately, these are abundant in the summer, as it’s a favourite venue for festivals and concerts.

Palms and HouseDuring the break, stroll about and just, well, bask. 

Trees and Flowers

Canons

And don’t forget to admire the sunset itself.

Sunset over the Bay

Feed the Bugs

Bee in Fuchsia

Our walk in Glengarriff Woods opened my eyes to the challenges facing us in regards to ensuring the continuing biodiversity of Ireland. Loss of habitat, invasion of alien species, climate change, and modern farming practices all combine to present our insect life with increasing difficulty in obtaining what they need to thrive. Perhaps the best-known (although not the best understood) example currently is the enormous die-off of the bee population, known as colony collapse.

Hildegard's Shrub

With this in mind, I have been observing the bees, butterflies and bugs in our neighbourhood, and the role of flowers, both wild and cultivated, in supplying the food and the nectar they need. We have the advantage here that the hedgerows are rich in flowering plants, and that by regulation they must remain uncut until the end of August.

Fly on yellow flower

But this has been a short, cool summer and already the flowers that we saw last year in September have gone, to be replaced with the browning bracken. Our Budleia, for example, also known as the Butterfly Bush, was still attracting butterflies in September last year but this year it’s been flowerless since late August.

A speckled Wood Butterfly and a Hoverfly enjoy some blackberry time

On the upside, we’re enjoying a bumper blackberry crop, and lots of insect seem to love blackberries as much as we do. Because of the way blackberries grow, ripening at different times, some brambles are only flowering now, providing nectar for the bees.

Great Willowherb 2015

This photograph, showing a riotous mixture  of Great Willowherb and Montbretia (Crocosmia) was taken at this time in 2015: this year all these flowers have finished already.

holly close to flowering

This year the holly flowers are abundant – here they are about to bloom. The berries are honeysuckle berries

The fuchsia is still flowering, providing that gorgeous blush along the boreens that we love. One of the advantages of the fuchsia flower is that it is down-facing. This helps to keep it dry and preserve the nectar (see photo at beginning of post).

We have two types of bindweed here: hedge bindweed in the upper photo; a subspecies, the uncommon hedge bindweed ‘roseata’ is lower right ; lower left is sea bindweed, which grows along sandy shores

We might hate bindweed but it is an important flower for the bees. The hedge-bindweed we see around here has pretty pink and white stripes – apparently the white stripes act like a runway, guiding the insects into the heart of the flower.

rose with bee

Wild and cultivated roses are still blooming, here and there. This little guy is appreciative.

Speckled Wood Butterfly on sedum

How many bees?Red admiral at Helen's GardenMy  friend Gill grows sedum (upper two photos) and the bees love it. You can hear the hum from ten feet away. Meanwhile, Helen and William’s garden (lower photo) attracts butterflies by the score. I saw my first Red Admiral there last year.

Small Tortoiseshell on oregano

A Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly enjoys my Oregano, along with the bumbles bees

In my herb garden it seems to be the Oregano that is attractive to both bees and butterflies. It’s just finishing its flowering period now, but I still have to be careful when I pick a bunch, not to pick a bee as well.

Flies and spiders need the flowers too. Hoverflies are an important part of the ecosystem, helping to pollinate and preying on aphids and thrips. They (and the wasps!) seem to prefer my fennel. They also like the little pink Herb Roberts that are still to be seen in the hedgerows.

Honeysuckle

And what about the Honeysuckle? It’s abundant and beautiful, and with a name like that surely it’s a-buzz with bees? No – apparently the flower is too long and the bees can’t reach in far enough to gather the nectar. But the sweet scent, which gets even more intense towards the evening, calls in the moths who take their fill.

Snail on cabbage

Ah, but y’know – you can’t always welcome little critters to your plants. Sometimes, it’s us against them.

Cobweb on Montbretia

And of course, sometimes the plant isn’t so much food, as a means to an end…

Into the Woods

Pools

Glengarriff Woods – serene, beautiful and incredibly diverse

The second (now annual) Ellen Hutchins Festival has just concluded in West Cork. We wrote about this exciting new festival last year in the post Ellen Hutchins: The Short and Remarkable Life of Ireland’s First Female Botanist. This year there were all sorts of events and activities once again but we were able to participate only in one, a guided walk through Glengarriff Woods. Robert and I agree that we learned more about plants in that three hour walk than we had in most of our lives to date!

Teaching 2: Guelder Rose

Padraig pauses in front of the Guelder Rose (see below for more on this species)

Our guide and educator was Dr Padraig Whelan, a former Chief Scientist at the Charles Darwin Research Station on the Galapagos Islands, and now with the School of Bio, Earth and Env Sciences at UCC. Erudite and encyclopaedic in his understanding of individual species and in the interactions between the living organisms in the woods, Padraig’s talk was riveting. Nothing was above our heads, everything was explained in the simplest terms, but we came away with something approaching a profound appreciation for biodiversity. (Padraig is also camera-shy – I am honouring his request not to use full photographs of him.)

Howard Fox

Dr Howard Fox, the lichen expert

Along on the walk also, and contributing on the way, were Dr Howard Fox of the Office of Public Works, who had earlier given a sold-out two day workshop on Lichens, Algae, Fungi & Bryophytes (mosses and liverworts), as well as Clare Heardman, a Conservation Ranger with the National Parks and Wildlife Service, and Madeline Hutchins, great great grandniece and biographer of Ellen.

St Patrick’s Cabbage – there are three varieties of it here

The talk started with an outline of what makes Glengarriff Woods such a special habitat. It’s the rain, of course, combined with a mild climate, that leads to the perfect conditions for a temperate rain forest. We learned that these woods are home to many Lusitanian species that are mysteriously only found here, or on the Iberian Peninsula. One of these is St Patrick’s Cabbage, a member of the Saxifrage family. The attractive flowers had finished, but you can see what they look like here. In Irish they are called Cabáiste an Mhadra Rua, or Fox Cabbage. Nobody yet knows how plants that grow in Spain and Portugal managed to flourish in the south west of Ireland, skipping France and Britain entirely on their traverse, but it’s probable that they arrived after the last ice age.

Strawberry tree

Another Lusitanian tree we encountered was the strawberry tree, which apparently is a member of the heather family, but grows to tree height in our West Cork climate. There was some discussion about the edibility of the fruit – it’s supposed to taste fig-like, but only one person present had tasted it and wasn’t recommending the experience. The examples we saw hadn’t ripened yet – it really does have the hue of a strawberry once fully ripe.

Walkers reflected

Walkers are reflected in the stream that flowed along our route

A second theme of the walk was ‘alien’ species – those non-native plants that have colonised the area as a result of importing activities. In this regard, the Glengarriff Woods are facing a double whammy – the botanic gardens at Garnish, and the arboretum at Ardnagashel, ironically started by the Hutchins family. Padraig pointed us to a young myrtle tree as an example of just such an alien intruder – they belong in Chile and Argentina, not in Ireland.

Myrtle grove

The Myrtle Grove at Ardnagashel

The culprit, of course, is the famous Myrtle Grove at Ardnagashel, which we visited last year and where myrtle trees imported by a Hutchins ancestor flourish. In Glengarriff it was threatening to take over all the available space for trees and measures had to be undertaken to limit them, as they create so much shade that little can grow underneath them. It was painstaking work, but there are now very few growing actively in the Woods and they can be eliminated more easily.

Bog Myrtle

Bog Myrtle

Interestingly, there is a native myrtle – the Bog Myrtle, an aromatic shrub. We passed around crushed leaves to inhale the woodsy scent. According to my favourite wildflower source, Bog Myrtle was used to flavour beer before the advent of hops.

Fuchsia Montbretia and blackberries

Fuchsia and Montbretia (or Crocosmia) flourish in the West Cork Hedgerows, but are actually alien species

Ironically also, the colourful and attractive wayside flowers that we think of as quintessentially West Cork, Fuchsia and Montbretia, are introduced species. Rhododendron was introduced in the 19th century and is considered a terrible threat to native species in Kerry. The same is true for Gunnera (that giant rhubarb disaster that has colonised vast tracts of Connemara), and Griselinia (ubiquitous for hedging). None of them would have been known to Ellen Hutchins. As Clare Heardman pointed out, Ellen recorded over a thousand plants, with no mention of them.

Holly Flowers

Ivy is just on the brink of flowering – we found one open bud after much searching

A third theme was the inter-dependence of species, both floral and faunal. About now, ivy starts to bloom, just as other flowers finish, and the ivy flower becomes an important food source for bees, moths, butterflies and other insects, such as hover flies. Unfortunately, ivy gets a bad rap for its habit of covering and damaging archaeological sites, such as medieval castles and churches and I wouldn’t have been sympathetic to it before our walk. Now I look at it in a whole new light. Pollinators also depend on holly, and the berries can also be a food source for field mice.

Royal Fern

The Royal Fern – an unusual native fern

There are a huge number of native plant species in Glengarriff Wood, and the conservation work that goes on there is of national importance. Padraig pointed out the filmy ferns that grow here and are rarely found in the rest of Ireland. He also showed us the native Royal Fern, which is unusual in that the spores grow not on the underneath of the fronds but on separate stalks.

filmy ferns

Filmy Ferns

Howard introduced us to a macro-lichen that, because the underneath bears a resemblance to lung tissue, was once tried as a cure for breathing ailments. Lichens, of course, are normally microscopically tiny, so an enormous one like this is rare, and exciting to visiting lichen-specialists. Like ivy, I gained a new appreciation for lichens – up to now, my normal emotion in regards to lichen has been frustration, since it functions to obscure rock art and stone carvings.

Large lichens like this one are very unusual, but Glengarriff Woods provide perfect conditions for them

Glengarriff Woods has preserved meadowland as well as woods. Important species use this habitat, such as the hairy wood ant and frog species that may be specifically Irish.

Meadow

The meadow

There was more, much more, but I will mention only one – the Guelder Rose tree. The dense and intensely red berries provide winter food for birds, but the flowers make it an attractive shrub in the early summer. There are some growing wild in the hedgerows just below us here along the Fastnet Trail Rossbrin Loop. I hadn’t been able to identify it until now. Pointing out that it would make a wonderful and ornamental garden plant, Padraig made a plea to us to insist on such native varieties when we develop our own gardens.

Guelder Rose Flower, June

A Guelder Rose tree found near our house in early summer

Throughout the walk, we meandered by the river that runs through these woods. It’s an important factor in the lush growth here, carrying high acidity levels from the bogland above. It’s also beautiful, serene and musical, adding immeasurably to the pleasure afforded by a walk in this woodland national treasure.

Still and Moving stream

Thank you to the Ellen Hutchins team for yet another fascinating botanical adventure!

By the stream

Capturing the View: Belvederes in West Cork

Swift's Tower

The 18th century was a time of profound change in garden design in Britain, and by extension in Ireland. In the opening decades of the 1700s great and small estates included formal gardens laid out in the French and Dutch styles that emphasised symmetry and geometry, parterres and avenues of trees. The gardens at Bantry House are a good example of this garden style. Although developed in the first half of the 19th century, they were perhaps influenced heavily by the gardens at Versailles and great European houses visited by the Earl of Bantry on his Grand Tour.

Bantry House 1

Thanks to Dennis Horgan, aerial photographer extraordinaire, for allowing me to use his shot of Bantry House. Note the formal and geometric layout of the gardens and the parterres immediately behind and to the right of the house

However, for the previous century a different style of landscaping had 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.

base of ruined tower belvedere New Court

Nothing remains but the stub of what was once a belvedere in the shape of a round tower on the edge of the River Ilen, on the old New Court demesne.

Echoes of these designed landscapes can be found here and there in West Cork, even where the big houses themselves have disappeared. Lately I have been on the hunt for belvederes and have found several intriguing examples. A belvedere (bel-beautiful, vedere-to see) was an edifice from which to enjoy a view. It could be as simple as a platform at a high point, or as complex as a multi-storey tower, but its most important attribute was its positioning to command a breathtaking vista.

Killiney Hill belvedere

Killiney Hill, just south of Dublin

Perhaps the best known belvedere in Ireland is the one on top of Killiney Hill in Dublin. It was built in 1742 by the then-owner of the hill, John Mapas, to provide an opportunity to admire one of Ireland’s most iconic prospects. The room on the second floor had a little fireplace, windows, and a door to the exterior viewing deck, which was surrounded by wrought-iron railing. It’s no longer in use as a belvedere and many people think of it as some kind of memorial or folly.

View from Killiney Hill

The view from Killiney Hill

In West Cork, the belvedere at Aughadown (known locally as the gazebo) is of the most simple kind, a viewing platform. It was associated with Aughadown House, a fortified mansion built by the Bechers that I wrote about in Trading Up In Tudor Times: Fortified Houses in West Cork.  

Belvedere, Aughadown

Peter Somerville-Large, in The Coast of West Cork, quoting Daniel Donovan*, says: Donovan described it as “a strong castellated mansion, entered by a drawbridge, surrounded by beautiful grounds and having a gazebo on one of the heights behind”. He continues: This gazebo was approached by a ramp along which the quality used to drive their carriages in order to enjoy the magnificent view out over Roaring Water Bay to the islands and the Fastnet in the distance. I found the ramp running above a field of winter wheat.

Aghadown Belvedere and tower house siting

The view from Becher’s ‘gazebo’ across to Roaringwater Bay

On each side of the Ilen River lie belvederes, in the form of towers. Imagine the ladies of the house and their guests, walking or being driven down to the water’s edge. Servants would have arrived earlier and the tea would be ready and a little fire laid against the breezes. They ascend the internal staircase to the second floor or perhaps to the roof and admire the views of the lazy Ilen River as it wends its way to the sea at Roaringwater Bay.

Creagh House Belvedere

The Creagh House belvedere

The belvedere at Creagh House exists now as a picturesque ruin. Octagonal in design, with pointed gothic windows and a small fireplace inside, it rises to three stories. Some sources describe it as the remains of a mill, and the artificial pond beside it as a mill pond, but it has all the hallmarks of a romantic garden structure.

Across the river at New Court there were once three such ornamental towers. One is gone, the second is a mere stump, but the third still stands to its original height and offers lovely views of the river both to the east and the south.

Belvedere, New Court

One of the three original belvederes that once dotted the New Court Estate

At Castletownshend the local gentry were enthusiastic builders of ‘pleasure architecture’. Castletownsend Castle boast two structures of interest. The first is in the walls, an octagonal tower that is made to look like a defensive feature but in fact is purely decorative. Since there is apparently no entrance, this one may have to count as a folly rather than a belvedere.

Castle Townsend Belvedere turret

Behind the castle is the structure known as Swift’s Tower (see the very first photograph for an idea of its placement). Following the death of his beloved Vanessa in 1723, Dean Swift embarked on a long summer trip to the south west. it was in this tower, tradition has it, that he wrote the Latin poem Carberiae Rupes, which translates as The Crags of Carbery.

Swift's Tower 3

Once again we are indebted to Daniel Donovan’s Sketches in Carbery for an account of the poem and even a translation. Donovan did not have a high opinion of the poem (although he says that Dean Swift himself preferred it above other, better poems) and another critic referred to it as “a set of indifferent verses” describing a “bleak and deadly landscape”.

Carberiae Rupes

What do you think – his finest work?

Perhaps the Dean’s depressed state was to blame, or maybe he should have just stuck to prose. Or perhaps the servants hadn’t lit the fire and provided the tea – the tower certainly looks bleak enough now to bring on a fit of the dismals, in spite of the magnificent view.

Swift's Tower, Belvedere

On Horse Island, just outside of Castlehaven Inlet, there is the base of a round tower that may also have been a belvedere. A visit there would have made a wonderful pleasure outing on a fine day, and the views would be stupendous.

Horse Island, Castlehaven, belvedere

You can just make out the remains of a round wall at the top left of Horse Island

There is a whole set of monuments in West Cork that are labelled as Belvederes in the National Monuments Service Inventory, but as Signal Towers in the records maintained by the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage.  These contradictory interpretations are fascinating and these towers are worth a post on their own. I will save that for another day, but to show you what I mean, take a look at the two towers on Rock Island, near Crookhaven. Belvederes or Signal Towers – what do you think? (If you’re not sure what signal towers are, take a look at this post from Amanda Clarke of Sheep’s Head Places.)

Crookhaven belvederes

Looking across to Rock Island from Crookhaven. Experts differ about the functions of the two towers

But what about nowadays? Do we still worship the view in West Cork? And do we still build belvederes from which to admire that view? The answer to both those questions can be found at Sailor’s Hill, just west of Schull!

Sailor's Hill 1

Sailor’s Hill Belvedere

Sailor’s Hill is a labour of love by Connie Griffin who has worked on the sea and lived in this area all his life. It’s partly a memorial to those lost at sea and partly a place of contemplation to simply sit and soak up the panoramic views that stretch gloriously before you in ever direction.

Sailor's Hill Memorial 2

Schull Harbour in the background

Sadly now a little overgrown and vandalised, it is still an incredible experience to arrive at Connie’s little round tower and see vast stretches of the Cork coast to the south, while the mountains of the Beara and Kerry rise behind you.

Sailor's Hill Views

It’s a testament to the power that landscape and seascape has over us: the power to move us and uplift us; the power to inspire us to try to capture it in paint and in words. We can’t really, but, like Connie, we keep trying.

Connie Griffin and Robert

Connie Griffin and Robert

*Somerville-Large attributes this information to Sketches in Carbery by Daniel Donovan. However, I have not been able to find the quote and wonder if it’s from another book.

Ewe-nique Experience

Pig in tub

Between Glengariff and Kenmare, amid old-growth forest and tumbling streams, lies an enchanted garden. Hewn from rock, trees, and sheer imagination  – this is The Ewe Experience.

Sheena Wood: artist and ecologist

Sheena Wood: artist and ecologist

Kurt Lyndorf, a former war correspondent, and Sheena Wood, an artist, started the project in Goleen and moved it to this challenging spot several years ago. Their aim was twofold – to beguile and to educate and they have accomplished both in the most delightful way.

First and foremost this is a sculpture garden in which Sheena’s quirky sculptures of animals and spirits are discovered around every turn. Sometimes they are obvious, and sometimes only sharp eyes will pick out a hint of something hidden in the undergrowth. Made from discarded clothing, old tyres, fallen branches, even plastic bags, the figures are more than they seem at first glance – they carry the message of conservation and sustainability that is one of the themes of this garden.

Ghosts among the trees

Ghosts among the trees

The pathways lead up and down and meander beside a sparkling stream.

Stream

Along the way there are places to stop and play games (we spent a long time trying to beat each other at Stixs) or read snippets of verse. Information panels encourage us to think about how we interact with the natural world and how we understand it.

Your move!

Your move!

Fox and RavenChildren will love this place as much as adults. The photos you see here are but a tiny fraction of the ones I took on the day we visited last year, just at the end of their season. It’s open again now, and I know Sheena and Kurt spend the winter planning new installations, so you may or may not see exactly what we saw.

Prepare to be captivated!

Careful on the way out!

Careful on the way out!