Sweet Ilen – Part 4

. . . A trip down the river Ilen, as it pursues its winding and picturesque course from Mount Owen (the hill of streams) to the harbour of Baltimore, a distance of about fifteen miles, is the most pleasant and interesting excursion during the summer months. Starting from Skibbereen, we can either steam or row, according to our pleasure, or rather as the tide suits, to Baltimore and Sherkin, a distance of eight or nine miles, and then out the harbour’s mouth, and cruise about the islands of Carbery . . .

Sketches in Carbery – Daniel Donovan 1876

The idea of boarding a ‘steamer’ in Skibbereen and voyaging down the Ilen River to its mouth is an attractive one – but not an option for us as we continue our exploration of this waterway in 2021, a year which has started with a frightening escalation of the Covid pandemic which is forcing us to stay ever closer to home. Fortunately, we are not too far from the broad stretches of the tidal Ilen as it nears its destination and meanders through peaceful, sylvan meadows passing by deserted quays, once active with commerce and vitality, now at rest apart from the occasional fisherman or boat mender.

We are fortunate to have a large archive of our photographs taken in West Cork over many years. I am revisiting (below) my pictures of the river at Creagh taken in 2014. This is on the south side of the Ilen, and certainly out of bounds for us at the moment because of distance. Situated at Creagh is a secluded burial ground, the resting place of Canon James Goodman who was Rector of Abbeystrewry Church, Skibbereen, during the nineteenth century. The three photographs below were taken there. My principal interest in him is the name he made as a collector of traditional music and a player of the uilleann pipes – that most singular of Irish instruments that we have also celebrated elsewhere. When the Canon died in 1896 he asked that his pipes were buried with him at Creagh – and they were. But, not long afterwards, they were dug up again. If you want to know what happened to the pipes and where they are now, read my earlier post about the Canon here.

We can travel to Skibbereen for essential supplies, and the road to that town runs close to the river. Just off the road, down a winding boreen, is another burial ground, Aghadown, beautifully situated beside the water – Finola has written about it here. Here are some views we took a few days ago during a prolonged spell of clear winter sunshine.

. . . The view down the river from near Creagh, on a fine day, is attractive. The Ilen, winding in a serpentine course towards Baltimore harbour, shining and sparkling in the sunlight like a silver thread, and dotted over with a multitude of rocky islets, whose recesses form a safe retreat and favourite feeding ground for flocks of sea fowl during the winter months. Looking backwards, we are chiefly struck by the almost complete absence of wood, and the patchwork of irregular fields, enclosed by earthen banks, and the prominences so much admired by tourists and strangers, most probably on account of the novelty and singularity of the scene . . .

SKETCHES IN CARBERY – DANIEL DONOVAN 1876

The Ilen is a ‘Blueway’ – designated as a recreational activity trail for use by activity enthusiasts – anyone, in fact, who wants to get out and experience some of the best scenery in Ireland on the water itself or, like us, on foot. This would be in normal times, of course. Undoubtedly there are better days ahead. We look forward to an untrammelled future so that we can continue this exploration of a waterway to its source in the mountains ‘. . . where rain clouds perpetually hover about . . .’ and to its outfall towards Carbery’s ‘Hundred islands’. When we can make those expeditions, we will bring you there through the pages of our Journal.

Here’s a bonus today: you can hear an aspect of our recent walk! Donovan mentioned in 1876 that the river was a favourite feeding ground for flocks of sea fowl during the winter months. We can vouch for that, having heard these sounds close to the Glebe burial ground. The loudest voices are – I think – from redshanks:

Previous episodes in this series: Sweet Ilen : Sweet Ilen – Part 2 : Sweet Ilen – Part 3

Mizen Magic 19: Church of the Angels

It’s called Cill Cheangail but that doesn’t make a lot of sense as cill is a small church and ceangail means to tie or fasten. But hereabouts people call it Killhangle (sometimes spelled Kilheangul) and now it’s clear – aingeal (pronounced angle) is the Irish word for angels. This is the Church of the Angels, reckoned to be Late Medieval (maybe fifteenth century) in date. For the exact location of this church, see my post Mizen Magic 17: The Delights of Dunmanus.

I am lucky to have Brian Lalor’s Sketchbook – quick records he made of his visits to  sites during field trips with the Mizen Historical and Archaeological Society in the 1980s. This kind of record is invaluable to show changes over time – the bullaun stone that Brian records in his sketch above can no longer be found.

Parish Churches, that is, churches built specifically to serve the people of the neighbourhood, rather than churches in monasteries to serve monks or friars, are a medieval phenomenon in Ireland. Along with the building of these churches came the practice of burial inside the church (for high-status individuals) or outside it (for the rest of us). Many of these burial grounds are in use up to the present day.

The church itself is in a ruinous state but enough remains to see some of typical attributes of a small parish church of this time, such as the one in the illustration (not by Brian) above. It’s a simple rectangular structure, oriented E-W, with the door in the south wall. Several small aumbreys (cupboards) are built into the south and east wall. There’s a window in the east wall which is missing almost all its dressed stone surround but we can surmise that it may have been ogee-headed.

The other window is in the south wall and this is an interesting one – there’s a flat-headed lintel visible from outside and inside the embrasure is splayed unevenly to admit more morning light, especially in winter.

Most of the interior is filling up now with debris and a large holly tree and only one headstone is examinable. The style of this headstone is echoed in others outside, leading to the conclusion that it was the shape and decoration style favoured by a certain local stone carver. It’s quite a striking and elegant form.

Most of the people buried in Killhangle could not afford a carved headstone. Instead, graves were marked with simple field stones. We are told that in times past old people could pick out the grave of a long-gone relative from a memory still held in the family of the size and shape of such field stones.

Inscribed headstones, for those who could afford them, did not become commonplace until the 18th century. Headstones dating to the 1700s are actually fairly unusual in West Cork so when Brian deciphered one in Killhangle, he recorded it (not an easy task – see how much lichen covers the surface now) and wrote up his findings for the Mizen Journal.

Alas, an eagle-eyed editor thought he had made a mistake in his drawing, by including the word ‘who’ twice and took it upon him/herself to eliminate the first ‘who’. This led to a second article titled ‘James Mullins Who Who” in which Brian restored the missing who and explained that Seventeenth and early eighteenth-century English usage on tombstone inscriptions favoured elaborate and often tortuous abbreviations and word arrangements in order to balance the lines of the inscription.

Poor little James was only 10 when he died on the eve of St Patrick’s Day in 1709. He must have been beloved indeed – a headstone all to himself when most people had none.

Another practise seen in Irish gravestones is the carved footstone. Where the footstone is engraved, it is usually with the initial of the person named on the headstone. In the example above and below, James Noonan first buried his beloved wife Mary. When he was laid to rest, his footstone was added, with his initials, J. N.  You can see the footstone at the bottom of my photograph, and Brian has illustrated it below along with another one with the initials J M.

Killhangle is beautifully located, near the coast and with a rippling brook running through it. It is well looked after and several of the graves have flowers and evidence of recent visits.

It is obvious that local people respect and care for the last resting place of their family members. For them, this church truly is the Church of the Angels.

Thank you, Brian Lalor, for allowing me to use your sketches and pick your brains.

Aughadown – Church on the Ilen

Surely one of the most picturesquely situated in Ireland, the early nineteenth century church at Aughadown on the Ilen is surrounded by a graveyard that tells the story of Irish and local history. Locals, by the way, use the pronunciation Affadown, and for the river, it’s Eye-len.

The church we see now dates from 1814, but there was an even older church on this spot once, of which no trace now remains. The 1814 church was no longer fit for purpose by the 1870s and was replaced in 1872 by the much larger St Matthias church, exactly a mile (1.6km) to the north along what is now the N71.

As the church fell into ruin it gradually accrued the ivy and the general air of dereliction that are the indispensable attributes of the romantic, greatly augmented by its charming siting on the banks of the Ilen river. Oxeye Daisies cover the graves in spring and summer, while Thrift flourishes along the banks. The outlines of the slate-hanging that would have kept the interior dry are still obvious on the outside walls – see the photo above.

Inside, the church looks remarkably small by today’s standards and it’s easy to see how a congregation would have outgrown it over time. There are some unusual design features, such as round-headed arches and windows rather than the more common gothic ogees.

But it’s the graveyard that is the most fascinating part of this site. As the community graveyard of that place, it was used by all – Church of Ireland, Catholic and Dissenter. Plots seem to follow family lines, rather than, as in many West Cork graveyards, separate areas for Catholic and Protestant. As a result, there are some curious juxtapositions.

The graveyard has been surveyed and recorded by a volunteer group coordinated by the Skibbereen Heritage Centre. For a burial place as old and overgrown as this one, with faded or non-existent inscriptions, this was a herculean undertaking! But the good folks at the Skibb Heritage Centre seem to thrive on challenges like this. As they say themselves – they ‘get’ graveyards.

From their own website, here is an account of one of those ‘curious juxtapositions’:

Among those buried at Aughadown is Patrick McCarthy of the 5th Cork Brigade of the IRA. He took part in the Kilmichael Ambush in 1920 and was shot during the Siege of Skibbereen in 1922, aged 22. It was said that a lit cigarette revealed his location to his assassin. A plaque now marks the spot where he was killed on the Windmill Rock in Skibbereen.

Very close to the Patrick McCarthy grave is the tomb is of the Bechers of Aughadown, once major landlords in the area. Buried in this plot is Colonel Thomas Becher who died in 1708 and served as aide-de-camp to King William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690

The Bechers were responsible for the fortified manor house at Aughadown that I reported on in Moving Up in Tudor Times. Descended from Fane Becher, one of the founders of Bandon, they intermarried with all the local families and the name Becher is familiar in other graveyards too – Castletownshend for example.

A detail from a memorial window in St Peter’s Church in Bandon

Here’s a lovely old headstone with a depiction of an angel playing a trumpet, although I can’t make out the inscription

Lionel Fleming is buried here – a man infamous for his conduct during the Famine, but so too is Dr Stephen Sweetnam, a dispensary doctor responsible for saving many lives during that terrible time.

The Tonson tomb in the foreground

The oldest recorded burial (although probably not the earliest) is that of Henry Tonson, about whom I wrote in my post New Court Bridge – a Hidden Wonder. It dates from 1703 and appears to be on slate, with an incised inscription that reads Here Lyes the body of Captn Henry Tonson who departed this life November the twenty fifth and in the thirtyeth seventh year of his age 1703.

A wander around this old church on a sunny day is rewarding. You’ll find yourself marvelling at the wildflower meadow while simultaneously seeking out old headstones and wondering about the lives of those buried here. Perhaps you might even arrive by boat, or kayak, as just outside the gate is a stopping place for the newly developed Ilen River Blueway.

However you arrive, you will leave – and I guarantee this – in a better mood.

 

Seán Keating – Escaping the Storm

Storm Ciara was upon us as we headed over to the east coast – a mere few hops from Nead an Iolair. But it wasn’t all black clouds and thunder and lightning: winter storms here in Ireland feature high winds and spectacles such as this rainbow (above) which seemed to hang in the sky over County Wicklow for hours. When the rain comes, we often find refuge in a church – especially if it helps Finola’s quest for new stained glass windows. Sometimes they seem to reflect the weather patterns:

This panel, which could be seen as an indoor rainbow, is in an impressively large church in Ballyroan, Rathfarnham Parish, County Dublin: it was built in 1967 to seat a thousand. What caught my eyes was not the array of windows by Murphy Devitt (Finola has written extensively about this creative partnership), but two murals high on the walls of the crossing. I was delighted to find that these were painted by one of Ireland’s great artists working through the turbulent twentieth century – Seán Keating.

Seán Keating’s ‘Baptism of Christ’ mural in the Church of the Holy Spirit, Ballyroan

I am always surprised to find that Keating is under-appreciated: yes, he gets mentioned in books of art history, and is reasonably well represented in the state’s galleries. Yet you will also find terms such as ‘not great art’ applied to his work by critics and commentators. This is possibly because he is best known for his documentary work and, particularly, for his raw representations of the tempestuous years of Ireland’s struggle to gain independence. Here is ‘Men of the South’, dating from 1921 when there was a ceasefire in the Irish War of Independence while the Anglo-Irish Treaty was being negotiated and out of which the Irish Free State was born.

Top: Men of the South – Seán Keating’s documentary portrayal of the North Cork Brigade of the Irish Republican Army. Below the painting is one of the photographs taken in Keating’s Dublin studio in preparation for the work. Two versions of this painting were made by the artist: the one above is in the Crawford Gallery, Cork City, while the other (which depicts eight men) is now in Áras an Uachtaráin, the official residence of the President of Ireland.

After the War of Independence and the abhorrent Civil War which followed it, Keating’s work concentrated on documenting the founding and burgeoning of the new State. Scenes of conflict were replaced by works showing industrial development, such as Ireland’s largest ever civil engineering contract: harnessing the power potential of the State’s major waterway, the River Shannon. The construction of a dam and hydro-electric generating station at Ardnacrusha, County Clare, together with a country-wide electric distribution infrastructure, was a symbol of major importance to the nation’s fledgling government. Keating began recording the work in 1926, soon after inception. No-one had commissioned him – he saw the significance of making dramatic documentary work of this nature, but his vision was eventually recognised by the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) – which now owns the largest collection of Keating’s paintings in Ireland. Above is one of the artist’s working sketches of the dam under construction.

Seán Keating painting en plein air at Ardnacrusha, 1920s

Keating studied under William Orpen in Dublin. He was to become one of Orpen’s important pupils (and, latterly, his assistant) and his documentary painting style owes a debt to his teacher. One of his famous early paintings is Thinking Out Gobnet (below), a portrait of his good friend Harry Clarke, dating from 1917. Keating and Clarke frequently visited the Aran Islands together. The painting shows Clarke sitting on a grave slab within the ruins of Teampall Chaomháin (St Kevin’s church) on Inis Oírr, along with a holy water font at his feet, and a holy well to the bottom right of the image. The suggestion is that Clarke is finding inspiration for his series of eleven windows for the Honan Chapel, Cork, which include a fine representation of St Gobnet. The ‘healing’ symbolism of the holy water and well are deliberate references to Clarke’s TB, the illness which ended his life at the age of 41.

Seán Keating was always a committed Catholic, and we have seen many examples of his artwork in churches, including the murals at Ballyroan. Most striking, perhaps, are the Stations of the Cross which he painted for St John’s Church, Tralee – the church which features in Finola’s wonderful Irish Arts Review article (and RWJ blog post) about Ireland’s Newest Stained Glass Window.

Stations of the Cross by Seán Keating in St John’s Church, Tralee, County Kerry

Back to Ballyroan: while we were sheltering from the tempest and admiring the church architecture, and the murals, I was delighted to find out that Seán Keating had lived for much of his life just down the road, in Ballyboden, in a house which he had designed himself. He attended mass regularly at Ballyroan until his death in December 1977, aged 88.

Keating’s mural The Descent of the Holy Spirit in his own church of Ballyroan, Parish of Rathfarnham, installed in 1967

We discovered that Keating is buried in the nearby Cruagh Cemetery, so we had to head out into the storm again to find his grave. It is as unassuming as he apparently was in life: a visitor would not be aware that herein lies one of modern Ireland’s greats.

Cruagh Cemetery, Co Dublin (top) is the resting place of Seán Keating. His grave is shared with his wife, May, and son Michael

Our little artist’s memoir is almost over. The gale continued with ferocious lashing rain: cold and hungry we made a beeline for the local pub – the Merry Ploughboy, evidently a famous music venue. It was warm and welcoming, and full of a crowd watching Six Nations Rugby on the big screen (Ireland won the match).

In the lounge we were intrigued to find an oblique reference to Seán Keating – a painting which has a nod to his style but is by a different artist!

We agreed that our day trip to the east, in the teeth of the gale, was a memorable way to discover the life, work and death of one of Ireland’s significant artists.

The Enigmatic Bullaun

Bullaun Stones abound in Ireland. They are usually found nowadays at sites with ecclesiastical connections, as in the example above at Maulinward, an ancient West Cork burial ground. This association does not reduce or affect their traditional uses – according to folk convention – to cure or to curse. The Irish word Bullán means ‘bowl’ – a water container. At pilgrimage sites, such as St Gobnait‘s, Ballyvourney (below), the bullaun stones often hold quartz fragments or smooth, rounded pebbles – perhaps incised with a cross – which are turned around each time a pattern or procession is completed.

The Maulinward example on the header picture shows how the tradition of making offerings at some of these locations continues to this day. At other sites, such as the one below, the hollowed-out stone filled with rainwater takes on the properties of a holy well, and is visited for cures or simply good fortune.

This example, outside the door of the church at Cill Lachtáin, Co Cork seems to have been mounted to perform as a holy water stoup: the plaque reads ” . . . This blessed font of Cill Lachtáin was standing in Cloch Aidhneach from 600AD to 1600AD . . . “ Others resemble fonts and are similarly associated with places of worship. Look at this striking stone from Timoleague Friary, whose purpose – according to tradition – is clearly stated:

In the sixth century, the Council of Tours ordered its ministers ” . . . to expel from the Church all those whom they may see performing before certain stones things which have no relation with the ceremonies of the Church . . . ”  Such an order doesn’t seem to have prevented folk customs of curing continuing into the twenty-first century.

The ongoing use of bullauns as fonts, stoops or holy wells does not explain their original purpose (which is probably pre-Christian: here’s an interesting conjectural world view of the phemomenon), and it’s quite likely that we will never fathom for sure what they were for. The example above, at Kilmalkedar, Co Kerry is as enigmatic as they will get, with its multiple ‘basins’ carved into a large earth-fast boulder isolated in the middle of a field, although not far from a remarkably complex ecclesiastical site. But the one I find the most fascinating can be found along the Priest’s Leap road, a mere few steps away from our own home in West Cork . . .

This rock outcrop – known locally as The Rolls of Butter – is large (I’m there to give it scale!) with seven scooped-out bullaun like basins and a somewhat phallic central upright stone. The basins each contain a large, smoothed pebble. Some folk traditions in Ireland identify such pebbles as ‘cursing stones’: “. . . if you wanted to put a curse on someone, you turned the stones anti-clockwise in the morning . . . ” However, the curse had to be ‘just’ otherwise it came back to curse you in the evening! The illustration below – of ‘cursing stones’ at Killinagh, Co Cavan was made by antiquarian W F Wakeman in 1875. He also noted the similar local folk traditions of these examples.

Many bullaun stones or stone groups around Ireland have been included in the National Monuments records, and number in the hundreds. Functional, magical, sinister? Who knows . . . Your guess is as good as anyone else’s. But one thing is certain – they are intriguing and mysterious. Keep a look out for them – as we do – in your travels around this land.

Note: this is a re-run of a post I published five years ago – but it’s been augmented, updated and – hopefully – improved!

The Boa Island Figures – Mysterious Carvings From Our Pagan Past

We’ve been thinking lots lately about Northern Ireland and how much we enjoyed our time there. One of our truly memorable experiences was a trip to Boa Island in Fermanagh to see the mysterious carved figures in the Caldragh graveyard.

Despite the fact that this is one of Northern Ireland’s most important archaeological sites, we had the place to ourselves when we were there, in October 2016. In fact, it looked like any peaceful rural graveyard, with higgledy piggledy gravestones behind a hand-forged iron gate, lush grass, and an air of benign neglect.

But there’s one big difference – in this remote place are two of the most enigmatic carved figures on the Island of Ireland. The first one has two faces – it’s been called a Janus figure, or simply bilateral, carved in a style that is reminiscent of Early Medieval carvings, but also different. Different enough so that one can see these as pre-Christian figures, and that is how they are most often interpreted.

Boa Island itself may be named for the Goddess Badhbh (pronounced Bov), a potent character in Irish mythology. The figures do not bring saints or clerics to mind – there are no croziers, no fingers raised in blessing, no tonsures or crosses. We’ll look at the bilateral figure first. It has two faces, back to back, with a groove in between. The groove collects water and in recent years people have started to leave coins in the puddle formed by the groove, perhaps echoing its original purpose. The heads are joined at the side by herringbone or plaited lines that may represent hair.

One side has been interpreted as male and some point to a stylised penis that rests between the legs. Although I have seen photographs of this side when it had been recently cleaned, where a carved element is denoted as the penis, it is not in any way obvious now that the statue is once again covered in lichen and badly weathered, with moss growing in this area. The face is long and triangular, the mouth open and the eyes wide and staring. Two arms cross across the body, over a belt which runs around both figures.

On the other side the mouth is open and a tongue protrudes. Apart from that, the figures are almost identical. The statue is broken just below the belt on this side, so it is impossible to say that there are any female, or indeed male attributes present.

The carving has been mounted on a plain base but leaning against it is what might be the original base, or part of it. If it is, then the arms extended down into hands, resting on either side of the base.

There is a second figure, brought here from nearby Lusty More Island. This one is much more worn, or perhaps not even totally finished, but it’s possible to see that it bears a strong resemblance to the others in its triangular face. The arms are not crossed but appear to be holding something. Visitors leave coins in front of this one.

What does it all mean? In short, we don’t know, but current consensus appears to fall in the area of calling these figures representations of pagan deities. The smaller figure, rather than holding something, may be female and pointing to her genitals. This would place it in the tradition of the sheela-na-gigs, although presumably much earlier than the majority of sheelas, which are thought to be medieval.

Whatever they are, they have inspired poets and artists – even filmmakers. One of our favourite films, the marvellous Song of the Sea, has taken much of its artistic design from prehistoric Irish art, including the Boa Island figures. Watch this teaser for the movie and see if you can spot the Boa Island figure at 46 seconds.

And the poetry? Seamus Heaney, of course, himself from Northern Ireland, drew inspiration from the landscape around him and often wrote about archaeological themes. His poem, January God, captures the mysterious sense of the two-faced God and makes a shift to summon the idea of Cernunnus, the antler-headed pagan god of wild things depicted on the Gundestrup Cauldon.

Then I found a two-faced stone

On burial ground,

God-eyed, sex-mouthed, its brain

A watery wound.

In the wet gap of the year,

Daubed with fresh lake mud,

I faltered near his power –

January god

Who broke the water, the hymen

With his great antlers

There reigned upon each ghost tine

His familiars,

The mothering earth, the stones

Taken by each wave,

The fleshly aftergrass, the bones

Subsoil in each grave.