A Sign Post

It’s been a while since I put up a post about ‘signs’ – I’m an avid collector of Irish ones. They have been a regular feature of Roaringwater Journal, but the last was 18 months ago (see it here). Wherever I go, I’m on the lookout: sometimes it’s just the little things that catch the eye – perhaps a spelling mistake – often it’s the sheer exuberance, like the one above guiding you around a corner at Ring.

Very often there is intentional humour; occasionally there’s a poignancy – especially when the sign is faded and you know it has long lost its purpose. But there can also be a sense of history. Here’s one from Ballydehob earlier this year – My Beautiful Launderette, which provided us with clean bedding for a decade (and paint, all manner of screws, hammers and nails), finally closed on the retirement of Kathleen and John: we can only wish them well. The iconic shopfront has just this week been painted over. An institution, now, which is only a good memory.

Most of the following signs speak for themselves. We will be familiar, of course, with the directives called for by the Covid19 pandemic. Here’s a variation, followed by a reminder of hopeful days back in the summer of 2020, and a message.

Most of the signs here come from West Cork; you’ll find others in past posts from all over Ireland. Official directives here have to be in Irish and English, except in Gaeltacht areas (where Irish is the first language). There, things can be quite disconcerting at times.

Even though I have taken some rudimentary lessons in the language, this one (above, in Ballyvourney) had me puzzled. But it’s simply telling you to be careful to lock your car.

I suppose if you missed either of the above signs, it might just be too late! If only you had noticed…

It means ‘Song (or Music) of the Sea’. I couldn’t resist recording this romantic house name, and wonder what view the occupants have? There is no shortage of information on Ireland’s wonderful history – an example below.

I can’t help wondering – why?

That’s not you that’s gone askew – it’s Mary’s kiosk on a bit of a slope! I’m always attracted by Guinness posters (there are plenty of old ones surviving here) – I learned to read from them in my younger days (below).

That’s quite enough for one day. Keep a lookout for yourself – and alert me to any good ones you encounter in your own travels!

Gladys Leach’s Cork

Gladys Leach was a beloved Cork artist who specialised in line drawings of gracious historic buildings. Her work once lined the walls of City Hall (it might still). In 1974 a limited edition book of her Cork drawings was produced, bound in blue. Called The Scenery and Character of Cork, it sold out in 16 days.

Sean Feehan re-published the book in 1978, bound in red to distinguish it from the 1974 edition. The drawings are accompanied by text by him and each description is full of fascinating snippets about specific buildings. I am not sure how many copies he published, but it too sold out quickly and nowadays the only way to find a copy of the first or second edition is through an antiquarian bookseller, such as our friends at Inanna Rare Books.

Christ the King – one of our favourite churches – see Robert’s post about this modernist masterpiece here

I have one! It was part of a box of treasures which has been languishing in my sister’s attic with my name on it for several years. It belonged to my parents – both of them lived in and loved Cork for several years, and a vague memory hints that it may have been a present from me.

During my master’s program at UCC I lived in a flat in St Lukes and my route took me past this church, built, according to Feehan’s notes, in 1889

Gladys Leach Hyde died in 2014, aged 97 – Peter Murray, then Director of the Crawford Art Gallery, in an admiring obituary in the Examiner, spoke of her “undeniable artistic talent.” He described a “quiet and undemonstrative” person whose work evoked a gracious past. Her framed sketches and card collections became, over time, hot collector’s items. People were enchanted by how she had captured their place and time as much as they were by her clever perspectives and her eye for line and detail.

That’s how I feel – enchanted, because this is my Cork. I lived there from 1966 to 1973 and it is exactly how I remember it. So this book is very special to me as a reminder of those golden student days at UCC (above).

We were all in love with Roger Moore. weren’t we? Here’s the trailer for that film. This is just before the cinema closed, to be reborn as a shopping arcade, having been operating since the 1930s, with an organist and ‘uniformed male attendants’

But these drawings are important historical and social documents too. Although most of the buildings Gladys was drawing are still standing, fifty years later it is not always possible to get the kind of view of them that she had access to, due to the build-up of the surrounding area. Some have disappeared, or are no longer recognisable. The same is true for Brian Lalor’s Cork – the subject of a previous post – and it’s interesting to compare the very different styles of two artists, who were contemporaries.

The Lee Maltings – Brian Lalor drew them too. In my day we played racquetball there. In his accompanying text Feehan wrote:

The Lee Malt House was built over a century ago. . . The old Malthouse was taken over by [UCC} and but for their foresight the days of this fine building would have been numbered. They went to great lengths to preserve it in its original state while at the same time making optimum use of its facilities through conversion to lecture halls, science laboratories, etc. Inside the building there is a little theatre known simply as The Maltings which has acquired a reputation for quality production over a short period. The work of the university authorities makes this building a perfect example of functional conversion.

You’ll be glad to know the theatre is still going strong!

Dominating the skyline north of the river, St Vincents was a powerful ecclesiastical centre in its day, with strong links to the Murphy family of Irish Distillers. More about it here.

If you would like your own Gladys Leach, her family still have prints available and you can contact them through the Gladys Leach Facebook Page. How fabulous a Christmas present that would make! 

South Mall – still recognisable as a fascinating mix of the old and new

This is just a tiny selection of what’s inside this book. Gladys Leach deserves to be remembered and celebrated – and the 50th anniversary is approaching. How about it, Cork!

Castlehaven – The Haven

The word ‘haven’ is said to have a Norse origin: hǫfn. This translates simply as ‘harbour’. Does this mean that the Vikings visited West Cork and gave Castlehaven its name? Dictionary definitions include ‘a safe haven in times of trouble’ – refuge, retreat, shelter, sanctuary, asylum . . . The word conjures up something a little magical, and our exploration last week of the secretive valley that leads inland from Castlehaven – at the southern end of a significant West Cork cove – was certainly an enchanting experience. We traversed it on the greenest of days at the arrival of spring:

The header is a nineteenth century engraving, and shows a possibly idealised view looking across The Haven, towards the open waters of the Atlantic. In the foreground is the castle of Raheen, or Rathin. Castlehaven itself is at the far end, and the old tower house there – now all but vanished into the lush undergrowth – was strategically important, particularly during the Nine Years’ War between Gaelic Irish lords and the English. Spain also took an opportunistic interest in intervening in matters between Ireland and England. There are many accounts of the skirmish that occurred here on 6 December 1601, all of them varying to such a degree that we can have no real idea, even, of who was victorious! I like this version, penned by a contributor to the Duchas Schools Folklore Collection. It’s part of an extensive essay about the history of the area, which we will revisit in due course:

. . . Beside the Cemetery at Castlehaven stood, about ten years ago, the ruins of Castlehaven Castle, described by Don O’Sullivan in connection with the war of O’Neill & O’Donnell. “Porto Castello”, as it is called by O’Sullivan, played a very important part in connection with the Battle of Kinsale. Both O’Sullivan & Carew give accounts of a battle fought in the harbour, and while the former claims that Admiral Levison and his ships were driven off with loss of some vessels at the harbour’s mouth, Carew claims victory for the British fleet. Local tradition says that inside Reen Point, on the eastern side of the harbour lies a Spanish Vessel laden with gold, but that misfortune is sure to follow anyone who seeks the treasure. Castlehaven Castle was fortified by a combined garrison of Spanish and Irish and withstood the assault of Admiral Levison of the British fleet. The ruins of this castle were in a fair state of preservation about fifteen years ago, but the lower portion of the wall showed signs of weakness, and the great pity was, that nothing was done to prevent the collapse of the entire ruin a few years later. It is ‘said’ that stones had been removed for road metalling many years ago and this vandalism could certainly bring about the unfortunate collapse which only left only a confused pile of stones . . .


Seán Ó Donnabháin – Teacher, Baile an Chaisleáin School, Castletownshend 1936
Upper – a view of the now-vanished tower of Glenbarrahane Castle at the entrance to the Haven by Cork antiquarian John Windele, 1801 – 1865 (courtesy National Library of Ireland) and lower – the vestigial stone walls that remain today beside the grey sands of Castlehaven

Among our inherited collection of West Cork books in the library at Nead an Iolair is this volume by Gifford Lewis, published in 1985 by Penguin Viking. Ostensibly relating to the writings of Somerville and Ross, it is illustrated with a well-researched collection of old photographs which include some of the castle at The Haven still standing.

This photograph (above) is particularly valuable. It is also from the Gifford Lewis book and is captioned as follows:

. . . A very early plate by Sir Joscelyn Coghill (c. 1865) showing the old Castlehaven church and above it the Castle in which the Reverend Robert Morrit lived, and before him the Reverend Thomas Somerville. The Tithe War had its effect. Eventually, the Tithe Commission Act of 1838 moved the burden of supporting the Protestant clergy from the peasants to the landowners. The Catholic/Protestant confrontation in Ireland came with the influx of Elizabethan English, the first after the Reformation of the English Church. Those who came to Ireland as Protestants were much less likely to be assimilated than those who came before the Reformation, like the Martins. The ousting of the topmost layer of native Catholic society by a new Protestant one is audible in the list of Rectors of Castlehaven church from 1403 to 1640: O’Driscoll, O’Callaghan, O’Driscoll, Cormac/Basse, Pratt, Stukely . . .

Gifford lewis, Somerville and Ross – The World of the Irish R.M. 1985

The aerial view shows the inlet of Castle Haven guarded by its O’Driscoll castle at the southern end. In the upper reaches of The Haven is a further castle, properly known as Raheen (or Rathin), sited above the natural spit of The League: the juxtaposition of castle and land-spit was probably deliberate, to create a defensive barrier against any invaders infiltrating the upper waters of The Haven. The mid-19th century 6″ Cassini OS map (above) shows the location in detail. James N Healy (The Castles of County Cork, Mercier Press, 1988) well describes its situation: “. . . It is a remarkable sight, tall and dignified in its quiet isolation . . .” and attributes it to the O’Donovan family, associated with Castle Donovan on the Ilen River – which we visited recently. Raheen was attacked from the water by Cromwell’s army in 1649 and remarkably survives in that breached condition today.

The coloured postcard above is based on a view probably taken around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The viewpoint is identical with that in the header engraving, and The League can be clearly seen in both representations. Because the whole inlet is known as Castlehaven, we have to be careful when reading references or captions, as the two castles – which I always endeavour to refer to by their original names (Glenbarrahane and Rathin) are often both known as Castlehaven Castle. And, of course, we also have the castle at Castletownshend itself to further confuse the issue, although the structure there now is relatively late (the present building dates mainly from the 19th century, although an earlier Bryans Fort on the same site was probably 17th century).

Here is a very fine painted view of Rathin Castle by contemporary West Cork artist Donagh Carey (thank you, Donagh!) You can find his works here: we are pleased to have some of them hanging at Nead at Iolair. I can’t resist including this photograph taken in the 1930s (below) – from the Adrian Healy postcard collection – showing Rathin, with the added bonus of a 1936 Ford 10 in the foreground!

This view (above) is an enigma. It is referred to as ‘Castlehaven Castle’ and is a pen-and-watercolour drawing by Charles Vallancey (1721 – 1812). If the written caption is ‘Castlehaven Mouth’, then it must be Glenbarrahane (although the foreground topography should surely have shown the old church and graveyard?); if it is fact ‘Castlehaven North’, then it would more likely be Rathin – and it is certainly visually closer to this castle. However, then the mouth of the Haven is not in the right place at all. Vallancey was a British military surveyor who had been sent to Ireland in the mid 18th century: he became fascinated with the country and its topography and settled here as a self-styled historian and antiquarian. An extract of his work follows, from a report on West Cork:

. . . There was only one road between Cork and Bantry; you may now proceed by eight carriage roads beside several horse tracks branching off from these great roads; from Bantry the country is mountainous and from the high road has the appearance of being barren and very thinly populated; yet the valleys abound with corn and potatoes and the mountains are covered with black cattle. In 1760, twenty years ago it was so thinly inhabited an army of 10,000 men could not possible have found subsistence between Bantry and Bandon. The face of the country now wears a different aspect: the sides of the hill are under the plough, the verges of the bogs are reclaimed and the southern coast from Skibbereen to Bandon is one continued garden of grain and potatoes except the barren pinnacles of some hills and the boggy hollows between which are preserved for fuel . . .

Charles vallancey – A Report on West Cork, 1778, British Library

Vallancey was noted for obtaining the Great Book of Lecan (Leabhar Mór Leacáin), a medieval manuscript written between 1397 and 1418 in Castle Forbes, Lecan, Co Sligo. He passed it on to the Royal Irish Academy, where it resides today. Sadly, his work apparently only garnered the poorest of appraisals – as an example, here is the 19th century Quarterly Review:

. . . General Vallancey, though a man of learning, wrote more nonsense than any man of his time, and has unfortunately been the occasion of much more than he wrote . . .

The Quarterly review, London, John Murray

In my Extreme Green post I promised a ‘salacious scandal’ associated with Castlehaven. Alas – we have this week run out of time and space . . . Keep watching!

Ireland 50 Years Ago: April 1971, JM Synge Issue

Back to Ireland of the Welcomes and this time to the March-April issue of 1971. This was a special issue, largely devoted to John Millington Synge, born April 16th, 1871, which means that next Friday is the 150th anniversary of his birth. These two photographs from this issue show Synge and the beautiful Abbey actor to whom he was engaged, Molly Allgood. Alas, JM died far too young, at 38, and Molly went on to lead a longer but unhappy life.

There’s a special connection to West Cork too – Synge’s mother, Catherine but known as Kathleen, was the daughter of the Rev Robert Trail, Rector of Schull. She is shown above with her children – JM is bottom right. I have written about the various roles her father played in this area.  During the Tithe Wars he railed against all protests, declaring that he “waged war against Popery and its thousand forms of wickedness”. He saw an outbreak of cholera after a huge rally as God’s vengeance on this who would deprive him of his income. He tried his hand at mining and established a considerable workings at Dhurode, the remains of which can still be seen – see Two Mines are Better Than One. It was doing well when interrupted by the Famine.  Finally, during the Famine, his better nature won out and he worked tirelessly to alleviate distress. He died of famine fever in Black ’47, universally mourned and honoured for his efforts to inform the public about the dire situation and to feed the starving people all around him. That’s Traill below in one of James Mahony’s sketches for the Illustrated London News – he had led Mahony to Mullins hut so he could witness and capture first hand the desolation, disease and despair.

That was in 1847 and Kathleen would have been 11. There is a contemporary account of how hard the whole Traill family were working to fill the soup pots, how difficult was the ceaseless onslaught of begging, how dangerous the fever-filled air. Her mother fled Schull as soon as she could after Robert’s death – she was later sent a bill for damage to the rectory caused by building a soup kitchen! Kathleen married a barrister, John Hatch Synge, and Edmund John Millington was their youngest child. Kathleen found solace from the trauma of her early experiences in her father’s stern fundamentalist faith – a faith that never wavered although it brought her into conflict with JM. Interestingly, that conflict did not destroy their mutual love for each other, and Kathleen (although looking stern in the photograph below) has been described as kind and generous.

JM grew up to be one of Ireland’s foremost dramatists and the writer of a unique and inventive form of English that set out to capture the idiom and cadence of Irish. And here’s where our second West Cork connection comes in – his Irish teacher in Trinity was none other than our own Canon Goodman (below), who spent half of each year in his parish of Abbeystrewry in Skibbereen and the other half in Dublin teaching Irish. He had no more committed or enthusiastic student than JM. 

For an excellent summary of the life and work of JM Synge I recommend you to the essay by Declan Kiberd in the newly-available-online Dictionary of Irish Biography. In this issue of Ireland of the Welcomes the major essay on Synge is by the distinguished Canadian Academic Ann Saddlemyer. Saddlemyer is now 90, an elected member of the Royal Irish Academy and a long-recognised expert on Synge, WB Yeats and the history of Irish theatre.

Another charming piece is by JM’s great-nephew, Lanto Synge, a fine arts and antique consultant, recently retired. His essay tells the stories that have come down through the family, including the great religious divide. He paints a portrait of a shy, nervous, intensely musical and engaging man, travelling and studying wherever he went, philosophically attuned to modern thought while immersed in an appreciation of an ancient language and way of life.   

The issue contains several extracts from Synge’s plays, poetry and prose, each one illustrated by photographs or drawings.* One thing I hadn’t realised  is that Synge was an early photographer. Although some of his photos are are reproduced in this article (two examples below), you can see better images at Ricorso. They show he had an ethnographer’s eye and an interest in the everyday lived experience of his subjects, such as the man threshing by hand and the two women spinning.

One of his great friends was Jack B Yeats and they worked collaboratively on several projects. Yeats illustrated his book on the Aran Islands (downloadable from archive.org – a site that is surely the greatest boon to researchers like us!). The two pictures below are from that source rather than the article. Synge and Yeats were of one mind, it seems, in what they chose to focus on.

But Jack B Yeats did more than illustrate The Aran Islands – he produced drawings for Synge’s three-act masterpiece, The Playboy of the Western World. This appears to have been an iterative process. We see a letter from Yeats to Synge, advising on the outfit a jockey might wear in the West of Ireland.

The finished illustrations are wonderful – this subject gave Yeats great scope to indulge his love of horses and horse racing.

Two of the horse racing sequences occupy the centrefold of the issue. It is obvious that both Synge and Yeats are intimately familiar with, and relish, this kind of occasion in the West of Ireland.

This issue of Ireland of the Welcomes does contain a couple of other articles, but I will leave it there, since the bulk of it is devoted to Synge and it is good to focus on and celebrate him on such an auspicious anniversary.

*Although individuals (some no longer alive)  are thanked for illustrations in the issue, it is unclear after all this time whether there are any copyright issues and so I have reproduced illustrations from the magazine, and from my downloaded copy of The Aran Islands, with gratitude to those who provided them. I will remove these images, or seek permission to retain them, if I am alerted to any infringements of copyright.

Stained Glass Detectives – and a Find!

This is the story of what it takes sometimes to ferret out information about stained glass windows – often unsigned and undated and installed too far back for community memory to help. In this case, the window turned out to be a significant addition to the list of important Irish windows. Although it was I who first saw and photographed the windows in 2017, the detective work was largely done by my friend and colleague David Caron. David is the editor of the soon-to-be-published second edition of The Gazetteer of Irish Stained Glass and the most knowledgeable stained glass scholar on this island. My own contribution to the Gazetteer focusses on the work of George Walsh, but I am in the habit of photographing stained glass wherever I go, and I often send interesting windows to David or to other colleagues. In 2019, going though my photos, I came across two images that piqued my curiosity and decided to send them to David.

St Colman’s Catholic Church in Macroom (above, photo courtesy of the Buildings of Ireland) is a fine example of Gothic Revival architecture. The original church was built in 1826 – a significant achievement in the period before Catholic Emancipation and especially considering the poverty of the majority of the Catholic population at the time – and remodelled and extended in the 1890s. It has several stained glass windows inside – an Earley, some Harry Clarke Studios from the period after Harry died (such as the one below), and others that are unsigned and possibly imported. A fairly standard assemblage for a church of this period.

What caught my attention, however, were two panels in the entry porch. Rather than being fitted into true windows, the two pieces are installed in back-lit cabinets. The backlighting wasn’t quite bright enough so the windows did not show to full advantage and it was hard to make out any detail. Nevertheless, they were arresting in their modernity and in how different they were to the other windows inside the church. The first, to the left of the door, is an image of St Colman of Cloyne, patron saint of the diocese and of the church itself. He is depicted with a harp, dressed in long robes and with large bare feet. The harp is a reference to his status as a noted bard or poet – medieval bards recited their compositions to the accompaniment of the harp. The figure is surrounded by glass panes of varying shapes mostly in shades of green, and an aura radiates around his head.

The glass to the right of the door is a depiction of the madonna and child. Mary wears a wimple with a fez-like top and a long robe in olive green. She is seated and in her lap is the Christ child with one hand raised in blessing. He wears a crown and a white robe. Their faces are similar with a small mouth, long noise and heavy eyebrows (see lead image). Mary’s large foot rests on a crescent moon and her head and Jesus’ are surrounded  by an aura. Like Colman, the figures are set within irregularly shaped pieces of coloured glass in shades of green.

David decided to track down the mystery of who had made these windows and finally managed to get in touch with Fr O’Donnell, a retired Parish Priest who was very helpful indeed. He remembered that the windows had been made by a “Swedish woman from Skibbereen”. I got on the case and through a series of inquiries found Carin MacCana, who no longer does stained glass but still lives in West Cork. Below is an example of her previous stained glass work from the Skibbereen Heritage Centre, based around the sea creatures of Lough Hyne.

Carin confirmed that she had indeed done one of the windows. Wait, what? One of the windows? Yes, in fact she had been asked to match her window, St Colman, as closely as possible to the existing Madonna and Child window but she did not know who had done that one. Meanwhile, the enterprising Fr O’Donnell (now 90) was making good on his resolve to improve the backlighting. In the course of this, the signature ‘K’ was noticed on the back of the Marian panel. Fr O’Donnell recalled that the Madonna and Child had been presented by the artist Thomas Ryan, PRHA, in memory of a friend of his, a local doctor. Armed with this information, David went back to Carin who then remembered that she had been told the name of the artist was Richard King.

 Richard King in his studio, courtesy of the Capuchin Archives. The 1975 volume has extensive images and moving obituaries for King, beginning on page 169: he was the magazine’s chief artist.

Although I have written about Richard King before (see Richard King in Mayo and Discovering Richard King), I am no expert – but we know who is! David immediately consulted Ruth Sheehy. Ruth has recently published her magisterial study The Life and Work of Richard King: Religion, Nationalism and Modernism – an engaging, erudite and exhaustive study of King’s artistic output, including his stained glass. This is my well-thumbed copy.

She was delighted to confirm that this was indeed the work of Richard King, and that it was a panel she knew existed, but had never managed to find. She pointed us to a similar panel – a ‘twin’ – that King made for the Church of the Holy Cross in Aberaeron in Wales. That panel has been well documented by Martin Crampin, artist and academic, who is the acknowledged expert on Welsh stained glass. He has kindly given me permission to reproduce his photo of that window, “Our Lady of Ireland”, below. For more on that window, see his listing here: http://stainedglass.llgc.org.uk/object/970 and also his blog post about this and another Richard King window in Wales: https://stainedglasswales.wordpress.com/2020/12/17/richard-king/

Of the Welsh window, dating to 1958, in her book, Ruth says:

The Virgin Mary seated with the Christ-child shown in red, is depicted as an Irish woman with a blue shawl around her head and shoulders. The two figures are seen in the centre against a background of large areas of vibrant colour and cubist-abstract shapes. As King knew and admired Mainie Jellett’s art, he would have been aware of her meditative and indirect approach to religious themes as shown by The Ninth Hour. . . Although King’s interpretation of figuration and non-figuration was somewhat different from that of Jellett, the stained glass window of Our Lady of Ireland shows him experimenting with a cubist-abstract approach to form, light and colour which suggests an adaptation of her style.

Mainie Jellett’s The Ninth Hour, 1941, oil on canvas, Collection Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane

Regarding the Macroom window, which dates to 1963, Ruth wrote to us in an email:

The Virgin and Child are depicted here as King and Queen of Heaven and this image has similarities with another work by King entitled ‘Our Lady of Ireland’ c. 1958 which is reproduced in the book. The half moon at the Virgin’s feet refers to her immaculate conception. The red and white halo behind the Christ child wearing a crown indicates that his kingship is based on his ultimate Cross and resurrection and is not of this world.. . . . The large hands and feet of the figures and their expressive quality would suggest the influences of Evie Hone and modern German stained glass on King’s stylistic development at this period.

Fr O’Donnell has now had the windows cleaned and installed much improved back-lighting. The results are wonderful and allow us to see the windows properly, as both Carin MacCana and Richard King intended. Carin has done an outstanding job of matching King’s style, which is why we all assumed in the beginning of the hunt for answers, that this was a pair of windows done by the same artist. The colours of the St Colman window, instead of being muddy and autumnal now glow in golds, blues and greens.

As for King’s Madonna and Child window, the colours are quite different from how they appeared before. The background is dominated by light yellows and pale blues and greens, while Mary’s robe is not olive green but a brilliant azure – and it is now obvious that the ‘fez’ is a crown. The red and white halo (a favourite symbol of King’s) is also clearer now. Both of these windows beautifully illustrate the importance of proper back-lighting.

It isn’t every day that you can be part of rediscovering a ‘lost’ work of art – what a privilege it has been to be part of this journey.

Dean Swift and I

Robert writes:

Our weather has turned grey and damp. Our 5k Covid limited walks to seek inspiration for the posts we write for you every week are less than comfortable, and our photography is suffering. But we are undaunted! Spring is just around the corner (it starts tomorrow, on the first of February – Imbolc – here in Ireland) and we will soon see the emerging wildflowers in our verges. We will notice the days getting longer. Meanwhile, let’s enjoy the stormy prospect from our eyrie:

Roaringwater Bay, January 30 2021. Between the islands the water is always calm but you can see the force of an Atlantic storm stirring things up beyond them

For my post today I’m diving into our archives, but also travelling back in time – in my own life. The topic is an Irish one – and has West Cork connections (you’ll see) – but writer and satirist Jonathan Swift appeared in my view early on, and through a somewhat odd series of events which touch on many things – historical characters, folktales, archaeology, and hauntings. Here is how I came into the company of Dean Swift before I was ten years old!

Jonathan Swift, born in Dublin in 1667: left – in 1682 (when he was fifteen years old) painted by Thomas Pooley; centre – in 1710 (aged 43) by Charles Jervas and right – in 1745 (the year of his death, aged 78) by Rupert Barber (National Portrait Gallery, London)

I was born and brought up in a small country town in southern England – Farnham. A big influence on my young life was my grandmother, Annie – we always called her Granma. But she wasn’t a relation at all: my mother had been orphaned (by the 1918 ‘Spanish Flu’) at the age of four, and lived in a children’s home until the age of 16, after which she was fostered by my Granma. In my younger years my mother worked as a shorthand typist. I had no idea, then, what a ‘short hand typist’ was, but I must have formed an image of sorts in my mind. Be that as it may, the consequence was that I spent time with my Granma during my mother’s working hours in school holidays – and, quite often, at weekends.

My Granma – the one picture I have of her, above – was only ever the kindest of ladies. She helped me to learn to read well from the age of four, and embedded in me a huge love of books – and stories. Widowed, she lived alone in 2 Darvill’s Lane, Farnham. And that’s where I have the happiest of my childhood memories. Why? Because it was such a different house from my parents’. It had no electricity, a big black coal range and an outside lavatory – all thoroughly fascinating. The gaslights hissed and spluttered in a friendly way on winter evenings; there were always interesting things sizzling on the range – and blancmange for pudding, and fruit cakes for tea! And, although there wasn’t electricity, there was a large wireless set with a bakelite shell, shiny knobs and a glowing celluloid dial splendidly esconced on its very own table in a corner of the small sitting room. I can still see it in my mind’s eye, although I have no memory of what I might have heard from its gold-meshed speaker as everything seemed obscured and overlayed by intense crackling. A cable descended from the set to a large glass accumulator sitting on the floor beneath. This was similar in size and weight to a car battery today. One of my frequent duties when staying with Granma for an afternoon in the holidays was to help dismantle this accumulator, place it into a wheeled shopping basket and trundle it up into the town where it was exchanged for a freshly charged apparatus of the same design, a task which had to be done weekly (and cost how much? Sixpence…). But, I digress . . . Let’s move on to the subject of this post – Dean Swift: what is his connection with my Granma?

A particularly fine edition of Gulliver’s Travels in two volumes, dating from 1930. A similar one in good condition fetched £6,900 at auction last year. The first edition – also in two volumes – was issued on 28 October 1726, priced at 8 shilings and 6 pence

Gulliver’s Travels was one of the many books I read at my Granma’s house, probably when I was four or five. My version was nothing like the handsome one above: it was the Ladybird Books edition: I wish I still had it. Of course, I now know that practically everything of value historically had been expurgated from this and all other children’s renderings of the book (and plays, films etc) including all the (then) politically outrageous bits and the vividly scatalogical episodes. (If you don’t know these, one of the mildest is Gulliver’s success in putting out a house fire in Lilliput by publicly urinating on it, something for which he was convicted of treason and then sentenced to be blinded!). Nevertheless, at such an innocent age, who would not have been impressed simply by the illustration of a ‘giant’ man tied down to the ground with twine and surrounded by a horde of miniature people?

My world met that of Swift (I never knew him as ‘Dean Swift’ until I came to Ireland) when my Granma and I would walk together out into the countryside. We only ever walked because, in the 1950s, very few people had cars and I had not yet graduated to a bicycle: walking is still, after all, the best way to travel without missing all the details. From Darvill’s Lane we followed a path away from the town which almost immediately became deeply rural. We headed for Moor Park. I was delighted, recently, to find this old postcard of Moor Park Lane which could date from those same days:

With the benefit of Google Maps I have been able to calculate that our walks were around two miles if we only went as far as Moor Park House, but it was much more interesting to go beyond, so sometimes we would have done a round trip of seven or eight miles. ‘Beyond’ there were caves, and a holy well, and the ruins of an old abbey – all of which Granma could tell me stories about. I’m so grateful to my Granma as, today, I can’t resist searching out the likes of caves, holy wells and archaeology, wherever I travel.

An extract from a late 19th century Ordnance Survey map of the country we walked through outside Farnham town, with just a few of the places which I learned ‘stories’ about during my escapades with my Granma!

Moor Park House was always our first port of call. I now know that an early dwelling on this site – known as Compton Hall – dates from 1307, and that this was modified and added to over the generations, most notably by Sir William Temple in the late 17th century. Temple (1628 – 1699) bought the property in the 1680s and renamed it after his own family home in Hertfordshire. He had a career as a noted diplomat under Charles II including, in 1677, helping to arrange the marriage between the King’s niece, Princess Mary and William of Orange: I don’t need to go into their story now. William Temple retired to Farnham and constructed a large formal garden at Moor Park, covering five acres. From 1688 until his death he employed Jonathan Swift as his secretary. My Grandma ensured that I knew about the link between Moor Park and Gulliver’s Travels, and I was impressed! She also told me that the path along which we walked, passing through the gates of Moor Park Lodge, had once been the scene of a great battle when an owner of Moor Park (long after Temple) closed off the right-of-way along that path, or attempted to: I have since learned that it happened in 1897, and a crowd of over a hundred local people armed themselves with cudgels and crowbars and forced the locked gates open. They have been open ever since.

Upper – Moor Park House today and, lower – the gatehouse which was the scene of a battle over rights-of-way in 1897

For over a decade Moor Park house figured large in the life of Jonathan Swift. When first there he became the tutor and mentor to a local girl who lived nearby, and whose mother acted as a companion to Temple’s sister. The local girl was Esther Johnson (1681 – 1728). She was nicknamed ‘Stella’ by Swift. My Granma told me that Stella was a close friend of Jonathan Swift, and that he would visit her by following the path we always took through the estate, ending at ‘Stella’s Cottage’ at the far end. My young brain took all this information in, and I carried with me through the years a picture in my mind of Stella’s Cottage at the end of our path. A postcard I came across recently confirms that picture exactly! Stella remained ‘close’ to Swift for the rest of his life. On his death Temple left her some property in Ireland and she moved there in 1702. There were rumours – never confirmed or denied – that she and Swift had married secretly. She died in 1728, and was buried in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. Swift was inconsolable at Stella’s death; when he died he was buried beside her at his own request:

Childhood associations: centre – Sir William Temple on the left (painted by John Closterman – courtesy of Beecroft Art Gallery) and Esther Johnson on the right (artist unknown – Crawford Gallery): she was Jonathan Swift’s ‘close friend’. Lower picture – an old postcard showing ‘Stella Cottage’

On the best days our walks continued beyond the Moor Park estate, and included a visit to two caves – ‘Old Mother Ludlam’s cave’ and ‘Father Foote’s’. These provided great stories, and my Granma’s recounting of those stories has been confirmed through my present day researches, although I prefer them the way she told them, rather than the precise history. Mother Ludlam was a witch, but a good one. She had a cauldron which she would lend to anyone, presumably so they could make their own magic potions. The cauldron can still be seen today, in a nearby church. She lived in her cave, which had (and still has) a stream running through it. Every time we looked into the mouth of the cave – through a locked iron gate – my Granma repeated the same story (which I have never seen written down): when she was a young girl it was decided to find out where the stream that ran out of the cave originated, so a raft of ducks (that’s the correct word for a whole lot of ducks) was taken into the cave and shooed away into the darkness up the stream. Then, presumably, the assembled crowd waited to see if and where they might emerge. They didn’t. Except that – according to my Granma – some considerable time later (days or weeks) one lone duck was found coming out of a small culvert on the River Wey in Guildford ten miles away – minus all its feathers! I could never forget such a rare story.

Here (above) is one of my prized possessions: a 1785 print of Mother Ludlam’s Hole, Surry: I found it in a second-hand bookshop in Farnham very many years ago – I think I paid a shilling for it – and I have kept it ever since, if only to remember my Granma and the stories she told. I later came across this fine print in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. It shows that Mother Ludlam had some notoriety:

But you very seldom hear about ‘Father Foote’. In fact, I wondered in later life whether he was a personage which my Granma had thought up to explain a second, smaller cave nearby. But no – because if you look at this 1895 map of the area you will see that ‘Foote’s Cave’ is clearly marked (along with St Mary’s Well), but Mother Ludlam’s isn’t.

So – Granma’s tale: Mother Ludlam and Father Foote lived at the same time close to each other. The second cave is quite high up in the rock face, and rather small. They had a baby, which they kept in the smaller cave, One day the baby rolled out of the cave, down the steep hill and into the river below. That’s the story – I’ll leave you to ponder on it.

Generally, the last port of call on our walks was Waverley Abbey – the very first monastery founded in Britain by the Cistercians, constructed in a meadow beside the River Wey in 1128. That’s what remains of the refectory above (photo courtesy of English Heritage). I don’t remember my Granma telling me any ghost stories – she didn’t go in for those; yet she did always say to me I had to look out for the ‘white monks’ when we went past the old abbey ruins. I was interested to see that Waverley Abbey was used as a film set in 2014 for a Disney film about the story of Rapunzel. Here’s a still from that film:

I did promise you a ‘West Cork connection’ to the subject of this post. Well, Dean Swift visited the south west of Ireland in 1723 and stayed in Castletownshend. Finola, in her post on Belvederes in 2016, tells that he used a tower behind the castle there as his refuge, and in it he wrote a long poem in Latin – Carberiae Rupes – which translates as ‘The Crags of Carbery’. Here’s the tower beside Castletownshend Castle, and a short translated extract from the poem. At the end there’s Finola’s photo of me visiting ‘Swift’s Tower’, and closing the loop that began for me more than seventy years ago.

31st January 2021