The Headstones of Ferns

Ferns, in Co Wexford, is an historic town that boasts many fine heritage attractions including an Anglo-Norman Castle, an Augustinian Abbey and other medieval ruins, high crosses and associations with the McMurroughs and the Marshalls. Not least among its delights is the Cathedral graveyard, which has one of the best collections of eighteenth century headstones I have ever seen.

Look at the headstone above and the one below. The elements used in the carving are identical except that the central image in the first is a crucifixion scene and in the second it’s an IHS in a sunburst. Note the J Byrne signature under the carving to the left above and the Pat Byrne signature below. How were J and Pat related? Does the difference demonstrate anything other than the preference of the person who commissioned the headstone? I’m tempted to see the gradual replacement of the crucifixion image with slightly less ‘popish’ symbols, but I’m probably overthinking this

In our post Memento Mori, I introduced you to Irish headstones and the practice, which really only dates back to the 18th century, of routinely placing headstones on graves. Even then, only those who had the means to pay for a carved headstone were memorialised in this way – most still lay in graves with simple field stones at their head (and sometimes feet).

In Headstones or Folk Carvings? we visited Kilcoole graveyard to Co Wicklow, home to many fine headstones including one by Dennis Cullen, an acknowledged master carver. In Ferns we found many of the headstones had been carved by J Byrne (or J: Byrne, as he styled it) and although his technique does not quite have the refinement of Dennis Cullen, his carvings have a charm and energy that make them recognisable even where the headstone is not signed.

See the ‘J: Byrne’ signature just below the carvings to the right. There is no date on this headstone for William Lea (or Leacey? See the tiny superscript above the ‘Lea’). The detail on the angels is very fine and I love the little arrow in the centre of the sunburst, just below the IHS

The most common image is, of course, the IHS. Known as a Christogram, IHS is shorthand for the name of Jesus. It is often surrounded by a sunburst, or surmounted by a cross. Interestingly, the earlier and later headstones are more likely to feature the IHS as their main element.

Two early headstone, from 1758 and 1773, starting with Here Lieth. Mogue is a local name, for Saint Mogue of Ferns, whose well lies across the road. Note that the final Y of Mercy doesn’t quite fit on the line so a superscript is used

Many of the most interesting headstones date from the 1790s and where they have a signature it is that of J Byrne. There must have been a vogue for crucifixion scenes at the time, because they appear here and there throughout the graveyard and date to this period.

The J: Byrne signature is almost obscured by lichen. This is a typical J Byrne carving, with a crucifixion scene: Jesus on the cross, Mary and possibly John on either side, all three with halos. Sun and moon round out the carving

Jesus is on the cross at the centre of the tableau, with Mary on one side and John on the other. Occasionally other figures appear – Roman soldiers, a man on horseback, angels.

The dress, as is common with carvings of this period, reflects eighteenth century styles – observe the soldier in the frock coat in the Moses Breen scene (above) and the angel in the seamed jacket on John Kehoe’s stone (below).

There are a couple of headstone with horses in the crucifixion scene, but it’s unusual

The most frequent other symbols are the sun and moon, often with faces. The sun/moon symbols can be the main elements or can be wedged into available spaces on either side of crucifixion scenes.

The lettering styles vary, although generally they become tidier over time. Occasionally, the lines incised to keep the carver straight can be discerned. Words that don’t fit are either carried over, or a tiny superscript finishes them so they can stay on the same line.

The lightly incised ‘stay between the lines’ can be seen in Mogue Doyle’s headstone from 1775

This 1792 headstone is for Catherine Murphy. But it is also for her husband. However, none of the husband’s details appear. I can understand that he would have been added to the headstone at the time of her death, for efficiency perhaps, with his dates to be added later – but the fact that his name is missing gives rise to all kinds of speculation!

One mysterious element of several of the gravestones in Ferns is that at some point in the past someone has drilled holes in some of the headstones (see the two examples, below). If anyone can tell us the significance of this, we would be grateful to know it.

We highly recommend a visit to Ferns. Give yourself a day to take in all that’s there, but don’t forget to have a good wander around the old graveyard. Morning is best, as the light goes behind the headstones in the afternoon.

I love the primitive quality of this 1780 stone for Mary O”Danioley – Jesus on the cross with the soldier piercing his side with a spear

Gothic Revival – With Bells

A month ago I wrote of our first visit to Cobh, in County Cork, and told how impressed we were with the town and its architecture. I promised that Roaringwater Journal would revisit Cobh, and today I will concentrate on the splendour of the Cathedral, which dominates the skyline and looks across to the Lee Estuary. All shipping using the port, or passing up to Cork, will be aware of this spectacular building.

St Colmán’s Cathedral was conceived in the mid-Victorian era, when the Gothic revival style of architecture was in full swing. Popularity of the style was, perhaps, generated as a reaction to the society and machinery of the Industrial Revolution – all noise, smoke and progress – and harked back to a perception of medieval life when all seemed sylvan and pastoral and when everyone, from lords to artisans, knew their place: Medievalism meant a concentration on the trappings of chivalry, craftsmanship and decoration, particularly in religious buildings – although private houses for the very wealthy also explored the idiom: have a look at our post on Adare Manor.

Construction work on the Cathedral began in 1867. The designers were Edward Welby Pugin (son of Augustus Welby Pugin – probably the greatest of the British Victorian architects) and Irish-born George Coppinger Ashlin who was responsible for over 100 new churches in Ireland including those in Clonakilty and Skibbereen, here in West Cork. St Colmán’s was not completed, however, until 1915. The tower – 90 metres high – was the last element to be finished – old photographs above (emptyseas) and below left (National Archives of Ireland) show the Cathedral in use without it in the 1890s while the picture (below right – from the Michael O’Leary Private Collection) shows the tower under construction in 1914.

The Cathedral is dedicated to St Colmán of Cloyne, who founded the Diocese in the year 560. This saint is known as ‘The Poet Saint’ as he trained to be a bard for twelve years and entered the court of Aodh Caomh, High King of Munster, at Cashel. Influenced by St Brendan and St Ita, Colmán became a priest and then set up a monastery on the shores of the Lee, where Cobh now stands.  Our friend Amanda has told the story of this saint, and includes a piece from the Schools Folklore Collection, written by Padraigh Ua hAodha in the 1930s:

. . . When St Coleman was building the round tower in Cloyne a woman asked him what he was doing so high up. When he heard her speak he got such a shock he jumped from there to Kilva where the print of his feet are still to be seen on a stone. He jumped from there to Glen Iris Wood. When he landed he prayed to god to send him some water and immediately water sprang up at his feet. When he had drunk some he sprang from here to Cove  where there is a cathedral built called Saint Coleman’s. The spring that sprung up at his feet is now known as St Coleman’s Well . . .

The Cathedral contains an inscribed list of all the bishops of the Diocese, from St Colmán to the present day. This list includes Thaddeus McCarthy, bishop from 1490 to 1492 – Finola is telling his story today. The richness of the building is as evident inside as it is without. It’s an homage to fine detailing and craftsmanship and there is no corner free from it: unfortunately I could not find the names of the the artists, masons and carvers in any records. At least their skills are celebrated in their works.

Something you may not discover from a visit to St Colmán’s is the carillon which was built in to the new tower in 1916. A carillon is a giant musical instrument which, using a large mechanical keyboard and pedals, sounds a whole series of cast bells. In this cathedral there are 49 bells – making it the largest carillon in Ireland and Britain: the heaviest bell weighs 3.6 tons, and is named Colmán! Please watch this fascinating seven minute film about the carillon, and the man who plays it: his title is Carillonneur. Through the summer recitals are given and can, of course, be heard not only in the Cathedral, but over the whole town.

Visiting Cobh is itself a great experience, but allowing sufficient time to explore and appreciate the Neo-Gothic gem which is St Colmán’s Cathedral has to be the icing on the cake. Although only completed a hundred years ago, remember the long tradition of the saints who set up their foundations here in Ireland, keeping civilisation alive . . . while the Dark Ages settled on Europe . . .

Mizen Magic 10: Sailor’s Hill

Fancy a walk? One with just enough elevation to get the heart going and with the reward of spectacular views at the top? It will take about an hour, maybe a bit longer if you stop to chat, or just gaze.

We’ve mentioned Sailor’s Hill before in the course of other posts – this one and this one. But it deserves a post of its own, because it’s a complete experience. Start from Schull and walk out along the Colla Road until you get to the old St Mary’s Church and graveyard. The National Monuments listing tell us that this was originally a medieval structure, although what we see in ruins now is mainly an eighteenth century church, situated in a picturesque burial ground. Turn right at that point.

You will notice the waymark signs. This is one of the newer extensions of the Fastnet Trails, and an initiative of a committed group in Schull. The walk up Sailor Hill is actually part of a larger walk, the Colla Loop – we are planning to do that one soon but only had time for this stretch of it today.

The road meanders gently upwards. Take the first left and then the next left. Views of Schull Harbour start to open out as the road rises. Looking back, you can see how Schull nestles at the foot of Mount Gabriel (see the photograph at the top of this post).

A tiny shrine in a gatepost

Later on, this boreen will be heady with Foxglove and Loosestrife and Oxeye Daisies, and later still the purple heather will dominate, but this is early spring and it’s been a long cold winter. 

Everything is late this year, so I am happy to see the ever-reliable Celandine in profusion.

The willows are starting to bud out too, but apart from that, it seems that dandelions and lawn daisies are the only wildflowers brave enough to flourish along the way. Not that we disdain these humble flowers – they provide early and important nourishment for the insects and the bees. Must feed those pollinators!

Connie and Betty Griffin have built a house with magnificent vistas near the top of the hill. They never stop adding to it, Betty with flowers and Connie with quirky additions, sculptures and walls. This time, he showed us his Sailor Hill Newgrange, a nifty arrangement of standing stones that respond to the rising sun by capturing the morning light in a stone recess.

Connie demonstrates his sun calendar to Robert

Up to the top then, and there it is – a breathtaking panorama that encompasses the whole of Roaringwater Bay and Long Island Sound to the south, and Mount Gabriel and its foothills to the north. Cape Clear, the Fastnet, Sherkin Island and all the smaller islands are laid out in front of you.

And there’s a cross and inscriptions, so you begin to realise that this site is about more than those views. Connie, who designed and built it, wants us to think about those who lost their lives at sea. It’s his own personal mark of respect and a reminder to us in the midst of all this grandeur to take a moment to contemplate on the power of the ocean and the fleeting nature of life.

I had to look up The Niña, 1492, and of course it was one of Columbus’ ships. He took the Santa Maria, the Niña and the Pinta on his voyage to the New World, but the Niña was his favourite. To learn why, take a look at this. But why is it here? Well, I’m not sure, but there is a tradition around here that Columbus may have visited West Cork on his way. His last provisioning stop may have been with the hospitable, learned and Spanish-speaking Fineen O’Mahony, Scholar Prince of Rossbrin

Connie has built his own tiny belvedere (he calls it his folly) perched to take maximum advantage of the view. It’s the perfect spot to sit, munch an apple, and enjoy a companionable chat before the walk down again.

A final look out to sea. There’s Long Island and beyond it the Fastnet Rock with its iconic lighthouse.

We paused to admire a Goldfinch in Connie’s garden, as well as his wonderful textural arrangement of sticks, stones and whalebones.

Thank you, Connie and Betty, from two happy walkers.

Kilkieran High Crosses – Medieval Gems

You will remember Saint Ciarán of Saigir, who was born on Cape Clear, perfectly framed in our view from Nead an Iolair? He was known as the ‘First Saint of Ireland’, preceding Saint Patrick by almost a century, and also as one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. A manuscript dating from 1629 and housed in the Bibliothèque Royale, Brussels, tells how the Twelve Apostles were educated together in Clonard, Co Meath – the most important monastic school in early Christian Ireland – under Saint Finian. It is said that ‘ . . . there were no fewer than 3,000 pupils getting instruction at one time in the school in the green fields of Clonard. The master excelled in exposition of the Sacred Scriptures, and to this fact must be mainly attributed the extraordinary popularity which his lectures enjoyed. Finnian’s gift for teaching and his absolute dedication to the ascetic ideal, inspired a whole generation . . . ‘ St Finian achieved the age of 140 years himself, while Ciarán – who went off to Cornwall where he is known as St Piran (you will also remember) – lived to be 206 before falling into a well on the way home from a wild party. There’s a lot to be said for being a saint in those days.

These are extracts from the OPW signboard located at the site

Why are we revisiting St Ciarán? Well, we’ve just past March 5th, which is his day, so we have to celebrate him. To do that we will go off to County Kilkenny, where there is a very important medieval site, noted for its high crosses but with plenty more to see: it’s a 45 minute drive north of Waterford city. The site, known as Kilkieran (Kieran is an alternative anglicised spelling, prefixed by ‘Kil’ which means ‘church of’) was once home to a monastery founded by St Ciarán, and the high crosses date from the 9th century.

The West Cross has animal motifs and some unusual interlacing carved on the various elements; below is the site plan included on the OPW signboard

To be able to see exquisite artistic medieval carved stone from 1200 years ago still standing where it was first placed is remarkable. In other discussions on high crosses and similar works of expertise we have asked whether these gems should be preserved out of the elements – as some are – to prevent the deterioration which is undoubtedly taking place. While I tend to favour that approach – and it seems to me to be particularly appropriate where they are replaced by high quality replicas ‘in the field’ – there is something very special about visiting intact sites like this one. The whole conservation process is full of dilemmas.

The enigmatic East Cross – unlike any other Irish High Cross

There were once four crosses at Kilkieran. Three are still complete and in reasonable condition, although much weathered, while the fourth is just the stump of a shaft. One –  the East Cross – is unusual: it is slender, largely undecorated, with minimal crosspieces and no roundel. There’s a nice little tale about it: the cross was attacked and destroyed by iconoclasts, but was painstakingly reconstructed in the mid-19th century by blind local stonemason Paddy Laurence, who had lost his sight while working on the construction of the Palace of Westminster in London: the old Palace had been ravaged by fire in 1834 and was rebuilt to its present design under the auspices of Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin.

The plain South Cross: the large, acorn-shaped capping is found on other crosses in the ‘Ossory Group’

The high crosses at Kilkieran are simpler and less decorated than many others, but have a great dignity, especially in the context of the burial ground which has grown up around them. We were fortunate to visit them on a really clear day, when the shadowed relief stood strongly out.

A still-visited Holy Well and bullaun stones are found on the old monastery site

You will want to go to Kilkieran yourself: when you do, don’t miss some fine ancient grave slabs and the nearby Holy Well. Then you should take yourself off to the other High Cross sites in what is known as the ‘Ossory Group’, beginning with nearby Ahenny. I’ll be writing about them all soon.

Below – an early carved grave slab on the site, carving on the West Cross shaft, and a detail of the West Cross ring

Nicola Gordon Bowe, 1948 – 2018

Harry Clarke’s The Coronation of the Virgin, from his Terenure windows. Nicole Gordon Bowe revealed him to the world.

The Irish art world sustained a terrible loss earlier this year with the death of Nicola Gordon Bowe, or Nikki, as she was universally known to her friends. In a very small way, I feel immensely grateful to have been counted among those friends. Although we only met once, we carried on a happy correspondence and were to have seen each other again this summer. But there are probably a thousand people like me, who have lovely memories of this wonderful woman, because Nikki had that rare gift of making each individual feel seen and heard and encouraged.

Nikki at the day-long symposium on the Honan Chapel, in Cork. Obviously in pain, she nevertheless gave a brilliant summary of Harry Clarke’s famous windows

Reading comments on various obit pages, from a generation of students, colleagues and friends, clear themes emerge of formidable scholarship, wide-ranging erudition, and passion for her subject. She was, as Alistair Rowan who spoke at her memorial service emphasised, the world expert on the Irish Arts and Crafts movement and on Irish stained glass.

In her book, The Life and Work of Harry Clarke, Nikki traced Clarke’s influences and training. He often used himself as a model – in this instance for the crucified Christ in the Terenure windows

But the other theme was that of friendship, of a wonderful sense of humour and a ready smile, of her encouragement to junior researchers, her collaboration, nationally and internationally with other scholars in her field, and the boundless generosity with which she shared her knowledge.

St Brendan, Nikki pointed out (as true for this window in Tullamore as for the Honan windows she was discussing) does not look like the kind of muscular saint that could navigate the Atlantic. ‘Effete’ was the word she used.

Nikki’s book on Harry Clarke has been my bible for all the posts I have written about this genius of Irish stained glass. Last year her second magnum opus was published, on the life and work of Wilhelmina Geddes. I haven’t read it yet – a future pleasure – but it was widely considered the finest Irish art book of the year, perhaps the finest book of the year.

Jesus Falls for the Third Time: one of the medallions that form the Stations of the Cross in Lough Derg. Nikki’s research indicated that these were mostly executed by his apprentices during a period of illness, although  they were designed by him.

She also wrote for the Irish Arts Review, the Dublin Review of Books and contributed essays to edited collections – the busy life of an established and disciplined scholar. At the time of her death she was working on what was to be a definitive study of the Irish Arts and Crafts Movement.

St Fechin, from the Ballinrobe windows: Harry Clarke loved to populate his scenes with a host of figures – now who is that small one with the glasses?

Nicola Gordon Bowe, more than any other person, was responsible for rescuing Irish Arts and Crafts from obscurity and establishing the reputation as artists of its major practitioners, none more so than Harry Clarke. She was impatient of those who dismissed stained glass as mere craft and who failed to see how the medium of glass both compounded the difficulty and enhanced the impact of the work of Harry Clarke and others. In the newly refurbished and finally open National Gallery of Ireland there is now a Stained Glass Room full of breathtaking pieces – it is no stretch to say that we can thank Nikki for that.

The Song of the Mad Prince, an exquisite small panel in the new National Gallery Stained Glass Room

I have chosen to illustrate this post with photographs of Harry Clarke windows and details, as a tribute to Nikki. She was his great and ardent champion and now the world knows what a true legacy of masterpieces we have been left by him. Nikki’s legacy is also secure – her works will be consulted for generations to come, and her memory kept warm by all who were privileged to know her.

From the Eve of St Agnes, in the Dublin City (Hugh Lane) Gallery

For obituaries, see here and here and here. Rest in peace, Nikki.

The Annunciation Angel from the Terenure Annunciation window

Ireland’s Newest Stained Glass Window

It’s in Tralee, in St John’s Church – and it’s breathtaking!

It isn’t often that new stained glass windows are installed in Irish churches. In fact, depressingly, many churches fall into disrepair from lack of use and the windows break (or are broken). Nowadays we are more likely to be losing stained glass than gaining it. So it’s a huge cause for celebration when a community commissions a new piece. Hats off to Tralee!

The Garden of Eden or an image of reconciliation: one of the window details

This window is out of the ordinary in many ways. Let’s start with who commissioned it, which leads us on to the theme. Although it’s installed in the Catholic church, it was a joint initiative of the Catholic and Church of Ireland congregations. There may be other windows that can claim that distinction, but I don’t know of them. (Readers?)

The theme is Reconciliation, and the central figure is the return of the prodigal son. The right panel is of Jesus reading from the Book of Isaiah and the left is of John the Baptist, patron saint of the church.

The father embraces his prodigal son

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is a natural choice to illustrate reconciliation, with the father embracing the son who has squandered his inheritance but returns home, contrite, to his family. Instead of punishing him (as his brother resentfully feels the father should do) his father embraces him, orders that the fatted calf be slain for a feast, and says, It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.

Jesus Reading from Isaiah is perhaps at one remove from a direct reference to reconciliation. It happened in Nazareth, his old home town, and he read at the behest of the elders. The passage is a beautiful one and points to ideas of love and healing, and perhaps to the real purpose of Christianity, no matter the denomination: he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.

St John is the patron saint of the church 

Possibly my favourite image is that of John. Usually, he is shown in the act of baptising Jesus, but here he is, the ascetic in his coat of camel hair, very much as he described himself, as a voice crying in the wilderness.

A myriad of tiny images fills the panels – figures holding hands (reconciliation), swallows (hope of spring, renewal), Tralee Bay, figures from Tralee history. . . there are even tiny names engraved where it is impossible to see them. Take a look at this video, where Tom Denny shows us some of those names.

Tom Denny? Yes – he’s the artist but the significance of that goes beyond the fact that he is one of Britain’s most eminent and respected stained glass artists, responsible for numerous windows in British churches. A browse of his website reveals the breadth and depth of his skill and the uniqueness of his style. The Tralee windows are typical – blazing with colour, filled with large and small figures and scenes that reveal themselves upon close inspection, rich and intricate, thoughtfully composed to draw the viewer into the subject of the panels.

Tralee Bay

You see, the Denny’s came to Tralee as part of a British military expedition in the 1500s and the name is inextricably linked with the North Kerry area. Sir Edward Denny (1547 to 1599) was one of the architects and enforcers of the Plantation of Munster, and was rewarded with lands taken from the Earl of Desmond including Tralee Castle, a knighthood and the title of Governor of Kerry. Tom is a direct descendent. 

Sir Edward Denny. Image used with the permission of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Denny’s stayed in Ireland for hundreds of years, branching out and acquiring land and estates. Eventually the family spent less time in Ireland and concentrated on their estates in Britain**. In Ireland, such a history as this is a complicated legacy, and Tom was eager to be part of the whole idea of a reconciliation window, donating his services to the project. Over twenty members of the Denny family came for the unveiling. This adds a rich and poignant dimension to the purpose of the window – reconciling the past with the present, and looking to the future. 

The father runs out to meet his returning son

Finally, this magnificent work of art is only one of the many artistic delights of this Tralee church. They deserve a post of their own some day, but I will give you a sneak peek by telling you that the Stations of the Cross are by none other than the famous Irish artist, Sean Keating. Here’s a detail from just one of them.

My friend Eileen drew my attention to this new window.  So thank you, Eileen – as you can see I lost no time in making the trip to see it. I am SO glad I did.

**Edit: I got this wrong. There were no English estates. The Denny’s, along with many members of the Anglo-Irish landlord class, eventually lost their lands. In the case of Tom Denny’s grandfather, although he was a baronet he was also a clergyman,  living the life of an impoverished cleric dedicated to his church. The move to England was related to his church service. RTE has now screened their program on the window and it does a marvellous job of adding fascinating detail about the window and the history of the Dennys – mostly supplied by Tom himself.