Gearing up for August in West Cork

August has roared into West Cork bringing gorgeous weather and a plethora of can’t-miss events. I am wrecked already and we are only a week in! As I type we are in the middle of the marvellous West Cork History Festival. Yesterday Micheál Martin, our Taoiseach, came for the afternoon, as he has done several times in the past. He’s a former history teacher and very supportive of our Festival. He spoke compellingly in a few introductory remarks about our need for a nuanced view of Irish history, one that no longer depends on a single narrative. It was an honour to have him there – no fuss, very discrete security detail, and giving us his whole attention. (Above, Simon and Victoria Kingston, visionary Festival Founders, with their children Rory and Constance, and An Taoiseach.)

The theme of the first day was Black 47 – its the 175th anniversary of the worst year of the Famine – and I am struck anew by the horror of it all (That’s Lilian Lucy Davidson’s harrowing depiction, titled Gorta, above, which featured in the Coming Home Exhibition in Uillinn in 2018). Take a look at the Festival Program to see the range of what we were offered today. It’s a blended festival this year: a small in-house audience but anyone can register for the program online. It’s a high-quality production too – several pony-tailed and bearded young men in black were in command of all that. You can still buy tickets for the online portion – they will be good for two weeks. The luminous Jessie Kennedy, a long-time Festival collaborator, has assembled the Celestial Quartet, and together they have devised a selection of classical and newly-composed music to honour Agnes Clerke, the famous astronomer who grew up in Skibbereen during the Famine. Read all about her in my post From Skibbereen to the Moon.

The festival continues today with an emphasis on the Bandon Valley Killings – a traumatic episode in our West Cork History that deserves a full examination 100 years later. 

On a more cheerful note, yesterday marked the opening of what is consistently the best art and craft show in West Cork, year after year. It’s called West Cork Creates, is located in the O’Driscoll building in Skibbereen, and is curated by Alison Ospina and her jury panel. The calibre is as high as you will find anywhere. Above, for example, is Hilary Nunan’s work, which mixes fibres with acrylic paint – these are titled Grasses. Below is New Age Medieval, a painting by Carin MacCana. I wrote about Carin’s stained glass work in this post – she is now retired from teaching and has stated to devote her time to painting. She and Penny Dixie share an extension of the Gallery for their own show as well.

Dubhaltach Ó Colmán has several striking metal sculptures in the show (above). His work goes from strength to strength. But perhaps our favourite were the two deckchairs below, reclaimed by Suzanne McGuirk and covered with her own exquisite organic linen woven fabric. They are soon to grace the terrace of our own home!

In Schull, the Blue House Gallery has just opened an exhibition of work by John Doherty. A photorealist painter, John’s work draws you in initially with its detailed representation of everyday objects: it’s nostalgia, you think at first, before it dawns on you that, as the Taylor Gallery says of his work: His images, coupled with the wry wit of their titles, point towards the human stories that exist behind the facades that represent a meticulous  examination of the half-forgotten life of the past. No, that’s not a photograph, below, of Connolly’s of Skibbereen – it’s one of John’s paintings.

And in our small village of Ballydehob we have not one but four exhibitions, all worth visiting right now! Starting from the top of the main street, let’s first drop by The Working Artists Studio, who are currently hosting the sculptor Denis O’Connor. He’ll be giving a talk on Friday and we intend to be there.

Of his work he says: 

Process and Making are central to my sculpture, working in an intuitive, physically dynamic way, trying to develop new ways of defining my language of sculpture.  I work with the medium of steel towards creating physical forms [rocks and boulders] which begin to transcend a sense of how elements of the landscape are made but also its physical vulnerability and hostility.

Just down the road is the Ballydehob Arts Museum. Robert wrote last week about the unique exhibition of Lynn and Ian Wright’s ceramics – everyone who visits enjoys their humour and skill.

Next door down is Rosie’s Pub, where the art-loving proprietors, Noel and Chris Camier, host regular shows all summer in their Aisling Gallery above the pub. The current show is the Ten Hands Group – ten Artist/Makers at the top of their game coming together for a marvellously-curated show. That’s the ten of them, above.

Finally, a new-ish addition to the village, the Kilcoe Studios is hosting Timpeallacht (it means surroundings or environment) in which all the items have been made from local and natural materials.

There’s more – much more – but this will give you a flavour of how we are spending our time right now. Next up for us is the superb Ellen Hutchins Festival. No wonder I’m exhausted – and blissed out. I will leave you with a ‘Head’ from the indefatigable Angela Brady – regular readers will remember we took a glass workshop with her.

BAM Open! A New + Unique Exhibition!

BAM – the Ballydehob Arts Museum – is open through the summer. Make sure you don’t miss the impressive exhibition that’s on at the moment. It shows the work of West Cork art creators Ian and Lynn Wright (shown above with Eleanor Flegg). They were part of the ‘invasion’ of artists who came to the Ballydehob area from the 1960s onwards, and who are now featured in what is perhaps Ireland’s smallest art gallery, situated in Bank House, the headquarters of the Ballydehob Community Council.

You will find out all about the Museum here and here. Curator Brian Lalor (who featured in last week’s post) and Director Robert Harris (that’s me!) have put together a new exhibition this summer, following two years of absence due to Covid.

The ad above (from the early 1980s, I think) shows how Ian and Lynn’s work was being marketed at that time. They called themselves Cors it’s Ceramics, and they definitely projected a cheeky identity, making one-off ceramics – basins, bidets, loos and bathroom accessories: unique, appealing and often erotic. Their work was popular, and their production processes couldn’t keep up with demand! Today, the Wrights are producing more measured ceramics: Lynn produces beautiful large bowls, while Ian uses human body moulds to make impressive torso casts. Examples of all their working styles can be seen in the present Museum exhibition.

The Museum display is stunning. It brings together – probably for the first time ever – an eclectic extravaganza of the Wright’s output over half a century: examples of work small and large. There are no complete bathroom settings here: those that survive are still installed in the domestic settings for which they were commissioned. But we are fortunate that we have had access to the Wrights’ own collection of their work, which they have freely lent to the Museum. We do, of course, also have photographic records of other examples.

The Exhibition was formally opened earlier this year by Eleanor Flegg, and it can now be viewed for free whenever the Ballydehob Tourism Office is open. Through the summer this is usually from Monday to Saturday – 11am to 1pm, and from 2pm to 5pm. However, please check before visiting, as the office is staffed only by volunteers, and we can’t guarantee those hours at all times. It’s best to ring this number to confirm that it will be open: 028 25922.

A lot of effort has gone into making this exhibition. It’s on for the rest of this season, so please don’t miss it. It is the aim of the Ballydehob Arts Museum to celebrate the very special projects that have been carried out over decades to give the village its reputation as an artistic centre of excellence. Nowhere else can you find the full flavour of what has made this community so special.

This photo (above) appeared in the Mail on Sunday newspaper in 1983. Lynn and Ian are on the left and right respectively. The occasion is a ‘body casting party’ in the Wright’s garden.

Looking Again at Simon Coleman

Back in May I put up a post celebrating our discovery of documentary artist Simon Coleman. There is plenty of material from Coleman that I didn’t use. Today, I’m showcasing more of his work: it’s invaluable to Irish folklore and folklife researchers. We have to be forever grateful to The Dúchas Collections, and their field-workers who spent so much time scouring the rural landscapes of Ireland and its inhabitants, and recording their findings in detail, preserving the rich memories of those times for our benefit.

The header shows one of Coleman’s attractive watercolours which record the landscapes he traversed during his folklife researches. His sketch-pads, however, are filled with drawn details showing the basics of rural life, such as this one (above) recording baskets which were carried on the back or which were made as panniers for donkeys, mules and horses. Such methodical records are invaluable to our understanding of the paraphernalia of ordinary life, now virtually vanished. More technology for lifting and carrying loads is shown below.

The drawing above shows in typically fine detail the process of ‘turfing’ a roof using clods of earth with grass attached. the grass is on the outer surface. Also shown is the use of ‘ling’ – or heather – as a roof covering.

Straightforward hand implements used on farms (upper) are complemented by very fine watercolour sketches, such as the one above, recording the wagon – an essential element of life in the country.

Coleman was also an accomplished painter, as is evidenced by this portrait in oils of Anna Nic A’Luain, one of the most gifted storytellers encountered by the renowned Donegal folklore collector, Seán Ó Heochaidh. Anna was from Croaghubbrid, in the Blue Stack Mountains, Co Donegal, and lived from 1884 to 1953. The painting dates to 1949.

Cois Fharraige, above, another work in oils by Coleman.

Doolin, Co Clare – Old stone bridge, Lough Agraffard, 1959 – Doughty Ford: all from Coleman’s sketch books. A valuable record stored in the Folklore Commission Archives. Slightly unusual, perhaps, is this house (below) which Coleman sketched in Galway city.

Drawing from Life – Simon Coleman RHA

The Dúchas Collections (duchas.ie) are an invaluable resource for any of us interested in Ireland’s handed-down culture. Encompassing folklore, traditional ways of life, stories and visual images, the material is readily available on-line, and the archives are substantial and perfectly preserved, hopefully for all time. A recent find, for me, is the work of Simon Coleman, who was commissioned by the Irish Folklore Commission to accompany some of its collectors, and to visually record aspects of their work, in the mid twentieth century.

. . . Coleman was commissioned to travel in the company of full time folklore collectors, and to make drawings of local work practices and associated equipment, the traditionally built environments he encountered, as well as the diverse material culture evident in homes and communities of the day . . .

UCD Digital library, national Folklore Collection

The simple studies by Coleman, above – which portray alternative forms of transporting goods – abundantly describe visually a way of life which is vanished today. The Commission also employed photographers (and the Dúchas collections are also rich in these) but – in my view – there is an immediacy in these drawings which make them completely convincing: we are looking directly into Ireland’s past.

Have you ever heard of “Cad”? I hadn’t, until I looked into the work of Simon Coleman. The word in Irish is Caid, and it refers to a game which was played with sticks. There is a suggestion that it was a precursor to Gaelic football, although I am not convinced about this. In the version that Coleman recorded in 1959 in Inishmaan, Co Galway, the object of play was a short piece of stick, chamfered at both ends. This was hit by one of the players with a large, stout stick, making it fly into the air. As it descended the player gave it a hardy whack into a field, and the aim was to shoot it further than anyone else. Coleman’s drawings are accompanied by his notes:

. . . Sticks Game: the game of ‘cad’, Inish Meadhon. The ‘cad’ (short length of stick: approximately 2 1/2”) lying against a stone in the middle of the road; ‘cad’ is tapped with stick and jumps into the air about 4 or 5 feet thus; before it has time to fall to the roadway again, it is hit full-bloodedly into the adjacent fields. Each player has one try; the distance that the cad is hit is measured by the player with a stick approximately 6ft long . . .

Duchas.ie – Photographic collection

Interestingly, i was speaking to an Irish friend today and I mentioned ‘Cad’. He had heard of it through his family, although was not aware of it being played in his lifetime. The game he described was virtually identical to the notes above.

Coleman’s subjects were always wide-ranging. He was employed by the Folklore Commission in 1949 and again in 1959. We might imagine that he chose his own topics provided he fulfilled the brief of making an active record of what he saw. The top picture, above, shows traditional ‘Sunday Attire’, Inishere, Co Galway, and the interior view with bed and turf fire is from Croaghgorm or Blue Stack Mountains, Co Donegal. Also from Donegal is the simple but effective explanation of how ropes are made, below.

Particularly striking for me is the fact that all these images have been made in my own lifetime: This is an Ireland from not so long ago! There are very many more drawings and paintings by Coleman in this Collection, and I will return to them in future posts. Finally, for today, I can’t resist this spectacular rendering of a cottage interior from Clare, Co Galway.

I gratefully acknowledge and credit the Photographic Collection of Dúchas for all the above images (Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann / National Folklore Collection). The header is a group of cottages at Gortahork, Co Donegal

Stained Glass Workshop

I write about stained glass all the time, but I have never tried my hand at classic leaded glass. Having enormously enjoyed my sortie into fused glass with the wonderful Angela Brady, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to have a similar experience with leaded glass. Luckily, we have in West Cork the equally wonderful Deirdre Buckley Cairns, an award-winning multi-talented artist who lives in Schull and who teaches stained glass. I signed up for a full day workshop.

Deirdre is an experienced and excellent teacher. I’m in a good position to judge this as I ran a teacher education program for several years, so I know good technique when I see it. Deirdre was ultra-prepared, guided us through the day in well-calibrated steps, and was unfailingly positive and encouraging. We got there at 9 – Adrienne, Sarah, Susan, Louise and I – and she had everything laid out on each bench – all the tools and supplies we needed – and her own demo bench all set up. 

We each chose one of Deirdre’s designs that she has carefully worked out to be doable in a day and I must admit I went straight for the ten-piece design, which looked the least intimidating. Our class started with how to lay the glass properly over the design and how to cut the shapes. 

This is where I ran into the first of many humbling fumblings – that nifty little glass cutter thingy is a lot harder to control than it seemed when Deirdre expertly guided it exactly over the felt marker line under the glass. It stops unexpectedly, it shoots off in the wrong direction, it leaves gaps – it’s a fiendish little instrument of the devil. It was the first of my many realisations throughout the day of how much time and practice it takes to develop into a skilful glass cutter. 

By lunchtime – that’s three hours for ten pieces – I had my glass cut out. They looked a little rough around the edges, but at that point I hadn’t realised how much that lack of finesse would come back to bite me, so I was basking in a warm glow of accomplishment and ready to enjoy a break.

Susan seemed to have grasped the concept better – her pieces looked remarkably accomplished!

After lunch we had the demo on how to lead the glass together. Starting with two outside leads, Deirdre showed us how to measure, cut and shape the soft lead cames so that all the pieces of glass come together within the lead borders. Seemed straightforward enough – hah!

The first few pieces went fairly well, but then the lack of precision in my glass cutting started to become a problem, as I tried to jimmy and tuck pieces together. Deirdre showed me how to use the grozers (a kind of pliers) to nibble away incorrect edges. Well, nibble is the ideal – in my awkward hands the ‘nibbling’ seemed to create ever more jagged edges. Sometimes we had to use the grinder to try to sort out the final shape – as you can see below, my final piece was far too big for the space it had to fit.

Even though I got the glass more or less leaded in the end, nobody could pretend that it looks anything other than a very amateurish piece of work, with holes where there shouldn’t be holes and a crooked frame. Nevertheless, I was ecstatic to have managed to push and shove it, with lots of help from Deirdre, into a final square shape. 

The next step was to secure all the joins with solder and I hate to say it but this was the most fun part. Or maybe I mean the least stressful. There’s something deeply satisfying about melting metal and watching it magically knit two pieces of lead together. 

The final process was to cement the glass so that it was properly bedded to the lead cames, and not just rattling around inside them. This was a sloppy business, bringing out those inner children who love to play with mud. 

Then came a dusting of plaster to dry the mud and a pushing of the mud/plaster mix into the corners and well under the cames. A final polish with stove blacking and we were done!

And I was wrecked! My back hurt and my wrists and shoulders ached. I had a little sun window to take home with me (don’t look closely!) – and I had learned SO much.

Mostly, that learning had to do with a whole new appreciation for the skill of making stained glass – how physical it was, how exacting, how long it must take to get truly proficient at it, how many steps were involved. 

And of course, this is only the most basic part of making a stained glass window – we did no painting, etching, decorating of any kind. As I type this I have my Finola window to my right – each pane (and there are over a hundred in the window) is worked – painted, scratched, cut away. Some of the glass is flashed with the design cut or etched into it to reveal the colour underneath the coloured flash (thin top layer). Some is covered with thick black paint, through which the design has been etched. Glass has been carefully chosen for different properties – streakiness or bubbles or colour variation. 

At the end of the day, I had accomplished my goal, which was just to gain a tiny insight into the most basic of the processes involved in the making of a stained glass window. The workshop was great fun – not least was finding all of us, a wonderfully compatible group, shouting along to some of Deirdre’s musical accompaniments.

It takes years, and true talent, to become a stained glass artist. I remain in awe of those who have mastered this difficult and remarkably beautiful art.

If you would like to give it a go yourself, keep an eye on Deirdre’s Instagram page, or contact her directly through her website.

Stones Alone

Over the years we have written a lot about stone. That’s not surprising, because our interests in Irish archaeology involve stones: standing stones, stone circles, rock art, gravestones . . . It’s what the surviving history of our earliest dwellers on this island is all about. So I thought it would be a good idea to sift through our Roaringwater Journal photographic library – which goes back a decade – and turn up some pictures and stories which I have never used before: all of them involving stones. That header pic, above, is a boulder burial at Rathruane, just outside our West Cork village of Ballydehob.

Here’s another boulder burial, a long way away in Co Cavan, now surrounded by trees which are probably relatively recent. Finola wrote about this monument type six years ago, and pointed out that they are not well named: when examined archaeologically, very few of these stones have been associated with buried human remains. They are said to have been positioned between 1,500 and 1,000 years BC, a time we refer to as the ‘Bronze Age’. So, by then, humans were already aware of the use of metal for tools, weapons and decorative adornments. But imagine the time before that – when people only had natural materials to hand – wood, vegetation and, of course – if you wanted to create something permanent – stone: we call these times Neolithic – and generally that covers the period of habitation of Ireland from 6,000 BC onwards.

Here is another West Cork site: Breeny More, to the north of Bantry. There’s a whole lot of stones here including, unusually, four ‘boulder burials’ arranged in a square. There are also further stones in this grouping which were once part of a stone circle. The site is magnificently located, with distant views west across to Bantry Bay (below).

We are all familiar with groups of stones arranged in a circle. Here is the ‘stone circle’ at Ardgroom, County Cork: it’s on the Beara Peninsula. As with the Boulder Burials, these monument types are generally thought to date from the Bronze Age.

These modestly sized ‘five stone’ stone circles are also in County Cork. The National monuments Survey of Ireland lists 53 ‘five stone’ circles in the county, while a further 41 ‘multiple stone’ circles are noted. There are also some anomalies which defy definition, such as ‘The Fingers’ at Knockdrum, West Cork, just outside Castletownshend:

This appears to have been, originally, an alignment of five tall standing stones. One has fallen and broken, while the fifth is now missing. It is reasonable to assume, from the number of stone ‘monuments’ all around us in West Cork (and in many other parts of Ireland), that these sites were of great significance to the populations who constructed them. But we don’t know for sure why they are there – although theories abound.

I am fascinated by the number of single standing stones we come across in our travels. It’s impossible to say how many there are in Ireland – probably thousands. And they can range in size from the large stones – above – in West Cork, to individual examples in moorland or fields, or on roadsides – below.

The Irish word ‘carn’ means a heap or pile of stones, Cairn monuments are mounds of stones, often marking the summit of a significant hill or mountain. They may or may not be ancient, and we have seen them change significantly over time. On Mount Corrin, not far from us in West Cork, there were two cairns only a few years ago. Now there is a single, significant cairn (top pic below): this implies a deliberate ‘re-ordering’ of what was there before. Regardless of their history, they can be visually impressive.

The centre pic above is a small cairn on a Sheep’s Head summit, while the enormous one above is in The Burren, County Clare. The Burren is an extraordinary landscape of exposed limestone. The limestone formed as sediments in a tropical sea which covered most of Ireland approximately 350 million years ago. Today, the Burren supports a remarkable assortment of wild flowers: over 70% of Ireland’s species of flowers are found there, among the ubiquitous stone surfaces.

Ever since humans set foot on Irish soil, they have embraced the stones – both for practical uses such as shelter or enclosure, but also as a means of marking and communicating. Readers will be familiar with our particular interests in Prehistoric Rock Art:

This is an important example of Ireland’s Rock Art, from West Cork, perhaps dating from 5,000 years ago: it was discovered in comparatively recent times. The painting is by Keith Payne, and is an interpretation of this same rock outcrop. We have no evidence that the carvings were ever coloured – or pigmented.

Today we are very familiar with the use of stone as a building material: this practice is likely to have been current since very early times. In Ireland we have many examples of ancient – but undateable – stone buildings. The ‘Oratory’ at Gallurus is a good example of a built enclosure (walls and roof) made entirely from stone. A present day view of it, top, shows this remarkably preserved structure; archaeologists and historians have long debated its age and likely use. The print above dates from 1756.

Over the centuries, crafstpeople (like Séamus Murphy – see last week’s post) have used stone as a medium for memorials – the message is likely to survive beyond lifetimes. If only we knew what some of the messages should spell out to us! Our last – striking – image is from Fourknocks – a decorated chambered cairn within the Boyne Valley complex which we visited in 2016. This carved decoration was probably made 5,000 years ago: we can only wonder at its meaning and its authors . . .