Spooky!

It’s Hallowe’en. When I lived in Devon, England, in my younger days, we didn’t know the meaning of the word. We certainly celebrated the coming of the dark time of the year, but there the story was all about Guy Fawkes, the ‘Gunpowder Plot’, bonfires and fireworks. Here’s a pic I retrieved from my old files: Hatherleigh, Devon, around the beginning of November. Huge barrels were soaked in tar, set alight, and pulled down the very steep hill that runs through the town at dawn and dusk. It was certainly scary – but not Spooky!

Here things are different. In Ballydehob we are preparing for our own celebration of the shadowy times. There will be a procession through the streets tonight. It will be scary, in a spooky way…

The whole town enters into the ‘spirit’ of things. This post sets out to look at the preparations for the night’s events. I particularly like the display – perhaps slightly understated – put on at the ice cream counter in Camier’s garage and shop at the bottom of the town:

Levis’ Bar is at the centre of things, and I called in to see the workshops taking place to prepare for the evening’s events:

I think this evening’s activities are going to be spectacularly spooky! I will let you know. Elsewhere in our village of Ballydehob, everyone is getting into the right mood.

It’s never ‘half-measures’ in Ballydehob. Everyone joins in with complete enthusiasm. And there are plenty more celebrations of this spooky time going on around us in West Cork. Don’t stay at home!

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.

Sure Signs

Another post about signs in Ireland: I ‘collect’ them and update them every few months. The slippery banana – above – is a classic and is to be found in the City Hall in Cork. Following it are a whole variety of examples with – hopefully – some touches of humour about them. Others have to be classified as eye-catching curiosities, including this magnificent bright blue cockerel.

Mostly, the signs just speak for themselves…

These cheerful cups can be found at a wayside Holy Well.

The gate above, also from Cork city, shows what architectural gems are waiting to be discovered on the streets. I was pleased – and puzzled – to come across the following:

If you visit Knock (above) you can collect your own holy water. This is my report on the place. Here (below) is a curiosity – not far from our West Cork home: an old signpost marking the distance in miles. You might say it’s one that got away!

Quite right! The orchids at Toormore Church are spectacular, and have to be looked after.

A coded message from another world, perhaps?

Signs can be enigmatic here in Ireland. There’s usually a reasonable explanation for them, though.

There’s plenty more where these came from (in fact they come from all over Ireland). Keep a watch out yourselves!

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

Open-Air Galleries: Eighteenth-Century Folk Art at Bahana Whaley

In his book Here Lyeth: The 18th-century headstones of Wicklow, the archaeologist Christiaan Corlett says 

There are. . . more examples of 18th-century art and sculpture in our graveyards today than in any gallery or archive. They do not belong to formal schools of art. Instead, they represent an important and fascinating tradition that can best be termed folk art. 

Christiaan develops his theme thus:

Like other forms of art, these headstones were privately commissioned. However, unlike many other forms of 18th-century Irish art, these sculptures were intended for display in a public space. Nowhere else are there so many examples of public art from 18th-century Ireland. Yet, no other forms of 18th-century Irish art have been so poorly documented and so grossly ignored and undervalued. 

Setting out to redress this situation, Chris has documented many of the headstones in old graveyards across Wicklow. While primarily focussed on the carvings and inscriptions as examples of folk art, he points out that the graveyards are also open-air archives of historical documents, not on paper, but on stone preserving genealogical information as well as reflecting some of the social issues of the period.

Recently, we decided to visit one of the many graveyards Chris has documented in his book, and on Chris’s recommendation we chose Bahana Whaley. It’s associated with the ruins of Whaley Abbey, which was once the seat of the notorious Whaleys, mentioned in Robert’s post about the Hell Fire Club. Today, this is a green and mossy site, as befitting a place whose name means abounding in birch trees. It was a fine soft spring day and the graveyards was as silent as the -er- tomb but speaking volumes about the people who lived and died in this place  – a true open-air archive and gallery.

There are several fine example in Bahana Whaley of the group that Chris calls The Purple Slate Headstones. The most numerous type in Wicklow, they tend to use Roman capitals for their inscriptions, with dots used for word-spacing, and confine any ornament to sunbursts and garlands. A typical example of the decoration if not the script was carved for William Gregory in 1778 (above).

Another group well represented at Bahana Whaley are the Aughrim Granite Headstones, all produced from the same workshop. Because granite is hard and coarse-grained, it does not lend itself to finely detailed carving, but it’s long-lasting and solid so has weathered well. The ubiquitous IHS, a ‘christogram’ that stands for the name of Jesus, dominates the top panel of the headstone, with the inscription below in a frame. Often, within the IHS, there is a cross running through the centre of the H, with expanded finials and heart below it.

We saw one instance where the IHS symbol had been replaced with an hourglass – a reminder that time runs out on us all eventually, as it did for James Doyle in 1764.

In another granite headstone the symbol used was the skull and crossbones. This harks back to the cadaver tombs of the 16th and earlier centuries, where skeletons were carved, sometimes with worms eating their intestines, as a powerful memento mori that all of us, rich or poor, come to this in the end. It is not, as a gravedigger once told us, a sign that a pirate is buried in that grave. The Arthur under this set of skull and crossbones was probably a well-to-do and pious farmer.

Often in Wicklow graveyards, the IHS is surrounded with Instruments of the Passion. These are the tools that were used to torture Jesus, to nail him to the cross and take him down and to gamble over his clothes. You can find a full list here. In Hugh Toole’s 1765 headstone (above) you can see, reading from left to right, hammer, dice, ladder, spear, nails and pincers (used to extract the nails).

Patrick Byrne’s headstone is almost identical, while the one below has fewer Instruments, including one which might be a flail.

One of the foremost carvers of his day was Denis Cullen. He lived in Monaseed, Co Wexford, and carved on greenstone. He specialised in depictions of the crucifixion. Chris has studied his headstones from earlier to later and says his skill noticeably improved over time. It helps, of course, that he signed his work. We stumbled across Cullen’s work in Kilcoole about five years ago and were very taken with it then. 

The crucifixion occupies the top portion of the headstone. The inscription, more ornate than that used in either the Purple Slate or Aughrim Granite headstones, is in the unframed portion below. But Cullen’s real achievement was his figurative crucifixion scenes. 

One of his earlier examples can be seen at Bahana Whaley, carved for Mary Magrah who died in 1765 (above). Although very worn, you can see that it was carved in relief. His scenes are invariably carved in relief, whereas his script is incised.

Edward Byrne’s headstone (he died in 1778) is better preserved (above and below) and also more detailed. It shows a crucifixion scene with a mounted soldier on one side and a church on the other.

Christ hangs upon the cross, his only covering a loincloth. A soldier with the spear (partially obliterated) is to his right, while to his left is a ladder in very low relief, and a soldier on horseback. The horse is a high-stepping creature with a proud head and tail held high. On his back is a man in a frock coat and (I think) a tri-corn hat. Chris says about the horseman, 

He is not a biblical figure and, without any obvious parallels, appears to have been invented by Cullen himself. The horseman is always shown in 18th-century military or yeomanry costume and is placed on the right hand of the cross (i.e. on Christ’s left). The horse itself is always depicted as if on parade, and the tail is sometimes cropped.

When John Graham died in 1784 his family commissioned a similar headstone from Cullen (below). In this one, instead of a church, two more soldiers stand, holding pikes. There are no remaining instruments of the passion, apart from the spear held by the soldier to his right, and a faint ladder running diagonally behind the crucifix. 

There is no attempt in Cullen’s crucifixion scenes at an interpretation of what dress may have been like in biblical times – no Roman centurions, for example. This makes them important examples of eighteenth-century figure carvings.

I can’t resist one final example from Bahana Whaley (above). It’s actually nineteenth century, dating from 1808 and is by a carver named David Doyle. Although the central figure is the crucified Christ, he is portrayed in high relief between two classical columns, with an angel to his left and and moon to his right – the moon is my lead photograph in this post. The carvings show a real advance in quality and sophistication as we progress into the nineteenth century.

I have only shown a sample of what we found at Bahana Whaley. It will pay re-visiting, as will the many graveyards documented in Chris’s marvellous book. There are few graveyards like this in Cork, so it is special for us that we get to wander in these atmospheric open-air galleries with Chris Corlett’s research to guide us. If you want to do the same, you can order the book from County Wicklow Heritage.

What’s in a Word?

We live in a world full of words. I can’t resist them – particularly when their context shines a humorous – or puzzling – light on them. Not just signs with words on them: sometimes it’s images – shopfronts – posters – that make you stop and have a second look. But then, I probably have a very particular sense of humour. I have every respect and good wish for the residents of Cheekpoint and Faithlegg, for example, but juxtaposed on the Waterford road sign they are eye-catching. Pointe na Síge is the ‘place of the Shee’ (or fairies), while Fáithling was the first parish name to be established following the 12th century Norman conquest: as far as I can make out, it derives from the term for ‘a wooded area’.

A ‘word wall’ signed by its author is from Wicklow (above). But we have encountered many examples of less formal poetry: I won’t call it graffitti . . .

It doesn’t really matter, I suppose, how legible the message is: as long as it has made you stop to take a closer look it’s been effective. Or reflective . . .

Sometimes they are simple, like the one above. I wonder if this next one is a mathematical formula?

Shopfronts have to be eye-catching and arresting, of course, to draw you in. There are witty examples everywhere.

One has to admire the entrepreneurs – of all persuasions.

in my distant youth – when I was learning to read – my go-to’s were the large, colourful, Guinness posters at the bottom of our road. I am pleased to see that many of those images haven’t gone away – even after seventy years!

While all that is, intentionally of course, a stirrer of nostalgia in us – there are many more of our own time worthy of study.

Finally (for now) we just found this old petrol pump hidden around a corner. Who remembers those days when an attendant had to come out and fill you up . . . and it was all done in gallons, shillings and pence?

Postscript . . .