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 . . .

The Wran, The Wran . . .

. . . New Year’s Day saw the Wran coming out in our village of Ballydehob, County Cork. It’s an old tradition here. That time “the fool” accompanied the wren boys. He was mounted on a donkey and carried a bladder tied to a stick. I got the song from John Levis, Ballydehob, (34 years of age) who procured it from Jeremiah Driscoll, Ballydehob (age 64yrs) who was an old wren boy. “Wren” is pronounced wran locally in Ballydehob and surrounding districts . . .

Duchas Schools Folklore Collection : Collector J Barry

This account dates from around 1936. It’s referring, therefore, to something happening regularly in the late 1800s and, probably long before that. ‘The Wran’ is still active in Ballydehob, well over a century later. I have written about our own Wran Day preparations not so long ago – and included the song – and I’m pleased to report that the day went well. That’s me, above and below, playing the melodeon (although perhaps I shouldn’t be giving away the disguise)! I’m actually wearing ‘tatters’, which was my costume when I took part in Mummers’ plays in England from relatively early in my life: I was brought up on the Surrey / Hampshire borders, prime country for this English tradition. Mumming also takes place in parts of Ireland, have a look here.

New Years’ Day was quiet day in the village – until we took to the streets! If you want to know the purpose of it all, I can’t really tell you. These are activities that happen around the natural turning point of the year – the change from the sun getting progressively lower in the sky, and weaker, to its returning strength: already we can sense the lengthening of each day. In the mumming on these islands you got a sense of it from a symbolic play where combatants fought and died, then were brought back to life by The Doctor who can apparently cure all illnesses. And, of course, we are always anxious to see the solstice in action!

In Ireland, the Wran Day tradition is accompanied by a play in some places, but more usually it’s a procession through a community, involving interaction by going into houses and shops, making a lot of noise and generally stirring up the spirits with a bit of mischief-making. We were fairly passive this year because of Covid restrictions, but it felt good to be out and about. Let’s hope that this anomaly in the regularity of daily life can become more marked as things gets back to near normal in future years!

Thanks are due to Sonia Caldwell – who instigated proceedings, keeping us all focussed – and Joe and Caroline of Levis’s Bar who provided the venue for making the masks – and gave great moral support! Traditionally, the masks are ritually burned on the following St Patrick’s day. Finola kindly provided the pics.

No Wrens Were Harmed in the Making of this Post… An Update!

Do you remember pre-Covid days? Those times seem to bring out the nostalgia in me… It’s only two years ago that I wrote a post about our preparations – in Ballydehob – for the Wran Day celebrations that would take place on St Stephen’s Day – 26 December – following. Those festivities did happen, and we were then all in happy ignorance of how our lives were to be changed mightily by the pandemic that struck the world just a few weeks later. We’d like to think that, after all this time has passed, a level of normality will be returning. That’s not quite the case – but we are planning a ‘Wran’ this year, and today we gathered in Levis’s Corner House to make ready for it. Here’s a photo – kindly loaned by Pól Ó Colmáin – of the results of the workshop we held to prepare for the ‘Wran’ in 2019.

So firstly, here’s an abridged version of the post I put up after that workshop two years ago. I’ll follow it with an update of the equivalent [but socially distanced!] event which we held today . . .

* * * * * Back to 2019 * * * * *

Wran Hunting has featured before in Roaringwater Journal: that’s the way that St Stephen’s Day – 26 December – has been celebrated for generations in ‘Celtic’ parts of western Europe, specifically Ireland and The Isle of Man, but also in Cornwall – where it’s now only a memory – Brittany, Wales and Scotland. ‘The Wran’ is a very strong surviving tradition here, especially on the west side of the country. The Dingle Gaeltacht is the place to go if you want to see all the action (you may have to click on the bottom right of the window to turn on the sound):

In our own Ballyedhob community ‘The Wran’ is not forgotten. In fact you can even find a poem written about it in the Duchas folklore records. This was recorded in the 1930s by John Levis, aged 32, who took it down from Jeremiah Driscoll, aged 64 years. Jeremiah had been a Wren Boy in Ballydehob. Here’s the poem:

Come all you ladies and gentlemen,

For tis here we are with our famous wran

With a heart full of cheering for every man

To rise up a booze before the year is gone.

*

Mr O’Leary we came to see,

With our wran so weak and feeble,

The wran is poor and we can’t feed him,

So we hope your honour will relieve him

*

We’ve hunted our wran three miles and more

We’ve hunted this wran all around Glandore

Through hedges and ditches and fields so green,

And such fine sport was never seen.

*

As we copied our wran again

Which caused our wran-boys for to sing,
She stood erect and wagged her tail,
And swore she’d send our boys to jail.

*

As we went up through Leaca Bhuidhe

We met our wran upon a tree,

Up with a cubit and gave him a fall,

And we’ve brought him here to visit you all.

*

This the wran you may plainly see,

She is well mounted on a holly tree,

With a bunch of ribbons by his side

And the Ballydehob boys to be his guide.

*

The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,

St Stephen’s day he was caught in the furze,

Although he is little, his family is great,

So rise up landlady and fill us a treat.

*

And if you fill it of the best,

We hope in Heaven your soul will rest,

But if you fill it of the small,

It won’t agree with our boys at all.

*

To Mr O’Leary and his wife

We wish them both a happy life,

With their pockets full of money, and their cellars full of beer,
We now wish a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

*

And now, our song is ended, we have no more to say,

We hope you’re not offended for coming here today,

For coming here this morning we think it is not wrong,

So give us our answer and let us all be gone.

Traditional, DUCHAS

By good fortune there’s ‘Mr O’Leary’ above! He’s the landlord of Levis’ Corner House Bar in Ballydehob: he allowed the Wran workshop to take over his pub yesterday. Basically that involved covering the whole place in straw out of which, magically, appeared lots of wonderfully crafted Wran masks. Joe is wearing a fine example.

Finola and I were at the workshop, and there I am with work in progress on the straw mask which we made (upper picture). You’ll notice that I’m wearing ‘tatters’: I’ve had these for years, and I used to don them for our own mumming tradition in Devon which also happened on 26 December (that’s me with the squeezebox mumming in the 1970s! – lower picture). Over there we called St Stephen’s ‘Boxing Day’ because that was when ‘Christmas boxes’ were given to the postman, the milkman and anyone else who provided their services through the year. Interestingly, Kevin Danaher mentions the ‘Wran box’ which was taken around the houses by the wrenners (or Wran Boys) and used to collect money ‘for the Wran’. This illustration of a Wren box from County Galway is from Danaher’s book The Year in Ireland:

The workshop in Levis’ was very well attended, and there is clearly great enthusiasm for reviving this custom. Sonia collected the straw at the annual Thrashing in Ballydehob – which is a traditional harvest celebration. It’s not easy to find the right straw for making the masks nowadays: anything that has been through a combine harvester has been flattened and will not survive the plaiting.

It’s a complex process, but the group coped well in acquiring the new skills under Sonia’s tutelage. The making – every year – has always been part of the tradition where it’s still practised today. Sometimes the straw masks (which are only one part of the ‘disguise’) are destroyed after Stephen’s. In some of the Dingle traditions they are ritually burned on the following St Patrick’s Day.

* * * * * * Fast Forward to 2021 * * * * *

Two years later, on a damp Sunday in Ballydehob, you might have seen the strange sight of bundles of straw being transported across the road to Levis’, where the 2021 Wran Workshop is about to take place in the ‘outback’ area of the bar. That’s Sonia (on the left above) who is masterminding the whole proceedings, and also oversaw the growing of the straw.

We all really appreciate Joe and Caroline – who run Levis’s – who are so supportive of community events and who, like everyone else, have had to struggle to keep business going through the ups and downs of Covid restrictions. The ‘Outback’ – formerly their yard – has been remarkably transformed into a comfortable outdoor venue, and live concerts and events are continuing through the winter season, helping to make our days seem as normal as possible.

We were a small but dedicated group, determined to get the tradition going again in Ballydehob. We are not sure, yet, when it will happen. Traditionally it should be Stephen’s Day, but it all depends on how available the participants will be. We will keep all our readers fully informed! meanwhile, if you need encouragement, look at the work that has gone into the straw masks this year . . .

Here’s Sonia Caldwell again, above. We have featured her Kilcoe Studios in a previous post. She is undoubtedly the energy behind this project. Look out for us all shortly after Christmas – there is good entertainment to be had. But, also, essential traditions to be kept alive to ensure that our world keeps turning!

That’s Pól Ó Colmáin, above, testing out his mask for size before finishing off the conical headpiece. Marie and he run the Working Artist Studios in the main Street of Ballydehob – a wonderful addition to our village’s thriving assets. Pol also bravely works away at teaching the Irish language to a number of students, including me! Here are both of them this afternoon with their completed Wran Day pieces – and also my own mask back at home . . .

Our Lockdown Mascot

Will we need a reminder in years to come of the lockdown we are living through now? If so, he arrived this week – Finbarr, the Bug Hotel and Lockdown Mascot.

You may remember our post about Kloë and Adam, the Two Green Shoots, who have established their edible Garden of Reimagination on the Glengarriff to Kenmare Road. When we visited I saw their own ‘Glen’ and noted that they could make them for others. It didn’t take long for us to decide that this is what our garden needed to feel complete.

We wanted to call him Finbarr. Regular readers will know I have a soft spot for Finbarrs – see this post about Finbarr the Pheasant, and this one about St Finbarr and his serpent. He’s Cork’s Patron Saint, after all, and associated with so many Cork places and stories. The name Fionn Barr means fair head, so of course my request was for a figure with lots of blond hair.

Kloë and Adam arrived this week to instal Finbarr.  They are classed as essential workers and we were all mindful of socially distancing as I photographed the process. It was quite a job, involving digging a hole through unforgiving rocky ground for a large stake to secure him from the back, then building up the wall to support him from underneath. 

Finbarr’s body is filled with insect-attracting spaces and materials, arranged to create a colourful centrepiece, with buttons down the front. Once his body was in place and secure, Kloë attached the arms and legs, which had been pre-organised as a series of rounds each drilled with various sizes of holes for different insect.

His hair is his crowning glory! It’s made of fleece (it took two and a half fleeces!) which birds will discover in time and use as nesting material. Kloë left us a repair kit of fleece to fill in the gaps as he becomes a little threadbare over time. 

We chose a site right beside the road so everyone who passes can wave at Finbarr. We hope especially that kids will like him. It’s also one of the few relatively sheltered spots on our land, and that’s important when the winter storms hit. 

So if you’re in the neighbourhood, swing by and say hello to Finbarr.