West Cork Obscura – Robert’s Choices

‘Hidden West Cork’ and ‘off the beaten track’ have been oft-used phrases in our posts – and that’s part of our mission with Roaringwater Journal: exploration of some of the more secret places, and researching and recording their stories. Finola has looked out her own favourites; my current choices are here – although, with 569 posts written to date between us, we could have picked out so many.

Header and above – one of the discoveries which made a great impression on me during the year was Tralong Bay, out beyond Glandore and Drombeg: it’s a beautiful piece of the coastline, at the end of a cul-de-sac and – it seemed to us – very little visited. But to visit is to transport yourselves back thousands of years as, on the beach and exposed at low tide, are the remains of an ancient forest. Here is the post.

A quirky discovery, not too far away from Tralong, was the pyramid-shaped mausoleum in the old burial ground at Glandore. For us, ancient graveyards are treasure troves of local history. This one – a peaceful and secluded place well worth a visit anyway – conceals an enigma: find the story here.

The Rock Art at Castlemehigan in its spectacular setting (above). Below is a close view of some of the markings on the rock

Delving back a few years, I found this December post on a visit to a spectacular example of Rock Art at the far end the Mizen Peninsula: Castlemehigan. The cupmarks on this earthfast boulder are impressive and the view from it is spectacular, especially on the clear winter day that we were blessed with. The rock was also in use as a Mass Rock during penal times, and there is evidence of this on the surface. We were told a story about those times by Florence O’Driscoll, whose land the rock is on. Make sure you have permission to visit if you go!

Finola managed to combine her consuming interest in wildflowers with industrial history and an account of a very special walk on the Sheep’s Head. It’s one of the marked trails on that peninsula – and takes in the deserted settlement of Crimea where a cottage has been partially restored (picture above) – finishing at the abandoned mine workings at Gortavallig, perched precariously on the very edge of a cliff (below). Here is the link to Finola’s post.

Here am I trying to get my head around the enigmatic ‘Rolls of Butter’ (above). I have to admit they are in Kerry (only just), but involved us travelling one of our all-time favourite roads, much of which is actually in West Cork: that’s the Priest’s Leap Road which runs over the mountains from Bantry (more or less) to Kenmare (more or less). We go out of our way to use this road because of the superb views – and a special piece of folklore – but, if you give it a try, be prepared for a narrow and steep journey (below)! Here is the post.

Archaeology dictates many of our outings. One of the less well-known monuments is Ardgroom Outward Stone Circle (pictured above and below) on the Beara Peninsula. This year, following a harsh winter, the weather turned sublime, and we have travelled extensively to make the most of it. We find ourselves often drawn to the Beara (much of which is in West Cork). This post describes an expedition which included stone monuments, colourful villages, stained glass – and ice cream! Have a look.

It was almost five years ago that we first reported on one of our perenially favourite West Cork locations: Gougane Barra (above). It’s a holy place – an alluringly beautiful lake sited in the Shehy Mountains, close to the source of Cork’s special River Lee. Here, in the sixth century, Saint Finbarr set up a collection of cells for his monastic community on an island. Here, also, lived the couple ‘The Tailor and Ansty’, immortalised in a book written in 1942 by Eric Cross. It’s a not entirely happy story as the book was banned because of its down-to-earth portrayal of the facts of life, and storyteller Tim Buckley (‘The Tailor’) was forced to burn his copy of it in front of the local priests: the incident led to an abrasive debate in Seanad Éireann on censorship. This story is, perhaps, one of the less well-known historical aspects of West Cork (and Ireland), but visit Gougane Barra for its beauty – and make sure you find the gravestone of ‘The Tailor & Ansty’: it was carved by their friend Seamus Murphy and bears the inscription . . .  A Star Danced And Under That Was I Born . . .

We hope that, between us, we might have given you some good ideas for exploration of our wonderful West Cork landscapes and – perhaps – encourage you off the highways and on to the byways: there are so many adventures to be had, summer or winter. Travel Well!

Nano Nagle – Lady of the Lantern

A Cork heroine: Nano Nagle was given the accolade ‘Ireland’s Greatest Woman’ by RTE in 2005, and at that time it was suggested that she would be a Nobel Prize winner if she were alive today. Why? Because she devoted her own adult life to helping – and educating – deprived Catholic families during the ‘Penal times’ in which she lived: she was born in 1718.

Header, tailpiece and above: images from the audio-visual display which can be seen in Nano Nagle Place, located on Douglas Street, Cork – only five minutes’ walk from the English Market

While Nano Nagle was actively agitating for – and lived to see – some relaxation of the laws against Catholics, particularly the repeals of 1778, she died in 1784 and it was not until 1791 that the Roman Catholic Relief Act saw some significant lessening of discrimination – although one of the sorest points, the continuing requirement for Catholics to pay tithes to the Established (Protestant) Church, was not fully overturned until the Irish Church Act of 1869.

Above – the landscaped gardens at Nano Nagle Place, Cork, are a city centre oasis, and contain Nano Nagle’s tomb and the graves of the sisters of the communities which carried out Nagle’s work from the mid eighteenth century onward

Nano herself seemed able to work ‘above the law’: she was born in Ballygriffin, near Mallow, County Cork into a wealthy family and experienced an idyllic childhood. The Penal Laws of that time meant that education for Catholics was not available in Ireland unless they were willing to attend Church of Ireland schools, and Irish Catholics were forbidden from travelling to the continent to be educated. Despite this, Nano was educated in France, where she experienced an epiphanic moment and determined to devote the rest of her life to the service of the poor back home in Ireland. 

Above – part of a painting in the Nano Nagle Room at Díseart Institute of Irish Spirituality and Culture (formerly the Presentation Convent) in Dingle, Co Kerry. The painting, by Eleanor Yates, shows the moment when Nano, travelling from a ball in Paris, sees pauper children suffering on the streets and realises that her life mission should be to care for and educate the poor

When Nano’s father and sister died, she moved to live with her brother’s family on Cove Street, Cork – now named Douglas Street. There she began to carry out her mission and opened a girls’ school around 1750 focussing on reading, writing, catechism and needlework. She had to work in secret as, under the Penal Laws, operating a Catholic school could result in imprisonment. 

Nano Nagle Place in Cork City incorporates some of the earliest buildings dating from the time of the Ursuline Sisters: the buildings have been restored and extended to form the present day Centre

Within ten years Nano was operating seven schools across the city of Cork, teaching both boys and girls. When her brother’s family moved to Bath, Nano took a small cottage on Cove Street. By day she visited each of her schools, and by night she visited the poor. This was dangerous work:  the city streets were neither lit nor properly policed. Nano travelled by the light of the lantern she carried, and she became known as ‘Miss Nagle, the Lady of the Lantern’.

Today there are displays in Nano Nagle Place showing some original artefacts from Nano’s time, including an early Convent accounts book and Nano’s cap

In 1771 Nano Nagle used a family inheritance to build a convent for the Ursuline sisters, a teaching order, whom she invited from France. The Ursuline Order, however, is ‘cloistered’ – unable to leave the convent and only able to teach within the convent. Thus,  to continue with her work in the schools she had set up all over Cork, Nano founded her own order – The Society for Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart – in 1775. The name was changed in 1791 to The Presentation Sisters, and there were from that time two religious communities both established by Nano Nagle, working side by side on Cove Lane (now Douglas Street), all living in mutual harmony and support, and continuing the mission of Nano Nagle across the world and into the present day.

Above – the death notice of Nano Nagle, and a recent water sculpture adjacent to her grave in Cork. Below – Nano’s gravestone and some graves of Sisters from the communities which were set up in Douglas Street

The Nano Nagle Heritage Centre has been established on Douglas Street and is open to all. It houses a very good visual presentation on the history of Cork in Nano’s time – and of Nano herself. It has beautiful landscaped gardens – quite a surprise in this urban setting – and Good Day Deli: a restaurant serving excellent food. Nano’s grave can be visited, and has recently been given a sculptural treatment which blends well with the historic buildings and graveyard of the early convent.

We are very grateful to Dr Danielle O’Donovan, Programme Manager of Nano Nagle Place, for personally showing us around the Centre and explaining its considerable historical significance

Eleventh Hour

I write this at 11am on the 11th November 2018 – exactly 100 years since the ending of The Great War. I have been aware of the significance of this moment of remembrance since my childhood: wherever we were at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we had to stop what we were doing and be silent for two minutes. This – and the horrors of war – have been in my psyche forever.

Growing up in Britain there was always that awareness of the two world wars, and the losses and sacrifices that they caused: every town and village has its war memorial, giving the names of those who died. That first – Great – war also affected Ireland but, until quite recently, it seems those Irish people who died because of it have received scant commemoration. But – as always in Ireland – once you begin to turn over the stones you do find the history; today’s post looks at just a few examples of memories and commemorations of the 1914 – 1918 conflict.

Firstly, the poetry. Yeats wrote of war poets – “We have no gift to set a statesman right.” I think he was wrong – poets and artists are probably most able to express emotions about war and its outrages in ways that others can approach and embrace. Francis Ledwidge, although an ardent Irish nationalist, states that he . . . joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilization and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions . . . Only a poet, surely, could describe an army as feminine. Ledwidge gave his life in pursuit of the cause: he was blown to pieces at Ypres on 31 July 1917. A year previously his friend, Irish patriot (and poet) Thomas MacDonagh, was executed (for his part in the 1916 rising) by soldiers in the same uniform that Ledwidge was wearing. The irony is only compounded by the fact that the poet’s Lament for Thomas MacDonagh can be seen now as Ledwidge writing on his own fate:

He shall not hear the bittern cry
in the wild sky, where he is lain,
Nor voices of the sweeter birds
Above the wailing of the rain
  
Nor shall he know when the loud March blows
Thro’ slanting snows her fanfare shrill,
Blowing to flame the golden cup
Of many an upset daffodil.
  
But when the dark cow leaves the moor
And pastures poor with greedy weeds
Perhaps he’ll hear her low at morn
Lifting her horn in pleasant meads.

Last week saw the opening of a new exhibition at the Cork Public Museum – Cork 1918: Victory, Virus and Votes. There are photographs, posters and artefacts – all very well displayed – telling the story of the involvement of people from Cork in the Great War, the political fallout from the War and the aftermath of the world wide Spanish Flu epidemic which claimed millions of victims. It’s a must-see exhibition and congratulations are due to Dan Breen and his dedicated team at the museum for bringing it to fruition at this appropriate time. The images above and below are from the new exhibition.

Today Finola is thinking about her grandfather – Sgt William Owen Roberts – who served in the Welsh Fusiliers and had a distinguished military career which included the Boer War and the Chinese Boxer War. He served in the Great War and was captured and interned in Germany and Holland. He contracted and died of the Spanish Flu on 15th November, 1918 – just a few days after the end of the conflict – at the age of 39. His grave is in The Hague.

There can be only a few families not affected by the wars of the twentieth century. My own Uncle Jack died in a prison camp in the 1940s, while my mother’s mother was a victim of the flu epidemic, dying in 1918 and effectively orphaning my mother (aged four) and her three siblings, as their father was away serving in the army.

Tucked away in burial grounds around Ireland are the graves of those who died in Europe between 1914 and 1918 in that awful war – and of those who died subsequently as a result of injuries and mental stress arising from the war. We mark them out on our travels around the country. The graves – erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission – are of a distinctive uniform design, originated by the architect Edwin Lutyens (who also designed the great Thiepval Memorial in France, the largest Commonwealth memorial to the missing in the world, inscribed with over 72,000 names). The sheer magnitude of that number – people of whom no trace is left other than a name carved on stone – is bewildering. The image below of Thiepval is courtesy of the CWGC.

Ireland does now have its own dedicated national war memorial to commemorate the Irish men and women who died during the First World War. The idea was first mooted in 1919 but took years to gestate. Lutyens was commissioned to design formal gardens in Islandbridge, Co Dublin, in the early 1930s, and construction work was largely completed in 1937, following by the establishment of trees and landscaping, an essential element of the design. The 1939 – 45 war in Europe delayed the opening of the memorial, which languished and suffered from decay and neglect for years after that. It wasn’t until 10th December, 1980 – following restoration by the Office of Public Works – that the Irish National War Memorial Gardens were formally dedicated, and they are now maintained to a high standard. As a point of interest, the gardens include classical pavilions – ‘Bookrooms’ – designed to house the memorial record illustrated by Harry Clarke and inscribed with the names of the 49,400 Irish soldiers lost during the Great War. The image of the memorial gardens below is by Diego Lopez Sebastian. The ‘tailpiece’ is a Harry Clarke Illustration from Ireland’s Memorial Records.

For us, perhaps it’s those tucked-away and often forgotten graves in the corners of Irish cemeteries that are the most poignant. We know that each one tells a story: we can’t know that story – but hopefully there is always somebody who does know – and who passes on the memories to future generations.

Above: two tucked-away West Cork war graves. The left-hand picture has an example, lower left, and is at Abbeymahon Graveyard, Courtmacsherry. On the right is an example at the ancient burial ground of Castlehaven.

Piper to the End – A Tribute to Liam O’Flynn

In March this year (2018) Liam O’Flynn passed away. He was a giant in Irish traditional music: a master of the Uilleann pipes – probably the most difficult instrument in the world to play – but also, surely, the most beautiful. We were fortunate to secure tickets for the Memorial Concert to Liam, held in Dublin’s National Concert Hall last Sunday. I would give anything to re-live that experience, as often as possible. We were overwhelmed by the insights which were presented by musicians who had worked with him – and dumbstruck by the astonishing and inspiring performance which took up the second half of the concert: The Brendan Voyage, composed in 1980 by Shaun Davey for the pipes and full orchestra, and written for – and with the collaboration of – Liam O’Flynn. In all, a most fitting tribute to a Maestro – pictured above in 2015 with the RTE Symphony Orchestra (courtesy RTE).

For anyone unfamiliar with this piece of music, here is  the second movement – The Brendan Theme – from the recording published by Tara Music Company in the 1980s, with Liam O’Flynn as soloist. It’s a good introduction to the (then) novel concept of combining the sounds of pipes and orchestra: the full suite (42 minutes) is  available to stream, download, or as a CD. It’s a work with memorable tunes and expansive orchestration: it could only have been written in the twentieth century, yet it is thoroughly approachable and is sure to bring any audience to its feet at the end. As a former tuned percussionist, I envied the rousing finales given to the timpani and cymbal section!

You can’t beat the atmosphere of a sold-out live performance in a full-sized concert hall such as this one in Dublin. We were fortunate in being seated only a couple of metres back from – and with a full view of – the soloist who, for this occasion, was Mark Redmond, a young piper from Gorey who has already established his reputation as a top-class musician. It would be hard for anyone to have to follow in the footsteps of Liam O’Flynn, but the rapturous ovations given to Mark – and the fabulous RTE National Symphony Orchestra conducted with such panache by David Brophy – proved that the ancient tradition of Uilleann piping is being ably advanced by our upcoming generations. (Photo above of Mark, David and the Orchestra taking a bow last Sunday courtesy Mark Redmond via Twitter).

The piece of music is ‘a story within a story’ – it is inspired by Saint Brendan, born in Fenit, Kerry in AD 484 who, with a group of monks set off in the sixth century in search of The Blessed Isles (Paradise). Stories of their many adventures have been recorded and illustrated down the centuries – including the one above which shows the monks landing on an ‘island’ to celebrate mass: the island is actually a giant sea-monster named Jascon! Brendan and his companions crossed the Atlantic, arriving in what we today call Newfoundland – long before the exploits of Columbus. What’s more, they returned safely seven years later to tell the tale. Brendan The Navigator is buried outside the Cathedral of Clonfert, Co Galway, as we have noted in one of our previous posts. And here’s another post about him. But we must not forget that Brendan has West Cork connections too: an elegant modern statue of him is situated in Bantry, looking out over the Bay.

Shaun Davey’s composition, however, is more a response to a modern reconstruction of Saint Brendan’s travels, rather than the original stories. In 1976, explorer, historian and writer Tim Severin set out to test the historical truth behind the stories of Brendan, and built a replica of Brendan’s currach. According to Wikipedia . . . using traditional tools and methods, the 11m, two-masted boat was constructed from Irish ash and oak, hand-lashed together with nearly 3km of leather thong, wrapped with 49 traditionally tanned ox hides, and sealed with wool grease . . . Severin and his crew set sail from Fenit, Co Kerry, and reached the coast of Labrador a year later. Severin’s book describing the expedition, The Brendan Voyage, became an international best seller. Shaun Davey based his music on Severin’s accounts of the journey, and the Uilleann pipes are given the part of the boat itself – both boat and instrument rely heavily on leather. The Irish word Uilleann means ‘elbow’ and the driving force of the instrument is a leather bag which is kept under pressure using one elbow, and is fed from a bellows on the other; the hands and wrists are kept fully occupied playing chanter, drones and regulators. When I listen to this music, my ears hear the water flowing under the leather hull of Severin’s (and Brendan’s) fragile craft. Here’s a good example: the movement titled Water Under the Keel – describing the journey through the Minch channel between the Outer Hebrides and the west coast of Scotland:

In 1972, Liam O’Flynn joined with Christy Moore, Dónal Lunny and Andy Irvine to found a seminal Irish traditional group – Planxty. Incarnations of that group – with additional players – have travelled the well-worn roads over the years, and on Sunday the remaining three original members, together with Matt Molloy, played for us – and brought on waves of nostalgia. The photo from the 70s, below (courtesy of Tara Music), shows them together: Liam O’Flynn is in the centre. Underneath is some footage from Planxty in their prime.

We were treated to other reminders of Liam’s achievements, including a performance of music he was commissioned to write for the inauguration of the Republic of Ireland’s 8th President, Mary McAleese on 11 November 1997. Here’s An Droichead (The Bridge) with Liam and guitarist Mark Knopfler: McAleese stated that the theme of her Presidency was ‘Building Bridges’.

It’s impossible to put into words the level of exhilaration we felt throughout the memorial concert last weekend. I hope that, at the very least, I may today have sparked some interest in the music of the Maestro, Liam O’Flynn (for those not already in the know) – and in the thrill of Shaun Davey’s mighty concert piece The Brendan Voyage. Here’s a last extract from that work, with Liam playing. It’s the climactic movement ‘Labrador’ – the pipes bring in a variation of the main theme to celebrate the boat’s arrival in the New World and the end of the voyage.

When I leave this world behind me
To another I will go
If there are no pipes in heaven
I’ll be going down below

If friends in time be severed
Someday we will meet again
I’ll return to leave you never
Be a piper to the end

This has been a day to die for
Now the day has almost gone
Up above a choir of seabirds
Turns to face the setting sun

Now the evening dawn is calling
And all the hills are burning red
And before the night comes falling
Clouds are lined with golden thread

We watched the fires together
Shared our quarters for a while
Walked the dusty roads together
Came so many miles

This has been a day to die on
Now the day is almost done
Here the pipes will lay beside me
Silent will the battle drum

If friends in time be severed
Someday here we will meet again
I return to leave you never
Be a piper to the end

(Piper to the End – a song by Mark Knopfler)

Lastly, Saint Brendan the Navigator is celebrated in his birthplace of Fenit, Co Kerry where he looks out eternally over the ocean which he and his companions conquered in their small, hide covered curragh.

Ireland’s Finest Prospect – The Story of Ballyfin Demesne, Part 1

There are two reasons why Ballyfin, in County Laois, was high on our list of Important Places To See In Ireland. One was the story that the name – An Baile Fionn in Irish – could mean ‘The Place of Fionn’ – and there is a legend that the great warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill was raised here, in the foothills of the Slieve Bloom Mountains. Fionn has left behind him so many traces all over Ireland that the place where he was – perhaps – born and grew up deserves pilgrimage status.

A place fit for a legendary Irish hero? Ballyfinn has associations with Fionn Mac Cumhaill. The lake which is central to the prospect from Ballyfin today was constructed by William Pole in the second half of the eighteenth century

An alternative translation of An Baile Fionn is ‘The White Town’, and the location has long had a reputation as a place of great beauty. Emily Fitzgerald, the Countess of Kildare – a remarkable lady who was illegitimately descended from King Charles II and who bore twenty-two children – wrote in 1759: 

. . . Yesterday, I saw a most delightful place indeed, much beyond any place I have seen in Ireland – Ballyfin . . .

The beauty of the Irish Midlands in the eighteenth century: Ballyfinn House can be seen in the centre distance of this pastoral view from 1784: beyond are the Slieve Bloom Mountains (painting by William Ashford)

In medieval times Ballyfin belonged to the O ‘Mordha clan but was lost during the Tudor conquest of Ireland. The process of Plantation (in which areas of the country were to be settled with people from England, who would bring in English language and culture while remaining loyal to the crown) was first implemented in Laois – then known as ‘Queen’s County’ after Queen Mary I – in the mid sixteenth century. It was a complicated and unstable period in British and Irish history, and Ballyfin saw many possessors ascend and fall until in May 1666 the estate of approximately 3,500 acres was conferred on Periam Pole, a recent arrival from Exeter in Devon. Pole and his son William expanded the estate, built a ‘modern’ house and reshaped the entire gardens and demesne. William planted woodlands and constructed the 30 acre artificial lake which is there to this day. The improvements were ‘grand and expensive and their designs were elegant’.

A view of Ballyfin engraved by William Beauford and published in 1794 shows the woodland, landscaped grounds and lake. The house  – which the Poles extended and improved – was described as ‘a rambling Georgian house’ although with no particular architectural merit

In the time of the Poles, Ballyfin began to build its reputation as one of Ireland’s grandest estates. However, it was not until the Poles were succeeded by the Cootes, in 1813, that the significant architectural statement that is Ballyfin today came into being.

Progenitors of Ballyfin: left – William Pole who died in 1781 (artist unknown) and right – Sir Charles Henry Coote who died in 1864 (artist John Hoppner). The legacy of these two families is a house and demense which are acknowledged as outstanding examples of their period – probably the finest in Ireland

Sir Charles Henry Coote already owned substantial estates close to Ballyfin, and it was timely and appropriate that he was able to purchase the demesne. He employed the father and son team of Richard Morrison and William Vitruvius Morrison as architects to rebuild the house, which is widely acknowledged as one of the most important examples of nineteenth-century neo-classical architecture in Ireland and is famed for its elaborate interior design.

A print showing the ‘new’ house designed by the Morrisons in the neo-classical style (1828 British Library). below – views of the house today

The picture above shows the west elevation of the house with the finely-wrought conservatory that was added in around 1855, designed and constructed by ironfounder Richard Turner, who was also responsible for the great Palm Houses at Kew and Belfast Botanic Gardens and the range of glasshouses at the Irish National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, Dublin. It’s my favourite part of the architecture – lightweight and elegant: seemingly timeless – it could be a contemporary structure.

Fine though the house is, it would fail without its context. The demesne is so important as a setting for the rather uncompromising architecture of the elevations. Finola has looked at the grounds and the surroundings. But it’s also the interior that sets Ballyfin apart as an icon of its time.

The Library at Ballyfin: upper – in Victorian days (Coote Archive); lower – splendidly restored, today

The Saloon: upper – a sketch from c 1855 by the Marquis de Massigny de la Pierre (Coote Archive); lower (and header picture) – the restored Saloon forms the centrepiece of the house today. Note the magnificent parquet floor

The Entrance Hall incorporates a Roman mosaic pavement: one of the art treasures brought over by Sir Charles Coote from his Grand Tour of 1822. The hall also displays a far more ancient antiquity: the antlers of Megaloceros Giganteus – the Irish Elk, recovered from an Irish bog and some 10,000 years old!
Details from the superbly restored marquetry flooring in the saloon – the most exotic examples to be found anywhere in Ireland

The first part of our story ends with the Cootes: the family owned Ballyfin until the 1920s. But there’s much more to tell about its succeeding time as a school – periods of neglect and decline – and, most remarkably,  its revival and return to distinction through one of the most complete and elaborate architectural restoration projects undertaken in Ireland in the 21st century. Ballyfin is now a first-class 5 star hotel where attention to detail in the service it offers is absolute: it has justifiably won many accolades and awards.

Afternoon tea on the Dining Room terrace at Ballyfin, c 1903 (Magan Collection)

The story of Ballyfin has been expertly and completely documented by Kevin V Mulligan in the volume Ballyfin – The Restoration of an Irish House & Demesne, Churchill House Press 2018. We are indebted to this author and his work. The architectural restoration and the incarnation of the house today is described in Part 2 of this post: Decline and Revival.

The Elemental World of Cormac Boydell

Perched on the very edge of Europe and facing into the Atlantic Ocean, the far west of Ireland is a terrifyingly beautiful place to set down your roots. Our own little spot, overlooking the comparatively calm reaches of Roaringwater Bay, faces into the winter gales and it’s a constant fight to keep the weather out: always a losing battle. But, could we live anywhere else? Certainly not. This week we met up with Cormac Boydell and Rachel Parry – two artists who live just about as far away as it is possible to be in wild West Cork. Like us, they battle with the elements; like us, they couldn’t envisage living anywhere else.

Cormac Boydell (header picture – in his studio) and Rachel Parry live on the edge of Ireland: their cottage and lush gardens feel as if they are carved out of the mountainside to seek maximum shelter from winter storms. They are well off the beaten track close to the end of the Beara Peninsula: the nearest settlement is Allihies (from the Irish Na hAilichí, meaning ‘the cliff fields) which was a centre for copper extraction in the Bronze Age and from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when generations of Cornish Mine Captains came here to manage the mines, providing work for a substantial local population.

Connection with the landscape is something that’s inherent in the make-up of Cormac Boydell. It must be significant that he started out studying and working as a geologist – getting to know the physical fabric of the rocks and the earth around him – before setting out on a more creative path, working with those very elements to produce exuberantly robust ceramic sculptures which are unique and highly sought after.

Cormac’s tools are his hands. He works raw terracotta clay and crafts the shapes of his pieces without wheel or mould. He applies colours and – most importantly – textures into the surface, and firing provides the finishes – not always predictable. For him, this is all part of the living process. But that’s the physical process: into the whole equation, also, are his close observations of the environment around him – the geology, textures and colours of the rock surfaces from the natural and cultivated landscapes. He sees the way rocks break and how they weather – how time is an element in their metamorphoses. Somehow, into all this surveillance and appreciation of nature he also makes stories. He finds inspiration in ancient sagas, particularly those from Ireland, as we saw in the exhilarating work on the walls of his studio.

Cormac Boydell is one of the important group of artists who came and settled in West Cork during the second half of the last century – a group whose lives and work have yet to be properly celebrated. Like many others of this group he has stayed for life and contributed to raising the profile of art produced in Ireland. In a catalogue of work produced by West Cork artists and displayed both in Skibbereen and the Crawford Gallery in Cork 30 years ago – Living Landscape ’87 – he writes this of his own contribution to that exhibition:

. . . Landscape is not the first term I would apply to my work. However I always welcome challenge. Breaking new ground stimulates creativity where repetition kills it. Experimentation, welcoming both failures and success, working out beyond the boundaries of my vision… that’s the excitement of art making. Using rock and fired clay as elements of the landscape, “Earthbone” expresses the spirit from which the landscape is formed . . .

Alison Ospina wrote in 2011 in the introduction to her book West Cork Inspires:

. . . Hidden down the leafy lanes of West Cork I have found artists whose work is of the highest calibre and should be considered of national importance . . . I have selected people working in a variety of media whose work has had an impact on other craftspeople and has been influential in developing West Cork’s reputation for excellence and originality . . .

In her book she writes of Cormac Boydell:

. . . Cormac’s work is organic and elemental, the earth is its source. It resonates across millennia from when the bedrock of this country was being laid down and speaks of torsion and vortices, glacial drift and the alchemy of fire. It taps into the energies of nature, to which it is inextricably linked . . .

One of my favourite new pieces from Cormac Boydell is this large plaque inspired by the story of the Irish Saint Éinne (also known as Saint Enda): the patriarch of Irish monasticism. He is the brother of St Fanchea (see Finola’s post about Irish women saints) and was a warrior until Fanchea persuaded him to lay down his arms. He went to Aran in 484 and founded the first monastery there but the local chieftain Corbanus intervened. Éinne’s response was to banish all of Corbanus’s horses from the islands. This is the scene which Cormac has illustrated and it’s one of a recent series which is based on myths and legends.

You could own a piece by Cormac Boydell! This ceramic – based on a story from the Finn McCool cycle – has been purchased by Uillinn, the West Cork Arts Centre gallery in Skibbereen, and will be on display there from this week until the end of the Art & The Great Hunger Exhibition which runs from 20 July to 13 October. While the gallery is open you can purchase draw tickets at only 5 Euros each: the prize, which will be drawn on the last day of the exhibition, is the Boydell ceramic. What an opportunity – every ticket stands an equal chance of winning this unique work of art! And all your contributions will be supporting the activities of the Arts Centre.

With grateful thanks to Cormac and Rachel for allowing us a glimpse into their world