Sliding into Kerry

view from the road

My musical acquaintances might think that this post is all about Kerry slides – lively tunes which get aired sometimes at our session: here are some fine examples played by Éamonn O’Riordan, Tony O’Connell, Brian Mooney and Gearóid Ó Duinnín…

But they would be mistaken: this is the tale of a little wintry but sunlit exploration which Finola and I undertook on the eve of St Gobnait’s feast day. It involved crossing the border into Kerry, something which is not lightly done by Corkonians because of traditional rivalries (mainly on the Hurling and Gaelic Football fields). So we had to ‘slide’ over into the Kingdom and hope that none of our friends noticed our temporary absence.

Sheep flock on road

We had things to do in Kenmare (have a look at Finola’s post), but afterwards we took to the byways. We knew there is a remote, lonely and very beautiful road winding up over the mountains, shared only by a few wandering sheep, and determined that would be our way home. We headed off to the tiny settlement of Kilgarvan and there saw a signpost that said Bantry 25: we turned on to the boreen that follows the Roughty and Slaheny Rivers and immediately entered another world.

Macaura's Grave signpost

We hadn’t gone very far along the road before we were intrigued by a brown signpost – beckoning us along an even smaller boreen. Macaura’s Grave: neither of us had any idea who Macaura was, so we had to go and investigate. After about ten minutes of twisting and turning and trying to guess which of the unmarked and unsigned lanes to take whenever we came to a junction, we found ourselves back on the road we had just left! By now we were determined that Macaura was not going to get the better of us, so we flagged down a young lad who was in charge of a fine red tractor. He was very forthcoming, and told us that the grave was well worth a visit, then proceeded to give us a set of instructions that involved turning this way and that – signifying to the air which ways these were. Not a little confused, we drove off again.

View from near grave

It was no hardship to be exploring the magnificent countryside in south Kerry: the views were breathtaking and the variety of colours on the mountains in sunlight and shadow this early spring day was astonishing. A bit more head scratching and a few more twists and turns down a stony trackway and we were there!

Modern sign

Now we knew. Not only had we found the grave of Macaura – that’s the old Irish way of saying McCarthy – but we had come across the site of one of the most significant battles in Irish history! The Irish chieftain, Finín McCarthy (named as the ‘King’ of Kerry – and that’s why Kerry is known as The Kingdom), joined up with the O’Sullivan Beare from West Cork and the O’Donoghues from Ross Castle to rout the Normans, who were led by Sir John Fitzgerald. This battle took place in 1261. 1261! Over eight hundred years ago… This confirms my thesis that you can’t go anywhere in Ireland without stumbling over history. The Anglo-Normans had claimed their stake in Ireland from 1169 when Strongbow (Richard de Clare) arrived with the blessing of Henry II (and the Pope – who saw the Irish church charting its own course and not following Rome!). Reasonably, the Irish chieftains objected to the Norman invaders, hence this confrontation.

Grave Inscription

In the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 1961, Volume 66, there is a comprehensive – but not entirely enlightening – article by Diarmud Ó Murchadha on The Battle of Callan:

…Finghin Mac Carthy had learned much from his opponents during his years of conflict, while he had the added advantage of knowing intimately the territory over which he fought. At Callann he chose his battleground, at a spot where a mountainy river called the Slaheny joins the Ruachtach, close by the castle of Ardtully. No doubt he reckoned that here the heavily-armoured cavalry of the invader could be used to the least advantage. Battle was then joined and Finghin mac Domhnaill mic Charthaigh emerged victorious… Unfortunately no details of the conflict – apart from the names of those slain – are available. Incidentally, the fullest account of the battle is given, not by the Munster annals, but by the Annals of Loch Ce and Annals of Connacht:

AD 1261 – A great war was waged, and numerous injuries were committed in this year by Finghin, son of Domhnall Mac Carthaigh, and his brothers, against the foreigners.There was a great hosting by the Geraldines into Desmond, to attack Mac Carthy, but it was Mac Carthy attacked them, and defeated them…

The Annals go on to record the fact that Finghin followed up his victory at Callan by attacking and destroying every Norman castle and stronghold in Munster. As the sign over Macaura’s Grave tells us: …he liberated the Kingdom of South Munster from Norman domination forever…

battle-of-callan-site

But who is it that the Macaura Grave celebrates? ‘Donal, Chieftain of the McCarthy Fineens’… Presumably this is not the Finghin, who, according to the Annals, went on after the battle to rout the Normans out of Munster: the Finghin who is known as mac Domhnaill mic Charthaigh – ‘son of Domhnaill MacCarthy’. Could it be his father (Donal is an Anglicisation of Domhnaill)? In which case it was the clan chieftain who died in the battle and his son who went on to clear the Normans out of Kerry. There are a few accounts of the battle, but none of them clarify this. It all happened a long time ago, of course, and memories fade. In fact this site was all but lost: an article in The Kerryman takes up the story, illustrated by this photograph:

1981-clearing-the-site-of-the-grave

…The men of Kilgarvan were busy in November 1981 – making a road fit for a king! The king in question is Finín McCarthy who died in 1261 after being the first Irish king to defeat the Normans, thus giving Kerry the name of the Kingdom… Legend has it that after the battle, McCarthy stood on a ditch to survey the battlefield, when a dying Norman killed him with an arrow. McCarthy was buried on the spot, and a large slab was used as a headstone. The grave now lies on a narrow little road in Callan beside Tom Healy’s farm. When retired Dublin civil servant Frank Shanley spent a recent holiday in Kilgarvan he went looking for the grave, which was buried by shrubs and bushes… He decided to organise a meeting of the local men to try and get them to improve the grave and access to it…. It was Dan O’Sullivan, Down, Tom O’Donoghue and Michael Teehan, who were slaving away widening the roadway from eight feet wide to 16 feet, when he visited in November 1981… Apart from the narrow roadway and the briars and trees, there was also a steady stream of water running over the grave, but the men got the pipes to divert the water in another direction. There was no actual inscription on the grave that the men could read, but there were a series of lines and crosses on it, which they hope will be examined by an expert…. They hope that when they have the roadway to the grave cleared, they can erect signposts to the grave, and notices around the grave telling the history of McCarthy’s death in the battle of Callan…

Macaura's Grave

So we have the ‘men of Kilgarvan’ – back in the 80s – to thank for leading us to this now tranquil but historically turmoiled and fascinating spot. There is still the puzzle of which McCarthy is commemorated: perhaps we’ll never know for sure. But it’s not bad to have access to a story which has survived for the best part of nine hundred years – just about within living memory by Irish standards! After this excitement we continued our journey over the spectacular Coomhola road through the mountains towards Ballylickey and gently slid back into West Cork. If you can cope with very narrow roads (it’s not so bad – we only saw two other vehicles, both local farmers, in the whole 25 kilometres!) it’s one of the great road trips of Ireland – with the added bonus of a history lesson to be taken in.

Beyond the tunnel

Sheep on the edge

The Winding Road

Nest of the Eagle

eagles over nead

Nead an Iolair – that is the house we live in, here in the townland of Cappaghglass, West Cork. That’s it, in the picture above, with a pair of eagles flying overhead… We don’t see them very often. Well, in truth, we haven’t seen them at all – this is a bit of photographic magic – and wishful thinking. Nead an Iolair – our Irish readers will know that this means Nest of the Eagles – is a perfect name for the site, suspended way up above Rossbrin Cove – a good lookout with higher ground behind: exactly the right environment for the big birds. There were undoubtedly eagles here once – and in various other parts of Ireland – but when and how many? As with most things nowadays, someone has carried out the research and there’s a study available online. It’s worth a read, but I can summarise the main points: analysis of place-names and documentary evidence from the last 1500 years enabled the following diagrams to be drawn up:

eagles data

Data from The history of eagles in Britain and Ireland: an ecological review of placename and documentary evidence from the last 1500 years – Evans, O’Toole and Whitfield, RSPB Scotland 2012. Diagram (a) is 500AD and diagram (b) is 1800AD. The dots show Golden Eagle locations in dark grey, White-tailed Eagle locations in light grey and overlapping of both species in black

The diagram shows that White-tailed Eagles have lived here on the Mizen Peninsula 1500 years ago, and both species have been located a little further up the west coast as recently as 200 years ago. In 2001 fifty young golden eagles were released in Glenveagh National Park, Donegal, in an attempt to reintroduce the bird to Ireland. In a similar project to reintroduce white-tailed eagles,  one hundred of the birds were brought from Norway to the Killarney National Park between 2007 and 2011, and up to September 2016 thirteen chicks have survived. The aim is to get at least ten chicks flying from their nests each year. Six white-tailed eagle chicks have flown from their nests in Ireland in 2016, making it the most successful year yet; one of these chicks was born near Glengariff, which is only just over the hill from us in terms of an eagle’s range. So we remain ever hopeful that the white-tailed eagles (sometimes known as white-tailed sea eagles) will soon make their way down here to Nead an Iolair – attracted, perhaps, by the name. We’d be very pleased to see them circling overhead – they are the largest birds on Ireland’s shores. Already our bird feeders attract avians of all shapes and sizes, and they generally get along fine with each other, although the smaller birds do make themselves scarce when Spioróg turns up!

White-tailed sea eagle

A superb photograph of Haliaeetus albicilla – the white-tailed eagle or white-tailed sea-eagle, by Yathin S Krishnappa (via Wikipedia Commons). This was taken in Svolvaer, Norway – geographical source of the birds that were reintroduced into Killarney National Park within the last decade

Whenever we are on our travels we look out for the word Iolair (eagle) in place-names. We found one in Duhallow, a Barony in Cork County, just north of the wonderfully named Boggeragh Mountains. In fact we were alerted by signposts directing us to Nad or Nadd (nest) and found ourselves in a tiny settlement which was determined to point out its links with the eagles.

nad road sign

eagle on post 2

large eagle's nest sign

The village of Nead an Iolair in Duhallow, North Cork makes its associations with eagles very clear. The pub is named The Eagle’s Nest, and there is a fine sculpture of the bird sitting Nelson-like on a column beside it

Besides these features the village has a poignant memorial dating from the struggle for independence: a reminder of harsh realities still within living memory. The words that stand out are May God Free Ireland.

Back to the eagles and – in an interesting diversion into semantics – we noticed that the name over the door of the pub is in old Irish script and has introduced an additional character to the word Iolair – it looks like an ‘f’. Finola tells me that the use of the accent over that ‘f’ – which is known as a búilte – serves to silence the letter. In modern script it would be converted to ‘fh’: so fhiolair would still be pronounced ‘uller’. But we can’t find any precedent for using the word in this form. Perhaps an expert in Irish language can help us here…?

nead an fiolair

Regular readers will be aware that I am always on the lookout for links between Cornwall and the West of Ireland (and there are many). Interestingly, Nead an Iolair is one of them. Just outside St Ives, on the north coast of Cornwall, is a superb house, also called Eagle’s Nest. It was the family home of Patrick Heron, one of the influential St Ives School artists. When I lived in Cornwall I frequently passed by the house and was always impressed with its location – like us now, it is high up above the coast with a commanding view over the myriad small fields and out to the ocean. I always thought I would like to live there, because of that view… Now I have my own Eagle’s Nest – and I couldn’t be more content.

eagles Nest cornwall

Looking across the Cornish moorlands near Zennor, towards Eagle’s Nest – photographed by the artist Patrick Heron, whose home this was

Saint Oliver

plunkett window close

We revisited Inchigeelagh, in West Cork, as we remembered that the church of Saint Finbarr and All Angels had some fine examples of stained glass: Finola is preparing a talk on that subject and our travels are revealing an unexpected abundance of this art in our little bit of Ireland’s furthest reaches. Our last visit to Inchigeela was to inspect the unusual ‘rock art’ that has been built into the wall of the grotto just by the church door.

rock art inchigeela

We are none the wiser about the meaning of the ‘rock art’: suggestions include a dove of peace flying over mountains – but I have yet to be convinced. However, it was a good day for looking at the windows: the sun was streaming through the south facing glass panels and creating a kaleidoscope of colour on the surrounding walls.

There was plenty to occupy my attention in this church: I had to admire the bear of St Columbanus. This Irish saint spent most of his life on missionary work on the continent and stories about him include taming the bear and yoking it to a plough, and establishing friendships with wolves. I’m not quite sure why, but St Columbanus is the Patron Saint of motorcyclists.

the bear

There was one window I had failed to notice amongst the panoply of saints on my previous visit to Inchigeelagh – tucked away at the back of the church: it’s the one at the top of this page – Saint Oliver Plunkett. In some ways it’s the most extraordinary of the windows as it depicts the gruesome death suffered by this Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland at the hands of turncoats and perjurers – and it’s a far cry from rural West Cork. Plunkett was born in 1625 in Loughcrew, County Meath and died at Tyburn, London: hanged, drawn and quartered, in 1681.

Gallows

He was a victim of the Popish Plot, concocted by Titus Oates, an English clergyman who contrived a story that Plunkett was to lead an uprising involving 20,000 French soldiers. Whichever account you read, it seems that no-one believed the story: a trial was held in Dublin but there was no conviction. Plunkett was then sent to Newgate and put on trial again: again the trial collapsed. A third trial, at which Plunkett had no counsel, found him guilty after the jury had retired for fifteen minutes. That it was a monumental miscarriage of justice became evident very quickly: Plunkett’s accusers were arrested – the day after his execution.

Perhaps the reason why Oliver Plunkett appears in Inchigeelagh is topicality: he was canonised in 1975, thus becoming the first new Irish saint for almost seven hundred years. Above is his shrine in St Peter’s Church, Drogheda, County Louth (his head is on display) and his Canonisation picture. St Oliver is the Patron Saint of Peace and Reconciliation, which in the mid-seventies was timely for Ireland. As ever, it’s timely for the world today. The Oliver Plunkett window was made by Abbey Stained Glass Studios, Dublin in 1992 and the artist was Kevin Kelly.

plunkett-15-stamp

All Silver and No Brass

title page full

Henry Glassie’s book has been sitting on my shelves for 40 years, waiting to be dusted off and revisited. As a Mummer myself, I eagerly searched out any book on this then neglected subject, and was pleased to find this volume which concentrated on the Mumming tradition in Northern Ireland. It is written and illustrated by Henry Glassie, a Professor of Folklore at Indiana University Bloomington, and is the product of an extended field trip to County Fermanagh in the early 1970s.

Henry Glassie – born 1941 – has written many books about life and traditions in Ireland. His first was All Silver and no Brass, published by The Dolmen Press in 1976

…Winter nights in Ireland are black and long. A sharp wet wind often rises through them. Midwinter is a time to sit by the fire, safe in the family’s circle, waiting for the days to lengthen and warm. It is no time for venturing out into cold darkness. The ground is hard, the winds bitter. But for two and a half centuries, and possibly for many years before them, young men braved the chilly lanes, rambling as mummers from house to house, brightening country kitchens at Christmas with a comical drama. Their play, compact, poetical, and musical, introduced an antic crew and carried one character through death and resurrection…

(From the Preface to All Silver and no Brass by Henry Glassie)

here comes I

saint patrick

Glassie stayed in Ireland during the Troubles, and deliberately chose a community that was close to the upheavals of those days.

…Mumming was neither my project nor my goal. My project was the creation of an existentially grounded ethnography of people in trouble… We settled next to the barbed-wire bound barracks in the southwest Ulster town of Enniskillen, in the County Fermanagh, about twelve miles north and east of the burning border. I began quickly, luxuriously conducting my study on foot. I came to know every dog, bog, path and field in a small area south of the town, lying west of Upper Lough Erne, its waters as bright, its isles as green as promised in the old ballad of the Inniskilling Dragoon…

Enniskillen, from a photograph dated 1900, and Henry Glassie’s illustration of the mummers ‘Doin the Town’ as remembered in the 1970s

I like the way the book is set out. One section transcribes a number of conversations that Glassie has with people who remembered – and had been involved with – the mumming tradition.

…Most of the kitchens at the centers of those white houses were opened willingly, generously to me. My Americanness set me outside the local social categories, so I got on well with people of opposed political and religious persuasions. More of the people were Catholics than Protestants, more were men than women, more were old than young. Almost all had made courageous adaptations within the terrors that frame our lives. That was what interested me most: how daily life passed sanely, even artfully, despite armored cars hurtling down the country lanes, despite bombs that cracked the air and rattled the windows. I had forgotten all about mumming. Then one evening Mrs Cutler and I were chatting about Christmas and she mentioned the mummers’ arrival as the season’s high point. Suddenly excited, I asked if any of the play’s performers were still alive, and she listed people I knew well. All of them were men in their sixties and seventies who had begun to stand out in my thinking as exceptionally energetic, outgoing, and articulate. From that time on, I asked many questions about the drama, its performance, meaning, and purpose. I learned that the memory of mumming is cherished…

wren-boys

Upper picture – Wrenboys from Athea, Co Limerick, 1946 and below – ‘Mummers hunting the wren’ in Macroom, Co Cork, around 1950

Glassie talks at length to two brothers, Peter and Joseph Flanagan, who have very clear memories of taking part in the mumming.

“…We’d just take every house that we faced, whether we’d be admitted or not. We’d just take every house that we’d face. Of course, there was people on the other hand that wouldn’t admit them because it might frighten the youngsters, you see, or cause some confusion. That’s the way. That’s the way it goes now. So, You all stood at the door and…”

He twists and rapidly knocks five times on the table.

“…’who’s there?’

“…’Captain Mummer. Any admission?’ Yes, aye, or no: that was the way. ‘Any admittance for Captain Mummer and his men?’

“and if the person was pleased to admit you, well, they’d open the door. Throw it wide open for you.

“And Captain Mummer walked in.”

Peter moves quickly from his seat and down the kitchen. His heavy boots sound sharp on the floor. He closes the front door behind him, raps on it thrice, and re-enters. He strides ten feet into the kitchen and stands to deliver his lines, turning his torso to project to the audience assembled in a semi circle that runs from the front table past the hearth to the back table. Joe and I are fixed upon him…

“Here comes I, Captain Mummer and all me men.

Room, room, gallant room, gimmee room to rhyme,

Till I show you some diversion round these Christmas times.

Act of young, and act of age, the like of this were never acted on a stage.

If you don’t believe in what I say, enter in Beelzebub and he will clear the way.”

Frowning, Peter returns to his stool. It has been years since he has thought of the rhymes. “Let me see now,” he says, and sits repeating the speeches of Beelzebub and Prince George under his breath. Joe picks up the large turf out of the fire with the tongs and sets them at the front of the hearth. He sweeps the thick ashes off the iron to his side with a besom, places new turf against the backstone, and arranges the old coals next to them. The smoke and glow increase as the new turf ignite. Joe, too, went mumming, but he went out less often than Peter and cannot remember the part he played. He sits back as Peter starts in again…

Henry Glassie’s drawing of ‘how a mummer’s hat is made’ together with two examples from more recent times

Glassie’s writing goes on to describe the recollections of the play from those who undertook the performances. It is an invaluable record: his informants have now passed away. They would probably be surprised to know that their plays have not been lost: a new generation is performing in the north – and elsewhere on the island of Ireland. They would be even more surprised, perhaps, to learn that their own play breathes again: there is a Mummers Centre in Derrylin and the Aughakillymaude Community Mummers (Aughakillymaude translates as the wooden field of the wild dog) perform regularly in the area around Christmas time once more, while at other times they travel across Europe keeping the spirit of mumming in Ireland very much alive:

aughakillymaude-mummers

Aughakillymaude Community Mummers in full cry (above)  and (below) Henry Glassie’s reconstruction of the performance before the hearth

the performance

 

Travel by Water

Ballynacarrigy Bridge

We have been on a voyage of discovery – or, perhaps, rediscovery. You remember that recently I reviewed a book which I received as a school prize in 1963: Green & Silver by L T C Rolt? That was a book about travelling by water through some of the canals and rivers of Ireland. The book was published in 1949 but I found out that the journey was undertaken in 1946 – exactly 70 years ago and, also, the year in which I was born. Tom Rolt was a good travel writer and a good observer, and the book is full of descriptions of the places and people that he and his wife Angela came across: it’s a valuable social document and it is rather significant that three score years and ten have passed since they completed their explorations.

Tom Rolt (left) and Angela and Tom Rolt (right) aboard Le Coq, the boat with which they set sail from Athlone to circumnavigate the inland waterways of Ireland between June and September 1946. The photos are taken on the Grand Canal

Back in my more youthful days I also travelled by water, but around the English canal system, a journey of nearly 2,000 miles, taking several months. I also wrote a book after the journey: Canals and their Architecture. Tom Rolt was to have written the introduction to that book but he was unable to, because of illness. As a tribute to him, and to mark his journey through Ireland, Finola and I have been retracing his steps. We should have travelled by water, too, but that would have impinged overmuch on our busy lives here in West Cork. Instead, we covered in a couple of weeks by car what Tom and Angela had taken three months to achieve. Their’s were difficult times, too, immediately after The Emergency when fuel was virtually unobtainable.

navigable waterways

Map of the journey taken from Green & Silver. We have marked on it the sites which we wanted to visit, either because Angela had photographed them or because there was a ‘story’ about the place in the book

Angela Rolt recorded the journey in her own way – through the lens of her camera. Her wonderfully evocative monochrome photographs illustrate Green and Silver, and provided a goal for each leg of our own travels. Armed with the book and digital scans of all her pictures we set out to retrace the watery steps of Le Coq – the little boat which the Rolts borrowed – and take a new photograph at every place they visited. The aim was to set up each photograph of 2016 to exactly match those of 1946 and, through the lens, to record the differences that have taken place in Ireland during all those years. Of course, there is much more to this exercise than the photos: Rolt’s book contains many stories, of people and places not necessarily illustrated but well described, so we also looked out for those: would anyone today have any memories of the people talked about in the book? And would the descriptions of the places that the waterways served in those days ring true in the present?

harbour town

Tullamore 2016

Just one example of our efforts to retrace the steps of the Rolts and record a changing Ireland. Upper photograph – taken by Angela Rolt in 1946 at Tullamore Harbour, Grand Canal. Lower photograph – taken by Robert at the same site. Although the canal harbour itself is intact today – it is an administrative centre for Waterways Ireland – there have been some significant changes. The fine three storeyed warehouses which faced on to the canal 70 years ago have gone, demolished in the 1960s. The Church of the Assumption beyond the harbour was destroyed by fire in 1983 and has since been rebuilt to a modern design except for the tower, which survived the fire

This project will take a little time to fully document. It might occupy a few blog posts! This one is by way of introduction. One thing that struck me most forcefully is the change which the waterways of Ireland have undergone in seventy years. Now all the navigable waterways of Ireland are administered by a single cross-border authority – Uiscebhealaí Éireann (Waterways Ireland); some of the canals which were derelict or near-derelict in 1946 have been fully restored, and many are equipped with modern electric lock gear – something which the Rolts could never have envisaged in their time. However, the volatile economic situations which Ireland has been subjected to in the late twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, have also had their effects, and we found this reflected in some of the stories which we followed during our travels.

Shannon Erne Waterway

The restored Shannon-Erne navigation links waterways between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The 63km canal was constructed originally in the mid nineteenth century but became moribund by 1865. The navigation was reopened in 1994. All sixteen new modern locks are operated electronically by hydraulics: boaters are issued with a key which activates the control panels (above)

Another surprise for me was the quality of the engineering and the scale of the undertakings which Ireland displays on its system of navigations. These were massive construction projects in their day, but they nonetheless manage still to convey a sense of respect for their settings, an appropriateness of all materials used, and a constant appreciation of human scale. The architecture of Ireland’s canals is truly vernacular, something I hope to demonstrate during these explorations.

Mullawornia Lock

Mullawornia Lock, Lock 40, Royal Canal, County Longford. The lock-keeper’s house is an unspoilt example of a vernacular architecture which can be seen across Ireland’s canals

To be continued…

The Souvenir Shop

Free State Jam

This is a first – a ‘live’ blog post! I’m writing it inside an art installation running as part of the excellent Skibbereen Arts Festival. The installation is The Souvenir Shop, and it’s a huge hit with visitors. The project is conceived by Belfast artist Rita Duffy and curated by Helen Carey, and is a very unusual perspective on the 1916 Rising commemorations.

o'neill'sshop

The Souvenir Shop was first shown in Dublin earlier this year – here is a review from the Irish Times – and it’s now in the perfect setting here in West Cork: O’Neill’s old sweetshop on Townshend Street in Skibbereen. The premises has been empty for years and stepping inside it today is stepping into the past: a shop unchanged over generations.

customers

Rita in Shop

The atmospheric and nostalgic interior of O’Neill’s shop brought back to life by Rita Duffy (above): it displays and sells ‘souvenirs’ of the 1916 Rising and the events around it. It’s a piece of art which includes and embraces its customers and the ‘invigilators’ who, today, are Roaringwater Journal creators Finola and Robert

Finola and I are on our second stint behind the counter: we are the shopkeepers! We try to keep order as customers crowd in to look at the wares in display, all of which are designed by Rita. We met her in the shop on the first day of the exhibition and she explained that, during the Rising on Easter Monday 1916, many shops in Dublin were looted: the first was Noblett’s Sweet Shop on Sackville Street, and another was Tom Clarke’s tobacconist shop on Great Britain Street (now Parnell Street). She has re-made or re-imagined these shops for the installation, and filled the empty shelves of O’Neill’s with an incredible array of objects – most of which are for sale.

Dublin’s 1916 Easter Rising was accompanied by widespread looting of shops: Noblett’s Confectionery (top left – Dublin City Photographic Collection) and Clarke’s Tobacconist (bottom – National Library of Ireland) were among the first casualties. Tom Clarke himself (above right) was the first to sign the Proclamation of Independence, and was a driving force behind the rebellion

Rita Duffy’s subversive commentary on the Rising and the events that led from that time towards the present uneasy ‘peace process’  includes re-interpretations of everyday items that we would expect to see on the shelves of our local shops – soap, boot polish, tinned foods, tea, sweets, packets of seeds… It all looks very normal when you walk in – with a period flavour. We are finding that many of the customers today have fond memories of O’Neill’s sweet shop recalled from their childhoods and are delighted to come in and see it back in business: we can’t resist nostalgia. The initial impression is exactly that – a rosy-hued look back on our remembered past. Then we all start looking more closely at what is on the shelves and we are jolted out of our reveries…

Just a few of the items on sale today in The Souvenir Shop. Look carefully – ‘No Surrender stain remover’ shows James Connolly’s blood stained shirt worn during the Easter Rising; ‘His Majesties Ltd comforting diasporic foot soak for the wanderer who seeks a better footing’; ‘On The Run embrocation for the sore and twisted limbs of the dissident thinker (apply before sleep in a safe house)’; ‘Put my grandfather back together’ bandages; ‘Towards a New Republic Clear the Air vapour candle’…

It makes you laugh, initially – and then you have to think what you are laughing about. Balaclavas, in powder blue and pink with orange trim, for example. Black and Tan boot polish…? There’s a whole lot more to The Souvenir Shop. Rita Duffy has engaged the services of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association in Cavan (her studio is in Ballyconnell) to make Free State Jam and to knit – the balaclavas for example – but also some wonderfully bizarre religious iconography: did you ever see a knitted Pietá before?

Unexpected knitting courtesy of the Cavan Irish Countrywomen’s Association

Rita has also produced tea towels, t-shirts, and some embroidered place-mats carrying rather uncomfortable messages to entertain your dinner guests with. There are also ceramics: teapots, dishes and glassware. It’s such an eclectic range of goods on offer in this shop. That’s why the crowds come in and spend what seems like hours browsing the shelves that once held jars of sweets and packets of tea. There are sweets and tea here today – children are delighted to be given some free samples – but they probably don’t understand the hidden messages on the colourful packaging.

Most stark, perhaps, are the seeds: Seeds of the Revolution: two packets for 5 Euros. The messages here are fairly easy to read, although harder to digest. They really are seeds in those packets, but you’ll have to plant them to find out what comes up, perhaps something else that has a subversive implication: I’ll tell you what mine are next spring!

Seed rack

There’s so much in The Souvenir Shop that I haven’t included in this little review – and I’m far too busy trying to fend off the demands of the customers while I’m writing this. If only they would get into an orderly queue – it’s like some sort of insurrection in here… But we’ll cope – and encourage you to come and see this piece of artwork while it’s still on (it finishes on Monday 1st August at 5pm). Step inside and you become part of the exhibit – just like we are right now. You’ll enjoy it, perhaps more than you should. It will certainly leave you thinking.

Cross Roads Dancing

The Souvenir Shop (…nothing is as it seems…) is one of the major projects commissioned by the Arts Council of Ireland’s Art 1916-2016, marking the centenary of the 1916 Rebellion – with the support of Cavan Arts Office and the Irish Countrywomen’s Association. It runs through the Skibbereen Arts Festival between July 22nd and August 1st in O’Neill’s old sweetshop on Townshend Street

Peas + Beans