Archaeology, Art and Architecture at the Blasket Centre

Funny how you see different things every time you visit special places. The last time we were at The Blasket Centre on the Dingle Peninsula, a couple of years ago, I immersed myself in the stories of the writers and the Island way of life, which is, after all, the focus of the exhibitions. Given that a visit to the Island itself can be difficult, calling for fine weather conditions, the exhibition is very well done and illustrates well the hardships and perils faced by Island people, as well as their depths of warmth, poetic language, stories and daily tasks. This time, I was equally struck by the building itself, and by the art at its core.

An Muircheartach’s photograph of Peig Sayers, one of the Island writers and the bane of many a struggling Irish Language student (hand up!) forced to study her stories

We had a particular reason for going there last month. Readers will remember my post about Lee Snodgrass, a respected and loved local archaeologist. She and her partner, Paddy O’Leary, had undertaken an archaeological survey of the Blaskets in the 1980s, and their original papers, notes and photographs were still among her possessions. With the blessing of her family, I arranged to deliver them to the Blasket Centre, and that happened last month.

One of the Blasket Island, Inish Tuaisceart, know as An Fear Marbh, The Dead Man, for its distinctive shape

We were welcomed by the Director, Lorcán Ó Cinnéide (below). He was genuinely delighted to receive this package, since it contained information on all the Blasket Islands and not just the Great Blasket, which has naturally received most attentions. The materials will now be catalogued and go into the Centre’s extensive archive, which is available to study on application.

That pleasant task done, we had time for a wander around the Centre and a closer look at the architecture and the art. Robert, a modernist, was very impressed with the design of the building, opened in 1993. All the exhibits inhabit pods off a long central corridor which leads the eye down to a huge end window with a view of the Great Blasket. In this way, it reminded us of the Lexicon Library in Dun Laoghaire, although that’s a much larger building.

The reception area is circular and contains a striking, enormous and very beautiful glass installation by the artist Róisín de Buitléar, in collaboration with Salah Kawala.

This is not stained glass per se: a plaque explains the process: The panel is composed of over three hundred pieces of plate or window glass. They were each painted with enamel which was then baked into the surface. To complete the process, each piece was textured by melting it in a special kiln in a process known as ‘slumping’, Three and half tons of glass and three tons of steel have been used. It took almost a year to make.

The piece depicts Island life, based on de Buitléar’s extensive research. The steel framework is used imaginatively to form the shape of the currachs, or naomhógs (pronounced nave-ogues) as they are called in West Kerry on one end of the panel (above), and of oars leaning against a wall on the other end (below).

In between are the houses (rectangles of glass superimposed on the panel, above), the fields, and the meandering paths (the glass dots) that the Islanders took to the sea, to the fields and to each other’s houses. De Buitléar explains: Each field is given a colour and texture and some contain symbols associated with them. These include corn stooks and fossil markings, while others are inspired by the texture of bog plants, turf sods, cliffs, the beach and the sea.

As our readers know, I look at a lot of stained glass, but I have never before seen a glass and steel art installation quite like this. Using thoroughly modern technology, but age-old techniques, de Buitléar has depicted Island life in a sumptuously colourful and jaw-droppingly beautiful artwork which greets visitors and sets the tone for what is to come. Gazing at it, and listening to the soft cadences of staff members speaking in Irish behind me, I was transported.

There are several more pieces of art in the Centre, but I will make special mention of just one, located outside. Here we find Michael Quane’s Islandman. An t-Oileanách (The Islandman) by Tomás Ó Criomhthain was published in 1929 and is a classic of Irish literature. Whether or not it is a great book is a matter of some debate (see this Irish Times review, for example) but it is certainly an important one.

Quane’s piece shows Tomás braced against the wind – a wonderful, human take on a true man of the outdoors. Michael Quane, by the way, has featured in Roaringwater Journal before – take a look at this post by Robert.

Ó Croimhthain (Prononouced O Cruh-han) is buried nearby – within sight, indeed of the Blasket Centre and his statue. Here is An Muircheartach’s photograph of his final burial place with the Great Blasket as the backdrop. The text that accompanies this photograph says (my translation): Go Farraige Síos: Down to the Sea. The Blaskets lying out there quietly in the sea, The Tiaracht Lighhouse on its right side, the Old Dunquin Graveyard directly on your left if you were standing there, and the man who made Blasket life famous, Tomás Ó Criomhthain, lying in it waiting for eternity.

The Blasket Centre is a full sensory experience. I have only touched on small aspects in this post. You must see it for yourself. Of course, if you can get out to it – don’t forget a trip to the Great Blasket itself. We hope to do this ourselves this year so look out for that post.

 

Signs and Times

Some signs make no sense – others don’t mean what they say. There are those that attract the attention because they are, simply, picturesque. Always, context – or lack of it – is important. Here is a new selection, to add to those that you may have seen already. As usual, I don’t feel that there’s any need for a commentary. If it all leaves you puzzled, just put it down to my own quirky sense of perception!

It’s Been Five Years! Finola’s Favourite Posts

I can hardly believe it – we’ve been doing this for five years now and we’re nowhere near running out of ideas for posts. And have you read Robert’s post? Imagine being called a 21st Century Robert LLoyd Praeger! Thrilled. But in fact as I dip into Praeger again I recognise in us the same impulse he had – to wander the land and discover all that it has to offer.

Amazing what you stumble across in the countryside, like this holy well and its offerings

One of the wonderful things about blogging like this is how much you LEARN every day, about Ireland, our neighbours, the ground we walk upon, the history and archaeology to be discovered around every corner, the wisdom of country people, the humour and expressiveness of Irish speech, the breathtaking beauty of the landscape. So where on earth to begin?

Our interest in archaeological sites led us to hike to the highest point on Cape Clear Island to see the sparse remains of a neolithic passage grave – and what a spectacular view there was from it, towards Sherkin Island and all the way down the coast of West Cork

Like many, I sat in churches as a child unaware of the architectural splendours around me. One of the delights of returning as an adult is discovering Irish stained glass, really seeing it for the first time. Harry Clarke, of course, is always a favourite, but I have been thrilled to discover other artists too: Richard King, George Walsh, the artisans of the Tower of Glass. There will be lots more posts about stained glass in the future as I unearth more treasure.

A recent discovery, George Walsh windows in a rural church in West Cork. This is his rendering of the Archangel Michael defeating the devil as a dragon

Going back to my roots as an archaeologist has been an extraordinary journey – so much has changed, so much has not. I started out in archaeology in the 70’s, although life got in the way of that career eventually. It was a small profession then: it exploded in the 80s and 90s with the advent of huge building projects, then contracted again when the recession hit.

I love the quiet little sites you find when you least expect them – this is a wedge tomb in the middle of a field. It has cupmarks all over one of the capstones

I have gone back to researching prehistoric rock art and finding that, while some excellent work has been done in this field over the last 40 years, there is a lot of scope still for an independent researcher to contribute to our appreciation of this little-known aspect of Irish prehistory. Along with our exhibitions, I’ve written several posts (not all of them happy) on this topic, and we are currently working on a paper for the Journal of the Bantry Historical and Archaeological Society on a special group of rock art panels at Ballybane.

Castlemehigan, one of our favourite rock art sites, with views right back over the Mizen Peninsula to Mount Gabriel

When I studied at UCC under Professor O’Kelly the emphasis was firmly on prehistory and we spent little time on medieval structures (or later ones, heaven forbid!). But when you are free to pursue whatever tickles your fancy, you find yourself wandering down a variety of rabbit holes. I became fascinated with Romanesque ecclesiastical architecture and with the tower houses (we just call them castles) that dot the countryside around here and the later iteration of the Big House – fortified manors. Visiting these intriguing ruins all over West Cork (and Ireland) has given me a whole new appreciation for how we lived and what we believed in the past.

This is the ruined romanesque church of Aghadoe in Killarney. It’s got this lovely doorway, but what makes it particularly meaningful for me is that my great-grandparents are buried in the graveyard it stands in

Ross Castle in Killarney against an evening sky

Living in West Cork is great FUN – there is always something to do and a new adventure around the corner. Many of the adventures we’ve had have been shared with our friends and fellow bloggers Amanda and Peter Clarke (Holy Wells of Cork and Hikelines). Visiting holy wells has introduced us to parts of Cork we might never have seen, to obscure saints with fascinating backstories and to folk practices that endure in the deep countryside. Walking the Sheep’s Head (my lead photograph, top of page), in all seasons, reminds us that you don’t have to go far to be immersed in jaw-dropping scenery and reminders of our ancient and more recent history.

The holy well of St Teskin, an East Cork saint

Lest you think that this is all sounding a bit academic, the posts that have been most fun to write were the ones on how we speak around here (and how you, too, can learn the basics of West Cork lingo), the ones in which I lamented my encounters with Irish bureaucracy, especially when it came to my driver’s license!

I still haven’t calmed down about the driver’s license – what they put me through, when I could have been driving THIS!

And I loved doing the posts about the tradition of painting our houses in arresting colours. With the colourful houses series, I feel a bit like a chronicler of a vanishing tradition – each time I look for one of my favourite pink or lime creations it seems to have been repainted a ‘tasteful’ variant on beige. Long live those brilliant colours – we would be poorer without them!

The town of Dingle is proudly keeping alive the tradition of painting each building a vibrant colour. – it’s a feast for the eyes

Finally, one of my greatest joys in the last couple of years has been to go for a walk with my camera and photograph the abundant wildflowers of West Cork. From someone who barely knew a daffodil from a daisy, I have developed a passion for the natural glories I see in the hedges, fields and yes, waste grounds, around me.

Just a typical roadside verge in West Cork

We adore West Cork, but we are also fearful for it as we see the pressures farmers face to make their land more and more productive. Inevitably, this means bringing in a rock breaker and turning the field into a mono-culture grass carpet. What we lose in this process – we humans, the bees and insects we depend on, the birds, and our heritage – is incalculable.

This tiny raised bog is home to some very interesting flowers, including the carnivorous Sundew

Here’s to many more adventures!

With friends like Susan Byron of Ireland’s Hidden Gems, or with my favourite travelling companion and blogging buddy, Robert!

The Best of Five

It’s been five years! That’s a long time to have kept up a journal, with original pieces appearing every week – usually two, each of us writing a post. It keeps us busy: 464 posts to date. We thought we should do a review of the posts which have been most popular: viewed by the most people. These are not necessarily the ones we would consider to be our own favourites: we’ll let you know what we feel our ‘finest hour’ has been next week – while you are all preparing the Christmas lunch!

We never quite understood the all-time popularity of Beyond Leap, Beyond the Law, my post which was simply a collection of photos taken at the West Cork village’s 2015 Scarecrow Festival – with a little bit of history about the place added in. It was certainly a wonderful display of the imagination of the people of Leap. Have a look at the post: just one or two photographs don’t do it justice.

Up next is Finola’s piece from 2016 – Outposts of Empire. This was a much more scholarly article, and involved a lot of research. As you must know, we never pass a church or a burial ground without a full investigation: they provide a wealth of local history. Finola became fascinated by the memorials – mainly military – which appear in Protestant churches around the country. This led her down the path of her own ancestors, many of whom served in the Irish regiments of the British forces. She found this wonderful photo from around 1900 of her Brabazon forebears. Her grandmother Marie is in the centre of the back row, while her great grandfather John Edward Brabazon, who had served in India and Afghanistan, wears a military medal. The two younger men are Finola’s great uncles Michael and James, and they are wearing the uniform of the Royal Hibernian Military School.

Finola’s series on ‘how to speak like a West Cork person’ was a winner, the most popular being her fifth episode: How Are You Keeping? Here is a link to all of them. They make amusing reading, but at the same time they give a lot of insights as to how the Irish language has coloured the way English is spoken here. And here is Finola’s great picture from that post: two Skibbereen gentlemen who might well be asking how are you keeping?

Archaeology comes next, with my account of a most eccentric decorated chambered cairn within the Boyne Valley complex: Fourknocks – the Little Giant. I was particularly taken with the adventure of visiting this tomb, from the first moment of having to collect the key from a farm a mile away in order to let ourselves in, to the experience of being inside with the door shut behind us: total darkness at first, but gradually becoming aware of the remarkable 5,000 year-old zigzag carvings on the rock surfaces within.

I’m pleased that the fifth most popular post of all time is also the one I most enjoyed writing: Aweigh in Kerry. This was all about a very unusual piece of architecture which we found while travelling in Kerry – a house shaped like a ship, sitting in the sand dunes on the shoreline of Ballycarnahan townland, facing a most spectacular view across to Derrynane, the home of ‘Ireland’s Liberator’ Daniel O’Connell. I was an architect in a former life, and I would have welcomed a commission such as this. It was built in the early 1950s.

Sixth and last in this little review is a post from Finola (happily, we had three each in this list of the top most popular posts!): Castle Haven. Such an account of a place in magical West Cork – which typically offers everything anyone could want in beautiful landscape, village architecture, archaeology, history, literary heritage, art and the omnipresent Atlantic coastline – is exactly what we aspired to for the foundation stone of Roaringwater Journal when we set out, in 2012 on this happy, continuing journey.

 

Anam Cheoil – The Music’s Soul

The Friday evening concert at this year’s Masters of Tradition Festival in Bantry House was a tour de force: in all, probably the best concert I have heard at this festival in recent times. We went because on the programme were two of our favourite musicians who have come from the Irish tradition: Iarla Ó Lionáird and Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin. They were both on top form last night, and certainly didn’t disappoint.

Header: ‘Odyssey’ by Barry Linnane  frames beautiful Bantry Bay – host to the Masters of Tradition Festival. Upper – Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin (RTE Orchestras) and Lower – Iarla Ó Lionáird (Fractured Air)

Using poetry, music and song, the two performers transfixed us. Both are imbued in the musical and poetic tradition of their country, which comes from deep, deep down. In my explorations of Ireland I am finding how much history is alive and embraced: this applies as much to the history of the culture here as it does to the physical relics of the ancestors in the landscape, whether it’s prehistoric rock art or medieval architecture.

The rushy glens of the Sliabh Luachra country in the Muscraí Gaeltacht, where the Irish language is still very much alive

Iarla Ó Lionáird was born and raised in the Muscraí Gaeltacht, and imbued in the Irish language from birth. A near neighbour in his younger years was Seán Ó Riada, who lived in Ballvourney, and had established Cór Chúil Aodha, a male voice choir singing mainly in Irish, and which exists today under the leadership of Seán’s son Peadar. Iarla joined the choir as a child and sang with it until his early twenties. He now makes his living through his voice and is still very much involved in the Irish tradition while also exploring new grounds. Listen to this very beautiful rendition by Iarla of Caoineadh na dTrí Muire (the keening of the Three Marys):

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin is best known for his unique expression of traditional Irish music on the piano. He claims that he was an introverted child, and that music was his saving grace. He went to UCC where he was also influenced – and taught – by Seán Ó Riada. Eventually he took over Seán’s job at Cork before founding and heading the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at Limerick University. He wasn’t born into the Irish speaking tradition but came to it later in life. In a recent newspaper interview he gave this memorable quote: ‘…I wouldn’t like to be reborn as someone else, not even for a day, I’m so worn out trying to be myself…’ Here’s an example of Mícheál’s playing:

In the course of the Bantry concert the two musicians spoke of a little-known collector of Irish folk-songs – someone of whom I had not heard. Alexander Martin Freeman was …a retiring English scholar of private means… who travelled in the Muscraí Gaeltacht in 1913 and 1914. He wrote down no less than 84 Irish language songs, and his work has been described as ‘…incomparably the finest collection published in our time of Irish songs noted from oral tradition…’ This is all the more remarkable as Freeman spoke no Irish. He painstakingly wrote the words, exactly as he heard them, in phonetic spelling, based on his own native English. For this reason, the texts were apparently ignored initially by Irish folklorists. But now they are viewed with interest by scholars as they give a great insight into the word-sounds of Irish speakers from those years – apparently the West Cork dialect has been changing with time! Over the years both Seán Ó Riada and Iarla Ó Lionáird have brought the songs back into circulation, and we were treated to some examples. Freeman’s field notebooks from Ballyvourney are held in the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin.

Winter scene in the Muscraí Gaeltacht

In the Library of Bantry House these two performers gave us a very special experience through music, song and poetry. Although I don’t speak or understand Irish, I appreciated the beauty of the sounds of the words – a music itself. We and the audience were transfixed by the whole experience. Walking out on the terrace of Bantry House afterwards, I looked to the west where the sun was dropping behind the mountains over the calm waters of the bay. I felt that we had, through the music, been given a privileged glimpse into the soul of Ireland.

How Are You Keeping?

Mind yourself, now

That’s how people greet each other in West Cork. Lovely, isn’t it? And when we say goodbye we always add Mind yourself. Mind yourself – it’s like being told to be careful, to look after yourself, and not to forget to take time to have a cup of tea and a nice sit down occasionally, all rolled up in one.

Directions 1

It’s been a while since I’ve written a post on how to speak like you’re Irish (scroll to the end to see a list of the previous posts) but I’ve been keeping notes all along, so here is my latest primer so that you can feel like you’re getting the hang of West Cork Speak.

Besides my own images, I’m illustrating this post with cards from Conker Tree Studio. Justyna, from Poland but now living in Ireland, has designed a line of cards and magnets with directions and phrases that she has come to, er, appreciate in the everyday talk around her. Look out for her cards anywhere you go in Ireland, or buy them online.

Directions 4

Directions 3Sure it is!

Sure can be used on its own, but it’s more usually heard in combination with other words in phrases that convey an endless variety of responses useful in almost every circumstance. Take Ah, sure, j’know – use it to express sympathy, along with an exquisite understanding of the circumstances being related. Ah, sure, look is similar although it’s pronounced with a more world-weary air and perhaps without the underlying implied slight cynicism of Ah sure j’know.

Sure, we can't complain

Ceramics by Stefanie Dinkelbach, at Etain Hickey Collections (or here)

The auld arthritis is killing me but isn’t it a grand day?  Sure, we can’t complain. 

I bought it off a farmer and it runs great. But I just discovered it has no seat belts. Ah sure, what harm. 

I paid my water bill, like an eejit, and now I hear the lads who didn’t pay won’t get penalised.  Ah sure, j’know. 

I was hoping to get the silage cut today but would you look at the rain, ’tis coming down in sheets. Ah sure, look.   

Sure aren't we all having a grand time?

Sure, aren’t we all having a grand time?

Don’t be bold!

Around children, it’s good to tune in to the specialised vocabulary adults use for their behaviour. Being bold has nothing to do with bravery – to be bold is to misbehave. If a child is being annoyingly but not nastily bold, he might be just acting the maggot. Or she might be a bit giddy. In any case, the proper response of any right-thinking adult in the vicinity is to give out to them. Giving out means rebuking or reprimanding. The other thing adults like to do with children (and other adults) is to put manners on them. This is a very handy phrase that can be used in all kinds of ways.

No acting the maggot

Nobody’s acting the maggot here!

Sinead, stop acting the maggot. Ah, Mammy, don’t be always giving out to me.

The eldest was put into Miss O’Brien’s class this year.   She’s strict out – that’ll put manners on him.

In the stocks

That’ll put manners on him (Elizabeth Fort, Cork City)

Assent and agreement.

Perhaps because it’s considered bad form to say no (even if that’s what you mean) we have developed a plethora of ways to say yes. No bother is a universal favourite, but perfect has lately been making significant inroads. Y’know yerself, however, is the ultimate form of both eliciting and delivering concurrence.

I think the clutch has gone but I need it desperately for tomorrow.  No bother.

I’ll have the Full Irish, but no meat, extra mushrooms, gluten-free toast, a large cappuccino…no wait, I’ve changed my mind, add the black pudding back in and change the cappuccino to a soya latte. Perfect!

Breakfast at Budd's

The full Irish at Budds of Ballydehob – all local ingredients

They’ll all be down for Christmas, there’ll be nine of them including the grandchildren all wanting mince pies and home made scones and mountains of mashed potatoes, but y’know yerself, like…

How are you? Ah sure, y’know yourself.

So now – off you go and do a biteen of practice. You know yourself, like, that it’ll take a while before you can make a good fisht of it, like Justyna from Poland. But if you don’t get around to it, no bother. Life is busy, in fairness. Mind yerself, now.

Ah sure, all in their own time

This is the fifth in a series. Previous posts:

West Cork Speak: Lessons 1 and 2

West Cork Speak: Lessons 3 and 4

West Cork Speak: Lessons 5 to 7

You’re Grand

Skibb men

How are ye keeping?