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.

 

Celebrating George Walsh

Robert and I are just back from a magical celebration in Dublin – the launch of a solo show by the stained glass artist George Walsh, at the Trinity Gallery. It was a joyful occasion and a huge success. As one of the organisers said afterwards, “It’s a long time since there was a queue outside a Dublin gallery for an exhibition.” The piece above, Ancestral Fields, is a good example of the vibrant and glowing glass – stained, fused, painted – on display.

At the exhibition opening at the Trinity Gallery: Imelda Collins and Loretto Meagher, Gallery Owners, Janet and George Walsh, Yours Truly and Eamonn Mallie (Photo by Stephen Walsh)

This month, my piece on George was published by the Irish Arts Review – I have been waiting for that to come out, and for this exhibition to open, before I write too much about him in the blog. It’s been difficult to sit on it all, because I’ve been studying his work seriously now for a couple of years, growing more and more entranced with every window.

The March 2019 Irish Arts Review, featuring my 6 page article about the art of George Walsh

Regular readers of the blog, or our Facebook Page followers, will recognise George’s work right away from the occasional image we share on either platform. We ‘discovered’ him on a trip to the Beara five years ago, and have been encountering his work all over the place ever since, initially by chance and more recently as part of a concerted effort to document his body of work for a specific project – more on that project later.

Saints, from a window in Kilcummin, near Killarney

Researching and writing the Irish Arts Review article has been a fascinating journey, as it involved capturing images of George’s work, interviewing colleagues and gallery owners, and most of all getting to know George and Janet as I peppered them with questions and as Robert and I spent time in their company.

George apprenticed with his father who, in turn, had apprenticed under Harry Clarke. They (father and son) worked together and separately both in the United States and in Ireland, producing wonderful windows for several studios and finally, in George’s case, settling down in Ireland and going out on his own. George’s son, Stephen, also an artist and currently living in London, is developing a website to showcase George’s work – visit it here as a work-in-progress – and also runs an Instagram feed full of gorgeous images.

George is inspired by Venice – another exhibition piece

George has collaborated with several architects to design and decorate new churches. His work with Holly Park Studios is breathtaking, demonstrating as it does what can be achieved when a project is conceived with stained glass as an integral part of the design from the start.

This screen door is but one of the stained glass pieces in the award-winning Church of the Holy Family in Belfast designed by Holly Park Studio. The mosaic flooring is by ceramic artist Laura O’Hagan, whom I was delighted to meet at the opening

But even where windows have been added over time (as is more normal in church architecture) George’s work shines and is instantly recognisable. First of all, his windows blaze with colour. What I have discovered by spending time with them is that he has this amazing ability to convince you that he is using primarily bold and primary colours but in fact any section taken at random in any of his windows reveal a host of colours, many of them subtle and gentle – it’s the way his choices of colour combine that result in the vibrancy and energy that are so typical of his windows.

The second thing is his complete mastery of his chosen artistic medium – glass. Perhaps this is best revealed in the complexity of the leading. Only an artist that has been classically trained in stained glass techniques could produce such incredibly complex images.

Larger expanses of a single colour (always painted and textured in subtle and not-so-subtle ways) are balanced by areas of the window is which each colour is a tiny sliver of glass, all cut and shaped in different ways and all leaded together to produce a final exciting effect. Just this week I stood in front of a Last Supper (below), which George had decided to depict in a field of wheat. The wheat occupied more than a third of the window and I estimate that it contained hundreds of different pieces of glass, all separated by twisted and swirling lead lines. it spoke to a level of skill and experience, a practice of perfectionism, and an acceptance of nothing less than the full realisation of the vision that only dedicated artists attain.

Finally, he is as comfortable with the transcendent as he is with the everyday. While most parishes want specific sacred images, he also makes himself familiar with the area so he can convey that sense of place that is so characteristic of his windows.

Above: Moses in the basket, Galway Cathedral. Below: St Catherine of Alexandria, from St Maur’s Church in Rush, Co Dublin. Catherine is shown with her usual attributes – the martyr’s palm, the sword which was the instrument of her death and the wheel which was used to torture her. But the Catherine Wheel is also a firework – called after St Catherine’s torture wheel, and George has introduced a subtle reference to that in his depiction of the wheel 

He loves to add in quirky little items that keep you searching through the windows for things that make us smile – pterodactyls and construction cranes, butterflies and elephants, rats and hares, flowers and insects, beehive huts and Brendan with his whale, a postman on a bicycle, water that flows from window to window around the church.

Above: A reference to church renovations. Below: A mouse and a fly are both characters in the story of St Colman Mac Duagh, and these little critters are from his Kilmacduagh window in Tirneevin, Co Galway

Lately I have come to recognise his model for his Madonna and Child images – in one of his explanations of his windows he refers to the “tender figure of motherhood” and that is exactly what he captures – and the Marian figures always manage to look remarkably like Janet.

And the ultimate project? My friend and relation-by-marriage, David Caron, is bringing out a second edition of the Gazetteer of Irish Stained Glass, and George is to be included. The first edition, long out of print, was written by David, and by Nicola Gordon Bowe and Michael Wynne, both of whom have passed away. The original Gazetteer listed the works of Harry Clarke and the artists associated with An Túr Gloine (The Tower of Glass). David will update this with a listing of artists of the mid- and late-twentieth century who chose to work in stained glass (many of them worked in other media as well) and who made a significant contribution to the art form.

This window is in the National University of Ireland, Galway, Chapel of St Columbanus. It depicts a conversation or debate between students and God

If you’d like to follow David’s progress, he maintains a great Instagram feed as he tracks down stained glass windows all over the place. It’s at Irish Stained Glass and it’s always got something new!

Some of George’s windows are simply enormous. This one is in the Augustinian Church in Galway City

I have taken on the task of documenting George’s windows for this new edition. I’m only part way through my quest – I have several more on my list and keep discovering new ones all the time. George has been amazingly prolific, so much so that he hasn’t kept track of all his windows, so if any of you out there know of any, let me know. I don’t think you will have any difficulty recognising a ‘George Walsh’ if you find one!

George, Imelda and Loretto outside the Gallery (Photo by Stephen Walsh)

Drop into the Trinity Gallery on Clare Street in Dublin if you are in the area – the exhibition runs until the 19th of March. But if you can’t make it to that, there are at least two examples of his work in West Cork – the famous Eyeries windows that turned us on to all this in the first place, and a more recently discovered set in the little country church of Darrara, near Clonakilty.

St Michael window from Darrara, near Clonakilty

I will leave you with one of George’s exhibition pieces, below, just to remind you that there is more, much more, to stained glass that what we see in churches. It is a complex medium, difficult to master, but so rewarding in the hands of a true artist/craftsman. This one was titled Masks and reflects his love of all things Venetian.

 

Saint Manchan, his Miraculous Cow, and his Shrine

I was in the little two-horse train which labours west from Clara to Banagher and the outlook was desolate. There was another chap in the carriage. He sat hunched up in the corner with his nose to the window. One glance convinced me that it was useless to say anything and there the two of us kept on staring rather lovingly at a wilderness of bog stretching away to the Slieve Bloom Mountains. It seemed to me that there was a kind of promised land on the other side. On past a few scattered farm houses some grey boulders and the ruins of a church. I found myself thinking dismally enough of the tourists. After all what do they get? Just ruins, ruins and more ruins – the saddest ruins in Europe. Then suddenly I heard my friend of the opposite corner speak in a mournful kind of way with his nose still glued to the window – “That’s Leamanaghan, a quare kind of place, decent people, too, the best in the world, people who’d give you all the milk you could drink but wouldn’t sell a drop of it for all the gold in Ireland and it’s all by raison of a cow, Saint Manchan’s cow.”

 

(St Manchan By Tomas O’Cleirigh, Midland Tribune 27th April 1935)

Upper – Finola is featuring the work of stained glass artist George Walsh this week. We were fortunate to find his portrait of Saint Manchan and his cow in the  little church at Baher , Co Offaly, on our travels. Centre – The Church of Saint Manchan

(From Robert’s diary, 2012) – St Manchan had a Cow, a miraculous animal that was always in milk, and the people of Leamonaghan had the milk for free (and, to this day, will not charge anyone for a pint straight from the herd). We tramped through a field of cows as we searched for St Manchan’s holy well: they gazed at us with some disdain. The well is a curious affair – old stones, concrete and rather ugly. The water is alive with tadpoles. We were tentative as we sampled the rank, slow moving stream – but it gave us the gift of credulity!

This detail from the Harry Clarke Studio window at St Manchan’s Church (dating from 1931) shows the miraculous cow

I went through a storm of real Irish rain to see Leamanaghan that very evening. It is four miles from Ferbane in County Offaly and hidden away in a vast bog region which is dotted with scattered boulders of magnesian limestone. The general depression is summed up in the name – Liath Manchan – the grey land of Manchan. Aye! The grey, lonely, chill land of Manchan. Saint Manchan lived here and died in AD 664. That might have been only yesterday, however as far as the good neighbours are concerned because he is the one subject over which every man, woman and child can get really voluble. I was taken to see the ruins of his church and then down to his well and heard how when you are sick you should pray here, walk three times round it and then go back and leave a little present for the saint himself in the window of the church . . . I was told that on the 24th January when all the rest of the world works, the people of Leamanaghan just take a holiday and make merry because it would be the unpardonable sin to think of work on their Saint’s day.

 

(Tomas O’Cleirigh, 1935)

The twelfth century shrine of St Manchan securely displayed in the church today, with the Harry Clarke Studio window behind it

St Manchan died in a plague which he had asked God to bring on his sinning people. After his death, his herdsmen – Bohooly (from which the name Ua Buachalla – or Buckley – is derived) found it necessary to call upon the Saint to help recover the Community’s cattle, which had been stolen by raiders. Manchan duly appeared, but one of his faithful herdsmen was so overjoyed to see his old master again that he threw his arms around him. This he should not have done, as he was a mortal sinner: the Saint fell into a heap of dry bones, but the cattle were recovered. We learn that Manchan’s bones were gathered up and taken to Clonmacnoise, where a fine casket was made to house them, out of yew wood, bronze and gold. Nearly a thousand years later we stumbled on this same shrine in the little church at Boher which carries the Saint’s name, with a glorious representation of itself shining out from a Harry Clarke Studio window set behind it. It resided in a case of armoured glass, alarmed and watched by cameras  – incongruous…. and ineffective: the day after we saw it there the shrine was stolen in broad daylight, evidently after only a few minutes’ work. (Robert’s diary, 2012)

It’s wonderful that we can see the actual reliquary containing St Manchan’s bones returned to the church at Boher, Co Offaly, close to the ruins of the monastery at Leamonaghan which the Saint founded in the seventh century. Although it has suffered some damage over the centuries, the detailing is exquisite: it is one of Ireland’s finest medieval treasures 

They have all kinds of stories about the good saint but the best one of them all explains why Leamanaghan people don’t sell milk. Here it is: Saint Manchan had a cow – a wonderful cow that used to give milk to the whole countryside – good, rich milk for which no charge was ever made by the saint. Then, the people of the neighbouring Kil Managhan got jealous and watched for their chance. One fine day when Manchan was absent they came and stole the cow and started to drive her along the togher through the bog back home to Kil Managhan. The good cow, suspecting something was wrong, went backwards and most unwillingly, fighting, struggling and disputing every inch of the way. Now she’d slip designedly on the stones: again she’d lie down but every where she went, she managed to leave some trace of her rough passage on the stones of the togher. The marks are there to this day, – hoof marks, tail marks – every kind of marks and the chef-d’oeuvre of them all has a place of honour at the entrance to the little school. Alas! In spite of that very gallant resistance, the cow was finally driven to Kil Managhan. There, horrible to say, she was slain and skinned.

 

(Tomas O’Cleirigh, 1935)

The shrine wonderfully depicted in the Harry Clarke Studio window at St Manchan’s Church, Boher

Prior to being housed in the church the shrine had rested in an ancient chapel. This burned down, but the shrine was rescued and then was kept in a thatched cottage nearby: legend has it that the ruin of this cottage became the unprepossessing holy well that we had found . . . Miraculous cows; plagues; holy wells; a modern theft – St Manchan’s bones do not rest lightly in his casket. The stories tell that Manchan was a tall man with a limp. When the shrine was sent to the British Museum some years ago for refurbishment, the experts examined the bones and proclaimed that they belonged to a tall male who had suffered from arthritis. (Robert’s diary, 2012)

Remarkably, St Manchan’s Shrine has been exactly replicated. This full-sized copy of the reliquary is in the National Museum of Ireland: all the ‘missing’ figures and details have been restored. The drawing dates from 1867, and is a plate in a book titled The Towers and Temples of Ancient Ireland by Marcus Keane MRIA. In that book it is said that the copy belonged to Sir William Wilde, and it may well have been commissioned by him. It is likely that the Harry Clarke Studio modelled their version of the shrine on the replica, rather than on the original

In the meantime, the saint returned, missed his cow, and straightaway started in pursuit. He succeeded in tracing the thieves by the marks on the stones and arrived just at the moment when she was about to be boiled. He carefully picked the portions out of the cauldron, pieced them together, struck at them with his stick and immediately the cow became alive again. She was every bit as good as ever, too, except that she was a wee bit lame on account of one small portion of a foot which was lost. She continued to supply the milk as before, and, of course, no charge was made by the saint. Ever since the famous custom still lives on, and good milk is given away but never gold by the loyal people of Leamanaghan. Now, can any lover of the grand faith of Medievaldom beat that?

 

(Tomas O’Cleirigh, 1935)

A detail of the original Shrine in St Manchan’s Church

There’s one more piece to this Saint’s story: the fame of his miraculous cow grew and the people of neighbouring Kilmonaghan were jealous, and sent out some rustlers to drive the cow over into their own parish. The cow proved reluctant and stalled and slipped all the way, leaving hoof marks on the many stones that lay on the road. Those marks are still on the stones to this day (they say) and the Saint was able to follow her tracks and recover her. (Robert’s diary, 2012)

Saint Manchan, depicted in stained glass: Harry Clarke Studio (left) and George Walsh (right). Both can be seen in the church at Boher, Co Offaly

The very old vellum books state that Manchan of Liath was like unto Hieronomus in habits and learning. I can well believe it. Some distance away from the church is the little rectangle cell which he built for his mother – Saint Mella. Cold, austere and with no window, you get the shivers by even looking at it. There is also a large flag-stone on the togher leading from the well, and they say the saint and his mother used to meet here every day and sit down back to back without speaking a word because the saint had vowed never to speak to a woman!

 

(Tomas O’Cleirigh, 1935)

West Cork Obscura – Finola’s Picks

The popular Atlas Obscura defines itself as the definitive guide to off-the-beaten-track and little known wondrous places. So we’ve captured that idea and, as our Christmas present to our readers, bring you our own carefully-curated, slightly eccentric, Roaringwater Journal Guide to West Cork’s Hidden Wonders. Robert’s selection is here. No well-know tourist spots for these posts! No car parks and visitor centres! You may need wellies for some, a good map for others, and, although all are accessible, some may require permission.Each place I recommend will link to a blog post with more information. As an example, Sailor’s Hill, just outside Schull (above) is an easy walk and look what you get at the top! 

This is the view from Brow Head, looking back towards Crookhaven, and Mount Gabriel in the distance. Brow Head is much less visited than Mizen Head, but just as spectacular

I’m going to start with some archaeology and a couple of spectacular sites. The first is the Kealkill Stone Circle – but this isn’t just a stone circle, it’s a complex of monuments that includes a five-stone circle, a radial cairn (very rare in this part of the world) and two enormous standing stones. The views are immense in every direction, and the site is easy to find.

We all know about Drombeg – and we love it when the sun goes down at the midwinter solstice, and even when it doesn’t. But fewer people know about another stone circle, equally spectacular, with a spring equinox orientation. It’s called Bohonagh and it’s quite a complex. First of all, there’s a boulder burial, with quartz support stones and cupmarks on the boulder. Then there’s a cupmarked stone, partly hidden in the brambles between the boulder burial and the stone circle. Finally, there’s the circle itself, almost complete, with views in all directions.

Equinox sunset at Bohonagh

We were lucky to have a session there one equinox, and another one with Ken Williams of Shadows and Stone. For access, park just off the main road, across from the salmon coloured house 4.5km east of Rosscarbery and walk up the farm road to the barns and from there to the top of the hill. This is a working farm – please close all gates and be respectful of animals!

Maughnasilly Stone Row broods on the hilltop

A stone row to round out the archaeology sites – this one is at Maughnasilly and I chose it because it’s been excavated, so there’s an informative sign, access is easy and it’s a beautiful, atmospheric site, overlooking a small lake. The row has been calculated to have both lunar and solar alignments.

And from the ground…

A couple of churches now, beginning with the Church of Ireland Church of the Ascension in Timoleague. This is one of those places that is dripping with unexpected stories. As soon as you go through the door your jaw will drop – the whole church, floor to ceiling, is covered in mosaic, partly paid for by an Indian Maharajah. Read the story here and here – and look carefully at the stained glass windows, some of them are among the oldest stained glass we have in Ireland. The key used to be at the grocery store on the main street, but I’m not sure where it is now, so you may have to ask around. Let us know if you find out.

The interior of the church, and one of the beautiful Clayton and Bell windows

You may wonder at my next choice – it’s not everyone’s cup of tea – but the modernist church in Drimoleague is the work of Frank Murphy, the architect hailed as Cork’s ‘Unsung Hero of Modernism’.

I love the spare minimalist space, very rare in West Cork, but it’s the stained glass windows that drew my attention. It’s not that they are particularly beautiful or skilfully done: they’re by the Harry Clarke Studios long after Harry himself had died. It’s that they fascinate me as a social document – they are, in fact, a prescription for how to live your life as an Irish Catholic in the 1950s. As such, they will resonate with anyone of my vintage. Research by the brilliant young scholar, Richard Butler, has revealed that the design was practically dictated by Archbishop Lucey, still a name to invoke an image of the all-powerful churchman of the 20th century.

And a final church, but this one strictly for the windows. (No – not St Barrahanes in Castletownsend for the Harry Clarkes – everyone knows about them already, and this is a selection of lesser-known wonders.) Do NOT go through Eyeries, on the Beara Peninsula, without stepping into the little church of St Kentigern. Here is where we were first introduced to the work of the stained glass artist, George Walsh.

The Annunciation and Nativity window

When Robert wrote his original post, we couldn’t find out much information on George Walsh, but now he has become a friend and I have written about his work for the next issue of the Irish Arts Review (due out in March, 2019) and spent many happy hours photographing his windows and his artwork around Ireland. It’s bold, graphic, modern and incredibly colourful, and the windows in Eyeries, along with the religious themes, tell the story of Ireland and the Beara through time.

Some places to visit now for a good walk or a swim. First, one of my favourite walks is to hike up to Brow Head, at the end of the Mizen Peninsula (you can drive up too, but pray you don’t meet a tractor coming down) and then walk out to the end of the Head (see the second photo on the post for the view from the top of the road). Stop first to explore the ruins of the old Marconi Station – there’s also a Napoleonic-era  signal station and a WW2 Lookout Post. Then wander through the heather and the low-growing gorse until you get to the part where the sea is crashing below, with vertiginous drops off either side. I will leave it to you how far you go from there!

Brow Head showing the signal station and Marconi station silhouetted against the evening sky

Although Barley Cove is well known, Mizen locals love Ballyrisode Beach for a swim or a lounge in the sun. White sand, sheltered bays, and water warmed by running over the shallow bay. The final little beach holds a secret – a Bronze Age Fulacht Fia or Water-Boiling Site, that Robert and I recorded for National Monuments this summer. It was an exciting find, hiding in plain sight. The beach has an association with pirates too!

Ballyrisode Beach – yes, the water really is this colour. The three sided rectangular stone thing is the fulacht fia

The final choice for a walk is Queen Maev’s tomb, a short hike up from Vaughan’s Pass car park, up behind Bantry. For this photograph I am indebted to Peter Clarke, of the wonderful Hikelines blog. He and Amanda (with whom we have explored SO many holy wells)  were our companions that day. When you reach the top there is a small wedge-tomb, but this is one place where the journey is the real story, with the Mizen, the Sheep’s Head and the Beara all spread out before you.

Photograph © Peter Clarke

I leave you with a detail from the George Walsh windows in Eyeries, together with the poem the scene is based on, Pangur Bán, written in the 9th century by an Irish  monk labouring away in a scriptorium in Europe. Here is the poem read, at a memorial service for Seamus Heaney, first in the original Old Irish and then in Heaney’s translation.

Merry Christmas from us! If you live here, get out and about this year to some of our picks, and if you don’t, come see us soon!

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!

Patron Saint of Atheists?

This is the story of a man who became patron saint of two different places in Ireland – but is also considered the patron saint of atheists.

Wait – what? Atheists have a patron saint? Isn’t that like a complete oxymoron?

I think I’d better get on with the story. When we were in Lismore recently I visited the enormous and architecturally-interesting Catholic church called, (like the Church of Ireland Cathedral down the road) after St Carthage (AKA Mochuda or Mochua). In this church there is an impressive rose window, which I decided to feature on our Facebook page the other day. In doing so, I found I had to decipher the names of the saints, in an ancient script around their haloes. All of them were familiar to me except one – St Otteran. My quest to find out more about him led me to this story.

The Saints of Ireland, from top left, Patrick, Bridget, Declan, Dympna, Mochuda, Attracta, Otteran, Ita. I love that there is an equal number of male and female saints, even if the depiction is not very imaginative

Otteran is also spelled as Odhrán or Oran – I will use Oran for simplicity for the rest of this post. According to some accounts he was born in Britain, but his monastic career was first noted when he was an Abbot in Meath. However, he is revered in Tipperary where he established a monastic settlement and is honoured today as patron saint of the Silvermines Parish. There is a ruined church and a holy well dedicated to him in Latteragh, near Nenagh. See this lovely post about his church and holy well from our friend The Tipperary Antiquarian. He lived there for 40 years, therefore he must have been aged already when he went with St Columba (AKA Columcille) to Iona.

Photo courtesy of The Tipperary Antiquarian

St Columba voluntarily banished himself to Iona in 563 when he lost a judgement over a plagiarism incident. He took 12 disciples with him, Otteran being the oldest and therefore the first to die. 

Columba blesses Derry as he prepares to depart from Iona – from a large stained glass window in St Eugene’s Cathedral, Derry

Columba went to visit him on his sick bed and that night he had a dream of two warring angels – a good angel and a bad angel, fighting over Otteran’s soul. Sure enough, he died the next day, and was the first person to be buried on the island.

St Oran’s Cross, believed to be from the 8th century has recently been restored (story here)

A small church with a wonderful Romanesque doorway is dedicated to him, but more importantly, the graveyard that eventually grew up around it was called Reilig Oran.

This image, and the one below, has been borrowed  with thanks (I hope she doesn’t mind) from a lovely Blog called Flickering Lamps. This post is “Rèilig Odhrain, the ancient cemetery on the edge of the world”

Iona, located as it was on the extreme West coast of Scotland, was in those days a major stop along the marine highway. Irish, British, Scottish and Norse and Danish ships stopped. The Vikings did more than stop by – they sacked the monastery on two occasions, murdering the monks at a site afterwards called Martyr’s Bay.

Sráid nam Marbh is the Street of the Dead. It is a Medieval paved road (very rare) leading from the Bay of Martyrs (the Vikings did it) to the Reilig

As the fame of Columba and his monastic settlement grew, the Island acquired a mystical reputation as a preferred place to be buried. According to tradition, 48 kings are buried there, including MacBeth and Duncan –  kings of France, Scotland, Ireland and Norway.

This image, of grave slabs taken inside for safekeeping, is from the official Historic Environment Scotland page 

The Scots eventually surrendered the island to Magnus, King of Norway in 1098 and the Norse Vikings continued to transport their kings to Iona for burial at Reilig Odhráin from all over their territory.

Image courtesy of A Tribute to Alexander Ritchie 

And their territory was vast, and included several settlements in Ireland – Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick all started off as Viking sea-ports. In Waterford, honouring the burial place of their ancestors, the Vikings chose St Oran as the patron of their city. Thus, an Irish man who had never set foot in Waterford became one of its revered icons. Later, he also become patron of the diocese, along with Carthage of Lismore and of course St Declan of Ardmore. And don’t forget, he was already the Patron Saint of the Silvermines area in Tipperary.

Waterford celebrates its Viking and Norman heritage

But I said he is also the Patron Saint of Atheists – how could that have happened? Well, mainly it’s because there are two different stories about how he died on Iona, and it’s the second one that’s part of true Hebridean lore.

Image courtesy of A Tribute to Alexander Ritchie 

When Columba arrived he set about building a church. But the builders became very frustrated because every morning when they arrived on site what they had built the day before had been knocked down. Columba prayed a mighty prayer and the answer came to him – what was required was a ‘foundation sacrifice’ – that means a human had to be buried alive under the church. According to some accounts, Oran was in fact Columba’s son, and Columba felt, therefore, he would be the most powerful sacrifice. According to others, Oran actually stepped forward and offered himself, in the assurance that this guaranteed his place in heaven.

Image courtesy of St Barnabas Orthodox Mission Kenya

He was buried and the church walls stayed up. However, three days later, while the monks were at prayer in the church, he arose, poked his head up and announced that he had seen what was on the other side. God is not as we imagine him, he said, There is no hell, and, while he was at it, nothing like heaven either. St Columba was horrified and ordered that earth be heaped on him to keep him down. There is even a Hebridean saying Uir, Uir, air suil Odhrain! mun labhair e tuille comhraidh, which translates as Earth, earth on Oran’s eyes, lest he further blab. More succinctly, an old Irish saying, apparently, is to say Throw mud in the mouth of St. Oran, when somebody is uttering uncomfortable truths.

St Columba as a monk (right) along with Patrick and Bridget, from St Mary’s Catholic church in Ballinrobe. Columba is usually shown with a book, since he is so strongly associated with the story of the copied manuscript. This window is by the Harry Clarke Studios

St Oran’s body, according to tradition, is still under the foundations. Or maybe not – another version has it that Columba had him reburied in consecrated ground and that once that was done he troubled them no more with his blabbing of the secrets of the next world. That consecrated ground became St Oran’s Graveyard – this ensuring his immortality in Waterford at least, if not in heaven.

Images from the Kickstarter Page (this one and the final GIF) for the movie The Grave of St Oran by Jim Blatt, based on Neil Gaiman’s poem

It turns out I am far from the only one who finds this tale, and its various nuances fascinating. None other than Neil Gaiman has written a poem, In Reilig Oran.

Neil Gaiman’s poem – a signed print is available here

And now that poem has been made into a stop-motion animation by Jim Batt, called The Grave of St Oran. The kickstarter campaign page will give you an idea what it will be like – and apparently it’s finished but I can find out nothing more about it. So look out for it coming at some point to a screen near you. This GIF is offered as a teaser on their project page (see link above). It depicts St Oran gazing out to sea – perhaps he is contemplating the decision he is about to make.

There are so many layers in this story, so many familiar tropes of mythology, heroic tales and biblical stories, but I don’t believe I have ever heard one quite like this before. Pointing out that none of this story made it into the Life of St Columba by Adamnán, The Blogger Nihil Obstat puts it this way in his post The Silencing of St OranThe moral of this story is the same 15 centuries later. If even the most devoted follower of the faith reveals a revelation not in support of the preached version they are quickly silenced. And saints have their ugly or suspect  actions edited out of their official biographies.

A high status individual is buried in St Oran’s Graveyard

Among the many feelings it’s left me with, though, is a strong desire to visit Iona. Future post!