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.

 

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!

Maura Laverty and Kind Cooking

My friend Viv has loaned me her precious copy of Kind Cooking, given to her way back in 1977 by her mother-in-law, Molly – a wonderful matriarchal figure of my youth. It has plunged me back into the world of Irish cookbooks that I first explored with my posts on Monica Sheridan (Monica’s Kitchen, Back to Monica (about her famous Christmas cake recipe) and Monica Rides Again). Except this time it’s Maura Laverty, who predated Monica and who first established that bright, amusing, anecdotal style of food-writing that still defines the genre.

To open Kind Cooking is to be immediately reminded that Maura Laverty was, first and foremost, a writer. Author of several novels and later in life of a highly successful television soap opera, Tolka Row, she made her living as a writer at a time when it was not easy for a woman to do so. While I want to concentrate on Kind Cooking here, you can read in the Irish Times an excellent summary of her life by Seamus Kelly, author of The Maura Laverty Story: from Rathangan to Tolka Row which was launched to much acclaim earlier this year. (The book is available in shops and directly from the author. Enquiries to james.a.kelly55@gmail.com)

Seamus Kelly with son, Peter, and daughter, Laura, launching ‘The Maura Laverty Story’ in Rathangan Community Centre. Photo by Tony Keane

Most people in Ireland would be more familiar with Maura’s Full and Plenty, still a vivid memory from our mothers’ row of cookbooks, and for some a much-thumbed staple. It was her best seller and the food book she is still most remembered for.

This image is courtesy of the lovely food blog Eating for Ireland – the author uses it (her Mum’s copy) to make Apple Betty

Kind Cooking was published first in 1946. There is no date on Viv’s copy, but it is possible that it was given free when you bought an electric cooker, since it was published by The Electricity Supply Board. Although this one has no illustrations, subsequent issues had this photograph. Anyone can cook, apparently, with one of these new all-electric kitchens! 

It was published several times again, including an edition with the new title Maura Laverty’s Cookbook. One edition was brought out by The Kerryman, with a section on diet by Sybil le Brocquy and ‘decorations’ by her son, Louis le Brocquy.

From the start, the emphasis is on a warm, chatty, non-intimidating approach to cooking and on traditional recipes  – barm brack and soda bread, rowanberry jam, Irish custard, champ (although she calls it Thump), liver loaf (a friend of mine, working as a camp cook, was once fired for feeding this to a gang of road-builders) and lots of organ meats – tongue and mushroom, anyone? I will spare you a description of how to make a delicious and nutritious broth from a whole sheep’s head – even she calls it a ghastly, cannibalistic business.

Part of the index – including a whole section on rabbit

But Maura had lived abroad and had developed a taste for garlic, French onion soup, Swedish and Danish meat balls, Spanish rabbit. Hamburgers (called hamburghers) could also be made into Hamburg stew and hamburgher rolls. Some recipes contain ingredients we don’t use any more – anyone know what griskins are? How about forcemeat?

I wonder how this accords with our modern food pyramids

She wasn’t above convenience cooking, although she does warn you, in the introduction to her Corned Beef Hash, There is an enduring something about tinned corned beef that makes it as easy to detect as a legless fugitive with cauliflower ears and a cast in his eye. Disguise it how you will, your tin will find you out. Still, you can always try.

One of Louis le Brocquy’s ‘decorations’

It is this – the conversational, anecdotal tone, that Maura pioneered and that made her cookbooks so entertaining and beloved. You can sit and read them for pleasure as easily as you can use them to find a recipe. Her Fowl section starts with a two page story about Mag Donnelly – I am sharing it with you in full, below, as an example of the delights within these covers.

Since you’re probably thinking of Christmas dinner around now, I should tell you Maura’s secret to choosing a good turkey: Nice smooth black legs with short spurs and limber, moist feet are signs of youth and beauty in a turkey. Look into its eye. They should be full and bright. A turkey with sunken, bleary eyes is definitely unsuited to roasting.

You can just imagine her telling you about how to choose a turkey – Listen to me now

She’s a big fan of vegetables. In our place she says, we were acquainted with only six kinds of vegetables: onions, cabbage, turnips, boiled potatoes, mashed potatoes and potatoes steamed in the baker. The only people who grew such rarities as peas, beans, parsnips and carrots were the Protestant peelers. . . Their vegetable growing, in common with their Sunday school and their red, white and blue badges, was part and parcel of Protestantism and foreign aggression and we felt it couldn’t be good or lucky.

Cheese, especially good cheese or anything foreign, was a bit of a rarity when I was growing up. When Maura was a child it was all but unknown. Introduced to good cheddar she developed a passion for it. Since she was wondering at the time if she had a vocation as a nun, she felt it was important to ask her favourite teacher, Sister Mary Declan:

“Would Reverend Mother let you go to the press for bread and cheese any time you’d take the notion?”

Sister Mary Declan’s eyes grew round in her wrinkled face, and her eyebrows climbed up under her coif in horror.

“In heaven’s name, child,” she cried, “what kind of a poor excuse for a nun would I want to be to go gratifying my sinful appetites in such a manner?”

. . . She would be sorry to know that her reaction to my question about the cheese killed the vocation stone dead in me.

I will leave you with a couple of examples of Maura’s approach to conjuring up images of food. In the chapter on cakes she invites us to set our sub-conscious to work on any food item until an association has been evoked. She gives several instances of her own association but here are two of my favourites.

BLACK PUDDINGS: To think of these is to think of the Gunner Doyle, an ex-British Army man, who always drank more than was good for him on pension days. On ordinary occasions the Gunner would run from his shadow. His own mother said that in his sober senses he wasn’t fit to wash bibs for babies. When the drink was strong in him he would stand at the pump and roar an invitation to all Ballyderrig to come and be made into puddings.

TOAST: I can’t separate this from Maria Duffy at home in our place who, for fourteen years before God took her, never opened her lips to her husband – and all on the head of a piece of toast. She had a passion for toast. Cake-bread [home-made white soda bread] doesn’t toast well, so when Mrs. Duffy came into town (which she only did once a week for they lived away out in the depths of the bog), she treated herself to a baker’s loaf. Jem Duffy had a passion, too. His was for fishing. Someone told him that loaf bread made grand ground bait. He asked his wife for a slice. She retorted that with only the heel of the loaf to last her until Sunday, she saw no sense in casting her bread upon the water. Jem stole the bread when her back was turned. She never forgave him.

Thank you, Viv, for this treasure

I know I will go back to this book again and again, not for the recipes but for the opportunity to curl up and chuckle away an hour. As Maura says, Ingredients, skill and equipment are not so important to good cooking as a lively interest in human beings.

 

Kay Davenport – Creativity in West Cork

Writer, sculptor, ceramicist, historian . . .  the creative community here in West Cork rolls all these things into one person: Kay Davenport. For me, another side to Kay is one of the most important – she is, like me, a complete Hare Fanatic! You can tell because, when you drive past her entrance gates on the road between Ballydehob and Bantry, you are greeted by some wonderful hares which she has sculpted.

When we first met Kay – many years ago now – her Hare Pottery was in full swing, producing bespoke plates, ceramic trays, trivets and canvases with all the images inspired by the ‘marginalia’ in a series of 14th century French manuscripts. Most of these feature hares in various poses, usually turning the tables on the human world. Kay elaborates:

. . . the hare is a principal actor and unique in these books in her animosity towards the hunter/tailor who would kill her for her pelt to line hoods and cloaks. A number of marginal scenes revolves around the subject of the hare exacting revenge on the hunter and these could be described as the hunter hunted or the world upside down. The hare is also shown fighting with her old adversary, the hound, using shield and sword, or defending a castle against him and his troops. In one instance, the hare triumphs and bears him home, presumably to eat . . .

Upper: memories of Kay’s Hare Pottery, Ballydehob. Lower, a tile on the left – the title reads . . . The hare hunted for her pelt to line the hoods of ordinary people here wears the hood (lined with 100% human hair?) . . . Lower right – another of the marginalia illustrations from The Bar Books: here the hare plays a horn

2018 has heralded new ventures. She has become a prolific writer! Firstly, in March of this year she released a magnum opus: The Bar Books – a completely comprehensive study of the manuscripts illuminated for Renaud de Bar, Bishop of Metz between 1303 and 1316. It is these manuscripts that contain the hare marginalia which have always fascinated and inspired Kay. The study is about far more than the marginalia – it’s a very concentrated slice of a very particular historic period and a way of life lived then; and the book contains 242 black-and-white illustrations and 45 colour plates.

Top – from The Bar Books – examples from the colour plates. Middle – marginalia illustration, showing a hare being pursued by a boar (or, perhaps, a dragon?). Bottom – the marginalia have been used by Kay to illustrate her pottery: here the hares are making use of a temporary structure erected in the open for the king to have a bath while on the road. Hares of course are always on the road and have seized this ideal opportunity to give their baby a bath (with the baby swaddled like royalty)

As if such a magnificent achievement wasn’t enough for one year, Kay has surprised us all by suddenly launching a series of illustrated books for children – and just in time for Christmas! But it would be wrong to say that these books are only for children: we were thoroughly entertained by them – as will anyone be who has a sense of humour. And the suitable age group? Well, my grandchildren who range from 8 to 18 will be getting them – and enjoying them, I have no doubt. After all, there are terrible toddler tantrums, fierce wolves, and a hip-hop hero – what more could anyone want?

Above: the covers and a page from Sweet Dreams, in which a nightmare of a child learns the pitfalls of eating too many sweets. Kay’s rhyming text and illustrations are hilarious. below, the book Hip Hop Aesop – a wonderfully unique variation on the ‘cry wolf’ story.

Just to add to the melee, Kay has also provided the illustrations for a book by Michael Neill, Macdonald the Tiger. In my household, we always had to have books about tigers – especially those who ate children. This one would certainly have fitted the bill – and a few mothers get eaten along the way, too! But all ends well, of course.

Well, I hope this post has inspired you to go out and get some of Kay’s work. The books are available from Amazon, and they are also on sale in the Post Office in Ballydehob – what an easy way to fill your Christmas stockings!

Harry Clarke, Egerton Coghill and the St Luke Window in Castletownshend

Remarkably, there are three Harry Clarke stained glass windows in one small West Cork village – in St Barrahane’s Church of Ireland church, in Castletownshend. The smallest of the three windows is the St Luke, inset into the south wall of the chancel. It is a miniature masterpiece, designed with extraordinary attention to detail by Harry, and executed in his studio.

Egerton Coghill, left, with his painting companion Herbert Baxter*

The iconography that was chosen was specific to the subject – St Luke as Patron Saint of Painters. That’s because this was a memorial window to Egerton Coghill – more correctly Sir Egerton Bushe Coghill, 5th Baronet Coghill. Egerton had grown up in Castletownshend, one of a large family of Coghills who lived in a rambling house called Glen Barrahane, and who seemed to be related in multiple ways to all the other families who lived in and around Castletownshend. His father (Sir John Jocelyn, one of Ireland’s earliest photographers) was the brother of Adelaide, who had married Thomas Henry Somerville, mother of the Somerville family that included (among others) Edith (see Stories and Stained Glass), Boyle (see Boyle Somerville: Ireland’s First Archaeoastronomer and Boyle’s Bealtaine), and Hildegard. Hildegard eventually married Egerton, her first cousin. To Edith and Boyle, therefore, Egerton was both first cousin and brother-in-law.

To Edith he was also a childhood playmate, a best friend and a great supporter and artistic mentor. In periods of distress for her he encouraged her to concentrate on her work – first art and then writing, and he loaned her money when the going got tough. Everyone loved him, it seems. He gave up a career in engineering to devote himself to painting and his limited private means allowed him to study abroad. When he and Hildegard fell in love their families were delighted, but they had to wait seven years to be able to afford to marry.

Egerton and Hildegard on their wedding day

As a painter, Egerton was strongly influenced by the Impressionists. He painted en plein air, drawn to landscape and to muted colours. He loved to capture the scenery around Castletownshend, or the village itself, as in this charming depiction of the main street.

The Mall from Malmaison (Courtesy of the Fitzwilliam Museum)

He was accomplished and well-known in his day, exhibiting widely and selling well. A scholarship at Oxford, for landscape painting, is named in his honour. Now, he seems to have faded from memory, and images of his paintings are hard to find online.

Field of Rye, Barbizon (Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum)

Egerton’s older brother, Neville, was killed at the Battle of Isandlwana during the Zulu Wars – Robert has developed a talk on West Cork Links to the Zulu Wars and will no doubt write a post about Neville eventually. One of the windows in St Barrahane’s (not a Harry Clarke) is dedicated to his memory. When Neville died, Egerton inherited the title and moved back permanently to Castletownshend with Hildegard and his children. Egerton himself died unexpectedly in England in 1921 during the upheavals caused by the War of Independence at home in Ireland, so it was some time before his body could be brought back to St Barrahane’s for burial. According to Edith, The whole country came to the funeral, and all the men competed for the privilege of putting a shoulder to the coffin, for even a few steps.

When Edith and Hildegard were able to consider a permanent memorial for their beloved Egerton it was naturally to Harry Clarke that they turned. Edith had been entranced immediately by Harry’s work when she travelled up to Cork, on the advice of her brother Cameron, in 1916 to view the windows in the Honan Chapel. She wrote to Cameron afterwards to thank him. She was nothing short of stunned by Harry’s windows and “the quality of burning and furious brilliance that I have never seen anywhere else. . . his windows have a kind of hellish splendour”.

Edith in her Master of the Foxhounds habit, about the age she was when Egerton died

Since then, Edith had worked with Harry to install the Nativity window in 1918 (it was his first public commission) as a memorial to her grandparents, and again in 1921 on the Kendall Coghill window (Egerton’s bachelor-soldier uncle and a universal family favourite) about which I wrote in my post The Gift of Harry Clarke. She now asked him to take on this new commission, and Harry, who had known and liked Egerton, promised to pay special attention to this project.

St Luke, Patron Saint of Painters, is depicted with a palette and brushes, with the Madonna’s face appearing on the palette

The design he came up with is exquisite, and every detail is important. St Luke, perhaps better known to most of us as one of the four gospel writers, is also the Patron Saint of Painters. This is based on the tradition that he painted the first image of Mary, and that image became an early Christian icon. In Harry’s design, Luke holds a painter’s palette and brushes, and the image of Mary appears like a ghostly presence on the palette.

Luke, with St Cecelia to the left and St John, holding a chalice, to the right

Luke himself is a typical Harry creation, with his huge eyes, forked beard, and expression full of compassion. His right hand, with long tapered fingers and a sleeve point (Harry loved those), holds a brush. His hat and garments are elaborately rendered in blue, scarlet and purple. His sandals, thong style, are complex twists of leather straps.

Besides the Luke and the Madonna images, there are four other sacred figures in the window. One of the unique joys of this window is that you can get close enough to it to see these tiny figures clearly, since it is at eye level (it helps to be tall). The first, on the left side of the window is St Fidelio, dressed as a bishop (below). I have been unable to find any information at all about St Fidelio, but obviously this saint had some meaning to Egerton, or to the Somerville sisters, or perhaps it was a reference to Egerton’s faithfulness. However, it could, like St Cecilia, be another musical reference, to Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio. In fact, most of the figures appear to relate to secular aspects of Egerton’s life, while thinly disguised as the kind of saintly images suitable for a church window. I can almost hear Harry, Edith and Hildegard chuckling over the choices, knowing that Egerton, who had his full share of boisterous Coghill humour, would thoroughly approve of the coded messages.

To the left of Luke’s shoulder is St Cecilia. Egerton loved music, had a fine voice, and performed happily in the musical theatre that was a staple of family life within the Castletownshend circle. Gilbert and Sullivan was a favourite. But this is also a nod to Edith – Cecilia is shown playing an organ while the organ that Edith played for over 50 years occupies the loft at the other end of the church.

Finally, at the top of the window, across from each other, are St John and St Barrahane. Barrahane, after whom the church is named (and who is pictured also in the nativity window) is the local saint, and the Coghill house was called Glen Barrahane in deference to that tradition. The tonsured monk is holding up a church (below). John was both his father’s and his grandfather’s (Baron Plunkett) name.

Egerton’s coat of arms, the dedication plaque, and Harry’s signature round out the window.

At this time, the Harry Clarke Studio was experiencing enormous demand for his work. To satisfy this demand he employed a group of highly talented artists and craftsmen, all of whom were trained to faithfully execute his designs, with Harry supervising closely. Thus it was with this window – most of it in fact was made while Harry was out of the country. The fact that he did not personally do most of the etching, staining and painting on this window does not in any way detract from its identification as a true Harry Clarke window – in every meaningful sense this was his creation and his signature indicates that he took full credit for the final product.

If you go to St Barrahane’s, make sure that you open the gate in the altar rails and go right up to the little window in the chancel. People have been known to miss it. It’s a unique opportunity to get nose-to-nose with a Harry Clarke. And when you do, spare a kind thought also for Egerton, a fellow artist, beloved by all who knew him, and honoured in this exquisite work of art.

*The four black and White photographs are from Edith Somerville: A Biography, by Gifford Lewis. I could find no copyright information on them so am assuming they are available for use, with gratitude to the author and publisher, Four Courts Press