Cork, Part 2: Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

Like Brian Lalor, the poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin*grew up in Cork in a house alive with art, scholarship and republican ideals, in a city yet to emerge into modernity. As a poet she returns often to the subject of Cork, immersed from childhood, as Brian, in its unique character. She has said . . . there is a poetry, and I include my own, which can only be written out of the sense of the absolute proximity of the real past, and the place which is home, from which history can be seen.

In a poem that begins ‘In the graveyards of the city’ she writes,

Tablets fixed on their boundary walls,
They are shouldered by tall square houses
Chimneys nodding to each other
Over the heads of gesturing
Angels, all back and no sex.

And we instantly see what she describes, although we hadn’t before.

In 2007 the poet and critic Thomas McCarthy wrote in the Irish University Review**:

The Gallery Press book, Cork, was certainly one of the most beautiful local books of 1977. Written to accompany Brian Lalor’s subtle, and sometimes very slight, drawings of Cork, the poems were full of a sunlit magic. The book itself, as an object, was one of Gallery Press’s finest hours. It marked a restoration of dignity to the world of Irish poetry publishing just at the moment when standards of production and presentation had begun to decline everywhere. I remember the display copies of the limited hardback of this book in the old Cork Craftsman’s Guild shop in Patrick Street: how fine it looked, how fitting it was that this volume of poems and drawings was displayed with the best ceramics and wood-cuts of the day. The opening poem is probably as complete an evocation of Cork as will ever get published:

The island, with its hooked
Clamps of bridges holding it down
Its internal spirals
Packed as tight as a ship
With a name in Greek or Russian on its tail
In a lingua franca of water –
And now the river, flat and luminous
At its fullest, images the defences:
Ribbed quays and stacked roofs
Plain warehouse walls as high as churches
Insolent flights of steps
Within are narrow lanes, man high
Flagged and flattened
By the prudent stonecutters, . . .

McCarthy concludes, It is a perfect description, pencil-like and deftly matched to the delicate drawings of Lalor. The latter give Ní Chuilleanáin free rein; they allow her to soar with that light method, the elusive and evocative, and even retiring, loose line.

Eiléan’s Cork of the 1970s is just as convoluted as Brian Lalor’s. In a 2008 essay***  she describes it thus:

There are gestures at consistency. But much of the city is a haphazard succession of buildings dating from a mixture of periods, still following the medieval pattern of streets and laneways, crammed on their island site, churches, markets and houses. On the hills that surrounded the town suburbs grew up: some respectable, terraces with British Army names recalling Wellington and Waterloo, inhabited by the officers from the barracks higher up again; some grim and filthy with names like Brandy Lane, Spudtown, Cat Lane. I still remember the smell of the lanes and tenements, the public houses and their truculent customers, the shadowy shawled women making off down an entry clutching drink or money with equal desperation.

One of her poems seems to translate these thoughts from prose. As McCarthy puts it, Psychologically and socially, Ní Chuilleanáin’s Cork is a complex and evasive place, made concrete only through the most intense observation

Geometry of Guilt, the windows
Broken or always empty;
Daylight sucked in and lost, a bird astray;
The knife edge of the street, blinded
Fronts of houses like a baconslicer
Dropping to infinity, down
Draughty quays and frozen bridges
And the facades are curves of seeping stone
As damp as a scullery
Or a child’s game of windows and doors arranged
Matching the caves of womb and skull

I will finish with another of McCarthy’s astute assessments of Eiléan’s work: Ni Chuilleanain maintains a psychic bridge between two cranky and petulant discourses, Dublin and Cork. Her poems have become that undelivered Golden Box, forever on its way from Cork to the good Dean, a box of poems which, when opened, reveals sunlight, cloisters, avenues, water channels, and sites of ambush.

We are soft-footed and busy as dogs
Disappearing down alleyways,
The faces I meet are warped with meaning.
We turn away from each other,
Our shoulders are smooth as the plaster veils of statues
That are turning their backs in the windows and doors.

As in the previous post, Cork, Part 1: Brian Lalor, all the drawings are by Brian Lalor and reproduced here by permission of the artist.

*Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is pronounced (approximately) Elaine Nee Quillinawn

**‘We Could Be in Any City’: Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Cork Author(s): Thomas McCarthy Source: Irish University Review , Spring – Summer, 2007, Vol. 37, No. 1, Edinburgh University Press (Stable URL: http://www.jstor.com/stable/25517350

***Home and Places, in Home/Lands, A collection of essays commissioned by the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa to mark the third New Symposium held on the island of Paros, Greece, in May 2008.

Cork, Part 1: Brian Lalor

In 1973 and 1974 the artist and writer, Brian Lalor, made a series of drawings of Cork, his native city. These drawings were published by the Gallery Press in 1977, along with poems by the Cork poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, in a book simply titled Cork. Both poet and artist/writer were already established and both have gone on to forge distinguished careers in Irish art and literature.

Grand Parade

I have owned a copy of this book since 1978 – a birthday gift from my mother. Knowing of my love for the city of Cork, my home for seven years, she mailed it to me in Canada. I have cherished it ever since. The copy she posted to me was signed by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. This year, seated in our living room overlooking Rossbrin Cove, Brian Lalor signed it for me too.

Brian’s drawings of his (and my) beloved Cork capture a city on the edge of modernising. He has graciously given me permission to reproduce some of his drawings in these posts and I will use his own words (from A Note on the Drawings at the end of the book) since they capture so much better than I ever could his fascination with the city and his intentions in recording its idiosyncratic character.

The South Gate Bridge. That couple looks familiar

This collection of drawings developed as a result of a habit of many years, begun in Cork and fostered in Europe and the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, a habit of of never passing a laneway, flight of stairs, courtyard or public building without investigating what secrets it might conceal, what historical or human curiosity might be within. Coming then to Cork in the early seventies and finding it a city reeling from the cataclysm of “urban renewal,” it seemed an appropriate time to attempt a record of the inconsequential details which made up the character of the place, while the opportunity still existed.

Upper: Paradise Place. Lower: Curry’s Rock. Older women still wore the traditional shawl in the early 70s and were known as Shawlies

This is not Cork seen from its public face but from above and behind, not just observed in its principal role as the second city of the Republic but sought out in all its idiosyncrasies and individuality. The monuments of Architecture, memorials to wealth and power, religious fervour and civic pride will not be found here, except when they creep in by accident for, avoiding the European grand manner, they block no vista nor crown a Summit. Rather, they lurk in unexpected places and just spring upon one, owing their location principally to occupying the sites of earlier ecclesiastical foundations. This latter fact is the clue to understanding the city of Cork, the link with the past. For it was in the periods of its earliest habitation that the considerations of commerce, security and the political existences of the time gave rise to what held as the nucleus of the city up to the present day.

 

Cornmarket Street

Cork was never a planned city; it grew organically from the meanderings of the River Lee through the marshlands of the depression between the surrounding hills. Its streets and by-ways follow today those of the middle ages, and the water channels which gave access from the early town to the outer expenses of the river basin. The line which runs from the Episcopal seat of Shandon to that of Saint Finbarr’s was the principal artery of the ancient city of Cork, as it is today nine centuries later. It is around this thread that the drawings are gathered. This line held the centre of all life within the city from its foundation in the tenth century, to the late nineteenth, and even today what is outside this line is peripheral to the soul of the city.

St Patrick’s Quay

Next week, the poetry. . .

William Trevor’s Skibbereen – “The Back of Beyond”

Yellow furniture vans – Nat Ross of Cork – carted your possessions off, through Cork itself, westward through the town that people call “Clonakilty God Help Us”, to Skibbereen, the back of beyond . . .

William Trevor, one of Ireland’s most celebrated writers of short stories and novels, grew up in Skibbereen. His father worked for the Bank of Ireland, and the family was frequently moved to pastures new, but Trevor’s memories of our own West Cork town are amongst his earliest, encompassing his first schooldays and all the traumas of that ‘learning experience’.

Where and when did my writing life begin? I suppose it was in a small schoolroom in Skibbereen when, as an alternative to parsing and analysis, I was occasionally required to compose six sentences on such random subjects as A Wet Afternoon or A Day in the Life of a Dog. I did my best, but even at seven I believe I probably guessed that there was more to words and what you did with them than recording rainfall or reporting that our smooth-haired fox terrier was infatuated by our cat . . .

The way to school? Bridge Street, Skibbereen today. William Trevor’s family lived a mile and a half out of town, so we are not really sure what path his daily journey took

William Trevor was born in Mitchelstown, County Cork, in 1928, and moved to the town before he began to go to school, so he would have known what the Skibbereen of the 1930s looked like. He provides wonderfully descriptive word-pictures of his memories of the time in Excursions in the Real World, autobiographical sketches published in 1993 but now out of print. I have used some of his descriptions from this work and others from various sources – including a 2001 school exam paper – to make a narrative in his own words. I have illustrated this with some of my own present day images of the town, and some historic material. In fact I have as yet found no photographs from 1930s Skibb! But – reading between his lines (and, remember, he was renowned as a storyteller) – we can get a good feel for the place and those times.

A bit too early for William Trevor . . . This photograph of the Square with the Maid of Erin statue was taken in 1912. It has in fact changed very little even in the present day: the statue has been moved backwards but the visible buildings (that’s the Post Office in the background) are recognisable, so this is a good picture of what the writer is likely to have seen

My world at that time was not extensive. There was memory, as far back as it would go, and the modest reality of Skibbereen, which afterwards became memory also. A mile and a half it was, the journey to school, past Driscoll’s sweetshop and Murphy’s Medical Hall, and Power’s drapery, where you could buy oilcloth as well as dresses. Pots of geraniums nestled among chops and ribs in butchers’ windows. A sunburnt poster advertised the arrival of Duffy’s Circus a year ago. Horses trudged slowly, carts laden with a single churn for the creamery. On fair-days, farmers stood stoically by their animals, hoping for the best; there was a smell of whiskey and sawdust and stout . . .

This photo of Main Street was taken before the Maid of Erin statue was moved – and while Skibereen’s main streets were two-way (and also while sign-posts were still in miles)- so it must be pre-1988

In the town’s approximate centre, where four streets meet, a grey woman still stands, a statue of the Maid of Erin. E O’Donovan, undertaker, still sells ice-cream and chocolate. The brass plate of Redmond O’Regan, solicitor, once awkwardly high, is now below eye-level. In the grocers’ shops the big-jawed West Cork women buy bread and sausages and tins of plums, but no longer wear the heavy black cloaks that made them seem like figures from another century. They still speak in the same West Cork lisp, a lingering careful voice, never in a hurry. I ask one if she could tell me the way to a house I half-remember. “Ah, I could tell you grand,” she replies. “It’s dead and buried, sir.”

Extract from the 6″ Ordnance Survey map showing Skibbereen town centre during the first half of the twentieth century. The Station and railway to Baltimore can be seen on the left (it closed in 1961); the Bank of Ireland where Trevor’s father worked is outlined in blue, and Trevor went to a school that was ‘next to the Methodist Church’ – outlined in pink. Note the ‘Urinal’ usefully marked on the map!

You made the journey home again at three, the buying and selling over, the publican’s takings safely banked, the last of the dung sliding to the gutters. If you had money you spent it on liquorice pipes or stuff for making lemonade that was delicious if you ate it as it was. The daughters of Power’s drapery sometimes had money. But they were always far ahead, on bicycles because they were well-to-do. Or their mother drove them home in the Hillman car because of the dung.

Upper – the Maid of Erin statue and the Town Hall clock tower, both familiar elements in the Sklibbereen streetscape, both in William Trevor’s time, and today. Lower – the facade of the Methodist Church still stands, although the building was converted to a restaurant in 2005. Trevor’s school adjoined the church, although we are not sure on which side

The door beside the Methodist church, once green, is purple. The church, small and red-brick, stands behind high iron railings and gates, with gravel in front of it. Beyond the door that used to be green is the dank passage that leads to Miss Willoughby’s schoolroom, where first I learnt that the world is not an easy-going place. Miss Willoughby was stern and young, in love with the cashier from the Provincial Bank. Like the church beside her schoolroom, she was a Methodist and there burnt in her breast an evangelical spirit which stated that we, her pupils, except for her chosen few, must somehow be made less wicked than we were. Her chosen few were angels of a kind, their handwriting blessed, their compositions a gift from God. I was not one of them . . .

Upper – an anonymous building stands at the back of the former Methodist church – a possible site for Miss Willoughby’s school? Lower – the impressively gaunt Bank of Ireland building in Skibbereen – unchanged externally since William’s father worked there. Although we know that his father became a Bank Manager in his career, it probably wasn’t when he was in Skibbereen, otherwise William would have lived with the family in the rooms above the bank. Instead, we know that he walked a mile and a half to school in the town

On the gravel in front of the red-brick church, I vividly recall Miss Willoughby. Terribly, she appears. Severe, and beautiful, she pedals against the wind on her huge black bicycle. ‘Someone laughed during prayers,’ her stern voice accuses, and you feel at once that it was you, although you know it wasn’t. V poor she writes in your headline book when you’ve done your best to reproduce, four times, perfectly, Pride goeth before destruction. As I stand on the gravel, her evangelical eyes seem again to dart over me without pleasure. Once I took the valves out of the tyres of her bicycle. Once I looked in her answer book. ‘Typical,’ her spectre says. ‘Typical, to come prying.’ I am late. I am stupid. I cannot write twenty sentences on A Day in the Life of an Old Shoe, I cannot do simple arithmetic or geography. I am always fighting with Jasper Swanton. I move swiftly on the gravel out on to the street and into the bar of the Eldon Hotel: in spectral form or otherwise, Miss Willoughby will not be there . . .

In Shannon’s grocery there is a man who breeds smooth-haired fox-terriers. He gave us one, a strange animal, infatuated by our cat. The man was tall and thin, and behind the counter now he’s only different because he’s old. Other faces, forgotten and now remembered, are different in that way too. But Barbara, the belle of Miss Willoughby’s schoolroom, eldest daughter of Power’s drapery, is nowhere to be found. She runs a café in the main street, I’d heard, with an exotic African name, where every morning at coffee-time she presides. Perhaps I dreamed it, for the café in the main street has no name at all, and trades mundanely in lunchtime fare of stewed meat and vegetables. I peer through the window, and through the diners seated at chromium-legged tables, but the soft-haired Barbara is not there. No figure stands there as gracious as the Lady of Shallott, no face recalls the nine-year-old beauty of Class III. Can she really be one of those hurrying women with trays? A man consuming turnips wags his head at me. A message in the window says someone has found a purse . . .

William Trevor, photographed by Jerry Bauer, Bauer (1934-2010), often called “the author’s photographer,” made portraits of an endless list of writers

Biographical note – William Trevor died on 20 November 2016, aged 88. His full name was William Trevor Cox, but he always wrote under ‘William Trevor’. Although his first career was as a sculptor he is known only for his considerable literature output: he had published fifteen novels, three novellas and twelve volumes of short stories, and he won numerous awards for his work. He described the Irish family he was born into as ‘lace curtain’ middle class Protestants. He left Ireland in 1954 and spent the rest of his life in England, settling near Crediton in Devon.

With thanks to Philip O’Regan and Skibbereen Heritage Centre for alerting me to William Trevor’s local connections

Illusions fall fast in the narrow streets of Skibbereen, as elsewhere they have fallen . . .

Ethel Mannin, W B Yeats – and Wild Flights

If you read my post last week you will recognise this autumnal view of Rossbrin Castle. I took the photo in November 2017 and looked it out after I watched the magic of a skein of wild geese flying over Nead an Iolair just a few days ago – at the end of August. There’s something wistful about that spectacle – birds coming to winter on our west coasts – and Irish weather lore has to be heeded about these early advents:

It was generally believed that the early arrival of wild geese meant that a prolonged and severe winter was in store. This is a very old belief, as the ninth-century Irish work ‘Cormac’s Glossary’ states that the brent goose usually arrived at the coasts of Erris and Umhall between 15 October and 15 November, and that when it appeared earlier, it brought storms and high winds. Similarly, in Counties Donegal and Galway, when the wild geese arrived, it was a sign that cold and frosty weather was on the way. In Donegal, a sign of an approaching wind was when a goose stuck its neck up into the air and beat its wings against its stomach. Fishermen would watch out for this and if they saw it would not go out, believing that a storm was on the way . . .

(Niall Mac Coitir – Ireland’s Birds: Myths, Legends and Folklore, Collins Press 2015)

Today’s post – while inspired by my sighting of the wild geese – is more connected to swans: these large and graceful birds are a constant down on Rossbrin Cove, and plentiful along our West Cork coastlines. Niall Mac Coitir also has much to say about them:

In Ireland it was generally believed to be very unlucky to kill a swan, and many tales were told of the dire consequences for those who did so. For example, the mysterious death of one of their farm animals often occurred soon afterwards. In County Mayo the whooper swan was never interfered with, on account of a tradition that the souls of virgins, who whilst living had been remarkable for the purity of their lives, were after death enshrined in the form of these birds . . . In Donegal it was believed that swans were people under enchantment, so that bad luck would come to anyone who interfered with them . . .

(Ibid)

We know all about the tradition of people being turned into swans from the legendary Children of Lir – one of whom was Finola: you may remember the stained glass window we have in our house. A few years ago I found the above book in the wonderful Time Traveller’s Bookshop in Skibbereen (which has now transformed itself into the Antiquity Bookshop Café, the first all-vegan Cafe in West Cork: it’s well worth a visit – for books and food!). I was attracted initially by the cover and the illustrations, and then was delighted to find that the first story in the book was all about Finola and is a modern ‘take’ on the Irish legend. I had to buy the book, of course, for our Finola and I immediately thought of ‘The Wild Swans’ when I saw those wild geese. This post results from those wandering encounters.

Another of the illustrations from The Wild Swans – used on the cover: do you see the swans? The second picture above – of the four swans – is also from the book. The illustrator is Alex Jardine, about whom I have been able to find very little, other than he was British, lived from 1913 to 1987, wrote and illustrated books on angling, and designed a number of postage stamps. I was also keen to find out more about the author of this book – Ethel Mannin (shown above next to the book cover) – and initially came across scant information, until I discovered a connection with W B Yeats. Then, by dipping and diving through letters and articles specifically by and about Yeats, I was able to put together some often surprising details on her life.

Above left – Alex Jardine’s illustration for The Wild Swans showing Finola – beautifully detailed and with intriguingly distorted perspective (suitable for a ‘modern’ legend?); above right – for comparison, an illustration from the same period (1950s) of wild geese by prolific British illustrator Charles Tunnicliffe: a scene which looks uncannily like a peninsula from the west coast of Ireland

Ethel Mannin was born in 1900 in London, and died in 1984. None of her writings is in print today and she is now little regarded, yet in her lifetime she wrote and had published well over a hundred volumes, half of which were novels and others which included short stories, children’s books, travel books, autobiographies and works on literature, politics and her contemporary world. On the fly-leaf to The Wild Swans – published in 1952 – is the statement:

Her reputation as a writer is founded on her honesty and unorthodoxy. For some years past she has done most of her writing in retreat in a cottage in the remotest west of Ireland, the country of her ancestors . . .

Mannin traced her family background to the O’Mainnin owners of Melough Castle, Co Galway. In 1940 she settled close to Mannin Bay in Connemara, renting a cottage which she eventually bought in 1945. She spoke at public meetings against the Partition of Ireland – ‘the imperialist problem nearest home’ – and was elected Chairman of the West London Anti-Partition Committee. Her travels included India (where she attended a World Pacifist Conference and tore up her diary en route, throwing it overboard in the Indian Ocean, and found Hinduism repellent ‘with its lingam cult’), Burma, Morocco, Sweden, the Soviet Union, Brittany, where she befriended Cartier-Bresson.

I found more wild swans in this illustration by Charles Tunnicliffe from the 1927 best-seller and Hawthornden Prize winner Tarka the Otter: His Joyful Water-Life and Death in the Country of the Two Rivers by nature writer Henry Williamson. Tarka captured the public imagination and has never been out of print, even though Williamson himself became unpopular following his support for Oswald Mosley and fascism

Ethel Mannin met W B Yeats in the 1930s and they became lovers. Their relationship was reported by Brenda Maddox in Yeats’s Ghosts: The Secret Life of W B Yeats, Harper Collins 1999:

Ethel Mannin was a rationalist and skeptical, he mystical and credulous. Politics divided them too. She was left-wing, just short of being a Marxist, and had recently returned starry-eyed from the Soviet Union; his leanings were firmly the other way. But that hardly mattered when, as a companion, she was brilliant, fun, and full of the salty talk that Yeats adored. She was not worried about his cultural baggage: “Yeats full of Burgundy and racy reminiscence was Yeats released from the Celtic Twilight and treading the antic hay with abundant zest.”

In 2014, to mark the 75th anniversary of Yeats’ death, Jonathan deBurca Butler wrote in the Irish Independent newspaper an article titled The Many Women of W B Yeats. This is an extract:

In 1934, Yeats, who had been suffering from both sexual and artistic impotence for three years, had a Steinach operation, a type of vasectomy, which was said by its supporters to increase energy and sexual vigour in men. According to Yeats, the procedure worked and he claimed to go through what he called “a second puberty”. Shortly after the operation, Ethel Mannin, a 34-year-old writer and member of the World League for Sexual Reform, was called on to “test the operation’s efficacy”. The test was by all accounts unsuccessful but it showed Yeats was still inclined towards trying his hand. If all else failed he could still arouse his mind . . .

This ‘swans’ illustration is almost exactly contemporary with Ethel Mannin’s The Wild Swans. Robert Gibbings wrote and beautifully illustrated Sweet Cork Of Thee, which was published by J M Dent in 1951

Ethel Mannin married twice, and had one daughter, Jean, after which ‘ . . .she espoused the idea that a masculine mind better suited women writers than motherhood . . . ‘ Apart from W B Yeats she also had an affair with Bertrand Russell. In her later years, Ethel returned to England and lived out her life in Devon – also, incidentally, the home of Henry Williamson. I have been chasing the works of Ethel Mannin, and have succeeded in recently locating some very inexpensive used copies on the internet – including some of her biographical works. Once I have these I may have more to report on her connections with Ireland. Meanwhile, I can only recommend The Wild Swans for its romanticism and imagination – and its seductive illustrations. And, of course, for its connections with Finola!

Because of the Yeats connection, it seems appropriate to quote his poem The Wild Swans at Coole (1916):

The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry,

Under the October twilight the water

Mirrors a still sky;

Upon the brimming water among the stones

Are nine-and-fifty swans.

 

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me

Since I first made my count;

I saw, before I had well finished,

All suddenly mount

And scatter wheeling in great broken rings

Upon their clamorous wings.

 

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,

And now my heart is sore.

All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,

The first time on this shore,

The bell-beat of their wings above my head,

Trod with a lighter tread.

 

Unwearied still, lover by lover,

They paddle in the cold

Companionable streams or climb the air;

Their hearts have not grown old;

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.

 

But now they drift on the still water,

Mysterious, beautiful;

Among what rushes will they build,

By what lake’s edge or pool

Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day

To find they have flown away?

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!