A Medieval High Cross – Out of Place

I was intrigued by this advertisement in the current edition of the Irish Arts Review (March – May 2020). Morgan O’Driscoll is based in Skibbereen, West Cork and specialises in Irish art. Paul Henry (1876 – 1958) fought an uphill battle in his own lifetime to get his work recognised. In 1911 Paul Henry and his wife Grace exhibited in Leinster Hall, Dublin. One critic commented that the Henrys: ‘ . . . seldom rise above the dead level of mediocrity and too often fall below it . . . ‘  In that exhibition was a work, The Potato Diggers: it didn’t sell until the 1930s. In 2013 it was included in a sale by James Adams & Sons, Dublin – and fetched €400,000! Just a decade ago, a Paul Henry might have been expected to sell for a few thousand – now, 40 years after his death, he’s a star!

Paul Henry painted by his wife Grace in 1899

So why am I intrigued by the O’Driscoll advertisement? Take another look – the title of the painting is given as Celtic Cross at Lough Derg. I have taken an interest in Irish medieval High Crosses, and published a few articles on them in this Journal. In particular, this one – The Wonders of Monasterboice. Here’s a couple of photos from that post: the left one is an image of the west face of Muiredach’s Cross taken in the early years of the twentieth century – when the carving appears to be more clearly defined than it is today – and on the right is Finola, giving scale to the same cross just a couple of years ago. This cross – named after Abbot Muiredach mac Domhnaill, who died in 923AD – is one of the finest in the country, standing 5.5 metres tall.

Looking at a detail from the Paul Henry painting (above), there is a remarkable similarity between the ‘Lough Derg’ cross and Muiredach’s Cross at Monasterboice. So – I hear you suggest – are they twins? Not exactly: in fact, through the medium of painting, one cross can be in two places at once! There is no ‘Celtic Cross’ at Lough Derg, so our artist has taken Muiredach’s Cross and placed it in his picture. Why?

At this point I can’t resist showing you this antiquarian drawing of Muiredach’s Cross (above), probably dating from the eighteenth century, although I haven’t been able to find the author of it. It’s fascinating that all the elements of the cross are portrayed: the central figure in the roundel – presumably Christ – the various figures on the  panels above and below and on either side, and the two cats on the base looking very much like comfortable fireside moggies. But look how all the images have become stylised: medieval has been transported to Georgian neo-classical!

Baccanale – an example of a 1782 copperplate engraving by Marco Carloni, Rome

Before we explain Paul Henry’s stretching of the truth, let’s consider something else: there are a few Lough Dergs in the country, but the most famous – and the one most likely to be depicted by an artist who is showing off Ireland might be Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, which I covered in this post, also from two years ago.

Lough Derg, showing the pilgrimage site of Station island, and the surrounding landscape

It’s a bit of a stretch of the imagination to see the setting of Lough Derg, with its fairly low-lying hills, in the background of Paul Henry’s painting. And where is that little tower house on the spit of land behind the ‘Celtic Cross’? Well – maybe it’s here:

This painting by Paul Henry is known as Grace O’Malley’s Castle: it is picturesquely situated at Kildavnet, in the south-east corner of Achill Island, County Mayo, which Paul and Grace first visited in 1910. So inspired were they by the landscape and the apparently idyllic simple way of life that they remained on Achill for a decade. Here’s another view of the O’Malley castle by Paul Henry:

So the ‘Celtic Cross at Lough Derg’ is, in fact, a medieval high cross from Monasterboice, County Louth, and it is set against the stunning scenery of Achill, County Mayo. We can’t blame Morgan O’Driscoll (or anyone else who can be identified) for giving the painting a misleading name. It seems that originally the work was just titled ‘Celtic Cross’: here are some insights from Paul Henry’s biographer, Brian Kennedy, in the Irish Arts Review Yearbook 1989 / 1990 –

. . . Henry was egocentric and occasionally used artistic licence with historical facts in the same way he might have done in a painted composition . . .

. . . In 1917 the Irish Times thought he was developing a decorative treatment of the landscape whereby his imagery was not realistic but was symbolically Irish . . .

And the following is from Paul Henry: With a Catalogue of the Paintings, Drawings, Illustrations, by S B Kennedy, Paul HenryYale University Press, 2007: it tells us that the painting was clearly known as ‘Celtic Cross’ in 1924, and was in the collection of Seán T O’Kelly, Ireland’s second President (between  June 1945 and June 1959). When sold by Adams in 1984 the painting had acquired the additional wording . . . at Lough Derg . . .

. . . 611 Celtic Cross 1924. Oil on board 24 x 22 (61 x 56). Signed ‘PAUL HENRY’ . . .

Private collection. Prov: Sean T O’Kelly; sale, Adams, Dublin 19 July 1984. Lot 86, as Celtic Cross at Lough Derg, repr. Irish Travel, vol 7, no 10, June 1937 repr. on front cover. Almost certainly a composite composition . . .

As with most artists – who need to earn a living – Paul Henry willingly accepted commissions. He was successful in selling ‘popular’ work to railway companies and the Irish Tourist Association (above – 1920s and 30s).

A “Lough Derg” design is mentioned in the Railway Company’s letter (above). Below is another – for British Railways: this is more likely to be the Lough Derg on the Shannon.

Has this helped to unravel the enigma of Paul Henry’s Celtic Cross at Lough Derg? Whether or not you are convinced, I’m sure you would like to have the painting hanging on your wall – me too! Although it would be so much better if it could go permanently into a public collection The sale is coming up in April . . .

 

Antiquarians Loved Glendalough

Researching a post on Romanesque architecture at Glendalough, I have come across so many depictions of Glendalough by tourists and antiquarians that I thought I would start by sharing some of these with you, by way of a general introduction to this outstanding heritage site. Situated in the heart of the Wicklow Mountains, the ecclesiastical settlement of Glendalough occupies one of the most beautiful valleys in Ireland and this combination of wild scenery and picturesque ruins made it a favourite of antiquarians, travellers and illustrators.

This illustration from Halls Tour of Ireland, Vol II, published in the early 1840s, concentrates less on architectural accuracy and more on an impression of romantic picturesqueness, although it does get the main features more or less right

Another view, this time by Lovett from his Irish Pictures of 1888

This is also a highly significant archaeological and historical site. I’ve been reading a most lucid and illuminating guide to it and I highly recommend it – Glendalough by Christiaan Corlett. Chris is an archaeologist with the National Monument Service and nobody knows this place better than he. Of the valley he says, Is there anywhere else in the Christian world that can boast so many churches and related buildings dating from before the year 1200 that have remained so intact?

I’ve started this post with the most recent image, done in 2008 by our friend Brian Lalor, but in the style of an antiquarian drawing and showing the full scope of structures at Glendalough – eight churches and three towers – as the valley would have been seen in the thirteenth century. The round tower is the most prominent feature on the landscape – and the image that most visitors take away with them. It was, of course, originally a bell tower (although it may have served other functions) since the call to prayer was an important part of the monastic day. In the drawing directly above, done by W H Bartlett (see last week’s post about this wonderful illustrator) about the same time as the Hall’s Tour sketch, you can see that the round tower is roofless. Although once again Bartlett is careful to create a wildly romantic scene he also shows the principal structures, including the Gatehouse, which is pictured below as it is today.

Note the projections of the wall on either side of the arch – these features are known as antae and were typical of early church construction in Ireland. See my post Irish Romanesque – an Introduction for more on this topic

Of the two other bell towers, only the one atop St Kevin’s Church still exists. The other was similarly situated on Trinity Church but has since collapsed. But we do have evidence of it – see the final illustration in this post! Here we see why antiquarian drawings are so important. The ravages of time have taken their toll on the buildings and carvings at Glendalough: some have simply disintegrated away while some carvings recorded by these early illustrators have disappeared, presumably stolen.

St Kevin’s Church, the vestiges of St Ciaran’s Church (foreground), the Round Tower, and the east wall of the Cathedral

There’s another consideration too – the well-meaning rebuilding efforts of the Victorian period. As a consequence of the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland which came into effect 150 years ago on Jan 1, 1871, responsibility for all the ancient ecclesiastical sites transferred from the Church of Ireland to the state, and from there to the Office of Public Works. An urgent need to conserve ruinous buildings combined with an enthusiastic approach to ‘reconstruction’ and improvement led to many monuments all over Ireland getting a make-over. As one of Ireland’s premier tourist destinations, then and now, Glendalough became the focus of such activity.

A Petrie engraving from 1827

Perhaps the most visible change was to the round tower, which was blessed with a brand new conical cap. The work was done carefully, using stones found at the site, and there is ample evidence that this was the original shape of the roof.

Some of the other reconstruction efforts may be less accurate, perhaps based more on conjecture than on evidence, but at least in the case of Glendalough the antiquarian drawings could provide some clues as to the condition of the monuments within the last 100 years, if not in their original state.

The Priests’ House (above) is a case in point. It had almost totally collapsed. As Corlett says, what can be seen today is a reconstruction carried out in the 1870s from the stones that survived among the rubble. This has presented a lot of problems for our attempts to understand the original nature of function of this building.

The Board of Works focused on the drawings of Gabriel Beranger from 1779 and rebuilt the elaborate romanesque arch as Beranger had depicted it. It remains somewhat controversial since it is highly unusual for such a feature to be on the outside of a building, although Corlett points out that its function may be related to the veneration of relics inside the chapel by pilgrims mounting the step to gaze through the small window.

Next time, I will concentrate on the architecture of Glendalough. It dates mostly from the 12th century and illustrates gloriously the persistence of traditional building designs from the early Irish church as well as the introduction of the Romanesque style with its arches and carvings. Some of the best examples are those that fewest people visit, so you may have a couple of surprises in store.

Beranger’s painting of Glendalough, done in the 1770s and showing the bell tower on Trinity Church, now gone

Irish Romanesque 3 – Monaincha, the Isle of the Living

There are places on this island that seep into your soul. You come away with a sense of having visited another world, of having passed through a portal and been lucky enough to come back to tell the tale. Such a place is Monaincha in Tipperary.

We made this trip because I was studying Irish Romanesque architecture and Monaincha is a fine example, but we had no real idea what to expect and it caught us off guard. An ancient signpost directed us down a rough track through the trees and then by foot across the fields. Our first glimpse was of what looked like an island in the middle of flat land.

We weren’t wrong – this had been an island, called Inchanambeo (Incha na mBeó) which translates as Island of the Living. Curious name, but of course, this being Ireland, there’s a story to it. Here it is from Dúchas, the School’s Folklore Collection, collected by a 12 year old in the 1930s:

On this lake were two islands; the Island of the living which was the smaller of the two was a place to where saints went who wanted to live alone – with God. It was called the Island of the Living because it was said that no one could die who went on this island. Of course this is not to say that their bodies could not die – it meant that their souls could not die, because Our Lord said “He that eateth of this bread shall live for ever”. No woman could go on the large island because she would die. This was often experimented, when men brought female animals on the island but they dropped dead the moment their feet touched the island.

Hmmm – as a woman, perhaps I did indeed go through some kind of portal, since I managed to live through the experience. That explains the Otherworldly feeling!

The top image and this one are from Ledwich’s Antiquities of Ireland, published in 1790. His map clearly shows that both islands were still there at that time, with a building still in place on the small island, while the first illustration shows the second building on the large island, no longer there

For this and more Duchas stories about Monaincha, go to this link on the Dúchas website. You will see that Cromwell sacked the monastery, that the woman who gave away the monks’ location was turned to stone along with her cake of bread, that the lake contains hidden treasure, that the water if used improperly would not boil, that many miracles were associated with the saints who lived on Monaincha, and that a white lady roamed the area until banished by a priest but not before she left her mark on him (read the story).

And here it is – the cake of bread that was turned to stone

One of those saints was St Canice, who came on retreat to this sacred spot:

He did not let anyone know where he was but he got letters and messages each day by means of the Garnawn Bawn. This was the White Horse which passed each day without a guide from Agherloe to Monahinche.

St Canice (second from right) in good company with Sts Patrick, Brigid and Eugene. He’s holding his cathedral. The window is in St Eugene’s church in Derry

But it was St Cronan who built the church:

St Cronan and his monks sought a place where they could build a residence. They proceeded to the parish of Bourney to a place called Bogawn  but looking towards Monahincha they saw the sun shining on it and so fixed the site of their future home on Monahincha. St Cronan lived for a long time in Monahincha and while he was there he prayed a great deal and performed many miracles.

For a more academic history of Monaincha we turn to the bible of all things Romanesque, the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture. From it we learn that:

Originally known as Inis Loch Cré, the name Mona Incha was only given to the site in the in later centuries. The earliest monastery here was founded by St Cainneach of Aghaboe in the 7thc as a hermitic settlement. Column Mac Fergus died on Inis CrÈ in 788 as did Elarius, anchorite and scribe, in 807. The latter was St Elair, or Hilary who was patron of the monastery in which the Culdees were instituted in around the 10thc. In 902 Flaithbertach, King of Cashel, came here on pilgrimage. An Augustinian community was established at Mona Incha during the mid-12thc.

In 1397 the monastery, containing a prior and eight canons, was taken under the Pope’s protection and released from paying Episcopal dues because of its extreme poverty. At about the same time the Book of Ballymote described Mona Incha as the 31st wonder of the world! In c.1485 the prior and convent finally moved to Holy Cross at Corbally, as the canons found the vapours from the marshes surrounding the island unhealthy. Following the Dissolution the church was used as a penal chapel. 

Much of this is based on the erudition and scholarship of Harold Leask, whose three volume book Irish Churches and Monastic Buildings has a section on Monaincha. He also authored, along with C MacNeil, an article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland which is a very comprehensive account of all that can be gleaned from annals and hagiographies of the history of Monaincha*.

Leask’s plan of the ruins at Monaincha

He cites Gerald Barry’s (better known as Giraldus Cambrensis) Topographia Hibernia (written in 1188), to show how ancient is the tradition of the Isle of the Living.

There is, he says, a lake in North Munster containing two islands, a greater and a less. The greater has a church of an ancient religious order and the less has a chapel served by a few celibates whom they call Celicolae or Colidei [Culdees – an ancient hermetic order]. No woman or animal of the female sex could enter the greater island without dying immediately. This has been put to the proof many times by means of dogs, cats, and other animals of that sex, which have often been brought to it as a test, and have died at once. As regards the birds of the district, it is wonderful how, when the males settle at random on the bushes of the islands the hen birds fly past and leave the males there and avoid that island like a plague, as if well aware of its natural power.  No one ever died or could die in the smaller island, whence it is called the Isle of the Living; yet from time to time persons are afflicted with deadly ailments and suffer agonies to their last breath. When they feel there is no longer any hope of really living, and by the increase of their disease they are in the end so distressed that they would rather dies outright than continue in living death, they have themselves brought at last in a boat to the greater island, and they give up the ghost as soon as they touch the land.

Leask and MacNeill go on to state that the place had been the site of pilgrimage formerly and some stations were still visible in 1848, and that the proprietor of the place had drained the lake in the 1820s or so and forbade all access to the church either for burial or pilgrimage, destroyed tombstones and erected round the church a circular mound, composed, the people say, of the mortal remains of the hundred generations deposited in that favourite churchyard.

What was once the larger island (there is no sign now of a second one) is still, as Leask described in the 1920s, a circular raised platform, due to the draining of the surrounding land, but there is still very much a sense of travelling across an open expanse to get to it. Marooned in the middle of a large field, the island is visible as a group of very tall trees and it’s not until you get close to it that you begin to see the structures.

As with many such sites in Ireland, the graveyard surrounding the ruined church, despite what Leask asserts, appears to be still intact. This adds to the reverential feeling of the place, as do the enormous trees, which must be hundreds of years old. A partly reconstructed high cross stands at the entrance – Robert wrote about this one in his post Fading Treasures.

The church is a Romanesque gem. (For more about Irish Romanesque architecture, I have provided a list of previous posts at the bottom of this post.) Dating to the twelfth century, it is a nave and chancel church, fairly typical of the time. There is a later addition on the north side, referred to as a sacristy in Leask’s plan. The sacristy is shown in the Ledwich drawing (first image at top of post), which dates from the 1790s.  As could be seen also in Ledwich’s site map, there was much more to the whole site than there is now.

The main door has three (or four, depending on who’s counting) orders, each one carved in the Romanesque fashion with chevrons, zigzags, pellets, floral motifs within lozenges, and some scrollwork. Although weathered, most of the the carvings are still clear to see and very attractive. There are hints of animal heads but they are difficult to discern.

One of the pleasure of Leask’s accounts is his wonderful line drawings. In his plan of the door M stands for ‘modern’ – the doorway was repaired, probably by the Office of Public Works, at some time before his visit

The door is much plainer on the inside, with only one order and no visible carvings. This is normal in Romanesque buildings – the difference between the elaborate entrance and the unadorned exit is often quite startling.

Above the door is a narrow window that was modified in the 15th century by adding an ogee head to the top of the frame

Inside, the nave has some fine windows, although not all of them bear scrutiny as original to the 12th century period of construction.

Only the smallest window is recognisably Romanesque

But it is the chancel arch that dominates the space. It separates the small chancel – the area where the altar would have been and mass would have been celebrated – from the nave where the monks and the faithful would have gathered.

Photograph taken in 2017 and drawing done in 1790. In Ledwich’s drawing the entry to the vaulted sacristy (probably 15th century) is on the left

The arch is characteristic – three orders with carvings on both the arch and on the jambs, which are slightly inclined. The capitals are scalloped. The decoration is similar to that on the main door, indicating it was probably carved at the same time and maybe by the same hands.

The experts at the Corpus compare the carvings to the Nun’s Chapel at Clonmacnoise and say, The squared patrae on the outer order of the doorway find an almost identical parallel at Clonfert (Galway), although at Clonfert the floral decoration of the motif does not vary. The closest comparisons to the chevron ornament are found at Killaloe and Tuamgraney (Clare). These comparisons suggest a construction date of c.1180, perhaps to coincide with the establishment of the Augustinian canons at the site.

Another view of the chancel arch, this time from Archiseek

The ground floor of the sacristy is vaulted and contains tombs. This one memorialises A Sincere Friend and An Humble Christian and dates from 1832

The vaulted sacristy was added in the 15th century (Leask comments on the inferiority of its construction) and several other later modifications are visible to windows. There are  now no other buildings on the island, and of course no trace of the second island or of any other structures that one would associate with a 12th century monastic settlement, such as a round tower or an enclosing circular wall.

No matter – what is there is magical. We spent so long at Monaincha that the light was declining as we were leaving. It added to the atmospheric feeling of the place, and a sense that we were travelling back to ordinary life from the storied Isle of the Living.

In this, I share the emotion with Harold Leask, whose love of this site shines out in his writing. In his book he states, Perhaps no other church ruin in Ireland is so attractive in site, interesting detail and appearance. . .  In the Architectural Notes that follow the JRSAI history he writes, I first saw it. . . upon the afternoon of a summer, its walls golden in the rays of the westering sun, the little green mound with its circling wall and groups of beech trees forming a perfect setting in the level bogland, bright with ragweed and and bordered in the distance by woods. The whole effect was very suggestive of a Petrie water-colour sketch, with just that delicacy and precision which is the great charm of his work.

Leask may have been thinking of this very sketch by our old friend George Victor Du Noyer from a drawing by Petrie. It is marked ‘unfinished’ and indeed the sacristy is entirely missing**

*McNeill, C., and Harold G. Leask. “Monaincha, Co. Tipperary. Historical Notes.” The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, vol. 10, no. 1, 1920, pp. 19–35. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25514550. Accessed 16 Feb. 2020

**George Victor Du Noyer, “Ideal Irish Church from a colour drawing by Geo: Petrie. Monaincha. Unfinished,” Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, accessed February 16, 2020

More about Irish Romanesque Architecture:

Irish Romanesque – an Introduction

Irish Romanesque 2 – Doorways

Cormac’s Chapel: The Jewel in the Crown (Part 1)

Cormac’s Chapel: The Jewel in the Crown (Part 2)

Off the M8 – Kilree Monastic Site

Brendan in Bronze

Do you know the story of St Brendan? He – ‘The Navigator’ – went to North America long before Columbus. Nearly a thousand years before, in fact: Brendan was born in the fifth century. The story of his voyage, and his remarkable adventures with his fellow monks, has inspired art, music and song ever since then. Here’s the beginning of Christy Moore’s version:

A boat sailed out of Brandon in the year of 501
’twas a damp and dirty mornin’ Brendan’s voyage it began.
Tired of thinnin’ turnips and cuttin’ curley kale
When he got back from the creamery he hoisted up the sail.
He ploughed a lonely furrow to the north, south, east and west
Of all the navigators, St Brendan was the best . . .

We went to Tralee, Co Kerry, to visit the Church of Our Lady and St Brendan: Finola was looking for windows by Murphy Devitt (which are spectacular) and I chanced upon a set of bronze roundels laid into the paving leading up to the main entrance (above). I felt I had to record them here, as they illustrate and tell the whole story of the Saint so wonderfully well. The large medallions were designed and made by Eithne Ring and Liam Lavery, and were installed in 2010. As far as I know this is a unique record of the voyage: well worth a visit – but don’t miss the windows!

St Brendan: part of a huge stained glass installation by Murphy Devitt in this Kerry church

I’m showing the roundels in the order in which you encounter them as you approach the main doors to the church, and giving a very brief description of the subject of each. At the end you will find a commentary provided by the designers, which gives more detail.

1 St Brendan visits St Enda prior to building his boat

2 On a rocky island, Brendan’s crew are led by a hound to a miraculous hall of food

3 The monks find an island inhabited by giant sheep

4 Brendan and his companions land on an island, light a fire and celebrate Mass; they discover that they are on the back of a whale!

5 An island of white birds: one is ringing a bell

6 The monks take meat from a beast that has been slain by a monster

7 On the Island of Grapes the monks witness a battle between a gryphon and a bird: the bird is victorious

8 All the fish in the ocean come to listen to Brendan while he sings

9 Brendan finds a huge crystal pillar rising out of the sea

10 The sea is boiling like an erupting volcano

11 Brendan and his companions meet the unhappy Judas chained to a rocky island

12 The travellers find a hermit who has been fed by an otter for forty years

13 Brendan returns to Ireland to prepare for his death

So now you know the bones of Brendan’s story. Now listen to the music! Saun Davey’s Brendan Voyage, a suite for uillinn pipes and orchestra, is a masterpiece inspired partly by the Saint himself, but also by Tim Severin’s 1976/77 recreation of the journey across the Atlantic in a leather clad boat:

Tim Severin pictured with a model of the boat in which he recreated the Saint’s journey

Let’s give the last words to Christy Moore, and the chorus of his Brendan song (you can find all the lyrics here):

“Is it right or left for Gibraltar?”
“What tack do I take for Mizen Head?”
“I’d love to settle down near Ventry Harbour”,
St Brendan to his albatross he said . . .

Looking at Rossbrin

Last week we talked a little about the history of Rossbrin’s medieval castle, and the importance of this natural inlet as a historical centre of fishery, scholarship and European culture. Rossbrin Cove stills serves as an anchorage and refuge for sailing boats on the edge of Roaringwater Bay, but is now a peaceful haven, with only the sounds of the shore birds and slapping masts to lightly disturb an overriding tranquility that gives the place a very particular atmosphere. Our photograph (above) is taken on the boreen going to the castle; on the skyline in the centre is a wind turbine, and just below that is Nead an Iolair (Irish for Eagle’s Nest). The picture below shows the eagles wheeling over our house, with Rossbrin Castle and our view to the Cove beyond.

I have been exploring images of the Cove and its castle – some historic photographs and a few artists’ impressions. As it’s right on our doorstep, we have taken many pictures of Rossbrin during our years here. I am also sifting through a few of these.

Ten years ago, the west of Ireland experienced an exceptional snowfall, and above is a photograph taken by our near neighbour, Julian van Hasselt, before we arrived. Mostly, our weather is relatively mild due to the effects of the gulf stream on the south-western coast. The castle can clearly be seen here, beyond the fields of Castle Farm. This view of our house (below) was also taken in 2010 by our neighbours Dietrich and Hildegard Eckardt:

I showed a couple of early photographs of the castle last week. Here are two more taken before a substantial part of the ruined structure was toppled by a storm in the 1970s:

It’s good to see a bit of context, so here is another winter view of the castle on its rock with Castle Island behind. That island was also part of the O’Mahony territory. It is farmed by its present owner but no-one lives there now. You can make out the ruined castle on the island by the shore, just to the right of centre; it’s one of many that can be seen on, or close to, the shores of the Bay.

Let’s have a look at some of the art works that feature the Cove and the Castle. Jacqueline Stanley was one of many artists who was attracted to the beauty of West Cork. Now in her nineties, she moved from England to Ireland in the mid 1970s and purchased the old School House at Rossbrin as a country retreat: it has only recently changed hands.Here are two of her works, depicting Rossbrin. You can find more on her website.

I particularly like this view (above) which was painted by Jackie from the vantage point above the high road going down to the Cove, close to the remains of the copper mine at Ballycumisk. Last week I showed a painting by Geraldine van Hasselt, Julian’s mother, also from the 1970s. Every painting or photo is a historical document – and important to retain, in view of the fragile nature of the structure today.

Our friend Peter Mabey is an architect and artist. He has lived in West Cork for a long time: he and I were at college together in Kingston, Surrey, and were surprised to meet each other by chance in Skibbereen market a good few years ago now. Above is one of his attractive watercolours looking down towards the Cove. The vantage point looks remarkably like the one chosen by Jackie Stanley. Below is a drawing of Rossbrin from the monumental work The Castles of County Cork by the late James N Healy, published in 1988 by Mercier:

The ruin is a romantic reminder of past times, enhanced by the changing weather moods of Roaringwater Bay. This photograph, by Finola, emphasises the character of the place:

I can’t resist finishing this little two-part foray into the medieval remnants of our historically significant ‘centre of culture and learning’, which now languish on the edge of the waters below us with an artist whose work we admire: Peter Clarke, who writes and illustrates the Hikelines blog. His watercolour sketches are exquisite and always atmospheric. He has kindly allowed me to use his portrayal of Rossbrin Castle as my tailpiece. Thank you, Peter – and thank you to all the other artists who have been inspired by this remote and beautiful part of Ireland.

The Castle of Rossbrin

It was just Raven and I, down at Rossbrin today. We were both inspecting the O’Mahony stronghold which has stood here for, perhaps, 800 years in one form or another. Peter Somerville-Large explored the area and its history in the early 1970s:

Down beside a narrow inlet which empties at low tide stands Rosbrin, the most easterly of the O’Mahony castles. Like the O’Driscolls, the O’Mahonys had a passion for building castles: they built twelve, and six survive, all overlooking or right on the edge of the sea. They shared with the O’Driscolls one of the finest fishing grounds in Europe, controlling the waters and exacting dues from visiting fishing boats in much the same way. ‘None of the fisheries of Munster are so well known,’ wrote an observer in 1688, ‘as those of the promontory of Ivaha, whereto a great fleet of Spaniards and Portuguese go, even in the midst of winter . . .’

The Coast of West Cork, 1972

Neither Raven nor I would be deterred by the winter weather. On a day of hard frost followed by blue skies and sunshine, nowhere could be more beautiful than Rossbrin, and nothing could be more poignant than the quiet remoteness of this western corner of Ireland, once considered ‘the greatest centre of learning in Europe’. I walked in the company of the wisest of the corvids over the vanished ruins of a great university.

Finnin O’Mahony – Taoiseach, or chieftain, of the clan – as he may well have looked in the latter part of the fifteenth century (above): cultured, fashionable, flamboyant even, and powerful. It’s sobering to think that, while Columbus was following in the footsteps of Saint Brendan to rediscover the New World, scholars and scribes were busy on the shores of Roaringwater Bay writing and translating treatises, medical manuscripts and historical accounts of travellers busy in their quests to prove the earth may not be flat after all . . .

The Annals of Ulster tell us that Finghinn Ó Mathúna of Rossbrin Castle who died in 1496 was an acclaimed historian of the then known world. And, the Annals of Connaught lauded him as ‘a great scholar in Irish, Latin and English’. The Annals of the Four Masters referred to Finghinn Ó Mathúna as being unmatched in Munster for hospitality and scholarship. The O’Mahony territory was inclusive of today’s parishes of Dromore and Caheragh and all the lands westwards to Mizen Head. Finghinn made Rossbrin Castle both his residence and a rendezvous for Irish scholars . . . Most writers who laud the scholarship of Finghinn Ó Mathúna lament the loss of many of Rossbrin Castle’s manuscripts . . .

From an article by Alfie O’Mahony in the Skibbereen and District Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, 2010

Roaringwater Bay – the view to the south, today, from Rossbrin. In the foreground is Horse Island, and beyond is the profile of Cape Clear, also a place of learning to this day: students of the Irish language spend time on the island, one of the Gaeltacht areas where Irish is still the native tongue. One of the reasons for Finghinn being so expert in languages himself was the desire to communicate with the visiting fishermen whose needs provided him and his clansmen with a good living. As well as a celebrated place of learning, Rossbrin Cove would have supplied fish palaces and all the trappings of the industry: barrels and salt for preserving, victuallers, alehouses, brothels . . . It must have been a boisterous and vibrant place.

Peter Somerville-Large gives a commentary on the more recent history of the castle:

One wall of the splintered tower has a crack running down the side. Another was partly blown down by a storm in 1905. If there is another great storm like that one, Rosbrin might well disappear without trace, like the O’Mahony castles at Ballydevlin, Castle Meighan and Crookhaven. It is sited on an area which is very difficult to approach from either land or sea, standing on a rock. Contrary to what might be written in Holy Scripture, buildings on rocks have little in the way of foundation, and when they fall down or are swept away there is nothing left of them except a memory . . .

To the south of the rock on which the castle stands are the vestigial remains of an ancient stone quay (above), still in use as a landing place. The Cove itself – a natural haven – would have been the main harbour area serving the fishing fleets. The castle stands sentinel above the harbour entrance, ensuring that no-one could approach unseen.

I have been looking for older illustrations of the castle, in order to ascertain how much erosion is taking place as the years go by. Here’s a fascinating record of an O’Mahony Clan Gathering, photographed in 1975 by Michael Minihan of Skibbereen. There is a lot more of the building intact at that time. Can you see the spectators high up on the walls and roof?

As most of you will know, we look down on Rossbrin Cove and Castle from our eyrie up at Nead an Iolair. We consider anyone living on or by the Cove a neighbour. One of these is Julian, the first to welcome us when we arrived here many years ago. On my walk today I called in on him – he lives next door to the Castle Farm. I was over the moon when he showed me a portrayal of the Castle which his mother, Geraldine, painted in the 1970s, only a year or so after the gathering above. Clearly, a substantial part of the castle walls has gone in that short time.

Rossbrin Castle, painted by Geraldine van Hasselt in the 1970s (above). Best of all, though, is a photograph of Julian – her son – taken at Easter, 1969:

Julian van Hasselt on Rossbrin shore: behind him is a clear view of the castle. You can see the vertical crack which eventually led to the collapse of half the tower.

At this time of the year we get excellent sunsets when the weather is right. Today’s was a good one! I reluctantly said goodbye to Raven, my companion whose constant cronking seemed to follow me as I perambulated this place of deep history. I wonder: was it just Raven? Or might it have been Finghinn himself, speaking to me in yet another of his languages? I think I’ll have to return to Rossbrin to find out!

With many thanks to friends Julian and Raven . . .