The Day the Sun Came Out – in Ballydehob!

It always happens: you go through a ferocious winter of gales, floods and bitingly cold winds and then one day – probably not too long after St Brigid’s – you realise that spring is arriving! It happened this week, here in Ballydehob. Suddenly, the sun came out; the sky was deep blue and all the coloured houses, bars and shops lit up and made us remember what a wonderful place we live in.

Ballydehob – that’s the name in Irish, above, on the gable of the community’s Bank House. A literal translation would be Town of the ford at the estuary of two rivers and, indeed, the Bawnakeane and Rathravane streams converge here before flowing out into Ballydehob Bay, once a hive of water-borne commerce with coasters, schooners, sand-boats, and punts and skiffs from the inhabited offshore islands arriving and leaving, while the tiny train puffed and rumbled across the viaduct on its way from Skibbereen to the Schull terminus.

When you feel the spring in the air for the first time, you begin to look anew at your surroundings. Shapes, reflections, the play of images on water: there’s such a difference as the ‘ordinary’ is changed through the quality of the light. That’s the freshness of annual renewal.

There are so many little details in the townscape that we can overlook, or just take for granted. Ballydehob has a long history of creativity, which is reflected in shop signs, decoration, window dressings. Take a stroll in the sunshine and see if you can find anything new!

You don’t have to wander far from home to welcome and experience the joys of a new spring. You will also find yourself looking forward to the seasons still to come, which will bring Ballydehob to life with its visitors, galleries, festivals and gatherings. Not to mention the hostelries which feed the body as well as the soul.

We are looking forward to many sunny days to come as the year warms up. Meanwhile, we can always revisit happy memories of our village life through our photographic archives. Thanks to Judi Whitton for the endpiece watercolour featuring our wonderful Budds, just turned five years old this weekend: congratulations to Jamie and his dedicated team!

Ireland in the 1950s – Through the Lens of Robert Cresswell

This post complements last week’s overview of the work of Dorothea Lange, who spent several weeks in County Clare in 1954, documenting the rural way of life she observed there in over 2,400 monochrome photographs. That’s a monumental collection which can only be fully accessed by visiting the Oakland Museum of California. We are fortunate to have a book of some of her Irish work – Dorothea Lange’s Ireland – published by Eliott & Clark, Washington, 1996 and a current exhibition which includes some of her images at Dublin’s Museum of Decorative Arts & History, Collins Barracks. That same exhibition features the work of two further documentary photographers, one of whom is our subject today: Robert Cresswell (below):

The Paris-based American anthropologist Robert Cresswell (1922-2016) remained on in France after WWII, having served in the US army there for four years. Following the completion of his studies in anthropology in Paris, he arrived in Ireland in 1955 with the ambition of carrying out an anthropological analysis of an Irish rural community. Taking the advice of the Irish Folklore Commission he chose Kinvara, County Galway. The small rural town of Kinvara and its agricultural hinterland would become the base for his study, published in 1969 as ‘Une Communauté Rurale de l’Irlande’ . . .

Header – Kinvara on Fair Day, 1955 by Robert Cresswell. Above – Kinvara, Co Galway, streetscape; compare these to Dorothea Lange’s views of Ennis and Tulla, Co Clare (in last week’s post), taken in the same period

While the photographic essays by Dorothea Lange and Robert Cresswell bear close comparison – and how hugely interesting it is for us to see Irish rural life through those lenses nearly 70 years ago – it’s fascinating to consider that both came from very different backgrounds and disciplines, but were equally absorbed by the iconic images each of them was capturing – giving us a visual ‘time capsule’ of Ireland as it was apparent a few generations ago.

Above – examples from the Dublin exhibition showing the work of Cresswell taken from his colour slides

Robert Cresswell was a pioneer in some respects, in that he used Kodachrome film to produce colour slides, in the days when monochrome documentary photography was the norm. Some professional photographers could not cope with the idea of using colour, partly because they considered the images were not realistic. Ansell Adams felt that ‘. . . color could be distracting, and could therefore divert the artist’s attention away from creating a photograph to its full potential . . .’ while Henri Cartier-Bresson famously uttered his opinion that ‘. . . color is bullshit . . .’ – which was all he ever said about it, allegedly! My own (humble) opinion is that there is something about monochrome photographs which seems to draw the eye and enhance the atmosphere, particularly with historic images. I can’t explain this – there is no logic: it’s just a personal response which I am always aware of.

Above – monochrome Kinvara: the Forge, and Corpus Christie procession

Robert Cresswell lived in the Kinvara community for fifteen months between 1955 and 1956, returning for short periods in 1957 and 1958. The quotations in this post are from the exhibition text panels:

Capturing more than five hundred images . . . Cresswell photographed the people of Kinvara, their countryside, their work on sea, shore and land, the daily lives, religious processions, and fairs and markets. Documenting the changes that were occurring in the shift from a traditional farming community to a wider market-led economy, he was motivated to emphasise a community in transition over one operating in the continuity or stagnation of tradition. His photographs generally portray a well-functioning society, but his interpretation of emigration as the ultimate destructive agent in community and country profoundly influenced his understanding of rural life in a small community in 1950s Ireland . . . The population of the parish of Kinvara sustained a net loss of 80% between 1841 and 1956 . . .

Above: a community in transition – contrasting pictures of family life in Kinvara recorded by Cresswell in the mid 1950s

Tempting though it is to show you much more of Cresswell’s work here, I really want you to go and see for yourselves. The exhibition at Collins Barracks, Dublin continues until April this year, and is well worth making the effort to visit. Robert Cresswell lived a long life; in 2010, then aged 88, he donated his entire collection of documentary photographs and cine film of Kinvara to the Irish nation. He waived his own copyright to this unique work in favour of all persons who wish to use any of it for educational or heritage purposes (but not for commercial gain without prior permission). Copyright now rests with Kinvara Community Council, who have published an excellent website here. I have used a small number of images from the collection to supplement those we found at the exhibition, in order to give you a fair cross-section of the entirety of Cresswell’s opus.

In a mirror of present-day events in Ireland, here’s a shot by Cresswell of the Sinn Fein candidate Murchadh Mac Ualtair canvassing in Kinvara for the 1957 General Election with Peggy Linnane. In that election Fianna Fáil, under Éamon de Valera, took 78 seats with 48.3% of first preference votes, and Sinn Féin took 4 seats with 5.3% of first preference votes. In our 2020 election, just passed, Sinn Féin, under Mary-Lou McDonald, took 37 seats with 24.5% of first preference votes in a thoroughly divided result, leaving us all in a bit of a dilemma! But I digress . . .

Another of Cresswell’s colour images, showing the killing of the pig – a family affair

There is one more photographer in this exhibition, who I will feature in a future post – watch this space! One last image from Robert Cresswell, possibly another view of the Corpus Christie parade:

1950s Ireland

1950 happened 70 years ago – obviously. My earliest substantial recollection of the 50s era was a visit to the Festival of Britain, London, in 1951: I was five years old, and the memory has lasted. Incidentally, that year also saw my very first day at school, a traumatic experience from which I have never fully recovered – but that’s a story for another day!

I suppose that the seeds of an interest in building and engineering structures must have been in me then, because it is the architecture of that Festival that has stayed with me – and which probably influenced me in my own later career. Not that I ever designed a Dome of Discovery, or a Skylon – more’s the pity, but I think I have always related to the throwing off of tradition and the embracing of new and exciting shapes and colours which came out of the Festival. I believe we are overdue a revival of that bravado to lift our spirits once again.

I was pleased to find these contemporary picture postcards of the 1951 Festival of Britain: everything is exactly as I remember!

In the words of the Festival’s Director-General, Gerald Barry, it represented “a tonic to the nation” after twenty years in which Britons had successively endured economic depression, total warfare and acute post-war austerity. However, the Festival of Britain was the product of a left-wing government and it has been said that Churchill (then leader of the opposition) held the view that the whole venture was “three dimensional socialist propaganda”. I’m not sure that this is really true, as he attended the Festival and evidently spent all day riding up and down the escalators – then a novelty – with great delight! I also remember those escalators: we called them moving stairs (I still do – just like I still call the cinema the pictures). Finola clearly remembers riding on Ireland’s first moving stairs, in Roche’s Department Store, Dublin. But that was 1963; today’s post is all about the 1950s, but in rural Ireland.

The Half Door, an image from rural Co Clare by Dorothea Lange

On a recent trip to Dublin we visited Ireland’s Museum of Decorative Arts & History at Collins Barracks. We went specifically to see an exhibition: Ireland in Focus: Photographing Ireland in the 1950s. This features “rare images of forgotten Ireland” by three world renowned documentary photographers, one from France and two from North America. Each of them visited Ireland during the 1950s to record a traditional way of life that was perceived to be vanishing as the twentieth century progressed. For anyone interested in Ireland and its recent history, this is not to be missed: it runs until April. In this post I shall show some examples of the work of one photographer: Dorothea Lange. The others will get a showing in future posts.

Dorothea Lange, a portrait taken by her husband Paul S Taylor on the Texas Plains in 1935

We had already been introduced to Dorothea Lange as my good friend John (also an expert photographer) recently gave us a copy of a book of her Irish photographs. Sponsored by Life Magazine, she visited the western seaboard in 1954, staying for several weeks in County Clare. She took over 2,400 photographs, which are now fortunately archived in the Oakland Museum of California. In the introduction to the book Dorothea Lange’s Ireland Eliott & Clark Publishing, Washington, 1996, Daniel Dixon writes:

. . . Dorothea Lange was not an avid reader. But among the few books which became her favourites was a description of the sort of culture that drew her attention time and again throughout her career, a rural society where customs, beliefs, and the way of life itself were tied to the soil. The book was called The Irish Countryman. Written in 1937 by a young anthropologist from Harvard, Conrad Arensberg, it documented and analyzed the social and economic traditions of Irish rural life and discussed how they were affected by religion and superstition. In it, Arensberg located the family farm at the hub of this complex system and explained how each generation placed an overriding importance on ‘keeping the family name on the land’ . . .

Why is it that we are so drawn to old photographs? Lange’s pictures paint a view of rural life in Ireland that is barely a lifetime away – yet it seems far longer ago. But, living in rural Ireland today, we can so easily relate to those times and – most probably – regret that they have passed. Of course, if we lift the veneer of nostalgia, we know that life was harsh, then and – for all the problems of this world – it is so much easier now. We doubtless have regrets principally for the loss of the people that are portrayed; moments preserved for all time on film, but that can never be recaptured.

Quite apart from the people, we do like to see how places have changed. These images of 1950s Ennis, now a sizeable county town, hark back to simpler times, for sure, in Lange’s work:

You won’t see every one these pictures in the exhibition – I have taken some from the book. They all complement each other. But it’s all only a small part of what Dorothea Lange recorded. What of the several hundred other images? At least they are kept safe, although not available on line. Lange was born in 1895 and succumbed to cancer in her seventieth year, 1965. A few months after her death the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted a retrospective of her work. It was the first one-person retrospective by a female photographer held at MoMA. She is remembered far more for her images of the Great Depression years in the American West than she is for her visit to Ireland, but here we should be grateful for her documentary work that has added to our records of Irish rural life in the last century.

Top – Tulla, Co Clare; above – going to the Creamery, Co Clare, 1954. Below: Dorothea Lange in Ireland

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.

Our Top 20 West Cork Photos of 2019

As ever, at the end of each year, we publish some favourite photos from our West Cork wanderings, like the one above from a memorable day on Long Island. We will caption each photo but apart from that, this post will be text-free. Enjoy!

A pilgrim touches the Sheela-na-Gig, part of the rituals observed during the rounds on St Gobnait’s Day in February

Three Castle Head on a glorious day

The ‘Tate’ – an installation in John Kelly’s Sculpture Garden, Reen Farm, taken during a high summer concert

Lonely ruined cottage near an abandoned mine on the Mizen

These stones at Cashelkeelty on the Beara, part of what was a stone circle, seem to mirror the landscape behind them

The Opium Poppy, a garden escape flourishing as a wild flower along a West Cork boreen

Hungry Hill on the Beara

This Neo-Gothic gate lodge is in Coolkelure

Cobwebs on gorse on a misty morning

The Ballydehob International Turnip Race is off to a good start

We made new friends on one of our island walks

On top of the world, at the Healy Pass, Beara Peninsula

A zen moment at Derreenatra, on the Mizen

Dhurode, with Bird Island, the Mizen

Crookhaven from across the water

From a bygone era, still to be found behind the shop counter at Levis’s in Ballydehob

Blackthorn blossoms, always a welcome sign of spring

Barley Lake is glimpsed as we return over the Caha Pass between Cork and Kerry

Our favourite view during a spectacular winter sunset

Looking forward to a New Year of blogging and picture taking. See you all in 2020!

Mizen Mountains 2 – Lisheennacreagh

In this series I’m visiting and recording all the ‘mountains’ on the Mizen Peninsula in West Cork. I’m defining a mountain as any summit over 200m above sea level. If I hear you crying out ‘shame!’ – as a mere 200m peak can’t possibly be a mountain – then I can say our country is defined by its undulations, and here in the far west of Ireland all our outcrops, however modest, are dramatic and offer striking views over the landscape, such as the one above which looks north-west across Dunmanus Bay towards the Sheep’s Head, seen from this week’s climb.

Upper – approaching the ridges from the Schull direction, the three peaks of Corrin (left), Lisheennacreagh (centre) and Derrylahard (right) are set out before us. Lower – a closer view: Lisheennacreagh is on the left: its summit is hidden behind the forestry plantation

Last week we explored at the western end of the peninsula, where Knockatassonig – at a height of 204m – only just crept into our ‘mountain’ category. This week – much further to the east – we are more secure, as my chosen destination comes in at 274.6m. It’s actually higher than it looks as neighbouring Mount Corrin (no doubt about that one!) peaks at 288m, and appears much more of a climb from below. Today’s summit is not named on any map, so I’m probably courting controversy by calling it Lisheennacreagh, after the townland in which, by my calculations, the highest point is located. Have a look at the aerial view below:

The pink shading shows the outline of part of the large townland of Coolcoulaghta, the southern boundary of which takes a sinuous course to include the summit of Mount Corrin. Over in the east, however, our high point is exactly on the boundary between the townlands of Coolcoulaghta and Lisheennacreagh – a boundary which is physically defined at that point by a substantial fence, whose course – part of the Sheep’s Head Way Mt Corrin Loop route – we followed all the way up to this summit from the designated car parking area on the Rathuane to Durrus road. After much on-site pondering, I decided to give the summit to Lisheennacreagh, as Coolcoulaghta townland already claims Corrin!

Upper – Finola is heading out for the high ground: the summit is in the far distance, beside the forestry plantation. Lower – looking back from the ascent, high Mizen summits are set out: Corrin is in front of us and Mount Gabriel is in the distance to the left

According to the place name records surveyed in 1841, Lisheennacreagh (Irish Lisín ne Cré) means Little fort of the preys or plunders – I was hoping I might find some traces of ancient earthworks on this summit, but there is nothing visible: buried deep in the inaccessible forest is a scheduled monument, described as a hachured univallate enclosure with a diameter of 22m. In fact it’s not possible to complete this loop walk at all, as the way to the next high point – Derrylahard, 301.7m – passes through heavy forestry, but access has been blocked by storm damage earlier in the year.

Above – autumnal shades of rough grazing continues all the way over the summit: you can go only as far as the next section of forest. Our companions on the walk were just a few ponies

It may seem a fairly featureless walk, but it was well worth the efforts for the superb views in all directions. We were lucky with the day: the mild weather this year has continued right through September and well into October. The mixture of blue skies and scudding clouds emphasises the contours, shadows and natural features, wherever you look.

Rewarding views from the Lisheennacreagh climb: upper – looking across Roaringwater Bay to Baltimore; lower – Cape Clear in the far distance, with another view of Gabriel, the most dominant feature of our Mizen landscape

I found some entries from the Duchas Schools Folklore Collection, for Durrus School. I could not find anything specific to Lisheennacreagh, but I liked this introduction to ‘My Native Townland’ from Brenda MacCarthy dated May 9th 1938:

I live in the townland of Coolcolaughter away out in the country, far from any stuffy unpleasant town or city, and almost two miles from the village of Durrus. My home is at the foot of the mountain in a quiet peaceful valley where my father tills, and sows, and reaps, from dawn to dark year in year out, happy and prosperous, and thankful to God for health and existence . . .

One aspect of Lisheennacreagh is that it is one of the more accessible peaks. There’s a place to park your car (with a fine view looking out to Durrus!), good signage and waymarks. Once the path is repaired beyond this summit, you can go on to Derrylahard (which will be the subject of a future post) and complete the loop by going round Glanlough to Durrus, then back over Corrin – a marathon 17km in all. Choose a good day and you couldn’t hope for a more inspiring hike.

Good accounts of this route and the whole Sheep’s Head system of trails can be found in Amanda and Peter’s book Walking the Sheep’s Head Way – Wildways Press, 2015. Also, have a look at this Living the Sheep’s Head Way post.