The Twelve Arches of Ballydehob

As we are approaching the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas I thought it fitting to give you Twelve views of Ballydehob’s iconic viaduct. Our West Cork village of Ballydehob has many claims to fame. It has been the centre of a great Irish art movement in the mid-twentieth century (have a look at this site). But earlier – between 1886 and 1947 – it was an important stop on the Schull & Skibbereen Tramway. This was a three-foot gauge railway line which must have been a great wonder to those who witnessed it in its heyday. There are fragments of it still to be seen, but its most monumental structure remains with us: the twelve-arched viaduct at Ballydehob.

Above: Brian Lalor was one of the creatives who settled in Ballydehob back in the artists’ heyday (he is still here today). The railway viaduct was a great source of visual inspiration to him and to his artist colleagues.

Here (above) is another Lalor work depicting the viaduct (many thanks, Brian). Behind the arches in this print you can see the former commercial buildings on the wharf, now converted to private use. At first glance you might think what a fine masonry structure this is. In fact, most of it is mass concrete. Look at the close-up view of the arches below: they are cast and faced in concrete, albeit the arch-stones are made to look like masonry. Only the facing infills and the parapets are actually of stone. This is quite an innovative construction for its time. Barring earthquake it’s certain to endure.

I was not surprised to find how often images of this engineering feat have inspired artists and others working in creative fields. Here’s a particularly fine example from the days of the artist settlement around the village in the mid-twentieth century (below): this one is a batik by Nora Golden.

I really like this moody photograph by Finola: it demonstrates the elemental nature which repetition and shadow gives to the scene. (Below): we have to see the way over the top, now a public footpath. The railway was a single track narrow-gauge at this point.

The ‘Tiny Ireland’ creator – Anke – has sketched this wonderful caricature of our wharf area, showing the 12-arched bridge in context. Finola has written about Anke. You can buy your own piece of Tiny Ireland through her website, here.

How better to look at the bridge in context than this view from Aerial Photographer Tom Vaughan. Thank you, Tom, for allowing us to use this magnificent image. Here’s the link to his own website. You will find excellent gifts for the connoisseur here. The last of our ‘Twelve Arches’ (for now) has to show us the bridge in its rightful use. I think this postcard – from the Lawrence Archive -dates from the early 1900s. I can’t resist quoting the caption for the rail buffs among you!

. . . A Schull-bound train has stopped especially for the photographer: this is Ballydehob viaduct looking north. The train comprises GABRIEL, bogie coaches Nos 5 and &, brake vans Nos 31, 32 and 38 . . .

The Schull & Skibbereen Railway – James I C Boyd – Oakwood Press 1999

Art in the Bay

You’ll all know that Ballydehob is the true centre of art in West Cork. Our posts about the Ballydehob Arts Museum (BAM) set out the history of the community from the 1950s onwards. Artists settled in the environs – some camping out in the hills, and many of them remain connected with the area to this day. Local residents were at first amused – or bemused – by this ‘invasion’, but it soon became an accepted part of the character of the village.

Right at this moment, an innovative installation is in place on the water in Ballydehob, just above the 12 arch viaduct and by the road bridge that comes into the town from the east. This is where the two rivers meet, the Bawnknockane and Rathraune, giving the town its name: Béal Átha an Dá Chab, which literally means Mouth of the Two River Fords.

In summary, this art installation by Muireann Levis offers you a close experience of the water accompanied by a sensory soundtrack which is projected into the bay through a series of loudspeakers. The name of the project is Inbhear, which translates simply as Estuary. The way you experience the water is by climbing on board one of the ‘pedalo’ boats that were a common scene on the water here in Ballydehob back in the late 20th century. I remember seeing them on the estuary when I visited West Cork in that time, but they have not been in active use since then, so we were delighted to be among the first to experience their revival, a couple of days ago.

The pedalos have been kept safe and required only a little maintenance before coming back into service. Wouldn’t it be great to think that they might be brought out again on occasion? They are colourful and brimming with character. Have a look at these further examples from the historical archives of ‘pedal powered boats’; the first dates from 1930 in Stockholm, and the second is in Michigan, dated 1963.

Interestingly, the pedalos which we are seeing today were actually assembled in Ballydehob. They were made as part of a government employment scheme, and some were destined to be used in Barley Cove, with a small ‘fleet’ being set up in Ballydehob Bay. The latter deteriorated, but the Barley Cove boats have been stored well, and were recovered for this installation. So it’s a remote deja vu for these craft.

The meeting of the Bawnknockane and Rathraune rivers (above) creates an inner tidal pool – between the three-arched road bridge and the old railway viaduct, and this is where the installation has been set up.

. . . Working with field, hydro-phonic and electromagnetic recordings of the rivers and their many tributaries, Muireann invites us in to a relearning of her childhood environment, creating a piece that draws us closer to the everyday presence of water and elevates its endless subtleties . . . Inbhear, the Irish for “estuary”, finds meaning in its Old Irish roots where it translates to “a carrying in”. It offers a focal point for the carrying in and meeting of old and new identities, both social and environmental . . .

Inbhear event publicity

Finola shot these two videos while we were out on the water experiencing the event, and the soundtracks give an impression of what we could hear while we were afloat:

It may be too late for you to book this event: it’s only happening for a few days. Let’s hope that there’s a demand for a re-run in the near future: it’s such a celebration of so many aspects of Ballydehob, not least as a centre of pedalo boat production back in the day: who knew?

It’s very apt that I should be writing the post on this weekend, as we have just celebrated another Ballydehob event: the annual Cruinniú Bád (boat gathering) which happens at the quay around the highest tide of the summer:

With many thanks to Muireann Levis for inspiring the installation, and to Cormac Levis and William Swanton for information on the history of Ballydehob’s pedalo boats. We should also acknowledge the tireless endeavours of Eleanor Regan and the late Kevin Heaps who operated the pedalos getting on for forty years ago. William told me that Ballydehob Community Council has long been petitioning for the ‘Slob’ below the historic quay to be dredged to allow more boats to use that quay through the year. The sight of boats, small or large, on the water as visitors enter the village from the west would undoubtedly encourage enhanced footfall to the shops and hostelries of this remarkable community

Blasket through the Lens

Great Blasket, one of the islands in the parish of Dún Chaoin (Dunquin) off the west coast of Kerry, was the home and life-blood of a tenacious population of Irish families for many hundred years. One of these families – the Ferriters – claim that they controlled the islands as far back as the 13th century and had established a castle there. Whoever lived there had to be tough: the terrain is wild and there is little shelter. Nevertheless, the islanders clung to their territory, and their numbers expanded in the early 19th century when Lord Ventry of Dingle evicted many of his tenants from their holdings and those who left found island life – hard though it was – preferable to persecution.

We are fortunate that, during the early twentieth century, Great Blasket was visited by curious tourists and anthropologists. Among them was Robin Flower, who became Deputy-Keeper of Manuscripts in the British Museum from 1929 to 1944. He had many credits to his name, including Member of the Royal Irish Academy, Doctor of Literature of the National University of Ireland and also of Dublin University. Flower became the historian of the Blaskets, which he ‘immortalised’ through his lectures and writings – and many visits. To the people of the Great Blasket he was playfully known as ‘Bláithin’ – Little Flower – which he considered a great honour. I will write more on Robin Flower in a future post, but concentrate here on some of the photographs of island life which were recorded by likeminded researchers in the first half of the twentieth century. After 1954 there was nothing to record: life on the island, three miles from the mainland and involving an often treacherous crossing, became untenable. The whole remaining population was evacuated in that year, leaving their cottages and settlements to the ruinous ravages of the wild Atlantic gales.

The header picture is a wonderful statement of youth and vigour: island children photographed outside their school in 1932 by Thomas Waddicor. I can’t find anything about this man, but a lot of his work appears in the Dúchas Photographic Collection which was established in the 1930s, so I am assuming he was an active collector and researcher himself. The second picture is by our old friend Tomás Ó Muircheartach, who also spent time on the Blaskets in the 1930s. You will find more about him here. It shows the Blasket men in their fishing curraughs below the craggy rocks of the island. The pic above is also by Muircheartach, and shows Cáit Ruiséal and Máire Ruiséal being interviewed by a follklore collector at their fireside in 1942. I am not sure where this interview took place.

This photograph is also by Thomas Waddicor and dates from 1932. The caption given in the Dúchas Photographic Collection is interesting, if not entirely enlightening: Man, Great Blasket Island: Buffer, note stuffed peaked cap – an island custom.

Another from Waddicor, also 1932: Cáit at the Well. I think what strikes me most of all is how real and alive these people are – they certainly don’t seem in any way downtrodden or in danger of extinction: perhaps it’s just because they are ‘posing’ for the camera. But it’s salutary to think that they were only on the island for another generation or so.

These two photographs (above) are also by Thomas Waddicor and also from 1932. The top one is the ‘Wife and child of Séan the King’, and the lower is ‘Children of Séan the King’. We have a bit of a conundrum here as the last ‘King’ of the Blasket Islands passed away in 1929 (according to this Irish Times article). As Waddicor left behind no photograph of the ‘King’ himself, we have to assume that the lady in the upper photograph was a widow.

More ‘family’ photographs: the upper of the three is titled ‘Eilis and Brighid’; the centre is just given as ‘Family’, while the lower is ‘Fiddler and Woman’. All are by Waddicor from 1932.

This wonderful lady is also anonymous: sadly we can only know her by the title – ‘Great Blasket Woman’. Again, Waddicor 1932 – and, once more, she seems so full of life!

This is a picture of the Great Blasket Island School. We have some further information: while the folklorists and recorders were visiting the island in 1932, the older schoolchildren decided to interview each other about local customs and lore to mimic the visitors!

Further unnamed portraits: upper ‘Two Women Great Blasket’ and lower ‘Two Women gathering Heather’. From the Waddicor collection, 1932.

We’ll finish off with a few classics. This is Tomas O Criomhthain and it’s a photo from Muircheartach. Better known to us as Tomas O’Crohan, author of the classic book about the Blaskets:

. . . Tomas O’Crohan was born on the Great Blasket Island in 1865 and died there in 1937, a great master of his native Irish. He shared to the full the perilous life of a primitive community, yet possessed a shrewd and humorous detachment that enabled him to observe and describe the world. His book is a valuable description of a new vanished way of life; his sole purpose in writing it was in his own words, ‘to set down the character of the people about me so that some record of us might live after us, for the like of us will never be again’ . . .

The Islandman Book Review

We can’t discuss the Blaskets without mentioning Peig. That’s her, above, with folklorist Kenneth Jackson, taken by Thomas Waddicor in 1932. Peig Sayers was by all accounts a formidable lady but was also described by folklorist Seán Ó Súilleabháin, archivist for the Irish Folklore Commission, as ‘one of the greatest woman storytellers of recent times’. Peig was born in 1873 and died in 1958. She therefore experienced the abandonment of the island, although she had moved away from it in 1942. She was also not born on the island, but in Dunquin, Kerry, She married Pádraig Ó Guithín, a native islander, in 1892 and had eleven children, six of whom survived into adulthood. Sayers is most famous for her autobiography Peig, but also for folklore and stories which have been collected from her.

Finally, this an image of the Loganim Achive entry for Great Blasket Island, written in 1954.

I am grateful to the National Folklore Collection UCD for the use of the Thomas Waddicor images. It’s an incredible resource: this is just a small selection of the hundreds of images which have been archived

Pints and Pipes

Today there is a story to tell, with lots of connections to the West of Ireland – and our own Ballydehob! That’s Levis’s Corner Bar, below, one of the village’s fine hostelries: try them all if you visit. Levis’s is known for its musical events but also for its traditional appearance inside. Look at the photo of the Irish music session (you’ll see me bottom left playing concertina) – that was taken a few years ago, before Covid; we are still waiting for those good times to return. On the wall behind the players you can catch a glimpse of a painting of men with pints and pipes.

There’s a better view of the painting, above. When I first saw it – very many years ago now – I knew immediately that it was based on a photograph that had been taken by Tómás Ó Muicheartaigh – an Irish cultural hero who spent most of his life documenting traditional life, mainly in the western counties. He lived through the founding of the Irish Free State and was an enthusiastic proponent of the Irish language. This sketch portrait of him is by Seán O’Sullivan, a friend and compatriot:

Way back in the 1970s my then wife and I ran a small bookshop in a Devon market town, specialising in folklore and traditional life. It had a substantial section on Ireland, and Irish culture. We stocked a recently-published volume (1970) celebrating the work of Ó Muicheartaigh, and I very soon had to sell myself a copy, as it is a superb record of mainly rural life in Ireland during the early twentieth century. I have it to this day – of course.

There is the photograph in the book, above. It is captioned Piontí Agus Píopaí – Pints and Pipes, hence the title of this post. Below it is a photograph of two Aran Island fishermen relaxing on the rocks while waiting for the weather to improve before they set out to sea. But there is more – a list of the photographs with some expanded captions at the end of the book. The whole book is written in Irish so I have recruited Finola’s help in providing a transcription for the Pints and Pipes – here it is, in the original and then translated:

Piontí Agus Píopaí

Ceathrar pinsinéirí ag baint spraoi as lá an phinsin le píopa agus le pionta Pórtair. B’fhéidir nach mbeadh pionta go hAoine arís acu. A saol ar fad tugtha ar an bhfarraige acu seo. Féach, cé gur istigh ón ngaoth agus ón aimsir atá an ceathrar go bhfuill an cobhar ar píopa gach duine acu. Is mar chosaint are an ngaoth a bhíodh an cobhar agus chun tobac a spáráil, ach ní bhainfí an cobhar anuas den phíopa instigh ná amuigh

Pints and Pipes

Four pensioners enjoying pension day with pipes and pints of porter. They might not have another pint until Friday. They’ve spent their whole lives on the sea. Look, even though the four of them are inside, away from the wind and the weather, the cover is still on each of their pipes. The covers are to protect the tobacco from the wind and to make it last longer and they aren’t taken off inside nor out

So, a fascinating piece of social history. Apart from conjecturing a date for the photo, I didn’t have much information to add when I first published it on Roaringwater Journal in February 2016. Because of the juxtaposition in the book, I guessed that the picture might have been taken around 1938, when Tómás is known to have visited and photographed the Aran Islands (and would have travelled through Kerry to get there). Here is one of his views of a Curragh being launched on Inis Meáin at this time (Dúchas):

I didn’t expect my story of Pints and Pipes to advance beyond this. But, last week, I received a message from a reader who had seen the photograph in Roaringwater Journal and was able to provide very significant additional information!

. . . My name is Joanne and I live in London. My dad found a photo on your website from a blog dated 14 Feb 2016 entitled Images – it is the Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh photograph of the 4 men drinking in a bar. My great-grandad is the man on the far left. It was great to find the photo as it is much better quality than the copy we have, unfortunately my nan had an original postcard but it was borrowed by a representative of Guinness many years ago and never returned! 

Joanne, September 2021

Joanne has proved to be a wonderful contact, and I am so grateful to her for providing information and allowing me to use it here. In summary:

. . . My great-grandad’s name was Seán Mac Gearailt but he was known as Skip.  He was from Baile Loisce in Kerry.  The photo was taken in a bar which was then called Johnny Frank’s in Baile na nGall (Ballydavid) but I think is now called Tigh TP.  I can see from the photos that have been digitalised Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh took a lot of photographs at Baile na nGall. Pints and Pipes isn’t in that digitalised collection . . .

. . . I gave my dad a call tonight and discussed the extract with him; he lived with his grandparents as a child in the late 1940’s/50’s and visited regularly so knows a lot about Skip. Dad remembers him collecting his pension on a Friday at Ballydavid and having a beer in Johnny Frank’s before going home to hand over the rest of the pension to his wife – so the extract in the book is correct on that. Skip was primarily a farmer but dad says he did go out fishing in a curragh at night. Dad remembers his nan being worried for him when he was out at sea. Dad doesn’t know the name of the other men in the photograph. Skip was friends with two Moriarty brothers (from Gallarus) – so dad thinks maybe the two men in the middle are them but he can’t know that for sure . . .

Joanne, September 2021

Wow! You can imagine how delighted I was to receive that information. But there’s more. I managed to find some early photos of Ballydavid (Baile na nGall in Irish), which is part of the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht area. In fact we have been there – when we took the Irish language immersion course two years ago.

We didn’t photograph the Ballydavid bar, Johnny Frank’s at that time, but here (above) is a view of it from Wiki Commons. Also, to help set the scene, is a little piece online which features the bar, and weaves a tale…

Regular readers will know my interest in the Napoleonic-era signal towers which dot the coast of Ireland, all built in the early years of the 19th century. There was one at Ballydavid Head, drawn (above) by George Victor Du Noyer as he passed by on one of his geological expeditions on 12 June 1856. We didn’t climb the Head when we visited, but we viewed it from a distance (below). The tower is now a ruin.

We have travelled far, far away from Ballydehob where, in some ways, the weaving of this tale began. We had better return. Here’s a reminder of that painted image of the ‘Pints and Pipes’ photograph in Levis’s Corner Bar. Compare it to the header photograph of this post.

It is so obviously based on the Tómás Ó Muicheartaigh portrait, yet there are some differences. The pipes of the two men in the middle are missing! I can’t tell you why this is the case, but I can tell you now who produced the painting, as I was given a valuable link by Joe O’Leary, landlord of Levis’s (which his been in his family for some generations – but that is another story). The painting has a signature:

Paul Klee was, of course, a well known Swiss-born German artist who lived between 1879 and 1940: he had no connection whatsoever with Ireland! Nor did he have anything to do with this painting, which was in fact from the brush of Raymond Klee, born in Barry, South Wales, in 1925 but living out much of his later life in Bantry, West Cork, until his death there in 2013. During the 1950s and 60s he lived in the Montmatre artists’ quarter in Paris, and is said to have been a close friend of Pablo Picasso. There can be no doubt that the Levis’s painting is his work, as I came across a short video, taken late in his life, in his Ballylickey Gallery. I managed to ‘freeze’ the fast-moving film at this point:

There, you can see the artist himself on the left, and over on the right is the partial image of a huge painting propped up: it’s another version of Pints and Pipes… I wonder what became of it? Or, indeed, of much of the large body of work which he left behind in Ballylickey? You will find examples on the internet, including several from the catalogues of art dealers. He doesn’t seem to have exhibited a particularly consistent style and – by repute – ‘churned out’ some of his works very quickly but – it has to be said – to a willing audience. During tours of the United States he would paint large canvases in front of a crowd – perhaps 200 spectators – and produce work which he immediately sold to the highest bidder in the room! I have selected a couple of images of paintings which might be of interest to my audience. The upper painting is titled The Local, while the lower one is Sky Over Inchydoney.

I must end my tale. Here is a little bonus, especially for my correspondent Joanne – and she won’t see this until she reads this post for the first time. We were leafing through the Tómás Ó Muicheartaigh book; it’s hard to put down – over 300 seminal photographs of Irish life. Finola’s eagle eye picked out one which I had never noticed before – and here it is: Seán Mac Gearailt, Joanne’s Great Grandfather, Skip. The caption underneath is apt. Many thanks, Joanne, for setting me on this journey…

GO mBEIRIMID BEO AR AN AM SEO ARÍS . . .

Thanks go to my very good friend Oliver Nares, who worked on the photographs of Pints and Pipes and Skip for me, and greatly improved their quality. Have look at his own site

Brunch at Liss Ard!

Just along the road from us in West Cork lies Liss Ard Estate. One of Ireland’s ‘big houses’, it was built in 1853 and was for generations the home of The O’Donovan, leader of that Gaelic clan. During the ‘cold war’ era of the 20th century it was owned by the Swiss government, who saw in West Cork a potential safe haven if the world descended into a nuclear holocaust. Just recently it has been taken over by an American company who will continue to run it as a hospitality venue. Finola’s eagle eye picked out the other day that Liss Ard were opening up for outdoor Sunday brunch! How could we resist?

Here’s the brunch group: George, Una, Finola, myself, Con and Clair. We thoroughly enjoyed the occasion – partly because it was like being let out of jail (although I doubt – but can’t say for certain – that any of us has experienced that particular phenomenon), but also because, as customers, we were able to follow the excellent breakfast and coffee with a walk around the 163-acre estate.

Finola and I have special feelings for Liss Ard, as we were married there in 2014 in an ancient ringfort! So, easing ourselves out of our chairs in the summer sunshine our first port of call was the feature after which the house is named: Lios Ard = High Fort. At our wedding the souterrain which was an integral part of the fort was not visible: today it can be seen, from above (at least, the entrance to it can be seen). The souterrain is a series of underground chambers, and this one – cut from rock and clay – has survived for well over a millennium. It was fully explored by a good friend of ours, Lee Snodgrass and her partner Paddy O’Leary – both archaeologists – back in the 1980s, and an information board just beside the fort tells the story in their words.

Above: Lee and Paddy’s survey drawings of the fort and souterrain, with a view of the entrance at the west side of the enclosure, and the cave-like structure which can be seen today, surrounded by ferns. Below is our group standing in the circle of the fort: such structures were probably high status homes defended by banks and timber palisades. They would also have provided protection for domestic animals who would have been predated by wolves.

Another feature in the grounds of Liss Ard may also seem like something ancient, but actually only dates from 1992:

. . . The Liss Ard Project brings together the conservation of nature and contemporary art: it will combine animal wildlife preservation, controlled ‘wild’ gardens and a contemporary art project – the Sky Garden . . .

The Irish Sky Garden is an incomplete work of art by Californian James Turrell (born in 1943): I wrote about him and his work a few years ago, here. Turrell had West Cork connections:

. . . Turrell traced his wife (Julia)’s ancestors to Castletown Bearhaven. He had his two youngest children, Sophie and Arlen, baptised in the church there . . . This (West Cork) is the countryside that inspired his Sky garden. It could not be realised anywhere else. Jim is responding to what he has found in Liss Ard, and his sensitive response will enhance the attraction of the site even more. Jim and Veith (the Zurich art dealer who bought the estate in 1989) study the site like two conspiring brothers. Both radiate assurance. Something unique and shared is being created there. The joy of it shows in their faces . . .


James Turrell
from the exhibition – Long Green, Turske & Turske, Zurich 1990

The Irish Sky Garden is an as yet incomplete work of art. The whole project was set to incorporate other ‘land works’ including a pyramid and a vault. Turrell’s most famous work, perhaps, is the Roden Crater in the Arizona desert. It is also work still in progress: construction began in 1977.

Quite apart from the ancient history and modern art, the gardens at Liss Ard have so much to offer. There is a maze of paths and steps, lush – almost tropical – growth and views across the substantial lake which forms part of the demesne: Lough Abisdealy.

As we walked beside the lake I was entranced by the sound of the wind in the reeds, and have tried to capture it with this little recording: you can imagine the combination of the swaying reeds, the crescendo of the light wind, the distant birdsong and the lapping water.

I can only give you a brief impression of our sensory experiences from the day: much is left unsaid and unseen but – all you need to do is book your Sunday brunch, and you stand a good chance of following our footsteps. I only hope that the day is as brilliant for you as it has been for us!