The Turning Year in Rossbrin

We are fortunate to live in a rural idyll: our immediate environment is immersed in the natural world. In fact, I suppose it is ‘Nature tamed’ – as we have pasture all around us as well as banks of gorse and rock: even a few trees which manage to cling on to the shallow soil all through the winter gales and (occasional) summer droughts. As the years go by we feel we become more closely entwined with the cycle of everything around us – we get to know personally the fox, pheasants and rabbits that pass by our window, and the myriad of birds that feed here, forage in the Cove or just show themselves to us on memorable occasions – Spioróg the Sparrowhawk is so handsome when she is resting on our terrace wall while on her deadly missions, and our choughs frequently perform wild dances in the air to entertain us. This year was special for me because, for the first time, I saw a hare amble around the house, alert with erect ears, before loping off into the next door field.

I have written about Rossbrin Cove many times before: look at A Moment in Time, Tide’s Out and Words on Roaring Water, for example. That sheltered natural harbour and the old mine road up on the hill above probably give us the most pleasure because we visibly see the year change and turn every time we walk there. Just now the days are rapidly shortening, and the autumnal influx of wading birds is returning. One we keep a particular eye out for is the curlew – a threatened breeding species here in Ireland. We see many on and close to the water, particularly at low tide, but these are probably migrants rather than resident breeders.

The year is turning – from late summer into early autumn, and the colours are changing from rich reds and purples – fuschia and heathers – to the more sombre yet equally attractive yellows and browns of furze and fern. Finola has closely followed the wildflowers right through from the spring – she is still finding and identifying every imaginable species – it’s a complete world of its own!

We have been seeing some exceptionally high and low tides here in Rossbrin. I’m always fascinated to see the mud-flats revealing bits of discarded history, while I am convinced that the huge remnants of dressed stonework on the north-east shore are the vestiges of once-busy quays, dating either from the medieval period, when Sir William Hull and the Great Earl of Cork owned the lands around here and set up thriving fish-processing ‘palaces’, or – at the latest – when the copper mines were active up on our hills and on Horse Island in the nineteenth century.

The real turning point comes at the end of October – Samhain – when the old calendar enters the ‘dark year’ (the ‘light year’ begins on May 1st –  Bealtaine). We know we have long, dark nights to come – time to huddle down by the stove – but there will be bright days as good as any in the year for walking, exploring and breathing in the Atlantic breezes. And the Rossbrin sunsets will be magnificent!

The Mountain Road

Over three years ago I wrote a piece about the mountain that’s on our doorstep – Mount Gabriel. This rocky high terrain is always in our view as we travel around West Cork, and we feel it must have had special significance in prehistoric times: it overlooks a majority of the archaeological sites that we have explored locally – perhaps they were placed because of that. Also, there are many stories attached to Mount Gabriel (find them in my previous post), including the fact that the Archangel himself touched down on its summit and left behind a footprint in the stone! Evidently, he was intrigued to hear about Ireland’s verdant beauty and knew that …in time to come, this honest island would never part with the worship and duty it owes to the Mother of God… and so was determined to get a look at the holy place.

Derryconnell Loop Walk on the Fastnet Trails takes in the foothills of Mount Gabriel – seen here in contrasting weather conditions, but only a day apart!

There is a little-known road which runs along the foothills of the mountain which, on a good day, is as beautiful a road as you will find anywhere in Ireland. It begins at the bog of Derreennatra (more of which can be found in Finola’s post today) and you can follow it up and through the Barnacleeve Gap. If you wish, from there you can go all the way up to the summit and get some of the most stunning views all the way over the Mizen, across the Sheep’s Head and even into Kerry.

The climb to the summit of Mount Gabriel is always rewarding, with panoramic views to all points of the compass. Lower Picture: the Air Traffic Control Authority’s installations atop the mountain add an odd drama to the landscape

Part of our Mountain Road has been incorporated in the Derryconnell Loop Walk, one of the new group of the Fastnet Trails based around Schull. The whole of this loop walk is varied and picturesque, but the section from the bog is outstanding as it skirts the mountain – which always dominates the vista – and brings you to the junction with the Barnacleeve road. Keep on going, and take in the mountain itself, or follow the trail down to the old Schull Workhouse. Whichever way you go, you will be struck by the seeming remoteness of the boreens, and you will seldom encounter a vehicle.

In all weathers the Mountain is engaging: you can start out in the mist and finish up in sunshine!

In the latter part of this summer we have explored the road in all weathers, and recorded the many moods of the mountain. Reaching the summit last week, we had a search for the Archangel’s footprint. I’m convinced we found it, but we couldn’t see the lake with its magical islands which – according to the legends ‘…float about up and down, east and north and south; but every Lady-day they come floating to the western point, and there they lie fixed under the crag that holds the track of the Angel’s foot…’ (John Abraham Jagoe, Vicar of Cape Clear – Church of Ireland Magazine 1826)

The peak of Mount Gabriel is strewn with rocks, any of which might contain the Archangel’s footprint. Upper – the view to the islands of Roaringwater Bay. Lower – could this be where he touched down? A definitely footprint shaped impression on this rock – highlighted on the photo in red

In my younger days I was fortunate to hear traditional Irish musicians Margaret Barry and Michael Gorman performing on the streets of Camden Town, London, when I worked in that city. Those streets were a far cry from the home I now have in West Cork, but I recall the duo’s rendering of the tune The Mountain Road: Margaret came from Cork herself, so perhaps our own mountain (or maybe it was Gabriel?) was an inspiration to her.

Descending from the summit, we finished our walk on the Mountain Road at the gauntly atmospheric ruins of Schull Workhouse

Cruinniú na mBád – the Boat Gathering

It only happens once a year! During Ballydehob’s Summer Festival traditional sailing boats gather in Roaringwater Bay and when the tide is right they sail up the shallow waters of Ballydehob Bay to the quay.*

This is a tidal estuary and normally not deep enough to be a reliable port of call for boats, especially those with keels. But during the high summer tides the waters become navigable, provided you time it right, and Ballydehob breaks out the band, fires up the barbecue and invites all sailors to the quay for a gathering like no other.

The Cruinniú na mBád (pronounced krinoo nuh mawd) is part of the village Summer Festival so from year to year it’s a real community affair. The vintage cars and tractors (my goodness there’s a lot of them in West Cork) parade behind a marching band to kick off the week of festivities. The week is filled with music in the pubs, guided walks around the village, charade competitions, and an evening of street sports where we cheer on the youngsters in the madcap turnip race and a completely socially irresponsible event involving chugging beer and pushing a wheelbarrow with an occupant (only in Ireland!).

Turnip races down the main street and crab fishing at the quay

On the weekend the whole village takes to the Pier. The kids compete for medals in crab fishing, there’s a “world famous duck race” (I have no photographs as it’s been cancelled due to bad weather so often), there are fireworks (when it’s dry enough) from the Twelve Arch Bridge, and we await the arrival of the Old Boats.

This year’s entertainment was the fabulous East coast Jazz Band. We catch up on the chat, and look out for one of our popular locals sailing in

It’s an oddly emotional experience to see the boats appear, one by one, and round the bend into the last stretch to the quay. Emotional because this is essentially a re-enactment of what was commonplace in former days, when the quay at Ballydehob was a bustling hive of commerce. Bigger boats would anchor at the entrance to the Bay and lighters would haul the cargo to the quay.

Not all the boats are old – some have come just to be part of this unique gathering – but most are traditional and many of them have been lovingly restored. Some, like the Ette, have been rescued from extinction and reconstructed from crumbling derelicts by master boatbuilders Anke Eckardt and Rui Ferreira – check out their site for an illustrated guide to the slow and skilful processes involved.

Anke and Rui arrive in their Ette-class boat

At this year’s gathering Anke’s parent, Dietrich and Hildegard, our neighbours and friends, were there with their classic fishing boat, the Barracuda.

The whole Levis family sailed in on their beautiful Saoirse Muireann (seer-shuh mirren, Freedom of the Seas), a traditional Heir Island Lobster Boat. Cormac has written the book, literally, on these boats: Towelsail Yawls: The Lobsterboats of Heir Island and Roaringwater Bay. He started this gathering way back in 2004 and it’s been going strong ever since.

Saoirse Muireann coming in to dock. The term towel sail comes from the Irish word teabhal (pronounced towel) meaning shelter, as the sail could double as a kind of tent in wet weather.

Another traditional boat was An tIascaire (on tee-skirruh, The Fisherman), a traditional mackerel yawl. Like many boats in these parts, this one has benefitted from the extraordinary knowledge of the boatbuilders at Hegarty’s Boatyard at Oldcourt – regular readers will remember Robert’s post about this wonderful place.

It’s also lovely to see a Galway Hooker, An Faoileán (on fwale-awn, the Seagull), participating – their black hulls and red sails are instantly recognisable. This one has quite a history – and reading it educated me as to the difference between sails that are gaffe-rigged, versus a traditional Irish rigging known as pucán-rigged (puck-awn). Of course all you sailors know this already, right?

Our friend Jack O’Keefe organises a rally every couple of years for Drascombe Luggers and they joined the gathering en masse in 2014. Unlike 2013 it wasn’t the best of weather, but that did nothing to dampen the spirits of the sailors. It was lovely to be there on the dock to cheer them in.

The Drascombes raft up alongside. Jack O’Keefe and  keen sailor Sheena Jolley

It takes lots of sailing know-how to get up the Bay, but even more to manoeuvre into the tight spaces along the quay, or raft up alongside. By the time everyone’s there, they are rafted up four and five boats deep. 

Then it’s up on shore to partake of the music, the food and the friendly camaraderie that is so typical of both the boating community and the village of Ballydehob, until finally the word goes around that the ebb tide has started and it’s time to carefully push out and take to the seas again – until next year.

 I’ll finish with a video. Sit back and enjoy it, and think about the hundreds, no thousands, of years of history that is evoked by the sight of boats sailing up Ballydehob Bay.

*The photographs in this post are not all mine. Barney Whelan (friend and follower of Roaringwater Journal) was in one of the boats and sent me some taken on the water. Thank you, Barney! Some were shamelessly stolen from the Fastnet Trails Facebook Page, and are the work of the indefatigable Margaret McSweeney (great people shots – thank you, Margaret!). The video is by Tom Vaughan of Oakwood Aerial Photography – he makes West Cork look even more beautiful than it is (and that’s saying something) in his amazing drone footage. The rest of the photos are mine and were taken in 2013, ’14, ’16 and this year.

The Edge of the Landscape – William Crozier

The Edge of the Landscape is the title of an upcoming exhibition which opens this weekend at Uillinn. It will show some of the later work of William Crozier (1930 – 2011), a Scottish born artist who considered himself more Irish than Scottish as his parents were from Ballinderry, Co Antrim. He adopted Irish citizenship in 1973 and purchased a cottage at Kilcoe, West Cork, in the early 1980s. Although he worked both here and in Hampshire for the rest of his life, most of his later paintings dwelled on the Irish landscape – specifically the splendours of West Cork, which are so familiar to us.

The meeting of land and sea was a recurring theme in Crozier’s work. The quay at Turk Head, above, inspired the header on this post – painted by Crozier in 2003. We might wonder at the eye of the artist that pictures the scene in such vivid colours, but anyone who has lived in West Cork will be familiar with his palette: the rocks, the fields, the lanes, wildflowers, water and ever-changing skies provide all the colours in his paintings, tints, tones and shades which are successfully pulled into unexpected compositions.

Katharine Crouan – Bill Crozier’s widow – has written to me “…Bill was not, in any way, a topographical artist but you can see in his work – particularly from 1984-95 – the stimulus  the landscape provided. He spoke of loving the ‘glamour’ of the West Cork landscape, referring to the glitter of water and sunlight on foliage after rain and the dark shadows that came out of nowhere. For him it was all magical…”

‘Kilcoe Strand (From Peninsula)’, painted by William Crozier in 2011

I am reminded of Peter Lanyon, the St Ives artist (who was, interestingly, the subject of a book titled At the Edge of Landscape): he famously said that, as a painter, he needed to “…get under the skin of the landscape…” That need informs his work, which is abstract rather than specifically landscape-based yet inspired, as he stated, from flying over his native Cornwall and – by exploring the mine shafts – tunnelling underneath it. For me, William Crozier has the same regard for his West Cork homeland and successfully expresses his relationship with it through the richness of his work.

Toe Head, West Cork (upper picture) was the inspiration for many paintings. Lower works: Toe Head 1989, (left), and Wolf’s Castle, Toe Head 1998 (right – Richard Barrett) 

William Crozier was a prolific painter – he estimated that he had painted more than 12,000 pictures, each executed in a single session. The landscape-inspired works are just one part of an enormous opus. He did not overlook the sometimes hard realities of his surroundings. Cocks of hay drying in a field may appear a romantic ‘rural idyll’, but are equally a portrait of an economically unviable small-holding.

William Crozier in his studio c 2009

The exhibition of a selection of Crozier’s work produced since 1985 is showing at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre from 15 July to 31 August, and later in the year some of his earlier works will be shown at IMMA: The Irish Museum of Modern Art from 12 October 2017 to 8 April 2018. Both exhibitions are curated by Seán Kissane (Curator, Exhibitions, IMMA), who will be presenting a talk on the work at 6pm this Friday, 14 July, in Uillinn, following which the exhibition will be formally opened by Sarah Glennie, the Director of IMMA. An important new publication edited by Katharine Crouan and Seán Kissane and designed by Peter Maybury accompanies the exhibition with texts by Mark Hudson, Katharine Crouan, Seán Kissane, Riann Coulter, Enrique Juncosa, and Sarah Turner.

Below – Departure from the Island, William Crozier 1993 (Flowers Gallery). Note that copyright on all works rests – unless otherwise stated – with the William Crozier Estate

Choughs – and their travels

You’re looking here at a 500 year-old Chough! It’s a carving from a medieval rood screen in an ancient church at Sancreed, on the West Penwith peninsula in Cornwall. There’s no mistaking it: the curved red beak and the red legs make this the most distinctive of all the corvids. This is an accurate representation but, interestingly, on the rood screen it’s in the company of other curioser beasts and beings which we perhaps would not recognise. Were the others around once in Cornwall, but now vanished? You can have a look for yourselves in next week’s post. But first, a little more about our own Choughs.

This wonderful photograph by our neighbour Oliver Nares (thank you, Oliver) shows Choughs in flight, and you can tell they are Choughs rather than any other sort of crow by the distinctive ‘finger’ feathers on the tips of their wings. But also their call is very particular – they tell you their name!

The pattern of their flight makes them stand out. The other day a chatter of twenty Choughs passed over us at Nead an Iolair and swooped down over and around Rossbrin Cove. They were wheeling and turning, performing acrobatics in the sky – even flying upside down! – clearly enjoying every moment of their airborne peregrinations. Why wouldn’t you, with such a beautiful landscape below you?

I have written about Choughs before, but there is a special relevance now, in my series on links between Ireland and Cornwall, sparked off by the West meets West exhibition currently running in the West Cork Arts Centre’s gallery in Skibbereen – Uillinn. The Chough has always been the ‘national bird’ of Cornwall – it has pride of place on the coat-of-arms of the county, alongside the fisherman and the miner:

It was somewhat ominous, therefore, when the Choughs disappeared from Cornwall, back in 1970, after a long period of decline. Attempts were made to reintroduce them artificially, over the following decades, but without success. And then, suddenly, the birds returned! It seems that changes in agricultural methods on the coasts – removing grazing cattle to inland sites – had upset their habitats. Now, following changed grazing patterns, Choughs are re-establishing themselves and – here’s the exciting thing – they have come over from Ireland to do that! It has been found that the entire new breeding stock originates from here, where the birds are plentiful. Just imagine those pioneering birds setting out to cross the Celtic Sea from Cork, Waterford and Wexford… Another gift from Ireland to Cornwall, following in the path of Saint Ciarán from Cape Clear who floated across himself (on a millstone) to convert the Cornish heathens and giving them their own patron saint, known as Piran in their own language.

Left – Chough fledglings, photo by Oliver Nares; right – Finola’s study of a bedraggled Chough sitting on our gatepost on a very wet day

In Cornwall, the Chough is said to carry the spirit of King Arthur, the Once and Future King who will return one day. In Ireland, however, Choughs are believed to start fires by carrying lighted sticks on to the roofs of houses. The latin name – Pyrrhocorax – means ‘fire raven’, perhaps because of the bright red bill and legs.

A taster for next week: another – curioser – bird-like creature from the Sancreed rood screen in Cornwall

Forbes – An Irish Artist in Cornwall

In yesterday’s gallery talk as part of the West meets West exhibition at Uillinn, Skibbereen, I concentrated on one of the many artists who made their way to Cornwall in the late nineteenth century: Stanhope Alexander Forbes. He deserves a Roaringwater Journal post of his own, as he rather neatly embodies the concept of linking the two westernmost seaboards of Ireland and England, which is an essential element of the West meets West project. Colloquially known as the ‘Father of the Newlyn School’ of painters who were established in the West of Cornwall, and who have left an impressive legacy of their work in the most remote part of the peninsula, it was probably his longevity that earned him that title (he lived in Newlyn for most of his working life and died there in 1947) rather than a particular comparison of his work with others. There was a large group of talented artists, men and women, who contributed to the reputation of the Newlyn colony.

Header Picture – Perranwell Viaduct, Cornwall, painted by Stanhope Forbes in 1933, when he was 76 (The Medici Society Ltd). Above – a photograph of the Newlyn Group, taken in the early 1880s: shown are Frank Bodilly, Fred Millard, Frank Bramley, William Blandford Fletcher, William Breakspeare, Ralph Todd, William Wainwright, Edwin Harris and (seated lower right) Stanhope Forbes

Stanhope Forbes was born in Dublin in 1857. His father, William Forbes, was manager of the Midland Great Western Railway of Ireland. William was also a folklorist and probably passed his interest in traditions and traditional lifestyles on to his son. Stanhope’s uncle, James Staats Forbes (also a railway manager) had a large collection of paintings from the French Barbizon School whose members (including Corot and Rousseau) abandoned formalism to draw directly from nature. Stanhope was familiar with these works and the aspirations of these painters, and it is likely that when he embarked on a career in art he was heavily influenced by their heritage.

Forbes early works: left – A Street in Brittany 1881 (Walker Art Gallery), and right – Beach Scene St Ives (City of Bristol Art Gallery) 1886

Norman Garstin, another Irish artist who joined the Newlyn group and documented some of its history, described the Forbes family as “…essentially of the nineteenth century, full of its movement and restless activity…” Stanhope attended the Royal Academy School in London where he would have had a traditional training in still life and figure painting in the studio. London itself in those post-Industrial Revolution Victorian days was no doubt dirty and noisy, and the air would have been polluted. Forbes and many of his student companions would have longed for clean air and light and yearned to join the then fashionable (but daring and rebellious) en plein air movement where the object was to paint ‘natural’ colours and tones direct from life, albeit with the inherent problems of changing light through the days and seasons, and the practicalities of carrying easels, canvases and equipment to wherever they wanted to paint. As Norman Garstin said: “…your work could not be any good unless you caught a cold doing it…” The young artists were attracted to Brittany, where they discovered an ‘idyllic’ unchanging lifestyle and, latterly, to Cornwall, where they also perceived the ‘rural idyll’ existing closer to home, among the villages, farms and fishing communities.

A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach by Stanhope Alexander Forbes, completed in 1885 (now in the City of Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery). This spectacular painting – five feet long – is a masterpiece of composition and contains portraits drawn from real life: Newlyn locals were delighted to receive ‘sitting fees’ from the influx of artists

It’s probably true to say that the Newlyn artists romanticised the way of life in rural Cornwall by concentrating on the fishing communities and the beautiful seaboard. There was another reality: the interior of Cornwall’s peninsula was heavily industrialised in the 19th century by the metal mining industry. The artists must have been aware of this reality but ignored any recording of it. There was, at least, some acknowledgement of the hardship and distress of those connected to the sea itself. Frank Bramley’s Hopeless Dawn (beautifully painted although also romanticising in a very Victorian way the aftermath of lost lives at sea), painted in 1888, depicts the widow of a drowned fisherman being comforted by her mother; the lighting and composition of the interior view is remarkable.

Upper picture – the industrial landscape of inland Cornwall: Dolcoath Mine 1883. Lower picture – Frank Bramley’s A Hopeless Dawn, painted in 1888 (Tate Gallery, London)

Stanhope Forbes lived into his ninetieth year. By all accounts he achieved success in his chosen profession, but his personal life saw some tragedies: Elizabeth Armstrong – an equally talented artist who travelled from her native Canada to work in Newlyn – married Stanhope in 1889. She pursued her own career as a painter and etcher until her early death – aged 52 – in 1912. Their son Alec died on the battlefields of France in 1916. All are buried in the beautiful churchyard of Sancreed, in Cornwall.

Blackberry Gatherers, painted by Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes in 1912 (Walker Art Gallery)

West meets West – a celebration of three contemporary artists from Cornwall – runs through to 8 July at Uillinn, Skibbereen

I am indebted to Stanhope Forbes and the Newlyn School by Caroline Fox, published by David & Charles 1993, for much of the biographical information on the artist in this post.