Ireland-Canada: Famine, Fenians, Friends!

I’m Irish but spent forty years in Canada and I am still learning about the many deep, and too often tragic, links between my two countries. Canada’s Ambassador to Ireland, Kevin Vickers, (above) is coming to the West Cork History Festival in Skibbereen this week to talk about Irish-born Canadian Soldiers in the First World War. So in honour of that occasion I’ve been reviewing some of the connections between our nations.

‘Departure’ – the harrowing sculpture by Rowan Gillespie on the Dublin quays

Although my own experience as a Canadian immigrant was a happy one, not all emigration stories are founded in choice and success. There’s a park in Toronto called Ireland Park. Lovely, you say – how nice that we have a memorial in this wonderful city. But Ireland Park commemorates a dark past – the year of 1847 when almost 40,000 immigrants fleeing the Irish Famine arrived in the coffin ships, overwhelming the city.

John Behan’s Coffin Ship Famine memorial in Murrisk, Co Mayo

They brought typhus, chaos, starvation and death and were soon filling the fever sheds built by the heroic citizens of the fledgling city. Catholic and Protestant arrived, and Catholic and Protestant co-operated to help them survive. It’s a tale of heroism and suffering and it echoes strongly  to this day, when we think about the refugees pouring into Greece and Calais – those people were once us.

Take a look at snippets from the haunting documentary film ‘Death or Canada’ (one here and another here) – it will give you a sense of what was involved for the incoming famine victims and for those on the ground.

Rowan Gillespie’s ‘Arrival’ in Ireland Park, Toronto

On a more muscular note, I have written elsewhere about the Fenians in Canada. Taking the fight for Irish freedom to ‘British soil’ in North America, there were many raids and one pitched battle organised by the Fenians in Canada. Ironically, the Battle of Ridgeway helped pave the way for Canadian Confederation.

One of the Fathers of that Confederation was Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a complex character who started off in the Young Ireland Movement. In his early days he was a firebrand revolutionary and that’s how he is chiefly remembered here – as one of a group of poets and writers committed to the liberation of Ireland from British rule. In this he would have seen common cause with that old Unrepentant Fenian, O’Donovan Rossa.

Thomas D’Arcy McGee: the young revolutionary and the elder statesman

However, life in the United States, to which he was eventually forced to flee, while it radicalised Rossa even further, made a conservative out of McGee. He settled in Canada and became an ardent advocate for Canadian nationhood; however, he turned against violent rebellion and espoused a form of Home Rule, thereby earning the enmity of the Fenians who eventually ordered him assassinated. His funeral, held on what would have been his 43rd birthday, saw 80,000 people line the streets of Montreal to mourn a man that had given so much to his adopted country.

Image © Library and Archives Canada

I have written extensively about the Air India Disaster of June 1985. The beautiful memorial in Ahakista has become a place of focus for the families of the victims, who still come every year to remember those who died so tragically on that day. As a Canadian and an Irish person it has become a special place for me – at once a reminder of the terrorist threats that touch on all our lives and the warm and human response that we in West Cork delivered when it all came close to home.

And now we discover that Justin Trudeau, through his mother, is descended from the Bernards of Bandon. This is quite a pedigree – according to The Irish Times In 1661, Francis Bernard married Mary Freake and had six daughters and two sons, the research shows. Mr Trudeau is descended from their younger son, Arthur Bernard, who was High Sheriff of Cork in 1697 and MP for Bandon from 1713-14. My own wanderings around churches have paid off here – take a look at this memorial in St Peter’s Church of Ireland in Bandon – it’s for Francis Bernard – Arthur’s older brother!

So there you are, Ambassador Vickers – one Canadian-Irish woman’s take on some of what binds us as nations. Oh – and for those of you who don’t know who Kevin Vickers is, this is no regular ambassador, no career diplomat. This is a genuine Canadian hero! We look forward to welcoming him back to West Cork and to hearing him speak on Irish-born Canadian Soldiers in the First World War. I wonder if he’ll arrive on his Harley?A famous Canadian painting depicts the Fathers of confederation – and there’s D’Arcy McGee in the front row, second from the right. Image © Canadian House of Commons.

 

Stab All!

With the West Cork History Festival just around the corner (this coming weekend – July 28 to 30: hurry! – there are still some tickets left for a whole host of compelling events), I thought I would concentrate today on a little piece of very local history which has fascinated me for some time.

Header picture: looking down Staball Hill to the colourful and thriving community of Ballydehob in West Cork; above – Chapel Lane, just on the edge of town: a haven for wildflowers with – lower picture – the intriguing sign Lacha Bhuí

Mounted beside the road on Chapel Hill in Ballydehob is a slate plaque, which is inscribed Lacha Bhuí. I asked Finola to translate the Irish for me: it says Yellow Duck! Intrigued, I asked around to see if anyone knew why there should be such a sign in this place; eventually, I was transported back to 1642…

Reenactment of the 1642 Battle of Stratton, in Cornwall: it’s not Ballydehob, but perhaps it portrays something of the atmosphere of the skirmish that took place here in the same year

My principle informant is Noel Coakley – a local historian and a mine of information. He it was who told me the story of a battle that took place in Ballydehob, on Staball Hill in 1642. He couldn’t remember where he had the information from but this is the account he gave me:

In the days of the old Clan system, the McCarthys and the O’Mahonys held sway in this area and a string of castles bears testimony to their strength and dominance. In 1602, an army, led by Sir George Carew, the English President of Munster, descended on the area and were successful in breaking the power of the gaelic Chieftains.

The arrival of the sixteen hundreds saw an influx of settlers, mainly from England, but a significant number were protestants fleeing persecution from Catholic France.

A powerful family named Swanton, from Norfolk in England, came and succeeded in subjecting much of the area to themselves and even changed the name of the village to “Swantons town”. The last use of this name was in the census of 1821.

As always the natives resisted the dominance of foreigners. In those days before police forces, a garrison of twelve British soldiers attempted to uphold and enforce the law and order in Ballydehob. Robert Swanton the leader of the Swanton group, who had quite a few questionable projects to his name, and had earned for himself the nickname ‘Black-hearted Bob’, enlisted the help of the garrison to take over Ballydehob for himself. A group of six local men, who were trained to arms, issued a challenge to the garrison and Black-hearted Bob and a pitched battle was fought at Staball Hill. The year was 1642…

Top – looking towards Staball Hill, Ballydehob, on a peaceful summer Sunday afternoon; centre – Danno – wrestling Champion of the World (and son of Ballydehob) stands guard at the battle site; lower – Cnoc Staball – Staball Hill

There’s more from Noel:

In 1628, the first Huguenots appeared on the southwest coast, mainly in small boats, to escape detection from the French. They brought with them jewellery and other valuables which they traded with the Irish for plots of land. They were entrepreneurs and set up small industries.

One of their number Pierre Camier noticed the exploitation of the natives and took sides with the Irish defenders in the battle of Staball Hill. Black-hearted Bob took flight from the fray and Pierre Camier pursued him and caught up with him between the present St Bridget’s Church and the Garda station and there he attacked him and killed him. He came back to the fray and shouted “I’ve killed the yellow duck”.

Meanwhile the battle was going well for the Irish band. They killed all the garrison losing just one man of their own. The leader of the Irish band shouted “stab ‘em all” and it is alleged that it is from the Staball Hill got its name. The term yellow duck is often applied to a coward in France and to this day the spot where ‘Black-hearted Bob’ was killed is known as ‘Lacha bhuí’ which is the gaelic for ‘yellow duck’…

You’d never know it, but this little patch of West Cork tranquility was the very spot where Black-hearted Bob Swanton met his bloody end, at the hands of Pierre Camier

After some searching I found another account of the battle, in From West Cork Through Time by Kieran McCarthy and Daniel Breen – Amberly Publishing, UK 2013:

…The seventeenth century saw the arrival of a number of settlers, mainly from England, but many were also Protestants (Huguenots) fleeing persecution in Catholic France. The Swantons from Norfolk emerged as the most prominent family in the area and, by the late eighteenth century, they had even changed the name of Ballydehob to Swanton’s Town. A garrison of twelve British soldiers attempted to uphold the law. Robert Swanton, the leader of the group, enlisted the help of the garrison to take over Ballydehob. A group of six local men, who were trained in arms, issued a challenge to the garrison and ‘Black-hearted Bob’, and a pitched battle was fought on Staball Hill. The year was 1642…

In rural Ireland history is never far below the surface. Here in Ballydehob there are still reminders of the Huguenot proponents in the ‘Yellow Duck’ affair

As a little addendum I can’t resist pointing out that there is a Staball Hill in Castlebar, County Mayo. It has a story, too:

According to folklore, Staball Hill got its name from the ‘Races of Castlebar’ during the Rebellion of 1798. General Humbert, with an army of 1000 French soldiers, landed at Killala and fought his way to Castlebar with the help of some Irish recruits where an army of British soldiers were waiting for him.  After the battle, the British contingent fled so fast that the episode became known as the ‘Races of Castlebar’ and is often described as one of the most ignominious defeats in British military history. During the battle a blockade was erected by the British in one last stand at Bridge Street.  As the Irish soldiers, armed only with pikes, charged the British the residents of the street are said to have shouted ‘Stab them all’. This was shortened to ‘Staball’.  On the Ordnance Survey Map c1900 the hill is called ‘Stab all’ – the words separated…

Staball Hill, Castlebar, County Mayo:

Danny

My best friend Danny passed away this week. He chose St Swithun’s Day to go – perhaps because there is a message in the saint’s story – and Danny was a goldmine for the stories. St Swithun – whose monastic community was in Winchester, Hampshire – died in 862. On his deathbed Swithun begged that he should be buried outside the north wall of his cathedral where pilgrims would pass over his grave and rain from the eaves would drop upon it. This was done, but a number of monks felt that this was too humble a place for their bishop, so they worked hard for a year and built a large and ornate mausoleum, decorated with gold and fine carvings. On the anniversary of his death – 15 July – preparations were made to move Swithun into it, but a mighty storm blew up. It lasted 40 days and everything was flooded for miles around. The stately tomb was washed away, and Swithun – as he wished – has enjoyed his simple and peaceful resting place ever since.

Danny loved his simple life tucked away in the hills of West Cork. I first met him in 1978, when he visited the folklore shop we had just opened in Devon, close by where he lived then. From that day our paths crossed frequently, and I came to know his wife Gillian and their five daughters. At that time Danny kept goats and made bodhrans from them – those are the circular framed drums that are frequently used to accompany Irish traditional music. Danny’s hand-crafted bodhrans were considered outstanding by players, and now examples of his instruments can be found across the world. This one is in my own collection:

For me, Danny was a fount of knowledge about Ireland, Irish life and Irish music and literature. I have probably also heard every story about his own travels, which seemed to start in his birthplace of Limerick and took him to most exotic places, finishing here in West Cork, with many stops along the way. It’s sad to think that his life here has passed, but I’m sure his soul soars over this lush and beautiful landscape – and will continue to do so forever. Goodbye, Danny – and safe home.

 

The House that Danny Built

We lost our friend Danny this week and we are all heartbroken.

Robert designed his house but Danny built it in his own unique style. Going there was a delight because you couldn’t come away in a bad humour after an hour of stories and laughter, tea and reminiscences. Gill’s lively sense of the absurd mingled with snippets of poetry, stories of Danny’s time in English theatre companies, and classical music always playing in the background. He built himself a tiny sunny workshop and it was here we always found him when we arrived, sawing and drilling and painting. Tables, trays, boxes, chests, mirrors, frames, shelves and shoe racks – even a harp emerged from that cramped space, all painted his signature green and finished in Mondrian-inspired designs. And in between the tools were dotted the eclectic and quirky finds that captured his, or Gill’s, fancy, or works by one of their daughters or grandchildren.

What follows is a photo-essay, an attempt to capture the bundle of creativity and idiosyncrasy, colour, humour and intelligence that was Danny, from images taken mainly in his workshop but also outside the house.

Rest in peace, old friend.

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

Postscript – In the Tracks of the Yellow Dog

Uillinn – the West Cork Arts Centre gallery in Skibbereen – has a great facility in its exhibitions – a Discovery Box which can be used by children (or anyone else) to express their reactions to whatever is on show. I went in the other day to have a last look at the West meets West show of the work of Cornish Artists (hurry! – it closes on Saturday 8 July) and was delighted to see that someone had used some elements from the box to place a little installation under Matthew Lanyon’s painting aptly titled ‘Skibbereen’.

The Discovery Box in action at Uillinn – left, with Phil Booth’s impressive construction Gwennap Head in the background and – right – set against Tony Lattimer’s wonderful ceramics. (Photos courtesy of West Cork Arts Centre)

The Discovery Boxes are tailor-made for each exhibition. This one has been assembled by Sarah Ruttle and includes (amongst a multitude of inspired shapes) fish and fishing nets, miniature coiled ceramics reminiscent of Tony’s work – and a yellow dog! Why a yellow dog? Well, one of the most striking exhibits in this show is a tapestry designed by Matthew Lanyon – In the Tracks of the Yellow Dog.

Upper picture – the Discovery Box installation under Matthew Lanyon’s ‘Skibbereen’ painting and (lower left) the tapestry with (lower right) the paw print of the Yellow Dog substituted for the artist’s signature

The tapestry was manufactured by Flanders Tapestries in Belgium: cottons, wools and acrylics were selected in close collaboration with Matthew to achieve a tonal harmony from his original design. The yellow dog, a reference to Yellow-Dog Dingo from Kipling’s Just So stories, makes only one appearance; the paw print from a dried out salt lake in central Western Australia substitutes for the artist’s signature. 

We will miss the excitement and impact of those large, very Cornish works once they are packed up and sent back across the Celtic Sea, but that’s the nature of a gallery: the moment has to be enjoyed and then set aside as it will be soon replaced by other stimuli. Following on from West meets West at Uillinn is The Edge of the Landscape a major retrospective of the art of William Crozier (1930-2011), opening on Friday 14 July at 7pm. Born in Scotland, Crozier spent much of his time in Kilcoe, West Cork, from the mid-1980s, and this exhibition will present many of his works which have been inspired by the landscapes so familiar to us.

Below: Matthew Lanyon’s Skibbereen