The Elemental World of Cormac Boydell

Perched on the very edge of Europe and facing into the Atlantic Ocean, the far west of Ireland is a terrifyingly beautiful place to set down your roots. Our own little spot, overlooking the comparatively calm reaches of Roaringwater Bay, faces into the winter gales and it’s a constant fight to keep the weather out: always a losing battle. But, could we live anywhere else? Certainly not. This week we met up with Cormac Boydell and Rachel Parry – two artists who live just about as far away as it is possible to be in wild West Cork. Like us, they battle with the elements; like us, they couldn’t envisage living anywhere else.

Cormac Boydell (header picture – in his studio) and Rachel Parry live on the edge of Ireland: their cottage and lush gardens feel as if they are carved out of the mountainside to seek maximum shelter from winter storms. They are well off the beaten track close to the end of the Beara Peninsula: the nearest settlement is Allihies (from the Irish Na hAilichí, meaning ‘the cliff fields) which was a centre for copper extraction in the Bronze Age and from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when generations of Cornish Mine Captains came here to manage the mines, providing work for a substantial local population.

Connection with the landscape is something that’s inherent in the make-up of Cormac Boydell. It must be significant that he started out studying and working as a geologist – getting to know the physical fabric of the rocks and the earth around him – before setting out on a more creative path, working with those very elements to produce exuberantly robust ceramic sculptures which are unique and highly sought after.

Cormac’s tools are his hands. He works raw terracotta clay and crafts the shapes of his pieces without wheel or mould. He applies colours and – most importantly – textures into the surface, and firing provides the finishes – not always predictable. For him, this is all part of the living process. But that’s the physical process: into the whole equation, also, are his close observations of the environment around him – the geology, textures and colours of the rock surfaces from the natural and cultivated landscapes. He sees the way rocks break and how they weather – how time is an element in their metamorphoses. Somehow, into all this surveillance and appreciation of nature he also makes stories. He finds inspiration in ancient sagas, particularly those from Ireland, as we saw in the exhilarating work on the walls of his studio.

Cormac Boydell is one of the important group of artists who came and settled in West Cork during the second half of the last century – a group whose lives and work have yet to be properly celebrated. Like many others of this group he has stayed for life and contributed to raising the profile of art produced in Ireland. In a catalogue of work produced by West Cork artists and displayed both in Skibbereen and the Crawford Gallery in Cork 30 years ago – Living Landscape ’87 – he writes this of his own contribution to that exhibition:

. . . Landscape is not the first term I would apply to my work. However I always welcome challenge. Breaking new ground stimulates creativity where repetition kills it. Experimentation, welcoming both failures and success, working out beyond the boundaries of my vision… that’s the excitement of art making. Using rock and fired clay as elements of the landscape, “Earthbone” expresses the spirit from which the landscape is formed . . .

Alison Ospina wrote in 2011 in the introduction to her book West Cork Inspires:

. . . Hidden down the leafy lanes of West Cork I have found artists whose work is of the highest calibre and should be considered of national importance . . . I have selected people working in a variety of media whose work has had an impact on other craftspeople and has been influential in developing West Cork’s reputation for excellence and originality . . .

In her book she writes of Cormac Boydell:

. . . Cormac’s work is organic and elemental, the earth is its source. It resonates across millennia from when the bedrock of this country was being laid down and speaks of torsion and vortices, glacial drift and the alchemy of fire. It taps into the energies of nature, to which it is inextricably linked . . .

One of my favourite new pieces from Cormac Boydell is this large plaque inspired by the story of the Irish Saint Éinne (also known as Saint Enda): the patriarch of Irish monasticism. He is the brother of St Fanchea (see Finola’s post about Irish women saints) and was a warrior until Fanchea persuaded him to lay down his arms. He went to Aran in 484 and founded the first monastery there but the local chieftain Corbanus intervened. Éinne’s response was to banish all of Corbanus’s horses from the islands. This is the scene which Cormac has illustrated and it’s one of a recent series which is based on myths and legends.

You could own a piece by Cormac Boydell! This ceramic – based on a story from the Finn McCool cycle – has been purchased by Uillinn, the West Cork Arts Centre gallery in Skibbereen, and will be on display there from this week until the end of the Art & The Great Hunger Exhibition which runs from 20 July to 13 October. While the gallery is open you can purchase draw tickets at only 5 Euros each: the prize, which will be drawn on the last day of the exhibition, is the Boydell ceramic. What an opportunity – every ticket stands an equal chance of winning this unique work of art! And all your contributions will be supporting the activities of the Arts Centre.

With grateful thanks to Cormac and Rachel for allowing us a glimpse into their world

The Children of Lir

Artist Warren Osborne's depiction of the enchanted Swans

Artist Warren Osborne‘s depiction of the enchanted Swans

It was the mission of the Bards and the Seanchaí to keep alive the ancient stories of Ireland: I am always eager to hear these wonder tales: if they are well told, they will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Your storyteller is being watched and listened to by a generation gone before, who in turn carried that story forward from their ancestors – a chain of continuity which for all we know could go back to the time of the Bronze Age rock carvers and Megalith builders – or even before that. History books are mere speculation and short lived; stories encompass the spirit of the people, and last forever.

The story captured in sculpture at Ballycastle, County Mayo

A story captured in sculpture at Ballycastle, County Antrim

Have you ever wondered why Swans are such special birds? Did you know that in Ireland no-one can harm the Swan? Some say that law was made by the Milesians, who are said to have arrived in Ireland from Galicia (northern Spain) around four thousand years ago, and heard about The Children of Lir.

It’s a Wicked Step-Mother Tale. Finola is a Step-Mother and is sensitive to such stories, but interestingly she herself appears in this story – in fact she is its heroine! The twins Finola (…as beautiful as sunshine in blossomed branches…) and Hugo and the twins Fiachra and Conn were the children of King Lir and Queen Aoibh.

l_1069ca_20121008_1587912131

When the children were very young their mother died, and the King married Aoifa, a sister of Aoibh. All was well until Aoifa noticed that Lir was spoiling his children: each one of them was given a beautiful white horse and a pair of white hounds and the King spent most of his time in their company. In true step-mother fashion, Aoifa became jealous and determined to intervene. Just as in the story of Snow White, she planned a dire end for them: she took them off to the wild shores of Lake Derryvaragh and threw them into the waters. But her magical powers were not strong enough: Finola gathered her brothers around her and, as Aoifa looked on, the children were transformed into beautiful Swans. In a final curse their step-mother said that they would live out three hundred years on the lake, then three hundred years more in the Sea of Moyle (the narrowest part of the Atlantic Ocean between Ireland and Scotland), then a final three hundred years on Sruth Fada Conn or Irrus Domnann – Stream of the Long Hound – in County Mayo. The spell could only be broken when the sound of the first Christian bell was heard by the Swans.

Sruwaddacon Bay - also known as Sruth Fada Conn

Sruwaddacon Bay – also known as Sruth Fada Conn

Aoifa might have suffered some last minutes pangs of guilt, for she allowed the Swans to retain their human voices. They also had the gift of music and while they were on Lake Derryvaragh people flocked to hear them singing. In fact, it is said that all of Ireland’s great musical tradition originated from the Children of Lir.

Children of Lir by John Duncan, 1914

Children of Lir by John Duncan, 1914

When the King found out about Aoifa’s treachery he turned her into a ‘night demon’ – a Moth, and she’s still around: we see her frequently down here in Nead an Iolair.

Aoifa - the Emperor Moth

Aoifa – the Emperor Moth

One of the most poignant parts of the story (and I am telling only the briefest of versions here) pictures the Swan children revisiting their father’s tower house on their journey to the Sea of Moyle – only to find grass covered ruins and no traces of the family’s heritage:

…when they looked down they saw no light in the house, they heard no music, no sound of voices. The many-coloured house was desolate and all the beauty was gone from it; the white hounds and the brightmaned horses were gone, and all the beautiful glad-hearted folk of the Sidhe… (http://www.sacred-texts.com)

stamp children of lir

We watch the Swans in Rossbrin Cove. On occasion we are fortunate enough to see them taking off from or landing on the water – a noisy and energetic affair: it’s hard to believe that such large and heavy birds can actually take to the air, and migrate over huge distances. Swans appear in folktales all over the world: usually they are associated with light and beauty. A tradition that the Swan only sings when dying has been captured in a madrigal by Orlando Gibbons:

The Silver Swan who, living, had no note,
When death approach’d, unlock’d her silent throat.
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
Thus sung her first and last, And sung no more:
“Farewell all joys, O death come close mine eyes.
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise”

children of lir

To return to our tale – the Children of Lir took their final journey to the far west of Ireland: to the Beara peninsula in West Cork. There they heard St Patrick’s bell and were transformed to human shape again. A hermit – Saint Kemoc – found them, four ancient, withered people. He baptised them just before they crumbled to dust. This place is marked now by a stone where offerings are made: their story is alive today.

The Lir Stone, near Allihies on the Beara

The Lir Stone, near Allihies on the Beara

patricks bell

St Patrick’s Bell

Beara – the Lie of the Land

On the north side of the Beara, looking across to the Kerry Mountains.

On the north side of the Beara, looking across to the Kerry Mountains

The Beara Peninsula is the largest and perhaps the wildest of the three West Cork Peninsulas. (See last week’s post for the map.) Two mountain chains, the Caha Mountains and the Slieve Miskish Mountains make up the spine of the Peninsula. You can traverse it via the spectacular Healy Pass, which runs from Adrigole north to Lauragh. On this occasion, because we had limited time, we confined ourselves to driving the main coastal route and to getting the general lie of the land. This meant we missed out on several landmarks – Bere Island, for example, and Dursey Island, besides the Healy Pass – so of course we must go back soon!

Near Cod's Head

Near Cod’s Head

After the inspiring piano recital by David Syme, described last week, we stayed overnight in Allihies and enjoyed an excellent dinner in O’Neill’s pub. The local Gaelic Football team had won a championship match that afternoon and the town was celebrating well into the night. Our first stop the next day was the Allihies Mining Museum. Housed in an impressively converted old Methodist Chapel, it tells the story of copper mining on the Beara, evidence of which can still be seen in the vicinity.

Note the green copper veins on the cliff face

Note the green copper veins on the cliff face

From there we carried on to the Cod’s Head, through a small pass which brought us out to a jaw-dropping vista across Coulagh Bay to Kilcatherine Point, and beyond to the Mountains of the Iveragh Peninsula in Kerry. We took the time here to hike up a waymarked trail that brought us up to breathtaking views high into the mountain slopes, home of purple heather, enormous boulders and curious sheep.

The sentinel

The sentinel

Eyries village is a pure delight: a riot of colourful houses and sleepy streets. We stopped at Ms Murphy’s traditional shop for tea and delicious sandwiches, strolled along the main street taking pictures and chatting to friendly residents, and finally by chance dropping into the startlingly beautiful St Kentigern’s church.

The north side of the Peninsula offers glorious vistas across the Kenmare River (an enormous sea inlet but called, oddly, a river). We took the coastal route from Kilcatherine to Dog’s Point and back to Ardgroom and on to Lauragh – lovely villages with seaside settings.

Mountain and sea

Mountain and sea

We stopped to visit the Cailleach Beara, the Hag of Beara. A powerfully symbolic site from Irish mythology, this rock is associated with many legends. People leave votive offerings – coins, rosary beads, a set of old glasses, shells and ribbons in honour of the spirit of the ancient goddess. Our next stop was the Ballycrovane Ogham Stone – the tallest in the world, and still in the wild, as Robert was glad to note.

Alright – so we have our bearings now and we’ve scratched the surface of this fascinating part of West Cork. Look out for future posts on the Beara – we can’t wait to return!

Beara mussel beds

Mussel beds, looking out to the Kenmare River