Oíche Shamhna Shona Daoibh!

That means ‘Happy Halloween’ in Irish – more or less. Samhain – pronounced ‘sow-in’, with the emphasis on the sow, literally means ‘summer’s end’, while Oíche Shamhna is ‘the eve of Samhain’ (Shamhna is the genitive form of Samhain). If today (I’m writing this on 31st October) is Samhain’s eve, then  tomorrow – 1st November – should actually be Samhain. And that’s true because, in Ireland, Samhain is also the name of the eleventh month. And, before we move too far on, I should tell you that those difficult words Oíche Shamhna are pronounced ‘Ee-hyeh How-nuh’ and the correct way to say the whole title of this piece is ‘E-hyeh How-nuh Hun-uh Dee-iv’ literally summer’s end evening, happy, to you all – I’ll bet you’re sorry you asked! So, we are on the eve of the eleventh month, and it’s always been a time of great celebration in Irish culture: the time of the year when we begin to sense the darkness creeping in; the trees are losing their leaves, the sun is getting noticeably weaker, and it’s a season of dampness, mists and grey shadows. No wonder, surely, that the imagination turns to arcane, otherworldly – even ghoulish – matters. And no wonder, also, that this time is associated with the spirits of the dead – and the Other Crowd.

Our little community of Ballydehob in West Cork takes Samhain very seriously – of course! So I thought I would give you a short overview, mainly in pictures, as to what you can expect to find in the village on this day. Earlier in the week I gave a talk about folklore, customs and traditions in the Bank House Talks in the Vaults series and – to acknowledge that we were nearly at Samhain – Finola provided barm-brack for everyone.

While preparing the talk, I reflected on this time of the year – and what it had meant to me when I was growing up in England. There – back in the 1950s – we had no concept of Halloween: we didn’t even know the word. For sure, we had a celebration at around this time (the beginning of November), when we lit bonfires and got excited by throwing firecrackers and bangers around. We called it ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ (sometimes Bonfire Night or Fireworks Night). We made ‘guys’ – life-sized effigies – which we carried around the town collecting pennies to buy fireworks with (and we later burnt those ‘guys’ on the bonfires – it all seems a little gruesome now). As I got older, I was told (but didn’t really understand) that it was all about celebrating the fact that a man had been prevented from blowing up the Houses of Parliament in London with gunpowder. This was a fascinating concept to me and I could never understand (and still don’t) why we remembered a man who failed to set out what he intended to do, while the then attractive spectacle (to me) of succeeding in blowing up the Parliament would, surely, have been a much more justified cause for remembrance and celebration . . .

When I moved to the western counties of England I discovered that the Bonfire Night celebrations there were far more elaborate, probably far more ancient, and included blazing tar barrels being pulled through the narrow streets by crowds of young people. These seemed much closer to the outlandish atmosphere of Halloween which we find in Ireland now. Here’s a couple of pics showing the spectacle which happens at dawn every early November in Hatherleigh, Devon, where I lived for many years.

Anyway, I’ll let you have a look at the images which we have taken in Ballydehob this week, and you can see for yourselves what a dynamic, exciting and explosive place we live in! Thank you to the many residents, shop owners and publicans who have joined in and worked so hard to bring this ancient Irish festival to life today.

A very special event this year was the transformation of Bank House – Ballydehob’s former bank and now a centre for community events owned by the village – into a very scary ‘blood bank’, where visitors were invited to sample nasty food and to donate blood via the spine-chilling doctor! It was a unique experience!

The topsy-turvy world is an aspect of folk culture that goes back a long way – and deliberately sets out to upset the norm, making us all feel a little less comfortable. This is Budd’s cafe in Ballydehob today.

Ballydehob Garda Station has a haunted look about it this week! And the display there included a very appetising stew… (Pics above)

Remember that celebrations take place every year at this time around the world. In Mexico, for example, they have a ‘Day of the Dead’ on November 1st:  Día de los Muertos. It is a time to remember the ancestors, and welcome them back to their homes. During Day of the Dead festivities, food is both eaten by living people and given to the spirits of their departed ancestors as ofrendas (offerings), and decorations. In some parts of the country children in costumes roam the streets, knocking on people’s doors for a calaverita, a small gift of candies or money; they also ask passersby for it. The fiesta (which can last for three days) is filled with marigolds, the flowers of the dead; muertos (the bread of the dead); sugar skulls; cardboard skeletons; tissue paper decorations; fruit and nuts; incense, and other traditional foods and decorations. All this bears a remarkable similarity to the goings on in Ballydehob – and all over Ireland – today: skeletons and skulls are very much in evidence!

So I’ll leave it up to you to wish all your family, friends and ancestors Oíche Shamhna Shona Daoibh! next time you are involved in Halloween activities. But remember, also, the ancient origins of this festival, and the fact that very much the same thing – honouring the ancestors and the coming of the dark time of the year – is being enacted all across the world at this time.

Ballydehob and Boats

Two years ago Finola wrote about the Cruinniú na mBád (Boat Gathering) in Ballydehob. When I saw that Tidy Towns have erected some new information boards down by the quay – one dedicated to the history of the pier and its importance to the town in past times – I thought it was time to revisit the whole subject of Ballydehob and boats. By chance, our friend Jack suggested that Finola might like to travel with him in his Drascombe and sail up to the quay in this year’s gathering, so we have some ‘live’ coverage of the event from our on-board correspondent! I prefer to keep my feet dry, so watched the event from the vantage point of the 12-arch railway bridge.

Header – Finola took this pic from Jack’s Drascombe of one of the fleet heading for Ballydehob this weekend, rounding the point opposite Rincolisky Castle and negotiating the mussel ropes; above – the view from the 12-arch bridge, waiting for the boats to arrive at Ballydehob Quay

Ballydehob Tidy Towns has recently unveiled two new information boards close to the quay: one (below) is all about the railway line that connected Skibbereen, Ballydehob and Schull: I had a hand in that board! The other tells the history of the harbour itself and is full of information, collected by Cormac Levis, whose forebears worked many of the boats that traded into the town. Cormac initiated the Cruinniú na mBád in 2004 and it has been going ever since, barring the occasional cancellation due to atrocious weather conditions (which can happen, even here in serene West Cork).

The new information boards enlighten us on many aspects of Ballydehob history, particularly within the vicinity of the 12-arched bridge and the quay. The view above, from Cormac’s board, shows the harbour in the early 1900s and is reproduced courtesy of the Fergus O’Connor Collection and the National Library of Ireland. Note the higher section of buildings to the right of the main warehouse – they are no longer there; they are said to have once housed seven families

The pier at Ballydehob is often called ‘the sandboat quay’ as one of the main commodities to arrive in the town was sea-sand dredged from beaches nearby and on the islands. This was rich in nitrates and minerals and was valued as a fertilizer. However, sand was only one of the commodities that came to Ballydehob; the following is an extract from an excellent piece that Cormac Levis wrote in the (now sadly defunct) Mizen Archaeological and Historical Journal, back in 1996:

On market day, which was Thursday, a long line of small two-oar and four-oar boats would make their way up the channel, lug sails set if the wind was favourable. One by one they would approach the quay, bringing people from the Skeam Islands, Horse Island and Hare Island to do their marketing. Some would have eggs and butter to sell, some would have a plough or other farm implement for the smith to repair. Wrack timber would be brought to be cut into planks or corn to be milled. During the summer months the Hare Island boats would be occupied by women only, their menfolk having migrated en masse to fish lobsters east along the coast as far as Ballycotton. On the arrival of the first letter bearing the fruits of their husband’s labours, they would set out to buy two pigs at Ballydehob Fair. Quite often, if the wind wasn’t in their favour, they would row the full four miles to Ballydehob . . . The day of a cattle fair would occasionally see the arrival of the 39ft MV Mary Patricia with cattle from Old Court or Sherkin. The 20ft Barker, driven by a 6/7 Kelvin, would visit to load up with provisions for Burke’s shop on Hare Island. A rather melancholic sight that would be seen from time to time, was that of two oarsmen making their sad way down the channel returning to one of the islands with a coffin across the gunnels of their small boat . . .

From the 1996 Mizen Journal article by Cormac Levis: a photograph of one of the sandboats from 1936, and a diagram showing the hessian dredge that was used for collecting the sand

Cormac provides good information on the sandboats – this is a short extract:

When William T Young of Ballydehob purchased the stores and quay from Jane Swanton of Skibbereen in 1899, the property was described as the ‘old stores’ and ‘sand quay’, indicating that the practice of discharging sand there was well established by that time . . . In 1885 John Collins moved to Filenamuck. There in the early 1890s he built two boats for W T Young. These sister boats were the largest of the Ballydehob sand boats, capable of carrying a cargo of 8 tons 5 cwt and were typical of the Collins design. They had a 24ft keel, an overall length of 28ft, a beam of approximately 8ft 3ins and, when fully laden, a draught of approximately 4ft 6ins. They had a very shallow keel and, unladen, they had a draught of approximately 1ft 9ins . . . One of the two boats described above came to be known as the Conqueror and the other simply as Levis’s boat, after her skipper Charlie Levis.

The Sandboat Bar in Ballydehob is still owned and run by the Levis family

Today, the harbour of Ballydehob – while as picturesque as ever – is quiet, and seldom hosts anyone travelling by water. Ballydehob Bay itself is silted up and it’s only on the highest tides of the year – when the moon is full – that boats of any size can make the journey. So we salute the intrepid voyagers who, every year, keep up the memory of a thriving waterfront that was once the heart of the community. If, like me, you are nostalgically inclined – on the day of Cruinniú na mBád, as you stand looking for the flotilla coming in on the rising flood, close your eyes slightly and imagine that you hear the sound of the whistle as a little train clatters over the viaduct behind you . . .

Finola (see her post this week for more on what’s happening here) will assure you that it’s an exhilarating and moving experience approaching Ballydehob by water: I’ll close with some more of her pictures: there was a stiff breeze with high gusts coming in – I’m amazed she managed to keep her horizons horizontal!

Art, Noodles and World Championship Turnip Racing: West Cork in the Summer

We’ve been enjoying a week of laid back excursions, In Ballydehob and Skibbereen, as we take time this week to enjoy what’s around us in West Cork at this time of year.

Top, above and below from the West Cork Creates Exhibition: Alison Ospina’s chaise with Anne Kiely textiles; Angela Fewer paintings; Trees by Jim Turner and Etain Hickey

There are always excellent art exhibitions in the summer – we have written this summer already  about the always interesting Blue House Gallery and Judi Whitton’s watercolours, the marvellous art trail in the Skibbereen Arts Festival and of course the Ballydehob Arts Museum’s current exhibition, Ballydehob on Bahnhofstrasse.

This week saw the opening of what’s always eagerly anticipated – the annual West Cork Creates exhibition on Skibbereen. Curated by Alison Ospina of Greenwood Chairs, this show brings together the best of West Cork arts and crafts in an exciting mix of styles and materials.

Lots of jewellery at the exhibition and among them is this unique dresser pendant by Michael Duerden

Next to it is Geoff Greenham and Melanie Black’s Creative Spaces, a photographic journey through the studios of artists currently practising in West Cork. It’s a great idea and feels like a real privilege to catch a glimpse inside these spaces.

The two images above are borrowed, with thanks, from the Blue House Gallery, where an earlier exhibition matched the studio images with pieces of art from each artist. The first shows Brian Lalor’s studio and the second is that of John Doherty.

And yes, I thought, somehow those spaces do reflect the art that comes out of them. I’ve tried to photograph artists’ studios myself in the last couple of years, so I know how difficult it is to capture the essence.

No studio needed when you paint en plein air. This is Damaris Lysaght at work at a site we wrote about in our post Mizen Magic 13: Dunmanus Promontory

Do catch these two exhibitions if you can. Then make your way to Ballydehob and take in the new space that is the Working Artist Studios, right on the Main Street. We’ve all been looking forward to the opening of this venture, previously situated in Skibbereen but now adding to the thriving streetscape of Ballydehob.

The grand opening was well attended! (The railings are not for the WAS but for the Turnip Races, see below)

Working Artist Studio is an innovative idea that melds gallery and performance space with studios for artists at reasonable rates. Pól and Marie are bursting with ideas and plans and it’s wonderful to see this shop and house, surprisingly roomy inside, so nicely re-purposed.

The opening exhibition was by Caoimhe Pendred (above), titled Hy Brasil – her ethereal take on the notion of the mystical Isle to the West. It was opened by none other than Tim Pat Coogan (below), the Irish historian, and Caoimhe’s grandfather.

But woman cannot live on art alone, and we were delighted to welcome back Bia Rebel Ramen to our village this summer after a stint at the Taste of West Cork here a couple of years ago. Brian and Jenny have made a name for themselves with top restaurant critics as the best place in Ireland for ramen.

The truck is set up to serve the food at Levis’s Corner house. They are only here for a few more days

They normally operate out of their food truck in Belfast,  but are on ‘holidays’ in West Cork. Some holiday – they are so busy that they run out of food on a couple of hours. What can we do to entice them to stay here permanently? This is the best ramen I have ever eaten, and having lived in Vancouver (Canadian home of Japanese food) that is saying something!

Did you know that Ballydehob hosts the World Championship Turnip Races? This Irish Times article in 2006 described it, and 13 years later it’s still going strong and still great fun, with Barry O’Brien (below in the pink shirt) doing the marshalling.

And to round out my week, a major thrill. I hitched a ride on my friend Jack O’Keefe’s Drascombe Lugger as he participated in the Ballydehob Crinniú na mBád. I wrote about this wonderful event a couple of years ago, but it was a whole other experience to be out on the water with the boats as they gathered at the mouth of Ballydehob Bay and then sailed up the estuary. See Robert’s post today, Ballydehob and Boats, for some more of my photographs of this event.

All around us summer is in full swing – we have just mentioned a tiny fraction of what’s going on. Why don’t you join us next year? We can’t guarantee good weather, but you won’t be bored!

Art in the Landscape

I’ve always thought of myself as someone without an artistic bone in her body – although when you say things like that people always rush in to assure you that everyone has the potential to tap into an artistic streak if they just let themselves be free enough. Harumph, I say. But today they proved me wrong.

The idea for a workshop grew from the Ballydehob Arts Museum planning group. Robert has written a lot about BAM and so our readers know that it is a celebration of the iconic era when artists of all kinds settled in Ballydehob and turned it into a thriving centre of creativity. What animated those early artists? By their own accounts, it was the landscape around them, the light, the natural world they found here in West Cork. So why not try something based on that idea – and so the Art in the Landscape Workshop idea was born and to everyone’s astonishment it filled up right away, with a waiting list.

The day (today) started with an introduction to the artists of BAM by Brian Lalor (above), writer and artist and BAM Curator, who talked about the motivations and inspirations of the original group of artists and showed us some of their work, their use of earth tones and natural images.

Then it was out into the landscape itself – and we didn’t have to go far! Ballydehob is really fortunate to have, right in the village, leafy little roads with walls and hedgebanks loaded with wild plants. The leaders for this part were myself and Toma McCullim, artist and educator. (I’ve written about Toma before and her wonderful project 110 Skibbereen Girls.) Turns out, Toma is a bit of a herbalist – she knew culinary or healthful uses for much of what we looked at, while I filled in the rest with wildflower identifications and background. We walked, we talked and we gathered.

We almost dodged the forecasted rain and when it came Marie resorted to a tried and tested bit of protection

After lunch came the printmaking. Toma had assured us all that even if we had never done anything like this before, by the end of the day we would all go home with something we were delighted with. And it was true! She walked us through a seemingly simple, but actually quite sophisticated printmaking technique and then set us to work.

It was really fun to see the creative juices flowing, as well as the laughter and the chat. Before long everyone was covered in colourful (and thankfully water-soluble) paint and prints were starting to appear.

Louise and her botanical print

Some people took a long time considering compositions and produced two or three: others got into the swing of the process and produced many. And Toma was right – we were all delighted with our finished products.

Upper, Bobbins and her positive print and lower, Elizabeth and her negative one. Below, Annie with her china blue 

Everybody chose one print to leave behind. Those prints will go on exhibition during Heritage Week, including the one I made. OK, it’s not actually a Work of Art, but it felt great to be able to produce something that I’m proud of by working with material I love. Thank you, Toma, Brian and all the workshoppers for a great experience!

Ballydehob on Bahnhofstrasse!

What are all these people looking at? Is this Ireland? And when? Firstly, what they are looking at is a street performance – and the performers are Irish – not just Irish, but all from West Cork! And, the spectators are in Switzerland! We know exactly when this happened: 34 years ago. Here’s the story, and here is what they were watching:

Brian Lalor – Curator of our Ballydehob Arts Museum – was one of a group of artists who travelled from West Cork to Zurich in May 1985 to put on a large exhibition of their work in the city. He is telling the story through one of the two new exhibitions which has just opened in Bank House, Main Street, Ballydehob – and which will be running through to September this year. Plenty of time to come and have a look, but don’t miss it! The exhibitions can be seen when the Mizen Gateway Tourism Centre is open in the former bank building, right in the centre of town. Generally, Bank House is open Mondays to Wednesdays, 12 noon to 6pm, and Thursdays to Saturdays, 11am to 5pm. Because the centre is partly run by volunteers, please check by phone prior to coming: 028 25922.

The original 1985 exhibition poster was produced as a limited edition artwork by Coilin Murray, one of the participants

Having set up the exhibition in the Reithalle, Zurich – a fine, capacious premises, the artists realised that relatively few people were coming to see it, as it was a fair way out of the main thoroughfares, and little publicity had been organised in advance. So they put their creative heads together and came up with the idea of making a piece of art in the city centre – something which no-one could ignore.

The artists took as their starting point one of the most important sculptors of the 20th Century, Alberto Giacometti, from Switzerland. He was famous for his ‘matchstick figures’: have a look at the book cover above. Ballydehob’s version of ‘Giacometti’ was built on a trailer – mainly by artists Ian Wright and Pat Connor – and he was playing an Alpenhorn. Brian Lalor made several sketches of the event (you can see him in the picture above, and one of his sketches above that): these sketches have lain dormant for 34 years and have not been shown anywhere until the Ballydehob exhibition, where they are being unveiled for the first time. Although a serious business, it was all a bit tongue-in-cheek. I think you can tell that by the name the artists gave their statue – Jack O’Metti! However, it was a tremendous success, and the crowds came flocking.

A further dimension was added to the street performance when John Verling had his legs encased in a plaster cast by Ian Wright, all the while singing the sean-nos song ‘The Rocks of Bawn’. The significance of this particular event escapes me . . .

At the opening of our exhibition last Thursday, there were present several of the artists from the early days, some of whom had contributed to the events of Zurich ’85: it was an historic occasion!

A line-up of West Cork artists from the heady Bohemian days: Birgitta Saflund, Brian Lalor, Leda May, Pat Connor, Jim Turner and Carol James. All pictured together at this week’s opening of the Ballydehob Arts Museum

There’s more! The Ballydehob on Bahnhofstrasse story is only one of the new exhibitions in Bank House; the other is The Irish Tea Ceremony. If that intrigues you, I’m not going to give the game away. Come and see for yourself what goes on in this little corner of Ireland – and be amazed!

Find out much more by visiting our brand new website – launched along with the exhibition:

www.ballydehobartsmuseum.com

Reviving St Patrick’s Cross!

It’s an archaeologist’s job to dig things up from the past. Today – the Feast of St Patrick – I’m digging up an old custom and suggesting that it’s something we should all revive!

Examples of St Patrick’s crosses survive in glass cases today. These three are from Ireland’s National Museum of Country Life, Castlebar, Co Mayo

I have found much of my information on this subject in Kevin Danaher’s 1972 book The Year in Ireland – A Calendar published by The Mercier Press. Danaher begins his calendar on St Brighid’s Day (his spelling), and naturally discusses the custom of the making of bogha Bríde – the St Brighid’s cross. In this tradition, very much alive today, a cross is made from straw or reed and hung in the house to ensure good luck and protection for the coming year. In future years new crosses are made, but the old ones are never thrown away: if you visit a traditional Irish cottage, you are likely to see a whole lot of Brighid’s crosses pinned over the mantlepiece or among the rafters in various stages of decay.

A traditional Irish cottage, Finola and her St Brighid’s cross. See this post

When Danagher comes to the next important Irish Festival – St Patrick’s Day – he mentions a similar custom involving a St Patrick’s cross or badge, worn on the clothing for the day itself, and then hung in the house to ensure that the saint’s blessing continues through the years. The custom was still within living memory when Danaher wrote, but its practice appears to have died out altogether in the early years of the twentieth century, although surviving examples of these crosses, emblems or badges can be seen in museums today. I am not aware of anyone keeping up this custom so – to celebrate the day that’s in it – I am proposing a revival!

Danaher’s illustrations of St Patrick’s crosses from The Year in Ireland

First, the history: an English traveller in Ireland, Thomas Dinely, wrote in 1681:

The 17th day of March yearly is St Patrick’s, an immoveable feast when the Irish of all stations and conditions wore crosses in their hats, some of pins, some of green ribbon, and the vulgar superstitiously wear shamroges, 3-leaved grass, which they likewise eat (they say) to cause a sweet breath . . .

Dean Swift in his Journal to Stella wrote from London on 17 March 1713:

The Irish folks were disappointed that the Parliament did not meet to-day, because it was St Patrick’s day; and the mall was so full of crosses, that I thought all the world was Irish . . .

Here’s ‘Mannanaan Mac Lir’ writing in the Journal of the Cork Historical Society in 1895:

For a week or so preceding the National Festival, the grown members of the family are occupied in making “St Patrick’s Crosses” for the youngsters, boys and girls; because each sex have a radically different “Cross”. The “St Patrick’s Cross” for boys consists of a small sheet of white paper, about three inches square, on which is inscribed a circle which is divided by elliptical lines or radii, and the spaces thus formed are filled in with different hues, thus forming a circle of many coloured compartments. Another form of St Patrick’s Cross is obtained by drawing a still smaller circle, and then six other circles, which have points in the circumference of this circle as their centre, and its centre as their circumferential point, are added; after which one large outer circle encompasses the whole, thus forming a simple and not inartistic attempt at imitating those circle or bosses  of our beautiful Celtic cross pattern. The many spaces, concave, convex or otherwise, thus formed, are then shaded in; each a different hue, and this constitutes the “St Patrick’s Day Cross”, of which our little ones are so proud. In our time, when every school boy is supplied with a pair of compasses and a box of water colours, the making of a St Patrick’s Cross is only the work of a few idle moments . . .

Hmmm… Well, the architect in me is intrigued enough to try out these instructions and – perhaps – add a few embellishments to see what sort of a job can be made of it:

What do you think? I have to admit to using my electronic drawing board rather than the compasses and water colours! ‘Mannanaan Mac Lir’ goes on to describe the girl’s cross:

The little girl’s “St Patrick’s Day Cross” – which is made by an elder sister, or if sufficiently skilled, by herself – is formed of two pieces of card-board or strong thick paper, about three inches long, which are placed across at right angles, forming a cross humette. These are wrapped or covered with silk or ribbon of different colours, and a bunch or rosette of green silk in the centre completes the tasteful little girl’s “St Patrick’s Cross”, which is pinned on the bosom or shoulder . . .

Not a little curious is the etiquette of those children’s “St Patrick’s Crosses,” for whereas it would be considered effeminate of a little boy to wear “a girl’s cross”, it would be considered most unbecoming on the part of the little miss to don a boy’s paper cross . . .

‘Mannanaan Mac Lir’ continues to enlighten us further on this custom:

I have known two or three old priests in Cloyne diocese break up and distribute among the girls of their respective parishes their old and worn vestments, for the purpose of being made into St Patrick’s crosses. The cross thus made (from a priest’s vestment) was an object of veneration; and I have known many such forwarded by their owners to their kindred in America, where they were doubtless received as welcome souvenirs of an ancient custom in the land of their fathers . . .

My final offering (above) – have I encouraged you all to get busy and help me revive this custom in time for St Patrick’s Day next year? I hope so . . . I’ll finish off with a couple of pics of a custom that’s still as strong as ever: the annual St Patrick’s Day Parade in Ballydehob, West Cork. Of course, the sun shone out!