681 Days!

Yes – it has been 681 says since Covid-19 hit us and our world changed. From today, 22 January 2022, most restrictions in the state are gone, apart from the continuing need to wear masks in certain public places. Hopefully that West Cork sky over our house this morning, above, is a good omen for us. Today’s paper shows the stark tally:

The population of the Republic of Ireland as I write this is 5,023,337 (no doubt that is changing by the minute). That tells the story: 22.6% of the people here have had the virus. And of course it hasn’t gone away yet… But at least “social and economic life can begin to return to normal” says the Taoiseach. In order to mark the significance of the moment, my post looks back to our experiences over the last 681 days: in particular, how our lives changed at the beginning of the outbreak.

These two images of Ballydehob, taken at the beginning of April, 2020, sum up the shock of empty streets, closed businesses and everyone being advised to isolate. It all seemed very bleak: our movements were initially restricted to 2km from home, then that increased to a radius of 5km. If you lived in rural areas – as we do – you were permitted to travel beyond those distances if you needed to in order to shop or use essential services. We breached those rules on occasion – sometimes to get exercise in the deserted countryside all around us.

As the days went by, an amazing spring emerged, with day after day of beautiful weather. Human activity was curtailed, but the natural world continued along its course as though nothing was awry!

We humans are pretty adaptable. It was amazing to see the ingenuity of folks creating outlets for their energies without having to mix. Food-on-the-go blossomed as a craft industry: here are some examples.

We were very impressed with many of the examples we encountered – and which have survived over the months. Hopefully they will carry on, as casual coffee stalls in the middle of nowhere are welcome to us in our travelling. Pre-pandemic they were probably frowned upon by ‘the authorities’ – and they are certainly regulated – but ‘authority’ would have had to be very hard-hearted to close down these little lifelines. In our experience, every one we encountered was well-run, and spotless. It was an incidental opportunity to have a distanced ‘chat’: always a source of good local information on how others were coping.

We took the opportunity to climb – and descend – Knockaphuka during the pandemic. It’s a mountain a short distance from Nead an Iolair, but a little outside the limit. No-one was watching! I suppose being restricted to our immediate environment for so long – day after day – made us re-assess it, and our lives. Certainly we have got to know the fine detail of the beautiful place we call home.

Here’s a social issue: we couldn’t get a haircut for months! Finola kept me in trim, but it was a relief when salons were once again allowed to operate, albeit with some restrictions.

This is us having coffee on our own terrace, looking out over Roaringwater Bay in the wonderful spring of that first pandemic year. In fact, each of the two last years has been benign – with a few exceptional winter storms. We would have felt less relaxed if we had had persistent rain (which sometimes happens).

A sprig of green appears on a doorstep on May Day, 2020: a sign that we all still want to continue the old (perhaps ancient) traditions… There were ups and downs: things eased as the year went by and then the new variations came in. Numbers went down and we breathed out. Then they soared – especially with the Omicron variant, and everything went haywire again. Let’s hope that the present easing is here to stay. But the future can never be told…

The Wran, The Wran . . .

. . . New Year’s Day saw the Wran coming out in our village of Ballydehob, County Cork. It’s an old tradition here. That time “the fool” accompanied the wren boys. He was mounted on a donkey and carried a bladder tied to a stick. I got the song from John Levis, Ballydehob, (34 years of age) who procured it from Jeremiah Driscoll, Ballydehob (age 64yrs) who was an old wren boy. “Wren” is pronounced wran locally in Ballydehob and surrounding districts . . .

Duchas Schools Folklore Collection : Collector J Barry

This account dates from around 1936. It’s referring, therefore, to something happening regularly in the late 1800s and, probably long before that. ‘The Wran’ is still active in Ballydehob, well over a century later. I have written about our own Wran Day preparations not so long ago – and included the song – and I’m pleased to report that the day went well. That’s me, above and below, playing the melodeon (although perhaps I shouldn’t be giving away the disguise)! I’m actually wearing ‘tatters’, which was my costume when I took part in Mummers’ plays in England from relatively early in my life: I was brought up on the Surrey / Hampshire borders, prime country for this English tradition. Mumming also takes place in parts of Ireland, have a look here.

New Years’ Day was quiet day in the village – until we took to the streets! If you want to know the purpose of it all, I can’t really tell you. These are activities that happen around the natural turning point of the year – the change from the sun getting progressively lower in the sky, and weaker, to its returning strength: already we can sense the lengthening of each day. In the mumming on these islands you got a sense of it from a symbolic play where combatants fought and died, then were brought back to life by The Doctor who can apparently cure all illnesses. And, of course, we are always anxious to see the solstice in action!

In Ireland, the Wran Day tradition is accompanied by a play in some places, but more usually it’s a procession through a community, involving interaction by going into houses and shops, making a lot of noise and generally stirring up the spirits with a bit of mischief-making. We were fairly passive this year because of Covid restrictions, but it felt good to be out and about. Let’s hope that this anomaly in the regularity of daily life can become more marked as things gets back to near normal in future years!

Thanks are due to Sonia Caldwell – who instigated proceedings, keeping us all focussed – and Joe and Caroline of Levis’s Bar who provided the venue for making the masks – and gave great moral support! Traditionally, the masks are ritually burned on the following St Patrick’s day. Finola kindly provided the pics.

Our Favourite Photos You Never Saw – Robert

At this time we usually do a couple of ‘reviews’: looking back through the year and picking posts and photographs that jump out at us, asking to be shown again. Next week’s offering will be our selection of favourite Roaringwater Journal articles from 2021, but here, following on from Finola, is my choice of photographs that have never been published. We gave ourselves the stipulation that they have to be from West Cork, and they had to be taken this year. We are trying to have a minimum amount of commentary – and hope they will speak for themselves. First up – above – is Ratooragh Wedge Tomb, far down on the Mizen: we discovered it in February, and that exploration resulted in this article.

Baltimore Beacon has a recognisable profile: we can see it in the far distance from our home: Nead an Iolair
Barley Cove is a favourite place for us to walk – far enough away from the madding crowds: there are few of those in West Cork!
A path beside a stream at Caslehaven: there is a lot of history there – and a holy well!
We like to explore the seascapes over by Dunkelly: here is a wonderful natural sea-arch
This view is from Inish Beg Estate, looking across the Ilen River towards the burial ground at Aughadown. In the background is Mount Gabriel
…And here is the view from the upper slopes of Mount Gabriel. Go up there on a good day and you are ensured the most scenic prospect from the top. During the year, Finola walked all the way up and – next – you can see her celebrating her achievement!
I can never resist a good sign! Ireland has plenty, and here’s one I had to put in my collection… For my latest examples, have a look at this post
The strange times that we live in have seen an abundance of food and drink outlets springing up in town and country. I like the look of this one on the Beara
This pyramidical grave marker is one of a few in West Cork: it’s at Myross, and looks out over High Island and Low Island
We explored the area of land and sea to the south of Clonakilty, resulting in this post, titled ‘Round Ring’
The West Cork landscapes offer an always changing mix of water and rock
This is the coastline at Dirk, beyond Ring: it really is that colour under the summer sun!
Our neighbouring town is Schull, which even in these Covid times was busy with seafarers in the summer holidays
We look down on Rossbrin Cove. Here is our view on a clear day in February
I asked Finola to take my picture next to this gentle giant – I couldn’t resist!
This may seem a surprising picture to finish off with, but Yay Burger has become our go-to on a Sunday night after a hard day on the Blog! Yay Burger has been a life-saver for us through the pandemic, and is one of a number of food outlets that have earned Ballydehob the title ‘centre of the culinary universe’

No Wrens Were Harmed in the Making of this Post… An Update!

Do you remember pre-Covid days? Those times seem to bring out the nostalgia in me… It’s only two years ago that I wrote a post about our preparations – in Ballydehob – for the Wran Day celebrations that would take place on St Stephen’s Day – 26 December – following. Those festivities did happen, and we were then all in happy ignorance of how our lives were to be changed mightily by the pandemic that struck the world just a few weeks later. We’d like to think that, after all this time has passed, a level of normality will be returning. That’s not quite the case – but we are planning a ‘Wran’ this year, and today we gathered in Levis’s Corner House to make ready for it. Here’s a photo – kindly loaned by Pól Ó Colmáin – of the results of the workshop we held to prepare for the ‘Wran’ in 2019.

So firstly, here’s an abridged version of the post I put up after that workshop two years ago. I’ll follow it with an update of the equivalent [but socially distanced!] event which we held today . . .

* * * * * Back to 2019 * * * * *

Wran Hunting has featured before in Roaringwater Journal: that’s the way that St Stephen’s Day – 26 December – has been celebrated for generations in ‘Celtic’ parts of western Europe, specifically Ireland and The Isle of Man, but also in Cornwall – where it’s now only a memory – Brittany, Wales and Scotland. ‘The Wran’ is a very strong surviving tradition here, especially on the west side of the country. The Dingle Gaeltacht is the place to go if you want to see all the action (you may have to click on the bottom right of the window to turn on the sound):

In our own Ballyedhob community ‘The Wran’ is not forgotten. In fact you can even find a poem written about it in the Duchas folklore records. This was recorded in the 1930s by John Levis, aged 32, who took it down from Jeremiah Driscoll, aged 64 years. Jeremiah had been a Wren Boy in Ballydehob. Here’s the poem:

Come all you ladies and gentlemen,

For tis here we are with our famous wran

With a heart full of cheering for every man

To rise up a booze before the year is gone.

*

Mr O’Leary we came to see,

With our wran so weak and feeble,

The wran is poor and we can’t feed him,

So we hope your honour will relieve him

*

We’ve hunted our wran three miles and more

We’ve hunted this wran all around Glandore

Through hedges and ditches and fields so green,

And such fine sport was never seen.

*

As we copied our wran again

Which caused our wran-boys for to sing,
She stood erect and wagged her tail,
And swore she’d send our boys to jail.

*

As we went up through Leaca Bhuidhe

We met our wran upon a tree,

Up with a cubit and gave him a fall,

And we’ve brought him here to visit you all.

*

This the wran you may plainly see,

She is well mounted on a holly tree,

With a bunch of ribbons by his side

And the Ballydehob boys to be his guide.

*

The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,

St Stephen’s day he was caught in the furze,

Although he is little, his family is great,

So rise up landlady and fill us a treat.

*

And if you fill it of the best,

We hope in Heaven your soul will rest,

But if you fill it of the small,

It won’t agree with our boys at all.

*

To Mr O’Leary and his wife

We wish them both a happy life,

With their pockets full of money, and their cellars full of beer,
We now wish a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

*

And now, our song is ended, we have no more to say,

We hope you’re not offended for coming here today,

For coming here this morning we think it is not wrong,

So give us our answer and let us all be gone.

Traditional, DUCHAS

By good fortune there’s ‘Mr O’Leary’ above! He’s the landlord of Levis’ Corner House Bar in Ballydehob: he allowed the Wran workshop to take over his pub yesterday. Basically that involved covering the whole place in straw out of which, magically, appeared lots of wonderfully crafted Wran masks. Joe is wearing a fine example.

Finola and I were at the workshop, and there I am with work in progress on the straw mask which we made (upper picture). You’ll notice that I’m wearing ‘tatters’: I’ve had these for years, and I used to don them for our own mumming tradition in Devon which also happened on 26 December (that’s me with the squeezebox mumming in the 1970s! – lower picture). Over there we called St Stephen’s ‘Boxing Day’ because that was when ‘Christmas boxes’ were given to the postman, the milkman and anyone else who provided their services through the year. Interestingly, Kevin Danaher mentions the ‘Wran box’ which was taken around the houses by the wrenners (or Wran Boys) and used to collect money ‘for the Wran’. This illustration of a Wren box from County Galway is from Danaher’s book The Year in Ireland:

The workshop in Levis’ was very well attended, and there is clearly great enthusiasm for reviving this custom. Sonia collected the straw at the annual Thrashing in Ballydehob – which is a traditional harvest celebration. It’s not easy to find the right straw for making the masks nowadays: anything that has been through a combine harvester has been flattened and will not survive the plaiting.

It’s a complex process, but the group coped well in acquiring the new skills under Sonia’s tutelage. The making – every year – has always been part of the tradition where it’s still practised today. Sometimes the straw masks (which are only one part of the ‘disguise’) are destroyed after Stephen’s. In some of the Dingle traditions they are ritually burned on the following St Patrick’s Day.

* * * * * * Fast Forward to 2021 * * * * *

Two years later, on a damp Sunday in Ballydehob, you might have seen the strange sight of bundles of straw being transported across the road to Levis’, where the 2021 Wran Workshop is about to take place in the ‘outback’ area of the bar. That’s Sonia (on the left above) who is masterminding the whole proceedings, and also oversaw the growing of the straw.

We all really appreciate Joe and Caroline – who run Levis’s – who are so supportive of community events and who, like everyone else, have had to struggle to keep business going through the ups and downs of Covid restrictions. The ‘Outback’ – formerly their yard – has been remarkably transformed into a comfortable outdoor venue, and live concerts and events are continuing through the winter season, helping to make our days seem as normal as possible.

We were a small but dedicated group, determined to get the tradition going again in Ballydehob. We are not sure, yet, when it will happen. Traditionally it should be Stephen’s Day, but it all depends on how available the participants will be. We will keep all our readers fully informed! meanwhile, if you need encouragement, look at the work that has gone into the straw masks this year . . .

Here’s Sonia Caldwell again, above. We have featured her Kilcoe Studios in a previous post. She is undoubtedly the energy behind this project. Look out for us all shortly after Christmas – there is good entertainment to be had. But, also, essential traditions to be kept alive to ensure that our world keeps turning!

That’s Pól Ó Colmáin, above, testing out his mask for size before finishing off the conical headpiece. Marie and he run the Working Artist Studios in the main Street of Ballydehob – a wonderful addition to our village’s thriving assets. Pol also bravely works away at teaching the Irish language to a number of students, including me! Here are both of them this afternoon with their completed Wran Day pieces – and also my own mask back at home . . .

Revisiting BAM

BAM is the Ballydehob Arts Museum, and regular readers will know that this is a project which has involved us over the past few years. The Museum was curated to collect, conserve and celebrate the work of artists who came to West Cork and – particularly – Ballydehob during the second half of the twentieth century, some of them settling in the hills around the village and living a Bohemian lifestyle based around the principles of John Seymour’s seminal work Self Sufficiency published in 1973. At that time I was involved in running an eccentric small bookshop in rural Devon, and that book was our all-time best-seller!

That’s John Seymour and his family in 1973, when the book was first published (upper picture) while the lower picture is a John Hinde postcard from around the same period showing Ballydehob. It looks a thriving, lively place with its coloured houses and shops, and I think those ‘Bohemians’ who are still with us today – and still have their homes in the village – would agree that it was in those days the centre of a very special world – of artists and craftspeople making a living and producing some exceptional work. Work that is being recognised, now, for its quality and unique character.

This is a wonderful photograph from the Museum archives: here you see four of the ‘Bohemians’ who were crucial to the Ballydehob project. On the left is John Verling – he and his wife Noelle produced the two plates on the header, Tree of Life and Jellyfish, and were central to the community, establishing their pottery at Gurteenakilla just outside Ballydehob in the early 1970s. John died in 2009, but Noelle still thrives in the area. Next is Pat Connor, still living and working – as an award winning ceramicist and sculptor – in West Cork. Beside him is Brian Lalor who, since those Bohemian days – has established a formidable reputation in Ireland as print-maker, artist and writer. Also, very relevant to this post, he is a co-founder and Curator of the Ballydehob Arts Museum! Fourth in line in the photo is watercolourist, David Chechovich, no longer with us. Here’s a photo from a couple of years ago showing Brian (left) with Leda May, another early arrival in Ballydehob and living and working right in the village to this day; also Pat Connor, and Carol James, who came over from England in 1974 and stayed on. They haven’t changed a bit, have they?

The Museum has a permanent home in Bank House, right in the centre of the village. As you might expect, it was once the local bank but – after closure – it was bought by the community and is currently finding fresh uses. This montage (above) is by Brian Lalor: he and I are imagining the building being livened up by a mural from Brian’s brush. Unfortunately, Covid has put a check on the Museum’s development over the last couple of years. But we are looking forward to getting things going again with a new exhibition for 2022. The photo below shows the Museum interior set up for the 2019 show.

Here is an article – well worth reading – on the West Cork artists and our Museum (thank you, Peter , for pointing me to this). Mentioned in the article are the subjects of our next proposed exhibition, to be held in 2022, if all is well. They are Ian and Lynne Wright. They arrived in West Cork in 1973 and established their home, ceramics studio and an environmentally sound habitat at Kilnaclasha, Skibbereen. They are still there, although Ian spends much of his time on another environmental project in Tobago. Using the name Cors’ it’s Ceramics they experimented with body casting slipware and began to produce specialised one-off bathroom fittings – humorous and often erotic. They were hugely successful. Here’s a pictorial review of some of their work to give you a taster:

Ian and Lynne (above, from one of their bathroom product catalogues) gave up their ‘cheeky’ ceramics in 2002 but both are still producing; Lynne with large, colourful bowls and Ian with body casts (pics below). BAM hopes to show a significant selection of examples from their lifetime of work. It promises to be a spectacular exhibition: Roaringwater Journal will keep you up-to-date with progress.

You can find out more about the Ballydehob Arts Museum on the dedicated website, here

Working With Glass

Finola and I went to a workshop on creative fused-and-painted glass. It was wonderful! We were guinea-pigs in that the glass artist – Angela Brady – was keen to try running an event and we were privileged to be invited, joining our friends Brian and Clair Lalor.

Top: that’s Angela introducing us to the medium of glass and showing us some of her own work. Centre: she’s encouraging Brian to turn his artist’s mind to the possibilities of the material. Above: Angela Brady and Robin Mallalieu (who are also architects) have taken over the former Brush Fire Pottery, just outside Ballydehob. This was the home and workplace of dynamic artists John and Noelle Verling, who bought the Gurteenakilla premises in 1973 and lived and worked there for very many years. John died in 2009 and Noelle now lives not too far away. To spend the workshop day in such hallowed surroundings added to the ambience, and could only have inspired us in our artistic endeavours!

Back in the 1960s – the heyday of the Ballydehob Artists’ community – the pottery at Gurteenakilla was established by Christa Reichel who – together with her partner Nora Golden – went on to set up the Flower House on the main street in the village as a gallery and meeting place for the artists. They painted the vivid facade of the Flower House (the photo below dates from 1963, and is reproduced with the permission of Andrew Street): similar decorations were applied to the Brush Fire studio, where they survived and are now being restored by Angela and Robin.

Below the Flower House picture is Nora Golden outside the studio at Gurteenakilla; and here are pics of Robin painting the studio building, and Angela’s restoration of the Reichel / Golden decorations. But back to the job in hand: in these venerable surroundings we learned how to cut glass, paint on it and prepare pieces for the kiln. We all had our own ideas: Finola and I decided to paint glass tiles with ancient motifs: Rock Art from Ireland and Scandinavia, some thousands of years old. Brian chose to use cut glass to enhance one of his exquisite sketches, while Clair was perhaps the most ambitious, planning a flower from cut pieces of glass which would require two sessions in the kiln to allow it to be ‘slumped’ to a three-dimensional shape. My view is that all the pieces were equally successful in their execution (but I am prejudiced!)

Top: Angela instructs Finola in the technique of cutting glass shapes, although Finola chose to use glass paint to reproduce some of her own Rock Art images traced during her studies in the 1970s. Above: Clair cuts and assembles a flower shape.

Top: my own pieces: on the left are attendants pushing the sun across the sky, while on the right is a ship carrying souls to the land of the Gods under a potent sun. All these Bronze Age images are found in Norway. Above, Brian working on his cut-glass sketch.

Artists at work in the studio – and the kiln room at Brush Fire. Before going in the kiln, we laminated our pieces with additional glass, to provide a stable background and – in some instances – colour. The firing is carried out overnight at a temperature of at least 760 degrees C. During that time the glass fuses and – hopefully – does not crack.. Angela was firing some of her own pieces at the same time: if you went to the West Cork Creates exhibition in Skibbereen during August of this year you would have seen many examples of Angela’s brilliant work, together with the work of other artists using glass as a medium.

In Angela’s studio are many reminders of past times. John and Noelle Verling specialised in fish imagery – here’s the Brush Fire Ceramics sign that they made back in the day (above – since presented by Noelle to the Ballydehob Arts Museum), while above that is one of Angela’s glass pieces which pays due respect to her predecessors at Brush Fire. Below is a quirky example of Angela’s experimentation: she collected some interestingly shaped bottles from the recycling centre, and fused them together in the kiln:

The following day, Angela took our pieces out of the kiln once it had cooled, and washed them (above). Then we assembled at Nead an Iolair for the reveal. Thank you to Robin for the photos. Clair’s work had to be refired to allow it to ‘slump’, so that was unveiled later on.

Pieces (top to bottom) by Brian, Finola and myself. And – to finish as we started – Clair’s magnificent flower – before and after the second firing! Thank you to Angela for enabling each one of us to experience this most satisfying process. We would all like to take part again another day – and expand our new-found skills!