Anam Cheoil – The Music’s Soul

The Friday evening concert at this year’s Masters of Tradition Festival in Bantry House was a tour de force: in all, probably the best concert I have heard at this festival in recent times. We went because on the programme were two of our favourite musicians who have come from the Irish tradition: Iarla Ó Lionáird and Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin. They were both on top form last night, and certainly didn’t disappoint.

Header: ‘Odyssey’ by Barry Linnane  frames beautiful Bantry Bay – host to the Masters of Tradition Festival. Upper – Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin (RTE Orchestras) and Lower – Iarla Ó Lionáird (Fractured Air)

Using poetry, music and song, the two performers transfixed us. Both are imbued in the musical and poetic tradition of their country, which comes from deep, deep down. In my explorations of Ireland I am finding how much history is alive and embraced: this applies as much to the history of the culture here as it does to the physical relics of the ancestors in the landscape, whether it’s prehistoric rock art or medieval architecture.

The rushy glens of the Sliabh Luachra country in the Muscraí Gaeltacht, where the Irish language is still very much alive

Iarla Ó Lionáird was born and raised in the Muscraí Gaeltacht, and imbued in the Irish language from birth. A near neighbour in his younger years was Seán Ó Riada, who lived in Ballvourney, and had established Cór Chúil Aodha, a male voice choir singing mainly in Irish, and which exists today under the leadership of Seán’s son Peadar. Iarla joined the choir as a child and sang with it until his early twenties. He now makes his living through his voice and is still very much involved in the Irish tradition while also exploring new grounds. Listen to this very beautiful rendition by Iarla of Caoineadh na dTrí Muire (the keening of the Three Marys):

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin is best known for his unique expression of traditional Irish music on the piano. He claims that he was an introverted child, and that music was his saving grace. He went to UCC where he was also influenced – and taught – by Seán Ó Riada. Eventually he took over Seán’s job at Cork before founding and heading the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at Limerick University. He wasn’t born into the Irish speaking tradition but came to it later in life. In a recent newspaper interview he gave this memorable quote: ‘…I wouldn’t like to be reborn as someone else, not even for a day, I’m so worn out trying to be myself…’ Here’s an example of Mícheál’s playing:

In the course of the Bantry concert the two musicians spoke of a little-known collector of Irish folk-songs – someone of whom I had not heard. Alexander Martin Freeman was …a retiring English scholar of private means… who travelled in the Muscraí Gaeltacht in 1913 and 1914. He wrote down no less than 84 Irish language songs, and his work has been described as ‘…incomparably the finest collection published in our time of Irish songs noted from oral tradition…’ This is all the more remarkable as Freeman spoke no Irish. He painstakingly wrote the words, exactly as he heard them, in phonetic spelling, based on his own native English. For this reason, the texts were apparently ignored initially by Irish folklorists. But now they are viewed with interest by scholars as they give a great insight into the word-sounds of Irish speakers from those years – apparently the West Cork dialect has been changing with time! Over the years both Seán Ó Riada and Iarla Ó Lionáird have brought the songs back into circulation, and we were treated to some examples. Freeman’s field notebooks from Ballyvourney are held in the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin.

Winter scene in the Muscraí Gaeltacht

In the Library of Bantry House these two performers gave us a very special experience through music, song and poetry. Although I don’t speak or understand Irish, I appreciated the beauty of the sounds of the words – a music itself. We and the audience were transfixed by the whole experience. Walking out on the terrace of Bantry House afterwards, I looked to the west where the sun was dropping behind the mountains over the calm waters of the bay. I felt that we had, through the music, been given a privileged glimpse into the soul of Ireland.

All the Trimmings

Near Dunmanway

In my two previous posts on our wonderful West Cork colourful houses, A Lick of Paint and An Extra Lick of Paint, I’ve concentrated on overall house colour and on how that colour stands out in the landscape or the streetscape. Since that second post was written, in March, two of the most colourful houses I photographed have been re-painted, both in shades of khaki. Am I chronicling an endangered species? I hope not!


So in the spirit of celebrating our colourful tradition, I am devoting a post to the trim choices – the window surrounds, the doors and the chimneys, the shop fronts – that add to the vibrancy and delight of our neighbourhoods, villages and countryside.


The most common trim choice is white and often that seems the only, or perfect, choice. Or perhaps the safest. It certainly provides a lively contrast to a bold colour.

Marine blue

Orange you glad to see me?Gallery, Union HallWhite and bold-colour contrast can also look charming the other way around – white walls and colourful trim.

However, the juxtaposition of two bold colours, or even three, for walls and trim is irresistible.

Purple on Mustard

Windows are a natural focus for colour. Sometimes the frame and the surround is painted the same colour and sometimes two colours are employed, both contrasting with the wall colour.

Ballydehob windowsills

A local tradition seems to be to paint the chimneys the same colour as the walls, although occasionally the trim colour is used instead. I particularly like the chimneys in Eyries on the Beara Peninsula. Note the jaunty use of the trim colour on the chimney pots, on the second-to-last house in the lower photograph.

Eyeries Chimneys

chimney trimMany traditional village or town commercial buildings here are masonry, with the shop-fronts in painted wood. A few examples here – although traditional shop-fronts deserve a post to themselves at some point. I also include cafés, restaurants and pubs in this category.


The Coffee Shop Union Hall

Kinsale is a cornucopia of colour! Herewith just a few examples of what you’ll find if you wander its streets.


Trim colour is often used to good effect on garden walls and gate posts in addition to the house. Here’s a fetching example from near Union Hall .


So – what do you think, Dear Reader? Do you have a favourite among these examples? Do you have any photos of your own to share? If so, comment below, or drop by our Facebook Page and vote for the one you like best. I will finish with one of my own current favourites and an exuberant addition to Ballydehob.


Field Trip – with Jack Roberts

Jack Roberts expounds on holy wells

Jack Roberts expounds on holy wells

Anybody interested in exploring West Cork will have copies of Jack Robert’s books in their libraries. We have several but until this weekend we hadn’t really known the man himself. We were fortunate to be invited along on a field trip organised by old friends of his, on the occasion of one of his visits to West Cork.

Some of Jack's books

Some of Jack’s books

Jack arrived from England in 1975 as a fisherman. As he describes it, he was immediately intrigued with the landscape and the deep sense of history he saw all around him. He worked with Martin Brennan at Newgrange and Loughcrew, learning about the ancient monuments and observing first hand the astronomical alignments of passage graves and stone circles. Eventually returning to West Cork, he started to write guides to the ancient and spiritual sites of the area, illustrating them with his own charming and highly accurate pen and ink drawings. Well researched, delightfully succinct and displaying his vast knowledge of the area, these guides came to be prized possessions of those who purchased them. They’re still available, from Jack’s website, from Whyte Books in Schull and other bookstores, and on Amazon.

Jack lives in Galway now and has branched out. His latest book, The Sun Circles of Ireland, covers the whole country, as does his research into Sheela-na-Gigs. He makes jewellery based on prehistoric, Celtic and Early Christian motifs and has a stall in the Galway market.

Our field trip took us into parts of West Cork unfamiliar to Robert and me, to visit a wide variety of monuments. In Inchigeelagh we stopped to examine a strange stone built into a grotto in the grounds of the Catholic church. Listed under Rock Art in the National Monuments site inventory, it is an anomalous piece of carving that is as mysterious as it is interesting. Of course Robert and I can never resist a peek inside churches, and this one contained some very fine stained glass. Lots of lovely windows but my favourite was this one of St Columbanus, an early Irish missionary who founded monastic houses throughout Europe. One of his miracles was to tame a bear – and somehow he ended up as the patron saint of motorcyclists! 

Saint Columbanus

Saint Columbanus

A couple of holy wells followed, the first dedicated to St Lachtan had two stone bowls and a large concrete cross. The second was the complete opposite – a quiet little spot in a wood with a simple bullaun stone (more about bullaun stones in a future post), white quartz pebbles, and two cups to use for drinking. It was part of an ancient monastic site of which little remains.

We stopped to walk over an old clapper bridge, recently restored, and tramped through a field to where a standing stone loomed over us, standing guard in the landscape, and ended the day with a visit to a cross slab.

Restored clapper bridge

Restored clapper bridge

The next day Jack came to us for lunch followed by a trip to the Derreennaclogh and the Ballybane West rock art sites. At Derreennaclogh Gary, the discoverer of this spectacular site, showed us the lines of ancient field fences he is tracing through the bog. 

While Derreennaclogh was new to Jack, he had visited the Ballybane site many times and had cleared away scrub there, to reveal hitherto hidden carvings. We were particularly interested to hear this, as my drawings of the site, done in the early 70s, were missing some of the motifs that are now obvious and we had long wondered why.

Jack shows us where he cleared away the undergrowth

Jack shows us where he cleared away the undergrowth

It’s always a treat to put a face to a well-known name and with Jack it was a rare privilege. We enjoyed very much continuing our education into the wonders of West Cork, through his eyes. We highly recommend his books to anyone who wants to do the same.

Jack Roberts, author, artist, and one man encyclopedia of West Cork

Jack Roberts, author, artist, and one man encyclopedia of West Cork

A Murmuration

We stood still and listened: the air was filled with humming – Bees swarming in February? But no… it was the murmuring of the pilgrims saying the decades of the Rosary by the grave of St Gobnait…

Making the Rounds at Saint Gobnait's Shrine on the Feast Day

Making the Rounds at Saint Gobnait’s Shrine on the Feast Day

We travelled up into the Muskerry Gaeltacht on Wednesday – 11 February: the Feast Day of Saint Gobnait. It’s a fair journey, and we felt that we had really gone into another world: we crossed over the Mountain of the Fairy – that’s my interpretation of the Shehy Mountains (Shee is Fairy) – others say the Irish Cnoic na Síofra means ‘hills of the animal hides’. For the first time in my life somebody – a passer by – addressed me in Irish… “An bhfuil hata agat le spáráil?” they said – “Have you got a hat to spare?” (I think it was a wry comment about the headgear I was wearing on the day).

Our goal was Saint Gobnait’s Church in Ballyvourney, where the Mass was to be heard celebrated in Irish. Also, we wanted to see the 13th century wooden statue which is brought in to the church on this day. When we arrived there was already a queue to buy ribbons and ‘measure’ them against the statue. In fact, it was quite an intricate ritual: first you wrapped your ribbons around the neck of the statue, then around the feet. Some did the same around the stomach – others passed the ribbons under the body of the statue and rubbed them along the surface. Many people kissed the statue and some picked it up and made the sign of the cross with it. We joined in and came away with a clutch of ribbons, now blessed by Saint Gobnait and imbued with health-giving and good-fortune-bringing properties.


Wrapping the ribbons

Making the 'Measures'

Making the ‘Measures’

The church was completely full for the Mass (it was also broadcast outside), which was celebrated by two Priests and a very robust men’s choir – beautiful singing in Irish. It was an uplifting experience, even though I hardly understood a word. A friendly atmosphere imbued all who were there, and excitement was in the air. Afterwards, we visited the statue again and then headed for Saint Gobnait’s Holy Well, her grave and the ruins of her ancient church, where the ‘Rounds’ were being performed all day. That’s when we heard the humming – it should have been Bees: this Saint has always been associated with them, and her statue which overlooks the pilgrimage site (and which was carved by Seamus Murphy in 1950) is decorated with Bees and with a Deer. This is also part of her story: when she was travelling through Ireland looking for a site to establish her community she was told she must continue on her way until she met with nine white Deer. She found them in Ballyvourney and that’s why in our time the little settlement flourishes on this February day.

We heard that there is another Holy Well, hidden in the woods just outside the town and seldom visited. This is known as Tobar Abán – Saint Abban’s Well. That saint seems to be closely associated with Saint Gobnait although not much is known about the lives of either of them – they lived back in the sixth century.

In the local shop

In the local shop

A visit to the Post Office provided us with the information we needed to get to this intriguing sacred site: walk over the bridge, go into the fields and look for a lone oak tree on the distant boundary – this marks the point where a trackway leads up through the woods. We made our way across a muddy pasture; the oak tree was prominent enough, and the track – but once inside the wood everything was quite densely overgrown. We would never have found it without the instructions, but we also had the help of red and white ribbons tied to trees and posts in strategic places – they had been there for some time: we wondered who set them up?

Tobar Abán is a wonderful site – a lonely outpost of religious sanctity but, for me, probably the most beautiful of all the holy places I have visited in Ireland so far. It’s an unexpected find: set away from everything, deep in an ancient oak wood, silent, still – one could imagine that it has always been like this, passing through generations of turbulent history and yet untroubled by it. Archaeologically it appears to be a cist with a cairn of stones built around it: this would imply pre-Christian origins. The lid of the cist (a burial chamber or repository for bones) is not visible – possibly it is under the large ballaun stone which rests on top. Above this is a small, relatively modern concrete cross embellished with offerings, beads and ribbons: other icons and objects are scattered around the site. The whole mound has a boundary defined by three standing stones, one of which is inscribed with ogham. Everything is covered in a layer of moss which seemed to exude a luminescence in the moist shade of the wood.


Saint Abban (or Abbán moccu Corbmaic) seems to have been active in many parts of Ireland, and tradition has it that he lived for three hundred years. The stories that are important here are the ones that link him with Saint Gobnait. It has been said that he founded a monastery in Ballyvourney before she arrived, and that he was her mentor and gave the foundation to her. Some say that Abban and Gobnait were brother and sister. Most important, perhaps, is the tradition that Abban had a cell or church just outside Ballyvourney and that he was buried in that cell when he died in 520. Could it be his grave that we found?

Saint Abban's Shrine - cell - or grave?

Saint Abban’s Shrine – cell – or grave?

Saint Abban’s Well is a little distance from the cist, and is quite unassuming, especially compared to the elaborate wells around Saint Gobnait’s old church. It is merely an opening in a rock set in the ground: an old tray covers it and keeps the leaves out, and a wooden box beside it contains some cups and plastic bottles for collecting the water.

Tobar Aban - Saint Abban's Well

Tobar Abán – Saint Abban’s Well

As we were making our way back across the fields we were surprised to see a lady in a red coat walking with a stick towards us. “Did you find it?” she asked. We assured her we had found the well and the shrine. “And did you see his bones?” she continued, “Last time I was there I lifted up the lid and saw the Saint’s bones inside…” We watched her go off towards the woods; when I looked back again she had disappeared.

Cist, Bullaun and standing stones

Cist, Bullaun and standing stones

There’s so much about the day: the journey across the Mountain of the Fairy; the Irish Mass and the ritual of the ribbons involving a 13th century wooden figure; the Rounds and the humming of the Saint’s Bees; the magical shrine in the woods – and I really do wonder about that lady in the red coat…

Offering at the Shrine of Saint Abban

Offering at the Shrine of Saint Abban

Cures and Curses

Wishing Stone at Maulinward

Wishing Stone at Maulinward

I am a firm believer in wart wells: there is one at Clonmacnoise, the holy centre of Ireland, and some years ago when I was visiting the place I dipped my finger – warts and all – in it. Within… well, perhaps it was two or three weeks… the warts had gone. The Cynics among you will be saying that they might have gone anyway, but I have had other warty experiences to reinforce my beliefs. When my daughter Phoebe was 11 years old and we were living back in Devon she had a really bad outbreak of warts on her hand. The doctor couldn’t recommend anything but our neighbour was very sure of what to do: take her to see Auntie Grace who lived up the lane. We duly knocked on Auntie Grace’s door and showed her Phoebe’s hand. “That’s alright, Dear” she said, and shut the door. That was all. But within a week (more or less) the warts had vanished completely, never to return.

Curing my warts at Clonmacnoise

Curing my warts at Clonmacnoise

Bullaun Stones abound in Ireland. They are usually found at sites with ecclesiastical connections – as the two examples above (and this one), but this association does not reduce or affect their traditional uses: to cure or to curse. The Irish word Bullán means ‘bowl’ – a water container. At pilgrimage sites, such as St Gobnait‘s Well, Ballyvourney, the bullaun stones often hold smooth rounded pebbles – perhaps incised with a cross – which are turned around each time a pattern or procession is completed.

In the sixth century, the Council of Tours ordered its ministers “…to expel from the Church all those whom they may see performing before certain stones things which have no relation with the ceremonies of the Church…”  Such an order doesn’t seem to have prevented folk traditions of curing continuing into the twenty-first century.

Wart Well at Timoleague Friary

Wart Well at Timoleague Friary

Traditionally, in Ireland similar stones are used for less benign purposes than curing warts or other maladies. Thankfully not in West Cork but in faraway Cavan a group of bullaun basins and stones at the ruined Killinagh Church are associated with curses, as explained here by Harold Johnston in a 1998 interview: “…if you wanted to put a curse on someone, you turned the stones anti-clockwise in the morning.” However, the curse had to be ‘just’ otherwise it came back to curse you in the evening!

An 1875 drawing of the Killinagh Cursing Stones

An 1875 drawing of the Killinagh Cursing Stones

Nearer to home, in County Cork, are the ‘cursing stones’ known locally as  the Clocha Mealachta – not in this case associated with bullaun basins but kept hidden under a slab of rock, which seems a bit sinister to me.

Hidden Cursing Stones at Labbamolaga, Co Cork

Hidden Cursing Stones at Labbamolaga, Co Cork

I prefer the legends which show bullaun stones as a force for good: in more than one location they are said to be associated with a local saint. St Kevin of Glendalough (in County Wicklow) drank every morning from the Deer Stone, a bullaun which miraculously was always filled with milk.

Deer Stone at Glendalough

St Kevin

St Kevin



Right: Harry Clarke's St Gobnait

Right: Harry Clarke’s St Gobnait

  • With all the excitements of the hurricanes this week bringing down trees and taking out power and telephones, we almost forgot to celebrate Saint Gobnait’s Day.
  • Saint who?
  • Saint Gobnait – 11th February.
  • But what sort of a name is Gobnait?
  • It sounds like Gubbnet. Not an unusual girl’s name in Ireland: Finola went to school with one. She seemed happy enough with it.
  • But imagine calling a little baby Gobnait… What does it mean, anyway?
  • Er, not sure really: there’s a suggestion that it’s similar to Deborah. That means Honey Bee. Also there’s an Irish word Gabhan which means Blacksmith, and our Saint is supposed to be the patron of ironworkers.
  • So what’s the story of Saint Gobnait?
  • Um, there isn’t one. There’s no history or hagiography about her… But she is mentioned in the ‘Lives’ of St Abban and St Finbarr.
  • But no doubt you are going to tell me that there’s lots of folklore about her?
  • Exactly! This is Ireland after all. She’s celebrated in Ballyvourney, in the Gaeltacht area of Cork. She’s Cork’s local saint. However, she came from somewhere else – possibly Clare, maybe the Aran Islands. She was visited by an angel who told her to travel until she came upon nine white Deer, and that would be the place for her to settle.
  • Did she find the nine white Deer?
  • She did. But not until she had met three white Deer – in Clondrohid, and then six white Deer – in Ballymakeera, both in County Cork. But she carried on until she reached Ballyvourney; that’s where she met the nine white Deer and so founded her religious community there. It’s a site of pilgrimage today: there’s a church and a Gobnait’s Well which is dried up now, and which is said to be haunted by a white Stag. There is evidence that the well is still venerated today – rags and ribbons are tied to the trees and offerings are left there. Interestingly, excavations around the site in Ballyvourney revealed evidence of ancient ironworkings.
St Gobnait's Well

St Gobnait’s Well

  • So it looks as if Saint Gobnait was superimposed on some pre-Christian traditions?
  • Yes, very much like Saint Brigid.
  • Anything else which sets her apart?
  • Bees! She is always depicted with her Bees: she is supposed to have had great powers of healing and could even cure the plague with a medicine made from honey. Interestingly there are folk traditions that the soul leaves the body in the form of a Bee or a Butterfly. Bees could therefore be incarnations of our ancestors; perhaps that is why it’s important to ‘tell’ the Bees our family history – births, marriages and deaths. There were also once laws called Bech Bretha – Bee Judgments.
  • So what am I supposed to do on Saint Gobnait’s Day?
  • Think about Bees, ancestors, iron and healing… And do the ‘Rounds’ on Pattern Day. This involves going around the well or church either three times or three times three times, always clockwise. At Ballyvourney the pilgrims also touch the Sheela-na-gig as part of the turas (journey).
  • Sheela-na-gig?
  • That’s a statue of a female figure with prominent genitalia. There’s one carved on the wall of the church at Ballyvourney, which is supposed to be a representation of the Saint.
Sheela-na-gig and medieval statue

Sheela-na-gig and medieval statue

  • That certainly sounds pagan!
  • Possibly something to do with fertility. There are a lot of examples in Ireland and Britain, almost always associated with churches. Perhaps just a medieval joke – or something which has a meaning now lost to us.
  • So, is that everything that there is to know about Saint Gobnait?
  • No – at Ballyvourney the Parish priest looks after a 13th century carved wooden figure of the Saint, and this is brought out on her day and also on Whit Sunday. Some people supposedly still use a Tomhas Ghobnatan: a length of ribbon or thread which is measured against the carved figure and then used as a healing charm. There are other sites in Ireland dedicated to her: a shrine and well in Dunquin, and Tobar Ghobnait, another well in a ruined oratory at Kilgore on the Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry. Here is found a simple ancient stone bowl which is always full.
  • How active is the pilgrimage at Ballyvourney?
  • Very active: the church is always crowded on the day, and there are long queues waiting to measure their ribbons against the wooden statue after doing the ‘rounds’.
  • Well, thank you: I will take a trip up to Ballyvourney…
  • It’s worth going on a Sunday to hear the Mass sung in Irish. Sean O’Riada formed a choir  there which is still going strong today, now led by his son Peadar.