Symbols and Stories: Looking at Stained Glass

Not all stained glass windows are great works of art but all have a story to tell. Sometimes the story is about the subject of the window (the iconography) and sometimes it’s about the person who is remembered or even the one who is doing the remembering. Sometimes it’s about the craft, or the times, or the influences on the artist. Let’s take a look at a few West Cork windows.

This one (above) is in Ardfield, south of Clonakilty and close to Red Strand. There is no identifying writing on the image but we know that this is St James. How do we know? Well, the church is St James’s and there’s a holy well dedicated to St James nearby. But mostly we know because, even though he looks like a stereotypical saint with the beard, the halo and the long robes, there are symbols to identify him. St James, or San Diego de Compostela, has given his name to the great Camino pilgrimage and he is mostly depicted, as in this portrait, as a simple pilgrim, carrying a staff with a gourd for water suspended from it, and wearing the scallop shell, symbol of the pilgrim.

The first three photographs in this post are all from St James Catholic Church in Ardfield, by Watson of Youghal

The other thing that’s really interesting about this window is the use of Celtic Revival interlacing. It’s beautifully and expertly done in all the windows in this church, and it marks those windows as the work of Watson’s of Youghal, our own great Cork stained glass producers, whose work can be found all over the county and the country. Parish priests would often specify their wish for this type of ornamentation in preference to the usual gothic canopies and it became a hallmark of Watson’s work. I will write more about this in a future post, so this serves as an introduction.

Windows in Catholic churches most often take as their subject the iconography of the new Testament and this occasionally includes images from the Book of Revelations. A favourite, because it is a Marian image, is the verse 12: 1-17, which goes like this:

1 And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: 2  And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered. 3  And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. 4 And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born. 5  And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne

While I have seen many depictions of the woman clothed in the sun with the moon and stars, the red dragon is quite rare, and this one (above and the two below), done by Mayer of Munich for Clonakilty Church of the Immaculate Conception, is striking. The artist has given each of the dragon’s heads fearsome fangs and snakes’ tongues: each has a crown (a rather cute one) and by dint of leaving out horns on two of the heads there are indeed ten horns.

The Book of Revelations has been traditionally ascribed to John the Evangelist, whose symbol is the eagle. Many modern scholars now believe it was written by John of Patmos but this depiction (below) is the traditional one of John as the beloved, young, slightly androgynous apostle, writing down what he is seeing in the revelation.

I was also struck in the same Clonakilty church by the huge rose windows with rows of saints beneath them. While the east window features Irish saints, the northern window pictures five saints associated with the Franciscans, possibly because of the proximity of the ruined Franciscan Abbey in Timoleague. They are conventionally, but beautifully done, depicting Saints Bonaventure, Louis, Francis, Clara and Elizabeth of Hungary.

The St Louis window that I am more familiar with is by Harry Clarke, in the Castletownshend Church of St Barrahane, and I have written about that one in my post The Gift of Harry Clarke. This depiction shows a young St Louis, who was King Louis IX of France, carrying a crown of thorns.

St Louis was a complex character, renowned for his holiness and beneficence and for feeding the poor at his own table. He was also an art lover and collector of relics, building the famous Sainte-Chapelle to house them, including the crown of thorns, the prize of his collection. While he instituted important law reforms and championed fairness and justice for his citizens, he also expanded the Inquisition, persecuted Jews, and participating in two crusades against Islam. Nothing, apparently, that prevented him being canonised less than 30 years after his death.

The depiction of St Elizabeth (furthest right) also struck me as very beautiful

My final example for today is a window by the Irish Firm of Earley in St Finbarr’s church in Bantry. This caught my interest for several reasons. First, it’s a fine windows and not imported but executed by the Earleys at a time when Irish stained glass manufacturers were competing for business against cheaper, mass-produced windows from Britain and Germany. This is significant because the windows were ordered and paid for by William Martin Murphy, one of the richest captains of industry in Ireland and a promoter of home-grown manufacturing. They were installed in 1914, only a year after the 1913 Dublin Lockout had made him a notorious and hated figure in Ireland – a reputation that some historians are trying to rehabilitate now, or at least to provide a more balanced picture of the man. He was from West Cork and the window is to honour his parents.

But the subject matter is also telling. On top we have Jesus in the act of saying to Peter, “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church” (below). In case we are in any doubt, an angel overhead carries the pontifical tiara. This is a reminder to Catholics to bow to the authority of Rome in all things, and was characteristic of the kind of Ultramontane Catholicism that typified the new Irish State. See my post Saints and Soupers: the Story of Teampall na mBocht (Part 7, the New Catholicism) for an explanation of what drove the Irish church in this period.

Underneath, St Finbarr is also receiving a bishop’s mitre from an angel – the message is a subtle one but well understood by parishioners as drawing a parallel between the lines of authority emanating from Rome as much in Biblical times as in ancient monastic Ireland. (The windows in Killarney Cathedral are all in this vein.) Perhaps for William Martin Murphy there was an ultimate point to be made about subjection to proper authority.

So take a closer look at familiar windows – you might find depths in them you haven’t noticed before, stories that are hidden behind all that colour (like one of my own personal favourites, below.)

 

West Cork in High Summer – Festival Central!

West Cork has festivals all year long, but right now we are gearing up for some of our favourites and they are looking terrific!

We’re planning the field trips. for the History Festival. Top photograph is of last year’s tour of Reen Farm, John Kelly’s Sculpture Garden and above is the Bronze Age Altar Wedge tomb, which this year’s Mizen field trip will visit

For us, the most significant is the West Cork History Festival, because we are very involved. Have you ever thought you might like to go along on one of our field days?  Well, here’s your chance as we will be leading two field trips on Aug 8 and 9 and Carina Jeisy of Beara Baoi Tours is leading another. All the details are here and you can buy tickets there too – if you hurry.

Dev, by Seamus Murphy. Seamus’s daughter, Orla Murphy, will be at the Festival to speak about her father and his legacy. Dev? Well, he’s part of the reason Irish history will never be uncontested

The Festival is now in its third year and this year’s line-up of speakers and events is looking particularly engaging. From former Taoiseach John Bruton, to current Ambassador to the USA Dan Mulhall, to professors from many of the major institutions, to TV and news media presenters, online ‘public’ historians and local experts – there’s sure to be lots of food for thought and discussion. If the two past festivals are anything to go by, some controversy is sure to arise, since not everyone has the same take on historical events – especially in the hotly contested fields of Irish history!

The closing speaker will be Daisy Goodwin, the writer of the hit TV series, Victoria. Daisy also happens to be the great-great-great-granddaughter of Robert Traill, who gave his life trying to feed the hungry around Schull during the famine. He was a complex character: see this post and this one in my series Saints and Soupers. Daisy gave him an active role in the episode in which Victoria finally finds out about the full horrors of the Famine. It was an episode that shocked British people, who had never been taught about the Famine and Daisy will talk about that, writing Victoria and her West Cork connections.

Esteemed local historian Gerald Butler, in conversation with one of last year’s speakers, William Casey, will talk about Daniel O’Connell’s Skibbereen Monster Meeting

This being West Cork, there’ll be lots of food on offer over the whole weekend and music too – I’m really looking forward to the Saturday night concert, exploring the music of Canon Goodman (who is also the subject of one of the talks). Wander over to the website and take a browse through the programme. If you enjoy our blog, you will love this Festival.

Taking us up to the History Festival is the superb Skibbereen Arts Festival. I have rhapsodised about this tour de force of culture and variety in previous posts (see this one and this one) and I feel the same way about the offerings this year.

We have tickets to several events and we know we will be dropping in to some of the exhibitions, galleries and shows that are running all over town. I am looking forward to Manchán Magan’s Aran agus Ím (below)- billed as a show that celebrates the Irish language in an engaging, accessible bilingual way, through sourdough bread and home-churned butter and that takes place in a Bakery.

For some time Skibbereen has hosted the Speakeasy Sessions once a month, and there’s a special edition during the Festival. It’s part of a significant Spoken Word programme at the Festival this year. Speakeasy is hosting a Story Slam Competition where 12 people will compete for a prize. One of the judges is our own Cormac Lally, popular local poet: here he is with his Ninja Baby Moves Number 214.

And for something totally different, at the end of the month is the Ellen Hutchins Festival with a brilliant program of events focussed on the natural world of flowers, seaweed and lichens and with lots of stuff for kids. If you’ve never heard of Ellen Hutchins, take a look at my post Ellen Hutchins: The Short and Remarkable Life of Ireland’s First Female Botanist. I wrote it four years ago and in that time the Festival has turned into an annual affair and there have been major exhibitions on Ellen’s life.

Botanist Rory Hodd on an Ellen Hutchins field trip

At about the same time in Bantry is the annual Masters of Tradition Festival, with formal and informal concerts, talks and sessions, many in the wonderful setting of Bantry House. With Martin Hayes as the Artistic Director, this annual festival is always a treat. Here he is playing the Sailor’s Bonnet.

This is actually just a drop on the bucket of all the things going on in West Cork from now until the end of August. I’m seriously going to need a holiday in September! No – wait – that’s the Taste of West Cork Food Festival! I’d better go into training. . . 

A taste of the History Festival

Through the Yellow Gap

The middle of January: you might expect to be battened down here in West Cork with raging gales or bitter north winds, but Saturday dawned with a clear sky to reveal a most beautiful sun-warmed landscape. We had to be out! We adopted exploring mode and headed for the hills to the north-east of Bantry. OS Map 85 entices with a whole swathe of archaeological sites from megalithic tombs to stone rows and circles, but it was a name that drew us: Barrboy – probably from the original Irish barrabhuidhe – which means ‘yellow summit’. As the highest point of the road in that place (pictured below – about 350m above sea level) is a mountain pass, we have chosen to name our journey Through the Yellow Gap.

The ‘Yellow Gap Road’ runs west to east across the centre of this extract from OS Map 85: we turned on to it from the N71 at Lahadane, just north of Bantry, and dropped back on to the main road to Drimoleague south of Coolkellure

The first part of our route followed the Mealagh river and we were intrigued by the boreens that cross it in places over very fine stone arches: these will have to be explored another time – we were aiming for the hills.

Our day offered us a study of light and landscape, which only the combination of January low sun and shadows can give. If anything the yellowness of the uplands with their rocks, mosses and furze is emphasised by this light: Finola is sure that the colour is due to the fionnán (blonde) grass which is so prevalent during the winter months (header picture). We felt we were in a very remote place, known only to those who spend their lives there, but we were in fact barely a hop and a skip from our own home.

Studies in light and landscape: with a different vista at every turn we were treated to outstanding views typical of rural Ireland

As is so often the case with our off-the-beaten-track excursions, we saw hardly anyone in the whole day, but we did chance to bump into our cycling friend Tim who is in training for yet another Everesting event. The rules are straightforward:

. . . The concept of Everesting is fiendishly simple. Pick any hill, anywhere in the world and ride repeats of it in a single activity until you climb 8,848m – the equivalent height of Mt Everest. Complete the challenge, and you’ll find your name in the Hall of Fame, alongside the best climbers in the world . . .

Tim on his way up the Yellow Gap Road (also known as Nowen Hill). He has to do this climb 56 times in one go to achieve the ‘Everest’. In fact, his aim is to do a ‘Double Everest’ on this hill! This will be his third Everesting event in West Cork… Good luck, Tim

Our travels took us through some very attractive ‘deep’ countryside dotted with cottages and small settlements. Humans have been here for a very long time and have left evidence of their occupation in enigmatic standing stones, alignments, circles and tombs. Some can be seen from the roadside, but many involve explorations across fields or into forests. Always, we are left wanting to know who these early settlers were and why they left us these monuments.

Upper pictures – single standing stones which can be seen from the roadside; lower picture – a five-stone circle and a two-stone alignment on high pasture land: all are ancient and mysterious

As the road threaded its way through the gap and began to descend we seemed to re-enter a less wild landscape, and habitations became more frequent. Eventually we found ourselves in a small community – Coolkelure – with a great sense of history. there was a fine C of I church, a school which had been in use until the 1950s, and an avenue leading to a large house which has had a chequered history, There is an entry in Duchas (the Schools Folklore Collection) about this village:

. . . Coolkelure is situated about four miles and a half west of Dunmanway. There is a holy well at the side of the road but it is covered in now with briars and bushes. Its origin is unknown. There are three steps going into it and there are medals, pieces of cloth and pennies up on a stone over the well. About twenty feet in from it there are rocks nearly a thousand feet high. It is said that a giant lived there in olden times. On the other side of the road is a marsh and the giant is supposed to be buried there. There is a huge stone over his grave. Further on is Coolkelure House. This formerly belonged to Shouldhams, now it is the property of Lady Bandon. The avenue looks beautiful in summer and it is hedged with rhododendrons of every hue . . . (Joan Collins, aged 12 years, from Patrick Collins, aged 60 years – c1934)

Upper – Coollkelure Church; centre – the Lodge at the gateway to Coolkelure House; lower – one of many fine gargoyles on the eccentric Lodge

Well, we didn’t see the holy well, the thousand feet high cliff, the giant or his grave. But we did see rhododendrons – large thickets of them – all the way along many of the roads we travelled. They must look very striking when in bloom in the springtime, but they are an invasive species which threatens the true natural hedgerows. In Coolkelure, also, occurred one of the highlights of our day. We met and got into conversation with Donal and Caitriona – a most hospitable couple who own a small house overlooking the lake. They invited us in, we were given coffee and cakes, and the chat was mighty!

Upper – looking back at our way through the mountains; centre – an example of the many stands of invasive rhododendrons that we encountered and lower – the road becomes tamer as we approach a pastured landscape

We left Coolkelure and headed out of the hills, feeling fulfilled by all the events of the day. Our adventures were not quite over, however, as we encountered Daisy and her owner with their ‘road-car’, delighted that we stopped to photograph them (below). In fact, between us we took at least two hundred photographs on our day out and can only include a modest selection on these pages.

Saints and Soupers: the Story of Teampall na mBocht (Part 3, The Protestants – Tithes and the Second Reformation)

While the Church of Ireland was the Established Church in Ireland since the time of Henry VIII, it was not the only Protestant group operating in Ireland. Methodists, in particular, had won many converts since the days when John Wesley himself had come preaching (above). However, like Catholics, breakaway and Dissenter communities were disadvantaged in comparison to the Church of Ireland.

Bandon Methodist Church, established in 1821

This privileged position, while it came with all the advantages conferred by reliable revenues, political power and access to education, was also accompanied by the constant awareness of being a minority, often an unwelcome one, and by the decadence and laxity that generations of wealth can confer.

1864 Map of the Church of Ireland Dioceses

Dr Kenneth Milne, writing in The Church of Ireland: An Illustrated History (Published by Booklink, 2013) describes the situation thusly:

. . . plurality and non-residency came to be regarded as endemic. There is evidence that there were many faithful (and often impecunious) Church of Ireland clergy, but their existence has been somewhat masked by the prevalence of ambition and negligence among many others, particularly of the higher rank.

While it was to the bishops that one would have looked to remedy the situation, they themselves were frequently non-resident, at least for long periods, preferring the amenities of Dublin (or sometimes London and Bath, for most of the more remunerative sees were given by the crown to Englishmen as part of that great web of patronage that lay at the heart of government and was the norm). Such episcopal failings were by no means peculiar to the bishops and other dignitaries of the Church of Ireland, and were common throughout Europe, but what made the Irish episcopate more vulnerable to criticism was its remoteness (in more sense than one) from the great majority of the populations, and the fact that it drew it emoluments, often very considerable indeed, from lands to which its entitlement was often in dispute. In addition, it demanded tithes paid by a resentful population who, be they Roman Catholic or Dissenter, were also encumbered with contributing towards the support of the ministry of the Church to which they gave their fealty.

The Tithe Collector – collectors were employed on behalf of the clergy and were called Proctors. They took a cut, so there was a strong incentive to collect

Catholic Emancipation in 1829 was followed by a period of intensified conflict over tithes, known as the Tithe Wars. (Tithes had been a source of great conflict forever – see Robert’s post for La Tocnaye’s observations about tithes in the 1790s.) A large anti-tithe meeting was held in Skibbereen in July 1832 and the speech made by Father Thomas Barry of Bantry was reported in full. Here are some extracts from it, reported by Richard Butler in his paper St Finbarr’s Catholic Church, Bantry: a history for Volume Three of the Journal of the Bantry Historical and Archaeological Society:

The Rev. Thomas Barry, P. P., in seconding [an anti-Tithe] resolution, announced himself as a mountaineer from Bantry, and was received with a cead mille failthe [sic], which was sufficient to affright all the proctors in the kingdom from their propriety. . . .

But (continued the Rev. Gentleman) . . . If to assist the people in their peaceful and constitutional efforts for the removal of grievances to hear the insolence of power in defence of the poor man’s rights, invariably to inculcate on the minds of my flock the most unhesitating obedience to the laws, and at the same time, to raise my voice boldly and fearlessly against injustice and oppression. If these constitute the crime of rebellion, then do I rejoice in acknowledging the justice of the charge. [tremendous cheering.]

. . . Some time since I commenced building a chapel in Bantry, which, owing to the poverty and privation of the people, I have been unable to finish, although thousands are extorted from them for the Parson and the Proctor – the Churchwarden applied to me for Church rates – I desired him to look at the Chapel, and there he would find my answer: he begged of me not to give bad example by refusing to pay, and I told him, that I was well convinced that the example which I gave in this instance was particularly edifying. – (great laughter and much cheering.) – The proctor came next, and threatened me with distraint for the amount of tithes with which he charged me, and which I must do him the justice to say he never previously demanded. I told him to commence as soon as he pleased; and so gratified did I feel at the honour which he intended for me, that I was resolved to make a holyday day for him (laughter and cheers.)

– The Rev. Gentleman sat down amidst the most enthusiastic cheering.

This meeting was but one in a series in West Cork throughout the 1830s. Patrick Hickey, in Famine in West Cork, reports on meetings in Bantry and at the foot of Mount Gabriel – meetings attended by thousands, each parish under the leadership of their priest. In Bantry, the various tradesmen of Bantry marched in procession, each trade with its own banners. On one side of the tailors’ banner was a portrait if Bishop Doyle with the inscription, ‘May our hatred of tithes be as lasting as our love for justice’ and on the other side a portrait of Daniel O’Connell. At the Mount Gabriel meeting a procession of boats came from the islands and the men of Muinter Bheara arrived under the command of Richard O’Donovan of Tullagh and many Protestants (including Methodists and the descendant of Huguenots) attended.

One of the most outspoken of the Church of Ireland community against the anti-tithe movement was Rev Robert Traill, Rector of Schull (above). In doing so he was following the example of his father, the Rev Anthony Traill, who had used a particularly brutal proctor, Joseph Baker, to collect his tithes, while he himself resided in Lisburn. Fearing, of course, the loss of his income, Rev Robert railed against the meetings, declaring that in doing so he waged war against Popery and its thousand forms of wickedness. When cholera broke out after one of the monster meetings he wrote that is was God’s punishment for the agitation stirred by the iniquity of these wicked priests. He had reason to be afraid – the rector of Timoleague had been murdered and throughout the country killings, assaults and riots had occurred. It was a challenging time to be a Church of Ireland rector. (Remember Rev Traill, by the way, and don’t cast him as a villain in this story – he will feature again for his heroic role during the famine – yet another twist in the complex role of the Protestant church in this part of Ireland.)

The battle at Carrickshock, Co Kilkenny (from Cassell’s Illustrated History of England). This confrontation over tithes resulted in several deaths and sent shock waves through the country

Eventually (see Part 2) the Tithe Wars eased, a compromise (if not a solution) was reached and outright protests ceased. Let us turn our attention now to what was happening within the Church of Ireland in matters of doctrine.

An enormous stained glass window in Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Cork is dedicated to Daniel O’Connell, The Liberator, by a grateful people

Latitudinarianism – lovely word, isn’t it? It refers to the live and let live philosophy that was generally adopted by Protestants in the 18th century. Actually a reaction against the Puritan insistence on a single form of Truth, it was sometimes called Broad Church and was a mode of thought that tolerated variations on thought and practise and sought to peacefully co-exist with other forms of worship. However, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, this emphasis on compromise and moderation was gradually being replaced with a new evangelical fervour, leading to a movement known as the Second Reformation.

This movement, it is often said, was kick-started in Ireland by William Magee, Archbishop of Dublin and fervently committed to the Second Reformation. He gave a firebrand sermon upon his inauguration in 1822 in which he accused the Catholics and the Methodists thus:

. . . the one possessing a church without which we can call a religion, and the other possessing a religion without which we can call a church: the one so blindly enslaved as to suppose infallible ecclesiastical authority, as not to seek in the word of God a reason for the faith they possess; the other so confident in the infallibility of their individual judgment as to the reasons of their faith that they deem it their duty to resist all authority in matters of religion. We, my Brethren, are to keep free of both extremes, and holding the Scriptures as our great charge, whilst we maintain the liberty with which Christ has made us free, we are to submit ourselves to the authority to which he has made us subject.

In this sermon, which created a furore at the time, he was essentially giving voice to prevailing Protestant opinion at the time regarding the other churches, and also to the claim of the Church of Ireland to be the only national church. It is important to note here that the Church of Ireland considered then, as it does to this day, that far from being an imported or imposed religion, it was, and remains the only true successor of the original faith of the Irish. This was first argued by James Ussher (portrait below by James Lely) in the seventeenth century.

The Church of Ireland, Ussher said, was not created by Henry VIII, but that St Patrick was Protestant in his theology and that the real problem was the interference of the Pope. (Ussher, by the way, is the same prelate who established that the world is only 6000 years old, another statement that continues to resonate in fundamentalist circles – but that’s another story.) In this origin story, it was important to “rescue” the true Irish church from Rome and restore it to the vision of St Patrick. The current catechism on the St Patrick’s Cathedral website continues this tradition. To the question “Did the Church of Ireland begin at the Reformation?” the answer is “No – the Church of Ireland is that part of the Irish Church which was influenced by the Reformation, and has its origins on the early Celtic Church of St Patrick.”

William Magee bust in Trinity College

Magee’s assertions were sincerely held positions. Although a cultured and erudite man, and tolerant in many respects, he was violently opposed to Catholic Emancipation, seeing the conversion of Romanists to Protestantism as a far better option both for them and for the country. His sermon effectively marked the end of any leftover latitudinarian attitudes in Ireland and heralded the arrival of a new era for the church of Ireland, in which educational, evangelical and proselytising activities were seen as essential. Next week we will see what effect those activities had on the already deepening divide between Ireland’s faith communities in the pre-famine period.

St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin – along with the position of being the Established Church, all the ancient churches became the property of the Church of Ireland, including this one. Magee delivered his famous sermon here

This link will take you to the complete series, Part 1 to Part 7

A Flying Priest, and Rolls of Butter

Last week Finola reported on a journey over the mountains on the ‘Priest’s Leap’ road from Kenmare, Co Kerry to Bantry, in West Cork. We received a fusilade of comments from readers who told us we hadn’t seen half of what there is to be found on this road so, on the very first day of September, we were off again, this time getting a different perspective by travelling the other way. Before we left Bantry we had to find the very spot where the priest – being pursued by soldiers – landed after he and his horse leapt off the highest summit of the road which has been named after him.

It’s great that this stone has been left untouched by the modern roadmakers, so that all can see the hoof marks to this day. I calculated that, 400 years ago, the priest was airborne for a distance of some 12 kilometres as the crow (or horse!) flies – considerably more than some of those early aviators of the 20th century were credited with!

If you are not of a nervous disposition, and don’t mind travelling a narrow, single-track mountain road for some 15 kilometres, probably sharing it only with a few sheep, then to pass over this route is one of Ireland’s most spectacular experiences. Choose your day, though: we were lucky to have hot sun and clear views the whole way. If you survive it to the top, you are right on the Cork – Kerry border: in the photo below, the fence going on up the hill is exactly on that border line (and the point at which the priest and his horse took off is to the right of it at the peak). Stop and look around: the views in every direction are stunning.

After we crossed the border into Kerry we came downhill and stopped again at the remote, picturesque Feaghna burial ground in the townland of Garranes. On our last visit we were completely unaware of the existence of an unusual archaeological site nearby – one which has a number of traditions associated with it.

Popularly known as the ‘Rolls of Butter’ this site is technically a ‘Bullaun Stone’. These are fairly widespread over Ireland, but their original function is not known for sure. Here’s a summary from the National Monuments Service:

. . . The term ‘bullaun’ (from the Irish word ‘bullán’, which means a round hollow in a stone, or a bowl) is applied to boulders of stone or bedrock with hemispherical hollows or basin-like depressions, which may have functioned as mortars. They are frequently associated with ecclesiastical sites and holy wells and so may have been used for religious purposes. Other examples which do not appear to have ecclesiastical associations can be found in bedrock or outcrop in upland contexts, often under blanket bog, and are known as bedrock mortars. They date from the prehistoric period to the early medieval period  . . .

A drawing by the 19th century antiquarian W F Wakeman of a Bullaun Stone at Killinagh in Co Cavan. Here, the stones are known as ‘cursing stones’ – a term also applied by some commentators to the Feaghna site at Garranes. Interestingly, the Cavan site is also referred to as ‘St Brigid’s Stones’, while the Rolls of Butter are associated with the local saint, Fiachna. Beliefs – stories – are, of course, as fascinating as any archaeological evidence, and have to be investigated. Here, they abound – and are best learned from local sources: in this link folklorist Matt Sullivan has put together an entertaining selection of local opinion about the Rolls of Butter.

A few years ago I wrote a post covering some bullauns, ‘cursing stones’ and ‘curing stones’ – but at that time I wasn’t aware of these examples just a mere priest’s leap away from our own home.

There is much more archaeology and history in this mountainous country: here (above) in the townland of Erneen, the view from the road across one of the many remote glens shows up former enclosures and ‘hut sites’, which the National Monuments Service describes thus:

. . . A structure, usually discernible as a low, stone foundation or earthen bank enclosing a circular, oval or subrectangular area, generally less then 5m in maximum dimension. The remains are generally too insubstantial to classify as a house but the majority probably functioned as dwellings. These may date to any period from prehistory (c. 8000 BC – AD 400) to the medieval period (5th-16th centuries AD) . . .

It’s intriguing to think that these beautiful natural landscapes which appear so lonely to us were occupied hundreds – perhaps thousands – of years ago. It’s likely that they have changed very little over all that time: history is clearly set out for us as we travel over this ancient way.

The days are shortening, and we still didn’t have time to explore everything the Priest’s Leap road has to reveal. We’ll be back again before too long – in search of more stories.

Welcome to the Stranger: Asenath Nicholson in West Cork

Who was Asenath Nicholson? When I saw that a new play was to be performed during the Skibbereen Arts Festival this year, I became curious about the subject. The play, Welcome to the Stranger, is based on Asenath’s books, Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger, and Annals of the Famine in Ireland written about her sojourn in Ireland before and during the Great Hunger. As an eye witness account of the conditions she saw, it is invaluable. So why is she not a household name?

As I discovered, there is actually quite a lot about Asenath available online, much of it centred on the research of Maureen O’Rourke Murphy of Hoffstra University, who has written the definitive book on Nicholson, Compassionate Stranger, as well as editing Asenath’s own writings for re-release. Prof Murphy has provided a piece about the book to Irish Central, and the book itself has been comprehensively reviewed in the Irish Times by Christine Kinealy, Director of Quinnipiac’s Great Hunger Museum. Both of these articles summarise Asenath’s life and the significance of her account of her time in ireland, so pop over there now for a quick read, and then come back here. There is also a lecture by Prof Murphy online (entertaining and erudite), as well as a very well-done radio documentary (although I can’t find out who produced it). These take a bit longer so save them for later.

 

Rua Breathnach, the writer of the new play, is taking an interesting approach to depicting Asenath’s lengthy time in Ireland (four years in all) and the production is being staged and directed by his long-time collaborator, Rémi Beelprez. It will debut in Skibbereen on Aug 1, followed by a discussion session. Robert and I have our tickets already (you can get yours here) and are looking forward to seeing what Rua and Rémi have done with such rich source material.

Rua and Rémi

Seeking more information, I discovered that Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger is available online in its original form, and also in a clickable version, and of course I was immediately drawn to the chapters about her time in West Cork and in Bantry in particular. This was in February 1845, before the potato crop had failed for the first time, but here Asenath describes perfectly the conditions that prevailed among the poor which led ultimately to the catastrophic events of the next few years – the extreme poverty and lack of resources, the lack of employment of any sort, and the dependence on a single food source.

Bantry as it is now, a thriving and attractive market town

Her chapter section heading is “Arrival at the miserable town of Bantry.” Here is why she went there:

When about leaving Cork for Killarney I intended taking the shortest and cheapest route ; but Father Mathew said, “If you wish to seek out the poor, go to Bantry; there you will see misery in all and in every form.” I took his advice, went to Bantry, and there found a wild, dirty sea-port, with cabins built upon the rocks and hills, having the most antiquated and forlorn appearance of any town I had seen; the people going about not with sackcloth upon their heads, for this they could not purchase, but in rags and tatters such as no country but Ireland could hang out.

This and the other wood engravings* are by James Mahony for the Illustrated London News of 1847, and are from Niamh O’Sullivan’s book, The Tombs of a Departed Race; Illustrations of Ireland’s Great Hunger, available at The Skibbereen Heritage Centre. 

Asenath was in Ireland specifically to observe and record the conditions of the poor, but she was unprepared for what she saw in Bantry. She even feels moved to warn her readers, If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.

The morning opened my eyes to look out upon sights which, as I write, flit before me like haggard spectres. I dressed, went forth, and made my way upon the rocks, found upon the sides of them some deplorable cabins, where smoke was issuing from the doors, and looking into one, the sight was appalling – Like an African kraal, the door was so low as to admit only a child of ten or twelve, and at the entrance a woman put out her head, with a dirty cloth about it; a stout pig was taking its breakfast within, and a lesser one stood waiting at a distance. The woman crouched over the busy swine with her feet in the mud, and asked what I wanted?. . .Looking in, I saw a pile of dirty broken straw, which served for a bed for both family and pigs, not a chair, table, or pane of glass, and no spot to sit except upon the straw in one corner, without sitting in mud and manure.

There was a new workhouse in the town, which Asenath describes as lofty and well-finished but it was closed and shuttered, though all things had been ready for a year ; the farmers stood out, and would not pay the taxes. Asenath goes on to say The poorhouse was certainly the most respectable looking of any building in Bantry; and it is much to be regretted, that the money laid out to build and pay a keeper for sitting alone in the mansion, had not been expended in giving work to the starving poor, who might then have had no occasion for any house but a comfortable cottage.

The ruins of the Schull Workhouse

As an aside, in the end the workhouse did open, but the conditions in it were appalling. You’ll find a link to Dr Stephen’s report (be warned, it’s heart-rending) in our post about the Schull Workhouse, which also contains lots of information about workhouses in general.

Asenath refers to ‘wading’ through the streets of Bantry. She describes a set of dwellings called Wigwam Row: a row of cabins, built literally upon a rock, upon the sloping side of a hill, where not a vestige of grass can grow, the rock being a continued flat piece like slate. The favored ones who dwell there pay no rent, having been allowed in the season of the cholera to go up and build these miserable huts, as the air upon the hill was more healthy. And there, like moss, to the rocks have they clung, getting their job when and where they can, to give them their potatoes once in a day, which is the most any of them aspire to in the shortest winter days.

As she walks, Asenath sings hymns and dispenses tracts and testaments, some of which she keeps in an enormous bearskin muff. She attracts attention everywhere she goes and the children of Bantry follow her around. Begging is endemic and she is frequently cheated. However, she comes to admire the Irish and particularly their sense of hospitality and their generosity to her and to each other. In a typical description she writes about a Bantry woman with whom she interacts: I looked at this woman, and at the appurtenances that surrounded her. “The whole chart of Ireland,” from lips that could neither read English nor Irish! She had a noble forehead, an intelligent eye, and a good share of common sense; she had breathed the air of this wild mountainous coast all her sad pilgrimage, and scarcely, she said, had a “decent garment covered her, or a wholesome male of mate crossed her lips, save at Christmas, since the day she left her parents that raired her.”

Famine Memorial, Dublin

We will leave Asenath on the road to Glengarriff, struggling to make headway as the magnificent scenery claims her attention, to the relief of her helper, John, who, burdened with her ‘purse’ and her muff, is able to take frequent rests while she catches up. She has given us a unique, first-hand, eye-witness account of Bantry in 1844 – one that contrasts tragically with the beautiful market town we have come to know well. She went on to travel the length and breadth of the country and to open her own soup kitchen in Dublin at the height of the Famine, this time dispensing bread, rather than tracts – let’s follow up with her in August at the play!

The interior of an Irish cabin in 1844 by Francis William Topham,  painting now in the Ulster Museum

This summer we also look forward very much (harrowing as it will be) to a major exhibition at Uillinn (the West Cork Arts Centre): Coming Home is an exhibition of the largest Famine-related art collection in the world. It’s on loan from Quinnipiac University in the US, and opens on July 20th. There will also be a very special Performance/Event at the Schull Workhouse by acclaimed Irish artist Alanna O’Kelly titled Anáil na Beatha, Breath of Life. Future posts!

*More about wood engravings, from Brian LalorThe process is an exceptionally important pre-photography development in visual communication terms and, in its day (early 19C), quite as radical as email. The reporter, O’Mahony, drew on the spot in pencil, the drawings were sent by postal coach and packet boat to London where a team of engravers worked through the night to meet the publishing deadline, on the small (generally 4” square) blocks of fruitwood that fitted with the type into a letterpress printer. For speed, they often had a number of engravers working on a single image by using separate blocks which were then bolted together. On the ILS 1844 image of Ballydehob (not shown) you can see the joins.