To Gougane Barra with Bartlett and Coyne in the 1830s

William Henry Bartlett was one of the foremost illustrators of his day, specialising in exotic scenes from all over the world – including Ireland, a favourite destination for Victorian travellers. I gave you an introduction to Bartlett in Scenery and Antiquities – W H Bartlett in Nineteenth Century Ireland. He loved ruins and wild and romantic scenery and wasn’t above enhancing its grandeur and magnificence. What better place for him to come than Gougane Barra? He was there sometime between 1830 and 1840 and he left us two engravings of what he saw – incredibly valuable as evidence of what has changed and what has not. 

Joseph Stirling Coyne by Octavius Charles Watkins, salt print, late 1850s, © National Portrait Gallery, London, used under license

The writer of this volume of Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland was an Irishman – Joseph Stirling Coyne, born in Birr in 1803. Although he studied for the law, he had such success with his first couple of plays that writing become his full time profession and he eventually moved to London and wrote a string of hit comedies for the stage. He was one of the founders of Punch and contributed many pieces to newspapers and magazines, but Scenery and Antiquities seems to have been his only book. His ear for dialogue, it was said, was particularly good – but you can decide that for yourself as you read the story he tells about St Finbarr and the Serpent (see another version here).

The wild and romantic country around Gougane Barra

Coyne certainly knew how to match Bartlett’s penchant for overblown romanticism with his own hyperbolic language. Why don’t we leave the two of them at it now?  Bartlett’s engravings and Coyne’s descriptions (edited for brevity) will carry us through Gougane Barra as it was in the 1830s. I will intersperse a few of my own images to provide some modern contrast and a certain reality check on the ‘precipitous crags’ and the ‘wild and beautiful solitudes.’

Detail from Bartlett’s view of Gougane Barra – he used scale to emphasise the towering nature of the cliffs above Gougane Barra Lake in the romantic style of the period
From Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland, published in 1841

Leaving Inchageela I found myself entering into the deep solitude of the mountain district, where the Lee expands itself into a beautiful sheet of water called Lough Allua (from Lough-a-Laoi, the Lake of the Lee,) about three miles in length, and in some places nearly a mile in breadth. This lake is picturesquely dotted with clusters of islands; but the natural beauty of the scene has been considerably impaired by the destruction of the woods which clothed the islets, and skirted the shores of the lough. The road which has been recently constructed lies on the northern side of the lake, following the indentations of its winding shores, through scenery of the most diversified yet solitary character, which will gratify the warmest expectations of the tourist who has leisure to investigate all its various beauties. After passing the lake, the river contracts itself into a narrow stream, and the traveller approaches, through narrow defiles and deep glens, the sequestered lake of Gougaune Barra, the first pausing place of the infant Lee, which bursts from the deep recesses of a rocky mountain a short distance from this spot. 

I’ve done the same thing – foreshortened the view in order to dwarf the oratory under the ‘towering’ cliffs

Antiquarians have assigned different etymologies to the name of this lake; some translate it, the Hermitage or Trifle of St. Barr or St. Barry. Mr. Windele, who is generally accurate in his derivations, says, that Gougaune is taken from the Irish words Geig-abhan, i. e. the gorge of the river. How he could have fallen into such an error is surprising, when it is evident that the name is derived from the artificial causeway, which connects with the shore a small island in the centre of the lake, where St. Fineen Barr lived a recluse life before he founded the Cathedral of Cork. The word gougaune is applied in the south-western districts of Ireland to those rude quays of loose stones jutting into the sea or river, constructed for the purpose of fishing. The lake, which is situated in a deep mountain recess, is enclosed on every side except the east with steep and rocky hills, down whose precipitous sides several mountain-streams pour their bright tributes into the placid waters beneath.

A beautiful scene but a more realistic view of the height of the mountains at the end of the lake

The sanctified character of Gougaune Barra has, according to popular tradition, preserved it from that legendary monster, which, under the form of an enormous eel, infests many of the lakes in Ireland. One of these enchanted worms had in past ages taken up his quarters in this lough, where he remained unmolested until, by an act of daring sacrilege, he provoked the anger of St. Fineen Barr, and caused his own expulsion from the pleasant waters he had so long inhabited. The story was told to me by an old man whom I found fishing in the river, where it issues from the lake; and, as I should only detract from the simplicity of his legend by giving it in other language than his own, I shall, as nearly as possible, repeat it in the manner in which it was told to me.

Richard King’s St Finbarr and the Serpent published in ‘The Capuchin Annual’ (1946-7), used with thanks

”There was wanst upon a time, sir,” said he, “a great saint, called Saint Fineen Barry, who lived all alone on the little island in the lake. There he built an illigant chapel with his own hands, and spent all his time in it day and night, praying, and fasting, and reading his blessed books. So, sir, av coorse, his fame went about far and near, and the people came flocking to the lake from all parts ; but as there was no ways of getting into the island from the shore—barrin’ by an ould boat that hadn’t a sound plank in her carcash—there was a good chance that some of the crathers would be drownded in crassing over. So, bedad, St. Fineen seeing how eager the poor christhens wor for his holy advice, tuck pity upon them, and one fine morning early he gets up, and, afore his breakfast, he made that pathway of big stones over from the land to his own island. After that, the heaps of people that kem to hear mass in his chapel every Sunday was past counting; and small wondher it was, for he was the rale patthern of a saint, and mighty ready he was at all sorts of prayers that ever wor invinted. But I forgot to tell you, sir, that there was living at that time, snug and comfortable, down in the bottom of the lake a tundhering big eel; some said he was a fairy, more that he was a wicked ould inchanther, that the blessed St. Patrick had turned into that shape. Any way, he used to divart himself now and then with a walk upon the green shores of the lake, and those that saw him at these times said, that he had the ears and mane of a horse, and was thicker in the waist than a herring-cask. But with all that, the crather never milisted nobody, till one fine Sunday, after St. Fineen had finished saying mass in his little chapel, and was scatthering the holy water over his congregation, all of a suddent the ould eel popped up out of the lake, and, thrusting his long neck and head into the chapel window, caught hoult of the silver holy wather-cup betune his teeth, and without so much as ‘ by your lave,’ walks off with it into the wather. Of course, there was a terrible pillalieu riz in the chapel when they seen what the blaggard eel was afther doing, and in half a minute every mother’s son had run down to the wather-side pelting him all round the lake. But the plundhering ould rogue only laughed at their endeavours, till St. Fineen himself kem out of the chapel, drest in all his vistmints, ringing the mass-bell as hard as he could. Well, no sooner did the eel hear the first tinkle of the blessed bell than away he swum for the bare life out of the lake into the river, purshued by St. Fineen, till he got to the fall of Loneen, when he dropped the cup out of his mouth. The saint however hadn’t done with him yet, for he kept purshuing him to Lough Allua, where he thought to hide; but the sound of the bell soon forced him to leave that, and swim down the Lee to Rellig Barra, and there St. Fineen killed the oudacious baste with one kick of his blessed fut, and afterwards built a church on the spot; which, as your honour may perhaps have heard tell, is now the cathedral of Cork. At any rate, sir, there has never been another of them big eels seen in the lake from that time to the present.”

Bartlett’s engraving of the cells at Gougane with the wooden cross and pilgrims paying the rounds

The little island to which St. Fineen Barr retired, alluded to in the legend, was, indeed, an admirably chosen place for the enjoyment of undisturbed solitude, and the indulgence of devout meditation. Several aged trees of the most picturesque forms grow upon its shores, and overshadow the ruins of the chapel, the court or cloister, and other buildings appertaining to them, which cover nearly half the area of the island. In the centre of the court stands the shattered remains of a wooden cross, on which are nailed innumerable shreds and patches, the grateful memorials of cures performed on the devotees who have made pilgrimages to this holy retreat, and by whom this sacred relic is held in extraordinary veneration. Around the court are eight small circular cells, in which the penitents are accustomed to spend the night in watching and prayer.

The ‘cells’ probably date from the seventeenth century, repaired and improved in the 1890s

The chapel, that adjoins it, stands east and west; the entrance is through a low doorway at the eastern end. . . . when we consider their height, extent, and the light they enjoyed, we may easily calculate that the life of the successive anchorites who inhabited them, was not one of much comfort or convenience, but much the reverse—of silence, gloom, and mortification. Man elsewhere loves to contend with and emulate nature and the greatness and majesty of her works; but here, as if awed by the sublimity of surrounding objects, and ashamed of his own real littleness, the founder of this desecrated shrine constructed it on a scale peculiarly pigmy and diminutive. Indeed, while contemplating this and many other unworldly recesses in different parts of Ireland, it is impossible to avoid a conviction, that the wild scenery of those solitary islands and untrodden glens must have had considerable effect in nurturing an ascetic tendency in the minds of religious enthusiasts.

The memorial to O’Mahony, the recluse Coyne refers to, below. It’s certainly more modern than 1728. It’s been found and re-erected since Coyne’s visit.

On the shores of the lake, near to the Causeway leading into the island, a few narrow mounds indicate the unpretending burying-place of “the rude forefathers” of this remote district ; and in this solitary spot, the broken remains of an arched recess mark the last resting-place of a religious recluse, named O’Mahony, who terminated his life here sometime about the commencement of the last century. Smith, the historian of Cork, mentions having seen a tombstone with the following inscription ‘Hoc sibi et successoribus suis, in eadem vocatione monumentum imposuit Dominus Doctor Dionisius O’Mahony presbyter licit indignus’. The flag is not to be discovered now, it either has been removed or is buried in the rubbish of the place. Dr. Smith adds, that O’Mahony was buried in the year 1728.

Coyne’s ‘stepping stones’ (below) are probably this wonderful little clapper bridge

A little to the east of the island, the waters issue from the lake, and form the head of the River Lee, which at this point is so shallow that it may be crossed by a few stepping-stones. From thence it pours its irregular course over huge ledges and masses of rock—now sweeping onward headlong, and now pausing in dark eddying pools through the rugged valley, until it reaches Lough Allua, of which I have already given a description. 

The Pass of Keimaneigh (above and below) is fairly dramatic, but I am not sure it quite deserves Coyne’s hype nowadays. It would have been wilder and more picturesque before the wide tarred road

Before quitting this neighbourhood I visited the Pass of Keimaneigh, which, for picturesque though gloomy grandeur, I have never seen surpassed, even in this region of romantic glens and mountain defiles. Through this Pass runs the high road from Macroom to Bantry, having the appearance of being excavated between the precipitous crags, that, rising on either hand, assume the resemblance of fantastic piles and antique ruins, clothed with mosses and lichens, with here and there the green holly and ivy, contributing by the richness of their tints to the beauty of the scene.

Having completed my examination of Keimanheigh, I began to retrace my route to Macroom highly gratified with my visit to these romantic scenes; which, had they been thrown in almost any other part of Europe, would have been a favourite pilgrimage for those lovers of the picturesque, who haunt the Rhine and traverse the Alps, in search of nature in her wild and beautiful solitudes.

To Puncture the Mysterious – Finbarr and the Serpent

There are two St Finbarrs, Patron Saint of Cork – the one you read about in academic studies, and the saint of myth and legend. If you’re of a romantic turn of mind, I recommend you avoid the first of these. It will do your heart no good to read the forensic analyses of the origins of his cult and who he might really have been.

The legendary Finbarr: Arriving at Gougane Barra in this window in Caheragh by Murphy Devitt; and being consecrated as a bishop by angels in an Earley window in St Finbarr’s church in Bantry, donated by William Martin Murphy

No – far better to read the hagiographies, which lay out his virtues, for he was godlike and pure of heart and mind, like Abraham; mild and well-doing, like Moses; a psalmist, like David; wise, like Solomon; firm in the faith, like Peter; devoted to the truth, like Paul the Apostle; and full of the Holy Spirit, like John the Baptist. He was a lion of strength, and an orchard full of apples of sweetness.

St Finbarr’s monastic site as reconstructed by Fr Peter Hurley in the 1890s and still a place of pilgrimage. The window is in the Church of St Finbarr and the Holy Angels in Inchigeela and is a flamboyant example of Watsons of Youghal’s Celtic Revival style

He is associated with Cork, of course, but probably most closely with Gougane Barra, that idyllic mountain lake where he is said to have founded his first monastic community. Gougane Barra – the rocky cranny of Finbarr – lies in a cleft in the Shehy Mountains and from it the River Lee flows eastwards across Cork to empty itself into its mighty harbour.

The oratory at Gougane is an in-demand wedding venue and home to stained glass windows by Watsons of Youghal, including this one of Finbarr

Legend has it that when St Finbarr arrived to set up his cell the lake was occupied by an enormous serpent, called Lú (or Louie, in some accounts) who, having had it to himself naturally resented the saint’s arrival and on one occasion arose and tore the chalice from his hands as he was celebrating mass. Finbarr raged and prayed and with the power of God to sustain him he summoned Lú from the depths and banished him forever from the lake.

Lú underfoot, being banished by Finbarr

Lú departed, thrashing his giant tail as he went and such was his anger and strength that he carved a deep valley as he went. The water from the lake flowed into the valley and thus the River Lee (below) was formed.

Our favourite contemporary poet, James Harpur, has re-imagined this story as a classic spiritual struggle. He has given me permission to use his poem, Finbarr and the Serpent of Gougane Barra. This is the perfect answer to the desiccation and disappointment of academic analysis – the power of Finbarr’s legend lies in the timeless battle between good and evil – whether that’s between a saint and a serpent or between a saint and his demons.

Did it exist?

                   For hours I’d scan the surface

Hope for a splash, a shadow in the water,

Anything

               to puncture the mysterious.

At night I’d set the traps with squeaking bait.

But nothing came

                            except a badger and an otter.

Yet still I felt its presence by the lake.

At last, I snapped: I drove the serpent out

With curses, shouts – I exorcised the beast

Along with every slithering scaly thought.

But soon … I could not bear the certainty

Of absence, emptiness.

                                     I headed east

To settle where the plains of marshes lie

And built a trap, a cave-like oratory;

And here I pray for god

                                      to coil around me.

 

West Cork Obscura – Robert’s Choices

‘Hidden West Cork’ and ‘off the beaten track’ have been oft-used phrases in our posts – and that’s part of our mission with Roaringwater Journal: exploration of some of the more secret places, and researching and recording their stories. Finola has looked out her own favourites; my current choices are here – although, with 569 posts written to date between us, we could have picked out so many.

Header and above – one of the discoveries which made a great impression on me during the year was Tralong Bay, out beyond Glandore and Drombeg: it’s a beautiful piece of the coastline, at the end of a cul-de-sac and – it seemed to us – very little visited. But to visit is to transport yourselves back thousands of years as, on the beach and exposed at low tide, are the remains of an ancient forest. Here is the post.

A quirky discovery, not too far away from Tralong, was the pyramid-shaped mausoleum in the old burial ground at Glandore. For us, ancient graveyards are treasure troves of local history. This one – a peaceful and secluded place well worth a visit anyway – conceals an enigma: find the story here.

The Rock Art at Castlemehigan in its spectacular setting (above). Below is a close view of some of the markings on the rock

Delving back a few years, I found this December post on a visit to a spectacular example of Rock Art at the far end the Mizen Peninsula: Castlemehigan. The cupmarks on this earthfast boulder are impressive and the view from it is spectacular, especially on the clear winter day that we were blessed with. The rock was also in use as a Mass Rock during penal times, and there is evidence of this on the surface. We were told a story about those times by Florence O’Driscoll, whose land the rock is on. Make sure you have permission to visit if you go!

Finola managed to combine her consuming interest in wildflowers with industrial history and an account of a very special walk on the Sheep’s Head. It’s one of the marked trails on that peninsula – and takes in the deserted settlement of Crimea where a cottage has been partially restored (picture above) – finishing at the abandoned mine workings at Gortavallig, perched precariously on the very edge of a cliff (below). Here is the link to Finola’s post.

Here am I trying to get my head around the enigmatic ‘Rolls of Butter’ (above). I have to admit they are in Kerry (only just), but involved us travelling one of our all-time favourite roads, much of which is actually in West Cork: that’s the Priest’s Leap Road which runs over the mountains from Bantry (more or less) to Kenmare (more or less). We go out of our way to use this road because of the superb views – and a special piece of folklore – but, if you give it a try, be prepared for a narrow and steep journey (below)! Here is the post.

Archaeology dictates many of our outings. One of the less well-known monuments is Ardgroom Outward Stone Circle (pictured above and below) on the Beara Peninsula. This year, following a harsh winter, the weather turned sublime, and we have travelled extensively to make the most of it. We find ourselves often drawn to the Beara (much of which is in West Cork). This post describes an expedition which included stone monuments, colourful villages, stained glass – and ice cream! Have a look.

It was almost five years ago that we first reported on one of our perenially favourite West Cork locations: Gougane Barra (above). It’s a holy place – an alluringly beautiful lake sited in the Shehy Mountains, close to the source of Cork’s special River Lee. Here, in the sixth century, Saint Finbarr set up a collection of cells for his monastic community on an island. Here, also, lived the couple ‘The Tailor and Ansty’, immortalised in a book written in 1942 by Eric Cross. It’s a not entirely happy story as the book was banned because of its down-to-earth portrayal of the facts of life, and storyteller Tim Buckley (‘The Tailor’) was forced to burn his copy of it in front of the local priests: the incident led to an abrasive debate in Seanad Éireann on censorship. This story is, perhaps, one of the less well-known historical aspects of West Cork (and Ireland), but visit Gougane Barra for its beauty – and make sure you find the gravestone of ‘The Tailor & Ansty’: it was carved by their friend Seamus Murphy and bears the inscription . . .  A Star Danced And Under That Was I Born . . .

We hope that, between us, we might have given you some good ideas for exploration of our wonderful West Cork landscapes and – perhaps – encourage you off the highways and on to the byways: there are so many adventures to be had, summer or winter. Travel Well!

Robert Gibbings

Our bookshelves in Nead an Iolair include some volumes which have travelled with me for the best part of fifty years. They include titles by George Ewart Evans, Henry Williamson, Brian Lalor, Peter Somerville-Large. Look carefully and you’ll also see some there by Robert Gibbings. Who is he?

A writer and illustrator, Gibbings was born in 1889 and died exactly sixty years ago, on 19 January 1958. He was a Cork man, raised in Kinsale, where his father became the Rector of St Multose Church. However, he was an inveterate traveller and lived most of his working life in England. Much of his work seems to exude ‘Englishness’ and – in an Irish Times article this week to mark the anniversary of his death, Alannah Hopkin writes:

People often forget that Gibbings was Irish. Brian Lalor, author of Ink-stained Hands, the definitive history of Irish print-making, was challenged by an English academic at a conference in Dublin in 2007, who refused to believe that Gibbings was Irish, as he had produced archetypal English landscapes. But his account of Gougane Barra, for example, confirms how deeply steeped in Irish myth and folklore Gibbings was.

Gougane Barra in County Cork: upper image – the lake in the mountain. Centre – Robert Gibbings’ woodcut engraving of the lake which opens ‘Sweet Cork of Thee’ (1951). Lower image: a clapper bridge near Gougane – perhaps the same one which Finola illustrates in her post today

At the insistence of his parents, Gibbings studied medicine at UCC, although his ambition was to be an artist . . . writes Alannah Hopkin . . . While he enjoyed the scientific side of his studies, it soon became apparent that this big, soft-hearted man was unable to cope with the human suffering of his patients. His parents were apprehensive about his decision to be an artist, fearing, quite rightly, that it meant he would lead an unconventional life, looking at naked women, dressing untidily and consorting with social misfits . . . From 1911 he studied life drawing at the Slade in London. His contemporaries included Eric Gill, John Nash, David Jones and Mabel Annesley. He was advised to take wood-engraving classes; the technique perfectly suited his strong line and close observation of nature, which in this phase was lightly stylised.

Gibbing’s woodblock signature – used in the majority of his books – shows the tools of the wood engraver

The wood engravings of Robert Gibbings are exquisite: his eye is attuned to fine detail. His writing is also compelling: I suppose it reflects a nostalgia for past times and things gone, but it is also humorous and always tightly observant. He brings to life characters he has met in his travels.

‘Paddy the Forge’ putting metal tyres on wagon wheels – from Sweet Cork of Thee

In the 1940s Gibbings attended the World Ploughing Contest, held for the first time in England, at Shillingford on Thames:

Bowler hats and highly polished riding boots had been the order of the day at the Arab Horse Show: here among the shires it was rubber-boots, corduroy caps, and hats of weathered tweed. ‘I think you’re Irish,’ said a man to me as I was admiring a pair of Pedigree Suffolks resplendent with brasses that told of former triumphs. ‘What gives me away?’ I asked. ‘The tilt of your hat,’ he said, ‘I can always tell an Irishman – he just sticks it on his head and forgets it. Look at some of these fellows – caps, hats, pulled up here, pushed down there – self-conscious all of them. Look at those two fellows in the pork-pie hats – I wouldn’t trust that one on the right, he wears his too straight, has to – it’s psychological.’ ‘Bishops wear their hats straight,’ I said. ‘Same idea,’ he answered. ‘Suggests the narrow path, only they keeps to it.’

For Robert Gibbings, text and illustration were always of equal importance. Each page of his books is set out as an art work, to be enjoyed by the two senses of sight and feeling – the feeling engendered by his descriptive writing. Here is the Foreword to his second ‘Irish’ book – Sweet Cork of Thee:


The illustrated Foreword to Sweet Cork of Thee, the second of Gibbings’ books which describe his travels in the land of his birth

Throughout his life, Gibbings immersed himself in travelling and in art. His best known books are his ‘river’ books, beginning with ‘Sweet Thames Flow Softly’, published in 1940 and, at the end of his life, the sequel: ‘Till I End My Song’ completed in 1957: he died at the age of 68. The rivers he explored included the Thames, the Wye, the Seine and Cork’s River Lee. Between 1924 and 1933 he owned and ran the art-based Golden Cockerel Press. Founded in 1920, its earliest prospectus proclaimed:

This press is a co-operative society for the printing and publishing of books. It is co-operative in the strictest sense. Its members are their own craftsmen, and will produce their books themselves in their own communal workshops without recourse to paid and irresponsible labour.

Work from the Golden Cockerel Press: typefaces by Eric Gill

It is the two ‘River Lee’ books that will concern those interested in all things Irish. My copies (both first editions) were given to me by Danny who I first met when I moved to Devon in the 1970s. Danny was determined that I was going to fall in love with Ireland – and it didn’t take me very long! Eventually Danny – who hailed from Limerick but, like Gibbings, led a restless life during which he travelled the world – settled in Devon and then moved on to West Cork.

Danny gave me these books to encourage my interest in Ireland. At the time he told me that ‘these were all I needed’ to get to know his country. I think he was right!

I encourage anyone who follows Ireland to read these books – and anyone who appreciates art to get to know the work of Robert Gibbings who died just fifty years ago. I will ‘play out’ the man by quoting these lines from his aptly titled ‘Till I End My Song’, and include an image of the last page of this, his final book.

Poets throughout the ages have sung of the peace of gently running streams. In the sacred writings a river is used constantly as a symbol of peace: ‘Then had thy peace been as a river’, ‘He leadeth me beside the still waters’. Throughout our own literature flows the timelesss tranquility of rivers. Spenser’s Prothalamion is borne on the waters of Sweete Themmes. The tortured mind of Swift longed for a river at his garden’s end. The gentler Stevenson wishes to all ‘a living river by the door’. I think it is the unbroken sequences of flowing water, the punching destiny of stream, that seem to knit a man’s soul with the eternities . . .

The Tailor and Ansty

The-Tailor-and-Ansty

Travel up to the north of County Cork, into the high country which is still not quite part of the Kingdom of Kerry: make your way to the windings of the youthful River Lee just before it rises in the fastness of the Shehy Mountains, and you will find yourself in a magical place.

Gougane Barra Lake

The Lake in the Mountain – Gougane Barra

You are in Múscraí (West Muskerry), one of the Gaeltacht districts of Ireland – areas where Irish is still spoken as the predominant native language. These districts were first defined when the Irish Free State was set up as part of the new government’s policy to restore the Irish language. Finola will confirm that everyone who grows up and is educated in Ireland today studies Irish in school. Sadly, the maps below show how native Irish speakers have declined since an Ghaeltacht was set up in 1926, partly through migration but mainly because of the predominance of the English language in public life.

The Gaeltacht areas: Irish native speakers in 1926, 1956 and 2007

The Gaeltacht areas: Irish native speakers in 1926, 1956 and 2007

Our journey today takes us to Gougane Barra, a historical site where in the sixth century Saint Finbarr set up a collection of cells for his monastic community on a lake island in the mountains. Nowadays it is a centre for pilgrims and tourists. I was sent to Gougane Barra many years ago on the instruction of a client and friend, Father Sam Philpott, who had commissioned my architectural practice in the UK to reorder a church in the centre of Plymouth. The place proved an inspiration to me – as he had hoped – and the renewed St Peter’s now has a rill of water running around the worship area echoing the water surrounding Finbarr’s community in the mountains: a piece of West Cork in West Devon!

St Peter's, Plymouth - the reordering completed in 2007

St Peter’s, Plymouth – the reordering completed in 2007

Gougane Barra was also the home of The Tailor and Ansty – immortalised in a book of that name first published in 1942 and written by Eric Cross, a journalist from Newry who lived in the locality for many years and visited the couple on a daily basis. ‘The Tailor’ (Tim Buckley) was a storyteller: not a Shanacai who travelled around the country seeking hospitality, as he had a paralysed leg since his youth and could only walk with the aid of a crutch, but someone to whom the world came and sat with while he ‘minded the dairy herd’ (a single black cow) or ‘reddened his pipe’ while perched on an old butter box (which he called Cornucopia) beside the kitchen fire of an evening, and listened to his tales and his homespun philosophy. He and his wife Anastasia were both fluent Irish speakers, and perhaps the book loses something for being written in English. However, it is a goldmine for folklorists or students of Finola’s Cork Speak lessons, because of the expressions which The Tailor uses: Thon amon dieul – (T-anam an diabhal – your soul to the devil), Yerra, man alive and (my own favourite) Thamwirrashimfaina being just a small selection.

I can only commend the book to you: it’s impossible to summarise it. It’s romantic, thoroughly entertaining and completely readable. It’s one of those books that you don’t want to get to the end of and – when you do – you almost feel that you are ready to start it all over again. I will extract only the first few paragraphs to give you a flavour:

…’In the townland of Garrynapeaka, in the district of Inchigeela, in the parish of Iveleary, in the barony of West Muskerry, in the county of Cork, in the province of Munster’ – as he magniloquently styles his address, lives the Tailor.

His small whitewashed cottage, with its acre of ground, stands at the brow of a hill, at the side of a road which winds and climbs into a deep glen of the mountains bordering Cork and Kerry.

In the summer you will usually find the Tailor himself leaning up against the bank of the road, minding his one black cow. As you pass up the hill he will have watched you come and sized you up in his shrewd and kindly way. As he stands talking to you, helping you, pointing out this and that to you, you will scarcely believe that he has seventy-seven years put over him. The vigour of his body, in spite of the handicap of his crutch, the firm tones of his voice, the smile of his lively eyes, the thick head of silver hair, all belie the fact of the years.

He will most likely invite you inside for a glass of buttermilk or a heat of the tea. Go with him. Let the beauties of Ireland wait. They will still be there when he has gone. Be, as he is, prodigal of time, and sit and listen to him. Forget the rest of your journey as the Tailor forgets the cow. Humanity matters more than either cattle or scenery. You have met a man – finished.

Sit by his turf fire at night and learn how to practise his favourite precept – ‘Glac bóg an saol agus glacfaidh an saol bóg thú: take the world fine and aisy and the world will take you fine and aisy’…

jacket

The Mercier Press Edition

The book was published in 1942, when the Tailor was 83. He lived only two years longer. He was proud of the book – and of his celebrity: scholars, folklorists and writers flocked to his fireside to meet him and to hear his stories, his proclamations and his banter with the long-suffering Ansty.

But – there is a twist in this tale. The Tailor was down to earth and forthright. As with all country people he had no qualms about including in his stories all the vagaries of human existence, and references to the coupling of man and woman or the cow and the bull, and these were faithfully recorded by Eric Cross. The effect on the government of the day and its leader Eamonn de Valera was instantaneous: the ‘indecent and obscene’ book was banned, and the life of the bewildered Tailor and his companion became unbearable. The story is taken up by Frank O’Connor, a notable writer and friend who remained faithful to them:

… As a result that kind old couple who had offered their simple hospitality to students from all over Ireland were boycotted. I am not exaggerating. I was there with them one night when a branch of a tree was driven between the wall and the latch so that we were imprisoned. Three priests appeared at their cottage one day and forced that dying old man to go on his knees at his own hearth and burn the only copy he had of his own book…

The situation led to a debate in the Senate which lasted four days! Only one public man – Sir John Keane – defended the book. He quoted sections from it and these quotations were struck from the public record ‘…in case they should lead to immorality of the nation…’ The motion was lost by 34 – 2, and the couple were ostracised within their own community.

It wasn’t until 1963 that the matter was reconsidered, and a revamped Censorship Appeals Board discovered that the book was not obscene at all. It was republished and has remained in print ever since. But by then both the Tailor and Ansty were buried in the graveyard at Gougane Barra, under a stone designed by their friend Seamus Murphy, a well known sculptor. Frank O’Connor wrote the short epitaph that adorns it:

 A Star Danced And Under That Was I Born

headstone