New Court Bridge – a Hidden Wonder

New Court Bridge has been badly damaged recently. Why does that matter?

The damage from behind the wall. Now you can see that this is a bridge – but a most unusual one!

Most people driving by this dangerous bend, where the Ilen River meets the N71 just west of Skibbereen, notice the funny arches on top of the wall, but don’t think twice about them. It’s too risky to stop and take a close look, after all. Most people, in fact, probably don’t realise that they are driving over a bridge, although that’s a bit more obvious now as the County Council have put in one of those concrete pads that are going in front of all bridge walls at the moment (see lead photograph).

Water under the bridge

Does anyone know how the damage happened? Did a car take the bend too fast and hit the wall? Did the concrete work loosen the structure of the wall? Let us know if you have information. I hope nobody was hurt. All I know is that one morning I was driving into Skibbereen and there was a chunk of the wall – gone!

Early Ordnance Survey map of the New Court Estate, bounded by the Ilen River on the east and south. The red dots indicate the locations of the belvederes (marked as towers) and the bridge

We tend in Ireland to think of old estate walls like this one as ‘Famine Walls’, erected during the mid nineteenth century as work projects. But this wall was far older than that, and it hid a secret – an elaborate facade on the back with decorative arches and niches. It was part of the plan for a pleasure garden undertaken by Henry Tonson at his newly acquired ‘seat’ which he called New Court, to distinguish it from Old Court, across the river. Originally, there was a matching wall across the road, but it was demolished in a truck accident many years ago. EDIT: I misinterpreted this – rather than a matching wall across the road, in fact there were matching arches on either side of the road, west of the entry to New Court. Both are now gone, one at least due to the aforementioned truck accident. Thanks to Sean Norris for this information.

The Ilen floats by – a navigable river was a must for transporation to and from these early estates

The Tonsons had arrived in the 1660s. According to Burke’s Peerage, Major Richard Tonson received a grant of land in the county of Cork from Charles II for his distinguished exertions in favour of royalty during the Civil Wars and purchased the castle and lands of Spanish Island, in the same county. If he built anything on Spanish Island, just off Baltimore, no traces remain, and indeed, although strategic in marine terms at that time, it is hard to imagine how the island, mostly bare rock, would have made for comfortable accommodation.

The stump of one of the belvederes, overlooking the river

It appears he, or his son, Henry, bought the land on the west bank of the Ilen and Henry set about establishing his dwelling there. This included building the wall around the estate. Eventually, and we are not sure when, one of the Tonsons (over time they acquired a title, Lord Riversdale) developed the area around the house as a vast pleasure garden.

The most complete belvedere. This one also functioned as a dovecote

The fashion for designed landscapes is an eighteenth century phenomenon. As I said in my post on belvederes, in that century

. . . a different style of landscaping. . . dominated garden design in Britain, pioneered by William Kent and Charles Bridgeman and reaching its peak in the work of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. The effect they strove for was naturalistic (as opposed to natural) – a planned layout that mirrored but enhanced their idea of a ‘wild’ and romantic landscape. Large expanses of grass, strategically placed lakes and ponds, plantings of carefully chosen tree and shrub species, and clever little structures such as temples, summer houses and belvederes all combined to delight the eye, create a romantic mood and, of course, attest to the taste and wealth of the owner.

A closer look at the construction of the bridge. It would be fascinating to attempt a reconstruction drawing. The niches may well have held statuary or decorative urns

Although the grand houses at the centre of the estate have now gone (see this photograph in the National Library for a glimpse of the last one), there is lots of evidence still of such a designed landscape. Originally lawns sloped to the river – no need to build artificial ponds as the Ilen provided the perfect watery scene. Little round towers were built to be used as gazebos or belvederes (and in one case a dovecote): three in all, of which the stump of one and a fairly complete second are still to be seen. The bridge with its elaborate facing was the crowning glory of the estate wall.

The York House Water Gate as it would have looked originally on  the Thames (Wiki Commons)

What did the bridge wall look like originally? We don’t know, but Peter Somerville-Large in his Coast of West Cork says it was modelled on the ‘water gates at Hampton Court’. I can’t find any images of this online, but I have found the water gate at York House, which is still there. It was built as a ceremonial landing place on the Thames (above) although it is now a long way from the river.

The York House Water Gate in an early photograph (www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/work-of-art/O18442 Credit, Royal Academy of Arts / Photographer William Strudwick )

Of course, it is larger and more elaborate, but you can still see the basic shape, with its curved arch on top and the arched niches in the wall. The arches at New Court may have been plastered, perhaps, or faced with some material. The York House Water Gate dates to 1626 and it’s all that left of the York House estate – the Tonsons may well have been familiar with it or with similar water gates along the Thames. Building such an edifice would have been aspirational, indicating a desire to impress.

This was what it looked like in 2016 – taken by a camera with spots on the lens

The likelihood, therefore, is that the bridge at New Court is most probably eighteenth century, and early eighteenth century at that – about three hundred years old. We don’t have a lot of structures in West Cork dating to then. Surely it’s worth preserving those that still exist? I am hopeful that the National Monuments Service (they’ve been alerted and have notified their Monument Protection Unit) will come riding to the rescue. I’ll be keeping an eye on it all – you do too. But note that this is private property, so no walking or driving through the gates without permission.

UPDATE, MARCH 20, 2019. This notice was received from the National Monuments Protection Unit: “Cork County Council (Bridge Management) have indicated it is prepared to repair the wall as a Reactive Maintenance Incident and will ensure repairs meet any necessary heritage requirements.”

Dr Macaura – A Story of Sweet Melody, Picture Palaces and Quackery – in Skibbereen!

Our own local band – St Fachtna’s Silver Band – will be playing at a carol concert on the eve of Christmas Eve this year. I set out to write a simple post about the story of that long-established Skibbereen musical institution. Little did I know how much colourful West Cork history would tumble out of that modest project.

I am not the first to write on these matters, and I have to express my gratitude to David Brewster who contributed an article to the 2007 Skibbereen and District Historical Society Journal (volume 3): this was in the form of an edited transcript from a recording made in 1992 by Eleanor Agnes Macaura, whose father, Gerald Joseph Macaura – a local man – was the founder of the Silver Band in Skibbereen over a hundred years ago – in 1912. A further article – specifically about the Band – appeared in the Society’s 2012 journal (volume 8), written by Séamus O’Brien, then Chairman of the Band: again, many thanks to Séamus, and the Journal.

Gerald Macaura (left) and his friend Gugliemo Marconi

Gerald Joseph Macaura was born on 1 May 1871 in Townsend Street, Skibbereen. His father Florence was a cooper and needle-maker. His mother Ellen could see no future for her five sons in West Cork and sent them off, one by one, to her cousin in New Jersey where they joined the community of Irish labourers. Gerald had been an enterprising boy in Skibbereen: among other things he made a kite – a life-sized figure with a lantern inside it which he launched at night to terrify the neighbours. He taught himself ventriloquism and was an entertainer and practical joker. In America he was no less inventive: according to Ella’s account he made a machine for sharpening knives – angled files set in a block (we all have one today). He also made a hook and harness device which could be used for cleaning windows on high buildings (also still in use today). He got no recognition for these, but had more luck in the Edison Laboratories of Industrial Research where, in the 1880s, he met, worked with and apparently became good friends of Edison, Marconi and Henry Ford 1 (who also had West Cork roots).

Probably Macaura’s most successful invention: the Pulsocon. Claims made for it in the popular press of the day included ‘ . . . the blind will see, the deaf will hear, and the lame will walk (or even run), all in the space of 15 minutes . . . !’ Interestingly, examples of this machine can be found on display in Sex Museums in various parts of the world . . .

Macaura did successfully patent and market one machine while he was in America – the Pulsocon. This was an enduring success, and was also subsequently patented in Britain and France: he is said to have made a fortune out of it. Described as a ‘blood circulator’ the device produced strong vibrations which could be applied to various parts of the body to relieve ‘. . . pain, rheumatism, arthritis and many other ailments . . .’ Ella remembers that her father had ‘. . . the power of healing in his hands . . .

Loch Ine House, Gerald Macaura’s West Cork home in later life, as it is today

In 1901 Macaura and Marconi came to West Cork and were involved in setting up the Marconi telegraph station on Brow Head. At this time Gerald found – and fell in love with – Lough Ine House, just outside Skibbereen: it was neglected and run down. He purchased it and restored it with every modern convenience, including electricity and central heating. Around this time, Macaura began touring with his Pulsocon, renting large halls to give public demonstrations of the device – one was the Royal Albert Hall in London. He gave himself the title ‘Doctor’, but he had no medical qualification: he was first and foremost a showman.

But there can be no doubt that ‘Doctor’ Gerald Macaura (he sometimes also called himself ‘Colonel’) was a successful and prosperous showman. And Skibbereen benefitted! A nationalist, and supporter of the Irish Parliamentary Party, he contributed generously to the founding of the Skibbereen Volunteers in 1914, giving £50. He also commissioning a set of silver-plated Besson instruments for the establishment of a Volunteer band in the town. Not only that, but he was enterprising enough to look for a way in which the Band could be financially secure into the future: he built the first cinema in Skibbereen!

Sample programmes for the Kinemac. I found a link to the 1914 film ‘Sign of the Cross’ shown in the right-hand bill, here. It is actually hard work to watch!

The idea was that all admission fees would go to Band funds. Unfortunately, a town with a population at the time of only 3,000 was unable to support the venture, and in 1917 the Kinemac was abandoned and everything was sold at auction (note the details of the different grades of seating in the auction notice below). The building had been located beside what is now the westernmost roundabout going out of Skibbereen towards Ballydehob, and not a trace of it remains. Also, no photograph of the Kinemac seems to have come down to us – I am always hopeful that someone might come forward with something found in an old album in an attic . . .

There’s much more to Macaura’s story – including an incident in Paris where he was arrested and prosecuted for fraud and the illegal practice of medicine – and political controversy because it was suggested that the Skibbereen Volunteer Band’s committee was biased against the town’s Protestants, who had in turn boycotted the Kinemac. It would all make a great film . . .

I couldn’t find a photo of the Kinemac – which lasted from 1914 to 1917, but this view of Skibbereen dates from that time (probably 1916). I’m not sure what the ‘procession’ of ladies is doing. The ‘Maid of Eirinn’ statue is on the right, and today’s Town Hall straight ahead

All this serves as an introduction to how Skibbereen got its Band – which still thrives today! It has been through ups and downs, but is now a lively and colourful attribute to the town’s life. For me, at least, there’s nothing like the sound of a brass band (I played in one for over thirty years). In case you are not familiar with that very particular sound, give this a go: it’s a version of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez arranged for Flugelhorn, and comes from the wonderful film ‘Brassed Off’ featuring the late, lamented Pete Postlethwaite. The ‘real’ musicians are the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, with Paul Hughes as soloist.

Don’t forget the carol concert with St Fachtna’s Band in Abbeystrewery on the 23rd December, 7.30pm. I shall be there – and so will Doctor Macaura – in spirit, at least!

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

Countdown to West Cork History Festival 2018!

As last year, Roaringwater Journal is very involved in the marvellous upcoming West Cork History Festival. We are both on the organising committee and this year we are leading field trips and chairing sessions, and I am giving a paper (more on that below). The Festival will be held in Skibbereen this week – 16th to 19th of August.

This is St Barrahane from Castletownshend. During the Thursday Field Trip we will be revealing his secret message

We haven’t had a lot to do with the detailed logistics or with the ultimate lineup of speakers – that is the purview of the Founders, Simon and Victoria Kingston. What a force they are! As you can imagine, organising a festival like this is an enormous amount of work and they do it while working full time, with two young children and a life lived between two countries – all while remaining cheerful, focussed, inventive and energetic. Here are Simon and Professor Roy Foster, our keynote speaker, talking last year about the upcoming festival.

Simon and Victoria are next door neighbours to the wonderful Liss Ard Estate. This place is dear to our heart as it’s where we were married, and they have been incredibly supportive of the festival, providing parking and accommodation.

While many of the speakers are academics and writers on the national scene, local historical societies are attending and volunteering and local experts have been persuaded to share their knowledge. The Skibbereen Heritage Centre is a big part of the festival this year, with both Terri Kearney and Philip O’Regan on the program, and William Casey giving a talk and launching a book.

Philip O’Regan of the Skibbereen Heritage Centre leads a walking tour of the historic town. Here he points out the building where O’Donovan Rossa founded his Phoenix Society, forerunner of the Fenians

We are looking forward to the field trips, a new addition this year and a popular one, given how quickly they booked up. Thursday’s focusses on archaeology and history and Friday’s on the Famine and Art.

Coppinger’s Court – these fortified mansions gradually replaced tower houses in the seventeenth century, during of the series of changes from Irish to Planter land ownership

The Festival aims to cover international, national and local themes and this year will, of course, focus partly on the events of 1918, with talks on WWI, Carson and Redmond, Women’s Suffrage and the great Flu epidemic. The Irish Revolutionary Period is the subject of several talks, by both academics and non-professionals, ranging from the hot topic last year, Protestants in West Cork, to the violence suffered by some women during that period.

Inspired by the Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger exhibition currently running at Uillinn/West Cork Arts Centre, there is also a thread that looks at the intersection of art and history. It will be the main focus of Friday’s field trip, and run through sessions on Margaret Clarke, on Gothic art, on George du Noyer and most pointedly in the talk by Niamh O’Sullivan on the Coming Home Exhibition itself.

Stone Circle by George Victor du Noyer

We’re not forgetting the Medieval and Early Modern periods either. Dr David Edwards from UCC is recognised as an expert on Richard Boyle and on this period and his talk on Gaelic politics in the later Middle Ages should be fascinating. But never mind all that politics – what did people actually do back then, and what did they eat, before the advent of the potato?  Dr Susan Flavin is going to tell us that when she talks about ‘Food, Drink & Society in 16th century Ireland’.

Richard Boyle, Great Earl of Cork

Lots of local history too – on Cillíní (children’s burial grounds), women in the fishing industry, Sam Maguire and his memorial bells in Dunmanway, Pirates and treasure of the Coast of West Cork, and my own talk on Agnes Mary Clerke who grew up in Skibbereen during the famine and went on to become the most successful science-writer of her day, with a moon crater named in her honour.

Agnes Mary Clerke

That’s just a taster of the talks – there are lots more. And if that wasn’t enough, there are also film screenings, a concert by Jessie Kennedy based on the life of Lady Mary Carbery of Castle Freke, and a poetry reading by none other than Jeremy Irons! How can you resist that voice?

So if you don’t have your tickets yet, get them now. Yes, you’ll still be able to get them at the gate, but if you want to secure them now, do it online at this link.

The Soul Expands with Beauty

We are so lucky to live in a place where the arts are valued as a necessary part of life and where we can attend art exhibitions, concerts, theatre, readings, film screenings. It all comes together every year at the Skibbereen Arts Festival. It somehow manages to combine fun, entertainment, wonder and beauty (like this West Cork seascape by Harriet Selka, above).

The Irish Memory Orchestra also enthralled us one evening – they play traditional and commissioned pieces entirely by memory.

Last time we wrote about this festival we said it was ‘hitting its stride’. This time the phrase that came to me was ‘it’s going from strength to strength.’ What a marvellous line up it was! You can see the whole program online and look at the sheer variety of experiences that we lucky West Cork folk got to pick from. A standout for us this year was the concert lineup, the art exhibitions and the poetry events.

Roseanne Cash and John Leventhal

It started off with Roseanne Cash, daughter of Johnny. You might think – what? Country Music? I know that’s not everyone’s taste, although I have a soft spot for it myself. But Roseanne sings a wonderful mix of Appalachian Folk, bluesy ballads and her own material along with the classics of country. She has a gorgeous voice and a husband accompanist and they both play a mean guitar. Here she is singing one of her father’s songs along with a touching tribute.

Skibbereeen was only her only other Irish stop besides Dublin and she came because of a line in Johhny’s song Forty Shades of Green (did you know her wrote that? I didn’t) that refers to Skibbereen. Watch him singing it at a concert in Dublin back in the days of Big Hair. It was Roseanne’s closing number, and predictably it brought the house down. She was in tears. We were in tears.

Something completely different a couple of nights later – The Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine is from the formidable talents of singer-songwriter Declan O’Rourke, backed up by an excellent group of musicians that includes John Sheahan of The Dubliners. Declan has been working on this song cycle for years. He describes it “an attempt to bring fresh air to an unhealed wound, and to remind the Irish people of what we have overcome.” There’s a good overview of the project here and you’ll witness Declan’s unique voice and engaging personality. The subject matter was tough – we are in the middle of a major Famine commemoration event here this summer and we are becoming more familiar every day with its horrifying stories. Having written about the Coming Home Exhibition and the 110 Skibbereen Girls Project already, we found this concert to be poignant and powerful.

Lúnasa have long been recognised as one of the best Irish groups performing traditional music today and we’d been looking forward to this one very much. The bonus was the addition of Natalie Merchant as their special guest. I’ve been a fan for a long time and it was a great pleasure to see her in person. That voice! Take a listen.

She sang this one for us and Lúnasa transformed before our eyes into this amazing back up band. Imagine a version where instead of just guitars the harmonies are provided by a flute, an uillinn pipes, a fiddle, a guitar and a double bass. Magic.

Jim Turner’s ceramic pieces catch the eye at Anseo

We took a day to do the Art Trail. There’s a couple of large exhibitions including one curated by Catherine Hammond that Robert wrote about a couple of weeks ago. The other large show was called Anseo (on-shuh meaning ‘here’). Each artist was asked to write a statement addressing how he/she responds to living/being in West Cork and it was revelatory how different each one was – both the statement and the art.

Helen O’Keefe’s Neighbours – Long Island

But there were also hidden gems all over the place – in converted empty stores, in back rooms and unused office space. I enjoyed Sonia Bidwell’s quirky pieces constructed from fabric and found materials, upstairs in Lisheen’s House. Her Veronica is below.

School children had participated in a ‘City’ project where they explored design and architecture and built their own cities. It was fun and relevant and, in fact, mighty impressive what they had accomplished!

A local group of fabric artists, Wild Threads, had taken over a space near the supermarket to mount an exhibition of sea-themed work called ‘Littoral.’ As expressed in the program – ‘For some this means intimate vignettes of everyday views and for others it is the colourful explosions that Mother Nature throws at us.” It had never occurred to me that you can paint with fabric until I encountered the work of this group. It’s both a constraining and liberating medium, and the results were varied, imaginative and beautiful!

Piece by fabric artist Sam Healy

I can’t finish without a word on the poetry. While there were several events, the one that made the most impact on me was the launch of two new books by Pól Ó’Cólmáin and James Harpur. I’ve written about Pól before and used his poem in my post Pagan and Pure. This time it was a book, The Silence Unravelling, of Haiku and Tanka – just a few words to capture a moment, a feeling. I hope to use some of them in a future post – they’re brilliant. 

Pól Ó Colmáin – here not reciting his poetry but performing some of his songs

James Harpur is one of Ireland’s most distinguished poets. He’s a member of the Aosdána, an affiliation of artists whose election is based on a distinguished, creative and considerable body of work. He read from his new book The White Silhouette. Here is an extended quote from his Book Of Kells series of poems, this section dealing with Gerald of Wales, Geraldus Cambrensis, who comes to see the book.

Beauty is not so much a thing

as a moment, unrepeatable,

although the moment needs the thing

as a flame needs a wick

or images a page.

Or it’s a streak of lightning

connecting heaven to earth

whereby in a flash we breathe

the enormity of something Other

beyond our tiny grasping selves

and fill our lungs with it,

before the dark returns again.

The soul expands with beauty –

it cannot help itself; our task in life

is to prevent it shrinking back.

Janet Murren’s Creaky Stairs. I love her multi-layered atmospheric constructions

Coming Home

It may seem strange to commemorate ‘The Great Hunger’ – the Irish famine years of 1845 – 1849 – with an art exhibition. Yet, when we look back on that time, 170 years ago, the only possible reaction to the starvation, mass graves and wholesale emigration which happened within the boundaries of the great British Empire (and not too far from its capital) is raw emotion: it’s a subject that can’t be intellectualised. The 1.4m high work above, by bog oak sculptor Kieran Tuohy from County Galway, is an example of an emotional response: hands hold up a group of anonymous and vulnerable figures.

John Coll’s piece, Famine Funeral (above), is also evocative. The exhibition at Uillinn in Skibbereen opened on Thursday and attracted a large and excited crowd; since then, record numbers of visitors have come daily to the town’s iconic gallery. The work is all from Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, which has the largest collection of Great Hunger-related art, and will be shown here in West Cork until 13 October.

Skibbereen was one of Ireland’s worst affected towns during the famine years, which makes the visit of this exhibition entirely appropriate. It has shown that our gallery is able to display a collection such as this of the highest calibre, giving the community an asset unique in rural Ireland. All credit must go to the Director, the staff and the Board of the West Cork Arts Centre who have worked hard to raise funds and make all this possible. Also Cork County Council have to be commended for finishing off the flood relief works and the associated landscaping around the gallery in time for the opening: Uillinn now features a significant architectural setting in the town centre. The photographs above were taken outside and inside the building on opening night.

With some exceptions (Glenna Goodacre’s bronze – Famine – is one, above), I am only showing extracts from the works in this review. The whole exhibition is so powerful that it has to be seen in real life, so I’m hoping that these tasters will persuade you to visit.

The artist Micheal Farrell (1940 – 2000) is well represented in the Quinnipiac Museum and some of his works have come to Skibbereen, including the enormous Black ’47 (4.5m wide and 3m high) a detail of which is shown in the upper picture above, with a detail from The Wounded Wonder below it. The Irish Times described Farrell’s largest work:

. . . Farrell’s canvas seems to float on a wall by itself in the museum. It is the trial of Charles Trevelyan, the British official who was in charge of Famine relief. Trevelyan stands in a searchlight shaft, a hand on one hip, embodying the arrogance of empire. The prosecutor gestures towards Irish skeletons rising from an open grave, evidence against the man who called the Famine “the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence” and a “mechanism for reducing surplus population” . . .

Dorothy Cross – Basking Shark Curragh (a comment on the vulnerability of Irish coastal communities in famine times) with Micheal Farrell’s The Wounded Wonder and Kieran Tuohy’s Thank You to the Choctaw beyond.

Also extracts: the upper image is from a powerful bronze work – The Leave-Taking by Margaret Lyster Chamberlain – and the lower image is part of The Last Visit by Pádraic Reaney.

Lilian Lucy Davidson’s Gorta (upper image) and Hughie O’Donoghue’s On Our Knees (lower) are both powerful statements on hunger and our own attitudes to the problems of the contemporary world.

At the opening of Coming Home – Art and The Great Hunger – Cyril Thornton, Chairman of the West Cork Arts Centre made the following observations:

. . . We are formed by our memories, experiences, the voices of our ancestors carried through the ages that carry into the soul of who we are. When we refuse to listen to the voices of the past or learn from our ancestor’s achievements and mistakes we lose a piece of our soul.

In a world that appears to becoming more soulless and intolerant it is now more important than ever to shine a light on our past for another generation, not to blame or recriminate but to help them to shape a world where humanity will never accept that injustice, poverty or hunger can be imposed on those in need of support.

The memory of the death of over 1 million people and the subsequent emigration of another 1.5 million defines us as a nation. The bringing home of this exhibition in many ways is a cultural reconnection. Art in all its form captures emotions and feelings, this exhibition in so many ways captures the tragic emotion of An Gorta Mór – The Great Hunger . . .

Detail from William Oliver Williams The Irish Piper 1874. Although painted after the ravages of The Great Famine this picture is said to imply that, despite hardship, the joyful side of Irish life was always irrepressible . . . whatever the occasion there was music and dancing . . . Below – powerful juxtaposition: a Rowan Gillespie figure seen against West Cork artist William Crozier’s Rainbow’s End.