Getting Into the Art!

Uillinn – the West Cork Arts Centre gallery in Skibbereen – has just opened its first exhibition of 2020. It’s a riot! I have seldom seen such enthusiasm in an art show from the lively crowd who had gathered for the launch event, billed as an indoor picnic.

We went along, and were delighted. It’s advertised as an exhibition for children: take no notice of that! Just go and join in the fray – we all have a child in us. And it is a fray, in that it’s totally participatory. You can’t avoid taking apart everything you see, and putting it all back together however you want to. How amazing, to be encouraged – no, commanded – to get involved and act out the child. I wish I could show you the expressions of delight on the faces of all the ‘real’ children who were there, but today’s privacy laws mean that we can’t publish those. Instead, through some skilful juxtaposing and a little bit of PhotoShop, we hope that we can get across the sheer exuberance of all the activity.

The ground floor gallery was full of shapes – many recognisable, some abstract – all brightly coloured, attractive and tactile. Each one could easily be a piece of ‘modern art’. The fun comes when you realise they can all be taken apart and put back together in unlimited combinations. There are no restrictions: everything has hooks, slots, sockets. This is your chance – everybody’s chance – to build sculptures, make murals, hang things on walls (or on each other!). There’s not a single Do Not Touch sign anywhere . . . Imagine the excitement!

If you wanted to, you could enter the exhibition through a tunnel – it looked invitingly organic, if not somewhat anatomical. You were disgorged into a forest of sweets hanging on strings. Towards the end of the afternoon there were lots of empty strings and very few sweets. But, surely, that’s what it’s all about: consuming the art; embracing it, encountering it, making of it what you will.

It was interesting for us to note tidy-minded adults busily untangling the hanging strings, while their offspring revelled in getting them as muddled as possible. Meanwhile, we overheard a fraught parent exclaiming “I can’t believe you just ate the art!”

Art in Action is the brainchild of a group of Polish artists, and was first curated at the Municipal Art Center, Pomorska, Gorzów in 2019, with the intention of travelling on to Skibbereen. One of those artists, Tomasz Madajczak, has been based in Ireland since 2003, and has contributed to previous exhibitions at Uillinn. He provided the liaison between the two arts centres which resulted in this collaboration. He seemed completely at home among the exhibits:

I need to persuade you all to visit this exhibition, so I won’t give away too much in this little preview. I will just mention the upstairs galleries, where some ingenious devices are available to ensure full interaction between art and spectators, including a modern take on the epidiascope (remember those? – you will if you are anywhere near my age!), pop guns for shooting down technological detritus, and over-aweing human voice amplification. Here are some further images to whet your appetites . . .

Don’t be shy about coming into this show and being part of the action! That’s exactly what it’s there for. All the better if you can bring along a group of children – or aim to be there when there are children in the gallery: the Arts Centre has a continuing programme of involving schools and other community groups. It’s the children, particularly, who will show you what being uninhibited means.

Art in Action is on at Uillinn, Skibbereen until 22 February 2020. It is curated by Bartosz Nowak, with work by Basia Bańda + Tomasz Relewicz, Ewa Bone + Ewa Kozubal, Tomasz Madajczak, Krzysztof Matuszak, Aleksandra Ska and Hubert Wińczyk. Open Monday to Saturday, 10.00am to 4.45pm daily. Special thanks must go to Uillinn’s Director, Ann Davoran, and her technical team for bringing this show to fruition, with special mention to Ballydehob’s Stephen Canty – who solves every problem! Uillinn receives financial support from the Arts Council and Cork County Council.

William Trevor’s Skibbereen – “The Back of Beyond”

Yellow furniture vans – Nat Ross of Cork – carted your possessions off, through Cork itself, westward through the town that people call “Clonakilty God Help Us”, to Skibbereen, the back of beyond . . .

William Trevor, one of Ireland’s most celebrated writers of short stories and novels, grew up in Skibbereen. His father worked for the Bank of Ireland, and the family was frequently moved to pastures new, but Trevor’s memories of our own West Cork town are amongst his earliest, encompassing his first schooldays and all the traumas of that ‘learning experience’.

Where and when did my writing life begin? I suppose it was in a small schoolroom in Skibbereen when, as an alternative to parsing and analysis, I was occasionally required to compose six sentences on such random subjects as A Wet Afternoon or A Day in the Life of a Dog. I did my best, but even at seven I believe I probably guessed that there was more to words and what you did with them than recording rainfall or reporting that our smooth-haired fox terrier was infatuated by our cat . . .

The way to school? Bridge Street, Skibbereen today. William Trevor’s family lived a mile and a half out of town, so we are not really sure what path his daily journey took

William Trevor was born in Mitchelstown, County Cork, in 1928, and moved to the town before he began to go to school, so he would have known what the Skibbereen of the 1930s looked like. He provides wonderfully descriptive word-pictures of his memories of the time in Excursions in the Real World, autobiographical sketches published in 1993 but now out of print. I have used some of his descriptions from this work and others from various sources – including a 2001 school exam paper – to make a narrative in his own words. I have illustrated this with some of my own present day images of the town, and some historic material. In fact I have as yet found no photographs from 1930s Skibb! But – reading between his lines (and, remember, he was renowned as a storyteller) – we can get a good feel for the place and those times.

A bit too early for William Trevor . . . This photograph of the Square with the Maid of Erin statue was taken in 1912. It has in fact changed very little even in the present day: the statue has been moved backwards but the visible buildings (that’s the Post Office in the background) are recognisable, so this is a good picture of what the writer is likely to have seen

My world at that time was not extensive. There was memory, as far back as it would go, and the modest reality of Skibbereen, which afterwards became memory also. A mile and a half it was, the journey to school, past Driscoll’s sweetshop and Murphy’s Medical Hall, and Power’s drapery, where you could buy oilcloth as well as dresses. Pots of geraniums nestled among chops and ribs in butchers’ windows. A sunburnt poster advertised the arrival of Duffy’s Circus a year ago. Horses trudged slowly, carts laden with a single churn for the creamery. On fair-days, farmers stood stoically by their animals, hoping for the best; there was a smell of whiskey and sawdust and stout . . .

This photo of Main Street was taken before the Maid of Erin statue was moved – and while Skibereen’s main streets were two-way (and also while sign-posts were still in miles)- so it must be pre-1988

In the town’s approximate centre, where four streets meet, a grey woman still stands, a statue of the Maid of Erin. E O’Donovan, undertaker, still sells ice-cream and chocolate. The brass plate of Redmond O’Regan, solicitor, once awkwardly high, is now below eye-level. In the grocers’ shops the big-jawed West Cork women buy bread and sausages and tins of plums, but no longer wear the heavy black cloaks that made them seem like figures from another century. They still speak in the same West Cork lisp, a lingering careful voice, never in a hurry. I ask one if she could tell me the way to a house I half-remember. “Ah, I could tell you grand,” she replies. “It’s dead and buried, sir.”

Extract from the 6″ Ordnance Survey map showing Skibbereen town centre during the first half of the twentieth century. The Station and railway to Baltimore can be seen on the left (it closed in 1961); the Bank of Ireland where Trevor’s father worked is outlined in blue, and Trevor went to a school that was ‘next to the Methodist Church’ – outlined in pink. Note the ‘Urinal’ usefully marked on the map!

You made the journey home again at three, the buying and selling over, the publican’s takings safely banked, the last of the dung sliding to the gutters. If you had money you spent it on liquorice pipes or stuff for making lemonade that was delicious if you ate it as it was. The daughters of Power’s drapery sometimes had money. But they were always far ahead, on bicycles because they were well-to-do. Or their mother drove them home in the Hillman car because of the dung.

Upper – the Maid of Erin statue and the Town Hall clock tower, both familiar elements in the Sklibbereen streetscape, both in William Trevor’s time, and today. Lower – the facade of the Methodist Church still stands, although the building was converted to a restaurant in 2005. Trevor’s school adjoined the church, although we are not sure on which side

The door beside the Methodist church, once green, is purple. The church, small and red-brick, stands behind high iron railings and gates, with gravel in front of it. Beyond the door that used to be green is the dank passage that leads to Miss Willoughby’s schoolroom, where first I learnt that the world is not an easy-going place. Miss Willoughby was stern and young, in love with the cashier from the Provincial Bank. Like the church beside her schoolroom, she was a Methodist and there burnt in her breast an evangelical spirit which stated that we, her pupils, except for her chosen few, must somehow be made less wicked than we were. Her chosen few were angels of a kind, their handwriting blessed, their compositions a gift from God. I was not one of them . . .

Upper – an anonymous building stands at the back of the former Methodist church – a possible site for Miss Willoughby’s school? Lower – the impressively gaunt Bank of Ireland building in Skibbereen – unchanged externally since William’s father worked there. Although we know that his father became a Bank Manager in his career, it probably wasn’t when he was in Skibbereen, otherwise William would have lived with the family in the rooms above the bank. Instead, we know that he walked a mile and a half to school in the town

On the gravel in front of the red-brick church, I vividly recall Miss Willoughby. Terribly, she appears. Severe, and beautiful, she pedals against the wind on her huge black bicycle. ‘Someone laughed during prayers,’ her stern voice accuses, and you feel at once that it was you, although you know it wasn’t. V poor she writes in your headline book when you’ve done your best to reproduce, four times, perfectly, Pride goeth before destruction. As I stand on the gravel, her evangelical eyes seem again to dart over me without pleasure. Once I took the valves out of the tyres of her bicycle. Once I looked in her answer book. ‘Typical,’ her spectre says. ‘Typical, to come prying.’ I am late. I am stupid. I cannot write twenty sentences on A Day in the Life of an Old Shoe, I cannot do simple arithmetic or geography. I am always fighting with Jasper Swanton. I move swiftly on the gravel out on to the street and into the bar of the Eldon Hotel: in spectral form or otherwise, Miss Willoughby will not be there . . .

In Shannon’s grocery there is a man who breeds smooth-haired fox-terriers. He gave us one, a strange animal, infatuated by our cat. The man was tall and thin, and behind the counter now he’s only different because he’s old. Other faces, forgotten and now remembered, are different in that way too. But Barbara, the belle of Miss Willoughby’s schoolroom, eldest daughter of Power’s drapery, is nowhere to be found. She runs a café in the main street, I’d heard, with an exotic African name, where every morning at coffee-time she presides. Perhaps I dreamed it, for the café in the main street has no name at all, and trades mundanely in lunchtime fare of stewed meat and vegetables. I peer through the window, and through the diners seated at chromium-legged tables, but the soft-haired Barbara is not there. No figure stands there as gracious as the Lady of Shallott, no face recalls the nine-year-old beauty of Class III. Can she really be one of those hurrying women with trays? A man consuming turnips wags his head at me. A message in the window says someone has found a purse . . .

William Trevor, photographed by Jerry Bauer, Bauer (1934-2010), often called “the author’s photographer,” made portraits of an endless list of writers

Biographical note – William Trevor died on 20 November 2016, aged 88. His full name was William Trevor Cox, but he always wrote under ‘William Trevor’. Although his first career was as a sculptor he is known only for his considerable literature output: he had published fifteen novels, three novellas and twelve volumes of short stories, and he won numerous awards for his work. He described the Irish family he was born into as ‘lace curtain’ middle class Protestants. He left Ireland in 1954 and spent the rest of his life in England, settling near Crediton in Devon.

With thanks to Philip O’Regan and Skibbereen Heritage Centre for alerting me to William Trevor’s local connections

Illusions fall fast in the narrow streets of Skibbereen, as elsewhere they have fallen . . .

Art, Noodles and World Championship Turnip Racing: West Cork in the Summer

We’ve been enjoying a week of laid back excursions, In Ballydehob and Skibbereen, as we take time this week to enjoy what’s around us in West Cork at this time of year.

Top, above and below from the West Cork Creates Exhibition: Alison Ospina’s chaise with Anne Kiely textiles; Angela Fewer paintings; Trees by Jim Turner and Etain Hickey

There are always excellent art exhibitions in the summer – we have written this summer already  about the always interesting Blue House Gallery and Judi Whitton’s watercolours, the marvellous art trail in the Skibbereen Arts Festival and of course the Ballydehob Arts Museum’s current exhibition, Ballydehob on Bahnhofstrasse.

This week saw the opening of what’s always eagerly anticipated – the annual West Cork Creates exhibition on Skibbereen. Curated by Alison Ospina of Greenwood Chairs, this show brings together the best of West Cork arts and crafts in an exciting mix of styles and materials.

Lots of jewellery at the exhibition and among them is this unique dresser pendant by Michael Duerden

Next to it is Geoff Greenham and Melanie Black’s Creative Spaces, a photographic journey through the studios of artists currently practising in West Cork. It’s a great idea and feels like a real privilege to catch a glimpse inside these spaces.

The two images above are borrowed, with thanks, from the Blue House Gallery, where an earlier exhibition matched the studio images with pieces of art from each artist. The first shows Brian Lalor’s studio and the second is that of John Doherty.

And yes, I thought, somehow those spaces do reflect the art that comes out of them. I’ve tried to photograph artists’ studios myself in the last couple of years, so I know how difficult it is to capture the essence.

No studio needed when you paint en plein air. This is Damaris Lysaght at work at a site we wrote about in our post Mizen Magic 13: Dunmanus Promontory

Do catch these two exhibitions if you can. Then make your way to Ballydehob and take in the new space that is the Working Artist Studios, right on the Main Street. We’ve all been looking forward to the opening of this venture, previously situated in Skibbereen but now adding to the thriving streetscape of Ballydehob.

The grand opening was well attended! (The railings are not for the WAS but for the Turnip Races, see below)

Working Artist Studio is an innovative idea that melds gallery and performance space with studios for artists at reasonable rates. Pól and Marie are bursting with ideas and plans and it’s wonderful to see this shop and house, surprisingly roomy inside, so nicely re-purposed.

The opening exhibition was by Caoimhe Pendred (above), titled Hy Brasil – her ethereal take on the notion of the mystical Isle to the West. It was opened by none other than Tim Pat Coogan (below), the Irish historian, and Caoimhe’s grandfather.

But woman cannot live on art alone, and we were delighted to welcome back Bia Rebel Ramen to our village this summer after a stint at the Taste of West Cork here a couple of years ago. Brian and Jenny have made a name for themselves with top restaurant critics as the best place in Ireland for ramen.

The truck is set up to serve the food at Levis’s Corner house. They are only here for a few more days

They normally operate out of their food truck in Belfast,  but are on ‘holidays’ in West Cork. Some holiday – they are so busy that they run out of food on a couple of hours. What can we do to entice them to stay here permanently? This is the best ramen I have ever eaten, and having lived in Vancouver (Canadian home of Japanese food) that is saying something!

Did you know that Ballydehob hosts the World Championship Turnip Races? This Irish Times article in 2006 described it, and 13 years later it’s still going strong and still great fun, with Barry O’Brien (below in the pink shirt) doing the marshalling.

And to round out my week, a major thrill. I hitched a ride on my friend Jack O’Keefe’s Drascombe Lugger as he participated in the Ballydehob Crinniú na mBád. I wrote about this wonderful event a couple of years ago, but it was a whole other experience to be out on the water with the boats as they gathered at the mouth of Ballydehob Bay and then sailed up the estuary. See Robert’s post today, Ballydehob and Boats, for some more of my photographs of this event.

All around us summer is in full swing – we have just mentioned a tiny fraction of what’s going on. Why don’t you join us next year? We can’t guarantee good weather, but you won’t be bored!

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

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!