We spent yesterday afternoon at the Echoes Festival in Dalkey, a celebration of the life and work of Maeve Binchy and her impact on Irish writing. Maeve, who died in 2012, was universally beloved, and nowhere more so than in my house. You see, Maeve was a great friend to my mother, the writer Lilian Roberts Finlay (that’s the two of them, above at the Vancouver Writers’ Festival). As a writer, Lilian was nowhere near as successful as Maeve but that didn’t matter to Maeve. She was supportive and generous and encouraging and caring: when we cleaned out Lilian’s house we found notes and cards from Maeve, always cheerful and positive.
Lilian and Maeve shared a stage at the Vancouver Writer’s Festival in 1998 and I think every Irish person in Vancouver was at their talk, including a huge contingent from the Irish Women’s Network. It was a great success – Lilian (below) was a superb reader of her own stories (that time in the Abbey School of Acting had not been wasted) and Maeve was, well, wonderful.
Maeve and Gordon invited Lilian and me to lunch with them at their hotel – this lunch will live in my memory forever because it confirmed what everyone always says about Maeve: she was, in person, exactly as you imagine her to be – kind, funny, fascinating, witty and incredibly warm. She and Gordon were sweet and loving with each other, with lots of banter to make us all laugh and keep the talk flowing. Because we proudly claim Maeve for Ireland, we forget that the rest of the world loved her too and often read her in translation. Maeve was huge in North America – here’s the photo by Derek Speirs that accompanied her obit in the New York Times.
The Echoes Festival afternoon we attended was a forceful reminder of what a powerhouse Maeve was in Irish writing. The discussions were wide-ranging and focused on her influence on contemporary novel-writing – her insistence on using her own voice, on being authentically Irish and never pandering to those who might not understand our idiom, on allowing Irish girls and women to see their own lives on the page.
Moderator Caroline Erskine with Turtle Bunbury, Rachael English, Caelainn Hogan and Phil Mullen
Phil Mullen read her own story about stealing the pennies for the Black Babies, and we all nodded along in recognition, even as were were appalled at her treatment in the industrial school where she grew up. A lighter note was struck by Maeve’s cousin, Gillian Binchy, about her Communion Dress – a story worthy of Maeve herself.
Maeve wrote for and about women (write what you know was one of her mantras, a maxim she spun into very funny anecdotes about not writing about orgies) and one of the sessions fittingly took shape around the secrets and shame faced by Irish women in the 20th century.
At Echoes in 2017, Margaret Kelleher, UCD professor of Anglo-Irish literature and drama, said that close study of Binchy’s writing suggests she will be regarded as a “key witness and chronicler of Irish life in the last decades of the 20th century and the first decade of the next”.
Róisín Ingle (left) moderated a discussion with (l to r) Sarah Maria Griffin, Anna Carey and Chris Binchy
All the speakers, writers, readers and moderators were excellent. We’re already planning to attend the full event next year. And – can we say – this was our first live-audience indoor event in almost two years. Tickets were limited to ensure social distancing, and we wore masks throughout, but oh my goodness how great it felt to be part of a live event again!
This post might also have been called A Monument to Imprudence because of the story which it encompasses. But, first and foremost, it is a bit of an architectural wonder, and certainly worth the deviation from the motorway if you are travelling between Cork County and Dublin. It will add only 20 minutes to your journey – plus however long you decide to spend walking the publicly accessible woodland to discover the nineteenth-century extravagances of Arthur Kiely, Esq. Leaving the M8 motorway at Fermoy, head east towards Lismore on the R666: you will reach a car park and trailhead for Ballysaggartmore on the left within half an hour. After your visit, find the R668 heading north and rejoin the M8 at Cahir.
We felt we were capturing the last of the summer as we embarked on the beautiful sunlit trails on the first day of October in this Covid laden year. We were convinced that a week or so later we would be feeling the first cool winds of autumn and undoubtedly be noticing the changing hues in the ash, beech and oak tracts of the Ballysaggartmore Demense. The name in Irish – Baile na Sagart – means ‘Priests’ Town’. I cannot find out which priest is being remembered here, but – as you will see – there is some local lore which mentions a priest – and also Kiely, the unpopular local landlord.
These extracts from the c1840 first edition 6″ Ordnance Survey maps show parts of the Ballysaggartmore Demense. In the upper plan, a house can be seen, probably newly built at the time of the survey. Nothing remains of it now, but some photographs exist, dating from 1904.
It’s time to piece together what can be found on the history of the place and its people. The first Kiely – John – purchased some 8,500 acres of land here in the late 1700s. He had two sons. On the senior John’s death in 1808 the elder brother – also John – inherited good lands at Strancally, on the Blackwater River, and proceeded to build an imposing castle there. The younger son – Arthur – had to make do with the less propitious lands around Ballysaggartmore, and built the modest house pictured above, but apparently harboured notions to match John Junior’s aspirations, embarking on a grand design to upgrade the property, starting with a splendid carriage drive and gatehouse which survives today near the beginning of our walk in the woods.
. . . Sir, Permit me through the medium of the Dublin Penny Journal an opportunity of giving the public a brief description of the situation and scenery of Ballysaggartmore, the much improved residence of Arthur Keiley, Esq, situate one mile west of Lismore, on the north side of the river Blackwater. The porter’s lodge at the entrance to the avenue is composed of cut mountain granite or free stone, of a whitish colour, variegated with a brownish strata, which gives the whole a rich and pleasing appearance; it consists of a double rectangular building, in the castellated style, flanked by a round tower at either end, through which is a passage and carriage-way of twelve feet in the centre, over which is a perpendicular pointed arch, enriched with crockets and terminated with a finial; the buildings at either side of the gateway, although similar, form a variety in themselves; and the situation is so disposed as not to be seen until very near the approach; the gate is composed of wrought and cast iron; and is, I will venture to assert, the most perfect gothic structure formed principally of wrought iron, in the kingdom. It was executed by a native mechanic, and cost about one hundred and fifty pounds . . .
Dublin Penny Journal, December 1834
The ambitions of Arthur Kiely knew no bounds. Egged on by his wife, jealous of her in-law’s estate at Strancally, he continued the carriage drive (today a further part of the picturesque walking trail) towards a humble stream which had to be crossed in order to reach the vicinity of the house which was to be upgraded to – or replaced by – something of suitable substance. The stream could easily have been culverted but no! Only an ornate neo-Gothic three-arched bridge with gate-houses at either end and surmounted by towers and pinnacles would do: a prelude, presumably, to the architectural magnificence that was being planned beyond.
At the same time as directing the building project, Arthur decided that a change of name would be advantageous. Something double-barrelled was called for, and he chose to add Ussher, a family name derived from ancestors on his mother’s side. Arthur Kiely-Ussher certainly has a ring to it. Arthur’s ambitious wife was born Elizabeth Martin of Ross House, Co Galway. Always on the look-out for a West Cork connection, I can tell you that the author Violet Martin was a great-niece of Elizabeth. Violet lived in Castletownshend and famously collaborated with Edith Somerville.
The gate-lodge and ‘Towers’ of Ballysaggartmore are remarkable survivors, and represent the sum total of Arthur’s striving to equal his brother’s show of opulence. After the extraordinary towered bridge the carriage drive peters out, and one assumes the money also dissipated. Kiely-Ussher attempted to revive the fortunes of his estate but this centred on evicting tenants in time of scarcity, which only resulted in the lands becoming less productive. The family lived through the famine but were considered notoriously bad landlords. In the 1850s Ballysaggartmore Demense was virtually bankrupt: the house was sold in 1861 and Arthur himself died shortly afterwards.
Like many another bad landlord, Arthur Kiely-Ussher has entered into folklore. It’s worth reading this lengthy entry from the Duchas Schools Folklore Collection – a superb tale of just retribution being visited on the memory of – not one – but three ghastly incarnations of a man who probably wished to be well remembered, but failed catastrophically.
. , . In Ballysagart there lived three landlords named Ussher Kiely. The three of them were brothers and they were all called Ussher. They were terrible tyrants and they evicted people every time they got the chance, and allowed no one near their land. Of the many stories told about their cruelty here is one: On Ussher’s land there is a Spring well. A very old, goodliving woman lived near the place. One day she had no water. The nearest place she could get water was the well, which was in a field behind her house, but Ussher allowed no one near the land. The neighbours always brought her a churn of water from the Blackwater, but this day she had no one to get it for her. As the Blackwater (which was two miles away) was too far for her to walk, she thought there would be no harm in going to the well for once. When she was bending down to fill her gallon in the well she heard a shout behind her; “Get away from that well and get off my land you cursed wretch. How dare a dying old hag like you interfere with my water or dirty my land with those rotten feet of yours”. It was the eldest Ussher and he made her throw back the water and he threatened to beat her if she did not get off his land immediately. She obeyed and when she was out of his sight she knelt down and cursed him saying “O God, may the brothers of this man, Ussher, who hunted me away without a drop of water, be at his funeral before the year is out, and may he grow silly and his tongue hang out of his head so that he cannot offend you again”. Another woman cursed him saying “May you die in agony, you tyrant”. Before the year was out he grew silly, and he had to be sent to a home where he died in terrible agony. His body is still to be seen in Ballysaggart where his body is embalmed in glass. His mouth is to be seen wide open and his tongue is hanging out and is as black as soot. Another of the Ussher Kielys saw a man crossing his land. He brought out his gun and threatened to blow the man’s legs from under him. The man who was only going home said “Ussher Kiely, I was walking on this land before you and I’ll be walking on it after you, so why don’t you shoot me”. Ussher put away the gun and never used it again. A few days later he complained of pains and only lived two hours. He was embalmed in glass and laid by his elder brothers side. The third Ussher Kiely was worse than the others. Every night a man used to bring cattle on Ussher’s land to graze. Ussher heard of this and one night he lay in wait and without warning shot the man. When the people heard of the shooting they piled curses on Ussher. A few days passed since the shooting when a priest was walking on Usshers land. He was reading his ‘Office’ when he met Ussher. Ussher cursed him and called him every name he could think of as well as ordering him off the land. “All right”, said the priest, “I’ll go off the land, but mark my words, tyrants like you never live a long life”. Two hours later the last of the Kielys dropped dead. The three brothers are to be seen, embalmed in glass lying side by side in a small graveyard in Ballysagart . . . Mr Tom O’Donnel told me these stories – Tom Conway
Duchas Schools Folklore Collection, Volume 0637
If you would like to read in greater detail the fortunes and fall of Arthur Kiely-Ussher I commend you to the excellent account by The Irish Aesthete. The ‘modest’ house at Ballysaggartmore was burned down during the Irish Civil War, obliterating its physical history and committing its memories to fascinating folk recollection. We are fortunate, nevertheless, that we may freely wander a trail and reminisce on misfortune. And justice.
There is a centre of Buddhism on the Beara Peninsula: we visited it for the first time during the week. It is very beautifully situated on the coast south of Allihies. You only have to look at the photograph above, taken at the centre, to realise that the location is a very important aspect of the whole project.
Sa Che or Tibetan Geomancy is the analysis of the earth — including water, space, air, light, trees, garden and home. The principles of Sa Che are to bring harmony and equilibrium, both in the natural environment and within the being, affording good health, wealth and enjoyment. These benefits flow on to our relationships and lifestyle –
Pure Land Farms, California
I am using the aerial view, above, courtesy of Dzogchen Beara Tibetan Buddhist Retreat Centre. All the buildings in the lower part of the picture are within the centre, which was founded by Sogyal Rinpoche in 1987. On the lower right is The Spiritual Care Centre – opened by Ireland’s President, Mary McAleese in 2007 – which provides a safe and supportive environment for people living with a life-altering illness, recovering from treatment, facing the end of their life or experiencing bereavement, as well as their families, loved ones and others who care for them. It’s a special, culturally significant place – and you can see how its siting takes the fullest advantage of the impressive scenery.
That’s a Tibetan geomancy chart, above (courtesy of The Wellcome Foundation). It is traditionally used to work out how and where you should build your house – or any important structure: as you can see there is a Zodiac at its heart. As an architectural student back in the 1960s I was fascinated by this concept – then popularly termed Feng Shui – we all were. Throughout my working life I was always seeking to justify my clients’ demands to build in a certain place or in a certain way; I wince, today, when I see the building processes we have here in Ireland – our countryside is ravaged, in my view, by the excavator and the rock-breaker carving out great flat platforms whereon are placed ‘anywhere style’ bungalows or houses, rather than structures which try to flow and blend into the uneven natural landscapes. But I’d better get off my high horse, I suppose. This Buddhist centre on the Beara is an excellent example of buildings ‘fitting in’ to their surroundings.
Anyone can visit the centre: it has an excellent cafe which enjoys the unparalleled views, for a start, but there are gardens and grounds to wander around, and many events which everyone can attend: keep an eye on the website.
This shows one of the meditation rooms (courtesy of Dzogchen Beara Tibetan Buddhist Retreat Centre), with Pi Jun Taiwa in meditative posture. Below is a satellite image of the site showing its proximity to the coast and, below that, an extract from the 1840 OS map. I was intrigued to know what the buildings are that are shown occupying the site in those times. I have been unable to find the answer but wonder if they were connected to mining: the great copper-mining centre of Allihies is situated inland from here, but there are said to be ore-bearing lodes at Dooneen point, south-west of the new Centre.
An exciting venture happening at Dzogchen Beara right now is the construction of the first Buddhist temple in Ireland! It’s a relatively long-term project – with progress held up by the Covid crisis. But we saw it under way and it promises to be an impressive modern building based in Tibetan tradition.
The site of the temple was consecrated in 2010 with a sacred fire ceremony. I was intrigued to read that the curving overhanging roofs are to be constructed from ‘Nordic Royal Copper’, a specially developed alloy containing zinc and aluminium: this should ensure that the copper retains its shining colour through all weathers: a traditional copper roof would become dulled and turn green after a few years. Instead, the roofs of this temple will shine like the ‘Beacon of Wisdom and Compassion’ that the architect imagined. At present, the building works are still very much in their unadorned basic form, but moving forward (below).
The Centre grounds already display a traditional ‘Stupa’. Originally, stupas stared out as sacred mounds or domes which were used to house the relics of the Buddha. Now they are symbolic structures which give special significance to their location, as here. They are always decorated with colourful prayer flags which serve to bless the surroundings. I can’t help seeing these flags in the same light as ‘rag trees’ often found by holy wells in Ireland. The processional way to the stupa is lined with tall prayer banners. And the whole stupa site also enjoys the wonderful views to the ocean.
The year continues to pour down on us glorious golden days – and we embrace them. Our journey to the Beara was memorable, and I have no doubt that we will be calling into the Dzogchen Centre on many future occasions: I certainly want to keep an architectural eye on the progress of the temple. By the way, an apt translation of Dzogchen is “great perfection”.
It was a magical experience – kayaking at night on Castlehaven Inlet!
Wait – what? At night? Yes – of course kayaking in West Cork is wonderful at any time but at night it takes on a special aura, helped out by the silky darkness and the silence. I went with Atlantic Sea Kayaking, the company run by the genial Jim Kennedy. I’d been with him once before, on Lough Hyne – that was way back in 2014 and was one of the highlights of my year. I wrote about that incredible trip in Starlight Bliss. This trip was equally as amazing.
We gathered at 7 at Reen Pier in Castlehaven Inlet. This is a very professional outfit – we were all shapes and sizes but soon everyone was kitted out in waterproof trousers and jackets. Then it was time for a quick lesson on how to hold the paddle and what not to do, reassurance on how stable and safe the kayaks are, and before we knew it there we were gently floating in the gathering gloaming.
Lucky me got to sit in the front of Declan Power’s kayak. He was one of our two guides and has years of experience doing this, but it doesn’t seemed to have dimmed his enjoyment and wonder. If I hadn’t already been excited, I would have been infected by his own contagious enthusiasm. It was still fairly light so we paddled down to Castletownshend, getting used to the paddles and the kayaks and our eyes adjusting to the fading light. Rosie, the other guide, brought up the rear and made sure were were all accounted for.
Declan knows his history and as we rafted up alongside Castletownsend Castle he told us about the area and about the families that had moved here after Cromwell. It’s a very special village, with interesting architecture, famous families, and, crowning glory, Harry Clarke windows in St Barrahane’s Church of Ireland. That’s his St Barrahane, below.
By now it was getting properly dark. Declan and Rosie turned on their helmet lights and we headed back up the inlet. We steered towards the far bank, where overhanging trees blocked out any residual light from the sky. First, Declan encouraged us all to be still and just listen – to the silence. The rooks, noisily cawing earlier, had settled down into their rookery for the evening and there wasn’t a sound. We felt enveloped in peace.
Declan broke the silence by asking us to trail our hands in the water and there was a collective intake of breath. Everywhere our hands dipped and splashed sparkles began to skip across the water. It was the bioluminescence that this area is known for! Like fireflies, marine organisms such as plankton emit light when disturbed. The sea is teeming with tiny fish, bacteria, algae, worms, crustaceans. . . all with the chemicals necessary for bioluminescence. And they seem to love West Cork!
So there we were, gliding through the velvet black waters, surrounded by fireworks. There wasn’t much chat – everyone was lost in their own experience of dipping and gently splashing and watching as flashing droplets raced away from our hulls and paddles.
Declan – thank you for this once-in-a-lifetime experience!
I’ve lived back in West Cork now for almost ten years and we’ve done so much in that time. And yet there are still experiences to be had that leave you in joyful wonderment and asking the Old Gods – how did I get to be living this life?
“I’ve found a funny rock carving and a friend told me to ring you” – that’s my favourite type of call to get! It doesn’t always work out: sometimes the marks are machine-made, or a natural geological feature of the rock. But the anticipation is always there that this time it will be the real thing.
And it was! Our caller was John Minihane, a retired harbour master and a Harley enthusiast, living in a beautiful traditional farmhouse near Union Hall, once the home of his grandmother. He had been tidying up the back garden and pulled ivy off what seemed to be just a big rock in a bank separating his property from a neighbours. It turned out to be a standing stone with prehistoric rock art on it.
Not all rock art is spectacular – some of it can be underwhelming, consisting of only a few cupmarks. Take a look at some of our previous posts on rock art (C2 on our Navigation Page) to see some of the examples, from simple to complex, we have written about. The one (below) is possibly one of the most iconic pieces of rock art in Ireland – it’s from Derrynablaha in Kerry.
This photograph (above) shows the rock art panel in its location, high in the Kerry Mountains, overlooking a beautiful valley and lake. The image is by Ken Williams, used with his permission. Ken is Ireland premier photographer of archaeological subjects – read more about him here or better yet visit his amazing website.
The latest thinking about Atlantic Rock Art (it occurs all down the Atlantic Coast, from Portugal to Scotland) is that it is Neolithic – that is, about 5,000 years old. In its elemental, form, the humble cupmark, it persists into the Bronze Age, sometimes occurring on Wedge Tombs and Boulder Burials. So this standing stone, with cupmarks and grooves, might be anywhere from 5,000 to 2,500 years old.
Most rock art is found on bedrock (like Derreennaclogh, above) or earth-fast boulders, but in West Cork, we do have other examples of rock art on standing stones. Two can be found about 9km east near Rosscarbery, both in the townland of Burgatia and both with cupmarks and cup-and-ring marks. Another is located on the townland boundary between Knockanoulty and Barnabah, about 14km to the SW. I’ve shown that one below, both as a photograph and as a drawing.
When I was a student (back in the dawn of time) and recording rock art, the conventional method was to chalk in the carvings, trace it all on to clear film, re-trace it in paper using Indian ink, and then have that photographically reduced. That’s how I produced the drawings above. Robert has used his architectural drafting skills to produce drawings more recently – below is his rendering of the cupmarked stone a local farmer showed us quite near where we live.
Mostly, nowadays, archaeologists favour techniques that do not interfere with the rock surface, and that usually means a photographic technique known as photogrammetry. The idea is to take lots of photos (150 in this case), moving at a steady rate and distance across the surface of the rock, load these into a program that can create a 3D image, and see what comes out.
We are very grateful to Nick Hogan of the University College Cork Department of Archaeology who used their sophisticated software to create the 3D image. It’s been fun to play with the files he sent us, which are the best way of seeing what’s actually on the rock surface.
You can set up a grid, or rotating axes, and turn the model so that the light hits it in different ways. This can help you to discern small cupmarks that don’t show up well in photographs. In the case of this rock, the thing that was hard to make out was the exact shape of the groove, and the 3D model shows this up well. If you turn it sideways it looks like an owl – but this is purely a chance occurrence – this art was strictly non-representational (although there’s a chance we might find a deer or an axe some day, but that’s another story).
It’s always exciting to find a genuine piece of undiscovered archaeology! Thank you, John Minihane, for inviting us over to see your find and allowing us to record it. And thank you, Nick Hogan for the 3D modelling. A most satisfying project all round.
Nine beans rows will I have there, and a piece of prehistoric rock art!
Finola and I went to a workshop on creative fused-and-painted glass. It was wonderful! We were guinea-pigs in that the glass artist – Angela Brady– was keen to try running an event and we were privileged to be invited, joining our friends Brian and Clair Lalor.
Top: that’s Angela introducing us to the medium of glass and showing us some of her own work. Centre: she’s encouraging Brian to turn his artist’s mind to the possibilities of the material. Above: Angela Brady and Robin Mallalieu (who are also architects) have taken over the former Brush Fire Pottery, just outside Ballydehob. This was the home and workplace of dynamic artists John and Noelle Verling, who bought the Gurteenakilla premises in 1973 and lived and worked there for very many years. John died in 2009 and Noelle now lives not too far away. To spend the workshop day in such hallowed surroundings added to the ambience, and could only have inspired us in our artistic endeavours!
Back in the 1960s – the heyday of the Ballydehob Artists’ community – the pottery at Gurteenakilla was established by Christa Reichel who – together with her partner Nora Golden – went on to set up the Flower House on the main street in the village as a gallery and meeting place for the artists. They painted the vivid facade of the Flower House (the photo below dates from 1963, and is reproduced with the permission of Andrew Street): similar decorations were applied to the Brush Fire studio, where they survived and are now being restored by Angela and Robin.
Below the Flower House picture is Nora Golden outside the studio at Gurteenakilla; and here are pics of Robin painting the studio building, and Angela’s restoration of the Reichel / Golden decorations. But back to the job in hand: in these venerable surroundings we learned how to cut glass, paint on it and prepare pieces for the kiln. We all had our own ideas: Finola and I decided to paint glass tiles with ancient motifs: Rock Art from Ireland and Scandinavia, some thousands of years old. Brian chose to use cut glass to enhance one of his exquisite sketches, while Clair was perhaps the most ambitious, planning a flower from cut pieces of glass which would require two sessions in the kiln to allow it to be ‘slumped’ to a three-dimensional shape. My view is that all the pieces were equally successful in their execution (but I am prejudiced!)
Top: Angela instructs Finola in the technique of cutting glass shapes, although Finola chose to use glass paint to reproduce some of her own Rock Art images traced during her studies in the 1970s. Above: Clair cuts and assembles a flower shape.
Top: my own pieces: on the left are attendants pushing the sun across the sky, while on the right is a ship carrying souls to the land of the Gods under a potent sun. All these Bronze Age images are found in Norway. Above, Brian working on his cut-glass sketch.
Artists at work in the studio – and the kiln room at Brush Fire. Before going in the kiln, we laminated our pieces with additional glass, to provide a stable background and – in some instances – colour. The firing is carried out overnight at a temperature of at least 760 degrees C. During that time the glass fuses and – hopefully – does not crack.. Angela was firing some of her own pieces at the same time: if you went to the West Cork Createsexhibition in Skibbereen during August of this year you would have seen many examples of Angela’s brilliant work, together with the work of other artists using glass as a medium.
In Angela’s studio are many reminders of past times. John and Noelle Verling specialised in fish imagery – here’s the Brush Fire Ceramics sign that they made back in the day (above – since presented by Noelle to the Ballydehob Arts Museum), while above that is one of Angela’s glass pieces which pays due respect to her predecessors at Brush Fire. Below is a quirky example of Angela’s experimentation: she collected some interestingly shaped bottles from the recycling centre, and fused them together in the kiln:
The following day, Angela took our pieces out of the kiln once it had cooled, and washed them (above). Then we assembled at Nead an Iolair for the reveal. Thank you to Robin for the photos. Clair’s work had to be refired to allow it to ‘slump’, so that was unveiled later on.
Pieces (top to bottom) by Brian, Finola and myself. And – to finish as we started – Clair’s magnificent flower – before and after the second firing! Thank you to Angela for enabling each one of us to experience this most satisfying process. We would all like to take part again another day – and expand our new-found skills!
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