Art and Music in a West Cork June

As a retired couple we often get asked what we find to do all day. How do you spend your time? Perhaps there’s a subtle sub-text of ‘way out there in the wilds of West Cork.’ Well, it’s only half way through the month and we have had numerous experiences already in June, including many that revolve around art and music so I thought I would highlight them in this post to give you a flavour of the Wilds

Robert has written extensively about the thriving art scene established first by the artists and hippies that made West Cork their home starting in the 60’s, a legacy that is celebrated in the Ballydehob Arts Museum. But it’s as true now as it was then and just in our small villages of Schull and Ballydehob we have been to several exhibitions over the last couple of weeks. I am always drawn to photography and I was bowled over in particular by three exhibitions. 

Oliver Nares is exhibiting at the moment in the Working Artists Studio in Ballydehob. The first three photographs in this post are his. The first two are Flutes and the one above is Tambourine. Oliver captures his images live and, as Pól Ó’Cólmán astutely noted at the opening, he photographs the music, not the musicians. Unbelievably, this is Oliver’s first ever exhibition – if the reaction is anything to go by, it won’t be his last!

Another exhibition that left me breathless was Richard Breathnach’s The Bog in the Bale at the Blue House Gallery. Everyone who comes to see this has the same reaction – what is this? An Oil Painting? An abstract? Richard’s photography, which included many many hours of lying in a bog waiting for just the right image, captures the reflections of a bog in those ubiquitous black plastic silage bales – the results are extraordinary and you can see more on his website.

Meanwhile, the Aisling Gallery, situated over Rosie’s Pub in Ballydehob, has an exhibition focused on All Things Maritime. Chris O’Dell’s iconic image of Cobh (above), taken from the sea, is only one of several of his photographs, and the photographs of others, on display in this show. Chris is a distinguished cinematographer who has worked in television and cinema and is now recording his archive.

We went to Kenmare to see the new Butter Market Gallery, recently opened. (OK – that’s in Kerry, not West Cork, but sure it’s only the next parish over.) With a Modern Irish Sculpture show as its premier event, we weren’t disappointed!

One of the standout artists in the Kenmare show for us was Ayelet Lalor – that’s her large piece above destined now for a hotel. Back in West Cork we were delighted that the Blue House Gallery in Schull devoted prime space in their latest show to her work. Titled A Life at Odds, Ayelet uses her iconic female heads to explore her own heritage and influences with an eclectic conglomeration of media including concrete, ceramics, cutlery, garden forks and industrial brooms!  The results are both captivating and provocative.

On to the music – our regular Friday sessions have resumed in Ballydehob after two years. It’s always great fun for Robert to participate in these and even more so now as they are earlier in the evening (starting at 7 rather than at 9) so he’s full of beans as he heads off with his melodeon and concertina. His post last week had a clip of them all playing. The Fastnet Maritime and Folk Festival is on here at the moment, so the village is full of musicians, including Jackie Daly and Matt Cranitch, about whom Robert wrote in his post Learning from the Masters – check that out to see some of their playing. For now, a tiny clip of John and Uwe from one of the sessions on tin whistle and flute playing Carolan’s Draught.

A couple of days ago we went over to the Beara to meet up with our friend Susan Byron, of Ireland’s Hidden Gems and her group of American tourists. Among them was Bob, who played us over the Healy Pass.

Finally, for something completely different, we travelled to the Beara again today to hear the wonderful David Syme in one of his legendary Living Room Concerts. If you ever get a chance to do this, grab it! Here he is playing the Chopin Etude “Tristess”. This is his own recording on YouTube, and if you Google David Syme and choose video, you’ll get lots more that will give you a flavour of what we heard this afternoon.

Among the pyrotechnics of Chopin, Schubert, Brahms, Bach and Gershwin, David told us a moving story about his Ukrainian-Jewish grandmother and played us a gentle piece called Jewish Prayer for Healing by Debbie Friedman. I will leave you with a short clip from his performance.

A Bell for Bangor

Holg + Donagh 2

The man standing on the platform in the picture is Holger Lönze. You might remember him from Umha Aois, a post I put up last year about a group of artists and ‘experimental archaeologists’ who use Bronze Age metal working techniques to produce replicas of ancient tools, weapons and musical instruments. Holger – a sculptor – is a key member of that group: his workshop is in Schull and he has just completed a commission to make an enormous bell. You can see the project in progress on the right of the picture. On the left is Donagh Carey, another West Cork artist who worked on the casting.

Left: the original Bangor Bell – the inspiration for the new work – and, right: an early sketch design by Holger of the proposed bell sculpture

The story begins in the sixth century when Columbanus (the Latinised form of Columbán, meaning White Dove) was born in the Kingdom of Meath, now part of Leinster, Ireland, in 543. That’s about 50 years after the death (aged 120) of St Patrick. Patrick, of course, is the best known of the missionaries building up Christianity in Ireland, but he wasn’t Irish himself, having been born a Roman Briton. Columbanus was Irish, and he saw his mission as spreading Christianity from Ireland throughout the Continent of Europe. His mission was successful and St Columbanus is recognised in Europe as a founder of many monastic settlements during his travels in Gaul, Burgundy, the Alps and finally Italy where he established the great monastery at Bobbio, beside the River Trebbia. Columbanus died at Bobbio in 615 and his remains are buried in the crypt there.

Bobbio_bridge

The medieval bridge at Bobbio with St Columbanus’ great monastery beyond (photo by Herbert Ortner, Vienna, Austria)

There are great stories told about the life of Columbanus. When he walked in the woods, birds would land on his shoulders to be caressed, and squirrels ran down from the trees and nestled in the folds of his cowl. He is also said to have tamed a bear and trained it to pull the plough. Wolves would not harm him. He is usually depicted with a book and an Irish satchel, sometimes with sunbeams over his head. I’m not sure why but Columbanus is known as the patron saint of motorcyclists.

Saint Columbanus – left: depicted on a medieval fresco with book and sunbeams (note he is carrying a bell) and, right: sailing off to Europe with his companions

Getting back to West Cork and the bell: Columbanus travelled to Bangor, County Down – in the far north east of the island of Ireland – where he studied in the  Abbey until he was 40. A beautifully decorated bronze handbell was found near the Abbey by gravediggers in the 18th century; it is assumed to have been buried to keep it safe from Viking invaders in the 9th century. The Abbey is seen as the starting point for Columbanus’s missionary work in Europe and the bell (now in the North Down Museum) is associated with him, although unlikely to have been contemporary with his time there. Holger Lönze has always been fascinated by medieval bronze bells and has made replicas of many surviving examples. He cast a copy of the Bangor Abbey handbell using Medieval metalworking techniques in 2012, and the process is recorded in this video.

Holger’s full-sized replica of the Bangor Bell and (right) Holger in his studio explaining his techniques to Robert

The new sculpture – titled Fluctus Angelorum (Wave of Angels) was commissioned by Ards and North Down Borough Council for Bangor Abbey  as one of a series of works inspired by the extraordinary achievements of Columbanus and his companions. Based on the proportions of the original bell, the surface of the sculpture is shaped like the surface of the ocean. The sea-blue patina and breaking waves are a metaphor for Columbanus’ remarkable sea voyage. The 4m high bell was fabricated in bronze plate in West Cork using the ancient repoussé process – by alternating annealing and hammering and finally welding. It took no less than 400,000 hammer blows to transform flat sheets of bronze into this piece of sculpture!

Bell surface

In the workshop: the surface of the 4m high bell reflects the surface of the ocean and (right) the inside of the great bell: it is mounted on a stone plinth and lit at night. Both bells and waves are striking metaphors to mark the Saint’s 1400 miles journey from Bangor to Bobbio – 1400 years ago

The medieval Bangor Bell didn’t have a clapper: it was carried around and hit with a hammer. Taking me back to my days as a percussionist, Holger allowed me to hit the giant bell… It made a mighty sound! From West Cork the bell travelled the whole length of Ireland, passing its 8th Century sister bells in Cashel, Co Meath and Bangor. It is now installed in the Abbey grounds and was formally unveiled on 13th June. The sculpture is not yet complete – Holger is making a number of smaller ‘satellite’ bells which will be set around it, but even on its own it is a most impressive sight: the largest bell ever made in Ireland.

holger with bell

Artist Karen Hendy and Holger Lönze showing the maquette for the bell project in Schull and, below, the bell in its setting at Bangor Abbey

bangor context

I’m often repeating the message but there is no doubt that West Cork is the most creative place I have ever lived! All manner of culture flourishes here and we are privileged to live in a community where we can readily meet and appreciate the work of so many artists; and we have excellent galleries to showcase this work – The Blue House Gallery in Schull (next door to Holger’s workshop), Uillinn in Skibbereen, Catherine Hammond‘s excellent gallery, now also in Skibbereen and The Aisling Gallery in Ballydehob. We are spoiled!

With many thanks to Holger for allowing me to use some of his own images of the work progressing…