The Cork Heritage Book Series

How do you set about exploring your local heritage? If you’re lucky enough to live in Cork, you have some marvellous resources at your fingertips. Today I want to focus on a set of books that are a comprehensive, affordable, richly illustrated, engagingly written compendium of our fascinating history – the Heritage Series.

Dunlough Castle, also known as Three Castle Head, is an unusual example of a fortified curtain wall dating to the 15th century. It’s also, as you can see, incredibly beautiful – it’s written up in the Castles book.

County Cork has a Heritage Office and a County Heritage Officer, Conor Nelligan. He’s a Tour de Force of Heritage, indefatigable, knowledgeable, and committed to communication and consultation. He pens a regular newsletter to local history associations and interested individuals alerting us all to upcoming events, grants schemes, talks, festivals, and articles of interest. Typically, when a new volume in the heritage series is contemplated, he will send out a call for submissions and contributions.

Glanworth Bridge: “Typical of medieval bridges the arch spans are appealingly irregular, increasing in width towards the centre.” It is purported to be “the narrowest and oldest public bridge still in everyday use in Europe.”

The result is a rich collection of photographs, local information, stories and legends, expert analysis and historical detail. What’s amazing is that each volume only costs ten euro! They are available in all the local bookstores, but if you don’t live in Cork you can buy them online from the Skibbereen Heritage Centre.

This is the extraordinary Church of the Ascension in Timoleague. I first found out about it from the Heritage Churches book and wrote about it in two parts, Mosaics and Maharajas Part 1 and Part 2. The Christ the King window is by Clayton and Bell and dates to about 1900

Each book has either a lead author or an authorial team, benefitting greatly from the expertise of the overseers and the one-off contributors. Conor and his colleagues Mona Hallinan, Cork’s Conservation Officer, and Mary Sleeman, the County Archaeologist, steer each project through to completion. The result rather than piecemeal is seamless, with the volumes following a pattern for the most part of an introductory historical and architectural context followed by ‘exemplars’ of castles, or bridges, or whatever the focus of that book. 

Heritage houses come in all sizes, from  traditional thatched cottage glimpsed in North Cork, to Bantry House bathed in evening sunlight

This layout gives it the convenience of a guidebook – wherever you are in Cork you can decide what to see and read up on it – while not sacrificing the the social and political background in which the buildings were constructed. They are our constant companions while out and about or when planning an expedition.

The oldest church in Cork, I think, Labbamolaga. Robert wrote about this wonderful site in Molaga of the Bees

And talking of expeditions, we want to see more of those bridges! I’ve been browsing through the bridge book, learning about abutments and piers and cutwaters, not to mention different kinds of arches, and I am dying to see more of those exemplars. So look out, Dear Readers, for a future post on heritage bridges.

A picturesque clapper bridge near Ballyvourney . Is this the same bridge that Robert Gibbings engraved in “Sweet Cork of Thee” – see Robert’s post this week!

Well done, Cork County Heritage Unit – you can be justly proud of this excellent series!

Timoleague Friary, read more about it here

Anam Cheoil – The Music’s Soul

The Friday evening concert at this year’s Masters of Tradition Festival in Bantry House was a tour de force: in all, probably the best concert I have heard at this festival in recent times. We went because on the programme were two of our favourite musicians who have come from the Irish tradition: Iarla Ó Lionáird and Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin. They were both on top form last night, and certainly didn’t disappoint.

Header: ‘Odyssey’ by Barry Linnane  frames beautiful Bantry Bay – host to the Masters of Tradition Festival. Upper – Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin (RTE Orchestras) and Lower – Iarla Ó Lionáird (Fractured Air)

Using poetry, music and song, the two performers transfixed us. Both are imbued in the musical and poetic tradition of their country, which comes from deep, deep down. In my explorations of Ireland I am finding how much history is alive and embraced: this applies as much to the history of the culture here as it does to the physical relics of the ancestors in the landscape, whether it’s prehistoric rock art or medieval architecture.

The rushy glens of the Sliabh Luachra country in the Muscraí Gaeltacht, where the Irish language is still very much alive

Iarla Ó Lionáird was born and raised in the Muscraí Gaeltacht, and imbued in the Irish language from birth. A near neighbour in his younger years was Seán Ó Riada, who lived in Ballvourney, and had established Cór Chúil Aodha, a male voice choir singing mainly in Irish, and which exists today under the leadership of Seán’s son Peadar. Iarla joined the choir as a child and sang with it until his early twenties. He now makes his living through his voice and is still very much involved in the Irish tradition while also exploring new grounds. Listen to this very beautiful rendition by Iarla of Caoineadh na dTrí Muire (the keening of the Three Marys):

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin is best known for his unique expression of traditional Irish music on the piano. He claims that he was an introverted child, and that music was his saving grace. He went to UCC where he was also influenced – and taught – by Seán Ó Riada. Eventually he took over Seán’s job at Cork before founding and heading the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at Limerick University. He wasn’t born into the Irish speaking tradition but came to it later in life. In a recent newspaper interview he gave this memorable quote: ‘…I wouldn’t like to be reborn as someone else, not even for a day, I’m so worn out trying to be myself…’ Here’s an example of Mícheál’s playing:

In the course of the Bantry concert the two musicians spoke of a little-known collector of Irish folk-songs – someone of whom I had not heard. Alexander Martin Freeman was …a retiring English scholar of private means… who travelled in the Muscraí Gaeltacht in 1913 and 1914. He wrote down no less than 84 Irish language songs, and his work has been described as ‘…incomparably the finest collection published in our time of Irish songs noted from oral tradition…’ This is all the more remarkable as Freeman spoke no Irish. He painstakingly wrote the words, exactly as he heard them, in phonetic spelling, based on his own native English. For this reason, the texts were apparently ignored initially by Irish folklorists. But now they are viewed with interest by scholars as they give a great insight into the word-sounds of Irish speakers from those years – apparently the West Cork dialect has been changing with time! Over the years both Seán Ó Riada and Iarla Ó Lionáird have brought the songs back into circulation, and we were treated to some examples. Freeman’s field notebooks from Ballyvourney are held in the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin.

Winter scene in the Muscraí Gaeltacht

In the Library of Bantry House these two performers gave us a very special experience through music, song and poetry. Although I don’t speak or understand Irish, I appreciated the beauty of the sounds of the words – a music itself. We and the audience were transfixed by the whole experience. Walking out on the terrace of Bantry House afterwards, I looked to the west where the sun was dropping behind the mountains over the calm waters of the bay. I felt that we had, through the music, been given a privileged glimpse into the soul of Ireland.

The Golden Hour at Bantry House

Urns

You know that amazing quality of light just after sunrise and before sunset?  Well, photographers call it the Golden Hour (or Magic Hour), when the light takes on particular hues and becomes softer and more diffuse. There are scientific explanations, of course, but for most of us, we just know it when we see it.

Long Shadow

The low sun produces a golden glow and anything lit by it takes on those same reddish and amber hues. The harsh midday sun, which results in glaring highlights and deep shadows, is replaced by  gentler and longer shadows. Everything looks warmer, more romantic.

Roses

The perfect place to see this in West Cork is Bantry House. Because it faces due west, it is bathed in the low evening light. The construction materials, stone and brick, are warm-toned to begin with, but in the twilight hour they take on a mellow blush that is particularly entrancing. The sunsets over Bantry Bay, needless to say, are spectacular.

Ready for Zorro

Waiting for Zorro

We  had the perfect opportunity to observe this on several occasions. We attended a performance of Zorro on the lawn in August, and we usually take in several of the concerts at the Masters of Tradition Festival each year.

Back of the House

This photograph was taken during an interval at a Masters of Tradition Concert: the Library, at the back of the house, is the concert hall

Bantry House dates from the 18th century. The gardens were laid out in the second half of the 19th century in the formal continental style, with parterres, stepped lawns and avenues of statuary. The Second Earl was a great traveller and came back from his grand tour with ideas and artefacts to make the best use of the elevated site.

Up the steps

Rear Garden and StableIt  was he who added the stable yards with the cupolas, and laid out the gardens, including the hundred steps. All of this was somewhat at variance with the prevailing fashions in garden design at the time, which favoured more naturalistic settings with sweeping lawns dotted with groves of trees. However, it suited the restricted site and its formality has stood the test of time.

Statuesque

Restored Stable BlockA visit to the gardens at Bantry House is a wonderful experience. It’s open from March to October but the gates close at 5, so if you want to experience the Golden Hour, you’ll have to attend an evening event. Fortunately, these are abundant in the summer, as it’s a favourite venue for festivals and concerts.

Palms and HouseDuring the break, stroll about and just, well, bask. 

Trees and Flowers

Canons

And don’t forget to admire the sunset itself.

Sunset over the Bay

Beyond the Mizen: Top 14 West Cork Pics of 2015

We were heading home from Hare Island after a Fit Up Theatre Performance, when this happened

We were heading home from Hare Island after a Fit Up Theatre Performance, when this happened

Many of our top Facebook photographs this year were from the Mizen, but not all. You also liked and shared photographs that captured the essence of other parts of West Cork.

Baltimore Bay and Ringarogy Island

Baltimore Bay and Ringarogy Island

I think the Baltimore Bay one was so popular because the colours are SO west Cork. When you get blue sky and clouds, the sea turns this amazing Caribbean blue and the contrast with the green fields and wilder high ground is gorgeous.

Lighthouse Loop, Sheep's Head

Lighthouse Loop, Sheep’s Head

This photograph of our friend Susan Byron of Ireland’s Hidden Gems is one of my favourites this year because of the impression it creates of sheer wildness.

Occasionally we get lucky with the local wildlife. Ferdia, the fox, used to be a regular around our place but has forsaken us recently for neighbours with higher quality leftovers.

Bantry House in winter

Bantry House

It’s possible to get good shots of Bantry House in winter, when the trees don’t obscure it from view.

Kilcoe Castle

Kilcoe Castle is such an icon on the landscape. This photograph shows the neighbourly way it interacts with the other houses around it.

Bardic School Loop, Sheep's Head

Bardic School Loop Walk, Sheep’s Head

This tiny abandoned cottage may have been part of the 17th Century Bardic School near Lake Faranamanagh on the Sheep’s Head. We’re looking across at the Mizen in this shot.

The Beara, from the Sheep's Head

The Beara, from the Sheep’s Head

And here’s the view from the other side of the Sheep’s Head, across to the Beara Peninsula, with the instantly-recognisable bulk of Hungry Hill to the far right.

Priest's Leap Valley

Priest’s Leap Valley

The long climb up to Priest’s Leap starts near Ballylickey and ends at a high mountain pass that separates Cork and Kerry. The views are spectacular from the top, but this shot of a colourful house and farms in the valley on the way up seemed to express something typical of West Cork.

Farm, Sheep's Head

Farm, Sheep’s Head

This farm appears to be carved out of the mountain land behind it.

Barloge Bay, at the entrance to Lough Hyne

Barloge Bay, at the entrance to Lough Hyne

This was taken in November. I love the contrast of the turquoise water with the autumn colours of the bracken-covered hillside.

F

A final sunset to end this post. This was taken last February from the lay-by overlooking Roaringwater Bay on the N71. The light was extraordinary – a once in a blue moon kind of shot. The mussel beds make the water look like floating ice packs.

A big thanks to Celia Bartlett for helping us improve our photographic skills this year. We loved our workshop with her.

Happy New Year to all our faithful readers!

Ellen Hutchins: The Short and Remarkable Life of Ireland’s First Female Botanist

Ballylickey House, Home of Ellen Hutchins. Although the burned down, it was rebuilt exactly as the original.

Ballylickey House, Home of Ellen Hutchins. Although the house burned down, it was rebuilt exactly as the original

In West Cork, we have been celebrating the short but extraordinary life of Ellen Hutchins who died 200 years ago this year. Acknowledged in her lifetime as one of the most knowledgeable and accomplished botanists in the British Isles, she contributed specimens and drawings to the great collections in Glasnevin and Kew and kept up a lively and learned correspondence with some of the leading botanical scientists of the day. When she died, aged only 29, her name had already been memorialised: several plant specimens bore the title hutchinsia.

Looks and character

It’s been a fantastic week of lectures, guided walks, exhibitions and demonstrations. Jointly organised by the Bantry Historical Society, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Hutchins family, the week has been a marvellous success, with all the events well attended and everyone eager to learn more about Ellen. For a program of what was available, take a look at the excellent Ellen Hutchins website and the Facebook page.

Dublin Botanic Gardens

While many of Ellen’s specimens ended up in Kew Gardens, some went to what has become the Dublin Botanical Gardens

The website contains biographical data about Ellen, her accomplishments, her family and her place in the scientific community, and a links and resources section leading to much more information. Ellen Hutchins was born in Ballylickey, near Bantry, in 1785 and spent most of her life there. During schooldays in Dublin she lived with family friend Dr Whitley Stokes who introduced her to the discipline of botanizing. She became an avid and scholarly collector of plants and seaweed, annotating, sorting and cataloguing as she went, and an expert illustrator of marine and terrestrial specimens.

Ellen identified new species of seaweeds on the shores around Bantry Bay

She roamed freely around the shores of Bantry Bay and took her family’s boat out to Whiddy Island. She also climbed (we’re not sure how) to the top of Knockboy, the highest mountain in Cork at 700m, identifying new species of plants right at the top. We followed her footsteps last weekend, led by Wildlife Officer Clare Heardman of Glengarriff Nature Reserve, botanist Rory Hodd, writer Kevin Corcoran, and Madeline Hutchins, great great grandniece of Ellen, who has been uncovering all kinds of new material on her ancestor.

group botany

What a day we had! It was warm and dry until we got to the top, where we were subjected to a hailstorm for form’s sake before the sun re-emerged. It was an insight into what gets botanists excited – tiny plants, apparently, with subtle variations from other tiny plants.

We were in awe of the knowledge on display, and the boundless enthusiasm of all the plant experts in the group. The highlights for them were finding some of the species that bore Ellen’s name, although Rory and Clare were particularly pleased to find a dwarf willow at the summit that had originally been identified by Ellen over 200 years ago. Along the way, we also learned a lot about the characteristics of that kind of high mountain environment, with its burden of boggy moss and highly acidic environment.

Kevin Corcoran demonstrated the properties of sphagnum moss, and showed us how soft the bog underneath us was, by probing with his staff

Knockboy descent

We felt on top of the world on Knockboy. We drove up to Priest’s Leap and only climbed the final 300m.  But how did Ellen get up there, with her long skirts and her intermittent poor health?

In Bantry House we viewed Ellen’s drawings, beautifully framed and presented and on loan from their permanent homes in Kew Gardens, Trinity College, Dublin and elsewhere. Her drawings were used by other botanists to illustrate books and were considered to be superior in their exactitude.

The Bantry Library hosted an exhibition about her life. This was curated by Madeline Hutchins and here we came closer to appreciating the woman herself, of whom no portrait exists. We learned, through her letters, of the struggles of a home life dominated by an ailing mother, a disabled younger brother and two bitterly feuding older brothers. She suffered from intermittent ill health, which often prevented her from collecting, but when she was strong her delight in her outdoors pursuits was palpable. One of her greatest pleasures was her correspondence with fellow botanists, among whom she earned true respect, especially Dawson Turner.

Dawson Turner

Dawson Turner: Although they never met, he thought of Ellen as a beloved sister and was devastated when she died

Although we were not able to join the group tour of the Ardnagashel Arboretum, we ventured down there on our own and were shown around the east section by the gracious Arethusa Greacen, herself a Hutchins on her mother’s side. The arboretum was started by Ellen’s brother and was maintained and added to by succeeding generations of Hutchins – the botany gene was obviously strongly embedded in the family!

Myrtle Woods Path

Ardnagashel colourMyrtle groves and colour at Ardnagashel

The enormous contribution made by Ellen Hutchins to science has languished in obscurity for two centuries, known only to a few experts in the field (a bit like that other West Cork woman of science, Agnes Clerke of Skibbereen). All that changed last week. West Cork, and Bantry/Ballylickey in particular, has celebrated and honoured Ellen Hutchins in style. There is talk of future events, perhaps even a summer school.

Ellen Plaque

A new plaque has been erected on the wall of the old ruined church in Garryvurcha graveyard, final resting place of Ellen Hutchins

Well done to the hardworking organisers of this exceptional festival! Thank you to them for illuminating the life of this remarkable woman and to helping us appreciate, in the most hands-on and interesting way, her enormous contributions to science.

Madeline Clare Angela

The team behind the Ellen Hutchins Two Hundred Year Celebration: Madeline Hutchins, great great grandniece and biographer of Ellen; Clare Heardman of the National Parks and Wildlife Service; Angela O’Donovan of the Bantry Historical Society. This photo was taken from the Ellen Hutchins 200 Years Facebook Page, with appreciation

Don’t forget to check out the website Ellen Hutchins: Ireland’s First Female Botanist for so much more detail than I could give you in a blog post.

Ancient Tones – New Directions

After the opening concert... Sunset over Bantry Bay

After the opening concert… Sunset over Bantry Bay

This year’s Masters of Tradition Festival (which closes tonight) had an unusual headline act – Ricky Skaggs – at its opening gig.. This giant of ‘country’, ‘bluegrass’ or ‘old timey’ music flew over from Nashville at his own expense to join Festival Director Martin Hayes and a host of traditional musicians on stage in the Maritime Hotel, Bantry. Why? Because there are big adventures going on in the world of Irish music today, and this Festival is at the leading edge of all this. Here’s a snatch of Ricky Skaggs: regardless of the film quality it’s well worth watching…

Ricky Skaggs

Ricky Skaggs

Skaggs, Hayes, Cahill,  Schrey and the Brock McGuire Band bring the house down in Bantry

Skaggs, Hayes, Cahill, Schrey and the Brock McGuire Band bring the house down in the opening concert

So, Ricky Skaggs got a good start in life, playing on the stage with the likes of Bill Monroe and the Foggy Mountain Boys (aka guitarist Lester Flatt and banjo player Earl Scruggs) at the age of seven! But at last Wednesday’s concert the biggest chord that was struck for me was Skaggs talking about Ancient Tones – his words for the the common roots of the music that they were all playing together:

“I’ve told people for years Celtic music is the foundation stone for bluegrass, even country music generally — though it is admittedly hard to hear the Irish influence in ‘new’ country today. Certainly, you can detect it in the old country ballads — it’s in the heart of the songs.” Bill Monroe was in agreement, he recalls. Without Irish music, there would never have been a bluegrass movement. “Mr Monroe talked about the old sounds and the ancient tones. He was referring to the sounds from Scotland and Ireland — he believed very much his music was a hybrid of that. He’s right of course — you hear bluegrass and you know the Irish influence is there. It’s in the fiddle and the mandolin, the harmonies and the guitar. In all of it, really.”

Festival Director Martin Hayes with groupies...

Festival Director Martin Hayes with groupies…

That first concert blew us away. We thought that it couldn’t get any better. It probably didn’t, but the energy, enthusiasm and innovation continued through the events of the week. Innovation in Irish Traditional Music? Oh, yes: we didn’t know what was in store for us, but we did know Martin Hayes’ philosophy:

“The main aim of this festival is to expose the unique artistic craft of various musicians. It’s also a kind of response to the fact that the country is full of festivals. I feel it’s important to highlight individual artistry in music rather than putting on a lot of bands that we’re all familiar with. International musicians have been a feature of the festival in the last few years.The festival is called Masters of Tradition rather than masters of Irish music or Irish traditional music because the idea is to have at least one act from abroad to see how other traditions stand in relation to our own. I want to offer something really different. I’m not saying that what I’m doing is better. It’s just a different way of approaching a festival. I certainly don’t see the point in replicating other festivals.There’s only a percentage of the population that gets seriously involved and connected with this festival. I think that’s fine. The festival is about highlighting the uniqueness of each musician’s voice. We try to choose musicians that have found their unique voice. I’m not looking for the latest blazing hot craze. Some of what the musicians express can be quite humble but effective and very touching as well.”

Máire Ni Cheileachair, Sean Nós singer

Máire Ni Cheileachair, Sean Nós singer

Among the – perhaps – ‘humble, effective and very touching’ performances were Sean Nós singers: carrying the tradition forward from its most ancient roots and presenting it in the simplest form – the unaccompanied human voice, a continuity of cultural expression which has passed through countless generations. We enjoyed the contribution of Máire Ni Cheileachair from West Cork and were impressed, as always, with critically acclaimed Iarla Ó Lionáird who grew up in the musical heartland of Cúil Aodha in the West Cork Gaeltacht. Like Ricky Skaggs, his fame came early: here’s his performance of Aisling Gheal dating from 1978 – when he was 14.

Finola has a link to another of Iarla’s iconic renderings on her post here – The Lament of the Three Marys. Throughout Ireland sacred songs such as this one were felt to function both as prayers and as direct substitutes for the caoineadh (‘keening’, women’s funeral lament) which was suppressed by the Church.

Ivan Goff, Cleek Schrey and Iarla Ó Lionáird - The Ghost Trio

Ivan Goff, Cleek Schrey and Iarla Ó Lionáird – The Ghost Trio

Finola says that I should have called this post ‘Ancient Tones – and Drones’. Iarla Ó Lionáird also heads up The Ghost Trio – which gave us Friday’s late night candlelit concert in Bantry House – Siobhan Long of the Irish Times described her impressions:

…”Drone City” is how Iarla O’Lionaird describes the antics of Ghost Trio, and he isn’t far off. Pipes, Hardanger Fiddle and harmonium coalesce to shape an atmospheric set that speaks more of the space and time inherent in traditional music than it does momentum. And what a welcome alternative take that is.This is a fine reminder of what atmosphere lurks within and without our tunes and songs

Boruma Trio

Boruma Trio – Eileen O’Brien, Geraldine Cotter and Andrew MacNamara

In a sharp swing back to pure tradition we were impressed by The Boruma Trio in Saturday night’s first concert. Straight music played on accordion, fiddle and piano, directly descended from the years when legendary Ceilidh bands such as the Tulla reigned supreme: Martin Hayes himself was reared on this kind of irish music as his own father – P Joe Hayes – led that band for 50 years. Martin wrote of his upbringing in Maghera, County Clare:

Tulla Ceilidh Band 1952

Tulla Ceilidh Band 1952

…However difficult it is to imagine my own life without music it is impossible for me to even know my father without his music. Music is part of his life in the same way that the land is part of him or in the way that we are Irish. It is inevitable and unalterable, we can never identify ourselves apart from our past as he could never identify himself apart from his music. His music fits comfortably into his life, there has always been balance, he never saw music as being anything other than normal and ordinary, a part of life that fits comfortably with his family, farm, religion and politics. He has a strong passion for music that has been tempered and maintained by equal and loyal devotion to the other interests in his life…

Martin’s earliest memories are of his father getting dressed up and being picked up to go and play somewhere, and in his child’s imagination it was always somewhere far away, exciting and important. On other nights the band practiced in the kitchen and when he had to go to bed Martin would leave the bedroom door open, a little bit, and listen to them play until he fell asleep.

I haven’t room on this post to list all the concerts (the full programme is here) – and we still have one to go! The standard of performances throughout has been consistently high. Perhaps the Harris/Finlay award for the most memorable experience – so far – has to go to Ensemble Ériu. In his introduction of this 7-strong group, Martin Hayes reminded us that we now have generations of young musicians who are very aware of their traditional heritage, but who are also being exposed to mainstream influences such as jazz and minimalism. Degrees, Masters and PhDs are offered in no less than 14 universities and colleges in Ireland at present in traditional music, song, dance, Ethnomusicology and Ethnochoreology. Students with backgrounds or deep interests in the folk traditions are exploring other contemporary voices and this ensemble – or ‘Project’ as its progenitors Jack Talty and Neil O’Loghlen prefer to call it – is a step in the New Directions so keenly being watched by Martin Hayes:

…The septet draws on a wealth of creative sources to perform arrangements of Irish traditional music rooted in the styles of West and North County Clare. This group brings together a chamber ensemble of some of Ireland’s most exciting young musicians from a range of performance backgrounds. The result is a unique combination of the fresh and familiar, a soundscape that is creatively progressive, yet rooted in tradition… (from the group’s website)

It’s hard to describe the musical experience that Ériu gave us last night. You’ll get some impressions from this film.

It brought to my mind the works of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, but was nevertheless unique. Who would have thought that such creative things could happen in this quiet West Cork backwater? It was stimulating, energetic – dynamic. I wonder what Martin has in store for us next year?

Quiet West Cork backwater? Bantry House - Festival venue

Quiet West Cork backwater? Bantry House – Festival venue

tulla stamp