The Elemental World of Cormac Boydell

Perched on the very edge of Europe and facing into the Atlantic Ocean, the far west of Ireland is a terrifyingly beautiful place to set down your roots. Our own little spot, overlooking the comparatively calm reaches of Roaringwater Bay, faces into the winter gales and it’s a constant fight to keep the weather out: always a losing battle. But, could we live anywhere else? Certainly not. This week we met up with Cormac Boydell and Rachel Parry – two artists who live just about as far away as it is possible to be in wild West Cork. Like us, they battle with the elements; like us, they couldn’t envisage living anywhere else.

Cormac Boydell (header picture – in his studio) and Rachel Parry live on the edge of Ireland: their cottage and lush gardens feel as if they are carved out of the mountainside to seek maximum shelter from winter storms. They are well off the beaten track close to the end of the Beara Peninsula: the nearest settlement is Allihies (from the Irish Na hAilichí, meaning ‘the cliff fields) which was a centre for copper extraction in the Bronze Age and from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when generations of Cornish Mine Captains came here to manage the mines, providing work for a substantial local population.

Connection with the landscape is something that’s inherent in the make-up of Cormac Boydell. It must be significant that he started out studying and working as a geologist – getting to know the physical fabric of the rocks and the earth around him – before setting out on a more creative path, working with those very elements to produce exuberantly robust ceramic sculptures which are unique and highly sought after.

Cormac’s tools are his hands. He works raw terracotta clay and crafts the shapes of his pieces without wheel or mould. He applies colours and – most importantly – textures into the surface, and firing provides the finishes – not always predictable. For him, this is all part of the living process. But that’s the physical process: into the whole equation, also, are his close observations of the environment around him – the geology, textures and colours of the rock surfaces from the natural and cultivated landscapes. He sees the way rocks break and how they weather – how time is an element in their metamorphoses. Somehow, into all this surveillance and appreciation of nature he also makes stories. He finds inspiration in ancient sagas, particularly those from Ireland, as we saw in the exhilarating work on the walls of his studio.

Cormac Boydell is one of the important group of artists who came and settled in West Cork during the second half of the last century – a group whose lives and work have yet to be properly celebrated. Like many others of this group he has stayed for life and contributed to raising the profile of art produced in Ireland. In a catalogue of work produced by West Cork artists and displayed both in Skibbereen and the Crawford Gallery in Cork 30 years ago – Living Landscape ’87 – he writes this of his own contribution to that exhibition:

. . . Landscape is not the first term I would apply to my work. However I always welcome challenge. Breaking new ground stimulates creativity where repetition kills it. Experimentation, welcoming both failures and success, working out beyond the boundaries of my vision… that’s the excitement of art making. Using rock and fired clay as elements of the landscape, “Earthbone” expresses the spirit from which the landscape is formed . . .

Alison Ospina wrote in 2011 in the introduction to her book West Cork Inspires:

. . . Hidden down the leafy lanes of West Cork I have found artists whose work is of the highest calibre and should be considered of national importance . . . I have selected people working in a variety of media whose work has had an impact on other craftspeople and has been influential in developing West Cork’s reputation for excellence and originality . . .

In her book she writes of Cormac Boydell:

. . . Cormac’s work is organic and elemental, the earth is its source. It resonates across millennia from when the bedrock of this country was being laid down and speaks of torsion and vortices, glacial drift and the alchemy of fire. It taps into the energies of nature, to which it is inextricably linked . . .

One of my favourite new pieces from Cormac Boydell is this large plaque inspired by the story of the Irish Saint Éinne (also known as Saint Enda): the patriarch of Irish monasticism. He is the brother of St Fanchea (see Finola’s post about Irish women saints) and was a warrior until Fanchea persuaded him to lay down his arms. He went to Aran in 484 and founded the first monastery there but the local chieftain Corbanus intervened. Éinne’s response was to banish all of Corbanus’s horses from the islands. This is the scene which Cormac has illustrated and it’s one of a recent series which is based on myths and legends.

You could own a piece by Cormac Boydell! This ceramic – based on a story from the Finn McCool cycle – has been purchased by Uillinn, the West Cork Arts Centre gallery in Skibbereen, and will be on display there from this week until the end of the Art & The Great Hunger Exhibition which runs from 20 July to 13 October. While the gallery is open you can purchase draw tickets at only 5 Euros each: the prize, which will be drawn on the last day of the exhibition, is the Boydell ceramic. What an opportunity – every ticket stands an equal chance of winning this unique work of art! And all your contributions will be supporting the activities of the Arts Centre.

With grateful thanks to Cormac and Rachel for allowing us a glimpse into their world

Sun’s Out!

On one April day after a bleak, harsh winter that had gales, hurricanes, blizzards and unceasing bitter east winds thrown at us – the sun came out! We were out too, and headed up to the Beara Peninsula to see if we could remember what sun-soaked landscapes felt like… They felt great!

Header – the glories of Cork and Kerry combine on the spectacular Beara; top photograph – finally, after a long,harsh winter, we see the spring blossoms appearing; middle – a wayside shrine on the road out from Glengariff; bottom – Hungry Hill dominates the views as we head west on the peninsula

You will remember our previous visits to the Beara: there are not enough superlatives for what it has to offer in the way of stunning scenery and colour. None of these photographs have been enhanced – what you see is exactly what we saw on the day – and it’s what you will see, too, if you choose aright (although even on dull days we always find plenty to interest us).

Top photograph – St Kentigern’s Church is in the centre of one of Ireland’s most colourful villages; middle – the sunlight plays games with the beautiful windows by glass artist George Walsh; bottom – light from the windows dances on the pews

We knew where we were going: Finola was keen to revisit the little Catholic church of St Kentigern in Eyeries, which has a fine collection of windows by George Walsh: it’s a gem – and at its best for the quality of the light enhancing it on the day. I wanted to see the settlement itself in the early spring sunlight as it’s one of the most colourful places in the whole of Ireland! Neither of us was disappointed.

Just a taster of the treats in store in Eyeries: on a beautiful spring day there was hardly a soul around, but we were still able to find an ice cream in O’Sullivan’s!

Our second objective was to travel into the hills and find Ardgroom Outward stone circle. The trail involves farm gates, stiles and a lot of mud – but the 9 stone circle (named locally ‘Canfea’) is a fine, almost intact monument with wide vistas to mountain and sea. The impressive outlier stone is 3.2m in height.

The magnificent Ardgroom Outward (or ‘Canfea’) stone circle is accessible via a marked, boggy path: the vistas from the site make the journey worthwhile. Finola is dwarfed by the huge outlier!

It’s barely a skip up to Eyeries from Nead an Iolair, so we had to carry on around the peninsula and take in the almost surreal views of oceans, lakes and mountains before dipping into Kerry and then heading over the top back into Cork county and down the Healy Pass – surely one of Ireland’s most spectacular road trips.

Returning home – with the evening sun setting gloriously over Roaringwater Bay – we reflected that there can’t be many places in the world where a single day can offer such a feast to satisfy all the senses.

 

The Red Line – Bere Island

As part of the excellent Taste of West Cork food festival, we signed up for the Bere Island Cultural Taste Tour, and on a grey Saturday morning we drove off along the south side of the Beara Peninsula to Castletownbere. The Islands of West Cork are all fascinating to explore, in our experience, and each one is very different. This was my first visit to Bere Island, and I immediately want to go back there: this was, of necessity, a ‘whistlestop tour’, ably led by Ted O’Sullivan, probably a direct descendant of the famed O’Sullivan Bere (who deserves – and will get – a post of his own!) You may remember that the island – and the peninsula – has taken its name from the Spanish wife of Owen Mór, King of Ireland around 120AD.

Bere Island lies off the coast of the Beara Peninsula, which was in constant view as our bus took us to the eastern end on the narrow island roads – towards the ‘Red Line’

While the history of the island takes us back to the Bronze Age and beyond, more recent events have been left behind on the landscape – and in the memories of the islanders.

Upper – ancient history: Ardaragh Bronze Age wedge tomb beside the road to the east of the island with Hungry Hill beyond. In 1926 the tomb collapsed, and this was seen by some islanders as a ‘sign’ that the British might leave the occupied part of the island. Lower – modern history: looking from the island towards the Beara – British warships stationed in the bay circa 1914

Did you know that part of Bere Island remained in British hands well beyond the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921? This was one of the three Treaty Ports that were retained by the United Kingdom following the First World War, when there were fears that there might be a recurring naval threat to the islands of Britain and Ireland. The other two ports were Spike Island, in Cork Harbour, and Lough Swilly in the far north of the Irish state. Relationships between Ireland and Britain remained uneasy for many years but finally, in 1938, it was agreed that these deepwater ports should be handed over to the Irish Republic. Winston Churchill was appalled by the decision, and in an address to Parliament in that year he called it a ‘folly’:

…When the Irish Treaty was being shaped in 1922 I was instructed by the Cabinet to prepare that part of the Agreement which dealt with strategic reservations. I negotiated with Mr Michael Collins, and I was advised by Admiral Beatty who assured me that without the use of these ports it would be very difficult, perhaps almost impossible, to feed this Island in time of war. Queenstown and Berehaven shelter the flotillas which keep clear the approaches to the Bristol and English Channels, and Lough Swilly is the base from which the access to the Mersey and the Clyde is covered… These ports are, in fact, the sentinel towers of the western approaches, by which the 45,000,000 people in this Island so enormously depend on foreign food for their daily bread, and by which they can carry on their trade, which is equally important to their existence…

Until the handover in 1938 the eastern end of the island lay beyond ‘The Red Line’. The position of this line was pointed out to us on the tour, although we couldn’t see a ‘line’. In fact, no physical line did ever exist but there was a point beyond which Irish people could not proceed, and British forces stationed over the ‘line’ could not cross. Ted, our tour guide, recounted some amusing stories of those strange times. With typical Irish inventiveness, there were many instances of how the difficulties created by the ‘line’ were overcome. For a short while there was a prison on the British sector, right beside the ‘line’. It was used to incarcerate mainly political prisoners. Every weekend there would be a party held on the Irish side of the line which always included singing, dancing and drinking, and the prisoners joined in! Many politically important prisoners managed to escape, and the prison was known as a ‘leaky bucket’ because of this. A number of the British governors of the prison were removed during its short life because of their inability to contain their charges.

Lonehort Battery – built in 1899 by the Royal Engineers of the English army – housed two enormous 6-inch guns (still in place but very rusty) and is surrounded by a deep moat. There are plans to re-open the site as a historic monument

Lonehort is a natural harbour, believed to have been used by the Vikings. Archaeological excavations were carried out there in 1995 and confirmed the artificial breakwater as being Norse: there were also signs of a Viking shipyard here.

Lonehort – a Viking harbour and shipyard. The word means ‘Long Phort’, and is used to indicate Norse associations

One of the purposes of our tour was to introduce us to food produced on the island, and we ate in three establishments: The Shop and Cafe in Rerrin for soup, The Hotel for a fishcake lunch, and the Heritage Centre for a dessert and coffee. All provided good, delicious fare.

Our three food destinations. Top – the wonderful Shop at Rerrin; centre – The Hotel, open all year round (it looks as though it has interesting fare!) and lower – the modern Heritage Centre which has a gallery displaying the island’s history and culture as well as a good eatery

All too soon our short tour came to an end: we had to get back to catch the ferry. We missed several things: St Michael’s Holy Well and Church; views from Knockanallig (the highest point) and several standing stones including Gallán, which is exactly in the centre of the island. And it’s a great place for walking! We will return, perhaps for a few days in the winter, and complete our explorations. But many thanks to Ted and the Bere Island Projects Group for giving us such a comprehensive introduction to an intriguing community and its history.

Robert heading home after a grand day out!

Back to the Beara

Mizen, Sheep’s Head, Beara, Iveragh and Dingle: these are the five peninsulas which make up the south-western coast of the island of Ireland. We live on the Mizen and, for that reason, we are always trumpeting the qualities of the place, historical and scenic. However – to be fair – the other peninsulas have much to offer. The Sheep’s Head is a mere stone’s throw from us – just over the waters of Dumnanus Bay – and our visits there are frequent. The Beara has been calling us recently: we tend to think of it (unfairly) as somewhere quite distant but we can be on it in less than an hour. In the last two weeks we have taken two day trips out there (with our holy-well hunting friends Amanda and Peter), in contrasting weather conditions, and we can report back that the landscape is stunning whatever the weather, and the visible history is palpable. We have visited before – a while ago now: see our posts here and here.

Header picture – I titled this photograph ‘unbelievable’ in our file: look at the tiny house and the monumental stone walls heading up the mountain above it, dividing up the land into enormous fields. Above – a typical view of mountain, meadow and wild scenery to be found on the Beara

The Beara comprises around 58,000 hectares, or 228 square miles, and covers 330 townlands. The larger, southern portion of the peninsula lies in County Cork, while the northern area is in County Kerry.

We were searching for – and found – some of the Beara’s holy wells. Head over to Amanda’s blog Holy Wells of Cork for more information on these (and hundreds more Cork wells!)

A significant and comprehensive study of the history of the Beara has been carried out by Cornelius J Murphy (more popularly known as Connie Murphy). In all he has examined and documented some twelve hundred archaeological and historical sites, some half of which had been known and recorded previously, but as many had not. Our little expeditions pale into insignificance compared to Connie’s work, but they will inspire us to spend more time ‘on the ground’ in the area, while also simply taking in the spectacular views of the wildly variable topography.

Top – Day 1, in the mist: standing stones can just be made out in the distance. Lower – same stones, different day! On our second trip we were most fortunate with the weather

Tradition has it that, in around 120 AD, Conn Céad Cathach (Con of the hundred battles) fought a fierce battle against Owen Mór, King of Ireland at Cloch Barraige – these are the words of Connie Murphy:

…Owen was badly injured in the battle. Those of his followers who survived took him to Inis Greaghraighe (now known as Bere Island) as a safe place for him to recover. There, the fairy Eadaoin took him to her grianán (bower) where she nursed him back to full health. Nowadays, this place is known as Greenane…

…Owen and his followers then sailed southwards until they reached Spain. There he met and married Beara, daughter of the King of Castille…

…Later Owen, Beara and a large army sailed from Spain and landed in Greenane. Owen took his wife to the highest hill on the island and looking across the harbour he named the island and the whole peninsula Beara in honour of his wife. Rossmacowen, Kilmacowen and Buaile Owen most likely are named after Owen Mór and his son. Owen’s wife, Princess Beara, died and was buried in Ballard Commons in the remote and peaceful valley between Maulin and Knocknagree Mountains….

Top – down by the water, a tiny settlement by the pier, and – lower – Derrenataggart Stone Circle, Day 1

Our first day’s expedition took in the southern side of the peninsula, from Glengariff to Castletownbere. The mist was down and we went off the beaten track to search for holy wells, standing stones and stone circles, and were rewarded with some good finds. I was particularly intrigued by the ‘raised ring fort’ at Teernahillane: I could not trace anything in the archaeological records to describe or explain it. Our conclusion was that it could be a natural phenomenon that has been mistaken for an unusual (and rather unlikely) form of defensible structure. There is no sign of any retaining stonework, although this might have been robbed but, other than being more or less circular, it bears no resemblance to any ring fort we have seen elsewhere. If anyone has any more knowledge or ideas about this site, please let us know.

On our travels this week we were rewarded with brilliant weather which cast a whole different hue over the Beara – and opened up the incredible views which are everywhere, but nowhere more spectacular than the journey over the mountains on the Healey Pass. This road was constructed as a famine relief project in 1847 on the line of an ancient trackway that connected Cork and Kerry and was first known as Bealach Scairt – the way of the sheltered caves. It was renamed after Timothy Michael Healey (who lived from 1855 to 1931) – a Bantry man, deserving of a future blog post, who achieved notoriety in the Irish Parliamentary Party under Charles Stewart Parnell. The two fell out – and came to blows – when Parnell was involved in a sensational divorce case. After the 1916 rising, Tim Healy declared his sympathy with Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin movement, but was opposed to the use of physical violence. Healy returned to prominence in 1922 when he was appointed the first ‘Governor General of the Irish Free State’. In that post he pursued the improvement of the road between the Kerry side and the Cork side of the Beara Peninsula and, shortly after his death in 1931, the restored pass was dedicated to him.

At the top of the Tim Healey Pass we were treated to the most incredible views of our entire journey: our photographs hardly do them justice, but we hope they give you a sufficient taster to inspire you to journey that same way.

Top pictures – Christ looks down, on the summit of the Tim Healy Pass; middle – one of the views from the top: snowy peaks seen on the sunniest of days! Lower – another view from the summit, with the Iveragh Peninsula (and the Kerry mountains) in the distance

Other highlights of our second day trip included the Uragh Stone Circle – surely the most dramatic situation for any megalithic monument? Beyond that site – through serpentine narrow boreens – lie the Gleninchaquin Lakes, Woods and Waterfalls, on a privately owned and run park covering 700 hectares. The very modest entrance fee allows you to freely use all the walking trails, the longest of which – around the perimeter – will take you six hours! We chose a shorter route through unbelievably green meadows, passing the enormous waterfall and being treated to glimpses of newly born lambs, all in hot March sunshine worthy of the middle of summer.

Views of the Uragh Stone Circle in its magnificent mountain and lake setting and – lower picture – looking from the circle back towards the landscape

Ancient cottage in an ancient land; the green glens of Gleninchaquin

All roads lead to home and we found ourselves eventually in Kenmare – where we suppered and visited another rather special holy well – before travelling over the mountains to Bantry on another high road – spectacular also – the Caha Pass – which finds itself tunnelling through the rocks in places.

Saint Finian’s Holy Well, on the shores of the river at Kenmare – still visited, and still effective!

We hope these little descriptions, and the photographs, will stimulate you to explore the Beara. We are looking forward to many more visits there, and to the discovery of yet more of Ireland’s fascinating history.

Beara – the Lie of the Land

On the north side of the Beara, looking across to the Kerry Mountains.

On the north side of the Beara, looking across to the Kerry Mountains

The Beara Peninsula is the largest and perhaps the wildest of the three West Cork Peninsulas. (See last week’s post for the map.) Two mountain chains, the Caha Mountains and the Slieve Miskish Mountains make up the spine of the Peninsula. You can traverse it via the spectacular Healy Pass, which runs from Adrigole north to Lauragh. On this occasion, because we had limited time, we confined ourselves to driving the main coastal route and to getting the general lie of the land. This meant we missed out on several landmarks – Bere Island, for example, and Dursey Island, besides the Healy Pass – so of course we must go back soon!

Near Cod's Head

Near Cod’s Head

After the inspiring piano recital by David Syme, described last week, we stayed overnight in Allihies and enjoyed an excellent dinner in O’Neill’s pub. The local Gaelic Football team had won a championship match that afternoon and the town was celebrating well into the night. Our first stop the next day was the Allihies Mining Museum. Housed in an impressively converted old Methodist Chapel, it tells the story of copper mining on the Beara, evidence of which can still be seen in the vicinity.

Note the green copper veins on the cliff face

Note the green copper veins on the cliff face

From there we carried on to the Cod’s Head, through a small pass which brought us out to a jaw-dropping vista across Coulagh Bay to Kilcatherine Point, and beyond to the Mountains of the Iveragh Peninsula in Kerry. We took the time here to hike up a waymarked trail that brought us up to breathtaking views high into the mountain slopes, home of purple heather, enormous boulders and curious sheep.

The sentinel

The sentinel

Eyries village is a pure delight: a riot of colourful houses and sleepy streets. We stopped at Ms Murphy’s traditional shop for tea and delicious sandwiches, strolled along the main street taking pictures and chatting to friendly residents, and finally by chance dropping into the startlingly beautiful St Kentigern’s church.

The north side of the Peninsula offers glorious vistas across the Kenmare River (an enormous sea inlet but called, oddly, a river). We took the coastal route from Kilcatherine to Dog’s Point and back to Ardgroom and on to Lauragh – lovely villages with seaside settings.

Mountain and sea

Mountain and sea

We stopped to visit the Cailleach Beara, the Hag of Beara. A powerfully symbolic site from Irish mythology, this rock is associated with many legends. People leave votive offerings – coins, rosary beads, a set of old glasses, shells and ribbons in honour of the spirit of the ancient goddess. Our next stop was the Ballycrovane Ogham Stone – the tallest in the world, and still in the wild, as Robert was glad to note.

Alright – so we have our bearings now and we’ve scratched the surface of this fascinating part of West Cork. Look out for future posts on the Beara – we can’t wait to return!

Beara mussel beds

Mussel beds, looking out to the Kenmare River