Sensory Upload

Skibbereen Arts Festival

In the words of one of the organisers, Robert and I have been doing a marathon – an arts marathon. The Skibbereen Arts Festival has been running all week and we’ve taken in as many exhibitions, concerts, events and experiences as we could. Last year we missed most of this festival, as we had just arrived and were occupied with settling in. This year we wanted to remedy that.

In the bottling plant*

In the bottling plant*

And what a sensory feast it was: music, art, dance, drama and various items that defied categorisation. There was something for everyone, no matter what your age and taste. We took two days to cover the art walks. There were several pop-up galleries – empty houses converted into pro tem exhibition spaces ideal for the kind of modern installations that leave you scratching your head and worrying that you’re not sophisticated enough. The Working Artist Studios, a building run by artists for artists, had opened all their rooms for the duration of the Festival. Some of the rooms functioned as galleries, while others provided a glimpse into the working process of an emerging canvas.

In one room we discovered Caoine by a young local woman, Michelle Collins, which explored the ancient practice of keening, the Irish funerary custom of women lamenting over the dead. In a darkened room, among scented candles, we listened to the sorrowful songs and sounds of an age-old tradition. To give you an idea of a keening song, listen to Iarla O Lionaird singing the Lament of the Three Marys, with its repetition of the phrase  Óchón agus óchón ó – which can translate as alas and alas, or my grief, my grief.

At the other end of town an old bottling plant had been cleared out to become a perfect space for showing artists’ work. Several of these exhibitors had graduated from an innovative visual arts degree program offered on Sherkin Island by the Dublin Institute of Technology. We talked to Janet Murran and Donagh Carey who were enthusiastic about their experiences in the Sherkin Program – their work clearly showed mature artists seeking meaning in a variety of media. In one corner an intriguing little installation by Tess Leak featured Haiku written by Sherkin Islanders and inspired by island life. And in an adjacent building photographs, by Yvette Monahan, of Bugarach in France – where a new arcadia was supposed to begin once the world ended on December 21st, 2012. Moody and elegaic, the colour reminded me of the Agfa prints of my youth.

Robert is writing about Canon Goodman – see his post for more on the concert in his honour (and in his church) that has become a staple of this Festival. Another highlight for us was the staging of The Playboy of the Western World by J M Synge, a classic of Irish theatre: one which caused riots when first performed. This was an amateur production but it was hard to tell – the Kilmeen Drama Group had won the All-Ireland Drama finals with this production, had performed it at the Abbey Theatre (Ireland’s National Theatre) and are taking it to New York next. It was superb – full of energy and humour with each line singing with poetic expression.

The Playboy of the Western World

The Playboy of the Western World

To illustrate the sheer variety of what was on offer we also attended:

Men Without Names: a poignant exploration in poetry and music of the Irish diaspora. 

Sunrise/3Epkano: a classic silent movie with soundtrack provided by the group 3Epkano. A surreal experience, different from what I was expecting but in the best way.

The Vespertine Quintet: in the beautiful setting of Lissard House, an afternoon of gentle, haunting, minimalist music from Iceland mixed with baroque.

Croi Glan Dance: I have written about this marvellous dance company before – these two dances looked at the challenges of finding our place in the world and once again brought lumps to our throats.

We couldn’t go to everything and I was sorry to miss the dancing at the crossroads and the sean-nós evening. Sean-nós is a traditional style of highly ornamented unaccompanied singing – here is Nell Ní Chróinín showing how it’s done. There were events for families, a river day, a drama day, outdoor movie screenings…But most of all I was disappointed that Starlight Serenade sold out before I could get a ticket. Moonlight kayaking on beautiful Lough Hyne with musical accompaniment. For a taste of what I missed, take a look at this, and add music. 

‘Paddling Through Stars’ on Lough Hyne

Next year! But I might have to call that one Sensory Overload.

*Sorry, I don’t know the name of this artist. Can anyone supply it?

Tuning In


Sharon Shannon in concert, Dalkey

We are safely home in Nead an Iolair – and have immediately become immersed in music. We are making our own – with guests on the doorstep and at the local Friday sessions in Ballydehob – but also attending the many events which take place in West Cork in the summer. On our second night here we couldn’t miss a Skibbereen Festival event in the Abbeytsrewery Church: a concert in memory of Canon James Goodman, a cleric of the Church of Ireland who served the Skibbereen Parish for 30 years until his death in 1896.


There is a statue of the Canon by the gates of the church, where he can be seen with his Uillean pipes: he was a proficient player of this most complicated of all instruments. He is best known, though, for having produced one of the earliest collections of Irish traditional music – transcribing over 2000 tunes which he gathered from local players. All his known manuscripts are now in the library of Trinity College Dublin, where Goodman was also appointed Professor of Irish in 1879, but have only recently been brought to light and performed. Our Skibbereen concert celebrated the Canon and was devoted to his collected music. As Goodman was born in 1828 and starting collecting in his youth, we were listening to music as it would have been played in Ireland before the famine! But this is what The Music is all about – continuity of a timeless cultural tradition passed down through the generations and still very much alive.

The Canon Goodman concert

The Canon Goodman concert

August was the month for the Masters of Tradition Festival, organised and run by Martin Hayes who hales from East Clare. For me, he is one of the world’s greatest musicians of the Irish tradition: his playing is captivatingly lyrical and seems to carry with it the soul of this ancient land. We attended all the concerts, many of which took place in Bantry House, a gently fading edifice which was once the home of the Earls of Bantry and is still occupied by their descendants. This stately home hosts many artistically based events through the year and provides an impressive – if incongruous – background to the activities. Some of the traditional musicians seemed slightly uncomfortable in the polite ambience of the candlelit Library, being more used to the ‘dancing in the aisles’ atmosphere of pubs and village halls: nevertheless, all the performances were memorable.


Bantry House, built in 1690 with a spectacular setting overlooking Bantry Bay

There have been so many events within easy reach of our home here in Cappaghglass through the summer: we have had to miss a few because they overlap. We are keeping those for next year – or the years after that! We visited Finola’s family in Dublin and arrived to find a Sharon Shannon concert happening just down the road. This was wonderfully located in the Catholic Church of the Assumption. Sharon is an outstanding accordion player who has been performing professionally for very many years. In this incarnation of her music we were treated to heavy amplification, a brilliant pianist and singer – Alan Connor (who almost stole the show!) – and a disco light display which was enhanced by the ornate Victorian richness of the altar and reredos. There was very nearly ‘dancing in the aisles’ on this night!

Keeping alive The Music - in the market at Skibbereen

Keeping alive The Music – in the market at Skibbereen

In what seems like just a few whirlwind days we have progressed from music on the doorstep to world calibre concerts in beautiful settings: this is only the beginning of our new life here…

On the doorstep: Nead an Iolair

On the doorstep: Nead an Iolair