Gearing up for August in West Cork

August has roared into West Cork bringing gorgeous weather and a plethora of can’t-miss events. I am wrecked already and we are only a week in! As I type we are in the middle of the marvellous West Cork History Festival. Yesterday Micheál Martin, our Taoiseach, came for the afternoon, as he has done several times in the past. He’s a former history teacher and very supportive of our Festival. He spoke compellingly in a few introductory remarks about our need for a nuanced view of Irish history, one that no longer depends on a single narrative. It was an honour to have him there – no fuss, very discrete security detail, and giving us his whole attention. (Above, Simon and Victoria Kingston, visionary Festival Founders, with their children Rory and Constance, and An Taoiseach.)

The theme of the first day was Black 47 – its the 175th anniversary of the worst year of the Famine – and I am struck anew by the horror of it all (That’s Lilian Lucy Davidson’s harrowing depiction, titled Gorta, above, which featured in the Coming Home Exhibition in Uillinn in 2018). Take a look at the Festival Program to see the range of what we were offered today. It’s a blended festival this year: a small in-house audience but anyone can register for the program online. It’s a high-quality production too – several pony-tailed and bearded young men in black were in command of all that. You can still buy tickets for the online portion – they will be good for two weeks. The luminous Jessie Kennedy, a long-time Festival collaborator, has assembled the Celestial Quartet, and together they have devised a selection of classical and newly-composed music to honour Agnes Clerke, the famous astronomer who grew up in Skibbereen during the Famine. Read all about her in my post From Skibbereen to the Moon.

The festival continues today with an emphasis on the Bandon Valley Killings – a traumatic episode in our West Cork History that deserves a full examination 100 years later. 

On a more cheerful note, yesterday marked the opening of what is consistently the best art and craft show in West Cork, year after year. It’s called West Cork Creates, is located in the O’Driscoll building in Skibbereen, and is curated by Alison Ospina and her jury panel. The calibre is as high as you will find anywhere. Above, for example, is Hilary Nunan’s work, which mixes fibres with acrylic paint – these are titled Grasses. Below is New Age Medieval, a painting by Carin MacCana. I wrote about Carin’s stained glass work in this post – she is now retired from teaching and has stated to devote her time to painting. She and Penny Dixie share an extension of the Gallery for their own show as well.

Dubhaltach Ó Colmán has several striking metal sculptures in the show (above). His work goes from strength to strength. But perhaps our favourite were the two deckchairs below, reclaimed by Suzanne McGuirk and covered with her own exquisite organic linen woven fabric. They are soon to grace the terrace of our own home!

In Schull, the Blue House Gallery has just opened an exhibition of work by John Doherty. A photorealist painter, John’s work draws you in initially with its detailed representation of everyday objects: it’s nostalgia, you think at first, before it dawns on you that, as the Taylor Gallery says of his work: His images, coupled with the wry wit of their titles, point towards the human stories that exist behind the facades that represent a meticulous  examination of the half-forgotten life of the past. No, that’s not a photograph, below, of Connolly’s of Skibbereen – it’s one of John’s paintings.

And in our small village of Ballydehob we have not one but four exhibitions, all worth visiting right now! Starting from the top of the main street, let’s first drop by The Working Artists Studio, who are currently hosting the sculptor Denis O’Connor. He’ll be giving a talk on Friday and we intend to be there.

Of his work he says: 

Process and Making are central to my sculpture, working in an intuitive, physically dynamic way, trying to develop new ways of defining my language of sculpture.  I work with the medium of steel towards creating physical forms [rocks and boulders] which begin to transcend a sense of how elements of the landscape are made but also its physical vulnerability and hostility.

Just down the road is the Ballydehob Arts Museum. Robert wrote last week about the unique exhibition of Lynn and Ian Wright’s ceramics – everyone who visits enjoys their humour and skill.

Next door down is Rosie’s Pub, where the art-loving proprietors, Noel and Chris Camier, host regular shows all summer in their Aisling Gallery above the pub. The current show is the Ten Hands Group – ten Artist/Makers at the top of their game coming together for a marvellously-curated show. That’s the ten of them, above.

Finally, a new-ish addition to the village, the Kilcoe Studios is hosting Timpeallacht (it means surroundings or environment) in which all the items have been made from local and natural materials.

There’s more – much more – but this will give you a flavour of how we are spending our time right now. Next up for us is the superb Ellen Hutchins Festival. No wonder I’m exhausted – and blissed out. I will leave you with a ‘Head’ from the indefatigable Angela Brady – regular readers will remember we took a glass workshop with her.

Stained Glass Detectives – and a Find!

This is the story of what it takes sometimes to ferret out information about stained glass windows – often unsigned and undated and installed too far back for community memory to help. In this case, the window turned out to be a significant addition to the list of important Irish windows. Although it was I who first saw and photographed the windows in 2017, the detective work was largely done by my friend and colleague David Caron. David is the editor of the soon-to-be-published second edition of The Gazetteer of Irish Stained Glass and the most knowledgeable stained glass scholar on this island. My own contribution to the Gazetteer focusses on the work of George Walsh, but I am in the habit of photographing stained glass wherever I go, and I often send interesting windows to David or to other colleagues. In 2019, going though my photos, I came across two images that piqued my curiosity and decided to send them to David.

St Colman’s Catholic Church in Macroom (above, photo courtesy of the Buildings of Ireland) is a fine example of Gothic Revival architecture. The original church was built in 1826 – a significant achievement in the period before Catholic Emancipation and especially considering the poverty of the majority of the Catholic population at the time – and remodelled and extended in the 1890s. It has several stained glass windows inside – an Earley, some Harry Clarke Studios from the period after Harry died (such as the one below), and others that are unsigned and possibly imported. A fairly standard assemblage for a church of this period.

What caught my attention, however, were two panels in the entry porch. Rather than being fitted into true windows, the two pieces are installed in back-lit cabinets. The backlighting wasn’t quite bright enough so the windows did not show to full advantage and it was hard to make out any detail. Nevertheless, they were arresting in their modernity and in how different they were to the other windows inside the church. The first, to the left of the door, is an image of St Colman of Cloyne, patron saint of the diocese and of the church itself. He is depicted with a harp, dressed in long robes and with large bare feet. The harp is a reference to his status as a noted bard or poet – medieval bards recited their compositions to the accompaniment of the harp. The figure is surrounded by glass panes of varying shapes mostly in shades of green, and an aura radiates around his head.

The glass to the right of the door is a depiction of the madonna and child. Mary wears a wimple with a fez-like top and a long robe in olive green. She is seated and in her lap is the Christ child with one hand raised in blessing. He wears a crown and a white robe. Their faces are similar with a small mouth, long noise and heavy eyebrows (see lead image). Mary’s large foot rests on a crescent moon and her head and Jesus’ are surrounded  by an aura. Like Colman, the figures are set within irregularly shaped pieces of coloured glass in shades of green.

David decided to track down the mystery of who had made these windows and finally managed to get in touch with Fr O’Donnell, a retired Parish Priest who was very helpful indeed. He remembered that the windows had been made by a “Swedish woman from Skibbereen”. I got on the case and through a series of inquiries found Carin MacCana, who no longer does stained glass but still lives in West Cork. Below is an example of her previous stained glass work from the Skibbereen Heritage Centre, based around the sea creatures of Lough Hyne.

Carin confirmed that she had indeed done one of the windows. Wait, what? One of the windows? Yes, in fact she had been asked to match her window, St Colman, as closely as possible to the existing Madonna and Child window but she did not know who had done that one. Meanwhile, the enterprising Fr O’Donnell (now 90) was making good on his resolve to improve the backlighting. In the course of this, the signature ‘K’ was noticed on the back of the Marian panel. Fr O’Donnell recalled that the Madonna and Child had been presented by the artist Thomas Ryan, PRHA, in memory of a friend of his, a local doctor. Armed with this information, David went back to Carin who then remembered that she had been told the name of the artist was Richard King.

 Richard King in his studio, courtesy of the Capuchin Archives. The 1975 volume has extensive images and moving obituaries for King, beginning on page 169: he was the magazine’s chief artist.

Although I have written about Richard King before (see Richard King in Mayo and Discovering Richard King), I am no expert – but we know who is! David immediately consulted Ruth Sheehy. Ruth has recently published her magisterial study The Life and Work of Richard King: Religion, Nationalism and Modernism – an engaging, erudite and exhaustive study of King’s artistic output, including his stained glass. This is my well-thumbed copy.

She was delighted to confirm that this was indeed the work of Richard King, and that it was a panel she knew existed, but had never managed to find. She pointed us to a similar panel – a ‘twin’ – that King made for the Church of the Holy Cross in Aberaeron in Wales. That panel has been well documented by Martin Crampin, artist and academic, who is the acknowledged expert on Welsh stained glass. He has kindly given me permission to reproduce his photo of that window, “Our Lady of Ireland”, below. For more on that window, see his listing here: http://stainedglass.llgc.org.uk/object/970 and also his blog post about this and another Richard King window in Wales: https://stainedglasswales.wordpress.com/2020/12/17/richard-king/

Of the Welsh window, dating to 1958, in her book, Ruth says:

The Virgin Mary seated with the Christ-child shown in red, is depicted as an Irish woman with a blue shawl around her head and shoulders. The two figures are seen in the centre against a background of large areas of vibrant colour and cubist-abstract shapes. As King knew and admired Mainie Jellett’s art, he would have been aware of her meditative and indirect approach to religious themes as shown by The Ninth Hour. . . Although King’s interpretation of figuration and non-figuration was somewhat different from that of Jellett, the stained glass window of Our Lady of Ireland shows him experimenting with a cubist-abstract approach to form, light and colour which suggests an adaptation of her style.

Mainie Jellett’s The Ninth Hour, 1941, oil on canvas, Collection Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane

Regarding the Macroom window, which dates to 1963, Ruth wrote to us in an email:

The Virgin and Child are depicted here as King and Queen of Heaven and this image has similarities with another work by King entitled ‘Our Lady of Ireland’ c. 1958 which is reproduced in the book. The half moon at the Virgin’s feet refers to her immaculate conception. The red and white halo behind the Christ child wearing a crown indicates that his kingship is based on his ultimate Cross and resurrection and is not of this world.. . . . The large hands and feet of the figures and their expressive quality would suggest the influences of Evie Hone and modern German stained glass on King’s stylistic development at this period.

Fr O’Donnell has now had the windows cleaned and installed much improved back-lighting. The results are wonderful and allow us to see the windows properly, as both Carin MacCana and Richard King intended. Carin has done an outstanding job of matching King’s style, which is why we all assumed in the beginning of the hunt for answers, that this was a pair of windows done by the same artist. The colours of the St Colman window, instead of being muddy and autumnal now glow in golds, blues and greens.

As for King’s Madonna and Child window, the colours are quite different from how they appeared before. The background is dominated by light yellows and pale blues and greens, while Mary’s robe is not olive green but a brilliant azure – and it is now obvious that the ‘fez’ is a crown. The red and white halo (a favourite symbol of King’s) is also clearer now. Both of these windows beautifully illustrate the importance of proper back-lighting.

It isn’t every day that you can be part of rediscovering a ‘lost’ work of art – what a privilege it has been to be part of this journey.