It was a magical experience – kayaking at night on Castlehaven Inlet!
Wait – what? At night? Yes – of course kayaking in West Cork is wonderful at any time but at night it takes on a special aura, helped out by the silky darkness and the silence. I went with Atlantic Sea Kayaking, the company run by the genial Jim Kennedy. I’d been with him once before, on Lough Hyne – that was way back in 2014 and was one of the highlights of my year. I wrote about that incredible trip in Starlight Bliss. This trip was equally as amazing.
We gathered at 7 at Reen Pier in Castlehaven Inlet. This is a very professional outfit – we were all shapes and sizes but soon everyone was kitted out in waterproof trousers and jackets. Then it was time for a quick lesson on how to hold the paddle and what not to do, reassurance on how stable and safe the kayaks are, and before we knew it there we were gently floating in the gathering gloaming.
Lucky me got to sit in the front of Declan Power’s kayak. He was one of our two guides and has years of experience doing this, but it doesn’t seemed to have dimmed his enjoyment and wonder. If I hadn’t already been excited, I would have been infected by his own contagious enthusiasm. It was still fairly light so we paddled down to Castletownshend, getting used to the paddles and the kayaks and our eyes adjusting to the fading light. Rosie, the other guide, brought up the rear and made sure were were all accounted for.
Declan knows his history and as we rafted up alongside Castletownsend Castle he told us about the area and about the families that had moved here after Cromwell. It’s a very special village, with interesting architecture, famous families, and, crowning glory, Harry Clarke windows in St Barrahane’s Church of Ireland. That’s his St Barrahane, below.
By now it was getting properly dark. Declan and Rosie turned on their helmet lights and we headed back up the inlet. We steered towards the far bank, where overhanging trees blocked out any residual light from the sky. First, Declan encouraged us all to be still and just listen – to the silence. The rooks, noisily cawing earlier, had settled down into their rookery for the evening and there wasn’t a sound. We felt enveloped in peace.
Declan broke the silence by asking us to trail our hands in the water and there was a collective intake of breath. Everywhere our hands dipped and splashed sparkles began to skip across the water. It was the bioluminescence that this area is known for! Like fireflies, marine organisms such as plankton emit light when disturbed. The sea is teeming with tiny fish, bacteria, algae, worms, crustaceans. . . all with the chemicals necessary for bioluminescence. And they seem to love West Cork!
So there we were, gliding through the velvet black waters, surrounded by fireworks. There wasn’t much chat – everyone was lost in their own experience of dipping and gently splashing and watching as flashing droplets raced away from our hulls and paddles.
Declan – thank you for this once-in-a-lifetime experience!
I’ve lived back in West Cork now for almost ten years and we’ve done so much in that time. And yet there are still experiences to be had that leave you in joyful wonderment and asking the Old Gods – how did I get to be living this life?
Remarkably, there are three Harry Clarke stained glass windows in one small West Cork village – in St Barrahane’s Church of Ireland church, in Castletownshend. The smallest of the three windows is the St Luke, inset into the south wall of the chancel. It is a miniature masterpiece, designed with extraordinary attention to detail by Harry, and executed in his studio.
The iconography that was chosen was specific to the subject – St Luke as Patron Saint of Painters. That’s because this was a memorial window to Egerton Coghill – more correctly Sir Egerton Bushe Coghill, 5th Baronet Coghill.
Egerton Coghill, left, with his painting companion Herbert Baxter*
Egerton had grown up in Castletownshend, one of a large family of Coghills who lived in a rambling house called Glen Barrahane, and who seemed to be related in multiple ways to all the other families who lived in and around Castletownshend. His father (Sir John Jocelyn, one of Ireland’s earliest photographers) was the brother of Adelaide, who had married Thomas Henry Somerville, mother of the Somerville family that included (among others) Edith (see Stories and Stained Glass), Boyle (see Boyle Somerville: Ireland’s First Archaeoastronomer and Boyle’s Bealtaine), and Hildegard. Hildegard eventually married Egerton, her first cousin. To Edith and Boyle, therefore, Egerton was both first cousin and brother-in-law.
To Edith he was also a childhood playmate, a best friend and a great supporter and artistic mentor. In periods of distress for her he encouraged her to concentrate on her work – first art and then writing, and he loaned her money when the going got tough. Everyone loved him, it seems. He gave up a career in engineering to devote himself to painting and his limited private means allowed him to study abroad. When he and Hildegard fell in love their families were delighted, but they had to wait seven years to be able to afford to marry.
Egerton and Hildegard on their wedding day
As a painter, Egerton was strongly influenced by the Impressionists. He painted en plein air, drawn to landscape and to muted colours. He loved to capture the scenery around Castletownshend, or the village itself, as in this charming depiction of the main street.
The Mall from Malmaison (Courtesy of the Fitzwilliam Museum)
Field of Rye, Barbizon (Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum)
Egerton’s older brother, Neville, was killed at the Battle of Isandlwana during the Zulu Wars – Robert has developed a talk on West Cork Links to the Zulu Wars and will no doubt write a post about Neville eventually. One of the windows in St Barrahane’s (not a Harry Clarke) is dedicated to his memory. When Neville died, Egerton inherited the title and moved back permanently to Castletownshend with Hildegard and his children. Egerton himself died unexpectedly in England in 1921 during the upheavals caused by the War of Independence at home in Ireland, so it was some time before his body could be brought back to St Barrahane’s for burial. According to Edith, The whole country came to the funeral, and all the men competed for the privilege of putting a shoulder to the coffin, for even a few steps.
When Edith and Hildegard were able to consider a permanent memorial for their beloved Egerton it was naturally to Harry Clarke that they turned. Edith had been entranced immediately by Harry’s work when she travelled up to Cork, on the advice of her brother Cameron, in 1916 to view the windows in the Honan Chapel. She wrote to Cameron afterwards to thank him. She was nothing short of stunned by Harry’s windows and “the quality of burning and furious brilliance that I have never seen anywhere else. . . his windows have a kind of hellish splendour”.
Edith in her Master of the Foxhounds habit, about the age she was when Egerton died
Since then, Edith had worked with Harry to install the Nativity window in 1918 (it was his first public commission) as a memorial to her grandparents, and again in 1921 on the Kendall Coghill window (Egerton’s bachelor-soldier uncle and a universal family favourite) about which I wrote in my post The Gift of Harry Clarke. She now asked him to take on this new commission, and Harry, who had known and liked Egerton, promised to pay special attention to this project.
St Luke, Patron Saint of Painters, is depicted with a palette and brushes, with the Madonna’s face appearing on the palette
The design he came up with is exquisite, and every detail is important. St Luke, perhaps better known to most of us as one of the four gospel writers, is also the Patron Saint of Painters. This is based on the tradition that he painted the first image of Mary, and that image became an early Christian icon. In Harry’s design, Luke holds a painter’s palette and brushes, and the image of Mary appears like a ghostly presence on the palette.
Luke, with St Cecelia to the left and St John, holding a chalice, to the right
Luke himself is a typical Harry creation, with his huge eyes, forked beard, and expression full of compassion. His right hand, with long tapered fingers and a sleeve point (Harry loved those), holds a brush. His hat and garments are elaborately rendered in blue, scarlet and purple. His sandals, thong style, are complex twists of leather straps.
Besides the Luke and the Madonna images, there are four other sacred figures in the window. One of the unique joys of this window is that you can get close enough to it to see these tiny figures clearly, since it is at eye level (it helps to be tall). The first, on the left side of the window is St Fidelio, dressed as a bishop (below). Although one author asserts that Egerton was born on St Fidelio’s name day, I have been unable to confirm that or to find any information at all about St Fidelio, but obviously this saint had meaning to Egerton, or to the Somerville sisters, or perhaps it was a reference to Egerton’s faithfulness. However, it could, like St Cecilia, be another musical reference, to Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio. In fact, most of the figures appear to relate to secular aspects of Egerton’s life, while thinly disguised as the kind of saintly images suitable for a church window. I can almost hear Harry, Edith and Hildegard chuckling over the choices, knowing that Egerton, who had his full share of boisterous Coghill humour, would thoroughly approve of the coded messages.
To the left of Luke’s shoulder is St Cecilia. Egerton loved music, had a fine voice, and performed happily in the musical theatre that was a staple of family life within the Castletownshend circle. Gilbert and Sullivan was a favourite. But this is also a nod to Edith – Cecilia is shown playing an organ while the organ that Edith played for over 50 years occupies the loft at the other end of the church (below).
Finally, at the top of the window, across from each other, are St John and St Barrahane. Barrahane, after whom the church is named (and who is pictured also in Harry’s nativity window in the same church) is the local saint, and the Coghill house was called Glen Barrahane in deference to that tradition. The tonsured monk is holding up a church (below). John was both his father’s and his grandfather’s (Baron Plunkett) name.
Egerton’s coat of arms, the dedication plaque, and Harry’s signature round out the window.
At this time, the Harry Clarke Studio was experiencing enormous demand for his work. To satisfy this demand he employed a group of highly talented artists and craftsmen, all of whom were trained to faithfully execute his designs, with Harry supervising closely. Thus it was with this window – most of it in fact was made while Harry was out of the country. The fact that he did not personally do most of the etching, staining and painting on this window does not in any way detract from its identification as a true Harry Clarke window – in every meaningful sense this was his creation and his signature indicates that he took full credit for the final product.
If you go to St Barrahane’s, make sure that you open the gate in the altar rails and go right up to the little window in the chancel. People have been known to miss it. It’s a unique opportunity to get nose-to-nose with a Harry Clarke. And when you do, spare a kind thought also for Egerton, a fellow artist, beloved by all who knew him, and honoured in this exquisite work of art.
*The four black and White photographs are from Edith Somerville: A Biography, by Gifford Lewis. I could find no copyright information on them so am assuming they are available for use, with gratitude to the author and publisher, Four Courts Press. The photograph of Edith as MFH is in my own possession.
There’s a class of monument in Ireland that I am only discovering as an adult. There is a reason for this – as a young person growing up in a conservative Catholic culture, it was verboten for us to enter (yes, even just enter) Protestant churches. I was used to a certain iconography – stations of the cross, statues, stained glass of saintly subjects – and very rarely did it include memorials to deceased individuals. That was confined to the graveyards.
No modern Irish reader of this memorial at St Fin Barre’s Cathedral in Cork could fail to be aware of its incongruities
As our readers will know by now, Robert and I never pass an open church without poking around inside. Last year, in The Love Which He Bare Her, I wrote about the wonderful memorials I have discovered to women, cataloguing their many virtues. That was for St Valentine’s Day so since it’s still February I thought I would do a similar post for men. There are lots – poets, priests and philosophers, benevolent and erudite – but the ones I have been most taken by are the military memorials* we have discovered in Protestant churches.
Irish men served in the British army all through our long and complex history together. My father served in the Second World War although he saw no combat. My maternal grandfather was a Sergeant in the Welsh Fusiliers stationed in Dublin where he met my grandmother, whose own father had served in India and Afghanistan.
Left: My father, Hugh Finlay, during his time in the British Army, stationed in Belfast during the Second World War. Right: The grave of my Welsh grandfather, William Owen Roberts, in The Hague, Holland. He saw action as a young man in the Boer War. He died of the Spanish Flu on his way home from the First World War.
Although this was part of family lore, it received no attention in our history lessons. Once again – there’s a reason for this. It’s been succinctly expressed by Turtle Bunbury in his book The Glorious Madness:
For those who returned to Ireland after the war, the horror of their experience was magnified by the realisation that everything they fought for amounted to nought and that anyone who thought otherwise was no longer welcome. Although many of those who won independence for the Irish Free State had formerly served in His Majesty’s forces, there were powerful elements within the new order that would obligate the country at large to throw an unforgiving eye upon ex-servicemen of the British Empire. In time the hostility became amnesia and the Ireland of my youth in the late 20th century seemed to have a history in which the only war the Irish ever fought was for freedom from Britannia’s rule.
Turtle’s book opens our eyes to the vast numbers of Irish men and women who fought in WWI and their reasons for doing so – reasons as diverse as their backgrounds. Read the chapter on Tom Kettle and Emmet Dalton, for example, or the piece on Liam O’Flaherty (author of The Informer) or that on Cork’s famous son, Tom Barry, as well as those on members of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy such as Lord Desmond FitzGerald, or famine-survival emigrants such as Knox D’Arcy who helped found BP Oil. Thankfully, the collective amnesia is being faced now and memorials to WWI dead are springing up in country graveyards around Ireland.
A new slab at Abbeymahon church near Courtmacsherry remembers Denis Driscoll, a local man who fought in WWI
Besides the first and second World Wars, though, the military memorials that have caught my eye have celebrated the courage and sacrifice of Irish men who devoted their lives to a career in the British army and navy even before the 20th century. But why are these memorials inevitably found in Protestant churches and not Catholic? Besides the conventions of iconography and the collective amnesia referred to above, there is, yes you guessed it, a reason for this.
As part of a minority but ruling class in Ireland, Church of Ireland members often saw themselves as standard bearers of Empire. As a community they were on the whole (with many notable exceptions) conservative and unionist and looked to Britain for education for their children. Many families had generations-long traditions of sending their sons to serve in the army or navy. (While Irish Catholics also served, it was predominantly in the ranks of foot-soldiers and to escape unemployment at home, rather than as career officers.) British military valour and sacrifice, therefore, loomed far larger in the consciousness of Protestant families than in Catholic ones.
According to Martin Maguire in his paper “Our People”;the Church of Ireland in Dublin and the culture of community since Disestablishment**, The most powerful and emotional bond with Great Britain, and within the Church of Ireland community in Dublin, were memories of the first World War… After the war Remembrance Day became one of the most solemn occasions in the year, one which strengthened the sense of being a special community and, despite national independence, maintained the close identity between the Church of Ireland and the community of the British Empire… The loss of a great many young men to a population which was already unstable was traumatic.
But this is also true of all the preceding wars, and this is reflected in the church memorials we see in the Protestant churches. Battles and engagements in places we never learned to think about about in school as being part of our collective heritage (the Burma War? the Siege of Lucknow?) are eulogised in these tablets and plaques. Soldiers are honoured by their companions, and lamented by their families. Their bravery and accomplishments are lauded and potent symbols such as crossed spears and empty helmets represent their sacrifice.
Being an ‘Outpost of Empire’ doesn’t sit well with our ideas of what Ireland is now and this year in particular we will be celebrating our independence from all that that phrase invokes. But these memorials serve to remind us of the complexity and plurality of our history, and in many case of our own family history.
The Brabazons, about 1900. Great-grandfather John Edward had served in India and Afghanistan and wears a military medal. Great-Uncles Michael and James wear the uniforms of army cadets***. Marie, my grandmother, who married William Owen Roberts, is in the middle at the back
*The Memorials in this post come from three churches: St Fin Barre’s in Cork City, St Barrahane’s in Castletownshend (Co Cork) and St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.
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