William Burges and Saint Fin Barre’s

You may recall my delight in finding so much animal imagery in the Honan Chapel at UCC. In Cork City again this week we discovered another ‘menagerie’ – this time at the Cathedral of Saint Fin Barre. This Gothic Revival building is an architectural and artistic wonder – quite the most significant work that I have seen to date from the palette of English designer William Burges, who lived from 1827 to 1881. In fact it is an early work of his, resulting from an architectural competition which he won in 1863 (receiving a prize of £100). Unusually for an ambitious building such as a cathedral, it was finished in a relatively short time: the first services were held in 1870 – although completion of some of the detailed carving and decoration continued through to the twentieth century.

Everything in the cathedral was designed by William Burges: stained glass windows (74 of them, incorporating twice as many individual scenes); statuary (1,260 pieces of sculpture); brasswork, floor mosaics and wood carvings. Most striking for me is the complete coherence of the building: the genesis of the design work from a single mind – down to the very last constructed item – is visually obvious and I am, of course, professionally jealous that an architect was allowed to completely indulge himself to this level of detail, apparently without the intervention or censorship of clients, building inspectors or planning authorities! The cost of the building project overran its budget some tenfold…

Whole books could (and have been) written about this building and all its intricacies. In this short post I will concentrate mainly on the iconography, especially animal images, because it’s obvious that Burges shares my own enthusiasms for the natural world. There’s much more of this than I can illustrate here, and considerably more to the whole building that’s well worth seeing. I advise you to allow an afternoon – or a day – when you visit, if you want to really get to grips with everything.

A little about the man himself, although biographical information is scant: he was described during his lifetime as “short and fat” and “so near-sighted that he once mistook a Peacock for a man”. Lady Bute, wife of his greatest patron, wrote, “…Dear Burges, ugly Burges, who designed such lovely things – what a duck…” He was undoubtedly an eccentric, attending site meetings on occasion dressed as a medieval jester. Like many of his contemporaries he smoked opium (the overdoing of which is said to have contributed to his early death) and he was a friend of Oscar Wilde, James Whistler and – according to the architectural historian Joseph Mordaunt Crook – “the whole gamut of pre-Raphaelite London”.

Three views of the eccentric William Burges: portrait by Henry van der Weyde (left), dressed as a medieval jester (centre) and a caricature by Frederick Weekes (right)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote a limerick on Burges’s childish nature:

There’s a babyish party called Burges,
Who from childhood hardly emerges.
If you hadn’t been told,
He’s disgracefully old,
You would offer a bull’s-eye to Burges.

It does appear that Burges was quite active in the world of London’s creatives in his day. Elected to the Institute of British Architects in 1860, in 1862 he was appointed to its Council and in 1863 was elected to the Foreign Architectural Book Society, the FABS, which comprised the RIBA elite and was limited to fifteen members. He became a member of the Atheneum Club in 1874, was a member of the Arts Club, the Medieval Society, the Hogarth Club, and was elected to the Royal Academy just before his death.

Paradise Lost

Poor William Burges received very little praise for his work, either in his own lifetime and for a long while afterwards. Gothic Revivalist architecture went out of fashion when the new century approached, and was often derided for its heaviness and over-elaboration. For a while Victorian art was under constant assault, critics writing of “the nineteenth century architectural tragedy”, ridiculing “the uncompromising ugliness” of the era’s buildings and attacking the “sadistic hatred of beauty” of its architects. In my own view they all failed to grasp the romance of the age, expressed so beautifully and particularly in the detailing of many of the buildings, among which the Cathedral of Saint Fin Barre stands supreme.

birdie 4


Cork’s Rebel Daughter

most dangerous

The Most Dangerous Woman in America

Mary Harris was born in Cork City in 1837. Like the lady herself, that’s a bit controversial: she claimed to have been born on 1st May 1830 – probably because that enabled her to celebrate her 100th birthday in 1930 – but also because the first day of May has always been associated with workers’ rights. She didn’t make a huge impact in Ireland, as she emigrated with her parents as a child. The first paragraph of her autobiography (published 1925 by C H Kerr + Co, Chicago) succinctly summarizes the early years of her life:

…I was born in the City of Cork, Ireland, in 1830. My people were poor. For generations they had fought for Ireland’s freedom. Many of my folks have died in that struggle. My father, Richard Harris, came to America in 1835, and as soon as he had become an American citizen he sent for his family. His work as a laborer with railway construction crews took him to Toronto, Canada. Here I was brought up but always as the child of an American citizen. Of that citizenship I have ever been proud…

Mary Harris – Mother Jones – remembered in Cork (left) and in the US (right)

Mary was a ferocious socialist – perhaps influenced initially by her husband George E Jones, a member of the Iron Molders Union in Memphis. She lost her husband and four young children to a yellow fever epidemic in 1867, and seemed to take the emerging Labor Movement as her family thereafter. She re-created herself as ‘Mother Jones’ and spent the rest of her life supporting the rights of workers in the railroad, steel, copper, brewing, textile, and mining industries. The five foot tall white-haired Irish lady participated in hundreds of strikes all over America, and attracted public attention by mobilising miners’ wives to march with brooms and mops in order to block strikebreakers from entering the mines.

Mother Jones meets President Coolidge in 1924 (Library of Congress)

Mother Jones meets President Coolidge in 1924 (Library of Congress)

Mother Jones helped found the US Social Democratic Party (1898) and the Industrial Workers of the World (1905); she published articles in the International Socialist Review, met and lobbied (and gained the respect of) several Presidents and spent time in jail. On one occasion when violence broke out during a mine strike in West Virginia, a state military court convicted her of conspiracy to commit murder.  Nationwide protest led the Governor to commute her twenty-year sentence.

Mother Jones in action in 1921

Mother Jones in action in 1921

Some quotations ascribed to Mother Jones:

A lady is the last thing on earth I want to be.  Capitalists sidetrack the women into clubs and make ladies of them

Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living

My address is like my shoes. It travels with me. I abide where there is a fight against wrong

No matter what the fight, don’t be ladylike! God almighty made women and the Rockefeller gang of thieves made the ladies

I asked a man in prison once how he happened to be there and he said he had stolen a pair of shoes. I told him if he had stolen a railroad he would be a United States Senator

The employment of children is doing more to fill prisons, insane asylums, almshouses, reformatories, slums, and gin shops than all the efforts of reformers are doing to improve society

I’m not a humanitarian, I’m a hell-raiser


Strangely, Mary did not support the women’s suffrage movement in the United States: she considered it a middle class diversion taking the focus away from the fight against social injustice and basic universal rights for all workers. In her eighties she was still actively supporting strikes involving streetcar, garment and steel workers.

Mary Harris Jones died on November 30, 1930.  After being celebrated by a mass in Washington DC, she was buried at the Union Miners’ Cemetery in Illinois, next to victims of the Virden, Illinois mine riot of 1898.  Her funeral was attended by thousands of labour supporters, mine workers and other mourners.

Cork remembers this daughter of revolution: we found a commemorative plaque in the Shandon district, close to the old Butter Market – historically the city’s most notable industry. In the States her name lives on also: Mother Jones is an independent, non-profit making magazine and website reporting on politics, the environment, human rights, and culture ‘…that in its power and reach informs and inspires a more just and democratic world…’

MoJo – the liberal Mother Jones Magazine

Bravo, Mary Harris of Cork, for being so committed to the fight for the basic rights of humanity in general and the working population in particular. And watch out, capitalists and oppressors – as she is reported as saying frequently ‘…the kaisers of this country are next, I tell ye…’



The English Market


We’re both looking at markets this week: Finola is concentrating on the delights of our local Christmas community fairs, while I am looking at the ‘big market’ further afield.


The Republic’s second largest city can trace its history back to a community of monks, scholars and scribes which St Finbarr established on the banks of the River Lee in the 6th century. The area was known as an Corcach Mór – ‘the Great Marsh’. This settlement became a notable centre of learning, giving rise to the phrase Ionad Bairre Sgoil na Mumhan – a motto adopted by the modern University College Cork as ‘Where Finbarr taught let Munster learn’.

Finola approves Walter's stall

Finola approves Walter’s ‘pop-up’ stall

First a town and then a city grew up around the marshes and in the 18th century large tracts of low lying land were drained and reclaimed, forming the area which is now the commercial centre of Cork, including Saint Patrick’s Street, the Grand Parade, Grattan Street and Cornmarket Street. In 1786 the Corporation of the City undertook to create here a new meat market ‘in the English style’. A grand opening took place on 1st August 1788. This was before the emerging United States of America had elected George Washington as its first President, and in the same year that Captain Arthur Philip’s First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay with its cargo of convicts – ‘The Founders of Australia’.



The English Market in Cork is an essential part of any visitor’s itinerary. Even the Queen went there for a look around during her Irish tour last year and reportedly was very impressed with it. We followed on last week, to visit the new Fresh from West Cork stall which has been set up over the Christmas period to sell the delicious produce which emanates from our small part of the world, and which has justly gained a country wide reputation. The stall is being ably run by Walter from Loughbeg Farm – just down the road from us, and it’s hoped that this trial period will result in Fresh from West Cork becoming a permanent fixture at the market.





It’s no longer just a meat market – you can find every variety of good food there, as these pictures hopefully show, and an excellent cafe upstairs. If ever you are passing through, don’t forget to call in.



Getting in the Christmas Spirit

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This week revolved around two trips, to Baltimore and Cork City, and observing the Irish spirit of Christmas.

Stolen VillageBaltimore – wha..? No – we didn’t take a quick trip to the States: Baltimore, the original one, is a small town in West Cork. It’s where you catch the ferries to Sherkin and Cape Clear Islands, and right now it’s hosting whale-watching tours because the humpbacks are in town. We walked out to the Beacon, an iconic landmark that in earlier times provided guidance into the harbour, hoping to catch a glimpse of the humpbacks. Although there were no whales to be seen, it was another ‘pet day’ and we were more than adequately compensated by the views over Sherkin and the Harbour, glowing in the low afternoon sun. A friend has loaned us her copy of The Stolen Village by Des Ekin – a riveting account of the Sack of Baltimore, in 1631, when Barbary Pirates laid waste to the town and bore away almost all the villagers into a life of slavery.

I lived in Cork City for seven years in the late 60’s and early 70, finishing secondary school and completing two degrees. Then, it was an undistinguished provincial town, with its own culture, sense of place and humour, and an uninspiring Victorian architecture. Nowadays it’s a lively city with a huge variety of stores and a European vibe. Many of the narrow streets have been pedestrianised, leading to a downtown core made for strolling and gawking, and on every street corner were carol singers, brass bands, or entertainers. We stayed in a wonderful place, the River Lee Hotel, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the river, great food and friendly and accommodating staff. While the main purpose of our trip was to attend a rock art meeting at UCC, we whiled away several happy hours on Christmas shopping.

2012-12-08 12.18.072012-12-08 12.15.19Back in West Cork, we took in one of the local Christmas events in Skibbereen – a Live Crib. Our entry ticket came with a carrot for the donkey. The animals were live, but Mary, Joseph and the baby were mannequins. It was explained to us that “t’would be nice, like, to have them played by real people, but sure ‘twas freezing for them, and the last girl who played Mary was most of the time on her mobile.”

We rounded off the week by erecting our Christmas tree. It’s surprising what you can do with  a tree branch, some holly and berries, and five ornaments.

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