Blasket through the Lens

Great Blasket, one of the islands in the parish of Dún Chaoin (Dunquin) off the west coast of Kerry, was the home and life-blood of a tenacious population of Irish families for many hundred years. One of these families – the Ferriters – claim that they controlled the islands as far back as the 13th century and had established a castle there. Whoever lived there had to be tough: the terrain is wild and there is little shelter. Nevertheless, the islanders clung to their territory, and their numbers expanded in the early 19th century when Lord Ventry of Dingle evicted many of his tenants from their holdings and those who left found island life – hard though it was – preferable to persecution.

We are fortunate that, during the early twentieth century, Great Blasket was visited by curious tourists and anthropologists. Among them was Robin Flower, who became Deputy-Keeper of Manuscripts in the British Museum from 1929 to 1944. He had many credits to his name, including Member of the Royal Irish Academy, Doctor of Literature of the National University of Ireland and also of Dublin University. Flower became the historian of the Blaskets, which he ‘immortalised’ through his lectures and writings – and many visits. To the people of the Great Blasket he was playfully known as ‘Bláithin’ – Little Flower – which he considered a great honour. I will write more on Robin Flower in a future post, but concentrate here on some of the photographs of island life which were recorded by likeminded researchers in the first half of the twentieth century. After 1954 there was nothing to record: life on the island, three miles from the mainland and involving an often treacherous crossing, became untenable. The whole remaining population was evacuated in that year, leaving their cottages and settlements to the ruinous ravages of the wild Atlantic gales.

The header picture is a wonderful statement of youth and vigour: island children photographed outside their school in 1932 by Thomas Waddicor. I can’t find anything about this man, but a lot of his work appears in the Dúchas Photographic Collection which was established in the 1930s, so I am assuming he was an active collector and researcher himself. The second picture is by our old friend Tomás Ó Muircheartach, who also spent time on the Blaskets in the 1930s. You will find more about him here. It shows the Blasket men in their fishing curraughs below the craggy rocks of the island. The pic above is also by Muircheartach, and shows Cáit Ruiséal and Máire Ruiséal being interviewed by a follklore collector at their fireside in 1942. I am not sure where this interview took place.

This photograph is also by Thomas Waddicor and dates from 1932. The caption given in the Dúchas Photographic Collection is interesting, if not entirely enlightening: Man, Great Blasket Island: Buffer, note stuffed peaked cap – an island custom.

Another from Waddicor, also 1932: Cáit at the Well. I think what strikes me most of all is how real and alive these people are – they certainly don’t seem in any way downtrodden or in danger of extinction: perhaps it’s just because they are ‘posing’ for the camera. But it’s salutary to think that they were only on the island for another generation or so.

These two photographs (above) are also by Thomas Waddicor and also from 1932. The top one is the ‘Wife and child of Séan the King’, and the lower is ‘Children of Séan the King’. We have a bit of a conundrum here as the last ‘King’ of the Blasket Islands passed away in 1929 (according to this Irish Times article). As Waddicor left behind no photograph of the ‘King’ himself, we have to assume that the lady in the upper photograph was a widow.

More ‘family’ photographs: the upper of the three is titled ‘Eilis and Brighid’; the centre is just given as ‘Family’, while the lower is ‘Fiddler and Woman’. All are by Waddicor from 1932.

This wonderful lady is also anonymous: sadly we can only know her by the title – ‘Great Blasket Woman’. Again, Waddicor 1932 – and, once more, she seems so full of life!

This is a picture of the Great Blasket Island School. We have some further information: while the folklorists and recorders were visiting the island in 1932, the older schoolchildren decided to interview each other about local customs and lore to mimic the visitors!

Further unnamed portraits: upper ‘Two Women Great Blasket’ and lower ‘Two Women gathering Heather’. From the Waddicor collection, 1932.

We’ll finish off with a few classics. This is Tomas O Criomhthain and it’s a photo from Muircheartach. Better known to us as Tomas O’Crohan, author of the classic book about the Blaskets:

. . . Tomas O’Crohan was born on the Great Blasket Island in 1865 and died there in 1937, a great master of his native Irish. He shared to the full the perilous life of a primitive community, yet possessed a shrewd and humorous detachment that enabled him to observe and describe the world. His book is a valuable description of a new vanished way of life; his sole purpose in writing it was in his own words, ‘to set down the character of the people about me so that some record of us might live after us, for the like of us will never be again’ . . .

The Islandman Book Review

We can’t discuss the Blaskets without mentioning Peig. That’s her, above, with folklorist Kenneth Jackson, taken by Thomas Waddicor in 1932. Peig Sayers was by all accounts a formidable lady but was also described by folklorist Seán Ó Súilleabháin, archivist for the Irish Folklore Commission, as ‘one of the greatest woman storytellers of recent times’. Peig was born in 1873 and died in 1958. She therefore experienced the abandonment of the island, although she had moved away from it in 1942. She was also not born on the island, but in Dunquin, Kerry, She married Pádraig Ó Guithín, a native islander, in 1892 and had eleven children, six of whom survived into adulthood. Sayers is most famous for her autobiography Peig, but also for folklore and stories which have been collected from her.

Finally, this an image of the Loganim Achive entry for Great Blasket Island, written in 1954.

I am grateful to the National Folklore Collection UCD for the use of the Thomas Waddicor images. It’s an incredible resource: this is just a small selection of the hundreds of images which have been archived

No Wrens Were Harmed in the Making of this Post… An Update!

Do you remember pre-Covid days? Those times seem to bring out the nostalgia in me… It’s only two years ago that I wrote a post about our preparations – in Ballydehob – for the Wran Day celebrations that would take place on St Stephen’s Day – 26 December – following. Those festivities did happen, and we were then all in happy ignorance of how our lives were to be changed mightily by the pandemic that struck the world just a few weeks later. We’d like to think that, after all this time has passed, a level of normality will be returning. That’s not quite the case – but we are planning a ‘Wran’ this year, and today we gathered in Levis’s Corner House to make ready for it. Here’s a photo – kindly loaned by Pól Ó Colmáin – of the results of the workshop we held to prepare for the ‘Wran’ in 2019.

So firstly, here’s an abridged version of the post I put up after that workshop two years ago. I’ll follow it with an update of the equivalent [but socially distanced!] event which we held today . . .

* * * * * Back to 2019 * * * * *

Wran Hunting has featured before in Roaringwater Journal: that’s the way that St Stephen’s Day – 26 December – has been celebrated for generations in ‘Celtic’ parts of western Europe, specifically Ireland and The Isle of Man, but also in Cornwall – where it’s now only a memory – Brittany, Wales and Scotland. ‘The Wran’ is a very strong surviving tradition here, especially on the west side of the country. The Dingle Gaeltacht is the place to go if you want to see all the action (you may have to click on the bottom right of the window to turn on the sound):

In our own Ballyedhob community ‘The Wran’ is not forgotten. In fact you can even find a poem written about it in the Duchas folklore records. This was recorded in the 1930s by John Levis, aged 32, who took it down from Jeremiah Driscoll, aged 64 years. Jeremiah had been a Wren Boy in Ballydehob. Here’s the poem:

Come all you ladies and gentlemen,

For tis here we are with our famous wran

With a heart full of cheering for every man

To rise up a booze before the year is gone.

*

Mr O’Leary we came to see,

With our wran so weak and feeble,

The wran is poor and we can’t feed him,

So we hope your honour will relieve him

*

We’ve hunted our wran three miles and more

We’ve hunted this wran all around Glandore

Through hedges and ditches and fields so green,

And such fine sport was never seen.

*

As we copied our wran again

Which caused our wran-boys for to sing,
She stood erect and wagged her tail,
And swore she’d send our boys to jail.

*

As we went up through Leaca Bhuidhe

We met our wran upon a tree,

Up with a cubit and gave him a fall,

And we’ve brought him here to visit you all.

*

This the wran you may plainly see,

She is well mounted on a holly tree,

With a bunch of ribbons by his side

And the Ballydehob boys to be his guide.

*

The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,

St Stephen’s day he was caught in the furze,

Although he is little, his family is great,

So rise up landlady and fill us a treat.

*

And if you fill it of the best,

We hope in Heaven your soul will rest,

But if you fill it of the small,

It won’t agree with our boys at all.

*

To Mr O’Leary and his wife

We wish them both a happy life,

With their pockets full of money, and their cellars full of beer,
We now wish a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

*

And now, our song is ended, we have no more to say,

We hope you’re not offended for coming here today,

For coming here this morning we think it is not wrong,

So give us our answer and let us all be gone.

Traditional, DUCHAS

By good fortune there’s ‘Mr O’Leary’ above! He’s the landlord of Levis’ Corner House Bar in Ballydehob: he allowed the Wran workshop to take over his pub yesterday. Basically that involved covering the whole place in straw out of which, magically, appeared lots of wonderfully crafted Wran masks. Joe is wearing a fine example.

Finola and I were at the workshop, and there I am with work in progress on the straw mask which we made (upper picture). You’ll notice that I’m wearing ‘tatters’: I’ve had these for years, and I used to don them for our own mumming tradition in Devon which also happened on 26 December (that’s me with the squeezebox mumming in the 1970s! – lower picture). Over there we called St Stephen’s ‘Boxing Day’ because that was when ‘Christmas boxes’ were given to the postman, the milkman and anyone else who provided their services through the year. Interestingly, Kevin Danaher mentions the ‘Wran box’ which was taken around the houses by the wrenners (or Wran Boys) and used to collect money ‘for the Wran’. This illustration of a Wren box from County Galway is from Danaher’s book The Year in Ireland:

The workshop in Levis’ was very well attended, and there is clearly great enthusiasm for reviving this custom. Sonia collected the straw at the annual Thrashing in Ballydehob – which is a traditional harvest celebration. It’s not easy to find the right straw for making the masks nowadays: anything that has been through a combine harvester has been flattened and will not survive the plaiting.

It’s a complex process, but the group coped well in acquiring the new skills under Sonia’s tutelage. The making – every year – has always been part of the tradition where it’s still practised today. Sometimes the straw masks (which are only one part of the ‘disguise’) are destroyed after Stephen’s. In some of the Dingle traditions they are ritually burned on the following St Patrick’s Day.

* * * * * * Fast Forward to 2021 * * * * *

Two years later, on a damp Sunday in Ballydehob, you might have seen the strange sight of bundles of straw being transported across the road to Levis’, where the 2021 Wran Workshop is about to take place in the ‘outback’ area of the bar. That’s Sonia (on the left above) who is masterminding the whole proceedings, and also oversaw the growing of the straw.

We all really appreciate Joe and Caroline – who run Levis’s – who are so supportive of community events and who, like everyone else, have had to struggle to keep business going through the ups and downs of Covid restrictions. The ‘Outback’ – formerly their yard – has been remarkably transformed into a comfortable outdoor venue, and live concerts and events are continuing through the winter season, helping to make our days seem as normal as possible.

We were a small but dedicated group, determined to get the tradition going again in Ballydehob. We are not sure, yet, when it will happen. Traditionally it should be Stephen’s Day, but it all depends on how available the participants will be. We will keep all our readers fully informed! meanwhile, if you need encouragement, look at the work that has gone into the straw masks this year . . .

Here’s Sonia Caldwell again, above. We have featured her Kilcoe Studios in a previous post. She is undoubtedly the energy behind this project. Look out for us all shortly after Christmas – there is good entertainment to be had. But, also, essential traditions to be kept alive to ensure that our world keeps turning!

That’s Pól Ó Colmáin, above, testing out his mask for size before finishing off the conical headpiece. Marie and he run the Working Artist Studios in the main Street of Ballydehob – a wonderful addition to our village’s thriving assets. Pol also bravely works away at teaching the Irish language to a number of students, including me! Here are both of them this afternoon with their completed Wran Day pieces – and also my own mask back at home . . .

Pints and Pipes

Today there is a story to tell, with lots of connections to the West of Ireland – and our own Ballydehob! That’s Levis’s Corner Bar, below, one of the village’s fine hostelries: try them all if you visit. Levis’s is known for its musical events but also for its traditional appearance inside. Look at the photo of the Irish music session (you’ll see me bottom left playing concertina) – that was taken a few years ago, before Covid; we are still waiting for those good times to return. On the wall behind the players you can catch a glimpse of a painting of men with pints and pipes.

There’s a better view of the painting, above. When I first saw it – very many years ago now – I knew immediately that it was based on a photograph that had been taken by Tómás Ó Muicheartaigh – an Irish cultural hero who spent most of his life documenting traditional life, mainly in the western counties. He lived through the founding of the Irish Free State and was an enthusiastic proponent of the Irish language. This sketch portrait of him is by Seán O’Sullivan, a friend and compatriot:

Way back in the 1970s my then wife and I ran a small bookshop in a Devon market town, specialising in folklore and traditional life. It had a substantial section on Ireland, and Irish culture. We stocked a recently-published volume (1970) celebrating the work of Ó Muicheartaigh, and I very soon had to sell myself a copy, as it is a superb record of mainly rural life in Ireland during the early twentieth century. I have it to this day – of course.

There is the photograph in the book, above. It is captioned Piontí Agus Píopaí – Pints and Pipes, hence the title of this post. Below it is a photograph of two Aran Island fishermen relaxing on the rocks while waiting for the weather to improve before they set out to sea. But there is more – a list of the photographs with some expanded captions at the end of the book. The whole book is written in Irish so I have recruited Finola’s help in providing a transcription for the Pints and Pipes – here it is, in the original and then translated:

Piontí Agus Píopaí

Ceathrar pinsinéirí ag baint spraoi as lá an phinsin le píopa agus le pionta Pórtair. B’fhéidir nach mbeadh pionta go hAoine arís acu. A saol ar fad tugtha ar an bhfarraige acu seo. Féach, cé gur istigh ón ngaoth agus ón aimsir atá an ceathrar go bhfuill an cobhar ar píopa gach duine acu. Is mar chosaint are an ngaoth a bhíodh an cobhar agus chun tobac a spáráil, ach ní bhainfí an cobhar anuas den phíopa instigh ná amuigh

Pints and Pipes

Four pensioners enjoying pension day with pipes and pints of porter. They might not have another pint until Friday. They’ve spent their whole lives on the sea. Look, even though the four of them are inside, away from the wind and the weather, the cover is still on each of their pipes. The covers are to protect the tobacco from the wind and to make it last longer and they aren’t taken off inside nor out

So, a fascinating piece of social history. Apart from conjecturing a date for the photo, I didn’t have much information to add when I first published it on Roaringwater Journal in February 2016. Because of the juxtaposition in the book, I guessed that the picture might have been taken around 1938, when Tómás is known to have visited and photographed the Aran Islands (and would have travelled through Kerry to get there). Here is one of his views of a Curragh being launched on Inis Meáin at this time (Dúchas):

I didn’t expect my story of Pints and Pipes to advance beyond this. But, last week, I received a message from a reader who had seen the photograph in Roaringwater Journal and was able to provide very significant additional information!

. . . My name is Joanne and I live in London. My dad found a photo on your website from a blog dated 14 Feb 2016 entitled Images – it is the Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh photograph of the 4 men drinking in a bar. My great-grandad is the man on the far left. It was great to find the photo as it is much better quality than the copy we have, unfortunately my nan had an original postcard but it was borrowed by a representative of Guinness many years ago and never returned! 

Joanne, September 2021

Joanne has proved to be a wonderful contact, and I am so grateful to her for providing information and allowing me to use it here. In summary:

. . . My great-grandad’s name was Seán Mac Gearailt but he was known as Skip.  He was from Baile Loisce in Kerry.  The photo was taken in a bar which was then called Johnny Frank’s in Baile na nGall (Ballydavid) but I think is now called Tigh TP.  I can see from the photos that have been digitalised Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh took a lot of photographs at Baile na nGall. Pints and Pipes isn’t in that digitalised collection . . .

. . . I gave my dad a call tonight and discussed the extract with him; he lived with his grandparents as a child in the late 1940’s/50’s and visited regularly so knows a lot about Skip. Dad remembers him collecting his pension on a Friday at Ballydavid and having a beer in Johnny Frank’s before going home to hand over the rest of the pension to his wife – so the extract in the book is correct on that. Skip was primarily a farmer but dad says he did go out fishing in a curragh at night. Dad remembers his nan being worried for him when he was out at sea. Dad doesn’t know the name of the other men in the photograph. Skip was friends with two Moriarty brothers (from Gallarus) – so dad thinks maybe the two men in the middle are them but he can’t know that for sure . . .

Joanne, September 2021

Wow! You can imagine how delighted I was to receive that information. But there’s more. I managed to find some early photos of Ballydavid (Baile na nGall in Irish), which is part of the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht area. In fact we have been there – when we took the Irish language immersion course two years ago.

We didn’t photograph the Ballydavid bar, Johnny Frank’s at that time, but here (above) is a view of it from Wiki Commons. Also, to help set the scene, is a little piece online which features the bar, and weaves a tale…

Regular readers will know my interest in the Napoleonic-era signal towers which dot the coast of Ireland, all built in the early years of the 19th century. There was one at Ballydavid Head, drawn (above) by George Victor Du Noyer as he passed by on one of his geological expeditions on 12 June 1856. We didn’t climb the Head when we visited, but we viewed it from a distance (below). The tower is now a ruin.

We have travelled far, far away from Ballydehob where, in some ways, the weaving of this tale began. We had better return. Here’s a reminder of that painted image of the ‘Pints and Pipes’ photograph in Levis’s Corner Bar. Compare it to the header photograph of this post.

It is so obviously based on the Tómás Ó Muicheartaigh portrait, yet there are some differences. The pipes of the two men in the middle are missing! I can’t tell you why this is the case, but I can tell you now who produced the painting, as I was given a valuable link by Joe O’Leary, landlord of Levis’s (which his been in his family for some generations – but that is another story). The painting has a signature:

Paul Klee was, of course, a well known Swiss-born German artist who lived between 1879 and 1940: he had no connection whatsoever with Ireland! Nor did he have anything to do with this painting, which was in fact from the brush of Raymond Klee, born in Barry, South Wales, in 1925 but living out much of his later life in Bantry, West Cork, until his death there in 2013. During the 1950s and 60s he lived in the Montmatre artists’ quarter in Paris, and is said to have been a close friend of Pablo Picasso. There can be no doubt that the Levis’s painting is his work, as I came across a short video, taken late in his life, in his Ballylickey Gallery. I managed to ‘freeze’ the fast-moving film at this point:

There, you can see the artist himself on the left, and over on the right is the partial image of a huge painting propped up: it’s another version of Pints and Pipes… I wonder what became of it? Or, indeed, of much of the large body of work which he left behind in Ballylickey? You will find examples on the internet, including several from the catalogues of art dealers. He doesn’t seem to have exhibited a particularly consistent style and – by repute – ‘churned out’ some of his works very quickly but – it has to be said – to a willing audience. During tours of the United States he would paint large canvases in front of a crowd – perhaps 200 spectators – and produce work which he immediately sold to the highest bidder in the room! I have selected a couple of images of paintings which might be of interest to my audience. The upper painting is titled The Local, while the lower one is Sky Over Inchydoney.

I must end my tale. Here is a little bonus, especially for my correspondent Joanne – and she won’t see this until she reads this post for the first time. We were leafing through the Tómás Ó Muicheartaigh book; it’s hard to put down – over 300 seminal photographs of Irish life. Finola’s eagle eye picked out one which I had never noticed before – and here it is: Seán Mac Gearailt, Joanne’s Great Grandfather, Skip. The caption underneath is apt. Many thanks, Joanne, for setting me on this journey…

GO mBEIRIMID BEO AR AN AM SEO ARÍS . . .

Thanks go to my very good friend Oliver Nares, who worked on the photographs of Pints and Pipes and Skip for me, and greatly improved their quality. Have look at his own site

No Wrens Were Harmed in the Making of this Post!

Wran Hunting has featured before in Roaringwater Journal: that’s the way that St Stephen’s Day – 26 December – has been celebrated for generations in ‘Celtic’ parts of western Europe, specifically Ireland and The Isle of Man, but also in Cornwall – where it’s now only a memory – Brittany, Wales and Scotland. ‘The Wran’ is a very strong surviving tradition here, especially on the west side of the country. The Dingle Gaeltacht is the place to go if you want to see all the action (click on the bottom right of the window to turn on the sound):

In our own Ballyedhob community ‘The Wran’ is not forgotten. In fact you can even find a poem written about it in the Duchas folklore records. This was recorded in the 1930s by John Levis, aged 32, who took it down from Jeremiah Driscoll, aged 64 years. Jeremiah had been a Wren Boy in Ballydehob. Here’s the poem:

Come all you ladies and gentlemen,

For tis here we come with our famous wran

With a heart full of cheering for every man

To rise up a booze before the year is gone.

 

Mr O’Leary we came to see,

With our wran so weak and feeble,

The wran is poor and we can’t feed him,

So we hope your honour will relieve him.

 

We’ve hunted our wran three miles and more

We’ve hunted this wran all around Glandore

Through hedges and ditches and fields so green,

And such fine sport was never seen.

 

As we copied our wran again

Which caused our wran-boys for to sing,
She stood erect and wagged her tail,
And swore she’d send our boys to jail.

 

As we went up through Leaca Bhuidhe

We met our wran upon a tree,

Up with a cubit and gave him a fall,

And we’ve brought him here to visit you all.

 

This the wran you may plainly see,

She is well mounted on a holly tree,

With a bunch of ribbons by his side

And the Ballydehob boys to be his guide.

 

The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,

St Stephen’s day he was caught in the furze,

Although he is little, his family is great,

So rise up landlady and fill us a treat.

 

And if you fill it of the best,

We hope in Heaven your soul will rest,

But if you fill it of the small,

It won’t agree with our boys at all.

 

To Mr O’Leary and his wife

We wish them both a happy life,

With their pockets full of money, and their cellars full of beer,
We now wish a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

 

And now, our song is ended, we have no more to say,

We hope you’re not offended for coming here today,

For coming here this morning we think it is not wrong,

So give us our answer and let us all be gone.

By good fortune there’s ‘Mr O’Leary’ above! He’s the landlord of Levis’ Corner House Bar in Ballydehob – which is the subject of Finola’s post today. He’s on the left in the upper picture, looking on at the Wran Workshop which he allowed to take over his pub yesterday. Basically that involved covering the whole place in straw out of which, magically, appeared a whole lot of wonderfully crafted Wran masks. Joe is wearing a fine example in the lower picture.

The afternoon started outside, in Levis’ garden, where we were all given guidance on preparing the straw. We had to strip away the leaves and any heads which had been left behind, and produce bunches suitable to be plaited and then turned into ropes which would form the basis of the  hats or ‘masks’ traditionally worn to disguise the wren hunters.

On the right here you can just catch a glimpse of workshop maestro Sonia Caldwell, inspecting another fine mask. Sonia is determined that Ballydehob will embrace the Wran tradition (vestiges of which have appeared on the streets over the years) and re-energise it in the way that only this West Cork village’s vibrant community knows how. I can just imagine that in a couple of years’ time people will be flocking to see ‘The Wran’ in the same way that they flock to the Jazz Festival and all the other festivals and events that happen annually here.

Finola and I were at the workshop, and there I am with work in progress on the straw mask which we made (upper picture). You’ll notice that I’m wearing ‘tatters’: I’ve had these for years, and I used to don them for our own mumming tradition in Devon which also happened on 26 December (that’s me with the squeezebox mumming in the 1970s! – lower picture). Over there we called St Stephen’s ‘Boxing Day’ because that was when ‘Christmas boxes’ were given to the postman, the milkman and anyone else who provided their services through the year. Interestingly, Kevin Danaher mentions the ‘Wran box’ which was taken around the houses by the wrenners (or Wran Boys) and used to collect money ‘for the Wran’. This illustration of a Wren box from County Galway is from Danaher’s book The Year in Ireland:

The workshop in Levis’ was very well attended, and there is clearly great enthusiasm for reviving this custom. Sonia collected the straw at the annual Thrashing in Ballydehob – which is a traditional harvest celebration. It’s not easy to find the right straw for making the masks nowadays: anything that has been through a combine harvester has been flattened and will not survive the plaiting.

It’s a complex process, but the group coped well in acquiring the new skills under Sonia’s tutelage. You can see for yourself how successful the day had been in the last picture below. The making – every year – has always been part of the tradition where it’s still practised today. Sometimes the straw masks (which are only one part of the ‘disguise’) are destroyed after Stephen’s. In some of the Dingle traditions they are ritually burned on the following St Patrick’s Day.

Sonia is holding a further workshop – also at Levis’ Corner Bar – next Thursday 28 November at 7pm. It’s free to attend: please come and join in: you’ll learn more about the history of The Wran, and there’s likely to be some music too! And then on Stephen’s Day itself it’s out into the boreens and byways of Ballydehob to look for a wren . . . Don’t worry – the days are long gone when our (almost) smallest bird would lose its life: it’s a token hunt, the point of which is the disguising, the visiting around the streets, and the celebrations afterwards, which will extend late into the night!

Many thanks to Pól Ó Colmáin for providing this wonderful photograph of the results of the workshop!

Lady Carbery’s High Cross

Wherever we travel in Ireland, I search out medieval high crosses. They are the epitome of ancient Irish art: this link will take you to a number of earlier posts which explore the subject.

It’s ironic, perhaps, that I haven’t yet discussed Ireland’s tallest high cross, which is in West Cork, not far from where we live. At 9.2 metres tall, it outshines the West Cross at Monasterboice, which is just 7 metres. However, Lady Carbery’s High Cross is not medieval – it was built on a hilltop with sweeping views over Long Strand, distant Galley Head and as far west as the Fastnet in 1902, in memory of her husband.

. . . Windswept Croachna Hill, just over the rise from Castle Freke, faces out towards the Atlantic and the sunset, as well as the mystic isle of Moy Mell, and a dangerous submerged rock of the same name. Here, in 1901, in view of the countless sailors who would pass and re-pass through the years, Grandmother had caused to be erected a huge cross as a monument to her first husband Algy, the last Carbery to spend his life in these parts and to make his home in County Cork. Fourteen tons of white limestone rise thirty feet into the sky. There are seven panels, each with sculptured designs from the Bible. The inscription on the east face reads: “To the greater glory of God, and in loving memory of Algernon William George, 9th Baron Carbery, who was born 9th September 1868 and who died 12th June 1898. This Cross has been erected by Mary, his wife, 1901. The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, they are in peace” . . .

Lady Mary Carbery wrote a journal following her husband’s death. It remained private until a century later, when her grandson Jeremy Sandford published much of it, together with his own commentary – the paragraph above is his. Recently widowed and sole mistress of the vast neo-medieval Castle Freke overlooking a remote headland in West Cork, Mary raised her young family in the company of servants, dependants and occasional visitors. Reflective and sensitive, Mary Carbery was deeply attuned to the spirit of place and to the people she lived amongst in Rosscarbery, studying Irish and taking note of local speech, folklife and customs. It’s no wonder that the memorial cross she commissioned from white limestone should have been such a tribute to the flowering of Irish art in the medieval period.


Algernon was the 9th Baron of Carbery. After his death, Mary stayed at Castle Freke long enough to see through a significant restoration following a fire in 1910, then met and married Professor Arthur Wellesley Sandford of Frankfield House, County Cork. She was evidently quite a character, a prolific writer and traveller: she spent some years travelling across Europe in Creeping Jenny, a caravan drawn by white oxen, and is credited with being the first person to install a bath in a mobile home. Meanwhile, the castle was taken over by her son John – the 10th Baron, an early aviator, who sold it in 1919 and took off for Kenya, where he joined the hedonistic Happy Valley community, infamous during the 20s and 30s for its decadent lifestyles, drug use and sexual promiscuity. During the latter part of the 20th century the castle fell into disrepair.

Changing fortunes: Lord Carbery’s monoplane in 1914; Castle Freke in reasonable condition, pre 1950, and the Castle in the present day undergoing renovation by Stephen Evans-Freke, son of the 11th Baron Carbery

We are fortunate that some parts of the former estate at Castle Freke are maintained by Coillte, the State-owned forestry business, and are publicly accessible. This includes the high cross, accessed by a footpath from the Long Strand.

The Coillte path up to the cross, leading from the car park at Long Strand. In the lower picture Gill and I give an idea of the scale of the monument

Take the opportunity to have a look at the old parish church of Rathbarry, also in the Castle Freke demense. Built in 1825, it closed in 1927, and is now an atmospheric ruin. Algernon, the 9th Baron, and Lady Mary commissioned some of the striking mosaic work which can still be seen.

I found a number of entries in the Duchas Folklore Collection centred on the  Long Strand, Red Strand and Castlefreke areas. They could make a good future post, but to finish off for now, here is just one: recounted by Denis Collins, aged 60, from Castlefreke, Duchas Collection, 1937 – “The Hidden Treasure of Castlefreke”:

. . . Two children from Rosscarbery wandered away from their home one day. They did not return to dinner nor to tea so their mother got very anxious about them because it was the time that the fairies were supposed to be about. She searched everywhere but in vain and it was said that they were spirited by the fairies. Many years afterwards a young man and woman came into the town of Ross. When the people of the town saw them they were afraid of them, but found to their surprise that they were the two children. When asked where they were all that time they said that they were taken away by fairies to a certain fort in Castlefreke where there was a treasure hidden. No one ever looked for the treasure as it is said to be guarded by a fairy . . .

‘Ye Citie of the Seven Crosses’

As you will know from these pages, ‘Ireland of the Saints’ is a country rich in treasures dating from medieval times. Architecture and stone carved ecclesiastical monuments were prolific on the island of Ireland, with many examples and fragments remaining. Finola has a series covering Romanesque Architecture, while I have always been on the lookout for High Crosses from the early medieval period. Over 250 examples of High Crosses are said to survive in Ireland, either complete or broken – a remarkable number. Without fail, all are beautiful, and wonderful examples of early art and craftsmanship.

When we are out and about, we usually don’t have to go very far off whichever route we are travelling to find more examples to add to our archive of The Irish High Cross. Last week was no exception: we were off to the Burren in County Clare to see a new exhibition of the work of our friend Keith Payne, and it was no trouble to take a little detour in County Clare to view ‘Ye Citie of the Seven Crosses’ – Kilfenora. A wonderful carved capital on the Cathedral there is shown above (the drawing of it on the right is from Duchas). I knew the place because of its famous Ceilidh Band, but I am now aware that even this admirable institution must take second place to the Kilfenora High Crosses.

The most detailed description of the Kilfenora crosses was written by historian Jack Flanagan (1921 – 2014) and it’s available online, courtesy of Clare County Library. Jack lived most of his life around Kilfenora, and charts the fortunes of the High Crosses through the 20th century, mostly from his personal experience. Now they are well looked after – some are under a glass roof – but they have suffered various misfortunes throughout the last Millennium. Above are all that’s left of two of the crosses – both now protected.

You would hardly think of Kilfenora as a ‘city’ – but the hamlet of thatched dwellings was an important monastic centre from the days of  Saint Fachtnan (from County Cork) who founded it around 650AD. It has its Cathedral (above), although . . . it was the smallest with the poorest diocese in Ireland . . . (Flanagan). However in 1111 the Synod of Rathbreasail snubbed the claims for diocesan status by Kilfenora, and the O’Connors and the O’Loughlens came together in their desire to remain aloof from the Diocese of Killaloe which was very much under the patronage of the O’Briens. There was history here, as it was the O’Briens who had burned Kilfenora Abbey and its inhabitants in 1055. At the Synod of Kells in 1152 Kilfenora did succeed in its claims, and attained status as a separate diocese. It’s said that some of the High Crosses were carved and erected to celebrate this achievement.

If this is the case, then the Kilfenora High Crosses are relatively late examples of the art. This would seem to be borne out by the style of the finest of them – now known as the Doorty Cross – because the interlacing designs on the shaft are undoubtedly influenced by Scandinavian motifs. This, then, must have been a time when the Viking invaders were not only accepted but also assimilated into the artistic culture: this would have been the case by the mid twelfth century.

The Doorty Cross (upper, details from west and east faces and lower, Duchas drawing) has a partially traceable history. Jack Flanagan remembers when the main part of the shaft was in use as a grave slab of the Doorty family in the burial ground of the Cathedral, while the head was lying under the chancel arch in the sacristy. In the 1950s the two parts of the cross were reunited by the Office of Public Works, and the restored cross was erected next to the Doorty grave – hence this cross is now known as the Doorty Cross. Interestingly, there is an inscription on the base of the cross shaft which dates from 1752: this was buried when the cross was re-erected, but is now visible as the cross was removed into the new glass roofed shelter in the mid 2000s. The upper picture below shows the inscription visible today – it’s upside down on the raised cross: the lower picture shows a drawing made by Westropp in 1910 when the shaft was still used over the grave: the inscription can be read as IHS X V n D – the V n D stood for V ni Doorty.

The battle between the diocese of Kilfenora and Killaloe wasn’t quite won as they became combined in later years. Dr Richard Mant was appointed Bishop of Killaloe and Kilfenora in 1820, and in that year he set out on a visitation of his two diocese. In early August he arrived in Kilfenora which he described as “the worst village that I have seen in Ireland and in the most desolate and least interesting country” . In a subsequent letter to a friend he describes;

. . .  On a visit to Kilfenora in 1820 where there had been five or six stone crosses I found two or three broken and laying on the ground, neglected and over-grown with weeds. On expressing my concern that these remnants of ecclesiastical antiquity were left in such a state, a clergyman of the parish proposed to send me one of them, which he said might be done without difficulty or danger of giving offence, as when they were brought to that state the people had no regard for them. One was accordingly sent to Clarisford, and I caused it to be erected among some trees in a picturesque spot, between the house and the canal, having inlaid the shaft with a marble tablet bearing the inscription annexed below. When my daughter was at Clarisford about three years ago, the cross was still standing, being considered “an ornament to the grounds” . . .

Upper picture – the High Cross which was taken from Kilfenora by Bishop Mant in 1821, and which has ended up – after a series of excursions – in St Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe. A translation of the Latin on the marble tablet which was placed there by the Bishop:

. . . R.M.S.T.P. (Bishop’s name and title) of both diocese, being solicitous for church antiquity, took care to erect at the See of Killaloe this cross which you see, and which collapsed at Kilfenora lest it entirely disappear through neglect, and by reason of the site A.D. 1821 . . .

It seems there was still little love lost between the two diocese. The Kilfenora Cross on the Hill has now been moved into the St Flannan’s Cathedral at Killaloe – and that’s where we saw it back in September last year. When you speak to local people in Kilfenora you get a sense that there are grumblings – they feel they would like their cross back: it would be one of the finest in the collection.

Left – the West Cross (see header picture and below) in 1910, possibly taken by Westropp: it’s still in situ to the west of the Cathedral today – the cathedral building is on the right of this photo. Right – the Doorty Cross standing beside the Doorty grave in 1980.

The West Cross at Kilfenora has escaped capture under the glass roof and still stands – probably where it always has – on a prominent knoll to the west of the Cathedral. It’s open to the elements, but seems to be in good condition. In some ways, the protection of these ancient pieces does in some way detract from their magnificence, but there’s no doubt that constant exposure to the weather extremes that we experience here in Ireland must ultimately adversely affect them. It’s a conundrum – and a debate we have touched on before.

Perhaps my own response to these protected High Crosses in Kilfenora is that I feel they are under-appreciated. I saw – at the height of the tourist season – coach-loads of visitors disembark, enter the sheltered enclosure, stand and look at the old stones for a few minutes and then file out. What did it all mean to them? There are interpretation boards but I doubt they get the message across: these are great monuments of the world, to be revered, respected and wondered at: these representations take you back through a thousand years of history: we are fortunate that we can still be in their presence.