A Frenchman’s Walk Through Ireland

Cork City in the eighteenth century (represented above and below in Cork’s Nano Nagle Centre) had an unhealthy reputation, according to one commentator – Frenchman Jacques-Louis of Bougrenet de La Tocnaye – who travelled through Ireland in the 1790s and happily left us with some written descriptions of his journey.

Born into an ancient noble family in Nantes in 1767, de La Tocnaye fled the French Revolution in 1792 and self-exiled himself to idle London (his words). Then – armed with a sheaf of letters of introduction to people who might be useful along the way – he set out on a walking journey which lasted for ten years, through England, Scotland, Ireland and Scandinavia. Remarkably, he was able to get his writings published as he went along and we are fortunate to have some of them preserved, after a fashion, through a translation into English by John Stevenson in 1917 of Promenade d’un Français dans l’Irlande 1796 – 1797.

It is necessary to quote from the preamble set down by this translator before we embark on the writing itself. Apologies if you feel – as I do – we might be missing out on a few of the more colourful observations from de La Tocnaye on Ireland because of Stevenson’s reservations. The end result is of great interest to us nevertheless.

. . . A word about the author’s style. He has none. A well-educated man, at home in the highest circles of society, and doubtless a brilliant conversationalist, he is evidently unaccustomed to writing . . . Therefore, in the rendering, it has been necessary, at times, to convey what he intended to say rather than what is actually set down . . . 

. . . He has a weakness for using the swear words of the country of his sojourn, and uses them unnecessarily and unwarrantably. Second-hand matter, in the form of stories ‘ lifted ‘ from Irish authors, or antiquarian information inserted out of compliment to his friends, has been omitted as of no interest to the reader of to-day; and certain little sallies in the French manner, innocent enough, but which in English print might wear the air of indecencies, have been modified or suppressed. For the rest, the translation is as literal as a care for readability in English will allow . . .

. . . Travelling on foot over the island, east, south, west, north, his whole baggage in his pockets, in two silk stockings from which he had cut the feet, or in a handkerchief slung en sautoir on the end of a combined sword-stick and umbrella, which he said ‘made the girls laugh’ he got to the very heart of Irish life . . .

Sackville Street and Gardiner’s Mall, Dublin c1750. Attributed to Joseph Tudor 1695–1759. (courtesy National Gallery of Ireland)

De La Tocnaye’s writings on his travels in Ireland alone amount to 90,000 words! Today I am taking just a few extracts to give you a flavour of what life was like here in the late eighteenth century – seen through the eyes of one observer. I have no doubt that more of this journal will follow on these pages in time.

Leaving Dublin, de La Tocnaye made a stop in County Wicklow:

. . . Following the course of the stream which flows from the lake, I came to Glendalough, a word which means ‘the valley of the two lakes’. It is remarkable that there is not a single ancient name in this country which has not its special signification. The appropriateness here is evident, for there are really two lakes, which join at the portion of the valley called ‘The Seven Churches.’ It is here in this desert place that are to be found the most ancient remains of the devotion of past centuries, remains whose antiquity reaches back to the early ages of Christianity. St Kevin here founded a monastery in the third or fourth century of the Christian era, probably on the ruins of a temple of the Druids, who sought always the wildest places for the practice of their cult. This was for long a bishopric, but now it is united to that of Dublin. Here are still to be seen the ruins of seven churches, and one of those round towers of unknown origin which are so common in Ireland . . . 

High Cross at Glendalough

De La Tocnaye goes on to pronounce, at length, on round towers (and Irish pishogues):

. . . They are all alike, having a door fifteen or twenty feet from the ground, generally opening eastward, some narrow windows, and inside not the slightest remains of a staircase, unless this may be found in a few projecting stones which may have served to support floors in which there must have been trap doors to allow of passing from one to another by means of ladders. These towers are always found at some distance from a church, and entirely isolated . . . Whatever these ancient buildings may have been, the Irish have now for them the greatest possible veneration. They come here from afar for pilgrimages and penitences, and on the day of the Saint, which is June 3, they dance afterwards and amuse themselves until nightfall. In this sacred enclosure are to be found remedies for many ills. Have you a pain in your arm ? — it suffices to pass the limb through a hole worked in a stone, and you are free from your trouble. There is another stone on which for another ailment you shall rub your back, and another one against which you shall rub your head. And there is a pillar in the middle of the cemetery which, if you can embrace, will make you sure of your wife. The Saint’s Bed is a hole about six feet long, hollowed in the rock — a very special virtue belongs to it. It is only to be reached after much trouble in scaling a steep slope of the mountain above the lake, but whoever has enough strength and resolution to climb to it, and will lie down in it, is sure never to die in childbirth. Belief in this virtue makes a great number of wives, and of girls who hope to become wives, come here to pay their devotions . . . All this seemed to come in very fitly at the beginning of my travels. I pushed my arm through the hole in the stone. I rubbed my back against the rock which cures the troubles of the back, and my head against another, thus ensuring my health for the remainder of my journey. I even tried to embrace the pillar, but I cannot tell with what result. As to the Saint’s Bed, I thought there was little danger of my dying from the malady against which it insures, and therefore I did not climb . . .

Round tower at Glendalough

Returning to de La Tocnaye’s comment about Cork City:

. . . I arrived at Cork, the dullest and dirtiest town which can be imagined. The people met with are yawning, and one is stopped every minute by funerals, or hideous troops of beggars, or pigs which run the streets in hundreds, and yet this town is one of the richest and most commercial of Europe . . .

View of Cork 1760

. . . There is no town where there is so much needful to do to make the place agreeable to a great number of the poor inhabitants. The spirit of commerce and self-interest has laid hold of all branches of the administration. For example, it would be very easy to furnish the town with a public fountain, but the person or company which has the privilege of bringing water in pipes to the houses thinks that by the building of such a fountain there would be lost a number of guinea subscriptions. Therefore, in order that the avidity of an obscure individual should be satisfied, thirty thousand inhabitants must suffer . . . I have seen poor people obliged to collect the water falling from the roofs on a rainy day, or to take it even from the stream in the streets. All the time there is perhaps hardly a place which it would be so easy to supply with water as Cork, by reason of the heights which surround it. There is even a spring or fountain about a mile away, which is called Sunday’s Well, which appears to me to have sufficient water for the supply of a public fountain in the centre of the town . . . The dirt of the streets in the middle of the town is shameful, and as if that were not enough, it would seem as if it were wished to hinder the wind and the sun from drying the filth, for the two ends of the street are terminated by prisons, which close the way entirely and prevent the air from circulating . . .

Cork Prison 1831 – engraving by W J Bartlett

Lest the people of Cork be offended, today, by de La Tocnaye’s descriptions of yesterday, rest assured that he had similar reactions to other places. Take Wexford, for example:

. . . From here I proceeded to Wexford, and without wishing it harm, I may say that it is one of the ugliest and dirtiest towns in the whole of Ireland. The excessive exercise in which I had indulged, and to which I had not been accustomed for a long time, compelled me to remain here eight days with a fever . . .

In spite of the title, this is a representation of Whiteboys from the 1780s. (courtesy National Library of Ireland)

That’s probably quite enough insults for one week! I have avidly ploughed through the writings of de La Tocnaye as he proceeded on his journey through Ireland, and there is much of considerable interest: we get from him a very good picture of life here two hundred years ago. Finola is writing today on the complexity of religious history in Ireland: I’ll close with a view from our French traveller:

. . . In every country of the world the peasant pays tithe with reluctance ; everywhere it is regarded as an onerous impost, prejudicial to the spread of cultivation, for the labourer is obliged to pay on the product of his industry. In Ireland it seems to me a more vexatious tax than elsewhere, for the great mass of the people being Catholic, it seems to them hard that they should be obliged to maintain a minister who is often the only Protestant in the parish, and who exacts his dues with rigour. Beyond the ordinary tithe he has a right, over nearly the whole of Ireland, to one-tenth of the milk of a cow, one-tenth of the eggs, and one-tenth of the vegetables of the gardens. One can easily understand that these conditions may be very severe when the minister exacts his dues in kind, and especially when it is considered that these poor miserable folk have, as well, to supply a subsistence for their own priests. They have often made complaints and claims in connection with this subject, and to these it was hardly possible to give attention without overturning the whole of the laws of the Establishment, as it is called; that is to say, the Established religion. From complaints and claims the peasants came to threats, and from threats to the execution of the things threatened. They assembled at night in great numbers in certain parts of Ireland, and in order that they might recognise each other safely, they wore their shirts outside their clothes, from whence came the name of White Boys. In this garb they overran the country, breaking the doors and gates of ministers’ houses, and if they could catch the cattle they mutilated them by cutting off their tails and ears. All the time they did no other violent act, and a traveller might have gone through the country with perfect security . . .

Tailpiece: Wexford Town in 1796 (courtesy Laurence Butler)

Cormac’s Chapel: The Jewel in the Crown (Part 1)

Cormac’s Chapel on the hill of Cashel is the jewel in the crown of Irish Romanesque architecture. It also allows us to trace the influences and development of the Irish Romanesque style both to other examples inside Ireland and to models outside of Ireland. Now that the church has been cured of its chronic leakage problems and the scaffolding has been taken down, we can finally look at this wonderful building in its entirety. In doing so I rely heavily on the work of Prof Tadhg O’Keefe.*

On a walking tour of Bavaria a couple of years ago we visited this church, which turns out to have been connected with Cormac’s Chapel in a surprising way. This incredible portal is completely enclosed by a glass frame to protect it from the weather

We know from historical records exactly when Cormac’s Chapel was started (1127) and when it was consecrated (1134). This means that it was not the high point (that is, the latest and most elaborate development) of Irish Romanesque, but in fact quite early in the sequence of buildings that constitute the corpus of Irish Romanesque architecture. We can look back to the early churches we examined in Irish Romanesque – an Introduction for antecedents, but in many ways this is not a ‘typical’ Irish Romanesque structure. It is, in fact, more reliant for its influences on Anglo-Norman churches in England and Wales, and on the important ecclesiastical links between Cashel and modern-day Germany. O’Keefe puts it this way:

This is the one building of that era in Ireland which must surely belong in the European canon of great Romanesque architectural essays; with a floor area less than the size of a tennis court it is also one of the smallest.

With the scaffolding finally removed, we can see the full extent of the chapel

Who was Cormac? Cormac Mac Cárrthaig (McCarthy) was King of Munster from 1123 to 1127, when he was deposed and retired to be a monk in Lismore with St Malachy (the man credited with reforming Irish monasticism and inviting in the Cistercians). His throne was restored to him within a few months and in gratitude he commissioned a new chapel to be built on the Rock. While the Rock of Cashel had been gifted to the church previously, the chapel was probably intended to serve the purpose of a royal inauguration site, thus enhancing and securing Cormac’s power. It took some time to build – it was consecrated seven years later.

In this photograph, note particularly the high pitched roof and the tiny windows that are the only means of letting light in to the rooms above the chancel and above the nave. Note also how the later gothic cathedral impinges on the much smaller chapel

Let’s start on the outside. This is a nave and chancel church, with opposing doors on the north and south sides, twin square towers, steeply pitched stone roof, projecting altar bay, and extensive string coursing and blind arcading on the exterior walls. The pitched stone roof appears to be a typically Irish feature – similar examples have survived intact in St Kevin’s Kitchen in Glendalough, St Flannan’s Oratory in Killaloe, and in St Colmcille’s House in Kells (see Robert’s post A Medieval Feast), while we saw vestiges in Kilmalkedar a few months ago. In fact, the roof accommodates a second story, accessed via a stairway within the church. You can see the tiny round-headed windows that give light to this space on the wall above the chancel, and there are also rectangular windows right at the bottom on the roof where it meets the wall of the nave. It must have been an uncomfortable room, dark and damp, and it is hard to imagine it being used for daily activities (such as a Scriptorium, as the Kells room was traditionally thought to have been) so it has been suggested that it was a sacristy.

St Flannan’s Oratory in Killaloe, Co Clare. As in Cormac’s Chapel, the steeply pitched gable accommodated a room above the chancel, in this case lit by a single window in the end wall

But that pitched roof is where the older Irish influences stop – for the rest of the building we must look elsewhere.

Intriguing carvings on the portal of the Regensburg church

The two square towers are particularly interesting and have few parallels in Ireland. In fact, they are based on a church we happen to have visited two years ago in Regensburg (previously called Ratisbon) in Bavaria. Upon his restoration as King of Munster, Cormac received a visit from two Ratisbon monks, Isaac and Gervasius, accompanied by a carpenter (Conrad) and one other man.

Detail from the St Albert of Cashel window by Harry Clarke in the Honan Chapel, at University College, Cork: Albert preaching to the (red-haired) people of Ratisbon

The first evangelising monk from Cashel to establish links with Ratisbon had been St Albert, way back in the 700s and there had been strong connections ever since. The church, St James, in Regensburg, is called the Scots Church or Schottenkirche (Schotte was the term used for Irish) and while it has been altered over the centuries, the Romanesque core remains, along with the two flanking towers and a magnificent doorway in the north wall.

Conrad the Carpenter and his sidekick may well have put to use the knowledge they acquired building the Schottenkirche St Jakob in designing the two square towers at Cormac’s Chapel.

This photograph illustrates the altar projection on the east end of the chancel, as well as the two towers. Note the conical cap on the north tower, as in the Regensburg example

Opposing doors in the north and south walls are almost  unknown from older Irish contexts, as it  was customary to enter through the west end (opposite end to the altar). We saw opposing doors in Liathmore but O’Keefe feels they may be a bi-product of later reconstruction. There are reports of a  two-door church of St Brigid in Kildare, and such designs…

were presumably designed to accommodate different types of procession, sometimes simultaneously: royal and episcopal parties certainly entered through the large portal on the north side, while clerical concelebrants and choristers presumably entered through the smaller portal in the south wall.

And wonderful doors they are! (Look back at Irish Romanesque 2 – Doorways for more about doors in general.) The south door is now the main entrance for visitors but in fact is relatively modest with only two orders and a timpanum depicting a animal, probably a lion. The archivolts are chevroned but weathering has damaged much of the other carvings.

The cathedral wall cuts off part of this doorway, damaging the door and making photography difficult. This is a small open triangular space between the cathedral wall and the north door

The north door is larger and more elaborate, although it is incomplete, as the later gothic cathedral was built up against this section of the chapel. Above the door is a triangular pediment, decorated with vertical and horizontal chevroned lines and with rosettes.

From Irish Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil, Richard Lovett 1888

The tympanum has a curious decoration – it’s a centaur, of all things, shown hunting a large lion with a bow and arrow. This is not unknown in Romanesque carvings, which often feature animals from the medieval bestiary, but unusual enough.

As for the rest of the chapel, Prof O’Keefe points to the most likely influence being the Anglo-Norman churches of England and Wales, which provide exact parallels for many of the features, external and internal, that can be observed at Cormac’s Chapel. One feature he points to, for example, is the shallow projection, lit by lateral windows, at the far east end of the church – functioning as an extension of the chancel to contain the altar. Indeed, muses O’Keefe, as he ponders the particular mixture of Irish and non-Irish features visible in this building;

Walking around Cormac’s Chapel, outside and inside, one instantly recognizes that it has affinities in Britain. The blind arcading and the chevrons can be paralleled effortlessly in literally hundreds of English Romanesque contexts, from south Wales to East Anglia, and from Exeter to Dundee (Fig. 78). Moreover, their execution speaks not of Gaelic-Irish craftsmen who have learned these forms and how to carve them but of actual English Romanesque craftsmen in Cashel in the late 1120s and early 1130s. We cannot prove this, of course, but later Romanesque work in Ireland looks sufficiently different for us to be very confident that Anglo-Norman hands recreating an English Romanesque repertoire shaped large parts of Cormac’s Chapel.

Blind arcading, string courses, and carved roof corbels (see below) enliven the outside of the chapel. The two small windows in the roof allow light to the room above the nave

Next week we will go inside Cormac’s Chapel and discover yet more treasures from the 12th century. See you back here then.

*Prof O’Keefe’s book  is now out of print although second-hand copies can be found. I relied heavily on his manuscript, Romanesque Ireland: Architecture and Ideology in the Twelfth Century, which he has generously uploaded to Academia.

The Deer Stalkers

Young Sika stag in the Glendalough Highlands

Sika stag in the Glendalough Highlands

Having spent many years in Northern Canada, surrounded by moose, elk, caribou and deer, I was intrigued to learn that Ireland also has a significant population of deer. The Red Deer is our only native species, preserved thanks to the work of private conservationists in Kerry and now reaching healthy population numbers. Fallow Deer are the ones you see in parks (like Dublin’s Phoenix Park), although there are lots of wild ones too, descendants of those introduced by the Normans in the 12th Century. Finally, there are Sika Deer, introduced by Lord Powerscourt in Wicklow for his demesne, but now numerous in wild herds in the Wicklow Mountains and elsewhere. Here in West Cork there are occasional sightings of both Red Deer and Sika Deer – including narrow misses by drivers.

Deer hunting has become a sport in Ireland and the licensing laws are constantly being examined and refined. Deer in parks are generally protected, and Red Deer may not be hunted at all in County Kerry. The Wild Deer Association of Ireland, an ‘independent, national organisation for deer management and conservation,’ represents ‘those involved  in deer management, deer stalking and people with an interest in the conservation and well-being of Ireland’s wild deer herds.’ Their excellent website is packed with information for any questions you might have about wild deer. Deer management is not uncontroversial in Ireland, as attested by a recent article in the Irish Times by naturalist Michael Viney.

Upper Lake, Glendalough

Upper Lake, Glendalough

Having grown up in Wicklow, I had become interested in the work of Fran Byrne, a wildlife and landscape photographer of the highest calibre, and when we saw that he was leading a Deer Photography Workshop in the Wicklow Mountains we jumped at the chance to enrol.

Deer on the horizon!

Deer on the horizon!

The word ‘workshop’ conjures up an image of earnest participants wearing name badges and writing on flipcharts, but Fran had warned us that this was not what we were signing up for. Having met our fellow participants (great group!) on Friday night, we gathered on Saturday morning, picked up our packed lunches from the hotel and set out, equipment in hand, to hike up to the highlands above the Upper Lake at Glendalough. (Glendalough, one of the most historic and beautiful places in Ireland, deserves its own post some day.) Once I saw our route I was glad to be carrying my tiny Panasonic Lumix camera rather than the enormous equipment of the other enthusiasts, because this was a HIKE.

Getting up to the head of the glen was arduous enough, but then we struck out across the trackless wild country. It was rough and wet, there was a biting wind (this was January, after all!) but Fran promised us that the deer, after recent snowfall, would be down from the higher ground and we had a good chance of sightings. And suddenly, there they were!

Stag and pricket

Stag and pricket

At this time of year the stags are rejoining the females and hanging out in herds. We saw male-only groups, females with young ones, and mixed groups. Our eyes gradually tuned in to the tell-tale white rumps moving through the bracken and rocks as we scanned the hillsides. Some of the deer, particularly one doe, seemed unbothered by our presence, others ran skittishly when we approached. I was grateful for the long lens on the Lumix, which allowed me to get some good shots where we couldn’t get too close.

Martin in full camouflage

Martin in full camouflage

Back at the hotel we downloaded our photos, Fran gave us pointers on processing the images and we admired each other’s captures. An excellent dinner and lots of chat later, we were all yawning after our exertions. But back we went again the next day, groaning and stiff but determined to get up to the high ground again.

After the clear blue skies of the previous day, we were presented with a mist that descended on us and worsened during the morning. Nevertheless, having taken  a different route we were rewarded again by good sightings.

Hind feeding

Hind feeding

We were particularly lucky to be joined by Joe Murphy, a deer expert and leading member of the Wild Deer Association. He filled us in on the current state of Irish deer populations, what threatens them (their only predator is humans), modern management practices and hunting regulations. He also volunteered to climb above one small herd to see if they would move away from him and towards us. Unfortunately, a lone hiker heading up into the hills scattered them before they started down.

Two prickets

Two prickets

Browsing near the stream

Browsing near the stream

I’m not sure when I was last as footsore and achy as I was last Monday morning, but it was worth every creaking bone and every throbbing muscle. If you’d like to do the same, contact Fran Byrne through his Facebook page. And don’t worry, you won’t have to slog up the mountain to take a workshop with him as he also does woodland rambles and garden walks. Mind you, he did describe our exertions as “leisurely” at one point, so be prepared!

There are wild goats on the cliffs too

There are wild goats on the cliffs too

Cures and Curses

Wishing Stone at Maulinward

Wishing Stone at Maulinward

I am a firm believer in wart wells: there is one at Clonmacnoise, the holy centre of Ireland, and some years ago when I was visiting the place I dipped my finger – warts and all – in it. Within… well, perhaps it was two or three weeks… the warts had gone. The Cynics among you will be saying that they might have gone anyway, but I have had other warty experiences to reinforce my beliefs. When my daughter Phoebe was 11 years old and we were living back in Devon she had a really bad outbreak of warts on her hand. The doctor couldn’t recommend anything but our neighbour was very sure of what to do: take her to see Auntie Grace who lived up the lane. We duly knocked on Auntie Grace’s door and showed her Phoebe’s hand. “That’s alright, Dear” she said, and shut the door. That was all. But within a week (more or less) the warts had vanished completely, never to return.

Curing my warts at Clonmacnoise

Curing my warts at Clonmacnoise

Bullaun Stones abound in Ireland. They are usually found at sites with ecclesiastical connections – as the two examples above (and this one), but this association does not reduce or affect their traditional uses: to cure or to curse. The Irish word Bullán means ‘bowl’ – a water container. At pilgrimage sites, such as St Gobnait‘s Well, Ballyvourney, the bullaun stones often hold smooth rounded pebbles – perhaps incised with a cross – which are turned around each time a pattern or procession is completed.

In the sixth century, the Council of Tours ordered its ministers “…to expel from the Church all those whom they may see performing before certain stones things which have no relation with the ceremonies of the Church…”  Such an order doesn’t seem to have prevented folk traditions of curing continuing into the twenty-first century.

Wart Well at Timoleague Friary

Wart Well at Timoleague Friary

Traditionally, in Ireland similar stones are used for less benign purposes than curing warts or other maladies. Thankfully not in West Cork but in faraway Cavan a group of bullaun basins and stones at the ruined Killinagh Church are associated with curses, as explained here by Harold Johnston in a 1998 interview: “…if you wanted to put a curse on someone, you turned the stones anti-clockwise in the morning.” However, the curse had to be ‘just’ otherwise it came back to curse you in the evening!

An 1875 drawing of the Killinagh Cursing Stones

An 1875 drawing of the Killinagh Cursing Stones

Nearer to home, in County Cork, are the ‘cursing stones’ known locally as  the Clocha Mealachta – not in this case associated with bullaun basins but kept hidden under a slab of rock, which seems a bit sinister to me.

Hidden Cursing Stones at Labbamolaga, Co Cork

Hidden Cursing Stones at Labbamolaga, Co Cork

I prefer the legends which show bullaun stones as a force for good: in more than one location they are said to be associated with a local saint. St Kevin of Glendalough (in County Wicklow) drank every morning from the Deer Stone, a bullaun which miraculously was always filled with milk.

Deer Stone at Glendalough

St Kevin

St Kevin