Coomhola Country

As the Coomhola River tumbles from Borlin to the sea, gathering tributaries, it forms many pools amongst the riffles and glides. These pools, in summer, provide leafy shelters for salmon and trout. To anyone who has fished or walked the river, each pool has its own character, and each its own name . . .

 

[From Hidden Gold, History and Folklore of the Coomhola and Borlin Valleys Julia Kemp: Coomhola Borlin Community Development Association 1998]

On the header is the spectacular view from Borlin, looking down the great glen where the Coomhola River finds its way through a country formed by glaciers in the Midlandian period, about 10,000 years ago. The rugged Shehy mountain range (Cnoic na Seithe in Irish, meaning Hills of the Animal Hides) with its peaks of Knockboy, Caoinkeen and Kinkeen provides some of the most dramatic scenery in West Cork, its scarred outcrops clearly showing the downward progress of the ice sheets. The contrast between the barren high land and the lush pastoral meadows laid out below evoke a beauty which is hard to match – anywhere in the world!

The Kilgarvan (Co Kerry) to Ballylickey (Co Cork) road is one of the unsung feats of Irish engineering. Until the middle of the nineteenth century it was no more than a system of ‘nearways’, providing rough, narrow access tracks to remote mountain dwellings and hard-won field systems. A famine improvement project c1846, involving metalling, a tunnel, cuttings and stone retaining walls, transformed it to the ‘through road’ which exists today – although it may seem to us no more than a boreen. It’s there for all to travel on, and will provide a breathtaking experience – but be aware that it could also deliver some hair-raising reversing episodes on the rare occasions when a vehicle is encountered coming the other way. The upper photo shows the road ‘clinging on’ to the face of a mountain outcrop, while the map gives a good idea of the circuitous route that the way takes to keep as far as possible to a level contour on its journey.

This is the country of St Finnbar. If you follow the County border east from the top of the Borlin Glen (off-road) you will very soon come to the site of his sixth century monastic settlement at Gougane Barra. This whole area was loved by the Cork born writer and illustrator Robert Gibbings, whose book Sweet Cork of Thee tells of a seven month sojourn in this mountainous region in 1949, beautifully illustrated by his woodcuts.

Mountain Road by Robert Gibbings, woodcut from Sweet Cork of Thee, published 1951

As we drove along the road beside the Inchigeelagh lakes, we could see moorhens gathering material for their nests among the taselled reeds and swans on islets, piling up dead rushes in readiness for their eggs. A corncrake was calling from a meadow. Celandines and kingcups outshone the gorse.

 

Mick said to me: ‘My father’s sister lived a mile to the north of us here. She married a man by the name of Scanlan. His mother came from Gougane and ’twas one evening when she was travelling west by the lake – there was no road there then, only a little bit of a track – she looked in the lake and what did she see but fields of corn and sheep and every sort of land and crop and stock. She was an old woman at the time and she knew well enough ’twas a kind of enchantment must be on the lake, so she says to herself, if I can keep an eye on it all and throw a bit of iron at it the spell will be broken. So she kept her eyes fixed on the fields and the cattle and the pigs and the hens, and all the time she was thinking where would she get a bit of iron. And the only bit she could think of was in the heel of her shoe. ‘Twould be worth it to throw in the shoe, says she. But when she went to unrip the lace wasn’t it tangled in a knot, and for the glint of a second she took her eye off the land. When she looked again ’twas all disappeared and the lake was there the same as ever.’

 

Our road turned south, through a wilderness of rock and bog and lilied pools . . .

 

[Robert Gibbings Sweet Cork of Thee, J M Dent & Sons 1951]

From the highest rim of Borlin Glen (upper picture), the Comhoola River valley is laid out below. Home to sheep and ravens, the scattered farmsteads emerge from rock and forest and provide a living – as they have for countless generations – to a hardy people.

On the lush valley floor are signs of ancient activity and occupation. A stream flows through a meadow dotted with whitethorn trees (upper), while an old stone clapper bridge has been superseded by the modern boreen taking its way up to the Borlin Valley settlements (centre). Lower – a fascinating stone circle and mass rock site is interrupted by the field fence. Here, too, is a bullaun stone and cupmarked rock (below).

Let us give the last word to Johnny O’Driscoll from Snave, recorded by his grandson Sean O’Driscoll in the 1930s and featured in Julia Kemp’s Hidden Gold:

There is little gold in this area, but there is one place where it is said a crock of gold is buried. It is about a hundred yards from the Glaslough, between Coorycomade and Ardnatrush, about a mile and a half from Coomhola National School.

 

There is a bush growing at the exact location, and beneath the bush is a large stone which covers the hidden treasure. It belongs to a tiny dwarf, and anybody who visits the place at midnight can see this little creature on the bush above the gold.

 

People did go on one occasion in search of the gold, but they were unsuccessful. A little bright light is visible about midnight above the bush. I have seen it myself on several occasions . . .

To Puncture the Mysterious – Finbarr and the Serpent

There are two St Finbarrs, Patron Saint of Cork – the one you read about in academic studies, and the saint of myth and legend. If you’re of a romantic turn of mind, I recommend you avoid the first of these. It will do your heart no good to read the forensic analyses of the origins of his cult and who he might really have been.

The legendary Finbarr: Arriving at Gougane Barra in this window in Caheragh by Murphy Devitt; and being consecrated as a bishop by angels in an Earley window in St Finbarr’s church in Bantry, donated by William Martin Murphy

No – far better to read the hagiographies, which lay out his virtues, for he was godlike and pure of heart and mind, like Abraham; mild and well-doing, like Moses; a psalmist, like David; wise, like Solomon; firm in the faith, like Peter; devoted to the truth, like Paul the Apostle; and full of the Holy Spirit, like John the Baptist. He was a lion of strength, and an orchard full of apples of sweetness.

St Finbarr’s monastic site as reconstructed by Fr Peter Hurley in the 1890s and still a place of pilgrimage. The window is in the Church of St Finbarr and the Holy Angels in Inchigeela and is a flamboyant example of Watsons of Youghal’s Celtic Revival style

He is associated with Cork, of course, but probably most closely with Gougane Barra, that idyllic mountain lake where he is said to have founded his first monastic community. Gougane Barra – the rocky cranny of Finbarr – lies in a cleft in the Shehy Mountains and from it the River Lee flows eastwards across Cork to empty itself into its mighty harbour.

The oratory at Gougane is an in-demand wedding venue and home to stained glass windows by Watsons of Youghal, including this one of Finbarr

Legend has it that when St Finbarr arrived to set up his cell the lake was occupied by an enormous serpent, called Lú (or Louie, in some accounts) who, having had it to himself naturally resented the saint’s arrival and on one occasion arose and tore the chalice from his hands as he was celebrating mass. Finbarr raged and prayed and with the power of God to sustain him he summoned Lú from the depths and banished him forever from the lake.

Lú underfoot, being banished by Finbarr

Lú departed, thrashing his giant tail as he went and such was his anger and strength that he carved a deep valley as he went. The water from the lake flowed into the valley and thus the River Lee (below) was formed.

Our favourite contemporary poet, James Harpur, has re-imagined this story as a classic spiritual struggle. He has given me permission to use his poem, Finbarr and the Serpent of Gougane Barra. This is the perfect answer to the desiccation and disappointment of academic analysis – the power of Finbarr’s legend lies in the timeless battle between good and evil – whether that’s between a saint and a serpent or between a saint and his demons.

Did it exist?

                   For hours I’d scan the surface

Hope for a splash, a shadow in the water,

Anything

               to puncture the mysterious.

At night I’d set the traps with squeaking bait.

But nothing came

                            except a badger and an otter.

Yet still I felt its presence by the lake.

At last, I snapped: I drove the serpent out

With curses, shouts – I exorcised the beast

Along with every slithering scaly thought.

But soon … I could not bear the certainty

Of absence, emptiness.

                                     I headed east

To settle where the plains of marshes lie

And built a trap, a cave-like oratory;

And here I pray for god

                                      to coil around me.

 

Watsons of Youghal – Revivalist Masters Part 2

In Part 1 I laid out the background to the Watsons of Youghal Revivalist-style windows, a design innovation for which they should be particularly celebrated. In this post I will provide further examples and tell you where you can see some.

The Watson Archive is housed at the Crawford Gallery in Cork. In it are original cartoons showing the careful working out of interlace patterns and of lettering styles. Since these cartoons are on long pieces of paper which remained rolled or folded in storage for many years, they are in fragile condition and therefore what one consults in the Crawford Archive is the file of photographs of these papers. While not ideal, this at least allows serious students of stained glass to see some of the original work upon which the windows were assembled. There are also smaller drawings and paintings – these were done as original designs from which the cartoons could be drawn and from which the colours could be worked out.

It’s a real thrill to come across a window that is based on one of those designs: see above and below for a perfect match! Incorporation of interlacing can also help to identify an un-signed window as being a Watson: it was what set them apart, when the figures themselves – the saints or angels – might be well-nigh indistinguishable from those of other stained glass manufacturers.

Interlacing is the preferred word for the complex looping and braiding of ribbons, which twist in and out and around each other and often end in the head of a fantastical animal. Artists studied the Book of Kells and other illuminated manuscripts, copied the elaborate decorations and eventually figured out their own designs. Just walk through any older cemetery in Ireland to see the craftsmanship with which many crosses were carved with interlace motifs.  So it was with Watsons: they became expert at fitting and filling spaces in a window with Revivalist designs.

One of the best places to see Watson Revivalist windows, because it’s a small space and you can get close to the windows, is the Oratory at Gougane Barra. The vision for the building was that of Fr Patrick Hurley who developed the ‘ancient’ monastic settlement on the island, a scholarly man well versed in the Revivalist art and literature of the period who specified that the oratory itself would be built in the Neo-Romanesque style based on 12th century Irish churches such as Cormac’s Chapel (see this post for more on this). In the Oratory all the windows except a Marian image depict Irish saints, some of whom are local to Cork (Finbarr [above], Fachtna [below], Gobnait and Eltin).

Another West Cork church with Watson Revivalist windows is in Ardfield, south of Clonakilty. I used some of these in my Symbols and Stories post so take a look at those now. Note that, in contrast with the Gougane Barra Oratory, the iconography in Ardfield is essentially International-Catholic (St James, Jesus, Mary), very much in line with the Devotional Revolution which I described in my post Saints and Soupers: the Story of Teampall na mBocht (Part 7, the New Catholicism). Instead of repeating the Ardfield images here I will send you instead to the little country church in Castletown-Kinneagh, near Enniskeane, and one of my favourite windows – the Infant of Prague. In the extensive renovation of this church the parishioners, ably led by Fr Tom Hayes, worked hard to save this window from a porch which had to be demolished and re-located it in a light box inside the church. While not perfect for back-lighting, this has the great advantage of allowing the viewer to get really close to the window to observe the painting techniques and the details. 

Next we will stop by St Ita’s church in Gortroe, near Youghal. Here you will find one of Watson’s Revivalist windows dedicated to that same Blessed Thaddeus McCarthy (below) about whom Fr Hurley wrote in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society and whose travails I described in my Post Thaddeus McCarthy, The Bishop Who Never Was. In the sanctuary is a three light window, the Sacred Heart flanked by Thaddeus and St Ita, while a Lourdes window occupies the south wall (a detail from that window is my lead image in this post).

Protestant churches were also attracted to Revivalist touches and one of the most interesting windows I’ve seen is in St John’s Church of Ireland in Knight’s Town on Valentia Island in Kerry. The two light window depicts the angels of Prayer and Praise, with book and harp. The angels are beautiful if over-familiar depictions, but it is the surround that shows how Watsons worked hard to customise windows according to the wishes of the clients.*

The windows commemorate James and Anne Graves. James Graves was the first Superintendent of the Anglo-American telegraph station on Valentia and he held the post for forty years. Accordingly, the framing surround of each window shows not only nicely worked-out interlace but the telegraph cable, punctuated by cross sections of that cable in red and green. Marine rope, telegraph poles and ceramic insulators also make an appearance, and the international telegraph alphabet is represented by black dots on a white background. The window was executed in 1912 and cost thirty five pounds.

So far I have illustrated this post from windows in small churches, but the very large Catholic Church of St Carthage in Lismore, Co Waterford, has several very fine Revivalist windows. Some are credited to Cox and Buckley and were completed in the 1890s; others were done after the company had changed its name to J Watson and Co. The church itself, in a flamboyant Lombardo-Romanesque style, is well worth a visit and the windows certainly enliven the interior. The iconography is a mixture of International-Catholic and Celtic-Revival/local iconography, with, for example, the Archangel Michael and St Carthage (see Part 1) side by side.

I included a detail from the Vision of St Ita window in Part 1, but it’s worth having a look at more of that window. The end of the nineteenth century saw the publication of many texts related to Irish saints – translations from Irish by such scholars as Whitley Stokes (see my post on The White Hound of Brigown) and Canon John O’Hanlon – and these became the religious equivalent of the stories of Finn McCool, Cuchulainn and the great Irish mythology cycles as written by Standish O’Grady and others at the time. St Ita was the foremost female saint of Ireland after St Brigid, and she is traditionally thought to have come from Waterford. She was given to visions and raptures and this is what is depicted here. And just look at those wonderful birds in the canopy above her head.

This demonstrates the popularity of these hagiographies with Irish Catholics and their clergy at the time – the artists responsible for these windows had to make sure they were well read on the lives of Irish saints. Both the Columcille window (above) and the Patrick window (below) exuberantly display their artist’s knowledge of the lives and deeds of these saints as well as their immersion in all the tropes of Celtic Revival imagery (wolfhound, anyone?).

The Rose Window has a panoply of Irish Saints (including Saint Otteran, Patron Saint of Atheists!) each one occupying one of the rays of the rose with cherubs encased in interlace. As they say in property ads – must be seen to be appreciated.

My final window astounded me when I first saw it – in fact I think it was my introduction to Watson’s use of interlace and it really is a virtuoso performance. I’ve used the bottom panel from it further back in the post to demonstrate how a cartoon ends up as a window, but the whole window deserves pride of place. It’s in the Catholic church in Inchigeelagh, Co Cork, and so we have circled back again to St Finbarr of Gougane Barra – an excellent place to stop.

I’ve included illustrations in this post from Cork, Kerry and Waterford but I would be interested to hear from anyone who has found Watson Revivalist windows anywhere.

Part 1 of this post is here

West Cork in Photographs – Your Favourites, Part 1

Navigating Mizen Head

A fishing boat navigates the rocks of Mizen Head

Our Roaringwater Journal Facebook Page features lots of our photographs of West Cork – two or three every week – and we know by the views and the ‘likes’ the ones that capture your imagination. It’s become a tradition here with us at the end of the year to go through them all and show you the top choices. Think of it as our Christmas present to you, our wonderful readers – nothing to read, just images of our gorgeous part of the world to drool over. Of course, we have our own favourites too, even if they didn’t get as many likes as others did, so we sneaked a few of those in here two. This is the first of two posts – the next one in a few days.

Sheeps Head November Day

Sheep’s Head

Chough by the Gate

Chough in the rain

Fastnet in the sunset

Fastnet Lighthouse at sunset

2 0f the 12

Two of the arches of Ballydehob’s famous Twelve Arch Bridge

Roaringwater Bay from Sailors' Hill

Roaringwater Bay from Sailor’s Hill above Schull

Gougane Oratory 2

Gougane Barra in the autumn

To the Mass Rock, Sheeps Head

Walking to the Mass Rock, Sheep’s Head

Kealkill 2

The archaeological complex at Kealkill – a five stone circle, a standing stone pair and a radial cairn

Rossbrin Dawn

Rossbrin Cove dawn

The next batch (Part 2) is now up. Enjoy!