It’s always the ones that got away that are the best! We saw Freshly Dug Queens in a field of potatoes in Northern Ireland but were unable to stop on the busy road to capture it on film. We are just left with the concept hanging in the air… Worthy of a title, however, for this latest review of signs – amusing, curious and sometimes just plain puzzling – from all around Ireland. Take a look at the picture above: the dramatic Mountains of Mourne form a serene backdrop, but I couldn’t resist the enigmatic message hanging on a pole beside the beach.
It’s always the case that context is everything: where the sign is often provides the clue as to what it means. But it’s almost better not to know the context. This time around, I’m including some which are purely pictorial – and even some shopfronts which, for me, enter the category of Folk Art. There’s plenty more in my own archives – you’ll find some here. Meanwhile, just enjoy them for the visual delights that they are.
You’ll notice that I have a particular liking for the various Guiness signs. That’s because I remember being fascinated by them during my childhood. I think I learned to read through looking at them!
There are wild beasts all around us! Animal, fish, serpent or fowl, real or mythical, carved, painted – imagined. This is my second ‘Menagerie’ – previously we explored the Honan Chapel in Cork, and I was struck by all the wildlife representations there, as set out in this post from over two years ago.
Deer and antlers on a memorial plaque in the Cathedral at Cashel – one of the earlier representations here, dating from 1574. Top picture – believed to be a tiger, this fine beast lies at the feet of a medieval knight in St Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny
Our travels take us around many of Ireland’s historic sites, and I’m always on the lookout for Creatures – they are abundant everywhere. Countless stories of the saints involved animals: they are common symbols on tombs and heraldic plaques, but we can’t resist also using them today – for inns, shop signs or just decoration on the streetscape. Have a look around you – you might be surprised how many you can see…
Inhabited streetscapes: top – two Kilkenny Cats undoubtedly belonging to Dame Alice Kytler and, above – there are plenty of these toucans still around in Ireland! They originate from a ‘zoo’ advertising campaign for Guiness begun in 1935 (abeted by Dorothy Sayers who wrote captions and verses); the toucan campaign flourished until 1982
Nobody has ever claimed the toucan as an Irish bird, but pelicans were certainly not uncommon in medieval carvings here. That’s because the pelican in early Christianity symbolises atonement as it was believed to wound itself in order to feed its young with its own blood.
Christian symbolism: top – medieval pelicans at Cashel, and below – a fish incorporated in a modern lid to the ancient font in St Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny. The Greek ΙΧΘΥΣ is an acrostic for Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ, literally translating as Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour
Also in Christian symbolism the lamb represents Jesus – the Lamb of God – who was sacrificed in order to atone for human sin.
Top picture – not a wild beast, perhaps, but a pascal lamb mosaic in St Mary’s Cathedral, Kilkenny. Lower picture – this strange creature is also a lamb, from a graveyard memorial in Killeen, Co Meath
Lions are popular animals in Britain and Ireland, possibly because they appeared on royal crests and were therefore associated with status and dignity. I was surprised to find bears and eagles well represented.
All the lions (graphic tiles and wistful memorials) are from the Collegiate Church in Youghal. The stained glass is from St Peter’s Church, Bandon, Co Cork and shows off bears (from crests of the Earls of Bandon – their motto was Bear & Forbear), eagles, another lion and – for good measure – a fine serpent
Some of the most splendid and oldest carved stonework in Ireland is to be found at Cormac’s Chapel, Cashel and at Clonfert Cathedral, both dating from the twelfth century. The Hiberno Romanesque doors and arches display arrays of human heads but also numerous creatures.
Upper pictures – a small selection from the riotous carvings at Clonfert Cathedral, Co Galway and – lower picture – ambiguous creatures from Cashel, Co Tipperary: all are around 900 years old
I’ll round off for now with some more cat-like creatures and a Kilkenny pig. Oh – and a carving we found in the Cashel museum, titled ‘Elephant and Castle’. Both the carving and the name are enigmatic, as the creature with a castle on its back (wherein resides another creature – a gryphon?) looks to me like a boar with feathers!