Reen Farm Revisited

Last week, for the Taste of West Cork Festival, we went back to one of our favourite West Cork places for a very special concert.

Reen Farm is the home, gallery and sculpture garden of the artists John Kelly and his wife Christina Todesco-Kelly. But that description comes nowhere close to doing justice to this utterly unique, fascinating and beautiful venue. We have written about Reen Farm before – two years ago in Where Art and History Meet and last year in Out in the Field.

This year’s event was a concert by Jessie Kennedy and Justin Grounds, joined by Tess Leak on the cello. Jessy and Justin have collaborated on many occasions and always to great effect. Highly accomplished musicians and composers, their concerts are hot ticket items in West Cork. One of the attractions on this occasions was that seats were limited so we were promised an intimate occasion.

We started in John Kelly’s Tate – a sculpture/structure/installation intended to invoke the conjunction of wealth and art in a place that in fact is remembered historically for poverty and famine. This is mainly due to the visit of NM Cummings to Reen and to his famous letter to the Duke of Wellington, in which he relates the horrors of what he has witnessed in Reen and pleads with Wellington to intervene.

Christina read the letter and Jessie performed I am stretched on Your Grave.  It was deeply moving and we filed out of the Tate a more mournful and thoughtful group than the one who entered. We needed a lift and what better to deliver that than John’s iconic Cow up a Tree Sculpture. It doesn’t hurt that it’s located on one of the most scenic stretches of the West Cork coastline, either.

By the time we got back to the garden the tea and coffee were on and Billy (sound engineer and baker extraordinaire) had laid out a feast for us.

We tucked in, and settled down for the concert. It wasn’t just that we were listening to accomplished musicians – it was that it was all taking place on a warm summer evening as the sun was sinking low, in this amazing and exotic location. It felt like such a privilege to be in that place at that time.

Thank you, John and Christina, for your warm hospitality and for sharing your vision for future developments with us. We look forward very much to seeing what the next year or two brings at Reen Farm!

John and Christina

 

Out in the Field

During the West Cork History Festival field trips, led by Roaringwater Journal last week, treats were in store. Many thanks to volunteers Jenny and Ray who worked hard to provide the refreshments (and who baked the scones!) on Friday’s ‘Art and The Great Famine’ excursion, which arrived at Reen Farm in time for tea.

Artist John Kelly‘s cows are abundant at his home at Reen, and the experience of the connections with this unique place and Famine times were admirably and sensitively presented by Siobhan Burke of West Cork Experiences (she’s on the left, facing the bronze tree, below).

The day included organised visits to the 110 Skibbereen Girls project at the old workhouse site in Skibbereen – where we were given a presentation by artist Toma McCullim – and a guided tour by West Cork Arts Centre’s Zenda Williams of the Coming Home – Art and The Great Hunger exhibition at Uillinn, followed by a visit to the mass famine graves in Abbeystrewery, where Philip O’Reagan of the Skibbereen Heritage Centre explained the site’s enormous significance. Just as well we had those scones to bolster us up!

On the previous day we began the ‘West Cork Archaeology’ tour at Knockdrum Fort, where – in benevolent weather – you get the most spectacular views (above). Finola talked about the Rock Art on the site, which takes it back in time perhaps 5,000 years, and she also explained about the alignment with the Bealtaine sunset discovered by Boyle Somerville, described here – and which we witnessed ourselves earlier this year (below).

Highlights of that day’s expedition also included an entertaining time at Castletownshend hosted by George Salter-Townshend (below, he’s leading us into the Castle which has been owned by his family since medieval times).

After more on archeoastronomy from Finola, at Drombeg Stone Circle (above), a further treat was in store at Castle Salem, near Rosscarbery, where we were given a tour and talk by its owner Peter Daly (below).

We were delighted to be given the opportunity to provide this ‘lead-in’ to the History Festival weekend itself which – as last year – was a roaring success. If you didn’t go to it, take a look at the festival programme, and see what you missed!

Because our time has been taken up with the festival we haven’t written any posts this weekend. Normal service will be resumed next week. I can’t resist finishing off with another look at John Kelly’s sculpture garden at Reen.

Where Art and History Meet

Perhaps I should say where they collide! West Cork has both, in abundance, and we’ve just lived through one of those once-in-a-lifetime conjunctions of  the artistic and the historical that leave you stimulated, thoughtful and reeling all at once.

Clockwise from top left: Coverage of the Festival in the Southern Star – the headline says it all; Roy Foster delivered an acclaimed opening address; Finola introduces Kevin Vickers, Canada’s Ambassador to Ireland; Canon Salter and his daughter Brigid at the screening of An Tost Fada, perhaps the most controversial (and certainly one of the most interesting) moments of the Festival

First of all, as our readers must be tired of hearing by now, we participated in the brand new West Cork History Festival. It was a great success, with well over 400 people enjoying a huge variety of talks, films, and panels, augmented with lashings of food and drink. It was so well planned, in fact, that the rain showers obliged by only appearing during the talks, and clearing off when it was time to be outside mixing and mingling and moving between marquees. The Festival wasn’t short on controversy. Sparks flew at several sessions, mainly between speakers and audience members, proving, if we didn’t already know it, that history is very much alive in West Cork. Depressingly, it also signals that, 100 years on, some people are still fighting the old battles. However, to judge from the general climate, those folks are in the minority.

John Kelly the Irish/British/Australian artist, and West Cork resident

Two days after the Festival, we moved on to art. Or so we thought. We had signed up for a guided tour of Reen Farm, the Sculpture Garden that is the home, studio and inspiration for the artist John Kelly. This event was part of the marvellous Skibbereen Arts Festival that has been running all week.

Two upside-down kangaroos in the tennis court – don’t ask me to explain this one, my head was spinning at that point

We’ve met John a couple of times and had seen an exhibition of his at Uillinn that focused on his experiences in the Antarctic. We were aware that, as a sculptor, a painter, and a writer John is internationally esteemed and has exhibited world-wide.

The Turrell-inspired crater with passages leading through it to the sea. (We have our reason to relate to John’s version of the famous Sky Garden at Liss Ard Estate in Skibbereen)

You’ve probably all visited a sculpture garden at some point – but I guarantee you, you’ve never had an experience like this. Being led around by John himself was a privilege, but it’s also a must in order to understand his inspirations, because it’s all about history, and eclectic history at that. 

His Tate Modern piece (above) was a response to the famine in his townland, Reen, as reported in 1846 by a local resident, N M Cummins. Now, looking at it, you would never arrive at that conclusion by yourself, but once you stand there and listen to John recounting the grim happenings that took place there 170 years ago and how that led him to contemplating the food abundance that made Henry Tate a millionaire around the same time, it all starts to come together.

Robert and the Cow up a Tree – just to give you a sense of the scale of the sculpture

I won’t recount the story of the Cow up a Tree, because you have to go yourself and hear it from John in all its convoluted glory. (If you really need to know you can read about it on John’s website.) It’s the highlight of the tour, but definitely only one part of a whole fascinating set of experiences that goes on and on. 

Besides the art (some of which will make you laugh out loud), stunning views greet you as you follow the trail, and finally Christina’s garden and John’s studio round out the day. The Garden is now part of the West Cork Garden Trail and is open from August 7th (tomorrow) until the 13th.

Possibly Over-Stimulated

Gloria Steinem is an international icon. This week, we welcomed her to Bantry Literary Festival. Four hundred women, and a few men, rose spontaneously to our feet and clapped and cheered her entrance. First time I’ve seen a standing ovation before someone actually stepped on stage.

Gloria and

What followed was breathtaking – Gloria spoke, a little and beautifully, but mostly she listened as audience members asked questions and shared their own experiences as women in this country. People had come from far and wide to hear her and just to be there: people I admire and respect – Tara Flynn (see also You’re Grand) and Louise O’Neill. Lelia Doolan, for goodness sake, a Irish feminist icon in her own right. The conversations weren’t easy (misogyny, abortion, pornography, violence) and there certainly were dissenting and opposing viewpoints presented. But the atmosphere was respectful (if electric) and Gloria calmly dealt with each question in ways that were thoughtful and non-divisive. Two hours later, I think we all felt we had been present at a little bit of history.

Gloria

We attended other Literary Festival events and Robert is writing about one of them – the delightful evening with Seán Ó Sé. That evening formed a wonderful contrast to the talk by Alice Carey, a self-professed New York/Irishwoman, vivacious and stylish, but also moving in her descriptions of a childhood caught between two worlds.

Alice Carey

Alice Carey

And just as that Festival is ending, the Skibbereen Arts Festival is bursting upon the scene with a slew of gallery openings and a 60’s street party! Sometimes it’s hard to know where the dividing line is between business and the arts in Skibbereen. All the business people seem to support the arts and all the arts events seem to work well with the businesses. Shopfronts become display cases. Empty buildings are re-purposed as galleries and theatres. Employees and owners dress up and decorate. Everyone has fun.

Skibbereen shop windows. Hands up who remembers women wearing curlers all day in the 60s!

This Friday was a good example as Skibbereen went all out for a 1960s-themed street party of food and music, to celebrate the opening of the Skibbereen Arts Festival. I wrote about this festival a couple of years ago. As arts festivals go in Ireland, this one is only in its infancy, but it hit its stride right from the starting gate, with an eclectic mixture of art, theatre, music, spoken word, film, and events for children.

Robert used to have a van like that

This year we have tickets for all kinds of disparate events and may have to take a holiday when it’s all over! On Friday we attended three art show openings and then joined the throngs on Bridge Street to get into the 60s swing.

Angela Flowers Exhibition

 

The old Bottling Plant makes an excellent gallery space, in this case for the Angela Flowers Collection

The first opening was extraordinary. Angela Flowers is one of Britain’s foremost gallery owners (she has two in London and one in New York), dealing with contemporary art. She has a house in West Cork and the pieces on display are from her own private collection. (Read more about Angela here and about her galleries here.) This is challenging stuff – no pretty paintings here, but compelling and engrossing. The exhibition was opened by Lord David Puttnam, the film producer and now digital champion and educator, who never misses an opportunity to support Skibbereen, where he lives full time.

Uillinn came next: the whole space was devoted to the work of John Kelly, a painter and sculpture with a studio in West Cork and an international reputation.

Yet a third art exhibition opened in an unused space down by the river – a huge L-shaped room perfect for such a purpose. This one was called Mór (‘Large’) and brought together the work of several artists who work in large scale. Huge canvasses and large sculptural pieces created an imposing and magisterial atmosphere.

Karen Hendy’s triptych (top) and Don Cronin’s piece titled ‘Windfall’

Then it was off to the opening of The Souvenir Shop by Rita Duffy. Robert and I have signed up for two ‘invigilation’ sessions at this quirky and unusual art installation, so I will write about it more at a future date, or post photos on our Facebook page.

Souvenir Shop

The Souvenir Shop

Before we staggered home, we joined the throngs of Skibbereen folk on Bridge Street for the 1960s party. The hippies were out in force!

Finally, tonight, we attended a premier showing of the Film Rebel Rossa. Last year we met the two great-grandsons of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in Skibbereen, here to attend various functions commemorating Rossa and to document them for a film they were making. Since I did extensive research on Rossa in preparation for a series of three posts (March Back in Time, O’Donovan Rossa – the First Terrorist? and Rossa: The Skibbereen Years), I was particularly interested in how the film turned out. They did a great job! Rebel Rossa turned out to be about Rossa, but also about family and about how governments celebrate such things versus how republican groups or local committees do it. Fascinating stuff and they are hopeful about getting a distribution deal.

Rebel Rossa

More, much more in the days to come. How am I going to cope? I came here to retire!