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!