The Soul Expands with Beauty

We are so lucky to live in a place where the arts are valued as a necessary part of life and where we can attend art exhibitions, concerts, theatre, readings, film screenings. It all comes together every year at the Skibbereen Arts Festival. It somehow manages to combine fun, entertainment, wonder and beauty (like this West Cork seascape by Harriet Selka, above).

The Irish Memory Orchestra also enthralled us one evening – they play traditional and commissioned pieces entirely by memory.

Last time we wrote about this festival we said it was ‘hitting its stride’. This time the phrase that came to me was ‘it’s going from strength to strength.’ What a marvellous line up it was! You can see the whole program online and look at the sheer variety of experiences that we lucky West Cork folk got to pick from. A standout for us this year was the concert lineup, the art exhibitions and the poetry events.

Roseanne Cash and John Leventhal

It started off with Roseanne Cash, daughter of Johnny. You might think – what? Country Music? I know that’s not everyone’s taste, although I have a soft spot for it myself. But Roseanne sings a wonderful mix of Appalachian Folk, bluesy ballads and her own material along with the classics of country. She has a gorgeous voice and a husband accompanist and they both play a mean guitar. Here she is singing one of her father’s songs along with a touching tribute.

Skibbereeen was only her only other Irish stop besides Dublin and she came because of a line in Johhny’s song Forty Shades of Green (did you know her wrote that? I didn’t) that refers to Skibbereen. Watch him singing it at a concert in Dublin back in the days of Big Hair. It was Roseanne’s closing number, and predictably it brought the house down. She was in tears. We were in tears.

Something completely different a couple of nights later – The Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine is from the formidable talents of singer-songwriter Declan O’Rourke, backed up by an excellent group of musicians that includes John Sheahan of The Dubliners. Declan has been working on this song cycle for years. He describes it “an attempt to bring fresh air to an unhealed wound, and to remind the Irish people of what we have overcome.” There’s a good overview of the project here and you’ll witness Declan’s unique voice and engaging personality. The subject matter was tough – we are in the middle of a major Famine commemoration event here this summer and we are becoming more familiar every day with its horrifying stories. Having written about the Coming Home Exhibition and the 110 Skibbereen Girls Project already, we found this concert to be poignant and powerful.

Lúnasa have long been recognised as one of the best Irish groups performing traditional music today and we’d been looking forward to this one very much. The bonus was the addition of Natalie Merchant as their special guest. I’ve been a fan for a long time and it was a great pleasure to see her in person. That voice! Take a listen.

She sang this one for us and Lúnasa transformed before our eyes into this amazing back up band. Imagine a version where instead of just guitars the harmonies are provided by a flute, an uillinn pipes, a fiddle, a guitar and a double bass. Magic.

Jim Turner’s ceramic pieces catch the eye at Anseo

We took a day to do the Art Trail. There’s a couple of large exhibitions including one curated by Catherine Hammond that Robert wrote about a couple of weeks ago. The other large show was called Anseo (on-shuh meaning ‘here’). Each artist was asked to write a statement addressing how he/she responds to living/being in West Cork and it was revelatory how different each one was – both the statement and the art.

Helen O’Keefe’s Neighbours – Long Island

But there were also hidden gems all over the place – in converted empty stores, in back rooms and unused office space. I enjoyed Sonia Bidwell’s quirky pieces constructed from fabric and found materials, upstairs in Lisheen’s House. Her Veronica is below.

School children had participated in a ‘City’ project where they explored design and architecture and built their own cities. It was fun and relevant and, in fact, mighty impressive what they had accomplished!

A local group of fabric artists, Wild Threads, had taken over a space near the supermarket to mount an exhibition of sea-themed work called ‘Littoral.’ As expressed in the program – ‘For some this means intimate vignettes of everyday views and for others it is the colourful explosions that Mother Nature throws at us.” It had never occurred to me that you can paint with fabric until I encountered the work of this group. It’s both a constraining and liberating medium, and the results were varied, imaginative and beautiful!

Piece by fabric artist Sam Healy

I can’t finish without a word on the poetry. While there were several events, the one that made the most impact on me was the launch of two new books by Pól Ó’Cólmáin and James Harpur. I’ve written about Pól before and used his poem in my post Pagan and Pure. This time it was a book, The Silence Unravelling, of Haiku and Tanka – just a few words to capture a moment, a feeling. I hope to use some of them in a future post – they’re brilliant. 

Pól Ó Colmáin – here not reciting his poetry but performing some of his songs

James Harpur is one of Ireland’s most distinguished poets. He’s a member of the Aosdána, an affiliation of artists whose election is based on a distinguished, creative and considerable body of work. He read from his new book The White Silhouette. Here is an extended quote from his Book Of Kells series of poems, this section dealing with Gerald of Wales, Geraldus Cambrensis, who comes to see the book.

Beauty is not so much a thing

as a moment, unrepeatable,

although the moment needs the thing

as a flame needs a wick

or images a page.

Or it’s a streak of lightning

connecting heaven to earth

whereby in a flash we breathe

the enormity of something Other

beyond our tiny grasping selves

and fill our lungs with it,

before the dark returns again.

The soul expands with beauty –

it cannot help itself; our task in life

is to prevent it shrinking back.

Janet Murren’s Creaky Stairs. I love her multi-layered atmospheric constructions

In the Wilds of West Cork

West Cork night life

West Cork night life

What on earth will you find to do in the wilds of West Cork? One friend asked me this when I announced my plans to move here. Others may have been too polite to express the thought, but the question hovered. They needn’t have worried, of course. I don’t think I have ever lived anywhere else where there was so much going on and so much to do. If that was true in the winter, it’s more so now. It’s spring and summer’s around the corner, so West Cork Festival Season has gone into high gear. I wrote about the Ballydehob Trad Festival six weeks ago. Since then, there have been two more – a jazz festival in Ballydehob and the Fiddle Fair in Baltimore. 

Live jazz in the Irish Whip Bar

Live jazz in the Irish Whip Bar

The Jazz Festival featured a street market, and jazz sessions in most of the pubs all afternoon and well into the night. The village hall was decked out as a night club one night, with dancing into the wee hours. There were musicians and jazz aficionados from all over Ireland, and the pubs were bursting at the seams and spilling over onto the sidewalks.

Soul Driven and the riveting dancer Ksenia Parkhaskaya

Soul Driven and the riveting dancer Ksenia Parkhaskaya

This is the second time we have been here for the Baltimore Fiddle Fair, which has ben going now for over 20 years, under the brilliant direction of Declan McCarthy. World class acts come to play in this tiny village. The audience is diverse too – we met people who had come from Britain, Germany and the USA just for this weekend. We had season tickets, which meant we weren’t asleep before 2 in the morning for four nights in a row – probably earlier than most of the attendees!

Eddi Reader

Eddi Reader

A highlight was Eddi Reader, a Scottish singer/songwriter with a larger than life stage presence, a great line in stories, and a soaring voice. Robert loved seeing Aly Bain, one of his musical heroes, in concert and we both appreciated the wide range of music on offer, from Appalachian old time fiddling to Swedish polskas, Scottish and Irish tunes, and an entertaining group call the New Rope String Band who kept us laughing with their slapstick humour. For the readers who have been requesting videos, I recorded one lively number and uploaded it to YouTube – take a look. It’s a tiny taste of what we experienced.

John Sheahan with young fans

John Sheahan with young fans

One unforgettable afternoon was devoted to a concert by John Sheahan, the sole surviving member of the legendary Dubliners. Accompanied by Eamon Keane on the keyboard, he told stories, read us his poetry, and played his own compositions. He is truly an Irish icon, and it felt like a real privilege to hear him in such an intimate venue. He played a wide variety of music and I recorded this one: St Patrick’s Cathedral.

Of course all these late nights and bouncing around on seats takes a toll on the body, leading to the need for a rejuvenating day at a spa. Fortunately, there is a marvellous one in West Cork, on Inchydoney Island, where my friend Amanda and I repaired for a girly day of pampering. You can read her account of our hedonism here. 

The strand at Inchydoney Island

The strand at Inchydoney Island

And in case you might feel that the entertainment described above is not highbrow enough, last night we attended a performance of a Haydn mass and Mozart’s Requiem by the West Cork Choral Singers. Accompanied by an excellent small orchestra (we recognised some of the players from our regular Firday night trad sessions: fiddlers turned violinists) and four outstanding soloists, the choir rose to the challenge of an ambitious program magnificently, garnering a well-deserved standing ovation by the appreciative audience.

West Cork Choral Singers present Mozart's Requiem in Skibbereen

West Cork Choral Singers present Mozart’s Requiem in Skibbereen

We won’t have much time to recover from all those late night – next weekend is the Fastnet Short Film Festival in Schull as well as a Skibbereen Historical Society trip to Cape Clear, and the one after that is the Ballydehob Country Music Festival (where I may have a small role to play). More on those events in an upcoming post. If I survive it all…It’s a tough life, out here in the wilds!