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

Harvest Time

…The heat of the summer was eased by the cooling breezes from the Atlantic. It was busy on land and sea, with seine fishing by night and fish curing and farming by day, but there was always time for scoriachting, games and dance, sometimes on Carbery Island or across Dunmanus Bay…

(from Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy & Richard Hawkes, Mizen Productions, 1999)

This selection of photographs is from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, 1907 – 1967, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s. I have chosen his pictures that concentrate on gathering the harvest – and the fairs that are associated with harvest time: the festival of Lúnasa. They are generally not captioned, so we are not aware where these were taken. When I travelled in West Cork during the 1990s I remember seeing traditional stooks in the fields: this method of collecting the corn was practiced by the small farmers then, although now I believe it has completely vanished.

…Most of the people on the Northside had holdings that were so small that they could only grow corn (barley or oats) or wheat, for their own use. The land wasn’t good for corn crops. By the middle of August, the stooks were seen in the fields. As with the bringing in of the hay, the cutting of the corn was a great event with a meitheal to help you if needed. For cutting, a reaping hook or the scythe was used. When buying a scythe it had to be sharp enough to lift a penny off the floor. A man followed the cutter, collecting the corn, a sheaf at a time, and putting it out behind him. This was called ‘taking out’. Two people followed the man ‘taking out’ and bound the corn into sheaves with a bind, making sure that the ears on the bind lay with the rest of the ears. Six sheaves were made into a stook and left for a week, then the small stooks would be made into a stook of twelve sheaves which was left in the field to finish ripening for the rest of the month. The stooks were gathered into the haggard, by donkey or horse and cart, and made into a barrel stack ready for threshing in October… (Northside of the Mizen)

Lúnasa is one of the important turning points in the Irish calendar: harvest time, fruitfulness, and the onset of autumn. The others are Imbolc – 1st of February (the coming of the light and new life, spring), Bealtaine – 1st of May (onset of summer and a time of growth), Samhain – 1st November (winter and darkness). All these points have to be marked and celebrated. Lúnasa, or Lughnasa is probably the most fertile time for celebration, and festivities could last for days or even weeks. There was always a fair: the most well-known one still celebrated is at Killorglin, in the heart of County Kerry, where a great wild Puck goat is crowned and reigns above the crowds.

 

‘Will the Hare’ – and the Mizen Olympics!

street market

…In ancient Ireland the festival of the beginning of the harvest was the first day of Autumn, that is to say, it coincided with 1 August in the Julian calendar. This has continued in recent tradition, insofar as Lúnasa or Lammas-Day was still taken to be the first day of Autumn; the gatherings and celebrations connected with it were, however, transferred to a nearby Sunday, in most parts of Ireland to the last Sunday in July, in some places to the first Sunday in August… The old Lúnasa was, in the main, forgotten as applying to the popular festival and a variety of names substituted in various localities, such as Domhnach Chrom Dubh, Domhnach Deireannach (Last Sunday), Garland Sunday, Hill Sunday and others…

making the stack

All the photographs in this post are from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh who travelled and photographed the west of Ireland during the 1930s, 40s and 50s and is an invaluable documentary of the times in which he lived. Generally, the locations of the photographs are not noted, and very few are likely to be specific to the Mizen: they do however record life as it would have been lived at that time in all the rural areas

Today we celebrate Lúnasa – the festival of the bringing-in of the harvest. Kevin Danaher (The Year in Ireland, Mercier Press 1972) wrote (above) about what he observed in the middle of the last century, when things were already changing and many of the old customs were, as he notes, ‘in the main forgotten’, although still talked about. What changes do we see in Ireland, a few generations on?

seascape

Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes was written in 1999 (Mizen Productions) and is a collection of memories and stories still being told then about traditional life in this westerly part of of the country:

…The heat of the summer was eased by the cooling breezes from the Atlantic. It was busy on land and sea, with seine fishing by night and fish curing and farming by day, but there was always time for scoriachting, games and dance, sometimes on Carbery Island or across Dunmanus Bay…

…Once in the year Carbery Island was the location for a dance and in settled weather the Northsiders could shout across and give the signal to the people of Muintir Bháire to meet at Carbery Island. As many as forty-five people in three boats would cross Dunmanus Bay to the White House, and a good crowd of men and women from Bear Island would also come to the dances. They were great hearty people. Ann Daly from Kilcrohane and Agnes O’Donovan of Dunkelly played the melodeon…

I like the idea of the Northsiders shouting across the water to the residents of the Sheep’s Head, two miles away! I wonder if they would be heard nowadays?

horse race

…There were competitions at Dunmanus for swimming, running, jumping and weight lifting, and you could be sure that the Northsiders were well represented in each of the events. ‘Will the Hare’ (William McCarthy of Dunkelly Middle), was good at the long jump and the running races and would often win and bring great honour to the Northside. It was said that ‘Will the Hare’ got his name by catching a hare on the run! It was also said that when you blew the whistle to gather the men for seining, by the time you had finished, ‘Will the Hare’ would be at Canty’s Cove waiting!

boat race

…Wild John Murphy would take the lads to the Crookhaven Regatta which was held on The Assumption (15th August). It was a long pull around the Mizen but a good time was had by all. The Northsiders were great with the oars, but it was hard to beat the Long Island crews in the boat races…

(Danaher): …In very many localities the chief event of the festival was not so much the festive meal as the festive gathering out of doors. This took the form of an excursion to some traditional site, usually on a hill or mountain top, or beside a lake or river, where large numbers of people from the surrounding area congregated, travelling thither on foot, on horseback or in carts and other equipages… Many of the participants came prepared to ‘make a day of it’ bringing food and drink and musical instruments, and spending the afternoon and evening in eating, drinking and dancing…

picnic

…Another welcome feature of the festive meal was fresh fruit. Those who had currants or gooseberries in their gardens, and this was usual even among small-holders in Munster and South Leinster, made sure that some dish of these appeared on the table. Those who lived near heather hills or woods gathered fraucháin (‘fraughans’, whortleberries, blueberries) which they ate for an ‘aftercourse’ mashed with fresh cream and sugar. Similar treatment was given to wild strawberries and wild raspberries by those lucky ones who lived near the woods where these grow… A number of fairs still held or until recently held at this season bear names like ‘Lammas Fair’, ‘Gooseberry Fair’, ‘Bilberry Fair’…

market in town

One interesting custom was the driving of cattle and horses into the water. This is mentioned in the 1680s by Piers in his Description of the County of West-Meath:On the first Sunday in harvest, viz in August, they will be sure to drive their cattle into some pool or river, and therein swim them; this they observe as inviolable as if it were a point of religion, for they think no beast will live the whole year thro’ unless they be thus drenched; I deny not but that swimming of the cattle, and chiefly in this season of the year, is healthful unto them…

at the fair

Lúnasa

Garlic Sunday at Nead an Iolair

A summer storm approaches Rossbrin Cove

Lúnasa – in Ireland it’s the name for the eighth month, and a festival.

August? So that would relate to Lammas in English – the first of August?

loaf

Yes, Lammas is supposedly from the Anglo-Saxon Hlafmaesse – meaning ‘Festival of the Loaf’. Here it was traditional to bake bread at Lúnasa – a round loaf, which was cut into four and each quarter was then set in the corners of the barn where the grain would be stored, to ensure a good harvest.

So is Lúnasa the harvest festival?

By some accounts, yes. Although the beginning of August is a bit early for harvesting. Having said that – our music session in Ballydehob last night was temporarily disrupted by the sight and sound of a fleet of huge tractors and a combine harvester thundering through the main street in the dark – yellow lights flashing dramatically: after a prolonged period of hot sunny weather there was a big rain storm forecast, so the farmers were working through the night to get in as much of the crop as possible before the deluge.

And did the rain come?

It did – just in time to dampen the Ballydehob Wooden Boat Festival. But it certainly didn’t put a dampener on the spirit of the event.

A damp Boat Festival in Ballydehob

A damp Boat Festival in Ballydehob

Is Lúnasa celebrated in Ireland nowadays?

Well – it’s remembered: you may have heard of Brian Friel’s play Dancing at Lughnasa, turned into a film in 1998. It’s set in rural Donegal in the 1930s and poignantly tells of the lives of five women encapsulated through one summer month. It touches on ritual themes and the mixture of superstition and religion which still characterises life in Ireland today.

Now you’ve spelled it differently…

Well spotted! On the calendar it’s usually Lúnasa. It’s suggested that the word Lughnasa harks back to pagan times: there was a god – Lugh – who in Irish mythology led the Tuatha Dé Danann against the Fomorians. After the victory Lugh finds Bres, the half-Fomorian former king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, alone on the battlefield, and Bres begs for his life. If he is spared, he promises, he will ensure that the cows of Ireland always give milk. The Tuatha Dé Danann refuse the offer. He then promises four harvests a year, but the Tuatha Dé Danann say one harvest a year suits them. But Lugh spares his life on the condition that he teach the Tuatha Dé Danann how and when to plough, sow and reap.

That story rather neatly ties up the connection with the harvest… Any more traditions?

August is the holiday month and there are plenty of things happening in Ireland: my favourite is Puck Fair, held every year in Killorglin, County Kerry. I came across it by accident when I was travelling in Ireland some forty years ago; now it’s notorious.

Why?

King Puck

King Puck (www.abitofireland.com)

Well, the central feature is an enormous Billy Goat, captured in the wilds of the Kerry Mountains. He gets treated royally – literally, as on the first day of the Fair he’s crowned King by a twelve year old girl. He’s then placed in a cage on top of a high platform which looks out over the street fair, which continues for three days.

Puck Fair, Killorglin 1900

Puck Fair, Killorglin 1900

That certainly does sound pagan! What happens to King Puck after the Fair?

He goes back to the mountains. It’s not uncommon to see wild Goats up in Kerry.

Sheena Jolley's superb study of Kerry Goats

Sheena Jolley‘s superb study of Kerry Goats

Is there a story attached to King Puck?

Of course… During St Patrick’s travels he reaches the borders of Kerry. He has with him his herd of Goats which give him food and milk. During the night his goats are stolen and this means he can’t go any further (in fact he supposedly then never set foot in Kerry, which means that Kerry people were never converted from their old pagan ways!). ‘…He resolved to detour a community that was so utterly depraved and lacking in hospitality. However, a chieftain from the Barony of Dunkerran saved the day for Kerry. He presented as a gift for the Saint a magnificent Puck-Goat and a hundred of the finest Goats from his herds on the slopes of Glencar highlands. The Saint came no further west, but instead of a malediction he gave to Kerry that benediction that will live forever in the salutations of the Irish Race – “Go mbeannuigh Dia siar sibh”*. Killorglin being the natural centre of defence of the Barony at that time has ever since held the Puck-Goat in the highest esteem, and elevated him to the place of honour for three days each year…’ (Liam Foley – the Kerryman, 1945)

*May God bless you back

cove

And are you celebrating Lúnasa yourself?

We’re off to the Blessing of the Boats this morning in Schull. Then we’re over to Hare Island later on for an evening meal with friends who’ve sailed down to West Cork for the weekend.

Enjoy it!

Ready for the Harvest

Ready for the Harvest