First Foot

‘…According to local folklore the first foot was planted on Irish soil at Donemark on the shores of Bantry Bay in 2680 BC…’

Ireland's first arrivals passed by this pebble beach on their way to Donemark

Ireland’s first arrivals passed by this pebble beach on their way to Donemark

This statement (from Fuchsia Brand’s leaflet on Heritage) was guaranteed to send me scurrying for my history books. And – yes – I found many references to the event: an event which, to my mind, was surely one of special significance for Ireland: the first human ever to have set foot in this land – it must have deserved commemoration… Surely, there must at the very least be a plaque marking the spot? For a moment I wondered if this could be the long sought explanation for the enigmatic piece of Rock Art that’s on display in Bristol’s Museum & Art Gallery – the carving is about the right age…

Bronze Age Footprints in Bristol's museum

Bronze Age Footprints in Bristol’s museum

So, a similar example of Petrosomatoglyphia is what I was hoping to find on the shores of Bantry Bay, a mere stone’s throw from our home here in Cappaghglass. But – before that expedition – let’s just go back to the history for the moment. Back – in fact – to the Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Taking of Ireland), which was written down in the 11th century and – allegedly – based on earlier source material. It takes a bit of wading through: I used a commentary edited and translated by R A Stewart Macalister and published by the Irish Texts Society in Dublin in 1938, but it’s well worth the effort. There’s a lot I had never understood before about the earliest history of the people of Ireland.

lebot gabala book frontispiece

It’s a long story… The book is a collection, in five protracted parts, of all the poems and traditions which had been written and learned by the Bards, telling the history of their nation. There’s a lot of repetition: like the Gospels there are several versions of each episode and it’s a bit dizzying to try to get a clear overall picture of events. So, settle down and imagine the visiting Bard you have given hospitality to in your tower house on a winter’s night is regaling you with tales of your ancestors.

A Meeting of Bards (at Boscawen-Un Stone Circle, West Penwith, Cornwall

A Meeting of Bards (at Boscawen-Un Stone Circle, West Penwith, Cornwall)

Everything has to go back to Noah, who was only allowed to take with him on the Ark his own sons and their wives. One of his sons, Bith, had a daughter – Cesaire (or Cessair). As she had to stay behind so also did her father, but they built their own ships, three of them, and set sail with two other men and a large company of women, looking for a land which ‘knew no sin’ because it had never been populated: there they would settle and aim to re-found the human race in a green and fertile place. Their voyaging took them to many parts of the known world and they came eventually to the north of Spain – which we know today as Celtic Galicia. Cesaire knew that this wasn’t the Utopia they were seeking but she climbed to the top of a very tall tower and, in the far distance, she spotted Ériu – ‘…where no evil or sin had been committed, and which was free from the world’s reptiles and monsters…’

Cesaire would have needed a tower like this to catch a glimpse of Ireland from northern Spain...

Cesaire would have needed a tower like this to catch a glimpse of Ireland from northern Spain…

And so it was, forty years before the Great Flood engulfed everything, Cesaire’s expedition sailed up to the mouth of the Mealagh River, passing on the way the most beautiful landscapes they had ever seen – landscapes that we are fortunate to see every time we set out to explore our own new horizons.

Bantry Bay - the landscape today

Bantry Bay – the landscape today

Now it was time to glimpse for ourselves this remarkable site – Dún na mBarc – the place of the boat – (Donemark -Dunnamark Townland) in the parish of Kilmocomogue. We drove up the unremarkable N71 through Bantry town and turned in to its attractively situated golf course, then made our way down to the shore. Disappointingly, that is also unremarkable: it’s got a brooding, although not unattractive atmosphere about it. We came there at low tide and saw mud-flats – alive with foraging birds, including a very fine Old Nog – the huge stones of a disintegrating quay, and distant views to the Sheep’s Head and Beara Peninsulas.

Landing Place? At Donemark

Landing Place? At Donemark

Old Quay at Donemark

Old Quay at Donemark

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Alas, there were no footprints, no plaque, no signification of the very important history of this site: there was only our imagination to fill in the gaps. I could envisage Cesaire’s Bronze Age boat (only one survived the full journey) making its way up the azure waters admiring the emerald green of the landscape and passing by some of Ireland’s most dramatic scenery. They landed on ‘…a Saturday, the fifteenth day of the moon at Dun na mBarc…’

Kerry Mountains

Mountains of West Cork

We did find a single commemoration of this event: in the tranquil gardens of the National Learning Network Centre, which is not far from the mouth of the river. It is a work of art, made in 2013 by the students of the Centre, under the guidance of Michael Ray and the auspices of the West Cork Arts Centre – you may remember both from this recent post. Voyage of Stories’  recalls that pioneering arrival in the form of a boat sculpture made of steel, copper and glass and set up over a pool. The glass tiles tell of invasions and emigrations both ancient and modern in Irish and English. It’s a good way to commemorate the journey and those early settlers, we thought.

'Voyage of Stories' at Donemark

‘Voyage of Stories’ at Donemark

Now, Finola – at my side and wearing her Archaeologist’s hat – is tutting at my unquestioning acceptance of the dating of this milestone in Ireland’s history, bearing in mind that the passage graves at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth appear to be some 5,000 years old and – she says – there were people living in Ireland earlier than that! But my view is that there’s history, and there’s story… Well, perhaps history is always someone else’s story but give me a good tale any day, especially one woven with adventure and romance and told at the fireside.

Family Life (Caleb Bingham 1845)

Family Life (Caleb Bingham 1845) New Orleans Museum of Art

So now you know all about Cesaire, who was the first to step from that frail vessel which had travelled all the way from Egypt in those far off days. But perhaps I should also tell you a little more: the three men on that voyage faced the prospect of serving no less than fifty women between them if they were to populate this new land. The Lebor Gabála Érenn is quite frank about this: ‘… Ladra, the pilot, from whom is Ard Ladrann named he is the first dead man of Ireland before the flood. He died of excess of women, or it is the shaft of the oar that penetrated his buttock. Whatever way it was, however, that Ladra is the first dead man in Ireland…’ while Bith – Cesaire’s father – was already aged before the voyage and also passed away soon after. That left one man – Fionntán – who was so frightened by the prospect of facing all those women alone that he ran away and hid in a cave. There he changed into a Salmon and survived the Flood which, sadly, overcame Cesaire and her companions. The shape-shifting Fionntán went on to live for five and a half thousand years (by my reckoning that means he’s still alive!) and recorded all of Ireland’s history (including at first hand the account of Cesaire’s voyage) – which he then taught to the Bards of Ireland so that it would be taken out into the world…

But all that is for another day!

made harbour

Raw Material

The art of building: West Cork Arts Centre on opening day

The art of building: West Cork Arts Centre on opening day

On the last day of January (traditionally the last day of winter and St Brigid’s Eve) the new West Cork Arts Centre opened its first exhibition in Skibbereen. We have taken a great interest in this building during its construction: the very strong architecture has aroused a lot of negative comment in the community, but now that it is virtually complete the general view of it seems to be mellowing a little. For my pennyworth this bold, modern insertion into the townscape has provided Skibbereen with a new visual focus and with great potential for a successful future.

A specially commissioned glass sculpture by Michael Ray graces the entrance hall, and incorporates the names of sponsors of the building

A specially commissioned glass sculpture by Michael Ray graces the entrance hall, and incorporates the signatures of sponsors of the building

The name of this new building is Uillinn – it means ‘elbow’, a reference to the angled plan of the building and its cantilevered location over a bend in the Caol Stream that snakes through the town’s back yard. Dublin based Architects Donaghy and Dimond won the international design competition in 2009: have a look at their plans for the building here.

One of the exhibits is titled ‘Flying Colours’ and is a project by the West Cork Education Centre in collaboration with local Primary School children: stairways and circulation spaces in the new centre are alive with colour and creativity. How wonderful that these children can feel they have played such a significant part in this new venture.

The fabric of the building is lively and well considered

The fabric of the building is lively and well considered

This building simmers with potential: the gallery spaces and facilities are impressive and architectural elements are well detailed. Skibbereen has been given a high quality civic building that will last for generations: it’s now got to be used creatively.

Sam Thorne

Sam Thorne

It’s no coincidence that one of the speaking guests at the opening was Sam Thorne, artistic director of the Tate St Ives Gallery in Cornwall. Comparison between West Cornwall and West Cork is inevitable: both regions have a history of attracting artists because of the very particular light that comes from close proximity to the Atlantic coastline. Also, artists have been drawn to these places because of enduring lifestyles that are simple, basic and close to nature. Thorne made the perhaps surprising statement that West Cork is home to more artists per capita than both Paris and London.

'Blinkers' - Angela Fulcher 2015

‘Blinkers’ – Angela Fulcher 2015

Sam Thorne said that having a community of artists contributes all kinds of different aspects to a region. One of the simple ones is tourism. “That’s been a really important thing in St Ives over the past two decades,” he said. “The gallery contributes £11m (€14.6m) every year to the local economy in St Ives – three times that which was anticipated when the gallery opened… So there’s a very real powerful impact that having artists there, having art there, creates for the community.” He added that the St Ives Gallery now needs to extend its buildings and anticipates over £80m coming into the local coffers over the next few years.

tate

Phenomenal success: the Tate Gallery, St Ives, Cornwall

I spent many years in Cornwall and watched the development of the Tate Gallery in St Ives. It has become a year-round tourist destination: in all seasons – and in all weathers – the streets of the little town are crowded with visitors who are, of course, using the local shops, b + bs and restaurants. It has also created problems: overloaded car parks, strained infrastructure. But surely this is better than closed shops and failing businesses?

Of course, Skibbereen is not St Ives – and our Arts Centre doesn’t have the backing of a body like the Tate, with its enormous resources of historical art. But there are great possibilities nevertheless: Ireland has a wonderful art heritage, much of which is seldom seen outside of the big city galleries. And there are strong links between Irish artists and Britain which could be delved into. Think of the Newlyn School artists – Alexander Stanhope Forbes and Norman Garstin were both Irish; Cornwall was also home to Breon O’Casey and Tony O’Malley. Other artists moved from Cornwall to the west of Ireland, including Nancy Wynne-Jones, Conor Fallon and – mentioned above – Michael Ray.

Impressive gallery spaces call for dynamic works

Impressive gallery spaces call for dynamic works

The St Ives Tate works so well because it is able to show the ‘big names’ – but it also encourages young and local artists, whose output often interacts with the historically established works. There is no reason why the Skibbereen centre couldn’t build on similar links: wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could see paintings by the likes of Jack B Yeats, Paul Henry, Sara Purser or Daniel Maclise on our doorstep – complimented, of course, by the very best of home grown talent? The ‘big names’ would be the crowd-pullers – at least initially: these are the building blocks for forging a lasting reputation.

headphones on

Works in progress: the centre contains studios and workshops

The new building still awaits its official opening: this will happen in the summer and the President of Ireland – Michael D Higgins – will have that honour: a scoop for Skibbereen! The Board of the West Cork Arts Centre – and the sponsors and donors – have moved mountains to realise the vision of this building. Now it’s down to creativity and dynamism from the team – and to enthusiasm and encouragement from us, the visitors, whose support is vital to this building’s future success.

quirky