West Cork Finally Gets a History Festival!

For a place that’s dripping in history and archaeology, and with several active historical societies, it’s a wonder this hasn’t happened before.

Tom Barry, bust by Seamus Murphy

The inaugural festival of the West Cork History Festival will take place just outside Skibbereen on the last weekend of July this year. Take a look at their website – it’s a great program, offering sessions from medieval to modern, from pirates and adventurers to soldiers, revolutionaries and poets.

A Letter of Marque gave an individual permission to be a privateer – a form of legalised piracy

Although it’s got West Cork in the title, this is not only West Cork History. The organisers emphasise its eclectic nature and call it a festival of intellectual delights. National dimensions are obvious in discussions on the War of Independence and international ones in sessions on the First World War. West Cork gets a good look-in, though, with a thorough re-examination of Hart’s work on the Bandon Valley Killings (see here for a good summary of the events and the controversies surrounding the scholarship), in the light of the most recent research. Several active and respected local historians will contribute in their area of expertise.

War graves such as this one have been springing up all over Cork in the last few years. For most of the 20th century we maintained a form of collective amnesia about the Irish fighting in the First World War – see my piece Outposts of Empire

National and local topics are happily juxtaposed – tower houses, for example, will be the subject of two sessions, one of which places them in an all-Ireland context and the other in a West Cork context. (For more on tower houses, follow this link.)

Kilcoe Castle – an impressive example of the Irish Tower House, now magnificently restored by Jeremy Irons

I’m very much looking forward to learning more about Richard Boyle, the Great Earl of Cork – a tremendous figure in the history of this area. But the Festival takes it one step further with a talk on the vital roles in Irish history played by the children of the Great Earl. I’m also going to make sure I take in a presentation on the Knights Templar by Dominic Selwood, yet another of the multi-talented speakers on the schedule.

Richard Boyle, Great Earl of Cork (1566-1643)

The opening and closing sessions will be major highlights. Prof Roy Foster will deliver the introductory lecture. How fitting – Roy Foster is surely among the most respected historians of his generation. Author of numerous books and influential articles, including Modern Ireland (1600-19720) and a justly famed two volume Life of W B Yeats. His topic, ”A Fair People”: antagonism and conflict in Irish history, will set the tone for a weekend that will not shy away from controversial and thought-provoking sessions.

Prof Roy Foster, considered by many to be one of Ireland’s greatest contemporary historians

The closing session features the writer (and highly entertaining speaker) Michael Dobbs, creator and author of the House of Cards series of books and TV shows. Titled Life, Lust and Liquor: how House of Cards wrote itself, this should bring things to a close with a bang.

And in between, there’s a host of academics, researchers, film-makers, journalists, writers and editors – and even a couple of ambassadors! It’s an eclectic mix and sure to be provocative and engaging.

The Festival features a screening of the Film Rebel Rossa, made by the great-grandsons of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. A West Cork man, Rossa became famous and infamous for his Fenian activities. See my three-part account of him here.

The Festival is the brainchild of Simon Kingston, who, with his wife Victoria (a professional historian) has a long association with West Cork, which culminated in their settling at Rosebank, the dower house of Liss Ard Estate, just outside Skibbereen. Simon is a graduate of Trinity and of Oxford and describes himself as an historian at heart, although he makes a living in the world of executive recruitment. He’s put together an amazing program, sure to become an ongoing feature of the West Cork heritage landscape for years to come.

I’ve only managed to give you a tiny taste of what’s in store at this Festival – you will have to come and experience the terrific range on offer for yourself. Meanwhile, they’ve set up a Facebook page so you can keep up to date on all the latest news and announcements. Head on over and give it a Like and a Share. And are you a member of the Twitterati? There’s a Twitter feed just for you!

 Right so – on July 28 – see you there?

Castle Haven

The entrance to Castle Haven. Horse Island is separated from the mainland by the charmingly named Flea Channel.

The entrance to Castle Haven. Horse Island is separated from the mainland by the charmingly named Flea Channel

South West of Skibbereen lies a deeply indented section of the coast known as Castle Haven. It is perhaps best known for the town that clings to the steep hill on its west side – Castletownshend. We have written much about Castletownshend itself, about Edith Somerviille and about the lovely St Barrahane’s Church and its Harry Clarke windows. But the whole inlet is an explorer’s paradise, yielding up its treasure to us on successive visits so this post will be about other things to see around the Haven.

Castle Haven

Catle Haven on a misty day. The inlet was guarded by two castles: this one at Raheen and another at the entrance to the Haven

The Haven is shallow at its top end, but up to the spit of land that runs across it near Reen Pier, it provides a deep and sheltered harbour for boats, and a popular sailing ground. We like to drive down the road that runs above the eastern side of the Haven. It’s twisty and a bit treacherous but at a certain point it presents a view of the whole inlet, dominated by Raheen Castle.

Raheen Castle

This was a castle of the O’Donovan clan, built in the late 16th or early 17th century. It didn’t last long – it was attacked by Cromwellian forces in 1649 and the collapsed upper stories may be the result of cannonball damage.

Raheen Corner machicolation

Continuing to the end of the east side brings you past Reen to the wonderful harbours of Myross and Squince, but that’s a post for another day. Now we’ll return to the west side of the inlet and visit two spectacular archaeological sites, Knockdrum Fort and the Gurranes Stone Row, before proceeding down into Castletownshend.

Knockdrum interior and views to north

The interior of Knockdrum Stone Fort, with square hut site in the middle. The fort commands panoramic views across the countryside and out to sea

To get to Knockdrum Fort, you have to park at the large church about 2km before the village. Walk downhill about half a kilometre until you get to the signposted green road to the fort. A pleasant trudge brings you to a set of steps and these lead up to the site. This is an excellent example of an early medieval stone fort – the kind of fortified homestead that marked the residence of a family of high status before the Normans taught us how to build tower houses.  From this site there are striking views across Castle Haven.

Entrance to Knockdrum

The entrance to Knockdrum Fort, looking towards the entrance to Castle Haven. Outisde the entrance is this large rock, covered in cup-and-ring art

But there’s more to this place than just the fort. There’s an early Medieval cross slab just inside the entrance, and a fine example of 4000 or 5000 year old rock art just outside it. There’s another piece, a cupmarked stone, inside the fort, lying on the ground. All three are here thanks to the activities of Boyle Somerville, a keen amateur archaeologist and brother of Edith Somerville who lived in Drishane House, just below the fort. Farmers who found such items would bring them to him and he placed them here for safekeeping. Also inside the fort you will see evidence of a souterrain – an underground passage used for storage when the fort was active.

Knockdrum cross slab

If you look north across the valley once at Knockdrum you will see a stone row on a nearby hill. These are the Garranes ‘Fingers’. (They are on private land so you should seek permission to visit and make sure there are no bulls in the fields.) The best way to access them is to tramp through the fields across the road from the entrance to Knockdrum. It’s well worth the effort – once you get up to them you will see that more uprights are now lying on the ground. This was originally an alignment of at least five stones, unusually tall and thin, positioned so that they would be visible on the skyline from many directions.

Gurranes Fingers

Drive down towards the village now, until you get to the entrance to Drishane House. To the right of the gate is a bench dedicated to Boyle Somerville. In 1936 he was shot dead by the IRA, who claimed he was recruiting local young men for the British Navy. He was liked and respected locally and, outraged by the deed, the people of Castletownshend raised money for this memorial. If the house is open (there will be a sign) this is a wonderful place to visit. For a small charge you can wander around the extensive grounds and visit the Edith Somerville Museum. We love to go in spring, when the bluebells provide a vivid carpet and a photographer’s paradise.

Drishane house driveway in spring

Drishane House driveway in the spring, with the giant macrocarpa (a Californian cypress tree)

Down to the village now and up to the church. But this time, instead of heading inside to see the Clarke windows, or behind the church to view the graves of Somerville and Ross, cross the graveyard until you find a gate at the far side and head east along the edge of the field towards the water. There you will find the remains of a structure labelled as a star-shaped fort on the OS map. Nowhere near as enormous as the massive star-shaped Charles Fort in Kinsale, nevertheless it is a reminder of a time when the sleepy village was not as peaceful as it is now. Dating to the 1650s, not a lot remains, just enough to confirm that this was a structure built for defence. Along the way you might also see a ruined square tower, known as Swift’s Tower. This was built as a belvedere, (a place to admire the view) and legend has it that Dean Swift visited and liked to write there.

Left is the remains of a bastioned fort, labelled as a ‘Star-Shaped Fort’ on the OS map. Right is the belvedere, where Swift is said to have written

Drive back out of town now and take the left turn after the entrance to Drishane House. Follow this road for about a kilometre to a sharp left turn, just before a small crossroads and turn left down a narrow road that ends at the sea. A tower house used to guard this part of the Haven but nothing remains of it now except a stump covered in ivy and brambles. But wander around the graveyard and admire the picturesque siting of the old church, already in ruins by the mid-1600s. This is a good example of a classic West Cork graveyard. Most graves are marked by simple stones at the head and foot, with no inscriptions. 

Castlehaven Graveyard atmosphere

There are some family plots and some more elaborate memorials, including one for Ellen Buckley, second wife of O’Donovan Rossa (although his name, interestingly, does not appear on the headstone).

Castlehave graveyard, old church

To the immediate left of the graveyard you will find a stile leading to a green path. Take this path and walk up though the luxuriant woods past a rushing stream until you come to a little wooden bridge.

Path by the stream

On the other side is a holy well, cut into the hillside and decorated with ribbons and fishing floats. Make a wish, or say a prayer – this is a special place and still visited and maintained by local people.

Take OS Discovery Map 89 with you. Most of the sites I describe are actually marked on it. But if you get lost, have fun, and let us know what you discovered!

Path through woods

A Grand Job!

uillinn name

Here’s a riddle: what’s the connection between rusty steel and the President of Ireland? The answer – Skibbereen! Skibbereen on a summer afternoon in June, in fact…

Welcome, President!

Welcome, President!

This week the President was in West Cork and on Thursday he came to Skibbereen. Before I lived in Ireland I was pretty ignorant as to the role the President plays in the life of the Republic. It’s not a political position – nothing like the American President, for example: although officially ‘head of state’ the Irish President has no powers – the executive running of the country is entirely in the hands of the government. Instead, the President of Ireland – Uachtarán na hÉireann – acts mainly in a ceremonial capacity and is very visible in civic life. There are always buildings to be opened, institutions to be founded, statues to be unveiled, speeches to be made, important visitors to be hosted… 

President Michael D Higgins formally opening Skibbereen's new Arts Centre

President Michael D Higgins formally opening Skibbereen’s new Arts Centre

Presidents can either be chosen by popular consensus or elected by a vote of all Irish citizens. Michael D Higgins was elected in October 2011 and his tenancy will run for seven years. Following this he can serve a further term if he and the people so wish. A Limerick man, Michael D (as he is usually known) is well liked: he’s had an impressive career in public life – academic, lecturer, professor, politician, poet, sociologist, author and broadcaster. He served as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht and was President of the Labour Party for many years. He is the first Irish President to have made a state visit to the UK.

His first appointment in Skibbereen was to open Uillinn – West Cork’s new Arts Centre: that’s where the rusty steel comes in – partly… Regular readers of this blog will know all about this building. It was controversial while under construction, mainly because of the Cor-Ten steel cladding to its prominent five storey tower. Cor-Ten or ‘weathering steel’ is a material consisting of alloys which encourage a rust-like patination on exposure to weather, forming a fully protective coating over a number of years. In fact, the weathering process takes about as long as one term of office of an Irish President! I know many people disagree (although I think some are coming round…), but I find the ‘rusty’ finish very attractive, and I like the fact that the appearance keeps on changing in an organic way.

I was impressed with Michael D’s speech: he’s an enthusiast for all the arts and emphasised how important this modern building is – not just for Skibbereen but for the whole of West Cork. The site – right in the centre of town – had been a bakery for generations, and the President pointed out the analogy between the essentials of bread, fundamental food for the body, and the arts – food for the soul.

'Presidential Salute' in the O'Donovan Rossa Memorial Park

‘Presidential Salute’ in the O’Donovan Rossa Memorial Park

Next item on the afternoon’s agenda was a visit to the park: the President was to unveil a new memorial to Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa – a local hero who had links with Skibbereen. Finola has mentioned him previously and is currently working on a post about him: July this year marks the centenary of his death. O’Donovan Rossa fought for Ireland’s freedom, just as Michael Davitt did (I wrote about him last week). The President gave a passionate speech emphasising the debt that the Ireland of today owes to those campaigners of yesterday, and I was pleased to hear him mention Davitt specifically.

Ready for the unveiling...

Ready for the unveiling…

New commemorative sculpture in Skibbereen's O'Donovan Rossa Memorial Park

New commemorative sculpture in Skibbereen’s O’Donovan Rossa Memorial Park

I think the new memorial is a great piece of modern commemorative art: it’s rusty steel again! Five columns are placed in the centre of a garden, each telling something of the hero’s story. You have to work to see all the images: they are made by perforating the ‘weathering steel’ sheets. It’s very effective because it can’t be ignored – you just have to stop and work it all out. I commend the artist – but nowhere can I find any mention of who that is! I’m still searching…

President Higgins speaks out with passion about freedom fighter Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa

President Higgins speaks out with passion about Ireland’s freedom fighter Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa

Michael D is a fluent speaker in Irish. He slipped easily between English and Irish while giving his orations – and made it sound so simple! The sun almost shone, the crowds were in good spirits, and the Band played. The rusty steel was looking good. All in all, the visit of Ireland’s President to Skibbereen was a grand job

gate

From Skibbereen to the Moon Part 2: Ellen and Aubrey Clerke

Ellen

In my post From Skibbereen to the Moon I wrote about the Clerke family of Skibbereen, but particularly about Agnes, who became one of the foremost astronomers and science writers of her day. But Agnes was one of a trio of remarkable siblings, each of who distinguished themselves as intellects and writers and I wanted to learn more about her sister, Ellen, and her brother, Aubrey. In the process, I came up with questions that reach into the heart of Skibbereen, and Irish, history.

Bridge Street, Skibbereen

Bridge Street, Skibbereen

But first – the Clerke (pronounced Clark) family: all three siblings grew up in Skibbereen, above the bank that their father managed. They lived through the Famine: John Clerke was one of the subscribers to the soup kitchen relief effort. After moving away in 1861, and apart from the years the women spent in Italy, the family lived together for the rest of their lives.

It was, by all accounts, an harmonious and supportive household. The three were devoted to their parents and they encouraged and nurtured each other’s scientific and literary pursuits. Aubrey coached Agnes in mathematics when she needed to move to a higher level of understanding in her astronomy studies, and the siblings accompanied each other to the various astronomical and geographical societies that each belonged to. Ellen was the stronger of the two sisters (Agnes’s health was poor from childhood) and also the more social. According to Lady Huggins account, she played the guitar and sang well, she liked to ride and she “pulled a good oar.”

Fable and Song

While Agnes wrote mainly (although not exclusively) about astronomy, Ellen was more literary in her leanings, publishing extensively in the areas of poetry and criticism and writing in three (at least) languages. The book for which she should be most justly remembered is Fable and Song in Italy. Ellen’s objectives with this book were twofold: to trace the influences on popular Italian song and to to introduce English readers to Italian verse. In order to do this she must have possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the great Italian poets and the ability to translate Italian verse to English verse. This had to be an incredibly difficult undertaking, not least because she was translating archaic Italian into a more contemporary language (that is, of her own time) in order that the “beauties” of the verse would not be “disguised by the obsoleteness of the language.” She begins in the Renaissance with the Fifteenth Century Boiardo, author of Orlando Innamorato, a classic of European chivalric literature. Her account of the piece Charlemagne’s Tournament from Orlando is complete with the story itself, discursive asides about the numerous characters and translations of selected verses.

From Fable and Song in Itlay

From Fable and Song in Italy, Ellen’s best work

She moves on to Boccacio, author of the Decameron. Crediting him with “giving the metrical romance an established place in literature” she asserts that he “supplied the poetry of the future with its main outlet of expression…” She provides many pieces of translation and compares his verbose style to Chaucer’s (an admirer of Boccacio) more succinct phrasings, tracing the influences of the Italian on the English poet with great skill and using numerous illustrations. She has a chapter on The Hercules Saga and on the verse letters of the poet Ariosto; she describes the potent roles played by Dante and Petrarch in Italian verse; she works her way through a chapter on  Italian Folk Songs to finish with a discourse on Manzoni and Modern RomanticismIt’s a tour de force, showing a powerful intellect operating at the height of her powers. But it’s also fascinating in that, as a devout Catholic with a Victoria sensibility, she deals with the sometimes hot and overblown romantic verse in a calm and often wryly humorous way, noting for example that despite all the chivalry and elevation of romantic love, Ariosto’s real estimation of women was evidently “very low,” as he  “alternates between raillery and panegyric.”

Everyone who was anyone wrote for he Famous Cornhill Magazine

Everyone who was anyone wrote for the Famous Cornhill Magazine

Ellen wrote for various magazines, especially The Tablet (a Catholic periodical which she also helped to edit), the Cornhill Magazine and the Dublin Review (another influential Catholic journal, actually published in London). Although she never reached the stature of Agnes in astronomy, she was likewise interested in that subject and wrote two monographs on Jupiter and on Venus. A review of Jupiter and his Systems calls it a “capital little pamphlet” (it was 40 pages) and says it presents “a complete popular account of our present information regarding this planet and its satellites…in an interesting and straightforward way, equally removed from dullness and from the faintest traces of “smart writing.”” She wrote literary studies in German and she studied Arabic to the extent of using original Arabic texts in her research. She was a highly regarded member of the Manchester Geographical Society (which admitted women!). One of her pieces for them was about Australian aborigines which was described as a “striking refutation of the generally held belief about them”. Another one of her journalistic essays was about the dock labourers strike of 1889 in which she displayed her understanding of economics, her insistence on factual information (she used extensive statistics) and her empathy for low paid workers and their families, although in general her politics were conservative.

Cover by Aubrey Beardsley, Poem by Ellen Clerke

Cover, Aubrey Beardsley. Poem, Ellen Clerke

Ellen’s venture into fiction was not, alas, as well received as her journalism and science writing. Just before she died she published her only novel, Flowers of Fire. I have found a single review, which pans it. “This story is interesting,” it states, “as proving that neither Polish conspiracies nor Neapolitan courtships can fill the dreary void left in a novel by the absence of men and women…[The characters] are distinguished from each other only by some external badge, such as yellow hair or a hot temper, and by the single hard black line that marks off the good characters from the bad.”

I couldn’t find the text of Ellen’s novel online, but I did come across a poem she translated from French, with the same title. It was published in The Yellow Book – a very smart quarterly with cover designs by Aubrey Beardsley. I have appended the poem to the bottom of this post. 

Aubrey St John Clerke, like his sisters, was brilliant. He won gold medals at Trinity in Mathematics and in Science and was awarded a “studentship” of £100 per year – “the highest honour obtainable at the Degree examination.” Although trained as a scientist, he choose to make his career in law, in which profession he became a specialist in land and property law and wrote books on the land law and conveyancing and articles for magazines, such as one for the Dublin Review of 1880 on ‘The Land Question and Law Reform.’ 

These books and articles on buying and selling land were more than simple treatises on conveyancing: they were a significant contribution to Irish and British law, since a series of Land Acts, beginning in 1870 were passed, designed to transfer the ownership of property from the large landowners to the Irish people who lived and worked on it. Each Act improved on the one before, but all were complex and there were no precedents to depend on. But Aubrey did not confine himself to law and wrote on other topics too. At one point, in 1878, all three Clerke siblings were in print. According to Mary Brück’s biography of Agnes, Aubrey’s contribution was a piece in the Quarterly Review “on a political question in which he showed himself a staunch Unionist and Anglophile.”

It’s interesting to note, in this regard, that when the Clerkes lived in Skibbereen, in the Bank House on Bridge Street, O’Donovan Rossa, the Fenian leader, was running a business further up the same street. Did John Clerke, in his capacity as the Bank Manager, have dealings with Rossa (who ran into financial difficulties with his seed business)? How did the conservative Clerkes feel about the Phoenix National and Literary Society that Rossa founded with the aim of liberating Ireland ‘by force of arms.’ How usual or unusual was it for staunch Catholics, such as the Clerke siblings, to be committed unionists and anglophiles? How would Aubrey feel, do you think, if he knew that the other memorial plaque on Bridge Street is to honour the memory of a Fenian? 

Redcliffe Square, home to the Clerkes in London

Redcliffe Square, home to the Clerkes in London

Agnes and Ellen died within months of each other. Aubrey was the youngest of the family and the last to survive, living on alone in the grand house in London, becoming in the end reclusive. I can find no photograph of him or of his father: in this family it is the women who are most remembered. To his credit, Aubrey never seemed to resent that, remaining proud of and devoted to his two extraordinary sisters always.


Flowers of Fire

A Translation, by Ellen M. Clerke

FOR ages since the age of Chaos passed,

Flame shot in torrents from this crater pyre,

And the red plume of the volcano’s ire

Higher than Chimborazo’s crown was cast.

No sound awakes the summit, voiceless, vast,

The bird now sips where rained the ashes dire,

The soil is moveless, and Earth’s blood on fire,

The lava—hardening—gives it peace at last.

But, crowning effort of the fires of old,

Close by the gaping jaws, for ever cold,

Gleaming ‘mid rocks that crumble in the gloom,

As with a thunderclap in hush profound,

‘Mid golden dust of pollen hurled around,

The burning cactus blazes into bloom.