Sweet Ilen

I wanted to explore the Ilen River: that’s pronounced eye-len, and it comes from the Gaelic An Aighlinn. ‘Aighlinn’ is an Irish name, the equivalent of Eileen in English, but it is also said to have a meaning when it relates to water: ‘the way that moonlight reflects on water . . .‘ We’ll keep a lookout for the moonlight, but our first expedition was carried out on a glorious late November day, absolutely calm and with clear, deep blue skies: the morning reflections were perfect.

The header and the picture above are both taken in Skibbereen, as good a place as any to begin our wanderings. The town is built on the river and was once a water transport hub: in the early 19th century boats of up to 200 tons could navigate to Oldcourt, within two miles of the town centre. From there goods were transferred into ‘lighters’ (unpowered barges) and then brought into the town where there were no less than five quays, warehouses and a Customs House. Unfortunately, low bridges now prevent navigation.

This aerial photograph dates from a few years ago, but it’s useful to show how Skibbereen has developed along the south bank of the river. At the Town Wharf, or Levis’ Quay, you can still see old stone steps leading down to the water’s edge, once a hive of activity with lighters loading and unloading. The nineteenth century brought engineering advances, with railway connection to Dunmanway, Bandon and Cork. The station – marked above as the ‘Ilen Valley Railway Terminus’ opened in 1877. Later, the Baltimore Extension Line continued south over a smart new steel bridge, built in 1892.

From Skibbereen there is plenty of the river to explore both south (to the estuary) and north. It’s our ambition – when travel restrictions ease – to find the source of the river on Mullaghmesha Mountain, which we could see in the far distance beyond Castle Donovan on our walk last week. That might have to wait anyway, as climbing that mountain is not recommended in the winter months because of rough conditions underfoot, but keep watching – we will get there!

The dancing of a mountain stream may be as entrancing as a ballet, but the quiet of an age-old river is like the slow turning of pages in a well-loved book . . .

Robert Gibbings – TILL I END MY SONG

One of our great heroes is Cork-born writer and illustrator Robert Gibbings. He was an explorer of rivers, making books of Cork’s River Lee, the Welsh Wye and – most famously – Sweet Thames Run Softly. In homage to him I’m calling these posts Sweet Ilen: I don’t think he will mind. Sadly, I haven’t his artistic talents but I’ll do my best with words and photographs.

The upper picture looks from the West Cork Hotel upstream towards the town: the Town Wharf is just around the corner; the steps in the foreground mark the beginning of the Ilen River Blueway – you will embark here if you take a kayak trip down to Baltimore. Leaving Skibbereen behind, we soon realised that the Ilen is a secretive waterway: much of its course is hidden away and runs in quiet backwaters distant from habitation and modern life. It’s only at the crossing points like the one above, near Hollybrook, that the river briefly reveals itself to us, although anglers have private pathways known only to themselves: we caught tantalising glimpses of their occupancy through the tree cover on some remoter banks.

A well-placed seat with a view (upper picture) on the angler’s path below Ballyhilty Bridge. Close by (lower picture) is a small farm accommodation bridge which is also giving anglers access to the further bank. Ballyhilty bridge itself is a real discovery. It’s easy to drive over it without realising the substantial structure which carries the road:

The only description I could find of this substantial structure is a record in the Archaeology Ireland National Monuments site which describes it as ‘a hump back three-arch road bridge over the Ilen River in the townland of Gortnamucklagh’. The parallel entry in the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage describes it as ‘bridge 1760 – 1800’, and says no more. But I think it worthy of detailed consideration: it’s a massive, dressed stone structure which has been reinforced with iron plates. The central opening is raised to a height which would almost lead us to think that it was once a navigation arch, although there are no records to support this. On the west side are some flood relief culverts of unusual construction:

The form of these remind me of a bridge we encountered on the Fastnet Trails close to Toormore in 2018: here’s the post. At that time I pondered on how old the Toormore structure was likely to be. I’m asking myself the same question on this one. The early OS map might give us a clue:

This is from the late 19th century 25″ map: you can see the railway line on the west heading out of Skibbereen towards Drimoleague, where it met with the Cork, Bandon and Bantry lines. But on the east side of the river is a very large estate: Hollybrook, in the townland of Maulbrack. Hollybrook House has a long history, encompassing families such as The O’Donovan, Bechers and Townsends. Nowhere can I find a date for the original house (now replaced), but I have found this:

At the time of Griffith’s Valuation, John Beecher held two substantial properties in fee at Maulbrack. They were purchased in 1703 by Henry Beecher from the trustees for forfeited estates . . .

NUI GALWAY – CONNACHT AND MUNSTER LANDED ESTATES DATABASE

These properties were therefore in existence before 1703: it would be reasonable to assume their date could be well before this. I would suggest that the bridge at Ballyhilty was built in the 1600s, to ensure good access to the estate at Maulbrack. This would make it a truly historic structure, worthy of prominent commentary and protection.

On such idyllic days for exploration it’s not always easy to remind ourselves of the power of this river: it’s no humble stream. Here’s a screenshot of a drone video by Garry Minihane Photography which shows this same stretch – at Ballyhilty – in full flood: the adjacent roads are set just high enough to be clear of all but the fiercest of deluges! Skibbereen is in the distance.

I’m thinking that the journey so far is sufficient for this week’s post; next time we will travel further north, penetrating even more into the uplands of the Ilen as we set our path towards the source. It’s not a huge river, only 34 km in total. It’s instructive for us that our West Cork terrain is quite small scale: within that 30-odd kilometres we have the contrast of a mountain stream falling from the high places and gathering enough tributaries to feed the tidal reaches which we also have yet to discover on our coasts.

The Oldest Adventure

You may remember that, a few weeks ago, I put up a post about the Irish Folklore Commission, and mentioned Bríd Mahon, from Cork, who had found references to many Irish versions of . . . the earliest known folktale . . .

Seán O’Sullivan showed me an international folktale known in Irish as ‘Ao Mhic an Bhradáin agus Ó Mhic an Bhradáin’ (‘Hugh and O, the Two Sons of the Salmon’) . . .

 

It was the earliest known folktale, first discovered on Egyptian papyrus 3,250 years before. During my years with the Commission hundreds of variants of that far-flung story were gathered in remote hamlets on the western seaboard of Ireland, in parts of Munster, in northwest Ulster and from a group of travelling people on the borders of Wicklow and Wexford . . .

A full text is available as an audio file, in Irish. It’s here if you want to have a listen:

Since writing that first post I have been trying to find a translation of the story into English, but without success. So – nothing ventured nothing gained – I’m providing you with my own version of the story! I have distilled this from the Irish language (although my knowledge of Irish is but rudimentary), using dictionaries and online translation helpers and then putting the whole thing into a sort of vernacular tongue which seems to suit the subject. I think I have the gist of it right enough, but you’ll just have to go along with my own way of telling it. I have also delved into the Roaringwater Journal archives for a few illustrations to break up the text. For me, it’s a fine story: I hope you enjoy it!

Legend of the Salmon of Knowledge by Charlie Fallon (Saatchiart):

Hugh and O, the Two Sons of the Salmon

It came about that there was a poor man whose only means of making a living was catching fish. If he came home with no fish, he wasn’t lucky: he could only do his best. The poor man had a wife, but no child came to them, and the years were on them.

Fisherman on Lough Skeagh 1946 (Irish Folklore Commission):

One day he was out fishing with his rod and took a fine salmon. It was hard work, but he reeled in the fish and was about to kill it when it spoke to him! “Don’t kill me’’ said the salmon, “Let me go and I will tell you a story of good fortune.”

The poor man was amazed to learn that the salmon could speak, but he replied: “I will hear the story and, if I am pleased, I will let you go.”

“Listen now”, said the salmon. “I know you have been upset that you have no children; I am glad to tell you that you will soon have two sons.”

“That is certain to be untrue”, said the fisherman.

“I am not telling you a lie”, said the salmon. “Let me go and you will see that I am telling you the truth.”

The fisherman cut the line and released the salmon. He returned home and told his wife the great news. She was not impressed. “It’s a pity you did not bring the salmon back with you for our supper: it’s clear that he was mocking you!”

Nevertheless, within the year the couple were surprised to have two sons. “Look now”, said the fisherman, “wasn’t it the truth that the salmon told me?”

“By my soul it was”, said the woman, “but what shall we call these two?”

“We will call them É Mhic and Ó Bhradáin” said the fisherman. And so it was. They were known as Hugh and O, the Two Sons of the Salmon. You could not put anything between them in looks, manner or speech.

As the boys grew, so did the luck of the fisherman. Every time he went out with his rod his catch increased fourfold, and they became rich enough that each boy could have a hawk, a greyhound and a horse. The boys also had the luck with their hunting.

At twenty years of age Hugh told his brother that he would leave and seek his fortune in the world. “If I am not back in twelve months, then come and find me,” he said.

Hugh took his hawk, his dog and his horse. Also, he did not forget his sword. He tackled the road and had good travels. On a day in winter he got lost in a wood, and stumbled on a fine castle in a clearing. “By the Devil”’ he said, “I’ll go in and wait out the night if no ill will is shown to me.”

Inside was a fair countrywoman and they began to converse until a terrible noise was heard, and the walls of the castle shook. The girl vanished and it wasn’t long before a big, strong, bad-tempered affair jumped into the room. “What kind of a person has the destiny to end his life in my castle?” he shouted.

“It doesn’t matter to you”, said Hugh. “What the heck, now I’m in I will stay here!”

The two laid into each other with their swords and, in the shock of the fight, the giant was turned to dust. In the morning it was raining all over the woods, and Hugh spent the day wandering. As evening fell, what should come to him but a hare? He took his horse and released the hound and the hawk but the hare outran them all and disappeared into a small cottage in the wood. “Why wouldn’t I go in?” said Hugh.

Inside was a fire in the grate and he sat down beside it. Soon the ugliest old woman he had ever seen came through the door. She made no blessing to him at all, only to look badly at him.

“Come in from the door”, says Hugh, “and share the fire with me.”

“I won’t come”, she said, “I would be scared!”

“What would you be scared of?” asks Hugh.

“That hawk, and I don’t trust the greyhound, and I wonder what this horse would do to me?”

“You are in no danger from them”, says Hugh “They are all honest. Come up and sit by the fire.”

“I will not”, she says, “unless they are all leashed.”

“Why don’t I bind them?” says Hugh. “But I have nothing to bind them with.”

“I’ll give you a way to bind them”, says she, and tore three snares of hair off her head. “Here”, she says, “Use these.”

He snapped a hair leash on the hawk – the old lady must have had very strong hair! And he tied the hound with another snare and the horse with the third. When he had done this the old woman produced a sword.

“Take care, my boy”, she said, “I know you were in the castle last night and you killed my son there. He would despise me unless I challenge you now.”

She wielded her sword and they fought a battle inside the cottage. The woman – who was small – had the advantage because Hugh could not properly swing his sword within the confines of the room. The old woman had the head start on him, and he called out to his hawk.

“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman. With that the snare closed on the hawk and it could not stir.

Hugh became angry and tried to get the better of the old lady, but it was no use. Soon he was tight-lipped, and called for the greyhound to come to his aid.

“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman. The snare clipped on the greyhound and she couldn’t move. The fight continued, and Hugh urged the horse to come to his aid.

“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman.

“I can’t help you”, said the horse, “The snare is too tight on me.”

Hugh’s anger intensified and he was about to take a final blow at her when the old woman took out a magic rod. She hit Hugh with the rod, and he turned into a stone in the middle of the floor. She struck another blow for the hawk, the greyhound and the horse, and there were three more stones in the floor.

The Giant’s Fingers, Co Cavan:

“Now”, she said, “I have avenged my son’s death, and these stones will stay here a long time before anyone will take them away!”

After a year Hugh had not returned home, and O said to his mother and father that he was going to look for him. “I fear something bad has happened to him”, he said.

“It will be little help to you or us if he is dead’’ said his father, but he would not be stopped. He seized his hawk, his dog and his horse, and never forgot to take his sword also.

He travelled a long way and a short way and one evening – why, shouldn’t he find himself in the same wood where his brother had been, and across the wood he found the same fine castle.

“I am tired after this day’s ride”, he said. “I’ll stay in this fine castle tonight, unless anyone puts me out of it.”

The first thing he saw was the fair countrywoman, who was surprised, thinking that he was Hugh – for the twin brothers looked exactly the same. “Where have you been?” she asked. Before he could answer a terrible noise and shaking filled the air and the girl disappeared. In bounced a much larger and stronger giant than the one which his brother had faced up to. 

“What brought you to my castle uninvited?” he shouted. “And what kind of person are you to have the destiny to end your life here for a second time?”

“I was outside and had no place to go”, said O. “But I have no memory of ending my life here before.”

“Come here and I will make you remember”, said the giant, wielding his sword. It was a long night of fighting, but the eventual ruin of the thing was the despatch of the giant by the brother, who settled down and went to sleep.

Tomorrow morning he got up and searched the castle, but failed to find anyone else alive in it. He raised his horse, his dog and his hawk and went out hunting in the demesne.

Hare – stained glass by George Walsh:

As evening fell, what should come to him but a hare? He took his horse and released the hound and the hawk but the hare outran them all and disappeared into a small cottage in the wood. “Why wouldn’t I go in?” said O.

There was no-one inside but a fine red fire in the grate, and he sat down beside it. Soon the ugliest old woman he had ever seen came through the door. She made no blessing to him at all, only to look badly at him.

“Come in from the door”, says O, “and share the fire with me.”

“I won’t come”, she said, “I would be scared!”

“What would you be scared of?” asks O.

“This hawk, and I don’t trust the greyhound, and I wonder what that horse would do to me?”

“You are in no danger from them”, says O, “They are all honest. Come up and sit by the fire.”

“I will not”, she says, “unless they are all leashed.”

“Why don’t I bind them?” says O. “But I have nothing to bind them with.”

“I’ll give you a way to bind them”, says she, and tore three snares of hair off her head. “Here”, she says, “Use these.”

He pretended to bind them, but at the first opportunity he put the three hairs into the fire.

“Take care, you scoundrel”, she said, “there’s no doubt that you killed my son – the best son a woman ever had! You were in the castle last night”, she said,“ and my son is dead there today. You did it, for sure”.

“But what is your satisfaction?” says O, “I wouldn’t have killed him if he hadn’t tried to kill me.”

“I’ll tell you”, she said, “I’ll be happy.” She wielded her sword and they fought a battle inside the cottage. They both laid into the battle, and it was the greatest sword-wielding that any man had ever seen between any two, and they continued on ever and ever until O was in trouble. He saw that he was strained and he called for his hawk to come to his aid.

“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman. 

“I can’t move”, said the snare, “because I’m here in the fire”. So the hawk jumped, and that was it for the woman – her eyes were out. This did not stop the battle between them and she very soon had the headache on O once more. He yelled out to the greyhound, “Give me help.”

“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman.

“I can’t help you”, said the snare, “because I’m here in the fire”. So the greyhound jumped in and took a piece out of the old woman’s leg. Yet she still gave her best and O was forced to call out for his horse.

“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman.

The snare spoke and said, “I’m here in the fire”. With that the horse came to his aid and didn’t the old lady explode with both her legs gone.

From then on it was O taking the lead. He raised his sword to strike the final blow: “Here’s an end for you,” he shouted.

“Hold on”, says she, “If you remove my head or my walls of life, your brother and his horse, his dog and his hawk will remain captive forever”.

“How can you bring them back?” he asked.

“There’s a magic wand, stuck under that rack by the fire. Hit these stones with the rod and they will come back as right as they ever have been.”

He made for the rod and the first thing was he had struck the witch and she turned to stone herself! Then he struck the other four stones and his brother, the hawk, the greyhound and the horse were back right as they had always been. There was the great reunion and the sharing of stories, then they were all for going back to the castle. “We have the magic wand now”, they said, “We can do whatever we like – let’s call and see what big lads there might be there now.”

There was the fair countrywoman, and wasn’t she surprised to see the two men standing there as alike as you could ever believe. O grabbed her for fear she would vanish as she had before. “Now”, he said “there’s something strange about you, for you left me before when the ground shook.”

“It’s like this”, she said, “ there are three of us here enchanted. The old woman comes every night and puts the magic on me, then in the days I have to do all the chores in the castle for her two sons. She didn’t come at all last night.”

Enchanted Woods (The Dark Hedges, Co Antrim):

“No”, says O, “and you will never see her again. I ended up with that old girl last night and I took the living breath from her. But tell us how you came to be here?”

“It’s too long to tell”, said the girl. “There were only the two of us, sisters – and the best times were when we were living with our father and mother: strong, rich and important. Our mother fell ill and knew that there was no cure. She called us to her bed and told us that she saw a disaster on the horizon. The old powers would come and put an enchantment on us, and take our castle. Our father asked how long we would stay enchanted, and if there was any cure. There was none, she said, unless the Sons of the Salmon would ever find us. The old powers came to take the castle from us. When we resisted the old woman struck us with a magic wand and we were turned into three stones – my father, my sister and I. Only I was released every day to carry out the chores. That is how we have lived our lives up to now, and if the old woman is dead then perhaps the magic is at an end.”

“She is dead”, said Hugh, “as we have survived the magic. Where are the stones that were made for you and your father?”

She showed them the stones. Hugh beat the magic wand on the stones and there were all three bounced up as well as they ever had been. Then their stories started together, with the father telling all that had taken place. “And now”, he said, “we believed that we would be captured forever unless the Sons of the Salmon lifted the magic. But you cannot be the Sons of the Salmon, yet the magic has been lifted!”

“That doesn’t matter now”, said Hugh. “but we are two brothers and you have these two daughters. Why wouldn’t we be the ones to marry them?”

“So be it”, said the father, “and I will divide my kingdom between you.”

“Perhaps we don’t need a kingdom”, said the brothers, “for our own father is a gentleman too. Now we should return to him to give him the news.”

And so it happened that the families were united. The gentleman who had been a fisherman remembered the story of his meeting with the salmon who could talk, and who had foretold the birth of the two boys. Of course it was these two who were the Sons of the Salmon. It was agreed that they should go and look for the salmon so that he could share the news. The fisherman went back with his line to the pool where he had the adventure in those far off days. What should happen but the salmon reappeared and spoke again! The long of it was that they struck the salmon with the magic wand and he turned into a fine gentleman who told them how he, also, had been put under an enchantment which could only be lifted by his own sons.

The short of it was that they all returned to the castle in the woods. They picked up the stone that was made from the old woman and took it to the pool where the salmon had spoken. “What would we do with her”, said O, “but put her where she put somebody else?”

They threw in the stone, and there was never trouble again in that castle or in that kingdom. The sun has always shone in everlasting summer, and the fields are only green. And the children’s children of those families have spread across the western lands and are the happiest of all peoples in all this world.

Endpiece from Irish writer and illustrator Robert Gibbings’ final book – Till I End My Song (1957):
Salmon of Knowledge by George Walsh:

This story was reworked by Robert, based on a most ancient story, told in Irish

Coomhola Country

As the Coomhola River tumbles from Borlin to the sea, gathering tributaries, it forms many pools amongst the riffles and glides. These pools, in summer, provide leafy shelters for salmon and trout. To anyone who has fished or walked the river, each pool has its own character, and each its own name . . .

 

[From Hidden Gold, History and Folklore of the Coomhola and Borlin Valleys Julia Kemp: Coomhola Borlin Community Development Association 1998]

On the header is the spectacular view from Borlin, looking down the great glen where the Coomhola River finds its way through a country formed by glaciers in the Midlandian period, about 10,000 years ago. The rugged Shehy mountain range (Cnoic na Seithe in Irish, meaning Hills of the Animal Hides) with its peaks of Knockboy, Caoinkeen and Kinkeen provides some of the most dramatic scenery in West Cork, its scarred outcrops clearly showing the downward progress of the ice sheets. The contrast between the barren high land and the lush pastoral meadows laid out below evoke a beauty which is hard to match – anywhere in the world!

The Kilgarvan (Co Kerry) to Ballylickey (Co Cork) road is one of the unsung feats of Irish engineering. Until the middle of the nineteenth century it was no more than a system of ‘nearways’, providing rough, narrow access tracks to remote mountain dwellings and hard-won field systems. A famine improvement project c1846, involving metalling, a tunnel, cuttings and stone retaining walls, transformed it to the ‘through road’ which exists today – although it may seem to us no more than a boreen. It’s there for all to travel on, and will provide a breathtaking experience – but be aware that it could also deliver some hair-raising reversing episodes on the rare occasions when a vehicle is encountered coming the other way. The upper photo shows the road ‘clinging on’ to the face of a mountain outcrop, while the map gives a good idea of the circuitous route that the way takes to keep as far as possible to a level contour on its journey.

This is the country of St Finnbar. If you follow the County border east from the top of the Borlin Glen (off-road) you will very soon come to the site of his sixth century monastic settlement at Gougane Barra. This whole area was loved by the Cork born writer and illustrator Robert Gibbings, whose book Sweet Cork of Thee tells of a seven month sojourn in this mountainous region in 1949, beautifully illustrated by his woodcuts.

Mountain Road by Robert Gibbings, woodcut from Sweet Cork of Thee, published 1951

As we drove along the road beside the Inchigeelagh lakes, we could see moorhens gathering material for their nests among the taselled reeds and swans on islets, piling up dead rushes in readiness for their eggs. A corncrake was calling from a meadow. Celandines and kingcups outshone the gorse.

 

Mick said to me: ‘My father’s sister lived a mile to the north of us here. She married a man by the name of Scanlan. His mother came from Gougane and ’twas one evening when she was travelling west by the lake – there was no road there then, only a little bit of a track – she looked in the lake and what did she see but fields of corn and sheep and every sort of land and crop and stock. She was an old woman at the time and she knew well enough ’twas a kind of enchantment must be on the lake, so she says to herself, if I can keep an eye on it all and throw a bit of iron at it the spell will be broken. So she kept her eyes fixed on the fields and the cattle and the pigs and the hens, and all the time she was thinking where would she get a bit of iron. And the only bit she could think of was in the heel of her shoe. ‘Twould be worth it to throw in the shoe, says she. But when she went to unrip the lace wasn’t it tangled in a knot, and for the glint of a second she took her eye off the land. When she looked again ’twas all disappeared and the lake was there the same as ever.’

 

Our road turned south, through a wilderness of rock and bog and lilied pools . . .

 

[Robert Gibbings Sweet Cork of Thee, J M Dent & Sons 1951]

From the highest rim of Borlin Glen (upper picture), the Comhoola River valley is laid out below. Home to sheep and ravens, the scattered farmsteads emerge from rock and forest and provide a living – as they have for countless generations – to a hardy people.

On the lush valley floor are signs of ancient activity and occupation. A stream flows through a meadow dotted with whitethorn trees (upper), while an old stone clapper bridge has been superseded by the modern boreen taking its way up to the Borlin Valley settlements (centre). Lower – a fascinating stone circle and mass rock site is interrupted by the field fence. Here, too, is a bullaun stone and cupmarked rock (below).

Let us give the last word to Johnny O’Driscoll from Snave, recorded by his grandson Sean O’Driscoll in the 1930s and featured in Julia Kemp’s Hidden Gold:

There is little gold in this area, but there is one place where it is said a crock of gold is buried. It is about a hundred yards from the Glaslough, between Coorycomade and Ardnatrush, about a mile and a half from Coomhola National School.

 

There is a bush growing at the exact location, and beneath the bush is a large stone which covers the hidden treasure. It belongs to a tiny dwarf, and anybody who visits the place at midnight can see this little creature on the bush above the gold.

 

People did go on one occasion in search of the gold, but they were unsuccessful. A little bright light is visible about midnight above the bush. I have seen it myself on several occasions . . .

Ethel Mannin, W B Yeats – and Wild Flights

If you read my post last week you will recognise this autumnal view of Rossbrin Castle. I took the photo in November 2017 and looked it out after I watched the magic of a skein of wild geese flying over Nead an Iolair just a few days ago – at the end of August. There’s something wistful about that spectacle – birds coming to winter on our west coasts – and Irish weather lore has to be heeded about these early advents:

It was generally believed that the early arrival of wild geese meant that a prolonged and severe winter was in store. This is a very old belief, as the ninth-century Irish work ‘Cormac’s Glossary’ states that the brent goose usually arrived at the coasts of Erris and Umhall between 15 October and 15 November, and that when it appeared earlier, it brought storms and high winds. Similarly, in Counties Donegal and Galway, when the wild geese arrived, it was a sign that cold and frosty weather was on the way. In Donegal, a sign of an approaching wind was when a goose stuck its neck up into the air and beat its wings against its stomach. Fishermen would watch out for this and if they saw it would not go out, believing that a storm was on the way . . .

(Niall Mac Coitir – Ireland’s Birds: Myths, Legends and Folklore, Collins Press 2015)

Today’s post – while inspired by my sighting of the wild geese – is more connected to swans: these large and graceful birds are a constant down on Rossbrin Cove, and plentiful along our West Cork coastlines. Niall Mac Coitir also has much to say about them:

In Ireland it was generally believed to be very unlucky to kill a swan, and many tales were told of the dire consequences for those who did so. For example, the mysterious death of one of their farm animals often occurred soon afterwards. In County Mayo the whooper swan was never interfered with, on account of a tradition that the souls of virgins, who whilst living had been remarkable for the purity of their lives, were after death enshrined in the form of these birds . . . In Donegal it was believed that swans were people under enchantment, so that bad luck would come to anyone who interfered with them . . .

(Ibid)

We know all about the tradition of people being turned into swans from the legendary Children of Lir – one of whom was Finola: you may remember the stained glass window we have in our house. A few years ago I found the above book in the wonderful Time Traveller’s Bookshop in Skibbereen (which has now transformed itself into the Antiquity Bookshop Café, the first all-vegan Cafe in West Cork: it’s well worth a visit – for books and food!). I was attracted initially by the cover and the illustrations, and then was delighted to find that the first story in the book was all about Finola and is a modern ‘take’ on the Irish legend. I had to buy the book, of course, for our Finola and I immediately thought of ‘The Wild Swans’ when I saw those wild geese. This post results from those wandering encounters.

Another of the illustrations from The Wild Swans – used on the cover: do you see the swans? The second picture above – of the four swans – is also from the book. The illustrator is Alex Jardine, about whom I have been able to find very little, other than he was British, lived from 1913 to 1987, wrote and illustrated books on angling, and designed a number of postage stamps. I was also keen to find out more about the author of this book – Ethel Mannin (shown above next to the book cover) – and initially came across scant information, until I discovered a connection with W B Yeats. Then, by dipping and diving through letters and articles specifically by and about Yeats, I was able to put together some often surprising details on her life.

Above left – Alex Jardine’s illustration for The Wild Swans showing Finola – beautifully detailed and with intriguingly distorted perspective (suitable for a ‘modern’ legend?); above right – for comparison, an illustration from the same period (1950s) of wild geese by prolific British illustrator Charles Tunnicliffe: a scene which looks uncannily like a peninsula from the west coast of Ireland

Ethel Mannin was born in 1900 in London, and died in 1984. None of her writings is in print today and she is now little regarded, yet in her lifetime she wrote and had published well over a hundred volumes, half of which were novels and others which included short stories, children’s books, travel books, autobiographies and works on literature, politics and her contemporary world. On the fly-leaf to The Wild Swans – published in 1952 – is the statement:

Her reputation as a writer is founded on her honesty and unorthodoxy. For some years past she has done most of her writing in retreat in a cottage in the remotest west of Ireland, the country of her ancestors . . .

Mannin traced her family background to the O’Mainnin owners of Melough Castle, Co Galway. In 1940 she settled close to Mannin Bay in Connemara, renting a cottage which she eventually bought in 1945. She spoke at public meetings against the Partition of Ireland – ‘the imperialist problem nearest home’ – and was elected Chairman of the West London Anti-Partition Committee. Her travels included India (where she attended a World Pacifist Conference and tore up her diary en route, throwing it overboard in the Indian Ocean, and found Hinduism repellent ‘with its lingam cult’), Burma, Morocco, Sweden, the Soviet Union, Brittany, where she befriended Cartier-Bresson.

I found more wild swans in this illustration by Charles Tunnicliffe from the 1927 best-seller and Hawthornden Prize winner Tarka the Otter: His Joyful Water-Life and Death in the Country of the Two Rivers by nature writer Henry Williamson. Tarka captured the public imagination and has never been out of print, even though Williamson himself became unpopular following his support for Oswald Mosley and fascism

Ethel Mannin met W B Yeats in the 1930s and they became lovers. Their relationship was reported by Brenda Maddox in Yeats’s Ghosts: The Secret Life of W B Yeats, Harper Collins 1999:

Ethel Mannin was a rationalist and skeptical, he mystical and credulous. Politics divided them too. She was left-wing, just short of being a Marxist, and had recently returned starry-eyed from the Soviet Union; his leanings were firmly the other way. But that hardly mattered when, as a companion, she was brilliant, fun, and full of the salty talk that Yeats adored. She was not worried about his cultural baggage: “Yeats full of Burgundy and racy reminiscence was Yeats released from the Celtic Twilight and treading the antic hay with abundant zest.”

In 2014, to mark the 75th anniversary of Yeats’ death, Jonathan deBurca Butler wrote in the Irish Independent newspaper an article titled The Many Women of W B Yeats. This is an extract:

In 1934, Yeats, who had been suffering from both sexual and artistic impotence for three years, had a Steinach operation, a type of vasectomy, which was said by its supporters to increase energy and sexual vigour in men. According to Yeats, the procedure worked and he claimed to go through what he called “a second puberty”. Shortly after the operation, Ethel Mannin, a 34-year-old writer and member of the World League for Sexual Reform, was called on to “test the operation’s efficacy”. The test was by all accounts unsuccessful but it showed Yeats was still inclined towards trying his hand. If all else failed he could still arouse his mind . . .

This ‘swans’ illustration is almost exactly contemporary with Ethel Mannin’s The Wild Swans. Robert Gibbings wrote and beautifully illustrated Sweet Cork Of Thee, which was published by J M Dent in 1951

Ethel Mannin married twice, and had one daughter, Jean, after which ‘ . . .she espoused the idea that a masculine mind better suited women writers than motherhood . . . ‘ Apart from W B Yeats she also had an affair with Bertrand Russell. In her later years, Ethel returned to England and lived out her life in Devon – also, incidentally, the home of Henry Williamson. I have been chasing the works of Ethel Mannin, and have succeeded in recently locating some very inexpensive used copies on the internet – including some of her biographical works. Once I have these I may have more to report on her connections with Ireland. Meanwhile, I can only recommend The Wild Swans for its romanticism and imagination – and its seductive illustrations. And, of course, for its connections with Finola!

Because of the Yeats connection, it seems appropriate to quote his poem The Wild Swans at Coole (1916):

The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry,

Under the October twilight the water

Mirrors a still sky;

Upon the brimming water among the stones

Are nine-and-fifty swans.

 

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me

Since I first made my count;

I saw, before I had well finished,

All suddenly mount

And scatter wheeling in great broken rings

Upon their clamorous wings.

 

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,

And now my heart is sore.

All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,

The first time on this shore,

The bell-beat of their wings above my head,

Trod with a lighter tread.

 

Unwearied still, lover by lover,

They paddle in the cold

Companionable streams or climb the air;

Their hearts have not grown old;

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.

 

But now they drift on the still water,

Mysterious, beautiful;

Among what rushes will they build,

By what lake’s edge or pool

Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day

To find they have flown away?

Robert Gibbings

Our bookshelves in Nead an Iolair include some volumes which have travelled with me for the best part of fifty years. They include titles by George Ewart Evans, Henry Williamson, Brian Lalor, Peter Somerville-Large. Look carefully and you’ll also see some there by Robert Gibbings. Who is he?

A writer and illustrator, Gibbings was born in 1889 and died exactly sixty years ago, on 19 January 1958. He was a Cork man, raised in Kinsale, where his father became the Rector of St Multose Church. However, he was an inveterate traveller and lived most of his working life in England. Much of his work seems to exude ‘Englishness’ and – in an Irish Times article this week to mark the anniversary of his death, Alannah Hopkin writes:

People often forget that Gibbings was Irish. Brian Lalor, author of Ink-stained Hands, the definitive history of Irish print-making, was challenged by an English academic at a conference in Dublin in 2007, who refused to believe that Gibbings was Irish, as he had produced archetypal English landscapes. But his account of Gougane Barra, for example, confirms how deeply steeped in Irish myth and folklore Gibbings was.

Gougane Barra in County Cork: upper image – the lake in the mountain. Centre – Robert Gibbings’ woodcut engraving of the lake which opens ‘Sweet Cork of Thee’ (1951). Lower image: a clapper bridge near Gougane – perhaps the same one which Finola illustrates in her post today

At the insistence of his parents, Gibbings studied medicine at UCC, although his ambition was to be an artist . . . writes Alannah Hopkin . . . While he enjoyed the scientific side of his studies, it soon became apparent that this big, soft-hearted man was unable to cope with the human suffering of his patients. His parents were apprehensive about his decision to be an artist, fearing, quite rightly, that it meant he would lead an unconventional life, looking at naked women, dressing untidily and consorting with social misfits . . . From 1911 he studied life drawing at the Slade in London. His contemporaries included Eric Gill, John Nash, David Jones and Mabel Annesley. He was advised to take wood-engraving classes; the technique perfectly suited his strong line and close observation of nature, which in this phase was lightly stylised.

Gibbing’s woodblock signature – used in the majority of his books – shows the tools of the wood engraver

The wood engravings of Robert Gibbings are exquisite: his eye is attuned to fine detail. His writing is also compelling: I suppose it reflects a nostalgia for past times and things gone, but it is also humorous and always tightly observant. He brings to life characters he has met in his travels.

‘Paddy the Forge’ putting metal tyres on wagon wheels – from Sweet Cork of Thee

In the 1940s Gibbings attended the World Ploughing Contest, held for the first time in England, at Shillingford on Thames:

Bowler hats and highly polished riding boots had been the order of the day at the Arab Horse Show: here among the shires it was rubber-boots, corduroy caps, and hats of weathered tweed. ‘I think you’re Irish,’ said a man to me as I was admiring a pair of Pedigree Suffolks resplendent with brasses that told of former triumphs. ‘What gives me away?’ I asked. ‘The tilt of your hat,’ he said, ‘I can always tell an Irishman – he just sticks it on his head and forgets it. Look at some of these fellows – caps, hats, pulled up here, pushed down there – self-conscious all of them. Look at those two fellows in the pork-pie hats – I wouldn’t trust that one on the right, he wears his too straight, has to – it’s psychological.’ ‘Bishops wear their hats straight,’ I said. ‘Same idea,’ he answered. ‘Suggests the narrow path, only they keeps to it.’

For Robert Gibbings, text and illustration were always of equal importance. Each page of his books is set out as an art work, to be enjoyed by the two senses of sight and feeling – the feeling engendered by his descriptive writing. Here is the Foreword to his second ‘Irish’ book – Sweet Cork of Thee:


The illustrated Foreword to Sweet Cork of Thee, the second of Gibbings’ books which describe his travels in the land of his birth

Throughout his life, Gibbings immersed himself in travelling and in art. His best known books are his ‘river’ books, beginning with ‘Sweet Thames Flow Softly’, published in 1940 and, at the end of his life, the sequel: ‘Till I End My Song’ completed in 1957: he died at the age of 68. The rivers he explored included the Thames, the Wye, the Seine and Cork’s River Lee. Between 1924 and 1933 he owned and ran the art-based Golden Cockerel Press. Founded in 1920, its earliest prospectus proclaimed:

This press is a co-operative society for the printing and publishing of books. It is co-operative in the strictest sense. Its members are their own craftsmen, and will produce their books themselves in their own communal workshops without recourse to paid and irresponsible labour.

Work from the Golden Cockerel Press: typefaces by Eric Gill

It is the two ‘River Lee’ books that will concern those interested in all things Irish. My copies (both first editions) were given to me by Danny who I first met when I moved to Devon in the 1970s. Danny was determined that I was going to fall in love with Ireland – and it didn’t take me very long! Eventually Danny – who hailed from Limerick but, like Gibbings, led a restless life during which he travelled the world – settled in Devon and then moved on to West Cork.

Danny gave me these books to encourage my interest in Ireland. At the time he told me that ‘these were all I needed’ to get to know his country. I think he was right!

I encourage anyone who follows Ireland to read these books – and anyone who appreciates art to get to know the work of Robert Gibbings who died just fifty years ago. I will ‘play out’ the man by quoting these lines from his aptly titled ‘Till I End My Song’, and include an image of the last page of this, his final book.

Poets throughout the ages have sung of the peace of gently running streams. In the sacred writings a river is used constantly as a symbol of peace: ‘Then had thy peace been as a river’, ‘He leadeth me beside the still waters’. Throughout our own literature flows the timelesss tranquility of rivers. Spenser’s Prothalamion is borne on the waters of Sweete Themmes. The tortured mind of Swift longed for a river at his garden’s end. The gentler Stevenson wishes to all ‘a living river by the door’. I think it is the unbroken sequences of flowing water, the punching destiny of stream, that seem to knit a man’s soul with the eternities . . .

Learning from the Masters

matt + jackie

It’s midsummer – and time for the Fastnet Maritime and Folk Festival in Ballydehob. Amongst the distinguished guests this year are these two regulars: Matt Cranitch and Jackie Daly. They hail from the Sliabh Luachra on the Cork, Kerry and Limerick borders. I’ve made mention of this area before, particularly in Slides or Jigs and The City of Shrone: the name means ‘Rushy Mountains’. I can’t resist quoting from this anonymous and wry review of a book published in 2003:

…I’ve just come across a book which may interest serious Sliabh Luachra obsessives, though not those merely in search of new polkas and slides.  “Sliabh Luachra Milestones”, by Diarmuid Moynihan, is an attempt at the first general history of the area, and grew out of a thesis on early road development in Sliabh Luachra.  It covers, in outline at least, such topics as archaeology, Christianity (traces have been found, apparently), early descriptions by English invaders, historical events, settlement patterns, maps, and of course, roads…

rushy glen

The rushy glens of Sliabh Luachra – from a woodcut by Robert Gibbings

So, am I a Sliabh Luachra obsessive? I think I probably am… It all started in the 1970s when my good friend Danny gave me two books by Robert Gibbings – Lovely is the Lee (J M Dent 1945) and Sweet Cork of Thee (J M Dent 1951). They are my most treasured books in our extensive collection of Irish literature and both are set, in part, in the Sliabh Luachra – and it was these books that set me on a journey that – 40 years later – has brought me here to Nead an Iolair, and to the wealth of musical tradition that we enjoy.

Gibbings books

Sweet Cork title

Jackie Daly is only a year older than I am, yet I remember looking up to him as a master when I first started listening to Irish music half a century ago: I suppose we must both have been more youthful then! He grew up with the music of course: his father played the melodeon, and he played at local ‘crossroads dances’ with a neighbouring mentor Jim Keefe. I still have – and still play – the recordings of Sliabh Luachra musicians that I bought in the early 1970s (and which are still available from Topic Records). Matt Cranitch is a distinguished and respected fiddle player who has also has an academic career and has lectured widely on Irish traditional music.

Here’s a taster from the Festival sessions – Matt, Jackie and friends finishing up a set of iconic Sliabh Lauchra slides in Rosie’s Bar

I was fortunate to attend a workshop with Matt and Jackie in Levis’s on Saturday. After a fascinating talk on their traditions we all ended up learning a set of polkas. Wonderful! Those without instruments were cajoled to sing the tunes, so it was a communal affair.

Here you’ll catch the end of a tale by Jackie and a few bars of a beautiful slow air (Maidin Ró-Mhoch) from Matt

The workshop took place in the intimate setting of the back parlour of Levis’s Corner House – on its way to becoming one of the top music venues in Ireland through the efforts of Joe and Caroline yet always keeping its distinctive character.

Levis midsummer day

It takes me a little while to pick up new tunes but the duo were good and patient teachers and we were doing quite well by the end of the session. I thoroughly recommend their latest CD Rolling On (2014), which includes Maidin Ró-Mhoch and many other fine Sliabh Luachra pieces.

As usual, Ballydehob has embraced this festival – one of many through the summer – and the town is rocking in the rain… there are visitors from afar: Hyttetu – a maritime themed male voice choir from Norway, Swansea shantymen Baggyrinkle and very many others, including someone who has been at the forefront of the Irish folk music scene for many years, Andy Irvine.

yellow poster

festival time!

Festival time – midsummer’s day!

So many thanks to all the organisers, particularly Dick Miles and Cathy Cook, and the landlords of all our local hostelries: it wouldn’t happen without them. Now I’m off home to get dry and practice those tunes!

3 polkas