Kilkieran High Crosses – Medieval Gems

You will remember Saint Ciarán of Saigir, who was born on Cape Clear, perfectly framed in our view from Nead an Iolair? He was known as the ‘First Saint of Ireland’, preceding Saint Patrick by almost a century, and also as one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. A manuscript dating from 1629 and housed in the Bibliothèque Royale, Brussels, tells how the Twelve Apostles were educated together in Clonard, Co Meath – the most important monastic school in early Christian Ireland – under Saint Finian. It is said that ‘ . . . there were no fewer than 3,000 pupils getting instruction at one time in the school in the green fields of Clonard. The master excelled in exposition of the Sacred Scriptures, and to this fact must be mainly attributed the extraordinary popularity which his lectures enjoyed. Finnian’s gift for teaching and his absolute dedication to the ascetic ideal, inspired a whole generation . . . ‘ St Finian achieved the age of 140 years himself, while Ciarán – who went off to Cornwall where he is known as St Piran (you will also remember) – lived to be 206 before falling into a well on the way home from a wild party. There’s a lot to be said for being a saint in those days.

These are extracts from the OPW signboard located at the site

Why are we revisiting St Ciarán? Well, we’ve just past March 5th, which is his day, so we have to celebrate him. To do that we will go off to County Kilkenny, where there is a very important medieval site, noted for its high crosses but with plenty more to see: it’s a 45 minute drive north of Waterford city. The site, known as Kilkieran (Kieran is an alternative anglicised spelling, prefixed by ‘Kil’ which means ‘church of’) was once home to a monastery founded by St Ciarán, and the high crosses date from the 9th century.

The West Cross has animal motifs and some unusual interlacing carved on the various elements; below is the site plan included on the OPW signboard

To be able to see exquisite artistic medieval carved stone from 1200 years ago still standing where it was first placed is remarkable. In other discussions on high crosses and similar works of expertise we have asked whether these gems should be preserved out of the elements – as some are – to prevent the deterioration which is undoubtedly taking place. While I tend to favour that approach – and it seems to me to be particularly appropriate where they are replaced by high quality replicas ‘in the field’ – there is something very special about visiting intact sites like this one. The whole conservation process is full of dilemmas.

The enigmatic East Cross – unlike any other Irish High Cross

There were once four crosses at Kilkieran. Three are still complete and in reasonable condition, although much weathered, while the fourth is just the stump of a shaft. One –  the East Cross – is unusual: it is slender, largely undecorated, with minimal crosspieces and no roundel. There’s a nice little tale about it: the cross was attacked and destroyed by iconoclasts, but was painstakingly reconstructed in the mid-19th century by blind local stonemason Paddy Laurence, who had lost his sight while working on the construction of the Palace of Westminster in London: the old Palace had been ravaged by fire in 1834 and was rebuilt to its present design under the auspices of Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin.

The plain South Cross: the large, acorn-shaped capping is found on other crosses in the ‘Ossory Group’

The high crosses at Kilkieran are simpler and less decorated than many others, but have a great dignity, especially in the context of the burial ground which has grown up around them. We were fortunate to visit them on a really clear day, when the shadowed relief stood strongly out.

A still-visited Holy Well and bullaun stones are found on the old monastery site

You will want to go to Kilkieran yourself: when you do, don’t miss some fine ancient grave slabs and the nearby Holy Well. Then you should take yourself off to the other High Cross sites in what is known as the ‘Ossory Group’, beginning with nearby Ahenny. I’ll be writing about them all soon.

Below – an early carved grave slab on the site, carving on the West Cross shaft, and a detail of the West Cross ring

Robert’s Favourite Posts

We had an unexpected – and unsolicited – accolade in the Irish Examiner last weekend! Tommy Barker wrote, in an article about Rossbrin (pictured above): “…The wonderful literary and visually rich website,, by Rossbrin residents Robert Harris and Finola Finlay is a treasure, a sort of 21st century Robert Lloyd Praeger, online…” Of course, we went straight to our bookshelves to dip into our copy of Praeger’s The Way That I Went – An Irishman In Ireland, first published in 1937. Here’s an extract:

…At the southern end of this land of great mountain promontories, in West Cork, you find yourself in a little-known and tourist-free region of much charm. You stay on Sherkin Island (Inis Oircín, little pig’s island) or Cape Clear Island, at Schull (Scoil, a school) or far out at Crookhaven: and you walk and boat and fish and lounge and bathe, and enjoy the glorious air and sea; towns and trams and telephones seem like bad dreams, or like fugitive glimpses of an earlier and inferior existence. A meandering railway penetrates to Schull, and roads are as good as you could expect them to be in so lonely a country. All is furzy heath and rocky knolls, little fields and white cottages and illimitable sea, foam-rimmed where it meets the land, its horizon broken only by the fantastic fragment of rock crowned by a tall lighthouse which is the famous Fastnet…

Yes – that’s our West Cork alright (above is a view of the Mizen taken from Mount Gabriel). We hope that, over five years of writing this journal, we have indeed given a good account of this wonderful place which we are privileged to call ‘home’. Certainly, there is nowhere we would rather be. But Roaringwater Journal has not just been about West Cork: we have covered a fair bit of Irish culture and history as well. Last week’s post set out the six most popular articles that we have written in terms of readership numbers; today we are both reviewing our own personal favourites (see Finola’s here) and there is lots to choose from: 466 posts to date! All of them are listed by category in the Navigation pages.

Foremost in my own mind in terms of personal satisfaction is the series I wrote last year: Green & Silver. There have been nine posts in all, starting with my review of a book which I first read in 1963, when I won it as an essay-writing prize at school. The book, Green & Silver, told the story of a journey around the Irish canal system in 1946 (the year I was born), undertaken by an English engineer and writer, L T C ‘Tom’ Rolt and his wife, Angela. When I wrote the review 70 years had passed since the Rolts made that journey. Finola and I conceived the idea of retracing the steps of the Rolts, although not by boat: we drove and walked. It was to be an exercise in tracking the passing of time. We would find the location of every photograph that Angela Rolt had taken in 1946, and take a new one, so that we could compare the changes that had occurred over seven decades. There were many: the canals themselves, which were then near-derelict in places have now been well restored, and the island of Ireland has today an amazing but probably under-appreciated asset: a cross-border system of navigable waterways which connects Waterford, Limerick, Dublin, Belfast and Coleraine.

Canal port: Richmond Harbour, Co Longford. Upper picture taken by Angela Rolt in 1946; lower picture, the same view taken 70 years on

I have always had an obsession with wildlife, and one of my favourite posts summarises what wonderful natural things we have all around us here: The Wild  Side. We have written about the birds – choughs, eagles, sparrowhawks – and the little ones that come to our feeder and keep us entertained.

We will never forget our good friend Ferdia, who arrived on our doorstep on the day we moved into Nead an Iolair, and was a regular visitor (usually daily) over several years. Sadly, foxes don’t live for long in the wild, and he has now passed away. He was a very fine dog-fox and was undoubtedly the head of a large family. We hoped that one of his offspring might have taken his place on our terrace, but I suppose he just could never be replaced.

Of course, the pasture and coastline that surrounds us has fine creatures of the domesticated variety, too! (left and right below).

I have family roots in Cornwall and, during my time living here, I have become aware of many links between that westernmost peninsula of Britain and West Cork. In fact, those links go back into prehistory: in the Bronze Age – three and a half thousand years ago – copper was mined on the slopes of Mount Gabriel – a stone’s throw from where we live – and was mixed with tin from Cornwall to make the all-important ‘supermetal’ of Bronze. Another link which I was so pleased to find was that Cornwall’s Patron Saint – St Piran – was actually born and brought up on Cape Clear – the island we look out to across Roaringwater Bay. Read all about it here.

The little church at Perranzabuloe in Cornwall (now inundated by sand) marks the spot where St Ciarán from Cape Clear landed to start his mission. Because of a difference in the Irish and Cornish languages, he became known as St Piran over there. He lived to the age of 208!

Stirring up those links led to my life being taken over in the summer of this year by organising (together with Ann Davoren and the team at the West Cork Arts Centre) an exhibition of the work of three contemporary Cornish artists which was held in Uillinn, Skibbereen’s amazing new gallery. The exhibition ran with the title of West meets West and heralds future collaborations and visits to Cornwall by West Cork artists. This link opens the series of posts that report on all this.

My time here in West Cork – and in Ireland – has heightened my interest in all things medieval, particularly architecture. Finola has written a highly researched and detailed series on the Irish Romanesque style, and our travels to carry out this research have been enjoyable and instructive. I have taken a liking to High Crosses, most of them probably over a thousand years old. They are always found in the context of fascinating early ecclesiastical sites. If you want to know more, have a look at the posts: so far we have explored Moone (above), Durrow (below), Monasterboice, and Castledermot. There are many more to add to this list – and to keep us busy over the next few years.

That’s quite enough for one post! It would be possible to write several on how we have been inspired by our explorations in search of material. Somehow, though, our hearts always come back to our very own piece of Irish soil: Nead an Iolair (Nest of the Eagles). Here it is, and here are the eagles flying over it! You’ll find more about them here.

Saintly Pigs and Curious Carvings

This is the last in the series of West meets West posts, which have been running alongside the exhibition of Cornish artists at the West Cork Arts Centre’s gallery in Skibbereen – Uillinn.

The painting (above left) by Cornish artist Alex Smirnoff (courtesy of Bryony Harris) wonderfully illustrates the story of Saint Credan who, like Saint Piran before him, travelled from Ireland to convert the heathens in Cornwall to Christianity in the 7th century. Our Saint Credan is looking a little melancholy. That’s because he accidentally killed his own father and therefore spent the rest of his life as a swineherd in penance. As a compensation it has to be said that he raises very fine pigs! Behind him is the ancient parish Church of Sancreed, very accurately portrayed with its huge colony of rooks in the trees behind. In the same picture is one of the five ancient crosses in the churchyard. The church itself dates from the 14th century: the crosses may be much older than that.

Above right is from a fine study of the entrance to Sancreed churchyard – by the Irish-born ‘Father’ of the Newlyn School, Stanhope Alexander Forbes. It is titled ‘October’ and was painted in 1898. Sancreed was the church attended by many of the Newlyn School artists, and the churchyard contains the graves of some of them, including Forbes and his wife Elizabeth Armstrong. In the church is a memorial designed by Forbes to commemorate their only son, Alec, who was killed in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Close by is a holy well, described by Amanda.

The crowning glories of this church, however, are the unusual carvings on the rood screen inside, which date from the 16th century. Last week I showed you the carving of the Chough – a bird closely linked with Cornwall and Ireland. Today I am illustrating some more of these carvings, and these show very strange beasts indeed! Some of them can be recognised as heraldic; no doubt they all would have carried symbolism when they were placed here five hundred years ago.

A basilisk is hatched by a cockerel from the egg of a toad. Be careful, because it has a lethal glare and poisonous breath. The basilisk carved in Sancreed church (above left) looks fairly personable, while Alex Smirnoff’s version of it (above right – inspired by the Sancreed carving) should be given a wide berth. Look at the shadowy figures – and the ancient cross – hiding in the background of Alex’s painting: typical of his work.

It’s not just strange creatures that are depicted at Sancreed (and there are many more of them) – there are figures as well:

Above are two panels with ‘Janus’ figures, male and female and – on the right – is a most curious character who seems to be a musician playing, perhaps, a serpent or a cornett. But he seems to be part bird, or wearing a feathered cloak. Below is a three-headed figure and a representation of an angel, perhaps: could this actually be Saint Credan hiding in his own church?

All this might seem a far cry from the exhibition in Skibbereen, which features three contemporary artists from Cornwall… But it certainly is art from Cornwall – and in a church which was founded by an Irish Saint; and a church, moreover, which had a special meaning for many of the Newlyn School artists, including Irish-born Stanhope Forbes, founding ‘Father’ of that school.

This series consist of twelve posts (including this one). You can link to them individually through this list:

Off to Skibbereen
A Saint’s Day – Ciarán and Piran
West meets West
Connecting with St Ives
A Watery Tale
Ways West
Sheep’s Head: Searching for Cornish Miners
Artists of the Western Coasts
Up and Running!
Forbes – An Irish Artists in Cornwall
Choughs – and their travels
Saintly Pigs and Curious Carvings

There’s still time to visit Skibbereen to see the exhibition of the Cornish artists’ work: West meets West is on until July 8 at Uillinn. Enjoy it!

Choughs – and their travels

You’re looking here at a 500 year-old Chough! It’s a carving from a medieval rood screen in an ancient church at Sancreed, on the West Penwith peninsula in Cornwall. There’s no mistaking it: the curved red beak and the red legs make this the most distinctive of all the corvids. This is an accurate representation but, interestingly, on the rood screen it’s in the company of other curioser beasts and beings which we perhaps would not recognise. Were the others around once in Cornwall, but now vanished? You can have a look for yourselves in next week’s post. But first, a little more about our own Choughs.

This wonderful photograph by our neighbour Oliver Nares (thank you, Oliver) shows Choughs in flight, and you can tell they are Choughs rather than any other sort of crow by the distinctive ‘finger’ feathers on the tips of their wings. But also their call is very particular – they tell you their name!

The pattern of their flight makes them stand out. The other day a chatter of twenty Choughs passed over us at Nead an Iolair and swooped down over and around Rossbrin Cove. They were wheeling and turning, performing acrobatics in the sky – even flying upside down! – clearly enjoying every moment of their airborne peregrinations. Why wouldn’t you, with such a beautiful landscape below you?

I have written about Choughs before, but there is a special relevance now, in my series on links between Ireland and Cornwall, sparked off by the West meets West exhibition currently running in the West Cork Arts Centre’s gallery in Skibbereen – Uillinn. The Chough has always been the ‘national bird’ of Cornwall – it has pride of place on the coat-of-arms of the county, alongside the fisherman and the miner:

It was somewhat ominous, therefore, when the Choughs disappeared from Cornwall, back in 1970, after a long period of decline. Attempts were made to reintroduce them artificially, over the following decades, but without success. And then, suddenly, the birds returned! It seems that changes in agricultural methods on the coasts – removing grazing cattle to inland sites – had upset their habitats. Now, following changed grazing patterns, Choughs are re-establishing themselves and – here’s the exciting thing – they have come over from Ireland to do that! It has been found that the entire new breeding stock originates from here, where the birds are plentiful. Just imagine those pioneering birds setting out to cross the Celtic Sea from Cork, Waterford and Wexford… Another gift from Ireland to Cornwall, following in the path of Saint Ciarán from Cape Clear who floated across himself (on a millstone) to convert the Cornish heathens and giving them their own patron saint, known as Piran in their own language.

Left – Chough fledglings, photo by Oliver Nares; right – Finola’s study of a bedraggled Chough sitting on our gatepost on a very wet day

In Cornwall, the Chough is said to carry the spirit of King Arthur, the Once and Future King who will return one day. In Ireland, however, Choughs are believed to start fires by carrying lighted sticks on to the roofs of houses. The latin name – Pyrrhocorax – means ‘fire raven’, perhaps because of the bright red bill and legs.

A taster for next week: another – curioser – bird-like creature from the Sancreed rood screen in Cornwall

West meets West

Picturesque Newlyn, Cornwall – the fishing village was the centre of a major art movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

I have been working hard with Uillinn – West Cork Arts Centre‘s fantastic new gallery in Skibbereen – to bring over an exhibition of the work of contemporary Cornish artists, which opens in June. West meets West will be the launch of a continuing programme which sees the art and culture of Cork and Cornwall being shared, to the mutual benefit of all working artists and art lovers – and to residents and visitors.

Greenstone – a canvas by the late Matthew Lanyon, one of Cornwall’s important contemporary artists whose work will be shown at Uillinn in June this year

Why Cornwall and Cork? And, particularly, why these westernmost peninsulas of Ireland and England? Well, as you may have noticed from past posts on this Journal, historic links between the two geographical areas go back a very long way. Starting between three and four thousand years ago copper was mined on Mount Gabriel and was mixed with tin from Cornwall to produce a revolutionary new metal – Bronze. This material was hard enough to make tools and weapons – therefore a practical commodity: also it does not rust. It has, too, been used to make bells for centuries, so its properties include sonority. In fact the word bronze probably originates from the Medieval Latin bronzium, in modern Italian bronzo, meaning ‘bell metal’. Regardless of all this, the important thing we know is that relations between the west of England and the west of Ireland were well enough advanced to set up regular trading between the two outposts in those far-off days.

Tony Lattimer, international award winning ceramic artist based near The Land’s End in Cornwall, whose large ceramic sculptures will be shown in West meets West, Skibbereen, June of this year

In a recent post I alluded to the incredible debt that Cornwall owes to us in West Cork because we gave them their patron saint – Saint Piran. The fact that the gift wasn’t intentional shouldn’t delay us too long: we tied Cape Clear’s Saint (whose Irish name was Ciarán) to a millstone and threw him over a cliff. Instead of meeting his doom he miraculously surfed the millstone across to the Cornish coast, where his landing place – Perranzabuloe – is named after him, and where he is royally celebrated on March 5th every year, with all the zeal that we show to our own St Patrick!

Apart from metal mining and saints, another important connection is shared fishing grounds. From medieval times onwards (and perhaps before) the Cornish fishing fleets put out from Mousehole and Newlyn to follow the pilchard and herring shoals across to Roaringwater Bay. This is really where art comes into our story, as it was the way of life of some of the Cornish fishing communities that attracted artists to that western County of England in the late nineteenth century, once the arrival of the Great Western Railway in Penzance had established the direct connection with London. Newlyn was an early focus, and a young man from Dublin, Stanhope Alexander Forbes, an up and coming young painter in the plein air tradition, made his home there in 1884 and stayed for life. Forbes found in Cornwall a true ‘rural idyll’: an unspoiled countryside where life was simply lived, and a rugged coastline with a magical quality of light. Known as the ‘Father of the Newlyn School’, he gathered around him like-minded artists who recorded (and perhaps romantically idealised) the way of life of the communities there, and that special quality of the light, in canvasses which are highly admired and respected today.

A preliminary sketch by Stanhope Alexander Forbes for a painting known as On Paul Hill (Paul is the name of a village between Newlyn and Mousehole in Cornwall). Forbes painted in the Plein Air style, out of doors and from real life

I made my home in Cornwall for a number of years, before I decided that I hadn’t come far enough to the west, and followed the pilchards and herring myself to Roaringwater Bay, where I now look down on them from my eyrie in Nead an Iolair (although the shoals are today much diminished). During my years in Cornwall I came to know and respect the stories of the artists from Victorian years up to the present day. The ‘Newlyn School’ which Forbes represented was only one piece of the jigsaw there: we will explore others later. Art is probably Cornwall’s biggest asset. Ever since the opening of the Tate Gallery in St Ives – established there because of that town’s historic links with artists and craftspeople of international repute – ‘art tourism’ has grown to become a major year-round driver of the local economy.

Newlyn old and new: left – Stanhope Alexander Forbes in 1900 painting outside Trelyn, Boase Street, Newlyn – my home for 25 years! Right – Newlyn today is Britain’s largest fishing port

Cornwall is home to a number of artists renowned today in the British Isles. I got to know many of them when I lived in Newlyn. Three of them will be exhibiting in Uillinn from 3 June to 8 July this year: Philip Booth, Matthew Lanyon and Tony Lattimer. Their work is large scale, stimulating and mutually complementary: constructions, canvasses and ceramic sculptures. Please make a note of the dates now: this exhibition is important for West Cork and for Cornwall. Please don’t miss it!

Below: Philip Booth, from Lamorna, Cornwall, will be showing a number of his spectacular relief constructions at West meets West, Uillinn, Skibbereen, in June. This one is titled ‘Formed in Running Water’

Formed in Running Water