Where Art and History Meet

Perhaps I should say where they collide! West Cork has both, in abundance, and we’ve just lived through one of those once-in-a-lifetime conjunctions of  the artistic and the historical that leave you stimulated, thoughtful and reeling all at once.

Clockwise from top left: Coverage of the Festival in the Southern Star – the headline says it all; Roy Foster delivered an acclaimed opening address; Finola introduces Kevin Vickers, Canada’s Ambassador to Ireland; Canon Salter and his daughter Brigid at the screening of An Tost Fada, perhaps the most controversial (and certainly one of the most interesting) moments of the Festival

First of all, as our readers must be tired of hearing by now, we participated in the brand new West Cork History Festival. It was a great success, with well over 400 people enjoying a huge variety of talks, films, and panels, augmented with lashings of food and drink. It was so well planned, in fact, that the rain showers obliged by only appearing during the talks, and clearing off when it was time to be outside mixing and mingling and moving between marquees. The Festival wasn’t short on controversy. Sparks flew at several sessions, mainly between speakers and audience members, proving, if we didn’t already know it, that history is very much alive in West Cork. Depressingly, it also signals that, 100 years on, some people are still fighting the old battles. However, to judge from the general climate, those folks are in the minority.

John Kelly the Irish/British/Australian artist, and West Cork resident

Two days after the Festival, we moved on to art. Or so we thought. We had signed up for a guided tour of Reen Farm, the Sculpture Garden that is the home, studio and inspiration for the artist John Kelly. This event was part of the marvellous Skibbereen Arts Festival that has been running all week.

Two upside-down kangaroos in the tennis court – don’t ask me to explain this one, my head was spinning at that point

We’ve met John a couple of times and had seen an exhibition of his at Uillinn that focused on his experiences in the Antarctic. We were aware that, as a sculptor, a painter, and a writer John is internationally esteemed and has exhibited world-wide.

The Turrell-inspired crater with passages leading through it to the sea. (We have our reason to relate to John’s version of the famous Sky Garden at Liss Ard Estate in Skibbereen)

You’ve probably all visited a sculpture garden at some point – but I guarantee you, you’ve never had an experience like this. Being led around by John himself was a privilege, but it’s also a must in order to understand his inspirations, because it’s all about history, and eclectic history at that. 

His Tate Modern piece (above) was a response to the famine in his townland, Reen, as reported in 1846 by a local resident, N M Cummins. Now, looking at it, you would never arrive at that conclusion by yourself, but once you stand there and listen to John recounting the grim happenings that took place there 170 years ago and how that led him to contemplating the food abundance that made Henry Tate a millionaire around the same time, it all starts to come together.

Robert and the Cow up a Tree – just to give you a sense of the scale of the sculpture

I won’t recount the story of the Cow up a Tree, because you have to go yourself and hear it from John in all its convoluted glory. (If you really need to know you can read about it on John’s website.) It’s the highlight of the tour, but definitely only one part of a whole fascinating set of experiences that goes on and on. 

Besides the art (some of which will make you laugh out loud), stunning views greet you as you follow the trail, and finally Christina’s garden and John’s studio round out the day. The Garden is now part of the West Cork Garden Trail and is open from August 7th (tomorrow) until the 13th.

Terry Searle – A West Cork Artist

It’s all happening in West Cork at the moment! In particular, there’s a lot going on in Skibb: the fabulous Skibbereen Arts Festival continues to run all through the week and we have already enjoyed some memorable events. The first West Cork History Festival has been a resounding success – and a learning experience: look forward to great things in the future. But don’t leave Skibbereen without visiting the O’Driscoll Building at Levis Quay, in the town centre. Opening at 1pm on Saturday 5 August and running through to 2 September is an important exhibition of the work of two artists: Terry Searle and Ian McNinch. I’m concentrating today on the life and work of Terry – one of the ‘West Cork Artists’ Group’ who built up a reputation during the latter part of the 20th century, and the story of which has still to be written. Finola and I were privileged to meet with Terry and his wife Penny Dixey recently, and thoroughly enjoyed their accounts of the somewhat Bohemian life and times of artists in West Cork.

Penny (left, with Ted) and Terry (right) at home in Schull

The exhibition is a retrospective of Terry’s work. His great grandfather was from Dublin: he was born in 1936 and brought up in the East End of London. Like many of his contemporaries he was evacuated to the countryside during the war and spent six years away from his home. It’s hard to imagine how that experience might have affected a young, evolving mind: his positive take is that it imbued in him a permanent love for nature and this has been reflected in his life work.

Terry is a painter. At the end of the war Terry was called up for National Service, where he rubbed shoulders with would-be actors, artists and musicians: their outlooks attracted him and, when he moved back to London, he started evening classes at St Martin’s School of Art and then signed on for a full-time course at Goldsmith’s College of Art. Although life was hard – there were no grants available and he had to fund his studies through a variety of jobs occupying all hours – he never looked back. As he says “…life in the coffee shops in Soho was enjoyable, with a lively social scene…”

Terry’s influences were many – particularly the large, colour-full abstracts of Rothko and Joan Mitchell – but his life-long hero is JMW Turner. London’s Tate Britain has the world’s largest collection of Turner on exhibition, so Terry had the opportunity to study his hero at first hand. Turner challenged the art traditions of his time (first half of the 19th century) and his techniques appear very ‘modern’ to our eyes. Terry is no slave to Turner’s style, but has a very particular way of viewing his subjects. I think Terry’s work is vibrant – colourful – approachable – very attractive yet with a powerful individuality. I can see some parallels with William Crozier, whose work is currently being shown at Uillinn. By chance, Terry Searle and Crozier once lived in the same road in London but were only on nodding acquaintance. As their lives and work progressed, both found their way to West Cork.

Terry Searle at work, probably around 1986

Terry first visited West Cork when travelling with a group of friends in the 1970s. A number of visits followed and he found himself “enchanted” by the natural beauty of the place, and the civilised pace of life here. He must also have been aware of the strong artistic movement which focussed around Ballydehob and Skibbereen at the time. When he made the permanent relocation to the west of Ireland in 1981 he quickly became active in that movement, and was one of the founders of the West Cork Arts Centre. He contributed to the 1985 exhibition of West Cork artists in Zurich, and in 1987 was part of the important Living Landscape ‘87 Exhibition, which showed in the Crawford Gallery, Cork, as well as in the West Cork Arts Centre in Skibbereen. This extract from the introduction of the exhibition catalogue is enlightening on the spirit of the time:

…Skibbereen is a small town in the South West of the country with a population of 2,000 people. Ten years ago, because of the number of artists living in the area, a small interested group started an art society and held an annual members exhibition which ran for two weeks every July in a local hall. The demand from artists and local people increased over the years and due to the hard work of a dedicated committee, they realised a dream come true – an Arts Centre for West Cork; and with the essential practical help from the Vocational Education Committee in the provision of the building, we became the proud ‘owners’ of a thriving Arts Centre. We run exhibitions monthly, organise musical and theatrical evenings, and provide classes for all, covering a full range of artistic interests in our newly reconstructed classroom. Today, we are very proud to be hosting the first ‘Living Landscape’ exhibition by the top 25 landscape artists working in this country. Our intention to make this a prestigious annual event is ambitious, but then all our plans are ambitious…!

The Living Landscape exhibition shown at The Crawford and in Skibbereen: Terry is third from the right

I wonder how many of those involved in those times could have foreseen just where those ambitions would lead? With Uillinn in Skibbereen, the West Cork Arts Centre now has the foremost public gallery west of Cork city, and it is pushing the boundaries with major exhibitions of contemporary work. Readers will be aware of the recent West meets West exhibition – which heralds a regular exchange of art between West Cork and Cornwall – and the gallery, currently, is hosting a collaborative exhibition with IMMA on the opus of William Crozier.

It’s so good that Terry Searle is being appreciated with this show: he has never been a self-publicist, and it is high time his work received full and proper recognition. He celebrates his eightieth birthday this year. A few years ago he was diagnosed with a degenerative neuromuscular disease and has now been forced to stop painting altogether. It is painful to imagine what a loss that must be to a creative ethos such as his. This exhibition is a very special one – be sure to see it!

Robert is lining up further posts on the stories of the West Cork Artists group dating from the 1960s (and still thriving!) and would be delighted to hear from anyone who has personal accounts, reflections or memories from those days…

The Souvenir Shop

Free State Jam

This is a first – a ‘live’ blog post! I’m writing it inside an art installation running as part of the excellent Skibbereen Arts Festival. The installation is The Souvenir Shop, and it’s a huge hit with visitors. The project is conceived by Belfast artist Rita Duffy and curated by Helen Carey, and is a very unusual perspective on the 1916 Rising commemorations.

o'neill'sshop

The Souvenir Shop was first shown in Dublin earlier this year – here is a review from the Irish Times – and it’s now in the perfect setting here in West Cork: O’Neill’s old sweetshop on Townshend Street in Skibbereen. The premises has been empty for years and stepping inside it today is stepping into the past: a shop unchanged over generations.

customers

Rita in Shop

The atmospheric and nostalgic interior of O’Neill’s shop brought back to life by Rita Duffy (above): it displays and sells ‘souvenirs’ of the 1916 Rising and the events around it. It’s a piece of art which includes and embraces its customers and the ‘invigilators’ who, today, are Roaringwater Journal creators Finola and Robert

Finola and I are on our second stint behind the counter: we are the shopkeepers! We try to keep order as customers crowd in to look at the wares in display, all of which are designed by Rita. We met her in the shop on the first day of the exhibition and she explained that, during the Rising on Easter Monday 1916, many shops in Dublin were looted: the first was Noblett’s Sweet Shop on Sackville Street, and another was Tom Clarke’s tobacconist shop on Great Britain Street (now Parnell Street). She has re-made or re-imagined these shops for the installation, and filled the empty shelves of O’Neill’s with an incredible array of objects – most of which are for sale.

Dublin’s 1916 Easter Rising was accompanied by widespread looting of shops: Noblett’s Confectionery (top left – Dublin City Photographic Collection) and Clarke’s Tobacconist (bottom – National Library of Ireland) were among the first casualties. Tom Clarke himself (above right) was the first to sign the Proclamation of Independence, and was a driving force behind the rebellion

Rita Duffy’s subversive commentary on the Rising and the events that led from that time towards the present uneasy ‘peace process’  includes re-interpretations of everyday items that we would expect to see on the shelves of our local shops – soap, boot polish, tinned foods, tea, sweets, packets of seeds… It all looks very normal when you walk in – with a period flavour. We are finding that many of the customers today have fond memories of O’Neill’s sweet shop recalled from their childhoods and are delighted to come in and see it back in business: we can’t resist nostalgia. The initial impression is exactly that – a rosy-hued look back on our remembered past. Then we all start looking more closely at what is on the shelves and we are jolted out of our reveries…

Just a few of the items on sale today in The Souvenir Shop. Look carefully – ‘No Surrender stain remover’ shows James Connolly’s blood stained shirt worn during the Easter Rising; ‘His Majesties Ltd comforting diasporic foot soak for the wanderer who seeks a better footing’; ‘On The Run embrocation for the sore and twisted limbs of the dissident thinker (apply before sleep in a safe house)’; ‘Put my grandfather back together’ bandages; ‘Towards a New Republic Clear the Air vapour candle’…

It makes you laugh, initially – and then you have to think what you are laughing about. Balaclavas, in powder blue and pink with orange trim, for example. Black and Tan boot polish…? There’s a whole lot more to The Souvenir Shop. Rita Duffy has engaged the services of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association in Cavan (her studio is in Ballyconnell) to make Free State Jam and to knit – the balaclavas for example – but also some wonderfully bizarre religious iconography: did you ever see a knitted Pietá before?

Unexpected knitting courtesy of the Cavan Irish Countrywomen’s Association

Rita has also produced tea towels, t-shirts, and some embroidered place-mats carrying rather uncomfortable messages to entertain your dinner guests with. There are also ceramics: teapots, dishes and glassware. It’s such an eclectic range of goods on offer in this shop. That’s why the crowds come in and spend what seems like hours browsing the shelves that once held jars of sweets and packets of tea. There are sweets and tea here today – children are delighted to be given some free samples – but they probably don’t understand the hidden messages on the colourful packaging.

Most stark, perhaps, are the seeds: Seeds of the Revolution: two packets for 5 Euros. The messages here are fairly easy to read, although harder to digest. They really are seeds in those packets, but you’ll have to plant them to find out what comes up, perhaps something else that has a subversive implication: I’ll tell you what mine are next spring!

Seed rack

There’s so much in The Souvenir Shop that I haven’t included in this little review – and I’m far too busy trying to fend off the demands of the customers while I’m writing this. If only they would get into an orderly queue – it’s like some sort of insurrection in here… But we’ll cope – and encourage you to come and see this piece of artwork while it’s still on (it finishes on Monday 1st August at 5pm). Step inside and you become part of the exhibit – just like we are right now. You’ll enjoy it, perhaps more than you should. It will certainly leave you thinking.

Cross Roads Dancing

The Souvenir Shop (…nothing is as it seems…) is one of the major projects commissioned by the Arts Council of Ireland’s Art 1916-2016, marking the centenary of the 1916 Rebellion – with the support of Cavan Arts Office and the Irish Countrywomen’s Association. It runs through the Skibbereen Arts Festival between July 22nd and August 1st in O’Neill’s old sweetshop on Townshend Street

Peas + Beans

Possibly Over-Stimulated

Gloria Steinem is an international icon. This week, we welcomed her to Bantry Literary Festival. Four hundred women, and a few men, rose spontaneously to our feet and clapped and cheered her entrance. First time I’ve seen a standing ovation before someone actually stepped on stage.

Gloria and

What followed was breathtaking – Gloria spoke, a little and beautifully, but mostly she listened as audience members asked questions and shared their own experiences as women in this country. People had come from far and wide to hear her and just to be there: people I admire and respect – Tara Flynn (see also You’re Grand) and Louise O’Neill. Lelia Doolan, for goodness sake, a Irish feminist icon in her own right. The conversations weren’t easy (misogyny, abortion, pornography, violence) and there certainly were dissenting and opposing viewpoints presented. But the atmosphere was respectful (if electric) and Gloria calmly dealt with each question in ways that were thoughtful and non-divisive. Two hours later, I think we all felt we had been present at a little bit of history.

Gloria

We attended other Literary Festival events and Robert is writing about one of them – the delightful evening with Seán Ó Sé. That evening formed a wonderful contrast to the talk by Alice Carey, a self-professed New York/Irishwoman, vivacious and stylish, but also moving in her descriptions of a childhood caught between two worlds.

Alice Carey

Alice Carey

And just as that Festival is ending, the Skibbereen Arts Festival is bursting upon the scene with a slew of gallery openings and a 60’s street party! Sometimes it’s hard to know where the dividing line is between business and the arts in Skibbereen. All the business people seem to support the arts and all the arts events seem to work well with the businesses. Shopfronts become display cases. Empty buildings are re-purposed as galleries and theatres. Employees and owners dress up and decorate. Everyone has fun.

Skibbereen shop windows. Hands up who remembers women wearing curlers all day in the 60s!

This Friday was a good example as Skibbereen went all out for a 1960s-themed street party of food and music, to celebrate the opening of the Skibbereen Arts Festival. I wrote about this festival a couple of years ago. As arts festivals go in Ireland, this one is only in its infancy, but it hit its stride right from the starting gate, with an eclectic mixture of art, theatre, music, spoken word, film, and events for children.

Robert used to have a van like that

This year we have tickets for all kinds of disparate events and may have to take a holiday when it’s all over! On Friday we attended three art show openings and then joined the throngs on Bridge Street to get into the 60s swing.

Angela Flowers Exhibition

 

The old Bottling Plant makes an excellent gallery space, in this case for the Angela Flowers Collection

The first opening was extraordinary. Angela Flowers is one of Britain’s foremost gallery owners (she has two in London and one in New York), dealing with contemporary art. She has a house in West Cork and the pieces on display are from her own private collection. (Read more about Angela here and about her galleries here.) This is challenging stuff – no pretty paintings here, but compelling and engrossing. The exhibition was opened by Lord David Puttnam, the film producer and now digital champion and educator, who never misses an opportunity to support Skibbereen, where he lives full time.

Uillinn came next: the whole space was devoted to the work of John Kelly, a painter and sculpture with a studio in West Cork and an international reputation.

Yet a third art exhibition opened in an unused space down by the river – a huge L-shaped room perfect for such a purpose. This one was called Mór (‘Large’) and brought together the work of several artists who work in large scale. Huge canvasses and large sculptural pieces created an imposing and magisterial atmosphere.

Karen Hendy’s triptych (top) and Don Cronin’s piece titled ‘Windfall’

Then it was off to the opening of The Souvenir Shop by Rita Duffy. Robert and I have signed up for two ‘invigilation’ sessions at this quirky and unusual art installation, so I will write about it more at a future date, or post photos on our Facebook page.

Souvenir Shop

The Souvenir Shop

Before we staggered home, we joined the throngs of Skibbereen folk on Bridge Street for the 1960s party. The hippies were out in force!

Finally, tonight, we attended a premier showing of the Film Rebel Rossa. Last year we met the two great-grandsons of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in Skibbereen, here to attend various functions commemorating Rossa and to document them for a film they were making. Since I did extensive research on Rossa in preparation for a series of three posts (March Back in Time, O’Donovan Rossa – the First Terrorist? and Rossa: The Skibbereen Years), I was particularly interested in how the film turned out. They did a great job! Rebel Rossa turned out to be about Rossa, but also about family and about how governments celebrate such things versus how republican groups or local committees do it. Fascinating stuff and they are hopeful about getting a distribution deal.

Rebel Rossa

More, much more in the days to come. How am I going to cope? I came here to retire!

Umha Aois

spearhead

There’s a magic to the working of metal: you can pick this up when you are doing it, or when you are watching others do it. It could be the arcane transformation of rough nuggets of ore, first into liquid and then into beautiful solid objects that inspires that impression – or perhaps it’s because the senses are battered by the fierce heat, the molten rivulets, the streaming sparks, the incessant hammering, the sheer excitement… It’s no wonder that our ancestors embraced the emerging technologies hundreds of generation ago, and created spectacular objects which, today, we place in our museums and venerate.

sparking

Umha Aois are artists and sculptors working as ‘experimental archaeologists’ who have been in Skibbereen this week as part of the Skibberen Arts Festival. They use Bronze Age metal working techniques to produce replicas of ancient tools, weapons and musical instruments and also contemporary art objects. We went to their workshops set up in the grounds of Liss Ard House and met Holger Lönze – a locally based sculptor – James Hayes from Bray and their colleagues who are researching and using stone and clay moulds, ‘lost wax’ processes and charcoal pit-furnaces.

Robert holding a recently cast bronze bell, while Finola tries out an adze

It’s very appropriate that we should be looking at Bronze Age metalwork in our own corner of West Cork as we are in the shadow of Mount Gabriel, site of substantial copper mine workings probably dating from some three and a half thousand years ago. A number of Bronze Age mines have been found on the Mizen Peninsula: it must have been a significant local activity and source of trade. It has of course continued almost up to the present day; our own townland of Cappaghglass saw considerable copper extraction during the nineteenth century.

copper mountain

Copper Mountain – on Mount Gabriel can be found the sites of 32 separate workings dating from 1700 – 1400 BC, but there is no evidence of smelting or metalworking in the same vicinity: perhaps the ‘magic’ of the process required it to be carried out in more secret places?

Back to the Umha Aois project (it’s pronounced oowah eesh and means Bronze Age): we saw pieces in various stages of production, including axe heads, adze heads and spear heads, cast from stone moulds. They are elegant objects, especially when they have been polished to a gleaming finish.

axe heads

Bronze axe head, showing the mould used to cast it

The group was using pit furnaces which they had constructed on site. These consisted of basin shaped depressions in the ground lined with clay, and pipework of clay running from two sets of bellows. The clay pits were filled with charcoal and fired to a high temperature to convert the ore in the crucibles to a molten state.

empty furnace

Top – the principle components of a Bronze Age pit furnace; below left – crucible being heated; below right – the bellows in action

In another shelter we were also shown the ‘lost wax’ process: small objects were shaped in wax and then encased in clay. The wax was melted, leaving a mould in the clay cavity which was then filled with molten metal. Once hardened, the clay moulds are broken apart; the copper or bronze objects are then finished and polished. Here is a BBC video that demonstrates these techniques. There are incredible examples of this type of worked metal in the National Museum in Dublin, including some in gold – thousands of years old and yet so elegant and sophisticated.

melting out the waxClay moulds used in the ‘lost wax’ process

Holger has also made a Bronze Age musical instrument, which he demonstrated for us. The pattern is based on ‘trumpets’ which have been found in Europe, the finest being the Loughnashade trumpet, discovered during drainage works at the site of a former lake in County Armagh. Holger’s trumpet is a bronze cast: some finds have been made from curved and rivetted sheets of bronze. Here is a link to a recording of the sound made by a similar reconstructed instrument.

Holger Lönze conjuring up ancient music!

By exploring techniques, lifestyles and behaviour of our forebears through practical application, experimental archaeologists such as Umha Aois help us to understand that people who lived in the Bronze Age were not intellectually ‘primitive’ as was once thought; they have passed down to us their own aesthetic appreciation of art, music and their highly developed knowledge of sciences that enabled them to construct the complex megalithic monuments – and enigmatic Rock Art – which are yet beyond our own understanding.

Experimental archaeology in the walled garden at Liss Ard

Our ancestors left behind rugged stone monuments, landscapes which have shaped the pattern of our countryside, and sublimely beautiful objects: magic to our eyes and senses.

This Bronze Age gold disc – now in the National Museum, Dublin – was found at Sparrograda, Ballydehob:

sparrograda disc

March Back in Time

Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa at the head of the Demonstration. Photo © Ian Flavin, used with permission.

Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa at the head of the Demonstration. Photo © Ian Flavin, used with permission

100 years ago this month all Ireland was galvanised by the news that Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa’s body was to be brought from New York to be buried in Ireland. As an acknowledged leader of the Fenian movement, he was as infamous in America and Canada as he was revered in Ireland, and his funeral was one of the largest ever seen in Dublin. 

Rossa, born in 1831, grew up near Rosscarbery and experienced the dreadful time of the Great Famine, watching his father’s death and his family’s eviction. Left alone in Skibbereen while his mother and siblings emigrated, he made a life for himself as a shopkeeper, all the time growing in his hatred of tyranny and nurturing revolutionary thoughts. He founded the Phoenix Society in Skibbereen which, although called a literary society, advocated ‘force of arms’ as a means of liberation from British rule.

It was during this period, in 1863, that he organised a demonstration in Skibbereen in support of Poland. There were many analogies between Ireland and Poland at that time: Poland was ruled by Tsarist Russia, which had imposed the Russian language on the Poles, closed universities and Catholic churches and dealt ruthlessly with resistance. The march was a barely-concealed act of sedition, of course, watched closely by the police.

Polish Contingent in national costume

Polish contingent in national costume

This week, as part of the launch of the annual Arts Festival, Skibbereen re-enacted that demonstration – and it was thrilling! Declan McCarthy (of Baltimore Fiddle Fair fame) took the role of Rossa, ably abetted by members of the Kilmeen Drama Group and the Skibbereen Theatre Society

Banners

Everyone who could manage it was dressed in period costume, shop windows put on special displays, and the streets were closed to all but pedestrian and horse-drawn traffic.

Phoenix out front

The demonstrators paraded through town when night fell, lit by flaming turf torches and led by Rossa and an enormous Phoenix Society emblem. A contingent of Poles had come from Cork and marched in costume. Banners were hoisted and a pipe band played The Minstrel Boy.

Finally, lit by the flaming torches, Rossa ascended the platform and delivered a fiery speech about tyranny and illegal occupation, punctuated by cheers from the crowd.

Firebrand Speech

The atmosphere was incredible. We were transported back to 1860s Skibbereen, surrounded by threatening policemen, firebrand revolutionaries and Victorian citizens, all getting into the spirit of the times.

AudienceIt was the high point (although not the culmination yet) of two months of Rossa commemorations in West Cork which has included lectures, a play, a walking tour, exhibitions and the unveiling of new monuments in several places including the impressive Skibbereen installation inaugurated by President Higgins.

Rossa and torch bearers

More about Rossa in a future post, including his three wives and 18 children, his Fenian career and his connection to events in Canada. To end, a link to one of the classic Fenian songs, Down by the Glenside.

Pitchfork torch