A Saint’s Day – Ciarán and Piran

Horse and Cape Clear

I was born in the first half of the last century. Early memories of the 1950s include the regular journeys my brother and I made as small boys on the mighty Atlantic Coast Express via Okehampton to visit, first, our sets of cousins on Dartmoor, and then beyond – via the even mightier Great Western Railway – to our cousins in the depths of Cornwall. The latter visits were particularly idyllic: the cousins (generations older than us) had a small farm and a herd of cows which they milked twice a day – by hand. Following this they cooled the milk in a big steel drum by stirring it with a propellor (we were allowed to do this) before pouring the precious liquid into bottles which were then sealed with silver caps using a rubber device which impressed on them the name ‘Cove Farm’. Then, together, we set out  on bicycles to deliver the bottles to the doorsteps of every dwelling in the small village of Perran-ar-worthal.

Perranwell Station 1950s
Perranwell Station 1950s – disemabark here for Perran-ar-Worthal and Cove Farm! The header picture is a view of Cape Clear seen beyond Horse Island, taken from our own Rossbrin Cove

Perran-ar-Worthal (in Cornish Peran ar Wodhel) means ‘St Piran’s village by the creek’. Who is St Piran? He is the Patron Saint of Cornwall and we’ve met him before, briefly, in my account of St Ciarán, who was born on Cape Clear, and was known as ‘The First Saint of Ireland’. Even before St Patrick arrived to start his missionary work in 432 AD, St Ciarán (according to some records born in 352 AD) had been at work converting the ‘heathen Irish’. Unfortunately, his efforts were not always appreciated and Ciarán was despatched from the top of a tall cliff with a millstone tied around his neck! The story is elaborated by Robert Hunt FRS in his Popular Romances of the West of England first published in 1908. I have the third, 1923 edition on my bookshelves.

Robert Hunt Popular Romances 1923

On a boisterous day, a crowd of the lawless Irish assembled on the brow of a beetling cliff, with Ciarán in chains. By great labour they had rolled a huge millstone to the top of the hill, and Ciarán was chained to it. At a signal from one of the kings, the stone and the saint were rolled, to the edge of and suddenly over, the cliff into the Atlantic. The winds were blowing tempestuously, the heavens were dark with clouds, and the waves white with crested foam. No sooner was Ciarán and the millstone launched into space, than the sun shone out brightly, casting the full lustre of its beams on the holy man, who sat tranquilly on the descending stone. The winds died away, and the waves became smooth as a mirror. The moment the millstone touched the water, hundreds were converted to Christianity who saw this miracle. St Ciarán floated on safely to Cornwall; he landed on the 5th of March on the sands which bear his name. He lived amongst the Cornish men until he attained the age of 206 years…

Left – St Ciarán celebrated in modern stained glass, in the church at Caheragh, West Cork; centre – Ciarán at Rath church, near Baltimore, and right – St Piran is the top figure (with church and bell) in this window panel from Truro Cathedral, Cornwall

So, what is the connection between Saints Ciarán and Piran? Apparently, they are the same person! Charles Lethbridge Kingsford reporting in the Dictionary of National Biography 1885 – 1900 (a 63 volume work!) states:

…PIRAN or PIRANUS, Saint, is commonly identified with Saint Ciaran of Saigir. The names Piran and Ciaran or Kieran are identical—p in Britain being the equivalent of the Irish k. The history of the two saints is in the main features the same, though the Irish lives of St Ciaran do not record his migration to Cornwall…

Many writers make the same assertion about the orthophony of the name but – to be fair – others, including some saintly hagiographers, do not agree, suggesting we are talking about two different saints. As someone who has a birthday on 5th March (today) – the Saint’s Day for both Ciarán and Piran – I have no doubts about the matter. Here’s another source that concurs with the view that they are one and the same saint – The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Volume X (1874):

The labours of St Kieran were not confined to Ireland. He passed several years on the western coast of Britain, and, as we learn from Blight’s “Churches in West Cornwall,” his memory is still cherished there. Four ancient Cornish parochial churches bear his name : these are Perran-zabuloe, or St Piran-in-the-sand; Perran-arworthal; Perran-uthnoe, situated near the coast opposite St Michael’s Mount, and St Kevern, or Pieran, which in Domesday-book is called Lanachebran. St Kieran’s holy well is also pointed out on the northern coast of Perran-zabuloe. The parish church of St Keverne stands in the district called Meneage, which terminates at the Lizard Point, the southernmost land of England. The name Meneage is supposed to mean, in the old Cornish dialect, “the deaf stone”, and the reason given for it is that, though there are several mineral veins or lodes in the district, on trial they have been found to be of no value, and hence are called deaf or useless. Tradition tells that St Kieran inflicted on the inhabitants, as a punishment for their irreligion, that the mineral veins of the district would be un-productive, and the old proverb is still handed down, “No metal will run within the sound of St Kieran’s bell”…

St Piran's Church, Perran SandsAn image of St Piran’s Church which was built in the 12th century on the dunes at Penhale Sands, Perranzabuloe Parish, to replace the Saint’s original oratory which was buried by the shifting sands. The sands encroached on this church, too (the sands can be seen in the picture), and it was dismantled around 1800 and stone from the site was then used to build another new church two miles inland which was dedicated to St Piran in July 1805

To complement that little story of the saint in Cornwall, we have to visit Ossory, an Irish diocese which encompasses parts of Kilkenny, Laois and Offaly. There they also celebrate St Ciarán of Saigir on March the fifth: he is said to have returned from Rome after years of study, firstly visiting his native Cape Clear, then commencing his travels through Ireland until his bell rang of its own accord – this happened at a small hamlet in County Offaly, now known as Seir Kieran. There he set up a foundation, the remains of which are still visible – as is a holy well, a holy bush (bedecked with clouties) the base of a round tower, the base of an ancient high cross (now holding water which has curative powers) and a holy rock which was once said to have displayed the hand print and knee prints of the saint, now completely obscured.

barry-cotrell-st-piran

St Piran’s journey to Cornwall: “The millstone kept our man afloat” from The Discovery of Tin – a collection illustrated by Barry Cottrell

One of my favourite stories about St Piran tells of how he discovered tin smelting. He used as his hearth a piece of local stone; when he lit a fire on the hearth the veins of tin ore in the stone melted and a stream of silver ran out across the black rock, in the form of a cross. From that day to this the flag of Cornwall is a white cross on a black background, and Piran is the patron saint of tin and tinners.

marching-and-flags

Just about now in Cornwall a great celebration is going on in honour of the saint. There will be a procession to the original oratory buried in the sands, led by the Grand Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd. Cornish flags – and the Cornish tartan – will be very much in evidence. The Cornish people have a great nationalistic spirit and have called for the 5th March to be an official public holiday. In a recent debate on Cornwall some interesting views were expressed on the place of Cornwall in a post-Brexit world, and the attributes of St Piran were symbolic of this – his inventiveness, his love of nature, and his belief in the inclusivity of all peoples in an international community.

Left – Geevor Mine, in West Penwith, one of Cornwall’s last working tin mines, now a museum of mining; right – an incarnation of the saint: Cornish author Colin Retallick stands in front of St Piran’s ancient cross on the saint’s day

St Piran lived to a great age. They say in Cornwall that he was ‘fond of the drink’ and met his end by falling into a well when walking home from a party. I hope it was a holy well! Today, seventeen centuries after St Ciarán / Piran was thrown from the cliffs of Cape Clear I am looking out to that island: …the winds are blowing tempestuously, the heavens are dark with clouds, and the waves are white with crested foam… There have been so many links between Cornwall and West Cork, ever since the Bronze Age, when Cornish tin traders brought their metal to mix with copper mined above us here on Mount Gabriel. Watch out for more posts about these links, and mark your diaries for an exhibition coming up in June in Uillinn, West Cork’s fine new gallery, of the work of artists from Cornwall. This will be followed next year by an exhibition in a Cornish gallery of the work of artists from West Cork. West meets West will forge new and lasting links between the two communities: links which would have warmed the heart of our shared saint!

Below – St Ciarán by Richard King, painted for the Capuchin Annual in the 1950s

Richard King Ciaran

Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone – a Review

ball graphic

The current exhibition at Uillinn, the West Cork Arts Centre gallery in Skibbereen, is a ‘must’ for anyone interested in contemporary artistic expression – but be aware it’s challenging. Having seen the exhibition being assembled before the opening I decided that I would visit it twice – firstly without giving myself any prior knowledge of the subject matter – and then once more, following a gallery tour led by Alison Cronin of Uillinn and a gallery talk by Jennifer Mehigan, one of the participating artists.

large reflection

I’m very concerned, nowadays, by how ‘art’ is presented, especially ‘art’ which seems divorced from traditional expectations (painted pictures, sculptures etc). I’m fine with all fresh forms of art – and frequently excited by them – but I sometimes wonder whether our artists think about their communication with us… Do they feel that the work should in every way be self-explanatory (we will come away fully informed just by looking at, taking in and understanding the work) – or should their sometimes complex ideas and presentations be explained by accompanying texts, gallery tours, catalogues etc? So I tend to approach every new exhibition with an open mind, hoping for clarity but – firstly – looking for impact from the work. I suppose, at my age, I still think of ‘art’ as being something which should initially stir me, excite me or overwhelm me just through the visual sense: I’m perfectly happy to stand back and look through complex layers of understanding (if necessary) to find the reason for the existence of the artwork, provided it has initially given me that excitement – or whatever emotion – because it will then have drawn me in and made me curious. Some contemporary exhibitions do leave me flat and unstimulated (not many!) and then I have no desire to probe them any further: for me they have failed, but that’s only me, I know. Ultimately, ‘art’ is probably the most subjective of cultural expressions. And that’s all good!

spectators 3

John Russell’s huge backlit print – and two of Eva Fàbregas’s beasts that move around the gallery floor, apparently with a life of their own! 

So – how did I react to my initial, completely unguided, tour of Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone? I’m pleased to say that I was stimulated – and positively so. I’m always attracted visually by large scale, colour, and things out of the ordinary: that gives you some clues! There are certainly unexpected experiences here. You walk into the first gallery and are hit with a huge print vibrating off the wall, its boundaries emphasised by coloured light behind it. It’s a riot of red – half-human and half- beast figures in a sort of Star Wars tableaux. But then, once you have taken that in you realise that the floor is alive – crawling with more strange beasts that look as though they have had another life as something mundane and practical and are now reincarnated to follow you around the gallery – perhaps to threaten you. What are they? Gallery assistant Kevin enlightened me when he came in to dismantle and repair the mechanics of one of these errant aliens: they are all made from packaging materials fitted with electric motors, and their trajectories across the gallery floor are completely random, referencing, perhaps, their previous lives travelling unsung and unrewarded all around the world. It’s funny how we give life to inanimate (but in this case animate) objects that appeal to us: perhaps it’s a jump back to childhood days when we made things from cereal packets and egg boxes but were then convinced that we had breathed existence into the monsters, dragons, spaceships, princesses (maybe) that we produced. Talking to the gallery staff I was fascinated to hear that some visitors were absolutely convinced that these pieces of mobile packing were imbued with very sophisticated artificial intelligence and really did follow them around and confront them! Remember, this was still before I had any knowledge of the intentions or stimuli behind the exhibits.

balcony capture

Moving upstairs to the second gallery I found the walkway obstructed by rotating panels of some material (was it glass?) that seemed to be engraved with semi transparent images: they looked like iconic landscape scenes. As I watched, I realised that at certain points in their spinning I was able to see through them, but at the same time also see reflections on their surfaces – of me, of the gallery, of the view through the windows… I liked these very much, and the dymanic nature of their movement and the unpredictable refractions and reflections. I was keen to know how their conception fitted into what I had seen previously downstairs, but I couldn’t guess.

The spinning panels – ‘Orphan Transposition’ – are by Alan Butler and feature acrylic panels laser-etched with images of Yosemite National Park: they also have an intentionally accidental life of their own through the changing surface reflections

The second gallery held more surprises – and delights. Approaching through a narrow corridor I could see layers: more big, colourful panels on the far wall, more hanging, spinning sheets of opaque transparency, and a very contrasting soft, organic shape seeming to slither across the floor. As I came closer I realised that this shape was not slithering – or moving at all, disappointingly: it was a way of seating people in front of a screen, and was linked in to an array of very funky ‘designer’ headphones (white) by a jumble of thick, red chords.

upper gallery close

phones and cables 2

I sat and watched the ‘show’ – and listened to clunky music and a strange commentary – and then realised I was completely out of my depth! I had no clue what was going on. My attempt to experience the exhibition without any preparation or foreknowledge had failed. This applied to all the other work in the upper gallery also: superb large graphics on the walls and floors, printed acrylic sheets suspended on smart steel stands, and, in a darkened cubicle, a film of puppets which reminded me completely of ‘Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men’! Now, how many of you remember them, dear readers? I don’t suppose any of the contributing artists are of my generation – so, is that pure coincidence? Anyway, I could not feel a sense of connection between the exhibits: but I liked the experiencing of them, nevertheless.

okea projection

puppet show

Upper – Eva Fàbregas’s The Role of Unintended Consequences (Sofa Compact) – which can be enjoyed on the comfort of a squishy serpentine furniture sculpture – and, lower – puppets feature in Andrew Norman Wilson’s Reality Models

This is the point where anyone who doesn’t want a ‘spoiler’ had better stop reading. Perhaps you want to try and respond to the exhibition without any prior understanding of it, as I did, in which case off you go now, to Uillinn, and see how you get on…

ann and jennifer 2

Gallery talk: Director Ann Davoren (left) with artist Jennifer Mehigan (right): Jennifer’s startling work is in the background – and on the floor

For me, back to square one, therefore, with the gallery tour and artist talk (having first read an accompanying written commentary). Wonderful! It all began to come together and make sense. The title of the exhibition – Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone – which I only knew as a childhood game (and one which I played with my own children) is also the title of a science fiction novella written by Ian McDonald (from Belfast) in 1994. It’s evidently something of an iconic work for those who follow the genre (I don’t particularly, although I have read a little sci-fi). I now know that the participating artists were asked to familiarise themselves with the book and respond to it in a way which they feel comments on our present times: there was no collaboration as such between the artists on the overall exhibition (as I understand), but the curators have put the work together in a way that does begin to set out a narrative.

digital panels

In the optional (€12) catalogue that accompanies the show, Alissa Kleist & Matt Packer (the curators) write an introduction. I was struck by this paragraph:

…From an artistic perspective, Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone [ie the book] can be read as a wishful fantasy of artistic power. It describes visual art without recourse to the systems of academic analysis and understanding that have defined the art-history books for the past century and more; instead it promises an encounter with art that frees the ‘rapture’ that Jean-Francois Lyotard describes as being harboured within art itself: an art that hits us straight to the core of our physical being…

cow pic 3

Wow! isn’t that what I was trying to say about my approach to new exhibitions – looking for impact from the work, being stirred, excited or overwhelmed before having any understanding of it? It’s a wonderful way of putting it: …the ‘rapture’ harboured within art itself… Suddenly, I realise that I’ve approached this exhibition exactly as the curators would want me to: first I have the visceral experience, then comes the understanding! Or is it that I have now walked into the exhibition and become a part of it?

Back to the book (via the catalogue):

…In the book, McDonald tells the story of a young student, Ethan Ring, who develops the ability to create digital images that bypass rational thought and control the mind of the viewer…

I’m worrying now – am I being controlled by the digital images in the exhibition?

…Ethan develops a technology of ‘fracters’ – mind-controlling images that have the power to heal, cause pain, induce tears or ecstasy. The utopian promise of this image technology is short-lived as Ethan finds himself blackmailed into employment by the ‘Public Relations’ department of the ‘European Common Security Secretariat’, who demand that he uses the fracters for the purposes of interrogation and assassination, as and when they require…

This is frightening stuff. The book was written in 1994 but in our own time we are suddenly being confronted by concepts of ‘fake reality’ – and aren’t we shocked by governments who seem to be veering off into nonsensical directions, apparently against the wishes of the public majority? Suddenly, I’m seeing an uncanny relevance which these artists – inspired by the concept of the book – have made to our own predicaments. From the catalogue again:

…In a way that is typical of the cyberpunk genre of science fiction, Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone is written with the strategy of combining prosaic everyday miseries with the ‘cognitive estrangement’ of a world that has been accelerated beyond our control…

cow stuff

A detail from one of Jennifer Mehigan’s stunning prints made from collages of three-dimensional digitally generated models: this one illustrates the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy virus – better known as Mad Cow Disease

Lastly, I should mention the gallery talk by Jennifer Mehigan. She has only been involved in the Uillinn, Skibbereen, iteration of this show. Knowing that now, I think the overall exhibition will have been considerably poorer without her contribution. I think my strongest instant reactions (rapture?) have been to her large digitally produced panels. Now that she has explained their conception I am even more impressed. She asked us to consider the cow…

The cow is an unnatural beast. Human intervention keeps it permanently fertile so that it produces food for us. It gives us its milk: it dies for us. But also – again through human intervention – it eats itself. This generates the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy virus – better known as Mad Cow Disease. This kills humans. Be afraid…

Jennifer’s gorgeous panels are made using a highly complex technology – 3 dimensional modelling software. With this software she has constructed a cow’s stomach, bacteria found inside the human gut, the mad cow disease virus, and Drombeg Stone Circle (that’s the link to human intelligence). She’s put all these things together into bizarre, visually stunning collages and presented them to us as compelling two-dimensional images leaning up against the end wall in Uillinn where they sparkle and shine in the sunlight: we are seeing the fracters and, behind them, the government departments who are manipulating world perceptions of reality.

from above

Powerful images from a strong exhibition. Step beyond the images and we see power – or a commentary on power. Statements are being made here – perhaps subversively – about the world in which we live today. That’s great – that’s art.

resting

The exhibiting artists are: Alan Butler, Pakui Hardware, Jennifer Mehigan, Andrew Norman Wilson, Clawson & Ward, Eva Fàbregas, John Russell

Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone is on at Uillinn, Skibbereen until 25 February 2017. The gallery is open Mondays to Saturdays from 10.00am to 4.45pm: there are guided gallery tours on selected Saturday mornings – check with Uillinn: enlightening and well worth attending! Here’s Alison Cronin in action:

in the gallery

Dancing Cappaghglass

Cappaghglass by Emma Jervis 1

When you love the place you live in – really love it, in your bones and your heart, how do you express that? How do you convey to others the feeling of waking to the sun rising over Roaringwater Bay and sinking back into the sea behind Long Island after a day of sparkling colour and rural rhythms? How do you represent the sense of coming home after a lifetime of being an emigrant? How to talk about what persists of the Ireland of your youth and what has changed irrevocably, for better or ill?

Fields of Cappaghglass

The green fields of Cappaghglass in evening winter sunlight

I suppose, like the Bee Gees I would turn to words, but Tara Brandel took on that challenge with Cappaghglass, her final piece of choreography and dance performance at the end of her two year residency at Uillinn, the West Cork Arts Centre.

Reaching

I’ve written about Tara’s dance performances before – her Bridge two years ago in Ballydehob left us speechless and profoundly moved. She has performed numerous pieces in the meantime as part of her Uillinn residency, sometimes solo and sometimes with her company, Chroí Glan. This dance has been gestating all that time.

Mining area

Mine houses and a fenced-off shaft – echoes of mining heritage

Cappaghglass*, where Tara lives and where we also are currently putting down roots, is undoubtedly beautiful, peaceful, pastoral and scenic. In the past it was also heavily industrial, with 400 tons of copper mined every year, and a population of several hundred people. It had a ‘Big House’ and a hotel: no traces remain of either. It had a dozen farms: now there are two. There are twenty homes in the townland – and another twenty holiday homes that remain empty most of the time.

Cappaghglass by Emma Jervis 2

I gratefully acknowledge Emma Jervis, whose photograph this is, along with the first one in the post

Tara danced it all for us. We watched as she explores her environment as a child, then takes the first tentative steps to leave. Buffeted by the world, she returns to the freedom and the green fields, and always the sea heaves in the background and the Fastnet Light turns on the horizon. She switches effortlessly, with a twitch of a scarf and body movements, from a young, then an old Irish woman to a Syrian refugee, inviting us to consider the experiences of displacement, migration, loss and belonging.

Road through Cappaghglass

The high road through Cappaghglass

Her body speaks to us, but she also uses words and song. She sings – simple repetitive chants – and uses technology to loop the sound so it repeats. Then she records a further piece and then another, and so layers of sound start to build and this provides the music to which she dances.

Gorse Tree

Visual layers are added – projections on the wall of a map, the sea, waving grass, and finally the Fastnet Light.

Fastnet in the sunset

Tara’s dancing is athletic and graceful. Her hands assume critical importance in conveying action and emotion. Clothing is donned and shed in a shorthand for identity.

Clothing is used

In  a final brilliant move she approaches the barre, over which is draped heaps of material. Reaching into the mass of cloth she ties two lengths around her waist and moves towards us. It is then we understand, as the material slowly slides away from the barre and follows her in an enormous train, that this is Cappaghglass – the whole townland spread out behind her, claiming her, rooting her, her home, her place.

townland train

We  walked the townland today in the fading light of late afternoon and we saw it afresh. Like Tara, like so many people, we have experienced migration and displacement. But this is home now and we find it rare and precious.

Ruined ivy-clad houses and the traces of tiny fields hint at families for whom this was home

Only art has the ability to reach down into you and clutch at your soul and make you think and feel in ways you haven’t thought and felt before. Tara did that for us with her dance. We are grateful for her gift.

Cappaghglass sunset*Cappaghglass, in Irish pronounced cappa gloss = the Green Tillage Fields

A Bell for Bangor

Holg + Donagh 2

The man standing on the platform in the picture is Holger Lönze. You might remember him from Umha Aois, a post I put up last year about a group of artists and ‘experimental archaeologists’ who use Bronze Age metal working techniques to produce replicas of ancient tools, weapons and musical instruments. Holger – a sculptor – is a key member of that group: his workshop is in Schull and he has just completed a commission to make an enormous bell. You can see the project in progress on the right of the picture. On the left is Donagh Carey, another West Cork artist who worked on the casting.

Left: the original Bangor Bell – the inspiration for the new work – and, right: an early sketch design by Holger of the proposed bell sculpture

The story begins in the sixth century when Columbanus (the Latinised form of Columbán, meaning White Dove) was born in the Kingdom of Meath, now part of Leinster, Ireland, in 543. That’s about 50 years after the death (aged 120) of St Patrick. Patrick, of course, is the best known of the missionaries building up Christianity in Ireland, but he wasn’t Irish himself, having been born a Roman Briton. Columbanus was Irish, and he saw his mission as spreading Christianity from Ireland throughout the Continent of Europe. His mission was successful and St Columbanus is recognised in Europe as a founder of many monastic settlements during his travels in Gaul, Burgundy, the Alps and finally Italy where he established the great monastery at Bobbio, beside the River Trebbia. Columbanus died at Bobbio in 615 and his remains are buried in the crypt there.

Bobbio_bridge

The medieval bridge at Bobbio with St Columbanus’ great monastery beyond (photo by Herbert Ortner, Vienna, Austria)

There are great stories told about the life of Columbanus. When he walked in the woods, birds would land on his shoulders to be caressed, and squirrels ran down from the trees and nestled in the folds of his cowl. He is also said to have tamed a bear and trained it to pull the plough. Wolves would not harm him. He is usually depicted with a book and an Irish satchel, sometimes with sunbeams over his head. I’m not sure why but Columbanus is known as the patron saint of motorcyclists.

Saint Columbanus – left: depicted on a medieval fresco with book and sunbeams (note he is carrying a bell) and, right: sailing off to Europe with his companions

Getting back to West Cork and the bell: Columbanus travelled to Bangor, County Down – in the far north east of the island of Ireland – where he studied in the  Abbey until he was 40. A beautifully decorated bronze handbell was found near the Abbey by gravediggers in the 18th century; it is assumed to have been buried to keep it safe from Viking invaders in the 9th century. The Abbey is seen as the starting point for Columbanus’s missionary work in Europe and the bell (now in the North Down Museum) is associated with him, although unlikely to have been contemporary with his time there. Holger Lönze has always been fascinated by medieval bronze bells and has made replicas of many surviving examples. He cast a copy of the Bangor Abbey handbell using Medieval metalworking techniques in 2012, and the process is recorded in this video.

Holger’s full-sized replica of the Bangor Bell and (right) Holger in his studio explaining his techniques to Robert

The new sculpture – titled Fluctus Angelorum (Wave of Angels) was commissioned by Ards and North Down Borough Council for Bangor Abbey  as one of a series of works inspired by the extraordinary achievements of Columbanus and his companions. Based on the proportions of the original bell, the surface of the sculpture is shaped like the surface of the ocean. The sea-blue patina and breaking waves are a metaphor for Columbanus’ remarkable sea voyage. The 4m high bell was fabricated in bronze plate in West Cork using the ancient repoussé process – by alternating annealing and hammering and finally welding. It took no less than 400,000 hammer blows to transform flat sheets of bronze into this piece of sculpture!

Bell surface

In the workshop: the surface of the 4m high bell reflects the surface of the ocean and (right) the inside of the great bell: it is mounted on a stone plinth and lit at night. Both bells and waves are striking metaphors to mark the Saint’s 1400 miles journey from Bangor to Bobbio – 1400 years ago

The medieval Bangor Bell didn’t have a clapper: it was carried around and hit with a hammer. Taking me back to my days as a percussionist, Holger allowed me to hit the giant bell… It made a mighty sound! From West Cork the bell travelled the whole length of Ireland, passing its 8th Century sister bells in Cashel, Co Meath and Bangor. It is now installed in the Abbey grounds and was formally unveiled on 13th June. The sculpture is not yet complete – Holger is making a number of smaller ‘satellite’ bells which will be set around it, but even on its own it is a most impressive sight: the largest bell ever made in Ireland.

holger with bell

Artist Karen Hendy and Holger Lönze showing the maquette for the bell project in Schull and, below, the bell in its setting at Bangor Abbey

bangor context

I’m often repeating the message but there is no doubt that West Cork is the most creative place I have ever lived! All manner of culture flourishes here and we are privileged to live in a community where we can readily meet and appreciate the work of so many artists; and we have excellent galleries to showcase this work – The Blue House Gallery in Schull (next door to Holger’s workshop), Uillinn in Skibbereen, Catherine Hammond‘s excellent gallery, now also in Skibbereen and The Aisling Gallery in Ballydehob. We are spoiled!

With many thanks to Holger for allowing me to use some of his own images of the work progressing…

A Grand Job!

uillinn name

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

Welcome, President!

Welcome, President!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ready for the unveiling...

Ready for the unveiling…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Raw Material

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fabric of the building is lively and well considered

The fabric of the building is lively and well considered

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

Sam Thorne

Sam Thorne

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

'Blinkers' - Angela Fulcher 2015

‘Blinkers’ – Angela Fulcher 2015

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

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Phenomenal success: the Tate Gallery, St Ives, Cornwall

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

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

Impressive gallery spaces call for dynamic works

Impressive gallery spaces call for dynamic works

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

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Works in progress: the centre contains studios and workshops

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

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