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

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 Grand Job!

uillinn name

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

Welcome, President!

Welcome, President!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ready for the unveiling...

Ready for the unveiling…

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

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

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

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

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

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

gate

Seeing the Light

Toe Head Thistle

Toe Head Thistle

Up to Christmas I had been using my iPhone for photography. Upside – you always have it with you, it weighs nothing and fits in a pocket, it takes surprisingly good images as long as you don’t need to zoom in. Downside – very grainy if you try to zoom, very limited except for basic shots, few manual controls. Because of my frustration with its limitations (did I grumble that much?) Robert gave me a new camera for Christmas (Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ60, for those who care about such things). It fulfils my requirement of being small enough to fit in my pocket while launching me into a whole new world where I can have more control over my images.

Up to now I have been using it purely on the automatic settings, with occasional forays into some of the pre-programmed effects, and I was starting to hit that wall of frustration again – the knowledge that the camera is capable of so much more if only I knew how to use it properly. So this week we signed up for a one day session with Celia Bartlett, a photo-journalist who uses her house in Toe Head to lead weekend photography breaks and workshops.

Farmhouse near Toe Head

Farmhouse near Toe Head

After some initial discussion about our goals for the day, and some instruction on caring properly for our cameras, the three of us set out on a ramble down to the beach and along the rural lanes of West Cork. Robert and I clicked away, while Celia mostly just observed our modus operandi. The weather did its usual West Cork thing of alternating between being overcast and sunny, the lanes provided hedgerow flowers and the beach had an obliging spring tumbling over stones to the water, while the farmhouses looked picturesque and cattle browsed contentedly in the fields.

A beach around every bend

A beach around every bend

Back at the house Celia put our images on a large screen and we went through each one in illuminating (and occasionally embarrassing) detail. “What were you after in this shot?” she asked, encouraging us to articulate our intentions and to analyse whether or not we had realised them. “What could you have done differently?” “Where were you standing and was that the best place?” “What were you focussing on, and is it IN focus?” It was a revelatory experience.

Robert had expressed that what he wanted was to get the best image in the camera, rather than rely on cropping and correcting afterwards and she focussed on that, showing us how a little forethought might have improved a particular shot.

Robert was struck by this unique postbox

Robert was taken with this unique postbox

She introduced me to aspect ratio and the rule of thirds (honestly, am I the last person in the world to learn about such basic photographic terms?) and how choosing a square versus, say, a 16X9 format might bring out a line in the shot that lead the eye to a natural point. She showed me how to use focus/recompose to correct a lighting or a focussing issue.

Robert taking his best shot

Robert taking his best shot

When I was 21 my parents gave me my first camera. Still have it – an AGFA SLR, completely manual, with a small rangefinder on the strap. I needed it to photograph the rock art for my thesis. The irony is that way back then, 40 years ago, I understood about ISA film, shutter speeds and Fstops. I had to – I couldn’t afford to take more than one or two shots of each rock, mainly in black and white, with an occasional roll of colour slides and I had to make each shot count. But in the 40 years since then I have relied on cameras with automatic settings and have forgotten all that I knew in my early 20s. So the lesson that followed the critiquing session – on aperture size and shutter speeds and sensor sensitivity and grain (ISO) – was a process for me of re-learning long-lost concepts.

Frozen water - it's all about the shutter speed

Frozen water – it’s all about the shutter speed

After lunch we practised some of those concepts, trying to get the feel for varying the focus and the depth of field. I re-took a couple of shots from the morning, addressing the issues we had identified earlier. Celia went through some of the basics of image processing with us, encouraging us to use minimal adjustments to good effect and to choose the right aspect ratios.

Celia Bartlett

Celia Bartlett

She went through our camera settings with us and showed us what happened when we went, for example, with aperture priority versus shutter priority. Finally, she encouraged us to let go of the Auto security blanket and strike out into the brave new world of manual controls, starting with aperture priority. 

Finola gets the picture

Finola gets the picture

I left full of confidence – which has waned a little in the few days since as I’ve played with shots using the aperture setting and realised that I have to practise a LOT to feel like I really know what I am doing. But it’s a great start. I do feel more confident in composing a shot now and in taking my time to get what I want in the image, and in framing and improving it afterwards. As usual, there’s a lot going on in West Cork, so I had the opportunity to practise aperture settings at the opening of a new exhibit at Uillinn, the West Cork Arts Centre. Tess Leak has been the artist-in-residence there for the last few months and she also plays with the wonderful Vespertine Quintet. For this opening, Justin Grounds had composed a new piece for the quintet, featuring a phono-fiddle – a one-stringed horned violin.

The Vespertine Quintet debuts a new work

The Vespertine Quintet debuts a new work

My shutter-speed controls got a workout today at the Baltimore Fiddle Fair. April Verche and her trio entertained us with a dazzling display that included her step dancing while playing the fiddle! This was followed by The Henry Girls, a Donegal trio of sisters with an eclectic repertoire and lovely harmonies.

I did have a spectacular fail, though. I love bluebells and took multiple shots of our local display using aperture priority, Every single shot was out of focus, so I ended up using the the pre-programmed ‘take flower pictures’ setting.

Bluebell wood

Bluebell wood

Grrrrr….still lots of work to do…. Celia – help! I need a second day! Oh and by the way, Celia, I loved your coverage of the Lusitania commemorations in Cobh.


First Foot

‘…According to local folklore the first foot was planted on Irish soil at Donemark on the shores of Bantry Bay in 2680 BC…’

Ireland's first arrivals passed by this pebble beach on their way to Donemark

Ireland’s first arrivals passed by this pebble beach on their way to Donemark

This statement (from Fuchsia Brand’s leaflet on Heritage) was guaranteed to send me scurrying for my history books. And – yes – I found many references to the event: an event which, to my mind, was surely one of special significance for Ireland: the first human ever to have set foot in this land – it must have deserved commemoration… Surely, there must at the very least be a plaque marking the spot? For a moment I wondered if this could be the long sought explanation for the enigmatic piece of Rock Art that’s on display in Bristol’s Museum & Art Gallery – the carving is about the right age…

Bronze Age Footprints in Bristol's museum

Bronze Age Footprints in Bristol’s museum

So, a similar example of Petrosomatoglyphia is what I was hoping to find on the shores of Bantry Bay, a mere stone’s throw from our home here in Cappaghglass. But – before that expedition – let’s just go back to the history for the moment. Back – in fact – to the Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Taking of Ireland), which was written down in the 11th century and – allegedly – based on earlier source material. It takes a bit of wading through: I used a commentary edited and translated by R A Stewart Macalister and published by the Irish Texts Society in Dublin in 1938, but it’s well worth the effort. There’s a lot I had never understood before about the earliest history of the people of Ireland.

lebot gabala book frontispiece

It’s a long story… The book is a collection, in five protracted parts, of all the poems and traditions which had been written and learned by the Bards, telling the history of their nation. There’s a lot of repetition: like the Gospels there are several versions of each episode and it’s a bit dizzying to try to get a clear overall picture of events. So, settle down and imagine the visiting Bard you have given hospitality to in your tower house on a winter’s night is regaling you with tales of your ancestors.

A Meeting of Bards (at Boscawen-Un Stone Circle, West Penwith, Cornwall

A Meeting of Bards (at Boscawen-Un Stone Circle, West Penwith, Cornwall)

Everything has to go back to Noah, who was only allowed to take with him on the Ark his own sons and their wives. One of his sons, Bith, had a daughter – Cesaire (or Cessair). As she had to stay behind so also did her father, but they built their own ships, three of them, and set sail with two other men and a large company of women, looking for a land which ‘knew no sin’ because it had never been populated: there they would settle and aim to re-found the human race in a green and fertile place. Their voyaging took them to many parts of the known world and they came eventually to the north of Spain – which we know today as Celtic Galicia. Cesaire knew that this wasn’t the Utopia they were seeking but she climbed to the top of a very tall tower and, in the far distance, she spotted Ériu – ‘…where no evil or sin had been committed, and which was free from the world’s reptiles and monsters…’

Cesaire would have needed a tower like this to catch a glimpse of Ireland from northern Spain...

Cesaire would have needed a tower like this to catch a glimpse of Ireland from northern Spain…

And so it was, forty years before the Great Flood engulfed everything, Cesaire’s expedition sailed up to the mouth of the Mealagh River, passing on the way the most beautiful landscapes they had ever seen – landscapes that we are fortunate to see every time we set out to explore our own new horizons.

Bantry Bay - the landscape today

Bantry Bay – the landscape today

Now it was time to glimpse for ourselves this remarkable site – Dún na mBarc – the place of the boat – (Donemark -Dunnamark Townland) in the parish of Kilmocomogue. We drove up the unremarkable N71 through Bantry town and turned in to its attractively situated golf course, then made our way down to the shore. Disappointingly, that is also unremarkable: it’s got a brooding, although not unattractive atmosphere about it. We came there at low tide and saw mud-flats – alive with foraging birds, including a very fine Old Nog – the huge stones of a disintegrating quay, and distant views to the Sheep’s Head and Beara Peninsulas.

Landing Place? At Donemark

Landing Place? At Donemark

Old Quay at Donemark

Old Quay at Donemark

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Alas, there were no footprints, no plaque, no signification of the very important history of this site: there was only our imagination to fill in the gaps. I could envisage Cesaire’s Bronze Age boat (only one survived the full journey) making its way up the azure waters admiring the emerald green of the landscape and passing by some of Ireland’s most dramatic scenery. They landed on ‘…a Saturday, the fifteenth day of the moon at Dun na mBarc…’

Kerry Mountains

Mountains of West Cork

We did find a single commemoration of this event: in the tranquil gardens of the National Learning Network Centre, which is not far from the mouth of the river. It is a work of art, made in 2013 by the students of the Centre, under the guidance of Michael Ray and the auspices of the West Cork Arts Centre – you may remember both from this recent post. Voyage of Stories’  recalls that pioneering arrival in the form of a boat sculpture made of steel, copper and glass and set up over a pool. The glass tiles tell of invasions and emigrations both ancient and modern in Irish and English. It’s a good way to commemorate the journey and those early settlers, we thought.

'Voyage of Stories' at Donemark

‘Voyage of Stories’ at Donemark

Now, Finola – at my side and wearing her Archaeologist’s hat – is tutting at my unquestioning acceptance of the dating of this milestone in Ireland’s history, bearing in mind that the passage graves at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth appear to be some 5,000 years old and – she says – there were people living in Ireland earlier than that! But my view is that there’s history, and there’s story… Well, perhaps history is always someone else’s story but give me a good tale any day, especially one woven with adventure and romance and told at the fireside.

Family Life (Caleb Bingham 1845)

Family Life (Caleb Bingham 1845) New Orleans Museum of Art

So now you know all about Cesaire, who was the first to step from that frail vessel which had travelled all the way from Egypt in those far off days. But perhaps I should also tell you a little more: the three men on that voyage faced the prospect of serving no less than fifty women between them if they were to populate this new land. The Lebor Gabála Érenn is quite frank about this: ‘… Ladra, the pilot, from whom is Ard Ladrann named he is the first dead man of Ireland before the flood. He died of excess of women, or it is the shaft of the oar that penetrated his buttock. Whatever way it was, however, that Ladra is the first dead man in Ireland…’ while Bith – Cesaire’s father – was already aged before the voyage and also passed away soon after. That left one man – Fionntán – who was so frightened by the prospect of facing all those women alone that he ran away and hid in a cave. There he changed into a Salmon and survived the Flood which, sadly, overcame Cesaire and her companions. The shape-shifting Fionntán went on to live for five and a half thousand years (by my reckoning that means he’s still alive!) and recorded all of Ireland’s history (including at first hand the account of Cesaire’s voyage) – which he then taught to the Bards of Ireland so that it would be taken out into the world…

But all that is for another day!

made harbour