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.

Glebe Gardens

Glebe Gardens in the autumn

Glebe Gardens in the autumn

We’ve been to the Glebe Gardens in Baltimore on numerous occasions, for a delicious lunch in their restaurant, or to attend a concert in their amphitheatre. Until this autumn, however, I had never really been around the gardens themselves. I was fortunate, during the Taste of West Cork Food Festival, to be able to sign up for a tour with Master Gardener Jean Perry. Jean and her husband Peter started and manage the gardens, now with their daughters actively involved as well. It’s been an enormous amount of work over many years but in that time it has become a beloved West Cork institution.

Jean Perry, our tour Guide

Jean Perry, our tour guide

I had never heard of No Dig Gardening, the philosophy underlying this garden, until I heard about it from Jean. Vegetables are, for the most part, grown in deep beds and the soil is left as undisturbed as possible. When one crop comes out, another goes in. Fertilising and soil rebuilding is accomplished with organic compost, with occasional additions of seaweed pellets. They start the seeds in a protected place and plant them out once they’re big enough. They grow module plants – for example, lettuce in the spring, beetroot in the summer, brassicas in the fall – and get two and sometimes three crops a year. Besides the outdoor crops there are greenhouses loaded with tomatoes, peppers – and grapes!

Raised beds

Raised beds

The vegetables grown here are used in the restaurant. You can tell – everything tastes fresh and homemade. But flowers also make an appearance in this garden. Even though it was late in the year we were treated to a feast of colour in the herbaceous border.

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The gardens include a stretch of canal that was once the railway cutting. A winding path leads down over a wooden bridge and eventually to the amphitheatre.

The amphitheatre was an inspired addition to the garden – in a tricky climate it’s always a nerve-wracking watch to see what the weather will do when you’ve scheduled an outdoor concert. The gods have smiled on it, though – very few concerts have been affected by bad weather.

Summer concert at the amphitheatre - the West Cork Ukelele Band

Summer concert at the amphitheatre – the West Cork Ukelele Band

Next it was up to visit the hens and goats – where Robert made a new friend – and then on to the greenhouses to see a truly impressive variety of tomatoes and to sneak a grape or two.

kiss kiss

kiss kiss

The tour finished with a tomato-tasting session and an impromptu lesson from Jean on which ones were best for what dishes. Robert and I stayed for lunch in the restaurant and a chat with fellow-tourists.

Glebe Gardens open from March to September, and occasionally for special events during the winter. Next time you’re in Baltimore, pop by for lunch.

Waiting for lunch

Waiting for lunch

And after that final excellent latte, take a stroll through the gardens. Or make it part of your West Cork Garden Trail next year, along with Carraig Abhainn and the Heron Gallery, or any of our other wonderful gardens. Spoiled for choice, we are!


Pigs and Ponds in Ahakista

The Garden Trail is declared open at the Heron Gallery Gardens

The Garden Trail is declared open at the Heron Gallery Gardens

The West Cork Garden Trail takes place in the second half of June and this year the opening ceremony was held at the Heron Gallery Gardens in Ahakista. The gardens are a natural extension of the gallery, cafe and gift shop that Annabel and Klaus operate, with a satellite store in Schull and an online shop.

Welcome to the gardens!

Welcome to the gardens!

Annabel and Klaus have only been developing these gardens for nine years, although it’s hard to believe that this was wilderness so recently. Every year brings innovation and new plantings and trails. Although we kept our shoes on this time, we explored the barefoot trail, an invitation to experience the sensual pleasures of texture underfoot and squishiness between the toes. Along the trail we met friendly pigs (say hello to Fuchsia, Fern and Fay!) and climbed the hillside to a bench situated to enjoy glorious views of Dunmanus Bay. 

Robert makes a friend

Robert makes a friend

On the way back down we lingered by the pond, where wild flowers have been left to blow enthusiastically on a small hillside.

Wildflower meadow

Wildflower meadow

The more formal parts of the garden are a joy, with colourful herbaceous borders, pools with water lilies, tables and benches for eating or resting, and everywhere delightful, quirky sculptural installations.  

This is the perfect spot to enjoy lunch, or coffee and cakes, before a browse around the gallery featuring Annabel’s captivating images. Having travelled along the Sheep’s Head and wandered the garden, her inspirations will be obvious to you – look out for her oil painting of Fuchsia the Pig, or her many depictions of the Irish hare, two of which feel right at home at Nead an Iolair.

Durrus Delight: Carraig Abhainn Gardens



This week we visited a tiny jewel of a garden. Tucked behind Wiseman’s general store in Durrus is a two and a half acre gem called Carraig Abhainn (Rocky River, pronounced KA-rig OW-in [OW to rhyme with now]). It’s been a labour of love for over 20 years – the work of Eugene and Hazel Wiseman. We were lucky to have a chat with Eugene while we were there.

There are no large signs out on the road pointing the way and little advertising in the local media, so this is not as well known as it deserves. You pop into Wiseman’s shop, pay €5, open the gate at the end of the building, and step into a small wonderland.



The first thing you become aware of is water.  A mill stream forms one boundary of the garden, crossed by little bridges here and there. The Four Mile River forms another – and this stretch is truly magnificent. Clear and sparkling, it rushes and falls and leaps over the rocks that give the garden its name. The paths have been cleverly constructed so that as you stroll you encounter the river at different points.  Each point has a unique vista that encourages you to gaze, contemplate, photograph or just sit and listen.


The daffodils were over when we went and some of the rhododendrons had faded too. Nevertheless, around every bend was a new feast for the eye and the camera, from the undergrowth of bluebells to the camellias, yellow irises and the climbing clematis. Exotic trees add variety of colour, texture and size – “I wonder what that is?” became our mantra. (For those who need an answer, the garden website provides a list of plants.)

A wonderfully idiosyncratic feature of this garden is the statuary – a unique blend of the classical and the quirky, perfectly placed to enhance a long path, mark a set of steps, or simply be discovered rounding a corner. Near the entrance is a mural, with Greek columns and a water garden and benches that invite you to enjoy this sunny spot.


There’s a West Cork Garden Trail in the second half of June and Carraig Abhainn is one of the gardens featured on the trail. But don’t wait until then – if you are anywhere in the vicinity of Durrus drop by Wiseman’s and treat yourself to a quiet hour or two soaking up the beauty and tranquility of this charming oasis. Bring a latte and piece of cake from the excellent Gateway restaurant next door – that’s all you need to complete your little slice of heaven.