Where Art and History Meet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terry Searle – A West Cork Artist

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

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

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

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

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

Terry Searle at work, probably around 1986

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ireland-Canada: Famine, Fenians, Friends!

I’m Irish but spent forty years in Canada and I am still learning about the many deep, and too often tragic, links between my two countries. Canada’s Ambassador to Ireland, Kevin Vickers, (above) is coming to the West Cork History Festival in Skibbereen this week to talk about Irish-born Canadian Soldiers in the First World War. So in honour of that occasion I’ve been reviewing some of the connections between our nations.

‘Departure’ – the harrowing sculpture by Rowan Gillespie on the Dublin quays

Although my own experience as a Canadian immigrant was a happy one, not all emigration stories are founded in choice and success. There’s a park in Toronto called Ireland Park. Lovely, you say – how nice that we have a memorial in this wonderful city. But Ireland Park commemorates a dark past – the year of 1847 when almost 40,000 immigrants fleeing the Irish Famine arrived in the coffin ships, overwhelming the city.

John Behan’s Coffin Ship Famine memorial in Murrisk, Co Mayo

They brought typhus, chaos, starvation and death and were soon filling the fever sheds built by the heroic citizens of the fledgling city. Catholic and Protestant arrived, and Catholic and Protestant co-operated to help them survive. It’s a tale of heroism and suffering and it echoes strongly  to this day, when we think about the refugees pouring into Greece and Calais – those people were once us.

Take a look at snippets from the haunting documentary film ‘Death or Canada’ (one here and another here) – it will give you a sense of what was involved for the incoming famine victims and for those on the ground.

Rowan Gillespie’s ‘Arrival’ in Ireland Park, Toronto

On a more muscular note, I have written elsewhere about the Fenians in Canada. Taking the fight for Irish freedom to ‘British soil’ in North America, there were many raids and one pitched battle organised by the Fenians in Canada. Ironically, the Battle of Ridgeway helped pave the way for Canadian Confederation.

One of the Fathers of that Confederation was Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a complex character who started off in the Young Ireland Movement. In his early days he was a firebrand revolutionary and that’s how he is chiefly remembered here – as one of a group of poets and writers committed to the liberation of Ireland from British rule. In this he would have seen common cause with that old Unrepentant Fenian, O’Donovan Rossa.

Thomas D’Arcy McGee: the young revolutionary and the elder statesman

However, life in the United States, to which he was eventually forced to flee, while it radicalised Rossa even further, made a conservative out of McGee. He settled in Canada and became an ardent advocate for Canadian nationhood; however, he turned against violent rebellion and espoused a form of Home Rule, thereby earning the enmity of the Fenians who eventually ordered him assassinated. His funeral, held on what would have been his 43rd birthday, saw 80,000 people line the streets of Montreal to mourn a man that had given so much to his adopted country.

Image © Library and Archives Canada

I have written extensively about the Air India Disaster of June 1985. The beautiful memorial in Ahakista has become a place of focus for the families of the victims, who still come every year to remember those who died so tragically on that day. As a Canadian and an Irish person it has become a special place for me – at once a reminder of the terrorist threats that touch on all our lives and the warm and human response that we in West Cork delivered when it all came close to home.

And now we discover that Justin Trudeau, through his mother, is descended from the Bernards of Bandon. This is quite a pedigree – according to The Irish Times In 1661, Francis Bernard married Mary Freake and had six daughters and two sons, the research shows. Mr Trudeau is descended from their younger son, Arthur Bernard, who was High Sheriff of Cork in 1697 and MP for Bandon from 1713-14. My own wanderings around churches have paid off here – take a look at this memorial in St Peter’s Church of Ireland in Bandon – it’s for Francis Bernard – Arthur’s older brother!

So there you are, Ambassador Vickers – one Canadian-Irish woman’s take on some of what binds us as nations. Oh – and for those of you who don’t know who Kevin Vickers is, this is no regular ambassador, no career diplomat. This is a genuine Canadian hero! We look forward to welcoming him back to West Cork and to hearing him speak on Irish-born Canadian Soldiers in the First World War. I wonder if he’ll arrive on his Harley?A famous Canadian painting depicts the Fathers of confederation – and there’s D’Arcy McGee in the front row, second from the right. Image © Canadian House of Commons.

 

Stab All!

With the West Cork History Festival just around the corner (this coming weekend – July 28 to 30: hurry! – there are still some tickets left for a whole host of compelling events), I thought I would concentrate today on a little piece of very local history which has fascinated me for some time.

Header picture: looking down Staball Hill to the colourful and thriving community of Ballydehob in West Cork; above – Chapel Lane, just on the edge of town: a haven for wildflowers with – lower picture – the intriguing sign Lacha Bhuí

Mounted beside the road on Chapel Hill in Ballydehob is a slate plaque, which is inscribed Lacha Bhuí. I asked Finola to translate the Irish for me: it says Yellow Duck! Intrigued, I asked around to see if anyone knew why there should be such a sign in this place; eventually, I was transported back to 1642…

Reenactment of the 1642 Battle of Stratton, in Cornwall: it’s not Ballydehob, but perhaps it portrays something of the atmosphere of the skirmish that took place here in the same year

My principle informant is Noel Coakley – a local historian and a mine of information. He it was who told me the story of a battle that took place in Ballydehob, on Staball Hill in 1642. He couldn’t remember where he had the information from but this is the account he gave me:

In the days of the old Clan system, the McCarthys and the O’Mahonys held sway in this area and a string of castles bears testimony to their strength and dominance. In 1602, an army, led by Sir George Carew, the English President of Munster, descended on the area and were successful in breaking the power of the gaelic Chieftains.

The arrival of the sixteen hundreds saw an influx of settlers, mainly from England, but a significant number were protestants fleeing persecution from Catholic France.

A powerful family named Swanton, from Norfolk in England, came and succeeded in subjecting much of the area to themselves and even changed the name of the village to “Swantons town”. The last use of this name was in the census of 1821.

As always the natives resisted the dominance of foreigners. In those days before police forces, a garrison of twelve British soldiers attempted to uphold and enforce the law and order in Ballydehob. Robert Swanton the leader of the Swanton group, who had quite a few questionable projects to his name, and had earned for himself the nickname ‘Black-hearted Bob’, enlisted the help of the garrison to take over Ballydehob for himself. A group of six local men, who were trained to arms, issued a challenge to the garrison and Black-hearted Bob and a pitched battle was fought at Staball Hill. The year was 1642…

Top – looking towards Staball Hill, Ballydehob, on a peaceful summer Sunday afternoon; centre – Danno – wrestling Champion of the World (and son of Ballydehob) stands guard at the battle site; lower – Cnoc Staball – Staball Hill

There’s more from Noel:

In 1628, the first Huguenots appeared on the southwest coast, mainly in small boats, to escape detection from the French. They brought with them jewellery and other valuables which they traded with the Irish for plots of land. They were entrepreneurs and set up small industries.

One of their number Pierre Camier noticed the exploitation of the natives and took sides with the Irish defenders in the battle of Staball Hill. Black-hearted Bob took flight from the fray and Pierre Camier pursued him and caught up with him between the present St Bridget’s Church and the Garda station and there he attacked him and killed him. He came back to the fray and shouted “I’ve killed the yellow duck”.

Meanwhile the battle was going well for the Irish band. They killed all the garrison losing just one man of their own. The leader of the Irish band shouted “stab ‘em all” and it is alleged that this was how Staball Hill got its name. The term yellow duck is often applied to a coward in France and to this day the spot where ‘Black-hearted Bob’ was killed is known as ‘Lacha bhuí’ which is the gaelic for ‘yellow duck’…

You’d never know it, but this little patch of West Cork tranquility was the very spot where Black-hearted Bob Swanton met his bloody end, at the hands of Pierre Camier

After some searching I found another account of the battle, in From West Cork Through Time by Kieran McCarthy and Daniel Breen – Amberly Publishing, UK 2013:

…The seventeenth century saw the arrival of a number of settlers, mainly from England, but many were also Protestants (Huguenots) fleeing persecution in Catholic France. The Swantons from Norfolk emerged as the most prominent family in the area and, by the late eighteenth century, they had even changed the name of Ballydehob to Swanton’s Town. A garrison of twelve British soldiers attempted to uphold the law. Robert Swanton, the leader of the group, enlisted the help of the garrison to take over Ballydehob. A group of six local men, who were trained in arms, issued a challenge to the garrison and ‘Black-hearted Bob’, and a pitched battle was fought on Staball Hill. The year was 1642…

In rural Ireland history is never far below the surface. Here in Ballydehob there are still reminders of the Huguenot and English proponents in the ‘Yellow Duck’ affair

As a little addendum I can’t resist pointing out that there is a Staball Hill in Castlebar, County Mayo. It has a story, too:

According to folklore, Staball Hill got its name from the ‘Races of Castlebar’ during the Rebellion of 1798. General Humbert, with an army of 1000 French soldiers, landed at Killala and fought his way to Castlebar with the help of some Irish recruits where an army of British soldiers were waiting for him.  After the battle, the British contingent fled so fast that the episode became known as the ‘Races of Castlebar’ and is often described as one of the most ignominious defeats in British military history. During the battle a blockade was erected by the British in one last stand at Bridge Street.  As the Irish soldiers, armed only with pikes, charged the British the residents of the street are said to have shouted ‘Stab them all’. This was shortened to ‘Staball’.  On the Ordnance Survey Map c1900 the hill is called ‘Stab all’ – the words separated…

Staball Hill, Castlebar, County Mayo:

West Cork Finally Gets a History Festival!

For a place that’s dripping in history and archaeology, and with several active historical societies, it’s a wonder this hasn’t happened before.

Tom Barry, bust by Seamus Murphy

The inaugural festival of the West Cork History Festival will take place just outside Skibbereen on the last weekend of July this year. Take a look at their website – it’s a great program, offering sessions from medieval to modern, from pirates and adventurers to soldiers, revolutionaries and poets.

A Letter of Marque gave an individual permission to be a privateer – a form of legalised piracy

Although it’s got West Cork in the title, this is not only West Cork History. The organisers emphasise its eclectic nature and call it a festival of intellectual delights. National dimensions are obvious in discussions on the War of Independence and international ones in sessions on the First World War. West Cork gets a good look-in, though, with a thorough re-examination of Hart’s work on the Bandon Valley Killings (see here for a good summary of the events and the controversies surrounding the scholarship), in the light of the most recent research. Several active and respected local historians will contribute in their area of expertise.

War graves such as this one have been springing up all over Cork in the last few years. For most of the 20th century we maintained a form of collective amnesia about the Irish fighting in the First World War – see my piece Outposts of Empire

National and local topics are happily juxtaposed – tower houses, for example, will be the subject of two sessions, one of which places them in an all-Ireland context and the other in a West Cork context. (For more on tower houses, follow this link.)

Kilcoe Castle – an impressive example of the Irish Tower House, now magnificently restored by Jeremy Irons

I’m very much looking forward to learning more about Richard Boyle, the Great Earl of Cork – a tremendous figure in the history of this area. But the Festival takes it one step further with a talk on the vital roles in Irish history played by the children of the Great Earl. I’m also going to make sure I take in a presentation on the Knights Templar by Dominic Selwood, yet another of the multi-talented speakers on the schedule.

Richard Boyle, Great Earl of Cork (1566-1643)

The opening and closing sessions will be major highlights. Prof Roy Foster will deliver the introductory lecture. How fitting – Roy Foster is surely among the most respected historians of his generation. Author of numerous books and influential articles, including Modern Ireland (1600-19720) and a justly famed two volume Life of W B Yeats. His topic, ”A Fair People”: antagonism and conflict in Irish history, will set the tone for a weekend that will not shy away from controversial and thought-provoking sessions.

Prof Roy Foster, considered by many to be one of Ireland’s greatest contemporary historians

The closing session features the writer (and highly entertaining speaker) Michael Dobbs, creator and author of the House of Cards series of books and TV shows. Titled Life, Lust and Liquor: how House of Cards wrote itself, this should bring things to a close with a bang.

And in between, there’s a host of academics, researchers, film-makers, journalists, writers and editors – and even a couple of ambassadors! It’s an eclectic mix and sure to be provocative and engaging.

The Festival features a screening of the Film Rebel Rossa, made by the great-grandsons of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. A West Cork man, Rossa became famous and infamous for his Fenian activities. See my three-part account of him here.

The Festival is the brainchild of Simon Kingston, who, with his wife Victoria (a professional historian) has a long association with West Cork, which culminated in their settling at Rosebank, the dower house of Liss Ard Estate, just outside Skibbereen. Simon is a graduate of Trinity and of Oxford and describes himself as an historian at heart, although he makes a living in the world of executive recruitment. He’s put together an amazing program, sure to become an ongoing feature of the West Cork heritage landscape for years to come.

I’ve only managed to give you a tiny taste of what’s in store at this Festival – you will have to come and experience the terrific range on offer for yourself. Meanwhile, they’ve set up a Facebook page so you can keep up to date on all the latest news and announcements. Head on over and give it a Like and a Share. And are you a member of the Twitterati? There’s a Twitter feed just for you!

 Right so – on July 28 – see you there?