Telling our Stories – Visually

The Oxford English Dictionary defines curation as : ‘The action or process of selecting, organizing, and looking after the items in a collection or exhibition’.

Of course the word can be broadened to include the work of, perhaps, curating the content for a conference or music event, or to curate something for an on-line creative presentation. But generally, when we think of the word ‘curation’, we think about going to an exhibition of art and noting who the curator is or going to a museum in some of our international cities and reading who the curators are, working there. Apparently, the etymology is ultimately from the Latin: cūrātor (“one who has care of a thing, a manager, guardian, trustee”), from cūrāre (“to take care of”), from cūra (“care, heed, attention, anxiety, grief”) .

Curators play a really central role in ‘selecting’ what we see in these museums – they have become guardians almost, of our heritage (in their collaboration with Museum Directors and other influential bodies involved in the Arts world).

In fact since the beginnings of modernity, and in particularly in the last two hundred years, much of what we see presented in national museums have been chosen or displayed for political reasons. These institutions were and are part of the process of nation-state building. Selecting and editing what is important (or not) to exhibit is then, when you think about it, a very powerful role to have. And yet so often the Arts and Heritage are neglected in public discussions.

Maybe stop for a moment and think about all the wonderful pieces of work that were never selected and consequently were never displayed in our national museums. Might the ‘un-selected’ pieces not also have been items deeply reflective of our different cultural and local heritage(s)?. An alternative way of seeing our culture?

Erik Schilp

I want to write about a different way of thinking about curation and I want to thank Erik Schilp, based in the Netherlands, for his inspirational lecture from 2015 where he asks for a type of revolution in how we understand the word curation. He tells us we are all curators – or could be.

‘Most of our art and heritage in museums never gets noticed by most of the people’ , he argues. Isn’t that such a sad thing to contemplate? But what does this actually mean? It means that many people just do not visit museums. They may not see their relevance to ‘real’ life; or they may object to having to pay a fee at a desk to go into a building and ‘view’ what they are being told is our united ‘heritage’. Some people may feel no connection to it. Or they may have led careers in the sciences and not have had the chance to explore the world of Arts ,to the same extent as their ‘scientific’ education.

A wonderful gentleman often came to visit us here in Killough in the latter years of his life – Dr. Niall Maher from Cobh. Niall had spent a large chunk of his childhood at Suirside House in Killough. He was a relative of ours. Niall once arrived in the yard at Greenville, a few years before he died, with some old iron pots, which were connected to here, he said, though I am not sure of the context, but he wanted me to have them.

He always told me he regretted he had not been able to explore the creative side of his mind because his career as a GP was so demanding and all consuming. I always remember him telling me that. Because really the two ‘worlds’ , the scientific and the creative, are intrinsic to everything we understand as our culture and heritage.

Niall Maher and his Sister, Avine visiting us in 2007

So what if we think about heritage differently , as being more than just what we see in museums. We all have a collective responsibility to take care of our heritage. It is what happens around us every day: the ‘way’ we work; the way we might lay our tables for dinner or for a ‘special’ occasion; the way we engage in community activities; the way we dress; the way we decorate our homes – these are all mini curatorial acts , and are important in terms of everyday lived heritage.

The Eclipse Gallery

This movement away from Curating with a capital ‘C’ toward what I might call a more democratic understanding of curating, with a small ‘c’, has its origins in the 60s and 70s, and is documented in many places including the ‘The Eclipse Gallery’ forum. They discuss the concept of ‘ alternative spaces’ where our culture, arts and heritage are collected, presented and possibly displayed. On their home page they argue that:

‘The role of the contemporary curator in alternative spaces is highly creative—some would even say the curator’s exhibition becomes artwork itself. Curators are producing exhibitions that explore contemporary issues on social, political, and cultural levels, considering and encouraging audience participation, and challenging viewers to re-think their definitions of exhibitions, curators, artists, and artwork. Contemporary curators are also expanding the horizons of the art world by working in (places) that have little in terms of contemporary art. Here, they can have a bigger impact than over-saturated cities such as New York’.

(https://theeclipsegallery.wordpress.com/about/writing/curating-alternative-spaces/)

This echoes what Eric Schilp talks about in his lecture and I want to bring some of these ideas home now, to Greenville, in a short blog and video installation about some of the humble presses we have here.

Here in Ireland we tend to use the Hiberno – English expression ‘Press’ where the English use the word ‘Cupboard’- thus for example an English “Airing Cupboard” is in Ireland a “Hot Press”. The origin is an Irish word ‘Prios‘ meaning a press, cupboard or shelf as is ‘Prios labhar‘ a bookcase ( see below).

Nana Breen’s Buttons

I am going to begin with a picture of one of my Nana Breen’s buttons as this will put my blog in context .

Many years ago when I was a teenager Mother gave me a coat that belonged to her Mother, my Nana Breen (who died a few months before I was born). I loved the coat but I particularly loved the brass buttons on it.

Nana Breen’s Brass Button takes center stage

So when the coat became too tattered to wear, I took the two remaining buttons off and made them into a set of earrings myself. I had these earrings and wore them, on and off, for almost 35 years.

Only last January I was rushing out one afternoon to take the boys to their guitar class in Carlow, running a little late and it was very windy. One of the button earrings blew off my ear. I only realized when I was en route in the car that one of them was gone. You have no idea how upset I was. I literally cried. We searched everywhere on our return and for several days afterwards, but to no avail. One of the earrings was gone. I now just have the one photographed above.

But all is not lost. The one I still have has pride of place in my jewellery press which I discuss in more detail below and I am going to get this one made into a ring. This is an example of what I mean about curating our heritage – differently – minding or saving something from our personal past, re displaying it, in a unique way. This too is a form of curation.

Thinking Visually

In actual fact I have been doing this type of thing my whole life. I have always had enormous respect for items from the past connected to my family heritage and I keep them and preserve them and try to breathe new life into them. They are not valuable items like a Jack B Yeats painting, to give an example of something we might see if we went to visit our National Gallery, but to me – they are precious, some priceless.

My Kitchen Press

The opening image and the one below is of the press in our kitchen. The press was not originally from here but I saw it in a salvage shop years ago in Limerick and we bought it. I never imagined I would use it in my kitchen, nor that it would one day be filled with jars full of flour and sugar – my baking essentials.

I had a difficult time finding the right size glass jars to put in it but these are by the Danish designer Ib Laursen whom I came across in Copenhagen when at my niece Tara’s wedding last October. The Danish are wonderful designers.

On the top I have some vintage cups and jugs. The coffee set (top left corner) was a gift from Clare and Lilly of Tipperary Mountain Trekking Centre who spent Christmas with us here at Greenville some years ago. The silver Art Deco jug is from my dear friends Liz and Eoin O’Donnell. Liz never visits me without bringing somethings she has in storage, which she no longer uses, and many are pieces from her childhood home, which she knows I adore. The large coffee cups with paintings of African animals were a gift from Seosamh many years back which he got me on a buying trip for my shop in London. I also have some old style milk bottles on the second shelf to the left.

My flour and sugar jars are functional objects, used every day – but this in no way takes from the way I see this press – to me, it is a work of art.

The Wardrobe

My clothes wardrobe is also a very unconventional ‘press’ – and definitely where I do most of my curation!. The entire landing of our home is effectively a wardrobe – I use a rail to hang clothes I might be thinking of putting together in a new way, or putting away in storage for a while as a garment may have lost its appeal.

The Wardrobe

When I lived in Meadow Brook Court in Maynooth I rented a house from the same landlord for over six years. The house could take four tenants and people came and went depending on how long their courses at the University would be.

As I was the longest staying tenant there the landlord gave me a type of caretaker role. I used my bedroom as my study space and because I spent most days there working on my doctorate (and the room was relatively small) I asked my co-tenants if I could leave my clothes rail outside the door of my room on the landing and no one ever objected. In fact it was a constant source of conversation and I often let girls who were renting other rooms borrow items from it – once they returned them in proper order. The guys loved the rail too – they thought it was ..intriguing!!

So the tradition has continued and thirty years later I still use a landing as my wardrobe. I love to spend a Saturday or Sunday morning , when the house is quiet, with a coffee just going through things and looking at how I can put items together in different ways. I will always come up with new ideas.

I use cardboard boxes as ‘drawers’ because if I used clear ones my clothes would get damaged by light. And I like the boxes. They are simple and remind me of the way items were stored in generations gone by – in boxes, with moth balls and sheets of brown paper to protect the items.

Boxes in the Wardrobe

I still have many things belonging to my Mother including some of her scarves. I never wash them because I can smell her unique scent when I wear or hold them. It can make me very emotional and lonely for her, but it still comforts me so much.

All our hats, ‘good’ coats and Seosamh’s suits and ties are stored downstairs but my bags and shoes are in various places in the wardrobe landing . I mind everything so when I wear a pair of shoes I will wash the soles and heels and dry them and polish them before putting them back in their box. Some might consider that madness but I have never claimed to be very sane!

Jewellery Press

The jewelry press, mentioned earlier, was bought for my shop nearly twenty years ago. I have many happy memories of fashion shows and events in ‘The Business’ with this press in the background.

The picture below is of the lovely Aoife Flaherty (Nesbitt) at one of those events, where I invited people to dress up and we picked the best dressed. Aoife won that night. You can see the jewellery press just behind her on the right.

It now showcases my own costume jewellery here at home.

I organise things according to colour mostly. I have several high street inexpensive pieces that are dramatic and different to wear. I never liked gold – I find it lifeless and you needs lots of it to ‘make a statement’ and then it can be over done and look really tacky.

The image below shows a box with purple jewellery in the press – the claw with the purple stone was Mother’s. She loved the color purple. So did my late Aunt Masie. The brooch was hers and given to me by my Godmother Fiona after Aunt Masie died. She visited us here at Greenville, once a month, on a Sunday for lunch, for many years and we loved her visits. She was great fun.

Aunt Maise’s Purple Brooch and Mother’s Claw Brooch

She wore that brooch to Mother’s 90th Birthday party which was held in Tim and Tina’s home in Killough. Precious memories….I have to hold back the tears thinking of it. It was only a few years ago ..and yet we have lost so many dearly loved people who were there, since then.

Aunt Masie and Mother

Natalie Diner

When I was in my late teens I worked as an au pair in Paris for several months minding a little boy called Alexandre. His Mother Natalie Diner worked for Ralph Lauren and she was very kind to me and so beautiful looking.

Natalie Diner

She gave me stunning clothes and costume jewellery she no longer cared for – these earrings were from her.

Natalie’s Earrings

I still cherish them. They look a little like eagles with a blue dangling stone. She was one of a few big influences on me in terms of how I dress and my sense of style.

The Press of Dolls

I have a press in the Guestroom that has a selection of dolls from all over the world. I started to collect these dolls in the 90’s – they were called ‘Dolls of the World’ and each month you could buy a magazine with a porcelain doll and read about the costumes of the country featured but for some reason the newsagents who were getting it in for me were finding it hard to source them. So I managed to collect around 50 and have recently started to pick up, via eBay, the ones I did not get back then.

The Dolls’ Press in the Guest Room

I just love the Japanese doll.

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The Irish doll is also very special. Naturally she has red hair and is wearing…a green dress.

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The Boy’s Room

My three boys have picked this ‘curation’ skill up from me it seems. They are Lego fanatics and they display the items they make in their room. One press that came from my Grandparents home in Shanakill has all their minifigures which they arrange on a stand they also made themselves with Lego.

They also have a press shelf in another part of the room dedicated to Harry Potter Lego and another with Star Wars and Super Hero sets.

The Lego Press in the Boys’ Room

The Anthropologist as Curator

Since I was a student of English and Anthropology in the 80s and 90s, so many things have changed within my discipline. I had no idea until very recently for example that there are now Professorships in ‘Aesthetic Anthropology’ . This is truly fascinating to me as the subject of aesthetics is at the root of so many academic discussions about art, design and curation and has been an interest of mine for years.

Anthropologists are getting more involved in the debate now. The focus on aesthetics has expanded and become more rooted in culture with a small ‘c’ rather than the big C ‘Culture’, reflecting what I mention at the start about democratizing the discussion almost – moving away from a sense of culture as something for the elite or the leisured rather than what we make and create and do each day in our lived lives.

I am grateful to Roger Sansi for the inspirational introduction to the publication he recently edited ‘The Anthropologist as Curator’ (Sansi 2019). He writes:

‘The object of study of anthropology is no longer a given singular community, located in a singular space for a particular time, but an assemblage of different parts, people, places, objects, concepts and agencies of different sorts , that constitute contemporary assemblages’. (pp 5.)

So I suppose you could call me ‘an assemblage’ type of girl with a fascination for objects and the meanings and importance we give to them. I seem to spend a large part of my life doing just that – assembling and curating things around me.

I am informed his book will be under our Christmas tree this year so it will therefore soon grace our book shelf – yet another press we all love in our home, a gift to Seosamh from his late Father, James Devine.

An Prios Leabhar” (AKA the Book Press or Bookcase, in the Dining room)

Many humble ‘things’ are owned by ordinary people who may have great respect for their importance and integrity.

They constitute an important part of our local, national and potentially even global heritage in a world made so small and accessible by social media and the internet.

You can choose to curate them.

Aunt Josie’s Table : Memories of a Gentle Soul and her Killea Home.

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Aunt Josie’s Table in Greenville

One of my very first blogs was called ‘Grandmother’s Parlour’ and it was about the house in Shanakill where my late Father grew up. It came about because of a request from Martin Bourke, a local historian, to write a piece for a book ‘Clonmore Through the Ages’ (2018).

When Josephine Coffey, who I worked with for several years when I was Chair of Killea Cultural Group , a Voluntary Community Organization  (along side Joan Egan and later Gerard Coffey), asked me to write a short essay , for her soon to be published book about Killea, I immediately thought of  my Late Aunt Josie’s house in Kilkip, Killea.

Aunt Josie

Josephine Egan (nee Meagher/Maher) was my late Father’s only sister, adored by all four of her brothers. Pictured below at an event at my sister Mae’s home in Thurles in the 80s, this is probably one of the only images of the five siblings together in later life.

My Uncle Liam is on the far left. Liam was a respected teacher at the college attached to  Mount St. Joseph’s Abbey Roscrea for most of his professional life and editor, with Ciaran Brady (former Editor of The Irish Times) of their centenary publication entitled ‘Céad Bliain Faoi Rath: The Story of Cistercian College Roscrea 1905-2005’.

Uncle John was a priest based in Montana in the USA.

Daddy is on the far right back row.

To the front sits my Aunt Josie, beaming, that twinkle in her eye, and beside her my late Uncle Eddie (or ‘Neddie’, as he was also known locally).

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Almost all the immediate family (including her siblings and nieces and nephews) were able to be at this gathering in the late 80s. Those who could not were so disappointed. I love this picture , taken by Mae, after Uncle John had celebrated mass that special evening.

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Family Gathering

 

Egan Family and Killea Neighbours

Aunt Josie married Jim Egan in the late 1940s and moved to Killea, his home place. A fine gentleman,  Jim died young in 1970, the year I was born. My Aunt was blessed with wonderful neighbors all her life – her husband’s family the Egans, the Kenneallys who regularly called to check on her, in particular Lan, and many more, too many good people to name here.

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Visiting Aunt Josie

I frequently visited Aunt Josie’s with my parents as a child. Daddy would park his car at ‘the big gate’ and we would then walk a little up the roadway to the grey gate at the top of the stone steps, that lead into her courtyard.

I would sit quietly and listen to Daddy chat with her. He would call to check in on her regularly – as did Liam and Eddie, who lived in Ireland.

If Mother was with us, on an evening visit or a Sunday afternoon, the chat would go on longer as Aunt Josie would ask about all the family and how they were doing. She was so kind and thoughtful of everyone.

 

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Revisiting the past: July 2020

This gate holds particular special memories for me.  Decorated with wild flowers growing on either side of the wall , on opening the gate and walking down the steps, there was a sense of magic in the air.

There were beautiful buildings all around the yard, some for butter making or domestic use in earlier years, others for animals in winter that needed shelter, and one lead out to the back yard where the hay barn was situated.

Only last weekend myself, Seosamh and the boys, popped up to Killea to visit Tim’s grave, and we called to Aunt Josie’s on the way home. The gate and those steps still evoke memories of peaceful happy childhood days.

 

The Table

On entering the house Aunt Josie was usually sitting by the range and there was always a reserved warmth – a ‘twinkle eye’ hug. In those days a kiss on the cheek was not the usual way of expressing love to family who visited.

Under the stairs there was a press that was overflowing with biscuit and sweet boxes, so it would not be long before tea was made, and the goodies would be brought out for dispersal. At this stage we would move to her kitchen table, that was situated under the front window. The table had wooden legs and  Aunt Josie stored her pots and pans underneath it.

Montana Visit

My late Uncle John could not be there so often,  but when I visited him in 1989 in Montana, he spoke about his care and love for his sister Josie frequently. He was very ill at this time and it meant so much to me to visit him and get to know him a little more.

 

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With my Late Uncle John in Montana 1989

I even found the note Aunt Josie sent me before I went to the States that year , which of course she had put a few pounds into for me. She had lovely hand writing, very similar to her other siblings. And she was so generous and kind.

all good wishes

 

Observing the Details

I liked to look around the room on these visits to her home and observe every little detail. She always covered her black telephone with a silk scarf to avoid dust. The phone sat on a beautifully carved side board that was placed at the back wall of the kitchen.

The stairs was another fascination to me, as the room at the top was rarely used, so I never actually got up to see it. Years after she died when in the house, I decided not to go up, though I had the opportunity – happy to leave the mystery alive as what might or might not be up there!.

Her own bedroom, just off the kitchen to the right, had the most beautiful wooden carved ceiling. These ceilings in old vernacular Irish houses were so unique and one rarely sees them now.

Hay Saving

In the summer time myself and some of my siblings, Tim and Terri in particular, would go up to help Daddy  ‘draw in the hay’ for Aunt Josie. In the later years Tara, my eldest niece, also helped . This was a particularly enjoyable experience, as the load of saved hay was brought up the steep hilly roads of Killea, to her shed, and we were allowed to sit on top of the load,  relishing the views, not a care in the world.

Once the tractor got into some serious difficulty on the steepest hill and started to go backwards, dragged by the weight of the load of hay. I recall everyone on top getting very anxious. But we did get off the load safely. A day not forgotten.  My poor Mother, on the other hand, lived in fear,  forever after, of the hay season and thanked the Lord, when we would finally return home safe and sound in the evenings.

Christmas in Killough

Aunt Josie spent Christmas day with us in Killough every year. Tim would drive her back to Killea in the evening and I always felt a little sad to see her go. I thought she was very brave to live on her own, but she had such tremendous Faith.

Tim is very much on all of our minds this, his birthday week. It is a very emotional time for us all, in particular Tina and Darragh.   The 2nd anniversary of Tim’s death will take place on August 11th at 4pm in St. James’ Graveyard Killea.

Leaving Kilkip

Aunt Josie became ill in the mid 1990s. I drove up to see her one afternoon, around this time, having recently moved back from Maynooth to live with my parents in Templemore. We sat at that table, the sun shining in the window. I remember it vividly. She did not look well and we both knew her days in Kilkip were numbered.  I walked out the door that day and towards the steps and burst into tears as I closed the little grey gate behind me. Somehow, I knew that was the last time I would visit her there.

She soon after went into hospital, and from there to Villa Maria in Roscrea where she died peacefully in 1999.

Little Things Mean so Much

I remember the day Daddy, knowing my love of all things old and a bit battered from wear, arrived down to my Studio at Roscrea Road, after Aunt Josie had left the house, and he brought me her big dark brown hay saving tea pot, which now has pride of place on our dresser here at Greenville.

The Greenville Dresser

Aunt Josie’s Large Brown Teapot – second shelf on Left

Daddy also brought me her iron cast bed – that needed repairs!. I eventually got around to it, many years later.

In the image below we see some of Joss’s friends here at his 12th birthday party, all seated on or around Aunt Josie’s bed, looking at a movie. It is so extraordinary to still see it used and loved in this way.

cast iron bed

Left to right: Jake Bohan Davern, Don, Kevin Bourke, Étienne, Joss, Donnchadh Broderick, Neave Cheshire, Ella Fogarty & Paudie Barrett

Devine Brothers Creative Studio!

I also acquired, from my brother Eamonn, the table that meant so much to me from her kitchen and a big Irish country press from the parlour that needed serious work (thank you Christy Cleary Templetouhy).

In this image below we see Étienne with two of his friends from Killea, Noah and Luke Quinlan, playing lego at the table.

Etienne and friends

Étienne, Noah and Luke

 

Below we see Don and Joss with one of their friends, Kevin, eating pizza at the table. The big old Country press has a powerful presence. The dresser you see at the back wall came from Shanakill, so it was owned by Aunt Josie’s parents, my Grandparents, and it was given to me by my dear cousin and God mother Fiona Maher. Now it is full of lego, made by the boys.

 

Aunt Josie was a humble lady, who must have had lonely moments in her life. Her spirit remains with me to this day . I could even remember the lovely scent from her home, as I wrote this piece.

I so regret I was never able to buy this precious place  and bring it back to life.

Aunt Josie's House early 1990s

The Liminality of Lockdown: Musings from Greenville’s Threshold.

Daily Walk

Daily Walk

I was not sure how or if to write this blog; not sure what title to give it; not even certain I had anything meaningful to say. I am still not sure. Nonetheless I wanted to write something about this time we are all living through, as experienced from our home, here at Greenville. 

Some people have called the Covid 19 pandemic and the resulting closure and lockdowns of so many Economies around the world as historically ‘unprecedented’; others suggest ‘strange’, some think there are similarities to the trauma of a World War.  Others snarl that it was a ‘conspiracy’ conjured up in China.  I don’t think so!

We hear about the ‘new normal’ , of ‘social distancing’, ‘cocooning’ etc. Étienne started to ask in the mornings, how many people had died the day before from Covid 19. I feel for him, in particular, as he struggles to understand it all.

For those who became extremely ill from this disease or lost someone to Covid 19, they probably have not yet found the words to express the trauma they have recently endured. They are still suspended in their shock and grief. The severity of this disease, the rapidity at which it was transmitted across the globe, the enormous numbers of deaths in the space of a few months… this would have appeared unimaginable to contemplate if we had been told in January how the first half of 2020 would transpire.

My heart goes out to those who were unable to see a loved one who was very sick or if the worst came to the worst , as it did for thousands of people around the world, unable to hold a funeral. Yet these ‘unimaginable situations’ have now become part of our understanding of the reality of daily life.

Life on a very busy and crowded planet.

Reflection Time

On the positive it has also been a time of reflection for many; a time to stand back from the ‘rat race’ of life and maybe question aspects of it. The obsessive routines that consumed us and which were believed so fundamental to day to day existence – were, suddenly, one day (March 12th to be precise, in Ireland) just simply, called to a halt.

People have more time with their families, are eating more home made food, pollution levels have reduced dramatically and while many have suffered severe economic loss, new business opportunities have emerged.

In Between Times

My sister-in-law Tina sent me a blog written by a friend of hers, Jillian, who lost her brother two years ago http://abroadsthoughtsfromhome.wordpress.com/2020/05/12/idir/

It really resonated with me. Jillian reflects on the Irish word ‘idir’ – meaning ‘between’.  She writes how the Covid 19 lockdown gave her time to reflect on the beauty of that Irish word.  Lockdown is a ‘between’ time where our old world is in the past and our new world has yet to emerge. This has similarities for her to the experience of grief when one wants the world to stop turning so we can come to terms with the enormity of deep loss.

In Anthropology the ‘between phase’ is used in writings in the context of ‘rites of passage’ that ethnographers observed, particularly when studying ‘non western’ cultures.  The word ‘liminal’ or ‘threshold’ is used to explain the mid phase in a rite of passage.  The word ‘liminal’ comes from the Latin word ‘limen’ meaning ‘a threshold’ – so it is the ‘between’ stage in a rite of passage, where a person’s old status ends, and she/he is in transition to a new position or status. The folklorists Arnold van Gennep initially coined the term in the early 20th century and then the Anthropologist Victor Turner, in the 1970s, incorporated it into his ethnographic work.  

Jillian’s words brought back to me a vivid memory of my first experience of losing a loved one when my Father died twenty-one years ago, at Christmas time. Daddy died suddenly, sitting by the fire side, at the home he and Mother retired to on Roscrea Road in Templemore. I was living with them again at that time, finishing the writing of my PhD and I remember my Mother calling me to come quickly , there was something wrong with Daddy. We both stood beside him, helpless, as he took his last breaths.

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Daddy on a trip to the USA in the 1980s

Just days after Daddy died and a few days before Christmas my brother Tim and I went to do some basic grocery shopping in Roscrea. I recall observing all the activity and excitement in the lead up to that Christmas –  people appeared to be almost frantically rushing around. It all seemed absurd.  I remember feeling as if I were looking from inside an invisible cloak at what was happening in the world around me. I could see this world – but that world could not really see, nor reach me.

Suspended in pain and grief, time just didn’t appear to be moving forward anymore for us, like it was for everybody else.  Twenty one years later, having endured miscarriages; lost Mother in 2017 (whom I think I must have believed would live forever!), and only ten months later my brother Tim –  I realise that for me, this sensation of being ‘suspended in time’ is an intrinsic part of the aftermath of deep grief or the experience  of some profound loss or change in life. 

Lockdown can be seen as a type of ‘collective’ version, of that  ‘personal’ experience – when time appears to have been moving too fast and one needs space to mourn and reflect at a remove from ‘normal’ life.

To prepare for ……the ‘next phase’. 

Greenville in the Sunshine

So what has life been like in Greenville during this period of liminal lockdown?

Well we have all had bad days! But we have had many many good days too.

The sun has been shining almost every day and Greenville looks beautiful in the sun. I took this picture from the parlour of the cottage looking out at the yard one afternoon last week. I was struck by how lovely the deep red curtains looked against the backdrop of the blossoming clematis. 

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Parlour Window View to yard

Schooling at Home

The boys situation was probably more challenging as they adjusted to schools closing and doing classes on line from home. Our eldest son Don told me on March 12th ,when he got in from school, that he hugged his friends at the school gate because, he said: ‘we don’t know when we will see each other again’. I was very moved by this, that somehow the enormity of it all had sunk in so quickly to a group of fourteen and fifteen year olds.

In those weeks he appears to have grown up so much and I am proud of the three of them and how good-humouredly they have handled it all.

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Don in the Parlour of the cottage

As we got used to on-line school classes we worked out the best location to get a good internet signal was in the cottage part of the house so that has become our ‘school hub’ , which is great seeing as clearly we have no guests at the moment  – and won’t for the foreseeable future.

Don decided to use the parlour of the cottage to study and take classes on line and that room has a table and set of chairs that Joseph inherited from his late Mother. We are happy to see him work there and know his Devine Grandparents would be too.

Joss uses the Aula in the cottage and is seated at a table and chair that belonged to my late Grandparents from Shanakill. The Teachers at Our Lady’s Secondary School in Templemore  have been very supportive to all their students and exams will also be done on line in the week ahead.

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Joss in the Aula

Étienne in the mean time looks forward every week day morning to the RTE 2 ‘Home School Hub’ programme and as I am usually in the room working when he is watching it, I feel Múinteoir  Ray, Múinteoir  Clíona and  Múinteoir  John are part the family at this stage! He misses all his friends from Killea National School and we are grateful for all the contact from the school Principal Mary Kennedy. 

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Étienne watching Home School hub

Music for the Ancestors

Music classes that used to happen each Friday in Carlow, also take place on a Friday in the cottage, when the boy’s guitar teacher Jack Kennedy, ‘tunes into Greenvillle ‘, and all three boys take their weekly class there with him. I have no doubt the ancestors of the cottage must be loving all this activity. Greenville is always a busy place at this time of year with guests, but somehow it feels good to have the place all to ourselves again – we feel closer to all those ancestral spirits.

Daily Walks

Joseph and I walked most days in our lovely local town park in Templemore before lockdown, but when the 2 km restriction was introduced, we decided instead to walk up and down the main lane at Killough. Every day for the last number of weeks, we all head off for our daily walk, with Mandjar and Venice, our pet dogs  in tow –  a little ritual that has brought us all great joy, the many memories of the lane so important to us all, and deeply personal, especially to me.

Kitchen Exploits and The Pantry Project

Needless to say there has been a great deal of kitchen activity too.

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Rhubarb from Greenville and some flowers for the table

Looking back on photographs this week to include in my blog I was taken aback to think we spent both St. Patrick’s Day and Easter Sunday on our own this year, without family or friends dropping in.

To mark St. Patrick’s day I made a decadent cake with Irish cream Liqueur. The evenings were still getting dark around 6 pm then. Lockdown spanned the end of winter, the joys of Spring and brought us smack into summer!.

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St Patrick’s Day Cake

 

We usually have family join us on Easter Sunday or there might be a cake sale or some activity in Killea connected to the school. But this year we once again spent the day on our own, cooking and baking , just for ourselves.  We were delighted with our Easter cake,  dotted with mini gold Easter eggs.  I wanted the cake to coordinate with the glass wear we were using that day. I am not sure the rest of the family got that particular detail!!.

 

Bread

I decided a few days into lockdown that now was the time to crack the sourdough bread ‘problem’,  so it was with delight that my first ‘proper sourdough loaf’ came from the oven one Sunday back in late March.

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Sourdough Smile

We have also made some delicious Naan breads and some new varieties of scones. Don has taken a more active interest in the kitchen since taking up Home Economics, so he has helped with many of these new recipes and is learning kitchen skills fast.

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Naan!

One of my first blogs was an interview with Brother Oliver, at Mount St. Joseph ‘s Roscrea in 2017. He was one of the Brothers who managed the bakery at the Monastery for decades. I thought a great deal about him in recent weeks . He passed away in November last year. Such a sweet and kind person, may he rest in Peace.

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The late Br Oliver OCSO and I in 2017

A Pantry?

I am still working on developing one side of a small room off the dining room as our Pantry. I have such fond memories of my sister Mae’s late Mother-in-Law ‘Granny Quinn’ and her wonderful organizational skills – her boxes of buttons, her linen press and her packed Pantry off the living room at Rossestown.

Our Pantry will be a more humble space but since lockdown it has become a great resource to have. I am working to gather extra stocks of staples to have in store. I bought some lovely glass jars for storing my flours and pastas and this remains a project in process until we can build in some more shelves to the room.

Another positive aspect to this extraordinary time is that we are all more aware, I hope, of the importance of shopping less often, using left overs more resourcefully and avoiding unnecessary waste.

Frontline Workers

I have tremendous admiration for all those health care workers who have played such a brave role in this crisis, both in Ireland and internationally, for all the shop workers who turned up every day to work and must have had many anxieties about catching the illness or spreading it to one of their loved ones at home.

All frontline workers deserved the many rounds of applause and lights lit to support them. We participated in the “Shine a light” on Holy Saturday night (11th April) when we turned on all the lights around the house at 9pm, as part of a Nationwide mark of respect for the incredible courage, dedication and effort front line workers have shown.

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Shine a Light, Holy Saturday -11th April 2020

As Joseph is under strict instruction to ‘cocoon’ because he is on immunosuppressants, I took over the shopping routine and have been so impressed at how kind and helpful staff in stores like Centra, Spar, Lidl, Supervalu, Aldi, Tesco and Dunne’s Stores have been. And small local shops and chemists who remained open during this time. Covid 19 brought out the best in so many people, with more respect and care being shown by everyone towards each other.

A Liminal conclusion

This remains a really hard time for so many – in particular those who are living alone and can’t see their family as they would wish. We have to hope this liminal phase will soon pass and people can interact again more freely.

So my blog is really a big thank you to all those people who have made it easier for others to survive these past weeks, and to my three sons, for making our days here at Greenville so much brighter by their activities , chatter (occasional rows!) but in general good humour. I love this picture of them taken outside the front of the cottage, our threshold, squinting in the mid afternoon sun.

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Boys enjoy sunshine.

Étienne keeps asking ‘will Covid 19 be over in September Mama?’. The truth is, none of us really know.  I refuse to be exact in responding to him.

The world has come to a threshold, a place ‘inbetween’. And by its very nature that means everything is unclear…inexact.

I hear the lines of the late Eavan Boland from her wonderful poem ‘Quarantine’ in my mind . I invert her meaning of a love story from the Irish Famine, to fit the story of Covid 19….

‘Let no love poem ever come to this threshold

There is no place here for the inexact..’

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is the Core Ingredient? Meeting Dermot Gannon, The Old Convent, Clogheen Cahir.

 

old convent 1My mind is preoccupied with questions to ask Dermot Gannon when, on Sunday, December 8th , I traveled to Clogheen near Cahir, with Seosamh and my three sons, to meet the chef and owner of ‘The Old Convent’.

Specifically I have been thinking about the overlaps between creating art and creating dishes for others to eat. Neveana Sticic writes that  food functions symbolically as a communicative practice by which we create, manage and share meaning with others. Understanding culture, habits, rituals and tradition can be explored through food and the way others perceive it’. ( Hemispheres: No 28 , 2013).  This is an academic way of saying food preparation, like art, allows the cook/home chef, to create something that has a symbolic meaning – that expresses something about themselves and about the world he/she lives in.

Is the art of being an artist not very much like the art of being a chef?

There was a weather alert in place on the same day we were heading down to South Tipperary as yet another storm hits Ireland. Intermittent busts of heavy rain lashed down as we drove along the M8, listening to the start of Christmas music being played on Lyric FM.

We branch off to take the side roads leading down to Clogheen (from the Irish Chloichín an Mhargaidh, “Little Stone of the Market”) and the sun emerges from the clouds. We all are struck by the incredible beauty of the landscape.

The Old Convent

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Winter at The Old Convent

The Old Convent is situated in the shadow of the Knockmealdown mountains in this unique part of Tipperary. The building stands out in the landscape. It was, as the name suggests, the home of the Mercy nuns for several decades. In fact it was designed by one of the nuns in 1886 (Mary Ann Vaughan, in religion Sr. M. Bernard) who was clearly a very talented woman. When the Sisters left the house in 1991, it first became a fishing lodge and then a holistic healing centre. In 2006 Dermot Gannon and his American wife Christine took up residence and The Old Convent was reborn as an innovative foodie destination in Ireland.

We arrive a few minutes ahead of the scheduled time. Seosamh and Étienne go for a little stroll in the grounds, while myself, Don and Joss get organised to meet Dermot. We sit down in the front room, at a lovely old table with matching chairs and the conversation begins.

‘You are not originally from Tipperary?’ I inquire.  ‘No – from Connemara, one of 11 kids, council house, no background in food and cooking or things like that’, Dermot says, matter of factly. He tells me he got a job at fourteen years of age washing pots and peeling potatoes at a nearby hotel – Renvyle House, in Galway and maintained that job for three years while finishing in secondary school. His interests were not academic.

Motivator

So, what motivated him to get work in the hotel?. A sense of an innate talent or ‘vocation’?. ‘The motivator’ Dermot tells me ‘was to simply earn my own money and avoid days on the bog! “.

Dermot got a job at seventeen at  Rosleague Manor Hotel under the mentorship and guidance of Paddy Foyle . ‘He taught me how to cook. He saw that I had a natural kind of ability…. which didn’t come from anywhere really as far as I can tell’,  Dermot suggest. ”Luckily and crucially for me,  my parents imparted a strong work ethic which is more beneficial than anything else in this industry”

This was the ‘old school way’ of getting into the food business, I now understand. One worked in a kitchen and learned as an apprentice – this gave a rounded and broad understanding of the business. ‘I found something I was really good at and enjoyed’ Dermot tells me ‘ and it was one for the few sectors where there was employment at that time’. We return to this later in the interview.

After his apprenticeship he leased a restaurant from the same Paddy Foyle at the young age of twenty two and ran it himself for seven years. He tells me he wasn’t really ready for it, in some respects, from a financial management point of view. But Dermot  learned fast.  He made mistakes the first year and quickly adapted to sustain the business. Another aspect of this job, at an early age in his life, that appealed to him, was that the restaurant was closed from October to March every year – ‘so I would head off back- packing in Australia,  New Zealand , Estonia – lots of different places’.

Colorado

At twenty nine Dermot decided he needed a more dramatic change so he left Ireland to go to Colorado for two years. This was a totally new experience in learning how to run a bigger sized restaurant. ‘Get it out fast, get it out big and make as much as you can’ he tells me was the business model. He continues: ‘I was used to a small restaurant and dealing directly with farmers, fishermen and growers. In Colorado everything came in, in an artic truck. I spent more time on the computer than in the kitchen – but I learned very fast and how to deal with volume and to give people what they want. Not what you thought they should be eating .’

So, Dermot took this on as a challenge and enjoyed upgrading his skill base to deal with the large numbers. ‘It was a stepping stone for me’ he explains. ‘I knew I wasn’t going to stay in Colorado’.  A critical stepping stone none the less as he also met his American wife Christine during this time. They decided to return to Ireland together but went travelling to China and other places on route.  Christine wanted to do a Masters in European Development at University College, Cork .

Cahir

This was the early Noughties in Ireland. Dermot tells me that ‘I  started looking for a restaurant to lease, but this was the height of the Celtic Tiger. The key money alone in Cork was €200,000. So, I traveled around looking for a possible place, but it was proving hard to find. Then we saw a lease for sale in Cahir, so we drove up, in a rental car, from Cork to look at the place – ‘The Bell Pub’in Cahir. Tom Shannahan  was the owner’.

There was a restaurant upstairs which was ran by Michael Clifford, a well-known chef who was then in his twilight years and he was moving to Clonmel so the lease was available. ‘We walked in and asked to meet Tom the owner of the premises and I asked what the key money would be.  Tom  asked: ‘what is key money?’.

Dermot agreed to take the lease.

He tells me about how various things fell into place then, to allow them to get a small loan to upgrade the premises they were leasing.. and ultimately lead to their legacy in the history of the old convent building.  ‘Christine went to the AIB in Cork to see could we get a small loan and she was met by a woman who was unconventional, and well disposed to the idea and she knew this area of Tipperary well. She had two friends here who were the two ladies running the old convent at that time as a healing center’.

‘The incredible twists and turns of life ‘ I comment. Christine got the loan and their AIB manager and her two friends, then running a business at the old convent building, were among the first diners they had at their newly leased premises in Cahir. Dermot started doing bar-style food like fish and chips and dishes he had perfected in Colorado and the business took off really well , aided by his natural talent and dedication.

A New Phase for the Old Convent

After a while based in Cahir,  Dermot and Christine were looking for someplace to buy to live.

The women running the holistic centre at the old convent , who were by now friends of theirs, told them they were selling the building and maybe they might try to see could they raise the finance to buy it. Demot laughs and tells me: ‘they were overestimating our financial situation at the time!’

While Dermot and Christine were doing very well in their rented premises in Cahir  – this would present a very large investment and commitment and a loan/mortgage would be needed obviously. Dermot says they were turned down about ten times by the Banks but eventually, with a little help from family, they were able to secure the finance to buy the premises.

Exciting and Challenging Project

I feel envious just thinking of how exciting the project must have been….to have found such a unique building, in such a stunning setting, and to have the combined skill base that this couple have, to make it a success.

Christine has an eye and attention to detail, financial management skills, and her role is ‘front of house’. Dermot is the innovative chef ‘back of house’ – though this is not the term obviously,  essential for such an establishment to work. These two individuals and their strengths, were destined to turn the project into a success.

And they did.

Old Convent Clogheen

Dermot also had a unique way of running the restaurant – he wanted to cook for a certain amount of people, at one time. They can take 36 at any one sitting and they do this just at weekends at 8pm. ‘I can’t think of anywhere else doing what we were doing, at that time, which was a multi tasting menu’.

What also appealed to Dermot about this way of running a restaurant, which has become popular in Ireland, was that he could change the menu every day. ‘Within reason’ he advises, ‘as we got to know our clientele’.

Managing a Small Family Run Business

Dermot explains to me there is a lot of ‘prep’ involved on the nights they do these sit down tasting menus. This leads us into a chat about the huge responsibility it is running and managing your own business, in particular a business like this where Dermot’s skills in the kitchen are vital. ‘If I am not here there is no service’. He tells me that only happened once in the fourteen years that they have been running the business. ‘If we are not here it does not happen’ Demot explains, giving me some idea of the enormity of the commitment involved running a small boutique-style business like this. The couple also have two children now aged 7 and 3, since they bought the premises.

Becoming a Chef

Our conversation then veers back into a discussion of the training involved in becoming a chef.

Firstly Dermot discusses the pros and cons of learning to become a chef in the older style way as an apprenticeship, in contrast to the more conventional approach today which is to go to a cookery school or college to learn your ‘métier’.

‘There is good and bad to the new way’ Dermot explains. ‘The bad is people come out of college or cookery school and want to be head chef straight away but their knowledge base would be slim – they would be good at a couple of things….some can make a living out of that, like open a food truck or a café…..but the old system of apprenticeship, where you do a year here and a few years there…that model for training people in not really around anymore.’

The Art of being a Chef?

We are getting into some of the areas here that I have been thinking on for some time and I mention at the start – perhaps I might even take them further into a possible MA thesis, if I am fortunate enough.

Dermot knows I have an interest in art, and an interest in food, and I am looking at where perhaps the overlaps historically and culturally lie. I explain to him there are three ways to approach this,  which is largely unexplored academically.

The first would be to look at  how food has influenced the painting of art historically – think of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ as one classic example but there are millions of others.

The second would be to look at a relatively new trend in food circles which is the process of ‘plating up’. Instagram has been a great facilitator here and there are many chefs and restaurants that really focus their energy on this side of the restaurant business.  Cookery programmes on TV and food magazines and books have all zoned in on this aspect of the food business.

Thirdly, and perhaps the one that most interests me, is the idea that the chef, or indeed the home cook, anyone who  approaches the task of feeding oneself or others, consciously, aware that the exercise is an expression of personality, in so many respects, are displaying a skill, an enthusiasm – an aesthetic ability. All essential ingredients if one is to be deemed an artist. The practice of preparing food  is around since our very beginnings as a species, perhaps the first manifestations of humans, attempting to express themselves, depended on an everyday object – food.

‘Art, the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination typically in a visual form such as a painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power. Art is something we do: a verb. Art is an expression of our thoughts, emotions, intuitions and desires but it is even more personal than that: it is about sharing the way we experience the world, which for many is an extension of personality’ –  ‘Art as a Means of Communication’ , Steemit. 

Food and how we prepare it is a communicative practice, as I quoted at the start of this blog, rather like art it is a way of sharing the way we experience the world, also a communicative practice, as Steemit presents it.

The Core Ingredient (s): the Gift and the Produce

So I put the question to Dermot: ‘What you do is a form of artistry I suggest, but you probably would never think of it like that ?’.

‘No’ says Dermot. ‘I wouldn’t have’.  He tells me he sees what he does more as a ‘craft’.

‘I am a introvert by nature and not a great communicator and Christine often accuses me of ‘ communicating feelings through cooking instead of words’,  which can be frustrating for her at times I suppose.”

This opens up a fascinating debate about what the difference actually is between an art and a craft . The former is considered more universal in application – someone who does something to be admired, rather than to be used. The latter, crafts people, are perhaps perceived as making things that are ‘useful’ – of everyday application.

But really this distinction could be taken apart and questioned as I do.

Dermot continues to explain to me that he can find it hard to discipline himself: ‘to hone his craft’. This is his expression. He thinks this difficulty is possibly because he has a natural gift as a chef,  as was spotted when he was a teenager in Galway and as his career obviously has demonstrated. But what I find interesting is that Dermot juxtaposes two things here: a natural gift at preparing food: and : a ‘honed craft’ where one is trained  to focus more on what they do. The visuals?.

‘I find if I get too  wrapped up in how a dish looks I  loose the spontaneity and  freedom that attracts me to the craft in the first place’ he explains.

He continues and is intent to emphasize to me that: ‘I am more interested in products and suppliers as opposed to methods ..if someone has a product like the Ballinwillin farm venison or wild boar, Ummera smoked ducks, great Tipperary cheeses or a great piece of well aged  beef…that is what motivates me. The visuals would not be the first, it wouldn’t be the second,it may not even  be the third thing I would think about.  I think of taste, texture, balance and only then would I think of how will I make it look attractive’.

 

Old Convent Clogheen

 

So, the ‘visuals’ are not the first thing Dermot thinks about when he is in the kitchen. Though this of course does not suggest – to me – his skill and gift is not an art form.

‘And are local produce important to you?’ I ask as I quickly check my final few questions ‘Irish produce are important to me.’ Dermot explains ‘I don’t get totally hung up on local as it is small island so why not take advantage of that. The core ingredient would be Irish. That would be very important to me. That is what gets me excited. Not the way something looks on the plate, but a really, really good ingredient.’

Food for Thought

Time to depart and I have a lot of ‘food for thought’, to use an appropriate expression. Dermot shows us all the stained-glass windows of the former chapel in the convent, which is now used as the dining room.

A gifted and hardworking chef who has learnt the business through an array of work experience; travel experience and trial and error in the kitchen. He was also fortunate the way some opportunities came his way: ‘It is one thing’ he tells me’, ‘having a talent and another thing getting an opportunity. It is 95% perspiration and 5% inspiration. It is hard bloody work’ he says

I suppose anything one does , with dedication, any vocation, has to take tremendous time and effort and hard work.

Hard work would certainly be a ‘core ingredient’ in Dermot’s experience . And there are two others: – the ‘natural gift’ and the produce used.

What he and many others do in the kitchen, is a communicative and creative act – an expression of personality.

An art, perhaps?

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A Pre-Raphaelite at Heart: Kate Hennessy’s Journey

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“Toledo was Wonderful”   by Kate Hennessy

‘Churches were the art galleries of the Irish People’, Kate Hennessy tells me.  She recalls being brought to mass on Sundays, by her respective Grandmothers, both of whom had a big influence on her as a child. Kate enjoyed the sculptures, mosaics, stained glass and woodcarvings, not to mention the tile designs these beautiful church buildings boasted in Ireland.

Kate continues to tell me that one of her Grandmothers had several religious statues under glass domes at the top of her stairs which were arranged in an aesthetic manner. The other Grandmother had a double brass bed draped in lace with statues of Our Lady, the Infant of Prague and others all creatively adorning the bed. Kate says she would love to do an installation of these memories, and I agree it would be most interesting. My own childhood was not dissimilar and I remember vividly how my dear Mother had so many statues and religious pictures all around our home at Killough. Many had been in the house from previous generations who lived there. Apart from one or two reproduced landscapes in the parlour and family photographs on the various shelves,  the only art we had in Killough, when I was a child, was of a religious nature.

Early School Experiences

This theme of churches in Ireland and the role they played, by default, as gallery spaces, is continued into our discussion of Kate’s early school experiences. Of course school life in the 1950s, in Ireland, would have been deeply influenced by the Catholic Church hegemony. Kate tells me that on her first day in Junior Infants she was riveted by a huge painting her teacher, Ms Dignam had hanging over her desk.

It was of a boy and girl crossing a rickety bridge – but danger awaited them as there was a piece of wood missing on the bridge and they could fall through this gap. Some readers will remember the picture. It came into my mind immediately when Kate started to tell me the story. But the scary possibility that they might fall is redeemed by a huge Angel hovering behind the children and this suggested they were going to be protected and would get across the bridge safely.

Angels have played a big role in Kate’s artistic career. She loves drawing and depicting them and the way they emerge in different cultures and styles of art. Many of her works feature Angels like the examples here.

 

Religious painting even sparked debates about gender in Kate’s home growing up. ‘When I was very small we had a picture of Jesus in our hallway’ Kate continues, ‘I used to fight with my brother Johnny because I thought Jesus was a girl because he had long hair in the picture. Johnny would say, ‘no, he is a boy!’. Men did not start to wear long hair in Ireland until the 60s and 70s so understandably Kate and her brother’s deliberation on the gender of Jesus, as presented in pictures like this, was totally understandable.

Other Early Influences

Another event from early childhood that left a huge impression on Kate was when she was 7 years old and then in Sr. Mary Gillen’s class. This kindly nun had spotted Kate’s artistic gift and asked her in December of that school year to cover her entire blackboard with scenes from the first Christmas. Kate remembers how overwhelmed she was to be given this incredible opportunity and how proud to be able to draw the scenes of the Nativity with chalk on the large canvas of the school blackboard.

Kate’s Mother’s youngest sister Debbie, who was training to be a hairdresser, also encouraged her. Debbie was very fashionable and had a lovely looking boyfriend, Kate recalls, who had dark black hair. When Debbie came to visit Kate, she would bring colouring books and crayons and tell Kate ‘Don’t go outside the lines.’

Of course,’ Kate smiles at me ‘I always went outside the lines in life’.  I tell her she was fortunate to have had such positive experiences and encouragement as a child in school and from her Aunt – but Kate explains she did meet resistance from her parents and from the Head Nun in Secondary school, prior to her Leaving Certificate, when she wanted to pursue a career as an artist.

Before this challenge emerged in Secondary School, Kate had wanted to take both Art and Latin as subject choices given her interest in Churches and older styles of design and the fundamental importance of Latin in helping understand other languages as they emerged. She was not able to do the two subjects sadly. Similar problems still exist today in trying to access subjects in secondary school not considered academically ‘as important’ as others. It infuriates me.

Kate did exceptionally well in her Leaving Certificate in Art and was determined she wanted to go to Limerick School of Art after leaving Secondary school. However as mentioned her parents were very much opposed to her following a career as an artist and insisted, after she finished secondary school, that she would do a secretarial course and find a ‘proper’ job. ‘I got a job as secretary for George Stackpoole, the antique dealer but I only stuck it for 6 months.  I was so unhappy and still going up to the Art School in Limerick at night to continue my studies there’ Kate tells me.  Stackpoole was head of the Irish Antique Dealers Association. ‘It was from him’ Kate tells me ‘I got an appreciation of antiques and good workmanship’.

They are still friends all these years later.

My Mother told me ‘All artists are immoral’ and the head Nun in Secondary school told Kate, before she left the school, to obey her parents and find a ‘proper’ job because (and Kate tells me to quote this one verbatim) ‘Art does not lead to God’.

 Limerick School of Art and Design

The Current home of LSAD is in a former Convent (Wikipedia)

The Current home of the Limerick School of Art and Design is at Clare Street Limerick , in a renovated former convent  (photo Corcs 999)

 ‘On 3 July 1852, a public notice appeared in the Limerick Chronicle announcing the opening of the School of Ornamental Art at the Leamy Institute on Hartstonge Street. The school offered instruction to the general public in drawing and modelling. The first prospectus stated the school’s objective of ‘providing instruction in all those branches of art which are applicable to manufactures and decoration’. The school opened on 2 November 1852 with 28 male and seven female pupils’ (Wikipedia)

Kate Hennessy was fortunate to live in Limerick and to have a third level educational option close to her home, where she could pursue her artistic education. Many people lived too far away from centres of education to be able to go to third level. While the school did close during the War of Independence, it reopened and eventually came under the Management of the Vocational Educational Committee in the new Independent Ireland of the 1930s. When Kate was a student there Jack Donovan was Head of the school and a painter himself.

A pivotal event happened later in the 1960s while Kate was a student there. She tells me there was an emerging ‘anti-academic’ culture in art circles happening.  In fact it had begun in France and England decades earlier. This Movement (if that is the correct word) was now infiltrating what existed of an Irish art scene in the 1950s and 60s and was directed at the educational ethos of the art colleges that existed in Ireland at the time, which would have been using Victorian pedagogical styles and techniques.

Kate remembers coming into Limerick School of Art one morning to find all of the plaster cast statues in the school had been smashed. It also happened in the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. Crawford School in Cork escaped the demolition and they still have their plaster cast statues – donations made at an earlier period to these third level educational facilities by the British Government (probably to support Classicism and to avoid using nude models like some French schools did!!)

Kate was angry at this act of subversion. She found one plaster cast head intact – the head Venus De Milo, which she took home and even though she changed her dwelling about ten times after that in her early teaching career, Venus De Milo’s head came with her to each new abode. She still has the head to this day in the home she shares with her husband Tom Muldowney in Limerick city centre.

The Pre-Raphaelites

To put this rebelliousness towards what might be considered Victorian styles of aesthetics in Ireland in the 60s, into context, one needs to first look at the disagreements in France between the Impressionists and their contemporaries some decades earlier. The Impressionists wanted to be outdoors, capturing light and dismissed many of the techniques of older French established schools of aesthetic thought at that time – we might broadly call that ‘Classicism’.

In England a similar situation arose – a group of English artists, critics and poets came together in 1848 under the leadership of the William Holman Hunt. The ‘Pre-Raphaelites’, as they came to be called, wanted to embrace colour and vibrancy.  They wanted to reform art by rejecting what they considered the mechanistic approach adopted by rigid Classicism and in particular the rules of the ‘Mannerists’ – a title given to those artists who succeeded people like Raphael and Michelangelo.

The Pre-Raphaelites embraced vivid colour, symbolism and attention to detail and seemed radical when juxtaposed to the Classical poses and ‘elegant compositions’ of Raphael and his successors. The Pre-Raphaelites claimed these ‘classical’ techniques had negatively impacted on the teaching of art. They were anti the English Royal Academy of Arts. While they continued to embrace history painting and mimesis (imitation of nature) in their work, as older schools of art did, their love of colour, detail and complex compositions were more akin to Quattrocento Italian Art than the styles of their predecessors and some of their contemporaries in France and England.

Where does Kate situate herself in this debate I ask? She says with no pause for thought: ‘I am a pre-Raphaelite at heart who is open to all kinds of new cultural experiences and influences that delight me’.

I agree that Kate’s work, with it’s attention to detail, colour and pattern would certainly strongly suggest that to me. I will return, I hope, to some of these theoretical issues in Art History in future blogs.  I don’t want to veer too much into them now until I have more reading and a qualification in the area.

The Bauhaus

Kate considers Modern Art to be deeply influenced by the Bauhaus in Germany and their philosophy. The views of this group of people started to have an impact on art styles from 1919 in Germany. The Bauhaus was established by Walter Gropius in Weimar in Germany and ushered in a wave of Modernist thinking in art, design, architecture, typography, and graphic design. ‘They did not want decoration in anything’ Kate tells me ‘It was a reaction against the Victorian aesthetic’.

This emerging European unwillingness to ‘conform’ (if we can see Britain in the European ‘landscape’ that is??!!) I am chatting to Kate about – was now filtrating into art circles in Ireland with the breaking of the the plaster cast statues Kate experienced as a student at Limerick School of Art in the 60s. It was becoming the new conformity! In essence it was an attack against the Royal Hibernian Academy in Ireland and Victorian values, which were considered old school. It followed on from what happened in France and then in England with the Pre-Raphaelites, who had problems with the English Royal Academy of Arts.

Cubism, Minimalist art, Pop art, Expressionism and even Surrealism come under the rubric of Modern art. Yet I would consider Surrealism to be more akin to the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic if you think of the work of people like Salvador Dalí – but I am no expert on the subject – yet !.

All this relates to Kate’s career and experiences because what she was witnessing was slowly a new artistic aesthetic making inroads into Ireland from the 1950s and 1960s. The disagreements in the art worlds of France, England, Germany and then in American Modern art, as it seeped into Ireland, were the influences that lead to this ‘anti-academia’ culture.

Irish Exhibition of Living Art

The Irish Exhibition of Living Art encapsulated this aesthetic change in culture (1943-1980s).

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Irish Exhibition of Living Art catalogue, 1943. Courtesy of National Irish Visual Arts Library

Kate tells me it was Founded by Evie Hone, Nora McGuiness, Fr. Jack Hanlon and others in opposition to the then Royal Hibernian Academy which was considered traditional, although now it has changed beyond recognition.  I exhibited in their annual exhibition three times’.

I have tried to find a short quote from various readings to summarize what Kate was telling me, as I don’t like quoting from the source so many young students refer to on line – but in the interest of brevity I found it interesting  Wikipedia had this to say : ‘While not all of them subscribed completely to the Modernism of the rest of western Europe and the United States, these artists did seek to stray off the path established by Irish art institutions. Many artists that founded the IELA were influenced by the dissenting Impressionist art circles in Paris who broke away from the French Academy. Even though they understood this may cause friction with established institutions in Ireland, many of the founders saw the French as an example to be followed’. 

The ROSC Exhibition

Rosc 1967 poster designed by Patrick Scott

Poster based on a Design by Patrick Scott used for the inaugural ROSC in 1967

The ROSC exhibition in 1967 was another key forum following this new way of thinking artistically in Ireland. This exhibition happened every four years until 1988 and had a huge impact introducing and showcasing Modern International and American Art to Irish audiences.

Kate elaborates ‘I attended the openings of two ROSC (the Poetry of Vision) exhibitions held in the RDS in 1967 and 1972. The ROSC exhibitions were very exciting and introduced Ireland to the best of International including American Contemporary Art.  There I saw for the first time the work of Ellsworth Kelly, Francis Bacon, Robert Indiana and I especially loved the work of Abstract Expressionists  Sam Francis, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. The huge scale of the canvasses, also impressed me’.

The Independent Artists

The Independent Artists founded in the 1960s by Michael Kane, John Kelly, James McKenna and John Behan was another important Movement reflecting these changes in Ireland.

Teaching Career

So here I am, sitting in the library in Nenagh, with Kate Hennessy, on Thursday morning August 22nd  2019. My son Don Devine is helping with the recording of the interview . I know Kate for nearly fifteen years now – we met the year Don was born.  We have two beautiful paintings by Kate at Greenville: one which Joseph bought when she held her exhibition at the Source Art Centre, Thurles in 2008.

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“Lady Drinking Wine” (2007)

The other is a recent acquisition – a gift from Kate which is in part inspired by Armenian culture and in particular a movie she saw a few years ago at Kilkenny during the Art’s Festival  called  ‘The Colour of Pomegranates’ . The movie won numerous awards and is considered a masterpiece in cinematography. The piece is also inspired by images from the Book of Kells.

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“Armenia”

We continue to discuss events and cultural Movements that chart 180 years of history and have shaped our artistic world today.  It strikes me Kate has had a ‘ring side seat’ on many key events in Ireland since the 1950s. I am interested to talk more about her teaching career.

She tells me her first job was in Clontarf at the Holy Faith Convent school. She explains the teaching conditions were really dreadful – no art room, no sink to wash brushes or storage space. Yet she managed to teach 569 pupils each year and had no less than four winners in the Texco Art competition from the school, in her very first year.  From here she moved to Kilkenny when a vacancy arose.

Kilkenny

She was excited about the move to Kilkenny in 1969/70 – ‘Kilkenny sounded like Paris to me, full of designers and artists’ she tells me. Kilkenny Design Centre had opened and this was considered very ‘avant garde’ at the time.

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Kilkenny Design Center Workshop (courtesy RIAI )

‘I was employed by the Kilkenny Vocational Education Committee’ Kate tells me. She soon realized however, on moving to Kilkenny, that the designers associated with the Centre were a group who kept very much to themselves and did not mix with the art teachers or local people from Kilkenny at that time. Kate explains ‘There was no vibe or culture of art appreciation in Kilkenny like you would have in Montmartre in Paris for example’. It was more like ‘the valley of squinting windows’ she laughs. Kate says it was difficult to have a social life or have your own friends if you had a teaching position. So while Kilkenny may have appeared cosmopolitan in the 70s and 80s – Ireland was still Ireland in many respects. None the less Kate stayed for four years and made some lifelong friends, before returning to teach in Limerick, her native city.

Meeting Tom Muldowney

Her time in Kilkenny impacted her life in one other very important way – she met her future husband Tom Muldowney there. On a return visit 12 years after leaving her teaching post there, for an exhibition she was involved in organising, Tom introduced himself to Kate. It was a type of re-introduction actually.  Kate had met Tom some years earlier when she was asked to teach art to a group from St. Kieran’s College who were sitting their Leaving Certificate. Kate laughs that she did not recognise Tom, all those years later, when he ‘gate crashed’ the opening she was having in Kilkenny in 1982 (the event was being opened by Jim Kemmy) and proceeded to chat his former teacher up!  I suppose you could say the rest is history. She and Tom still live in their beautiful home in the centre of Limerick city . The house has stained glass work by Kate, a lovely tiled floor she designed and made and other installations by her.

 

 

 

Kate continued to teach in Limerick for 20 more years after that – in a school where conditions for teaching were far from ideal with several pupils coming from troubled and disturbed homes. She was happy to be able to leave the teaching phase of her life behind her, when, in her 50s, she focused full time on her own work and professional artistic career – and what a career it has been.

She has exhibited widely in numerous group shows such as the R.H.A, Sligo Small Works, the Oireachtas, Claremorris Open, Limerick Printmakers and Limerick City Gallery. She has also held over 30 solo shows including the Belltable, Davis Gallery Dublin, the Source Art Center Thurles, Lavitt Gallery Cork , the Air Gallery London.

In 2016 she held a solo exhibition in the Hunt Museum in Limerick. This was a particular honor as Kate had been asked by the museum in 2016 to draw some depictions from the book Irish Medieval Figure Sculpture 1200-1600 (1974) by John Hunt Sr , the legendary medievalist, and collector /dealer in artworks .  John Sr was the Father of the Founder Director of the Hunt Museum in Limerick, John Jr, who died in 2004 aged 47.

Hunt Family

The Hunt family (Courtesy: themarketquarter.ie)

Travel

‘My hobby is travel’ Kate tells me.  Her travel experiences are very evident in her work.

One of her first trips abroad was in the 1960s when she went on a cattle boat to London. Today we take for granted luxury ferries crossing the Irish sea! ‘My first trips abroad were to London, Florence, and Barcelona’ Kate recounts. ‘It took two days to travel to the continent via Dunlaoghaire,  Holyhead,  London, Dover, Calais, Paris, Florence , now it takes two hours thanks to Ryanair’.

She loved these trips, all made by land and sea, for several decades, seeing the different cultures, tasting the food, viewing the art and designs of the cities and places she visited.  I comment she is a type of anthropologist at heart too. Her first trip on an aeroplane was to Russia. Another story for another time!

The country that has arguably made the most impression on Kate was her visit in 2006 to Iran. She had an interest in Persian culture for years because when she was a student at Limerick School of Art she met a wonderful English gentleman, Stanley Barclay Russell. ‘ He was an art expert’ Kate explains ‘ and had worked in the middle East for the British Council. He bought my work and hung it in his home alongside his collection of Coptic Christian Ethiopian paintings. He said that I should visit Isfahan to enjoy the beautiful tiles and I did, after 40 years’.

Courtesy Amazon.com

Kate never forgot his advice. A few years later she spotted a book on display in the window of O Mahony’s bookshop in Limerick near where she lives. ‘It was a book called A King’s Book of Kings (1972) otherwise known as the ‘Shah Nama’, the National Epic of Iran.  It was housed in a glass case in O’Mahony’s bookshop and cost £40.  I paid for it in installments, but it was worth it for the beautiful Persian miniatures it contained’. Kate explains.

The second book she bought on this subject was called Persia Bridge of Turquoise (1975) by photographer Roloff Beny. This too was full of beautiful photography about Iran.  Kate tells me both books were published by Thames & Hudson London and Kate later visited many of the places in these books.

Meeting the Asylum Seekers in Limerick

Times were changing once again in Ireland and the Noughties saw many people of different ethnic origin enter Ireland seeking asylum. We are all the better for that.

Kate decided to offer her skills as an art teacher to some of these people in Limerick and as she was a member of  Doras Luimní, an independent non-profit organisation, working to support and promote the human rights of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants in the Limerick region through personal advocacy, integration development and advocacy campaigns at local and national level. Kate was given the green light.  She managed to secure, from the Augustinians, a basement space, for 5 days a week, to open an Art studio where people trying to assimilate into Limerick, could come and do art, listen to music (they played all different nationalities – Afghanistan, Iranian, Irish,  and many more there); exchange ideas about food, lifestyles music and art.  This ran for 5 years from 2000 to 2005 and was a wonderful experience for Kate and all involved. She acknowledges the help and support she got from Fr. Liam Ryan with the endeavour.

Kate became good friends with people from Iran living in Limerick one of whom, Said, agreed to take her for an hour, one night a week, so she could learn Persian (Farsi) one of the predominant Iranian languages. Kate has almost 800 words and can converse in basic Farsi. Needless to say, this was all leading to a trip of a lifetime, when, in 2006 she embarked on a long tour of Iran visiting all the key sites and cities. ‘Venice is the most beautiful city in Europe’ Kate tells me ‘but Isfahan – the domes, the tiles, acres of tiles- has to be the most beautiful city in Iran’. She continues to talk to me about the geometric and flora designs that predominate here as Muslim law prohibits depicting human beings, fish or animals in artwork (other than miniatures).

Working in Different Media

Kate’s early life experiences, her student years during the turbulent changes of the 60s in Ireland, her career as teacher, and her extensive travels, have impacted profoundly on her life and artwork.

Multi skilled, she works in many different media – pen and ink, appliqué, acrylic, oils, patchwork and tiles. ‘I was always attracted by pattern and by colour’ she explains. ‘I have to say I have gone against the grain of Modernism – I love rich decoration and pattern because it is like the beats of music. It is good for the soul. Good for mine anyway. There are patterns everywhere in life’ Kate says.

I ask her to elaborate once again, as I am so engaged in this fascinating journey.

‘I believe artists must always have the freedom to create and explore new ideas.  Fashions in art as well as everything else, come and go.  The results are not always to my liking if they include boring videos, shock for its own sake, or conceptual art in which it seems, just having the idea is enough. Art can be political or not. We need to accept and encourage new ideas but personally I need plenty of colour design and interest to be happy.  After all, I did grow up in a grey Ireland in the Fifties and Sixties, where my abiding memory as a child is  of  being driven home in the rain passing grey concrete unpainted  houses, never even seeing a flower or flowerbed in public spaces’.

Kate Hennessy is a Pre-Raphaelite at heart – and a highly skilled artist and observer of culture.

Contact: katehessessygallery@hotmail.com

Opening of 3

At the Opening: Mairtín O’Brien, Denise  and Kate