Saturday, September 19, 2009

A visit to West Cork

On Saturday, 12th September last, after what was by any criteria, a woefully poor summer, Irish Georgian Society members woke to glorious autumn sunshine that put everyone in good spirits in anticipation of an interesting day ahead. As well as Cork members, a diverse number of other Georgians from differing parts of the country, together with friends, made their way to stunningly beautiful and tranquil West Cork.

St Fachtna's Church of Ireland Cathedral, Rosscarbery, was first on our itinerary. Our appreciation of this venerable building was honed by the majestic descent into Rosscarbery itself, foregrounded by the restful waters of Rosscarbery bay. It was easy to locate our target, as St Fachtna's spire was clearly visible pointing us in the right direction.

On first impression, the building appears secure and self confident surrounded by the headstones and graves of deceased members of its congregation. It is confined by well proportioned walls and two fine sets of gates. Our group was welcomed by the Dean of St Fachtna's, The Very Revd. Christopher Peters in the Narthex of the cathedral. The Narthex dates from the close of the 17th century. This space is principally lit by its west window which dates from a pre-Reformation cruciform cathedral on the same site. The walls of the Narthex are adorned by important family memorials as well as an early 18th century Royal Coat of Arms of George II. Among other points of interest here are the late 19th century five peal bells and stone head, - reputably a representation of St Fachtna. Having been led into the cathedral proper, Dean Peters traced the cathedral's illustrious origins in a lively and compelling fashion, from the arrival of St Fachtna in the late 6th century, right through to the building's most immediately recent restoration. This historic treasure trove was well worth a visit and merits a return trip for anyone who wishes to become better acquainted with this fascinating subject.

The second stage on our itinerary led us further west to the shores of Bantry Bay. A road trip of approximately 50 minutes brought us face to face with the 18th century Bantry House. The house was looking its best at midday, as its Regency windows glinted in the warm sunshine. Everyone was in fine spirits as we assembled in the outer hall of Bantry House. We were warmly welcomed by the chatelaine Brigitte Shelswell-White, wife of the owner of the house, Egerton Shelswell-White. Our gruop met the ancestors of this illustrious family through the many family portraits that graced the outer and inner hallways of the house. Having been built in the 18th century, the house was extended by Richard, the first Earl of Bantry after the failed Wolfe Tone led French Armada invasion off Bantry Bay. Brigitte suggested that we should become better acquainted with the house and its ecclectic furnishings by wandering into the two main reception rooms known as the Rose Room and the Gobelins Room with their wonderful tapestries, Angelica Kaufmann fireplace, Reubens, Waterford and Mison chandeliers. We wandered through the fine library, home to the Leipzig Boudoir grand piano, we learnt that the house was involved with the momentous vents of the 1840s famine relief works and the 1922 hospital works. Then after a brief visit to the first floor bedrooms and having found that these rooms were in very good condition, we then turned our attention to satisfying our own needs and to a well deserved lunch.

For me this was the highlight of our visit. Not so much that it satisfied my natural hunger pangs, but rather that it allowed us to experience a sense of belonging in this wonderful gentle, atmospheric house and desmesne. Members of our group found their way out on to the Loggia to enjoy their soup, sandwich, coffee and dessert and chat amongst friends with a mutual interest. For a brief while, it seemed as we too were part of history in the making. We really did belong, it was a rewarding experience.

The last part of our itinerary brought us further west still! - Yes Cork is a surprisingly extensive county to our visitors. Finally, we arrived on the peninsula of Castletownbere and to Dunboy Castle, in particular. It looked like a Disney castle etched out of rocks with its "Skyline of steep roofs and tall chimneys." The general consensus from our visitors was one of awe and amazement: Awe, at the sheer scale of the project and amazement, at the sheer folly of wasted resources. perhaps the "sensational hall" will never quite be erased from our memory as a spectacular sight of grandeur and fine proportion. At least one member of our group felt the considerable trip was worth it just to experience this building alone. But it left me cold and somehow uncomfortable. However, the warm late afternoon sunshine restored equilibrium and our group repaired to the Mill Cove Gallery to refresh themselves anew to address the business of getting home, well satisfied after a remarkable day with like-minded friends. Roll on the next trip. Many thanks to Kevin Hurley for organising this event.

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