Saturday 21 April 2018

Celtic heritage springs into life at Bealtaine

All about Cork - Heritage highlights

Conor Nelligan, County Heritage Officer

The month of May is upon us, a month that is symbolically - and actually - linked with the start of summer. The coming weeks and months will see some terrific events, and the week ahead does not disappoint in this regard.

Today (Thursday 4th May) there is a talk looking at the folklore of May Day itself. Dr. Jenny Butler, lecturer in the Study of Religions at U.C.C., will give a talk in Blarney Secondary School at 8pm, examining some of the legends of the fairy folk (the Sídh) and will look at many May Day customs, past and present.

Another feature of Irish folklore, known to many, is the Sheela-na-Gig, which can be found scattered around the country on our churches and castles. These stone carvings, often described as crude and evocative, date back to medieval times, depicting the female/ the female form. These carvings, of which there are over 110 in Ireland, are "often positioned in medieval tower-houses, medieval church sites and holy wells. Up to recently these were seen as figures representing the evils of lust or as ways of averting the 'evil eye'. More convincing reassessments have reinterpreted the Sheela-na-gig, in line with the Cailleach, as belonging to the realm of vernacular folk deities associated with the life-giving powers of birth and death. Placed with the cycles of both the natural and agricultural year and the human life cycle, she can be regarded as the embodiment of the cycle of fertility that overarches natural, agricultural and human procreation and death" (Heritage Council).

The Heritage Council and have just announced the release of their latest dataset mapping Ireland's mysterious Sheela-na-Gigs. Explaining how the map was created, Pat Reid of said "we used publicly available National Monuments Service open-data to create the base for this map. We augmented this with images and information gathered from the museum sector and Sheela-na-Gig academics and enthusiasts. This Sheela-na-Gig dataset is just one of many bespoke datasets we hope to provide in this manner. Our aim is to create interest and awareness, and to facilitate further research, in the varied and diverse elements of our cultural heritage."

Heritage Maps, was developed by the Heritage Council and a range of partners including local authority Heritage Officers. There are over 600 datasets on display with over 150,000 mapped points of heritage and cultural interest. Michael Starrett, Heritage Council Chief Executive explained that " a fantastic tool for learning, discussion and interpretation, making cultural data available to everyone". For more information, visit

Folklore aside, the month of May also sees much of nature come into full glory and National Biodiversity Week, from May 19th to 27th, is an opportunity to explore and learn all about the ecology that surrounds us.

The term 'ecology' is of Greek origin and essentially means the understanding of the home deriving from the two Greek words 'oikos' and 'logos' - meaning home and understanding, respectively. To take an interest in the natural world outside our doors - indeed our wider home - is to take an interest in ecology and it is hoped that there will be many a fascinating event held during National Biodiversity Week.

A few days before, on Sunday 14th May, will be a walk of the Gearagh led by renowned Heritage Expert Ted Cook. The Gearagh, outside of Macroom, is one of only five similar forests in the world. There is a treasure trove of biodiversity within the woods and everyone is welcome to come along on the day to enjoy and learn more about this wonderful site. The walk commences at 1pm at the carpark on the Inchigeela Road. It is about two miles on the left hand side from the Inchigeela turnoff on the main Cork-Macroom Road.

From a Centenary perspective, the month of May is also one of particular note. 100 years ago on the fourth of May, 1917, the American Navy took up base in Cork Harbour, having arrived on five large vessels. This was to mark the American presence in WWI but also their presence in the daily life and times of County Cork. In their time here, many naval servicemen fell in love with local women, and many of these women married and emigrated to America.

This part of Cork's social history is the fascinating subject of a wonderful new exhibition by Damian Shiels, which opens in the Sirius Arts Centre, Cobh, today (May 4th). The exhibition identifies a number of the women, and together with a number of portraits and documentation, it will shed a light on the more social side of life in a time of war. It will run until the 17th of September and is well worth a visit.

Also on May 4th the History Ireland Hedge School will be taking place in Cobh Library at 7.30pm as part of the Cobh Café Readers' and Writers' Festival. "1917 was the pivotal year of the First World War. At its outset German U-boats were inflicting huge damage on Allied shipping, while in the land war the loss of one ally, Russia, was not compensated by the gain of another, the United States. How did the Allies swing the balance in their favour by the year's end, particularly at sea? How central was Ireland (and Cork in particular) in this conflict? To address these and related questions join History Ireland editor Tommy Graham and the panel of John Borgonovo (UCC), Michael Kennedy (RIA's Documents on Irish Foreign Policy), Jennifer Wellington (UCD) and Michael Martin (Titanic Trail). The Event is supported by the Commemorations Unit, Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. History Ireland Hedge Schools are lively, unfettered debates and provide a novel and interesting way to bring historical topics to life". It promises to be a fascinating evening.