Wicklow People

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Picture or painting perfect in the past

Reporter David Medcalf spent a fascinating hour in the company of Jim Rees as the Arklow man made the case for treating the works of map makers and artists as important aids to historical research

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Historian Jim Rees by the Avoca River in Arklow

Historian Jim Rees by the Avoca River in Arklow

Historian Jim Rees by the Avoca River in Arklow

Jim Rees spends his days at the Arklow Maritime Museum surrounded by objects, by artefacts, by photographs, by scrawled handwriting and by the printed word. The museum in the Bridgewater complex, overlooking the river, is a wonderland of shipping souvenirs and reminders of old fishing boats.

And Jim has made his name trawling (if that is the right word) through mounds of documents in his academic efforts to make sense of the past.

Then it struck him recently that perhaps he had been under-estimating one further ingredient among the elements in the make-up of history. He began to muse on the way that a picture, the right picture, can tell a thousand words and lead the way to enlightenment. Being a man of great energy and intellectual curiosity, he decided move on from mere musing to assembling a series of illustrations.

Since Arklow is his particular field of expertise, the images he selected and presented to his local historical society were all related to his home place. But his conclusion that paintings and drawings can throw a light on where we come from is surely universal and may be applied to any town. An appreciative audience lapped up his lecture on the topic at the public library and he was later kind enough to give the reporter from the 'People' a re-run.

As he points out, photography was not available to the world at large until the 1840s and it was several decades later before the cameras arrived in County Wicklow.

The oldest surviving photo of Arklow is probably one taken of the opening of the lifeboat house on the South Quay in 1873. Jim has no idea who took the shot, a copy of which forms part of the museum's fine and marvellously varied collection.

Photography was of course poised to revolutionise the Victorian media as newspapers were set to adopt photos as their first choice for illustration. Editors could point to the camera images as incontrovertible records of what was going on.

Jim is prompted to wonder whether photography was an altogether reliable replacement for an artist with a paint-brush or pencil.

He cites the talented cameraman who captured compelling shots of the carnage at the Battle of Gettysburg. Mathew Brady did not let the fact that he arrived at the scene of combat a fortnight after the last shot was fired stand in the way of his endeavours. He had a team of assistants whose job was to haul scattered bodies into convenient groups the better to convey the impact of the slaughter.

Brady, it seems, was capable of taking as much artistic licence as any painter and his efforts helped to mould the impact which Gettysburg had on public opinion.

Jim's survey of pictures delves back to the close of the 14th century, long before anyone was ever asked to say 'Cheese!', to an image held in Oxford University's Bodleian Library. It is looking remarkably fresh for its age, its colours vivid on the reproduction which the Arklow man projects on to his screen. The painter, whose name has been lost, depicts an outdoor scene with armour-clad soldiers, all bristling with spears.

These horse-mounted warriors have reached a riverbank or seashore where boats are waiting, with crewmen handing out what looks like a burger bun. The soldiers and their weapons are stylised beyond all reality while the proportion of the boats is laughable, yet no one is laughing. This painting is not supposed to do the job of a photograph, but rather it is intended to tell the story of a troubled military outing.

Richard the Second was not one of the foremost English monarchs and his experiences in Ireland proved bothersome. In 1399, King Richard landed on the south coast determined to put Art MacMurrough under his thumb. The visitors were well armed and ready for battle but Art proved elusive and unwilling to take on a head-to-head engagement. Rather than confront Richard's well equipped forces, their wily opponent concentrated on attacking his supply wagons.

As a result, by the time they reached Arklow, or so the story goes, the visitors were starving hungry and ready to take any food on offer from the ships moored there. According to contemporary texts, some of the soldiers drowned, so desperate were they to lay hands on the proffered bread.

The painting was almost certainly created years after the events it immortalises but it contains all the ingredients needed to tell the story of the royal expedition.

Many of the earliest pictures passed down from the Middle Ages are maps such as the misshapen representation of Ireland dated 1460. Jim is gratified to note that Arklow is prominently featured, though the name used for the town by the map maker is not the one now in everyday use.

'Arcello' is one of at least 27 variants on Arklow or Inbhear Mór he has come across in his four decades of research.

Copies of this map are believed to have circulated among mariners in such far away countries as Turkey and Egypt. Sailors would have been well advised to hold off their voyages until the year 1500 when more detailed maps were drawn up. The cartographers responsible, who were based in Italy, had a decent grasp of the outline of Ireland and they had clearly heard reports of the sand banks off the eastern seaboard. These hazards appear as large islands, as a warning to sailors to give them as wide a berth as possible.

'Maps were works of art,' enthuses Jim, who cites as an example the Arklow map found in the British Library where officials believe that it dates back to the 18th century. He believes that they should re-asses this as it does not feature a significant bridge. It also includes Arklow Castle in the ruined state that Oliver Cromwell's troops left it in 1650. He concludes that some time around 1680 is more likely correct.

The late 13th century castle, built by the Fitzwalter family, may have been a ruin but the structure was a landmark and it attracted all sorts of painters and drawers. A pencil drawing, from 1794, shows how the British military built a slate-roofed barracks beside the old keep, a building which remained in use up to 1922 when it was the target of a Republican raid.

A more colourful and eccentric image comes from the following year when Arklow was staging post for the great Croghan Kinsella gold rush. The belief that there was gold in them thar hills on the County Wexford border drew all manner of hopefuls to the area, until the government clamped down on the pan-handlers. The painting shows how a system of sluices was constructed on the mountainsides to allow close examination of stream water for the precious metal - of which there was not a lot.

The Battle of Arklow in 1798, which marked the turning of the tide against the United Irishmen spawned much artistic endeavour - not all of it reliable.

Jim mutters 'bullshine' (or something like it) as he puts a lavish illustration purporting to show the rebels in the town under a flag proclaiming the slogan 'Liberty or Death'.

The man holding the flag is supposed to be Father Michael Murphy attempting to rally his men, standing in front of them and attempting to rouse their spirits.

'Father Michael Murphy was killed off his horse!' snorts Jim, 'and the buildings are totally wrong. This was drawn by a guy who never saw Arklow.'

For a view of the conflict which is actually helpful to the historian, a better source is 'Captain Holmes's Battle of Arklow'. Holmes was commissioned as an artist by the British Army and his superiors were not expecting Leonardo da Vinci and not looking for propaganda.

Where modern generals have the benefit of video teams and cameras carried on drones, their late 18th century counterparts relied on men with a pen such as the captain. The drawings he produced were then used in debriefing sessions so that they might learn from the experience.

His Arklow effort confirms, to those who know how to look, the suggestion that the Royal cannons were deadly effective in deciding the outcome.

'You can get so much historical information from a work of art,' insists Jim Rees.
His museum is after all a maritime museum and it offers to callers an interesting selection of sea views and pictures of boats, large and small from the 19th century. Reproductions of works by George du Noyer, who paid a visit to the town and its environs in 1861 at the behest of the Royal Society of Antiquarians, are gorgeous.

Perhaps the most intriguing images of all, however, are those put on the page by architect John Townsend Trench.

Asked by the Earl of Carysfort to create a record of the nobleman's estate, Trench made delightful coloured drawings of each building in Arklow: 'I don't believe that there is any other town in Ireland has the likes of it,' says Jim Rees gratefully.

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