Friday, 26 December 2014

If Maps could speak.

If  Maps could Speak. Richard Kirwan.  Londubh Books 2010. pp191. Introduction by Mark Patrick Hederman.

This review was written on August 28th 2012

I bought this book at its launching in 2010.  It provides the history of the Ordnance Survey in Ireland which was established in 1828 and whose early director and inspiration was Thomas Colby. It was the Duke of Wellington and his brother the Irish Lord Lieutenant, Lord Richard Wellesly, who were responsible for initiating the Ordnance Survey.  They set up a committee in 1824 and the Survey was established in 1828 after the committee had met and reported.  (It is worth mentioning here that the Duke and his brother were strongly in favour of Cathilic Emancipation for Britain and Ireland, a historic measure which was eventually passed in Westminster in 1829)

Colby was a remarkable person, energetic, highly ambitious, dominating and probably obsessional, who overcame the most extraordinary obstacles during his long responsibility for the success of this great Ordnance Survey.  The word ordnance owes its origin to the British army. It is a term for that part of the military which is responsible for procuring equipment and supplies. From the beginning of the Survey its personnel were military men. They were the sole members of the organisation; all non-military people were excluded at least until more recent times.  Colby was particularly concerned with planning a six inch map of Ireland which required much greater time and investment than the one inch map which was provided to complete the map of England.  Colby was not only interested in making maps but he was also instructed to collect information on other aspects of the country including geology, communications, manufacture and antiquities.

Drawings of buildings and antiquities were part of the job.
These interests were to be later extended by Larcom who joined in 1828, shortly after the survey was established.  Larcom was English but, like many English who came to Ireland, he came to love the country and its people. He became an excellent Irish speaker and was involved in the language, its literature and the country’s history and place names.  These interests, added to those of Colby made the Ordnance Survey not only the finest at its time but added a huge amount of information about the country and its people.  In the early years it was stated that many of the old antiquities and old ruins were being gradually destroyed in Ireland as a result of depredations by farmers and landowners.  Undoubtedly Colby and certainly Larcom were responsible for protecting many of the antiquities which had survived until their time.

An early map of Ireland by the Greek Ptomley
The author, Richard Kirwan, was born in Waterford and claims to have been an early enthusiast about the layout of the city and the country roads leading to an early attachment to maps and details of the County’s topographical features.  These enthusiasms lead to his early interest in map making and to joining the Ordnance Survey.  Because of the military tradition of the Survey, he was obliged to join the army but, because of his interest in map making, he was far from being enthusiastic about a military career. He insisted therefore that he would be transferred immediately to the Ordinance Survey for his entire career.  His enthusiasm lasted his lifetime as he advanced through the ranks and subsequently became the head of the Survey. 

Bound copies of the maps by county at the Royal Irish Academy
He describes the early years of the six inch map project which required staff to walk almost every inch of the country, often under difficult circumstances of weather, climate, terrain, bog and wilderness.  The six inch survey was completed in less than thirty years. The survey continued with a further one inch map and at a much later date (1888) a twenty five inch map was organised because of the importance of identifying boundaries between lands which were being distributed during the Land Acts and which required clear evidence of ownership. The use of satellites is mentioned in chapters 11 and 12..  On pages 73 to 80 there is information about the various map printing processes.

The extraordinary hardships of the early surveys were eventually to be mitigated by the use of aerial photography, organised at first by the army air corps and later by their own planes.  And today, with the availability of satellites, not only the outline but the contours of every square yard of Ireland are made freely available to those working in this area.

There was an early attempt to replace the Irish with English place names.  This would have been a major undertaking in itself.  In this respect it was mentioned in passing that the Catholic clergy in Ireland were opposed to the use of the Irish language.  However Larcom, the English immigrant who learned the language, was determined to prevent English place names becoming widespread. It was surely extraordinary  that it was an Englishman who was  so responsible for  retaining this important cultural aspect of Irish history and identity

say no more...
John O’Donovan was also to become insistent on retaining Irish place names.  O’Donovan, Eugene O’Curry and others made a huge contribution in recording details of antiquities, old churches, castles, cromlechs, raths, forts, ancient ruins and local traditions as a wider part of such surveys. All those of us who have a pride in our country’s  history, culture and traditions owe a great  deal of gratitude to those who were responsible for our Ordnance Survey from Wellington and Wellesly down to the many other Irish and English who made such a contribution to our country’s history. We should be including information about this aspect of our history in our secondary schools.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Around Ireland with a Pan

Someone else's delicious looking parsnip and carrot soup.
Around Ireland with a Pan – Food, Tales and Recipes.  Éamonn O’Catháin. Liberties Press, Dublin, 2004. 

This review was written on July 30th 2004

I tried once to specialise in making carrot and parsnip soup which, I was told, was tolerably pleasing to the palate, but it was a time-consuming exercise which did not suit my workaholic temperament. I eventually desisted, thus bringing my cooking career to a sad close. It seems strange that I, despite my domestic failures, should be qualified to review a travel book which deals with some of the writer’s favourite culinary establishments and their usual or unusual recipes,

There are short separate sections in the book dealing with specific establishments in each of the 32 counties of Ireland.  The book is designed in particular for the seasoned traveller. Éamonn O’Catháin is well-known, first as a restaurateur and latterly as a lecturer and broadcaster. He is known for his wide knowledge of the arcane art of haute cuisine as well as the ordinary grub that most of us live on. He can be heard and seen any Wednesday evening at 8.0pm on TV 4 i nGaeilge agus i mBéarla, a programme called BIA’s Bóthar.

He is an inveterate traveller, both in Ireland and Europe. He is obviously a gourmet and bon viveur, and is clearly qualified to write a travel book informing us of some of the most interesting and celebrated restaurants, bistros and coffee shops in our country. The short text on each county includes useful and amusing comments which are helpful to the traveller who takes his or her comfort, food and drink seriously, and he talks with chefs and owners, so that you can advise the waiter at the end of your repast ‘My compliments to Michel, the chef ’or tell the owner what you think of the establishment. 

If in doubt...
Numerous recipes are scattered throughout the text which should be easy to follow, even for the most reluctant neophyte.   If you travel the outer suburbs of your town or city, or if you travel the four corners of Ireland, you should carry this handy and elegantly produced paperback in the glove compartment of your car or in your bum or saddle bag. But bring a map too as some of these restaurants may be sited in quite remote places away from the more crowded habitations of the less sophisticated and impecunious grubber. If you are a stay-at-home type and if you have access to the kitchen you will still find the recipes worth following. If you follow his recipe instructions regularly you might some day find yourself included in a later edition of his book.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Lorcan Walshe – The Tarot Cards


Lorcan Walshe – The Tarot Cards

Written on November 18th 2014

I first met Lorcan Walshe in 1975.  I had just deserted the conventional life of middle class Dublin and found myself with new associations and new people, including Lorcan and his rather bohemian group, most of whom were students or recent graduates of National College of Art and Design.

Just as I was sowing my wild oats for the second time, he was then sowing his for the first, and I am sure that he will agree that he was doing so with the same energy, enthusiasm and commitment which he was to show later in his painting career.  I feared that he might finish his days as a social anarchist, out to destroy the current world order and himself in the process and perhaps the rest of us too.  However, it was clear to me that he was a person of unusual talent, imagination and ability, and that he had some shreds of a social conscience which even in these early years he could articulate during his more rational moments.

Happily, his energies and talents were soon directed into more creative channels as he followed his true vocation.  I must have been one of the first to acquire his pictures.  I now have a small collection but even this relatively modest number testifies to his extraordinary versatility as an artist – his eclectic themes, his superb draughtsmanship, his wide variety of media, including pen, pencil, crayon, even biro as well as oil, watercolour, acrylic, tempera, pastel and charcoal.  I can truly say that my collection is a constant source of challenge and pleasure, and has enhanced the meaning of my daily life.

The Empress
Those who are familiar with his work appreciate Lorcan’s versatility and understand the political, social, moral, spiritual and aesthetic factors which are the bedrock of his art and his philosophy.  The powerful and traumatic Warrington exhibition, Paradise Lost, based on the theme of the massacre of the innocents and the Warrington tragedy, and his Damascus exhibition testify to his concern about the well-being and future of humanity and to the crucial part art plays in our culture and in our civilization.  I suspect his painting is motivated more by the message he wishes to convey rather than the visual results.  And Lorcan’s holistic interests extend beyond the visual arts to poetry and literature.
The critic, John M. Farrell, wrote of the Warrington exhibition Paradise Lost

If art be but a means of directing us on the journey of revelation then I am confident that it will be artists like Lorcan Walshe who (will) help us to find that inner Paradise Regained.

And we have the symbolism and the political and social messages in his Tarot Cards series with its autobiographical nuances.

The Tower
Richard Cavendish, in his treatise on the Tarot, first published in 1975, praises the ancient cards for their beauty but states that most modern decks are painfully ugly.  He might have been less assertive if he had seen Lorcan’s work.  Cavendish also states that as works of communication the cards’ significance is as mysterious as is their origin.  When I first saw the cards at the launch of Lorcan’s exhibition at Hendricks Gallery in 1985 I was struck by his brilliant portraiture and by his symbolism, and it took me only a moment to beat others to the desk with my cheque book in my hand.

There have been countless Tarot sets published since the fifteenth century and countless symbols invented which cover the entire spectrum of European culture, religion and history.  Most of the symbols have had a local, contemporary and topical as well as a historical connotation but whether the combination of symbols and the unity of cards have a more subtle message is a question I leave to wiser and more insightful analysts.  If I were to attempt a general interpretation of the cards as conceived by Lorcan I would concern myself with the state of the world past, present and future.  I would see in the Devil, the Tower, the Hanging Man, the Day of Judgement, Justice and the World the compelling need for a second coming to shake us out of our complacency about the effect our materialistic secular and wasteful western culture is having on Nature and our planet, and the threat it poses to the survival of future generations.

Western society is in serious denial about the consequences of our failure to live in harmony with nature.  The hubris of Man’s dominance over Nature can only end in Nemesis unless the artist’s of this world can give the lead to bring us back in balance with the wonderful God given surroundings of this planet Earth.  Perhaps Lorcan’s cards may show us the way.

The Major Arcana in the words of the artist

I work towards paintings which function primarily on two levels.  The discipline and technology of painting fascinate and challenge me: and I bring this to bear on a wide variety of materials: oil, acrylic, tempera, pastel and charcoal.  The more familiar that I become with these materials the more possibilities they present.

My other main area of concern is the human condition and the extraordinary beautiful and brutal way it manipulates itself and its environment.  In my paintings I seek a structure where this phenomenon can be explored.  To achieve this it is sometimes necessary to develop the images of a personal mythology or at other times I re-interpret an established mythology – as in the Tarot series.

Nobody knows where Tarot cards originate although there are suggestions that Egypt, China or India is the birthplace of these enigmatic images.  Certainly influences from all of these places had been used by the designers of the earliest cards.

The packs which finally emerged, more or less in their present from in the fourteenth century, were probably developed from those which were carried by gypsies during their periodic westerly migrations.

I became interested in the Tarot through the writings of Carl Jung, and surmised that the cards were intrinsically a map of the subconscious.

In the Major Arcana (the first 22 of the 78 Tarot cards), Jung thought that this was the archetypical journey through life: each card describing a particular aspect of the psyche.

To me, the Major Arcana became a symbolic structure which would enable me to portray the human condition in an autobiographical manner.

Over two years I studied and meditated on the Tarot cards and learnt to interpret them from an Italian lady who had studied them while staying with gypsies in India.  During 1986 I made the first five paintings of the series in Dublin and completed the remaining seventeen paintings during an intense period of work when I stayed at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in February and March of 1987.

I decided to paint the Major Arcana on a miniature scale in accordance with the tradition of transmitting powerful visual messages from a limited surface area.  I used imagery from the History of Art and from the Twentieth Century in combination with established symbolism of the Major Arcana.  I included portraits of acquaintances that embodied the particular archetype a card represented.  As numerous versions of the Tarot had been made over the centuries, it was the symbolism of the older Marseilles pack and the relatively recent Waite Rider version that had been primarily used.  Occasionally all traditional imagery has been abandoned and replaced with relevant modern symbolism, (i.e. The Tower – in the background is the Hiroshima Dome).

It is unnecessary for the viewer to have knowledge of the Major Arcana in order to respond to these paintings.  The Tarot is designed to stimulate an intuitive response and the ancient symbols which they contain are essentially subliminal devices which activate the imagination.

The completed work of twenty two pieces is grouped together as a unit.  Within this work are contained political, mystical, sexual, religious and aesthetic interpretations of a reality which presents itself to me

The Tarot cards are in private hands but readers of the blog may see them if they attend a reception at 3pm on Saturday the 17th of January 2015. For an invitation you need to send your email address and telephone number to Lisa, the editor of the blog at

Friday, 5 December 2014

Pilgrims of the Air.

Pilgrims of the Air. John Wilson Foster. Notting Hill Edition Ltd. 

This review was written on January 1st 2014

This book was a gift from Julie and Paddy Magee who live beside Strangford Lough in County Down and who are interested both in trees and in birds.  Louise and I have known them for a long time as members of the Irish Tree Society which is a 32-county organisation. The book is a short compact hardback which is devoted to the history of the Passenger Pigeon in North America.

When the Europeans arrived in North America in the early 17th century the Passenger Pigeon was present in enormous numbers, estimated in billions as is evident in the many accounts available to us from historians, ornithologists and other natural history writers who have left their account of the Europeans who emigrated to North America in the early years. The pigeons remained widespread until the mid-19th century but by the first few years of 1900 not a single bird could be found to remind us of their rich presence.

Clifton Hodge led a campaign in the early 1900s offering prizes to any who could find and identify a living Passenger Pigeon but he and others were unsuccessful in their enquiries. The only evidence provided was about 14 remains of the bird and a few of its eggs in a museum. Chapter 1 is devoted entirely to the intensive and unsuccessful search in the United States and Canada for evidence of the Passenger Pigeon in the 20th century. The bird loss was a reminder of humanity’s destructive effect on the fauna of our world. This essay is relevant to our awareness of the current and progressive drop in bird population in the world to-day.

The huge population of Passenger Pigeons seems to have continued to the mid-1800s. The birds inhabited the eastern side of the United States and Canada as far as the great Lakes, and then along the Mississippi and Missouri down to the Mexican border.  They travelled closely together in huge packs and they travelled long distances according to seasonal and weather conditions. They did not occupy the western and south western areas of North America.

Chapter 3 provides a description of the fauna and flora of the eastern United States during the 17th and 18th century stretching from Florida up north to the St Laurence River.  The wealth of trees and the wealth and variety of fauna are striking compared to what has remained in the last hundred years.  The abundance of flora and fauna and the abundance of food were evident in many accounts although there were problems at times amongst the early settlers of seasonal starvation because of heavy forests, adverse weather, arable land limitations and conflict with the local Indians.

Among some of the English settlers was a strict Protestant view of the super-abundance which they considered was unnatural throughout this wild area.  The seemingly interminable forest was the habitat of sinfulness and wickedness; it cried out for order, discipline and management through agriculture which required felling, clearing and cultivation.  Nature was also an enemy when she perversely withheld her bounty leading to famine and drought, as had happened in Newfoundland, Virginia, Carolina etc. in the early years.   The new world was to be a spiritual and material enterprise. Colonisation demanded conversion.  Native abundance, at first marvelled at, was to be harnessed and pruned.  Nature should be appropriated, exploited and marketed.  God had originally stocked the world plainly with creatures for the use of man.  Creatures had served man in Europe and now it was the turn of their fellows across the ocean.  Many species of animals, including the Passenger Pigeon, were to suffer the lethal consequences of this conviction.

There was a rapid increase in the population of America in the second half of the 19th century with the wide extension of highways and railways.  Communication and travel extended rapidly which made it easier for ornithologists and for trappers and bird hunters to find the birds in their natural habitat.   Local papers and the rapid increase of letters and telegrams quickened the pace by which the location of large pigeon roosts and nestings could be revealed and shared.  The trains reduced the time it took pigeoners and hunters to report for duty and set about the work of destruction.  The rapid increase in railway and telegraphic communication increased enormously the profits and the activities of the bird hunters who could collect several hundred birds in one catch and have them sent quickly to the nearest towns and cities where the birds were in great demand as a delicacy. The development of the frigidaire added to the ease of providing the birds to the market. 

The birds travelled invariably in huge packs and were easily captured by special netting and by more efficient guns which could drop dozens of the closely packed birds in one shot. The density of the packs and the closeness of their numbers made them particularly vulnerable to the attention of the trappers who were suitably equipped and who received a rich reward for their products.

The roasted birds were delicious and were in great demand.Cookery books were full of information about the preparation of the pigeon which could be roasted, potted and stewed. One recipe was pigeon stewed with salt, pork, eggs and red wine. Clearly, particularly when there was a shortage of food, the pigeons became a very important source of food for the Canadians and the Americans.  There were various recipes in the books for pigeon pie using puff pastry and the little cutlet cover with mushroom, boiled eggs and as many freshly killed pigeons as the dish will contain in each layer.  Pigeon livers were also popular.  The squab potpie also became popular.  The squab was the young, recently born pigeon.  Also to be preserved, the birds could be salted down and kept in port barrels for winter use.

Alexander Wilson was a Scot who emigrated to the United States and who proved to be the most famous naturalist and ornithologist to arrive there. He travelled the western and middle States, mostly on foot, and provided an enormous amount of information, particularly about the natural history and behaviour of the Passenger Pigeon. He was above all a wonderer as well as a walker and wrote the volumes “American Ornithology” as part of his contribution to the history of the country.  There is an extraordinary description by him of the hours-long passage of Passenger Pigeons flying south over a period of four hours with a lateral expansion of a few miles. He estimated that there must have been several billion birds in the flock that passed him. The text emphasises Wilson’s huge contribution to ornithology and also that of other observers. The huge mass of birds was dense enough to dim the daylight and they left a ghostly impression as the birds were deprived of any form of sound.

Chapter 8  provides great detail about the natural history of mid-America, swarming with wild pigs, pigeons, squirrels, woodpeckers and other fauna, and in one paragraph Wilson describes ‘’ --- stepped off the road at Lexington to visit a pigeon city apparently abandoned by the birds. He could see it was several miles broad and he was told it was forty miles long’’.

A Passenger Pigeon chick
An ornithologist called Schorger studied the whole question of the history of the Passenger Pigeons.  It was after they had disappeared that he examined newspapers going back more than two centuries. He collected an enormous amount of information about the swarms of pigeons noted all over the eastern United States.  He reported in the newspapers the huge size of the swarms and their numbers which were certainly in billions. Their wellbeing and numbers depended on the state of the trees and the variation in the production of acorns and of beechnuts and other tree fruits.

The deforestation which occurred in the United States was a major deterrent to the pigeons because of their tradition of existing only in large and intimate numbers. A huge industry had developed in the pigeon business when countless millions of pigeons were captured and were brought by train and boat to built-up areas.  Hundreds of people were permanently working as trappers.  From one railway station alone in the late 1800s, 150 barrels containing about 190,000 birds were shipped every day to built-up areas.  Stool pigeons were used widely as a decoy to attract the birds. Schorger read in one book a description of the pigeon business as a form of disciplined butchery.  Up to 100,000 hunters came from all over the Union to the great Wisconsin nesting of 1871.  A party of 27 mustered at Kilburn to witness the slaughter there. They estimated the shooting down of 2,500 birds in one early morning and the loss of hundreds of eggs. The slaughtered birds were shipped off by freight train to Chicago.

Coming to the end of the 19th century there was some concern expressed by a few lonely voices about the wellbeing of wildlife but it was only a whisper. Even among the ornithologists there was little concern about the pigeon, at least until they were remembered by a few well into the 20th century. There was little concern about the destruction of wildlife. Page 160 gives a list of birds which were threatened or destroyed in the 19th century.  It was the age of extermination according to one observer.  In the southern states in particular there was a huge mortality amongst all the native birds, many of which were known to us in Europe.

A modern day haul from a bird hunt in Argentina
At the end of the 19th century birds were valued, mostly for feathers and skins and of course for eating.  There was a huge destruction of Robins and what we would call domestic birds.  Feathers were used for all types of dresses, furniture and bedding, by decorators and others.  Frank Chapman identified 40 species of American birds mounted on hats as he walked the up-town shopping districts of New York. The collecting of eggs was popular as was the stuffing of birds by taxidermists. Ornithologist shot birds with the studied indifference of the scientist. Animal life had no time for sentiment. 

Passenger Pigeons in a museum
The pigeons had disappeared completely by the end of the century.  It was only towards the end of the 1890’s that people began to be aware of their disappearance  Apparently the decline had started in 1871 but the change was hardly noticed, at least in the literature.  The last credible sighting was noticed in 1902 in Missouri.  As far as is known, none were found after that date.  The decline was so precipitous that it occurred over less than two generations.

Have we to-day learned anything from the destruction of the Passenger Pigeon in America and the destruction of other birds and animals of that sub-continent? Have we adopted attitudes towards nature which are inconsistent with our own wellbeing? Does our insistence on a better standard of living conflict with the wellbeing of our natural surroundings on which we are dependent for our survival and that of our children?

The answer is yes. Like the population of the United States and the rest of the world we are gradually eroding that part of nature on which we and our children depend – our flora and fauna and, most seriously, our gross waste of the limited fossil fuel of the world and the over production of CO2 which sooner rather than later will make the planet uninhabitable for humanity and much living matter.

Just as they were busy destroying the vast number of birds and many other living things, the Americans and the rest of the world are following the Passenger Pigeons to our own destruction. We are unable to face up to the reality of our situation. At least a hundred years ago we did not have the knowledge we have to-day but now we know from measuring our atmospheric CO2 that our atmosphere will soon be incompatible with human and organic life unless we act and act immediately to reduce our fossil fuel consumption to keep a balance within nature. I believe there is only one solution. We must return to community living and to maintain a strict balance between our needs and the limited bounty of Nature.