Gerald O’Brien is a member of the Board of Directors of West Cork Arts Centre in Skibbereen and a notable historian of the history and culture of Ireland and West Cork.

The text below is Gerald O’Brien’ presentation to the BreadMatters III Forum.

Bread Matters III Forum @ West Cork Arts Centre
Saturday 17 September 2005

Gerald O’Brien

Some twelve months ago, Ann Davoren, our Director here in Skibbereen, invited me to make this contribution to today’s Forum. Aware of the European dimension of Bread Matters, I felt some reluctance to accept. However, in the light of the inclusiveness of art, and of the universality of bread, I agreed to go in, at what was for me, the deeper end.

In all cultures, over many ages, the subject of bread has had an unbroken currency: bread and circuses for the Romans, bread and water for prisoners; and, in the monastic age, the penalty of ‘begging for bread’ from fellow-anchorites at meal times was, for grave breaches of house rules, sometimes imposed.

The first Bread Matters exhibition was mounted at Lublin in 2000; in subsequent years it was travelled to Lisbon and eventually here to West Cork, Ireland in 2005. Thus internationalised, the shows discover a wide range of artistic interpretations of the subject; and, if a common thread, side by side with the bread, could be identified as linking them all, that, most likely could be found in the proposition that men and women live ‘not on bread alone’.

The bread presented here seeks to satisfy the aesthetic as distinct from the physical appetite. I suggest that in that objective, the current show at West Cork Arts Centre succeeds admirably. In addition here, there is the theme of peripherality on two levels; the relationship of the Island of Ireland to the European land mass, and secondly, the relationship of the off-shore Islands which dot Roaring Water Bay to their Irish mainland here in West County Cork of which this town of Skibbereen is capital.

For the benefit of our visitors from afar, some idea of the position of Skibbereen in the canon of Irish towns might not be amiss. An important indicator of this is to be found on a recent map of Europe, published by National Geographic Society of Washington DC. USA (exhibited on Gallery Wall behind speaker). Running a finger from immediately south of Dublin on this, from there to where River Shannon meets the sea at Counties Clare, Limerick and Kerry, Skibbereen is one of thirteen coastal towns identified by name. No doubt as artists, your vision is conditioned to probe deeper below the level of topographies or statistics.

Has anybody present experienced an intense sense of arrival on reaching this corner of IrelandI still feel this even as a native and long-term resident. The ambience of West Cork however derives from no particular town - it is set by the interplay of light between sky and sea; it is traced along the boundaries which mark out the indented coastline at which land and water meet; in more subtle ways, it is to be found in any and in all of these. To such splendours, Skibbereen is linked by the Ilen River, tidal to a point just north of the town.

For a very long time, islands have exercised a particularly strong attraction upon artist, photographer, upon scholar and folklorist, sometimes to almost seductive effect. In the 1930s a German photographer, name of Werner Kissling, fell into the welcoming embrace of Scotland’s Western Islands. He returned many times, eventually to settle at Dumfries on the mainland. His images represent an incomparable legacy of a place, a people, a way of life, which has since disappeared forever.

Jack B Yeats, Ireland’s greatest Expressionist of the last century, attributed the country’s renowned light to the fact that Ireland is an ocean Island; given the source, not forgetting our own every-day experience, it is difficult to dissent from such a view.

The theme of Bread Matters extends beyond the question of one staple of a diet at any given time. Its full canvas must comprehend the four corner stones of the condition of an inhabited area viz. Landscape/Environment/Heritage/People. As a chosen place of settlement, the Ilen River Basin is very old indeed. Within an area of some 178 square miles, no less than 235 sites from the Bronze Age and early Christian period have been professionally recognised. Fertile soil, the waters of river and of sea seem to have ensured an unbroken supply of sustenance for many centuries. Not until the dawn of Early Modern Ireland did the pressures of population upon resources become a problem. In Ireland as a whole, after 1750 there had arisen periods of acute shortages of the food supply. But the first famine linked directly to potato crop failure struck slightly earlier in 1740; in terms of mortality rates, that may have been greater than the Great Famine of 1845 - 1849. The latter, the last such famine recorded in Western European history assailed the conscience of mankind; it did so almost as a direct consequence of the drawings of the distress on site, executed by an Irish artist, James Mahony and published in the Illustrated London News. Paris-trained, that artist worked tirelessly throughout West Cork pioneering an early form of visual news reporting, a method soon to be followed by Mathew Brady with his camera across the battlefields of the United States Civil War.

The potato crop had failed disastrously over three seasons: it failed in 1845/46; it failed in 1846/47 and again in 1847/48. Few died from actual starvation; the great majority of fatal casualties arose from epidemics, which decimated the under-nourished poor. Early in the year, which acquired the label ‘Black 47’, two important visitors made their way to Skibbereen. As young students they came over from London, to observe for themselves the calamity on the ground. They were Lord Dufferin and the Hon. G.F. Boyle. Who was Lord Dufferin He was Frederick Temple Hamilton Temple Blackwood, 1st Marquis of Dufferin and Ava (1826 - 1902). Born in Florence in Italy, he grew up on the family estate at Clandeboy, outside Belfast; he was great grandson of Richard Brainsley Sheridan (1751 - 1816) the Dublin born Dramatist. Young Lord Dufferin was the classical product of a classical British education. He attended Eton and went on to Christ Church, Oxford, from which, in 1847 he could as yet not have come down, for his Skibbereen visit was undertaken in February and he was then but 21 years old. Over some ten days while here, he visited the diseased and the dying; he went into the wretched cabins to comfort those too weak to come to the door to greet their distinguished caller. His courage in doing so compares with that exhibited by the late and lovely Diana, Princess of Wales, who in our own times, did not stop short of shaking hands with those dying of AIDS at a time when the exact mode of contagion of that modern scourge had not as yet been conclusively determined. And, still unexplained to us, there exists a strange link between an event of the last day of Dufferin and Boyle in Skibbereen and an outdoor installation piece, forming part of this Exhibition, 158 years later.

You have seen the bread loaves suspended from the tree (Bread Tree by Alice Maher) just outside these galleries Here on North St; at front door of the then Carbery Arms Hotel, no further than some doors down from where we stand, Lord Dufferin and his friend attempted to distribute a large quantity of bread he had purchased in the Town for relief of the starving. From the ground-level entry door, the exercise proved impossible: a riot had developed in the struggle to lay hands upon a morsel of this bounty. The donors repaired to a street-front window of the first floor of the hotel through which they proceeded to cast down the loaves to all who could catch them; thus did necessity born of desperation force a novel application of the system of ‘first come, first served’. Bearing in mind the rarity of the sight of baked bread high above eye level, out of reach and out of touch, for all comers, it is difficult to resist some connection, however tenuous, between the bread on the tree and the ‘manna from heaven’ doled out to the distressed by two so conscientious, in the dark days of the Great Famine of the 1840s. But even then after the bread there was more to come. The same Lord Dufferin sent over the amount of one thousand pounds sterling, an enormous sum in 1847, as his anonymous contribution to famine relief.

And it offers one more assurance - if such were needed - that bread has always mattered; it mattered then, it matters still.

© Gerald O’Brien - September 2005.

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