Image of the Week: Holdfast

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I am noticing a temptation during this series to ‘one-up’ myself, to do a more ‘interesting’ or weird photo than the previous week. It’s a temptation that  I am going to try and subvert as it is not only a denial of missteps or failure or process but it is a drive that seems to say there is only one way to take a perfect photograph, paint a painting, or write a piece of writing. This is clearly not so. There are different tones and contexts. There are thoughtful works, shocking works, works that comfort us or unsettle us or make us think. Even a bad work- especially a bad work – teaches us something or inspires us to do better. Sometimes, what seems to be a weak work may not in certain contexts be weak at all. A weak work can make a collection of works more interesting, provide a low note to a high note. Perhaps it’s attributes may be harder to uncover yet more interesting for that difficulty.

I have only grappled with these thoughts since I started writing this piece but I recognise it as an important issue for me in my work. In every artwork I do I am trying to get it perfect, include everything in the world in it and while that impulse can lead to wonderfully chaotic results its a huge pressure that denies the importance of development. I only see now, five years after returning to college, the path my work has taken, how each work relates to the others, how everything is joined up, how it makes sense in its context in my developmental arc despite my innate anti-structuralism – or whatever you’d call it, this weird dissociated, disjointed take on the world.

Why do I think this photo is weak?It’s pretty(I think) and it is well enough balanced. It speaks of sun and the beach and nature but there are far better nature/sea/beach photos out there. It is not saying anything new. It’s a bit ‘nice’. I like things a little twisty and a little dark and maybe funny or unsettling.

What I do like about this picture is the subject. The holdfast is the root system of kelp. I always liked that name – holdfast. It speaks of strength, determination and persistence in the face of stormy seas.

***

I was on the beach today in the sun after a rare swim surrounded by nature my mind wandering idly about when it occurred to the saying ‘all we have is each other’ might mean something beyond a do-goody imprecation to be nice. Maybe it means that in the world that is wild and untamed where nothing makes sense, not really, all we have are the stories we tell ourselves and each other about how life is. Our shared beliefs hold us togther, allow us to map out paths, to evolve, develop. These narratives on which we balance are made up, not real, but without them we have nothing…

Another thought floats to the surface. A friend and ex-colleague of mine, Nigel. He equally inspired love and exasperation. He was in a word, indefatigable.

adjective
  1. (of a person or their efforts) persisting tirelessly. Tirelessuntiring, never-tiring, unweariedunwearyingunflagging;

Nigel was always Nigel. He was everyone’s friend, he was the same with everyone. He had advice for all, attended all the work night outs and excursions and trips. He would go to the opening of an envelope it was said. He was always doing something. He was proud of his garden and one day he asked me to let him know when there was kelp on the beaches so he could collect some for compost. I did. And he did.

Nigel died suddenly four years ago this weekend. Today when I saw the kelp on the shores I thought of Nigel and how he enjoyed his life and how we must hold fast in honour of friends who are gone, we must hang in there, we must not give up.

DUNHILL CASTLE : MORE POWER TO YOUR ELBOW

I often cycle down the coast to Annestown then up to Dunhill castle where the Anne Valley walk begins. There are views to the sea and the Comeragh mountains from the long, free wheeling hill to the coast while the narrow grey road that meanders north to the castle is, in contrast, sheltered from the wind and fringed by water meadows on one side and the gorse bobbled rise of the western side of the valley on the other. Ducks and swans paddle about on the water which, on a sunny day, is a deep silky blue against luminous green banks cross hatched with ochre reeds. You may see one of the local herons ponderously flapping down the river from its nest, following the lazily snaking watercourse looking for a good spot to stalk. Last week I saw a buzzard, which are becoming more common here, circling above while wrens, sparrows and finches swooped and twittered among the branches like feathery dropped stitches in a tapestry of gold and blue and green.

Dunhill castle, or the ivy covered ruins of it, sits on a rocky outcrop above the Anne River which meanders down to the sea at Annestown, a focal point in a gentle landscape. The entrance to the new and beautifully maintained Anne Valley Walk, a pedestrian path which continues on further up the river, is at its foot. The name Dunhill comes from the gaelic, Dun Aill, meaning fort on a rock. The castle, which was more than likely predated by a Celtic fort, was built during the golden era of castle building inaugurated by King John in the 13th century. Additions in the 15th century are also still visible.  It was a seat of the Power family. The Powers-or le Paor or de Paors-meaning ‘the poor’ possibly in relation to some vow of poverty (Name Origins, 2017) perhaps connected to the First Crusade, came over with the Norman invasion. Robert le Paor was awarded much of the land that is County Waterford by Henry II in 1175 on the back of a papal bull which was said to have been obtained by false pretences. The Power land in effect ran from the Tramore/Waterford meridian in the east to the Comeragh Mountains in the west. The Power name is still dominant in these parts. Many of my neighbours are called Power. Tyrone Power, the movie star of the golden era of Hollywood was a Waterford Power.

The Power family’s raucous history has all the legendary elements that would be the downfall of the Irish:the fighting and the drinking. There are two stories of the Powers with which I am some way familiar which capture I think the nature of our history. The first is a matter of historical record.

In 1368 the Powers joined forces with the O’Driscolls of West Cork, some 120 miles away to launch the first of over a century worth of attacks on Waterford city, a mere 10 miles to the east. It is an Irish historical truth that life would be far too boring if you weren’t at war with your neighbours. Waterford city was bloodied, no match for the galleys of the O’Driscoll’s, but untaken.  In 1461, Waterford defeated the same alliance but in 1537 all hell broke loose when a Waterford ship full of wine was taken by the O’Driscolls in Baltimore, West Cork. The outraged people of Waterford sent a small force to get the ship back and then launched a larger invasion which decimated the O’Driscolls after which, according to Canon Power’s history, they were not heard of again, at least in a war-like connection. To this day three galleys adorn Waterford’s coat of arms in celebration of the victory (Power, 1933).

The second story is a legend attached to the fall of the castle to Cromwells’ troops in 1649 though it has the ring of an Irish truth to it. The lady of the castle, variously named as Lady Power, Lady Gyles and Countess Giles, was in charge of the defences while her husband John Power was helping defend another stronghold at Kilmeaden. The defence was succeeding when a gunner asked for refreshments for his tired men. Lady Power supposedly supplied buttermilk instead of the usual beer. This could have been because of low supplies, religious conviction or a desire to keep the men sharp, no one knows for sure, but this substitution upset the gunner so much that he surrendered the castle to the invaders in a huff. He was immediately hung by Cromwell as a traitor (Walsh, 2016). The moral of these stories perhaps might be…

… don’t mess with our beer.

***

These days Waterford is bustling city while the Anne Valley lies still under the arc of sky, its rhythm dictated by the slow flap of the heron and the spiral of the buzzard. The only drama now is the kestrel diving on an unfortunate mouse or a fish flickering briefly before a long slide down the grey gullet. But if you stop for a minute the wind might bring the tramp of soldiers feet, the clatter of hooves, the clash and crash of steel on steel and the drift of smoke as our fighting ancestors launch themselves, still, into joyful mayhem, faces shining as brightly as Cuchculain’s did when he jumped into the light.

This original illustration of Dunhill Castle and other watercolours are available on my Etsy shop. Please feel free to browse.

References & Further Reading

For further reading you could do a lot worse than Canon Power (naturally) famous history as well as his other writings. Fergus Walshs’ (another Waterford name) piece on Dunhill Castle is also a good read.

Discover Ireland (2017), Dunhill Castle, [online], available at http://www.discoverireland.ie/Arts-Culture-Heritage/dunhill-castle/71130 [accessed 14/04/2017].

Name Origin Research, (2017), Last name: Power, [online], available at http://www.surnamedb.com/Surname/Power [accessed 14/04/2017].

Power, P., (1933) A Short History of County Waterford, online, available at http://snap.waterfordcoco.ie/collections/ebooks/95153/95153.pdf [accessed 14/04/2017].

Walsh, F., (2016), Fearsome Past: The History of Dunhill Castle, [online], available at http://www.theirishplace.com/948/fearsome-past-the-history-of-dunhill-castle/ [accessed 14/04/2017].

Walton, J., (2000), The Power Surname, [online], available at http://www.lynskey.com/projects/new%20zealand/Information/Power%20Surname.htm [accessed 15/04/2017].

Garden in Waiting.

NsGARLICA while ago I visited an old colleague. Before I left he invited me into his garden. The patio area was swept and clean, the grass was mown and all the plants well tended. In a brick planter he had some garlic growing, their stalks reaching up to the sky in regular rows. Would that I could keep my few unruly pots so tidy! He pulled a bulb from the earth for me, carefully winding a plastic bag around it so that I wouldn’t get soil in my car.

It sat in my fridge for a few weeks. When I finally took it out, still mosaiced with earth, one of the cloves – streaked magenta under the clinging scabs of soil – had pushed out a pale green sprout and the stalks were yellow green, crinkled and crisp. I was reluctant to break it not just because of my fondness for the giver but because of its richness and the character and life that seemed to burst from it. I decided to plant the cloves and grow my own neat (unruly) rows of garlic. But first I drew it, its earthy fecundity and tangled stalkiness putting its anaemic, clipped supermarket cousins to shame.

I thought of him while I sketched. We had planned a coffee with him, another colleague and myself, and as I drew the garlic clove, I thought of telling him about my new, tiny, neat (unruly) garden in waiting. I would organise it soon, that coffee. Maybe tomorrow…

But tomorrow never came. Only days later the news arrived and I knew that whoever would be easing the remaining bulbs of garlic from their earthy bed, it would not be him. And the garden remains in waiting. Rest well Nigel. You were more precious than I knew.