BY JOHN FITZGERALD
September witnessed a countywide flowering of arts and culture. The finest of singers, artists and topnotch lecturers once again highlighted Kilkenny’s primacy, and irresistible attraction, as a creative hub.
I went along to some of these. First, I stepped into Callan’s Church of the Assumption to listen to the Cois Nore Choir; a group I hadn’t yet heard or seen performing. From the first note to the final harmonic vocalization I was transfixed.
If a choir of angels had alighted in Callan they could hardly have done better. Seldom had the historic “Big Chapel” echoed with such unbridled joy. The church was packed to the rafters with people aged from six or under to (I’m told) 98, all humming, swinging, whistling or clapping along as the choir offered old favourites like Those were the days, my friend, as well as soulful renditions of spiritual numbers such as Amazing Grace and Swing low, sweet Chariot.
I agreed with someone who opined afterwards that the performance brought Heaven and Earth a little closer to each other that night. The singers even managed to give a blast of Always look on the bright side of life, albeit with a minor revision to one of the verses.
The Cois Nore Choir, apart from its wealth of talent that we heard in the church, has played a commendable role in charity fund-raising countywide, making a huge difference to people’s lives.
The award-winning Fennelly’s of Callan played host to music of a different kind. Belfast group Landless sings unaccompanied trad songs adapted from the cultures of Scotland, Ireland, England and America in close four-part harmony.
The critically acclaimed women enchanted the bustling throng in Fennelly’s courtyard, a former farmyard that also once doubled as an undertaker’s in the days when the present-day arts café was a pub and grocery.
One felt transported back to former times and places as songs of love, loss, war, lamentation, famine, coal mines and emigration pierced the wintry air and friendly flames danced in half-barrels tastefully positioned at intervals in the courtyard to keep the patrons, sipping their wine or lattes, warm and comfy at a venue that has been likened in online reviews to a film set.
A highpoint of the night was when the women sang a song referencing aspects of Callan’s ancient heritage, specially composed for the occasion. Allusions to the rising “holy bubbles” of the old abbey well elicited thrills of recognition and a collective nostalgic gasp.
It was a most enjoyable performance, and by the time it ended some of us were in a state of harmonic reverie, and not just from the exquisite selection of red wines on offer.
The wonderful Sinead Fahey
Earlier that day, Etaoin Holahan, curator at Fennelly’s had welcomed a delighted gathering to the official launch of a mural on a wall of the KCAT building at Mill Lane. The unveiling was part of the Wayfinders project. The arts initiative seeks to promote and explore this part of Callan’s intrinsic worth in human terms in addition to its socio-historic import and bio-cultural diversity.
The mural was created from a stunning artwork by Sinead Fahey, who has been an artist with KCAT for 22 years. Sinead has exhibited her work all over Ireland and internationally. Most of her prolific output has an animated quality, depicting the inner radiant selves of people she knows or has known, as well as animals and facets of nature.
A keynote of her work is an unabashed, lively celebration of being. She takes a light-hearted look at all the milestones along life’s multi-faceted journey. Optimism shines through her joyous depictions of people and the lavish array of flora and fauna to which she pays homage via her breezy and cheerful approach to art.
The mural on the wall of the KCAT building is no exception. Her exotic otherworldly birds in all their colorful plumages have turned a previously bare stretch of brickwork into a feast for the eyes.
Sinead’s unmistakable signature!
Culture of another kind was in evidence at Rothe House, where talks were given on the subject of historic women of distinction with Kilkenny connections.
Angela Moylan O’ Reilly gave the first talk, on the remarkable Isabel de Clare, 4th Countess of Pembroke. Isabel, daughter of Strongbow and Aoife, was married in the 12th century as a teenager to the powerful William Marshal, reputedly one of the greatest knights of all time.
He made a lasting impact on Irish history and his deeds are chronicled in a myriad of academic tomes. William and Isabel became the quintessential medieval “power couple.”
Isabel was especially prominent in Leinster affairs, but apart from underlining the story’s Kilkenny connection, Angela’s far-ranging talk focused on the extraordinary degree of influence Isabel exerted over her lordly and militaristic husband.
Throughout their long and seemingly happy marriage he found himself deferring quite a lot to her wise counsel and judgment and, to his credit, he admitted this fact in his writings. Another reminder of the old saying that behind every great man there’s a mighty woman.
The second talk took us to a different era and two very different women. The “Ladies of Llangollen” were two Irish aristocrats who scandalized the chattering classes of their time by running away together and living more or less as a couple.
Anne Lannon gripped the audience with her tale of how the two independently-minded women defied the social and moral norms and expectations of an age far removed from our own.
The women in question were Eleanor Butler (1739–1829) of Kilkenny Castle and Sarah Ponsonby (1755–1831), of Woodstock House, Inistioge. They embarked on what was at the time a most unconventional relationship. It was a love story, though many mightn’t have perceived it as such in that “other country” that’s the past.
Anne Lannon recalled how they moved to a Gothic house in Llangollen, North Wales, in 1780 and the long list of visitors they entertained in the decades that followed, including the poets Shelley and Wordsworth, and the future Duke of Wellington. They lived happily together for fifty years, dressing in black riding gear and wearing men’s top hats in their latter years.
Anne ended her talk with a suggestion that the story of the two brave women served as a reminder of the need for tolerance towards people who, at any point in time or in any society, happen to tread the “road less traveled.”
Drawing closer to our own day, Marianne Kelly chose the life of Lady Desart for her talk. Marianne opted to play the part of the great woman, donning an early 20ith century costume and, in a sense “channeling” her subject.
We heard the riveting tale of how the Jewish-born woman went on to become an Irish politician, a champion of Gaelic revival, and a most generous benefactor to Kilkenny City and County.
It was she who commissioned the building of Talbot’s Inch. Together with her husband Captain Cuffe, she brought a succession of amenities, industries and much-needed services to Kilkenny, including the beautiful Carnegie Library, Aut Even Hospital, the Woollen Mills, the Kilkenny Woodworkers, the Kilkenny Theatre, the Tobacco Growers Association, Desart Hall, and the Talbots Inch Suspension Bridge.
Marianne entered so deeply into her subject’s persona that one almost felt the presence of the much-loved philanthropist in the auditorium.
The three speakers received rapturous applause for their presentations, each of which was impeccably rehearsed. The talks were delivered with grace and sensitivity, and showed an uncanny grasp of historical detail
Marianne Kelly expressed gratitude to her daughter Eimear and granddaughter Caoimhe Phelan for their technical assistance, reminding me that untold hours of rehearsal and preparation go into the talks and lectures for which Rothe House is renowned.
If these cultural events that I happened to attend are anything to go by, Kilkenny’s reputation as a Mecca for the arts will continue to grow and flourish, enhancing our all-too-brief earthly spell in a multitude of life-enhancing ways.