1. Fieldwork Reflections in the River Lee Valley

Inniscarra Reservoir, River Lee Valley, Co. Cork September 2007 (picture: Kieran McCarthy)
Inniscarra Reservoir, CSeptember 2007 (picture: Kieran McCarthy)

Being the proud owner of a Honda 125 motorcycle had its advantages and weaknesses. Yes, I have felt every pothole from Gougane Barra to the City, felt the steepness of the valleyside of the Lee and was open to the changing seasons and the elements of weather. Then there came a time for the bike to go to buy a bigger model. I have to say I felt sorry for the inanimate object I was leaving behind. In a sense, it was like losing a friend. It and I had spent eighteen months in the Lee Valley on fieldwork, exploring every byroad and bylane.

The old bike has got me thinking on my own journey down the Lee and what I have learned if anything.  Following the River Lee valley from source to mouth takes one on a journey of 45 miles from Gougane Barra in West Cork to the Lee Fields in Cork City. In that carved out journey, I have delighted in the flow of the Lee, encountering its physical geography in a completely different canvass to that of the north and south channel in Cork City. In essence, my decision to explore the River Lee valley was informed by by love of physical and cultural geography.

The project began as an exploration of heritage in the valley and to write about the key historical threads of places that have evolved in the Lee Valley. In addition, underlining my journey was the myth of St. Finbarre walking from Gougane Barra to the area now occupied by Cork City. Those ideas still underpin my work but the further I travelled into the heart of the various parishes in the valley the more thematic questions emerged to dabble in. For me, the geography of the valley is still important and the more I journey in it the more I see how its landscapes and people are interlinked.

The snippets of information I discover especially if is linked to a story I published a few weeks previously still excite me. It’s like finding a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that fulfils a picture.  I suppose this whole journey is like an investigation of cultural heritage and how does it survive in the busy globalised world. How do people’s identities play out on the stage that is the valley?

But my investigation has also led to vast research and I would like to think that my work aspires not only to celebrate people and place but also seeks to recover and renews an interest in local history and identity in not only the places I write about but also the people and places that receive the Cork Independent weekly.

So unearthing the concepts of place–making play a huge part in my journey. I like the idea of culture not as something static but as something living a process driving people and informing the decisions of the present. I have developed interests in ideas of legacy and how certain things are selected to be remembered and others disappear in the depths of forgotteness.

Then in the valley I have marvelled at how the landscape has transformed through ventures such as the Lee Hydroelectric and how it affected people in terms of uprooting people, providing huge employment to the Cork region and creating new attitudes, mindsets and huge debates amidst communities challenging them to change with the times.

Then there is that notion of time – I marvel at the old black and white photographs showing families from one hundred years and then marvel at the person showing me the photograph who is the present day representative. The collision of the old and the new can be witnessed across the valley. Sometimes the contrasts are worrying but at other times, without them, the sense of living communities would be redundant.  

I have really enjoyed the fieldwork component of my work. I have enjoyed walking the land with my local contacts, chatting and negociating fields and ditches and always revealing something striking. I felt like the proper explorer on many an occasion with my knapsack on my back with my notebook and camera, always ready to write or take a photograph and wrapped up as appropriate to the elements.  I have friends who call me Uncle Matt, the travelling fraggle from an old TV show Fraggle Rock, who always sent postcards back from where he was and offered commentaries on what he discovered.

Ardrum townland, Inniscarra, Co. Cork, December 2008 (picture: Kieran McCarthy)
Ardrum townland, Inniscarra, Co. Cork, December 2008 (picture: Kieran McCarthy)

However, in my own journey like Uncle Matt there were times when I was destroyed from the rain, the soaking and mucky terrain and the countryside’s bryers as they cut into my clothes holding me for a couple of seconds as if to get my attention…and then always releasing me, sending me on my way. The countryside slowed down the ‘town mouse’ or city boy element inside me – that element of one must speed up and move through. I always remember the fields of maize and the claustrophobic atmosphere they always created for me. All my guides went past the call of duty, giving me advice on how to negotiate the terrain. In addition many an afternoon’s work ended in a cup of tea and a biscuit and more stories to be told setting me off on new tangents after just completing a task.

There are places in the Lee Valley that have stuck in my mind like coming back from places such as Dripsey on these wintry days and witnessing amazing red sunset skies over Inniscarra Reservoir. I felt privileged to be viewing them. In fact, there are several signs across the Lee Valley that highlight the “beautiful Lee Valley”. The emphasis is on scenic beauty hoping that the beauty will inspire people to come and it does. For the most part though it is the local communities in the valley, which have chosen what heritage and what gems of beauties to show and to remember.

There are the small delights in the little gems of landscape that one experiences in places such as Cronody Dovecote overlooking Inniscarra Reservoir near Dripsey. I have marvelled at the antique landscapes, in particular the contrasts of standing stone versus for example the satellite on a bungalow. There are ghostly presences and spooky atmospheres in the valley’s ruined churches and graveyards.

However, this book is more than an architectural record. Even though, I have many times stopped to admire and reflect on the influences on the vernacular architecture of the multiple farmhouses, whose meandering driveways, I have wandered up searching for not only answers but also new questions. The project is also more than a study of the rich language of images and symbols that are so inherent in rural environments. In fact, the many monuments on the local landscape could be described as part of a vast and varied open-air history book just waiting to be read.

  I approached this study with a blank canvass leaving the region’s people and place to paint the picture. The majority of the participants were met whilst traversing the parishes. Many were encountered knocking on doors whilst others were referrals. Generally speaking, information in a library or on a map does not give you the tools or what could be called a barometer of life for researching people and their attachment to place. Through fieldwork and talking to people, you can see that parishes in Ireland evolved from leadership offered by individuals and families.

People brought their own ideas and talents in forging a family space, which is then set in the wider community. It is interesting to note how the talents of a few can make a place or indeed re-awaken one that is in decay. Some peoples’ stories especially their respective families in parishes began elsewhere. In particular, the commercial possibilities of the region inspired many entrepreneurs and artisan families who settled in the region through the ages.

One aspect for certain is that the more I researched the places within the region or the more doors I knocked on, the more information came to the fore. What is also apparent is that everybody’s view of the world is different. Each person encountered has a unique relationship to the past and present. It could be an insider’s view / local view or an outsider’s view like myself. For most people I met heritage was a personal and collective experience focussing on their own roots. In fact, the historical data played ‘second fiddle’ to their personal stories.

Many of the people I have interviewed talked more about life or what it means to be human. Cultural heritage, encompassing history and geography, was not something abstract but was part of a way of life. It has been interesting to view how stories and values have been handed down and how each successive generation has taken it in turn to hold a torch for some element of the past in the present.

"Nostalgic Currency", Archive of Jim Cooney, Blacksmith, May 2008
“Nostalgic Currency”, Archive of Jim Cooney, Blacksmith, May 2008

  One recurring aspect is how much the region’s cultural heritage runs metaphorically in “people’s blood”. There was a large amount of people who noted, “my father used to say to me” or “my mother used to say”. That sense of inheritance or the passing down of cultural heritage is important and is linked to legacy. It is about what local individuals have inherited and whose subsequent contribution to their world has inspired, has evolved and now contributes to their modern society. That sense of inheritance is more than just honouring people. It conjures up debates about achievement and loss.

From fieldwork and interviews, the local people focused in on several aspects of the parish’s cultural heritage. Each person brought their own insights into their place and its roots, its identity and how it is perpetuated or lives in the present. Many of the themes talked about overlapped, signifying their importance to their lives and the community as a whole. It is difficult to place a weighting on the most important aspects. They all also link to ideas of landscape, mental imagery of the past and concepts of memory.

So, this project dabbles in the architecture of heritage and its interaction with life in the River Lee valley. It does focus on a section of the Lee Valley, namely Aghabulloge, Inniscarra and Ovens parishes but is not a definitive history of those regions. For me, the essense of the project is focussed on the beauty and structure of ‘things’, which highlight, debate and celebrate our cultural heritage not only from the past but also what we have inherited in the present.

It is interesting to see evidence of the past everywhere in tangible and visible monuments but also in people’s thoughts and how it is used everyday in cultural activities. Nevertheless, the Lee Valley is evolving with all its unusual uniquenesses and all the pressures of human existence firmly to be seen. The spirit of the valley’s people is very important to the past and to the rich, current and future geographies and histories of the modern valley.

   This project is about a journey in seeking out the sense of place in the Lee Valley, a valley, which has grasped my imagination and fails to let go. I have laughed, cried, wondered, been in awe and got excited by my findings. However, it is not only the scenery but also the character of the place and its people that have become engrained in my own memories. The Lee Valley as a place has stopped me, impressed me, made me question, wonder, dream, remember, be disturbed, explore and not forget –a whole series of reactions.

With all that in mind, the articles and books on the River Lee Valley attempt to capture my explorations, the many moods and colours of the River Lee Valley, to contemplate news ways of seeing, to rediscover the characters who have interacted with it, the major events and the minor common happenings and to construct a rich and vivid mosaic of life by and on River Lee. Above all this project is not what we we have lost but what we have yet to find…

Inniscarra Reservoir, River Lee Valley, County Cork, November 2006 (picture: Kieran McCarthy)
Inniscarra Reservoir, River Lee Valley, County Cork, November 2006 (picture: Kieran McCarthy)