Five thousand years ago, on the windswept edge of Western Europe, near the village of Ballycastle, halfway between Benwee Head and Killala Bay, a community of farmers, cattlemen, crafters of wood and stone, men and women of passionate beliefs were engaged in an organic and spiritual existence alongside the daunting, relentless sea cliffs of North Mayo.
The primeval forest of Ireland was slowly and meticulously cleared with polished stone axes, and a quarter million tons of fieldstone were replaced by barley, wheat and cattle hemmed in by neatly arranged walls of liberated stone. This ancient settlement was widely scattered about the landscape and enjoyed the relative peace of a developed social order, not feeling the need for defensive walls. It was undisturbed until a climatic change of a few degrees brought increased rain and a gradual loss of fertility, which contributed to the birth of the great bog of Mayo, a hundred square miles between the Nephin Beg mountains to the south and west, and the peaks of Slieve Fyagh, Benmore and Maumakeogh to the north.
Discovered only in recent times, this settlement, referred to as the Ceide Fields, lay silent beneath a five-millennium collection of Atlantic blanket bog up to ten meters thick. The Stone Age enclosures, megalithic tombs, and evidence of a sophisticated level of Neolithic farming were captured and preserved within the abnormal life cycles of the heathers, mosses, and purple moor grass that never fully decay within the antiseptic action of the bog.
Further south, along the coast of Blacksod Bay, the Ballycroy bog juts precariously seaward and is subjected to continuous battering by frequent storms and flood tides with dramatic lumbering and white-fringed marine swells that deliver chaos to the high-banked shingle beaches. In a familiar aftermath, hard and wind -dried fragments of disheveled blanket bog litter the pummeled beaches, alongside the occasional roots, trunks or fallen branches of sub fossil timber, paleo-botanical survivors and relics of the Ceide Fields era, dislodged from the thick layer of moist surfside bog. This newly emancipated bogwood is further assailed by tidal back-wash and then duly released into the great funnel of Black Sod Bay. Parcels of the bogwood will eventually make it back to shore, riding a storm beyond the high water mark to a place where a journey of another nature beckons.
“The bogwood seems to emit a haunting power, the perfect medium for a sculptor’s imagination who chooses to work with the medium. Such treasures refuse to be forced,” asserts sculptor Ronnie Graham of County Galway.
The initial transformation of this ancient medium has occurred over the millennium, as the submersed wood took on altered characteristics. The yews became a rich shade of auburn, the oak a fine black, self-lubricating wood, and the pine assumed a golden hue. Add to this mix a unique artist’s touch and the transformation takes an inward turn with the creation of flowing forms, figures, faces and birds. Graham works from his Kinvara studio on the edge of the stark and irrefutable beauty of the Burren. This unspoiled botanical delight of a region is tucked into the northwest corner of County Clare and bordered to the west by the Atlantic Ocean and Galway Bay.
Discussing a few of the natural forces which contribute to the distinctive character of his work, Graham says, “Out of its underground home all bogwood has various degrees of decay in motion. Insects `work’ the wood, burrowing, setting up home, eating it, etc. Give them a few years along with the weathering elements of the twelve seasons of an Irish year and the bogwood gets slowly and naturally sculpted.”
Carving exclusively in bogwood for nearly twenty years, Graham has witnessed a rise in popularity of a medium which has been historically recognized as a source of fuel, furniture, rope, and bog-cluttering aggravation for generations of turf cutters in pursuit of the hearth-warming peat.
Graham’s career as a woodcarver began in 1981, as a knee-jerk reaction to the daily realities of life in Belfast and quickly accelerated to a fascination with the process and challenges offered within the art of mallet upon chisel. He moved to Galway in the early 1980s specifically to study and work with the various bogwoods. Presently, as an established master carver, his work can be found in collections and exhibitions from Harvard Square to Italy, the most recent outing by invitation to an international exhibition hosted by the Massachusetts State House in Boston.
The ability of Irish artists to persevere within the ebb and flow of tourism, the oft-volatile world events, economic uncertainties and the tender mercies of weather, requires a relentless talent. A lively sense of humor and the ever-present ability to charm also helps in occasions when a commission is endangered by a rare bout of snow and reveals tracks of a misguided bog banger through a hallowed cultivation and leads directly to the doors of a red-faced Lord of the Manor.
And then there is, of course, Kenny’s Gallery. “Vision is Ronnie Graham’s great gift. He brings these ancient wood pieces alive, invests them with an energy and a dignity that transforms them into unique works of art,” explains gallery manager Tom Kenny.
Appropriately, the Kenny family history reveals another journey of mutual endurance that began in 1940, when Tom’s parents, Des and Maureen Kenny, rented two rooms on High Street in Galway. They lived in one room and opened a bookshop in the other, started a lending library and a sixty-year trek across the literary and artistic landscape of Western Ireland. From the very beginning they sold limited editions of contemporary prints and displayed paintings and sculptures by Irish artists on the walls, nooks, crannies and atop the books. In 1968, they hosted a solo event by the famous Irish artist Sean Keating. The exhibition was held in the converted living room of their home, which became the first art gallery in the West of Ireland and a valued tradition that continues today with the participation of three generations of the Kenny family. Book launchings, signings and exhibitions by artists of both Irish and international reputation remain a regular occurrence from an updated, medieval location in the heart of Galway. A league of artistry continues to flow into the mainstream of the art world from this place of leather-bound rare books, Irish ephemera, the occasional masterpiece and sure, a coveted journey’s end for many a traveler, scholar and artistic trek. ♦