(LC) Support, Composition and 3 words

First decisions need to be made.

For me, the first decision was an unexpected one. I sketched a rough horizontal view of my subject, a landscape taken from Cairn H on Carnbane West. The landscape was meant to flow diagonally from the dark, open Cairn H tomb on the lower left, to the grey and misty peak of Carnbane East and Cairn T in the distance to the upper right. A cloudy sun would lighten a predominantly dark, morning sky, with the undersides of the clouds giving me some texture and helping to grey the distant landscapes with a bit of mistiness. A feeling that the tomb was open, and you were moving upward. Death as a part of the living landscape.

Cairn H, Carnbane West

Cairn H, Carnbane West

Lots of horizontal with a gradual uplifting of diagonal lines to the right and some faint indications of trees and roads to keep you from wandering off the page.

And I really didn’t like it.

It reminded me of another scene, a more interesting scene, from a reference photo for a tomb atop a hill on Howth, near Dublin. I didn’t want it to remind me of Howth, I wanted it to be absolutely clear where I was.

So, at the rough, layout sketch stage, I was already starting over. What made Carnbane West so powerful for me?

There we go. Time to develop the three words for this piece that will keep me focused. First, my walk up the hills to Carnbane West was wreathed with mists and silence. The ‘famine rows’ cut horizontally into the sides of the hills to plant potatoes in the 1800s, tripped me up over and over again. My boots would catch them every time. I shall choose the word ‘bleak’ to cover the grey, February morning. Damp and raw. A word to work with the greying of distant peaks and the emphasis on monochrome, with only a hint of warmth.

Death seemed to rest here. The bones of a small creature were gradually disappearing into the ground, pale against dead grass. Usually the dampness would bring out a freshness of color in the air, but not today. Sometimes Irish weather will bring out a silvery, misty light of sun on fine rain, but not today. ‘Heavy’ might carry all the silent, ancient baggage I require. Heavy clouds, dark holes in the ground, damp and earthy smells.

As I reached the crest of the hill, an odd thing happened. I had been suffering from a case of Dublin’s infamous coal-smoke aggravated bronchitis for about two weeks before this trip. Nastiest case I ever had. And I refused to let the remnants of it cause me to lose out on getting to Carnbane West. A two mile hike uphill. At the crest of the hill, as we felt the freshening breezes, just as my chest loosened up, my deep breaths were snatched away from me. The air was moving upwards. Lightheaded, I stood and felt the odd currents. Due to the position of the site, air currents were pushing up along the wide face of the hill. What an odd effect. My hair lifted from the top of my ears, and hair on my forehead floated a bit. An electric sort of feel, enhanced by the heavy weight of the clouds and mists, pushing up.

So, with “Bleak” and “Heavy” I offer the word “Vertical” to the three-word tradition. Heavy and vertical. I re-drew my very rough draft to reflect the new orientation. I would start low, with a dark, open tomb. I would climb upward through the composition to the distant peak, lightly lit by a pale sun. The tombs were originally faced with quartz, so perhaps a few bright highlights would be in order.

Carnbane West, Cairn H

Carnbane West, Cairn H

I had been studying composition and the way the eye sees about seven layers within a given landscape. Some of my reference photos from earlier in the day showed a lovely brightness just at the line of mountains, before the heavier clouds weighed down the sky. A method of defining and breaking up the grey midtones would be to have a line of lighter sky under the clouds, along the edge of the mountains. Perhaps a bit of toning in the gesso would help with that?

Bright white gesso seemed inappropriate, so I had planned to tone the gesso with grey graphite or another soft pigment. But with the thought of the colors coming through the graphite I was using to render the distant landscape, I considered a soft, yellow ochre to bring in the morning warmth behind the mists and clouds.

I had already decided to create this piece on a panel, so I could experiment with the technique of scratching back into the gesso to create sharp and fine detail for the copious amounts of long, dead grass. A gesso toned with yellow would prevent the scratches from getting too bright, but would lighten them within the shadows of darker ground.

A practice piece would be necessary before the project could be finalized.

 


Loch Craobh/Loughcrew (LC) background

Loch Craobh/Loughcrew, Oldcastle, Co. Meath, EIRE

I’ve collected a lot of information regarding the tombs of Loch Craobh over the years. I’ve compiled it here, and I’ll put a list of the books and links into a section of my growing bibliography, accessible through the ‘Page’ section at the top left of the current view.

I’ve found the Wikipedia entry for ‘Loughcrew’ a bit less than accurate, but it is a simple overview of the history of the area. Works by Martin Brennan and Elizabeth Twohig are far more interesting and comprehensive; and the online sites of www.Knowth.com and www.Carrowkeel.com (Martin Brennan) are more useful.

The tombs of Loch Craobh are ‘passage tombs’. They are also known as ‘passage mounds’ or ‘chambered tombs’. They consist of a passageway that leads to a central room with small radiating chambers, all of which is covered with a mound of earth. The oldest of these tombs in Ireland exist on the western side of the country, with gradually increasing sophistication and size evident in the examples as you move east to the massive collection of tombs in the Boyne Valley.

Through carbon dating and excavation of artifacts, it is believed that the oldest examples of passage tombs are those found in Co. Sligo at Carrowmore. Nearby, in the Bricklieve Mountains, lie the tombs of Carrowkeel, considered slightly more recent, with more sophisticated structures and even an early example of a ‘lightbox’ which allows sun into the inner chambers at specific times of the year. The lightbox is built into the entryway and controls the amount and angle of the sunlight entering the tomb. Excavations at Carrowmore and Carrowkeel continue to push the dates of these sites back, with some dates as early as 5400BC for sites at Carrowmore, and possibly 5800BC for a cairn at Croghan Hill in the Ox Mountains. (Martin Brennan)

Individual examples at Sheemoor and Sheebeag move into Leitrim and Longford to the east of the larger, multiple tomb complexes of Sligo. Loughcrew is the next major site, in Co. Meath, and further east is the larger complex of the Boyne Valley. Newgrange, located between Slane in Co. Meath and Drogheda in Co. Louth, is the most famous of the monuments there, though the mound nearby at Knowth is larger and has the longest passages for this kind of tomb in the world.

Passage tombs are not unique to Ireland. Maes Howe, built at Orkney, Scotland, and dated at roughly 3000BC; and Bryn Celli Ddu on Angelsey in Wales are just a few of the examples of nearby tombs in Britain. Highly decorated passage tombs are also found in Brittany

Loughcrew is dated within a span of 3000BC to 4000BC. The complex of structures seems to have crowned four peaks at one time, though only two of the hills currently show multiple tombs with recognizable structures intact. Sliabh na Cailli, or “The Mountain of the Hag” is the central peak, often referred to as Loughcrew itself, or Carnbane East. “Carnbane” comes from “Carn Ban” or “White Cairn” referring, it would seem, to the practice of putting white quartz over the mound of stone. The quartz pieces were usually the first of the stones taken from the cairns over the years, and few cairns have any of the glittering stones remaining.

Carnbane East contains a number of cairns and carved stones, with the largest monument, Cairn T, still roofed. Other tombs lay nearby, open to the sky, showing clearly in some cases, the passageways and chambers once roofed with stone. Passage tombs often have a ring of large stones around the base of the mound, known as a ‘kerb’ of stones. The only decorated kerbstone at Cairn T, known as the ‘Hag’s Chair’ has a flat top, and does look like a rough chair or bench.

To the east of Carnbane East, lies the peak at Patrickstown, where many of the tombs have been destroyed. Little remains for the casual visitor at this site, though some carved stones, including what is described as a ‘calendar stone’ lie here. The ruin of what may have been another large chambered tomb lies on Sliabh Rua, the Red Mountain, between Carnbane East and Carnbane West.

Carnbane West, on a peak roughly two miles from the car park near Carnbane East, is also referred to in many sources simply as “Carnbane”, especially when the sources refer to the central complex of tombs as “Sliabh na Cailli”. It also has a large number of tombs, with one large monument, Cairn L, still retaining its roof. Inside Cairn L there are seven radiating chambers and an interior standing stone, unique in Ireland.

Throughout the area, on all the peaks, and on other small knolls and hillsides, there are standing stones, other rings and later monuments of Iron Age and Norman times. Bone slips carved with Iron Age art have been found here, and a mound showing the remnants of a Norman motte, which may have been built on an older, Neolithic passage tomb monument which has not been yet been excavated. The large mound at Knowth shows the square foundation of a Norman fortification, and it is likely that the motte nearby may also rest on an older site.

The land was owned in more recent times by the Plunkett family, whose most notable member was St. Oliver Plunkett. Their family church still stands at the current site of Loughcrew Gardens. The family was displaced by Cromwellian forces and the lands given to the Naper family. The isolated nature of the property led the area to be used as a place of Catholic worship during Penal times when it was illegal to practice Catholicism. A Mass Rock, used as an altar for secretive Catholic services, still stands on the slopes of Sliabh na Cailli, though is no longer hidden by trees as it once was.

Currently, only Sliabh na Cailli, containing Carnbane East, is owned by the Irish government, and permission is required to visit any of the other parts of this complex. The central cairns, Cairn T and Cairn H, have padlocked gates to protect the contents from vandalism. Keys are required to gain access, and a torch/flashlight is essential to see any of the interior features. A key is available most days for Cairn T, from Loughcrew Gardens, though access to Cairn H and Carbane West should be carefully researched beforehand, and may not be available. Information is available for this large site through Loughcrew Gardens, and a visit to the Gardens is recommended in order to obtain books, maps and keys, as well as a cup of tea.

KJN

 


Archived posts