During the early 1960s, a group of students at the Crawford School of Art in Cork heard a rumour that something bizarre was happening in a village called Ballydehob. Here some vestige of Swinging London had taken up residence in a painted-up building called ‘The Flower House’. I was one of those students. We decided to investigate.
Since nobody owned a car, a parental vehicle must be ‘borrowed’. Somebody’s parent was away so this could be done without controversy. One of the know-it-all students announced that Ballydehob was in County Sligo and we would need money for petrol and have to camp when we got there. Nobody owned a tent. A forever-complaining student said that ‘He didn’t want to end up arrested as a vagrant and to have to sleep in a Garda station’. A few days later we left the Crawford en-route to County Sligo. Fortunately, a more astute student rummaged in the car as we were leaving the city for the West, found a road atlas and announced that Ballydehob was actually in County Cork, a mere two hours drive over the potholes. Tent-less or Garda station camping would not be required.
We arrived, we saw, we were astonished. Cork was then a darkly conservative place, ditto the Crawford and its staff members. What we found in Ballydehob was a house on the main street of the village with enormous flowers painted on the façade. It might have been in Chelsea or San Francisco. We entered to find a hive of creativity and alternative lifestyles. This was the world of women in flowing batik dresses, bearded men with bead necklaces and leather-thonged trousers. Even a cod-piece was observed. We sat in the café and drank coffee from the brownest of chipped brown ceramic mugs, ate inedible brownies and marvelled at the range of art and crafts being produced by this creative group.
This establishment, which seemed to have landed from another planet since the remainder of Main Street appeared to have experienced no visual or economic change from the images recorded in the black + white photographs of the 1900s, was run by two women, one German, the other English: Christa Reichel and Nora Golden. Here was a living example of William Morris’s dictum, ‘Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’.
Some ten years later, John and Noelle Verling (participants in that epic car journey) set up the Fergus Pottery in Dripsey outside Cork, later transferring it to Christa Reichel’s former premises in Gurteenakilla, Ballydehob, where it became a fixture of the creative community. A few years following, another member of the car-team, myself and Clair, came to stay with the Verlings, and also remained in the area, setting up an etching studio on the other side of Ballydehob.
Many of those who established the creative community of West Cork have died. Another generation has grown to maturity, further expanding the tradition of West Cork as a major and continuing centre of creative engagement in all of the arts, an epi-centre of delight.
BRIAN LALOR, CURATOR