Ireland: A Luminous Beauty: A Luminous Beauty

Ireland: A Luminous Beauty: A Luminous Beauty


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Island light is magical. And none more so than Ireland's. Ireland's light floods the landscape, luring the senses with a restless presence. The water surrounding and carving through the island reflects back to us the ever-changing movement of the wind-blown clouds and light. Stop for a minute and the settings change: what was straight is bent, light is dark, still is in motion. It is as though an unseen hand directs the wind, the clouds, and the light to harness our attention.

Ireland: A Luminous Beauty is a collection of stunning full-color photographs by some of Ireland's finest landscape photographers with concise text blending history, myth, and a sense of place. Many of the photographs were taken in the early morning light or as the sun set. That hour after sunrise and before sunset, with the sun low in the sky, is known to photographers as the golden hour and favored for its soft, diffused light.

We take a journey to one of the most beautiful places in the world. From the ancient stone monuments of the Boyne Valley to the treacherous stone steps of Skellig Michael; from the distinctive columns of the Giant's Causeway and the spectacularly sited Dunluce Castle ruins to lush, green countryside and fields of heather; from the limestone of the Burren (the rockiest part of Ireland) to exuberant stretches of flowers and gardens; from a moody sea and crashing surf to massive stone cliffs battered by the relentless pounding of the waves, and from steely rivers to tranquil lakes, it's all here.

The Irish respond to this dramatic environment by transforming it into one that solidifies and enriches their own sense of place. We all have this instinct to create our own space, but the Irish have made an art of it. Through the ancient, natural, and cultivated landscapes, surrounded by history and legend, we discover and celebrate the spirit of Ireland and its luminous beauty.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250056597
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 10/21/2014
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 563,005
Product dimensions: 9.10(w) x 11.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

PETER HARBISON, one of Ireland's most distinguished archaelogists, art historian, entertaining lecturer and writer, was for many years editor of Ireland of the Welcomes, an internationally acclaimed magazine devoted to Irish culture. Former Chairman of the National Monuments Advisory Council, Dr. Harbison is currently Honorary Academic Editor of the Royal Irish Academy, of which he has been Vice-President. He is the author of many books on Ireland's art and archaeology, including Ancient Ireland, The Golden Age of Irish Art, as well as Spectacular Ireland and Ireland's Treasures, edited by Leslie Conron Carola.

LESLIE CONRON CAROLA, writer, editor, and book producer, is the editor of The Irish: A Treasury of Art and Literature. She has developed, edited, and produced two previous books with Peter Harbison, Spectacular Ireland and Ireland's Treasures: 5000 Years of Artistic Expression, and is the director of Arena Books Associates, LLC, her own book packaging company in Westport, Connecticut.

Read an Excerpt


A Luminous Beauty

By Peter Harbison, Leslie Conron Carola

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2014 Arena Books Associates, LLC
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6039-1


The Ancient World

Icons and Artifacts

It is, perhaps more than anything, the use of stone that forms the link between Ireland's past and present. It is the impressive ancient stone still present in the landscape in the form of dolmens, passage-tombs, stone circles, high crosses, round towers, forts, and, eventually, castles and monasteries, that informs our sense of the past. Other structures, presumably made of wood, have long since vanished.

The Stone Age hunter-gatherers who took up two-fifths of the time that mankind has been inhabiting the island — from about 8000 to 4000 BC — have left little for us to admire, simply because they spent most of their time foraging for food. But their immediate successors of the late Stone Age respected their dead so much that they cared far less for the abodes of the living than for those of the dead, building great stone tombs to house and commemorate the departed. These tombs were often set on heights so their visibility was assured from miles away, and with such large stones that we should see their builders as giants in genius, if not in stature.

Of all the Stone Age megalithic (great stone) tombs of Ireland, the dolmens, for their size, are the most dramatic and graceful. They have been dubbed the earliest public sculptures in Europe. The word "dolmen" comes from two Breton words meaning "stone table." Dolmens consist of between three and seven uprights, which support a massive capstone (possibly weighing up to one hundred tons), usually tilting toward the entrance, where a large stone sometimes acted as a door. Some observers have imagined the dolmens to be druids' altars, but folklore sees them as the beds of the legendary fleeing lovers Diarmuid and Gráinne. Excavations have unearthed human bones within, indicating they are burial sites. The most remarkable characteristic of dolmens is the almost weightless way they carry their capstones, which must have required considerable skill and manpower to raise into position.

Dolmens may be the most dramatic and graceful of the megalithic tombs, but the passage-tomb is the most dominant, although not necessarily the earliest type. The passage-tomb has a stone-lined pathway leading from the rim of a usually circular mound to a burial chamber roughly at its center. Certainly built by a people bent on making a permanent mark on the landscape, these burial places were frequently set on eminences that could be seen for miles. Among the most visible are Queen Maeve's Grave on top of Knocknarea, which offers a spectacular panorama over Sligo Bay, and the Mound of the Hostages on the Hill of Tara in County Meath, from which it is said that seven counties of Ireland can be seen on a clear day. But the most famous passage-tombs in Ireland are the three in the Boyne Valley, on a prominent ridge overlooking the river Boyne — Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth. These three great monuments can be taken as the high point of megalithic construction in Ireland, not only because of the sophisticated techniques required for their construction and the masterly decoration, but also because they seem to be the culmination of a series of tombs stretching back many hundreds of years.

Newgrange, the largest of the three great mounds, is roughly heart-shaped, rising to a height of about thirty-six feet and measuring about three hundred feet in diameter. Made with a mixture of earth, turves, and stones layered neatly one above the other, it occupies the top and part of the slopes of the ridge on which the three tombs are set. The orientation of its main passage toward the rising sun at the winter's solstice on December 21 (and a few days on either side of it) has created worldwide interest in the tomb. A slim ray of sunlight enters the mound through an opening above the entrance door (the "roof box") on the shortest day of the year, bringing a seventeen-minute show of light into the darkest recesses of the tomb. The sun's rays bringing light to the darkness of the tomb send the simple message that there is life after death, as the sun brings life to the depths of winter. The imaginative opening for the sun's rays to enter the mound, the ingenious corbel construction of the burial chamber roof that keeps the interior still bone dry after five thousand years, and the marvelous decoration inside and outside the tomb show that this monument was built by a sophisticated people. One of the world's first great pieces of architecture, Newgrange may predate Egypt's pyramids by more than five hundred years.

Perhaps the subsequent Bronze Age is an archaeological misnomer, because this period — from 2000 to 500 BC — is distinguished by the quantity of gold ornaments it produced. The "Great Clare Find" discovered during the making of the West Clare Railway in 1854 is among the largest hoards of gold objects ever discovered in Europe. Ireland's richness in prehistoric gold, such as the Broighter boat and others, makes the National Museum's collection one of international importance. Two of the most remarkable masterpieces of the Irish gold- and silversmith's art are among the museum's greatest treasures from hoards found at Ardagh, County Limerick, and Derrynaflan in neighboring County Tipperary. The Ardagh chalice is one of the most perfect of its kind, glittering with gold, silver, bronze, and glass, all fitted together exquisitely to form a container for distributing wine during Mass. The Tara Brooch is another masterpiece of the gold-and silversmith's wizardry. It would be difficult to find one equal to it, let alone better, anywhere in the first Christian millennium. Like the Book of Kells also from the same period in the eighth or ninth century, its mastery can be seen in the minute scale of its ornamentation, each detail executed to a perfection that even contemporary jewellers find inspiring.

The Book of Kells, too, is a masterpiece, its pages glowing with still-vivid colors that paint pictures of Christ and his apostles, and pages of purely geometrical configuration and texts enlivened by little animals masquerading as the initial letters of words or lines.

All of the chalices, brooches, and manuscripts are the prodigious products of a cultural flowering emanating from the Christian monasteries that came to enrich the surface of Ireland from the fifth century until the twelfth. Their monks were not just master metalworkers but illuminators of manuscripts, keepers of historical records, and deeply learned students of the Bible. They produced iconic monuments that made a unique contribution to the sculpture of Europe in the form of great stone high crosses, bearing panels of figures representing events narrated in the Old and New Testaments, and even taller round towers to be ever closer to heaven! Many stone crosses have a ring that serves to help prevent the heavy stone arms from snapping off, while offering a cosmic symbolism in relation to the Crucifixion of Christ. But what makes the Irish crosses so unusual is the richness of their narrative scenes from the Old and New Testaments. These scenes are typically enclosed in rectangular panels framed by a roll molding separating each panel. Generally the Old Testament is on the east face, beneath the Last Judgment at the center of the head, and the other side is filled with scenes illustrating the New Testament beneath the figure of the crucified Christ at the center of the head.

High crosses and round towers are Ireland's noblest monuments dating from the great days of Irish monastic civilization in the first millennium AD. They are also Ireland's most important contribution to the sculpture and architecture of early medieval Europe and, as such, are certainly worthy to be mentioned almost in the same breath as the Book of Kells.

The Vikings raided the treasure-filled monasteries in the ninth and tenth centuries, some more than once, with the goal to bring the gold and silver objects back home. But perhaps they are given too much credit for the decline of the Irish monasteries around the tenth century. The monasteries continued to exist, perhaps not with the same vibrancy, although there was an important revival of monastic art in the twelfth century.

Round towers are Ireland's monuments closest to the sun, like trees in the forest striving to get the maximum of heavenly light. They make their mark on the Irish landscape by rising to one hundred feet above it, looking like a pared pencil, as the beacon announcing the old monastery they adorn, and beckoning the pilgrim to come. Rather than being put up as a defense against the nasty Vikings, as every Irish schoolchild used to be taught, they were most likely built between the ninth and twelfth centuries as bell towers and treasuries where the monastery's relics and reliquaries could be stored safely.

The Book of Kells

The Book of Kells is a collection of superlatives — pages of fantasy, imagination, brilliancy, color, and with the Christian message in a script that is as readable today as it was when written some twelve hundred years ago. A manuscript book of the four Gospels of the New Testament, it is now preserved in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin, where its artistic genius is appreciated by the half a million visitors who come annually to see it. The first historical reference we have to the existence of the book comes from The Annals of Ulster under the year 1007, in which the book was called "the most precious object of the Western World" after it had been stolen from the church in Kells in County Meath. We are told that it was recovered after two months and twenty nights, but with the cover of its shrine stripped of its gold. It was written within the precincts of a monastery associated with St. Colmcille(or Columba), who died on the Hebridean island of Iona around 597, but art historians have been at loggerheads for years as to whether it was written there or in the monastery at Kells, which had been founded by monks from Iona. Discussions rage, too, over when the manuscript came into being, but there is now wide agreement that it may be dated to within a decade or two on either side of the year 800, also the period when the great Frankish emperor Charlemagne reigned on the European continent. A case could thus be made for seeing the Book of Kells as an "insular" response to the beautifully illuminated codices produced in Charlemagne's imperial workshops before his death in 814. It is also widely acknowledged that more than one scribe and artist were involved in the book's production.

The Natural World

A Land of Contrasts

Ireland is certainly a land of contrasts: water and rock, light and shadow, stillness and motion, harsh and gentle, howl and murmur. What is it that draws us to the amazing interplay of light and water surrounding and winding through the island? Respect, fear, and awe for the savage power of the ocean? The peace engendered by the almost silent lake ripples mildly lapping the surface? The stillness of the lakes reflecting the movement of the clouds and the colors of the sunset or the rising morning mist? The quick rush of river water tumbling over rocks on its urgent path to the sea? Or just a break from the humdrum to acknowledge nature's glorious presence? Whatever it is that draws our attention, we are not disappointed.

Ireland is a small island country — about the size of the American state of Indiana — on the northwestern edge of Europe. Its position in the north Atlantic, on the same latitude as Newfoundland and Hudson Bay, would have us expect a cold, icy climate. Instead, the Gulf Stream running along the western coast warms the climate so that Ireland rarely gets frost or snow, and when it does it is an event. The mean temperature in winter is mild, approximately 41°F (5°C), and it has a cool summer of approximately 60°F (15°C).

The low-lying central plain of the country is surrounded by a rim of mountains — sandstone, limestone, granite, and basalt, which, in turn, is surrounded by ocean and sea. All of this gives Ireland much of its beautiful scenery: the mesmerizing water, the Mournes and Donegal Highlands in the north, Connemara and the Twelve Bens in the west, the Kerry peaks and lakes, and the Dublin and Wicklow hills.

Among the many stunning natural wonders we include here are the Giant's Causeway, the Cliffs of Moher, and the Burren, three of the most visited sites in the country. The phenomenal Giant's Causeway along the rugged north coast of Antrim has been dubbed the "Eighth Wonder of the World," and is one of three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Ireland, joined by Brú na Bóinne (the Boyne Valley passage-tombs) and Skellig Michael. One of nature's great wonders, the Giant's Causeway is an octagonal web of forty thousand bare basalt columns, some as much as thirty-nine feet (twelve meters). Science tells us that these columns were formed by an ancient volcanic eruption, but Irish legend tells us much more fancifully that these stepping stones leading from the foot of the cliffs into the sea were built by Finn McCool, hero of the Fianna, who wanted to build a link to Scotland. From morning to evening, the mood on the Giant's Causeway can change from utterly magical and mysterious to almost melancholy, with the tops of the basalt columns spreading like lilies in a pond, providing the onlooker with a grandstand seat to the dramatic play.

The Burren in County Clare, the rockiest part of Ireland, is bounded by the Atlantic on the west and Galway Bay on the north. Renowned for its remarkable collection of plants and animals, the Burren is home to three-quarters of the types of flowers found in Ireland as well as twenty-six of the thirty-three species of butterflies. Grykes (crevices) in the surface of the limestone provide moist shelter for a wide range of plants and shrubs, unexplainable combinations of arctic and alpine plants that would not grow together elsewhere. When the limestone pavement is covered with a thin layer of soil, patches of grass grow, interspersed with plants like the spring gentian (the symbol of the Burren) and orchids. The eerie beauty of these remains of a limestone seabed formed millions of years ago is compelling.

The Cliffs of Moher are another geological wonder: a five-mile stretch of a series of undulating headlands almost seven hundred feet high on the wild Atlantic coast of County Clare. The massive stone cliffs battered by the wind and relentless pounding of the ocean waves are the most visited natural site in the Republic of Ireland. The views from the top of the cliffs on the edge of the Atlantic are spectacular. On a clear day, one can see the Aran Islands, Galway Bay, and Connemara's Twelve Bens mountains.

Each of our senses is indulged by the natural environment of Ireland: the ever-changing light from dawn to dusk; mysterious shadows; the rocky coastline; the roar of the ocean challenging the ancient cliffs; stretches of golden sand; ancient patterns traced by perfectly angled grey stone walls and hedgerows through the lushest green fields; steely rivers carving through rich river banks; the sweet smell of flowers and salt air; fields of heather under a sunny summer sky complete with puffs of white cloud; mountains in shadowy silhouette providing the artistic background for a gentle world. It's all here.

The Cultivated World

Imagination and Style

The Irish have responded to their spectacular, dramatic environment by transforming it into one that solidifies and enriches their own sense of place. The past is ever present in the landscape of Ireland, whispering a provocative story that gives material to her inhabitants to create interpretations of their world in any number of ways. From seeing the building of homes, development of towns and cities, art created through stories, poetry, music, sculpture, and, yes, even food, we discover the spirit that is Ireland, a journey of imagination and style.

The modern era really began in the seventeenth century. But it was no easy century; the wars of the medieval period still persisted, even bringing God into the fray through the Cromwellians, whose Christian brotherly love did not extend to Irish Catholics. Religion played a role at the end of the century too, when the Protestant William of Orange defeated the Catholic-sympathizing Stuart king, James II, in the Battle of the Boyne. Though not directly involved in either conflict, the dramatic castle of Dunluce in County Antrim is a reminder that people needed to entrench or fortify themselves against a potential enemy.


Excerpted from Ireland by Peter Harbison, Leslie Conron Carola. Copyright © 2014 Arena Books Associates, LLC. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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