Using the arts to revive old traditions in East Cork

Winter may just be beginning but an enterprising couple in Killeagh  are already working on plans to bring back the village’s 150-year-old May celebration, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

Jessica Bonenfant Coogan is hunting for memories.

Specifically, she’s looking for people with stories and photographs of annual festivities held for over 150 years in Glenbower Woods in Killeagh, East Cork: the May Sunday festival.

Glenbower Woods are now a popular public walk, but in the 1830s, they were the private estate of the De Cappell family. Having undertaken a series of renovations and bridge-building projects on the estate, landlord De Cappell Brooke opened his estate to villagers in what would become an annual celebration on the first Sunday each May.

The tradition finally petered out entirely in 2001. Now, Jessica and her husband, Hughie Coogan, are aiming to resurrect it.

“The tradition didn’t stop that long ago, so it’s still fresh in people’s memory,” Jessica says. “I heard about it from so many people who live here; it’s definitely something that’s missed.”

Hughie and Jessica are recent blow-ins to East Cork. They run the Greywood Arts Centre, an artist’s residency nestled next to the River Dissour in Killeagh village in a Georgian building with a history as an RIC barracks and sawmill.

Following two years of extensive renovations, Greywood opened in July. They run a programme of creative residencies for artists, as well as educational and community-based activities.

Not only are there ambitions for East Cork’s newest arts venue to become a cultural and creative hub for the village and surrounding areas: it’s also Hughie and Jessica’s home.

“It’s like a 1960s New York live-work loft space, but in a 1767 Georgian home,” Jessica says.

“There are all these amazing old buildings around Ireland that aren’t being refurbished, yet work space is really valuable. We daydreamed about what we’d do if we could get our hands on an arts space to develop, but it’s very hard to run a space you don’t live in; all your costs are doubled.”

Hughie has worked in arts administration as well as having a day-job in the tech sector, while Jessica, born in the US, holds a masters in choreography and used to run a small dance company in New York.

The couple originally looked for a suitable property in Hughie’s native Wicklow, before deciding on the small East Cork village, but it seems their arrival is timely: Killeagh is
currently in the final stages of a €1.2 million facelift, with new footpaths, and traffic-calming for the busy N25 road which bisects the village.

Greywood Arts received both Creative Ireland funding and a Cork County Council Creative Communities grant. The result is a programme called Creative Killeagh: a series of open-access arts workshops, performances, and events starting at Halloween and culminating in next year’s May celebration.

Jessica was determined to use the funding for creative projects that will engage the entire community. How has the village responded to their presence so far? “There are a few families that come to everything we do,” Jessica says.

“Other people are just happy to see the house being taken care of and not falling into
disrepair. Overall, there’s an educational component that will take more time to establish. And a lot of that is about just getting people to cross the threshold.”

Creative Killeagh’s first artist-in-the-community residency is Irish artist Léann Herlihy’s W O O D S H O P.

Inspired by Killeagh’s history as sawmills, Herlihy aims to help revive the area’s wood-working skills and traditions with craftsmanship workshops, an artist’s talk and a performance.

The new year will bring more events, and artist-in-residence Sara French. Running throughout Creative Killeagh’s programme is Jessica’s open call for contributions from people who remember the May Sunday festivities at Glenbower.

“People are welcome to knock on our door and have a cup of tea,” Jessica says. “May Sunday will be developed between now and then with community and historical groups. We’re here to listen.”

There are challenges to be faced for Greywood Arts, not least in finding a variety of income streams to support it. “You see it happen everywhere right now,” Jessica says. “Any
organisation that’s based on one set of funding is very vulnerable.”

“In the future, I would really like there to be artists coming from all over the world to working in Killeagh and the East Cork area. Artists, community and events, in order of priority. But what I would really like is for us to get known as a place to create.”

The launch of Creative Killeagh’s programme and a W O O D S H O P performance by artist Léann Herlihy take place in Greywood Arts, Killeagh, Co Cork, tomorrow.


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