The Avondhu - By The Fireside
BÉAL NA BLÁTH MEMORIAL: - the local connection
Many people are familiar with the cross at Béal na Bláth that marks the spot where Michael Collins was fatally shot in an ambush.
However, last year the site was given a major overhaul in anticipation of the 100thanniversary of his death, and the architect behind the new look is Mitchelstown man, Will Walsh, working with the architectural firm Scott Tallon Walker.
The design of the new memorial site has no accidental elements to it; the layout, approach, materials, and even angles in relation to the sun’s path, all recall elements of Collins’ last few hours in West Cork on August 22nd, 1922.
For those who haven’t been to see the new design, they will remember the ‘old’ way of coming across the monument. Driving along, following the brown coloured tourist signs, suddenly spying the cross and taking a wild swerve to pull in off the road into what essentially had evolved into a lay-by. The cross and plinth were erected in 1924 and since then, in a well-meaning but ultimately sporadic fashion, the monument lost its meaning as the road was widened to accommodate the crowds on the anniversary of his death annually.
Without the crowds, the monument was dwarfed by its surroundings at all other times of the year in what Will describes as “a sad sea of tarmac”. What’s more, the steps to the cross meant it was inaccessible to some people, and the surrounding non-original metal railings were considered “inappropriate and domestic in appearance”.
“They didn’t suit a national monument”, Will informed The Avondhu. “It’s an important historic place, not just a spot on the side of the road. We wanted to make it a more solemn place, and stretch out the time visitors would spend there. We wanted to recreate the sense of the place as it would have been in 1922. This meant narrowing the road, which had the added impact of slowing down traffic in the area.”
The new memorial is like a plaza, with the cross now situated some distance from any parked cars. It’s design allows it to be accessible to people with buggies, wheelchairs or those who need a walking aid, while the new slate standing stones allow space for people to stop, rest and take in the view across the valley to the ‘Upper Lane’ which played a vital part in the ambush.
The gently sloping path that leads up to the cross takes the visitor north to south, and then turns sharply so that the person is walking the opposite direction as they come closer to the cross. This echoes the movements of Michael Collins when his car – Sliabh na mBan - was shot at; he ran out of the car southwards, then after the fatal shot, was moved northwards again into the shelter of the armoured car. Now the visitor will ‘walk in his footsteps’, stylistically.
The new memorial path follows the route of the 1922 road too, so it is bringing the visitor ‘back’ to the original spot. A whitewashed stone post was placed by an unknown hand sometime in the past, as a marker of the approximate spot where Michael Collins fell. This marker has been moved to the most accurate location as established by all archaeological and historical analysis.
Yew hedging on arrival to the monument is poignant, as the yew is associated with death of the old, eternity and resurrection in Irish history and traditionally seen in burial sites. The new mature Scots Pine trees, one of the eight ‘noble trees’ representing new birth in Gaelic mythology, mark the entrance to the new memorial
SOME 'MOVED TO TEARS'
The Avondhu meets Mr Walsh in the Imperial Hotel in Cork City; a fitting spot, as it was of course this hotel that Collins’ spent the night in room 115 before that fateful event. His last journey, where he travelled close to his home in Woodfield, Clonakilty, was important in the design of the monument and led to one of its most striking features: an all-encompassing ‘Newgrange-type’ element in the design that sees the sun illuminate spots that correspond to the places he visited on the final journey to Béal na Bláth.
Huge slabs of Valentia slate - some 1.75 tonnes in weight - line the slope of the monument. Slate, says Will, was an appropriate choice being of the sandstone family, the rock which geologically underlies most of county Cork. On the slope itself, the names of towns Collins’ and his convoy visited as they approached Béal na Bláth are inscribed: for example, Skibbereen, Rosscarbery, Clonakilty, Bandon and finally Béal na Bláth itself.
The stones are set out so that, on August 22nd each year, the sunlight falling through the joints or notches, will illuminate the placenames from ‘Skibbereen’ around 5pm and on along the route and upwards until it reaches the final stone ‘Beal na Blath’ at 7.30pm, the approximate time Collins was shot. The light then ‘goes out’ on the path but moves upwards across to illuminate the original limestone cross, a poignant movement from
The Avondhu are was well-represented within this collaboration, as not only was the memorial design itself undertaken by a Mitchelstown man, but another ‘Town native was on the stage, in the form of Lieutenant General Sean Clancy, the current Chief of Staff of the Irish Defence Forces.
The local link doesn’t end there, as Fermoy landscape architects Cathal O’Meara Landscape Architects were also involved with the re-design of Béal na Bláth. The landscaping too has a living representation of the area, as the Scots Pine trees and Yews came from Peadar Collins’ Irish Tree Centre in Kildorrery.
Mitchelstown Heritage Society visited the site and received a tour from Will