Shekina is an oasis of peace and tranquility
REPORTER DAVID MEDCALF HEADED FOR GLENMALURE TO MEET FORMER SISTER OF CHARITY NUN CATHERINE MCCANN WHO HAS TURNED HER INTEREST IN SCULPTURE INTO AN ATTRACTION EVERYONE IS INVITED TO ENJOY - SHEKINA GARDEN
THE National Parks and Wildlife Service is responsible for many of the wide open spaces of Ireland, from Glendalough to The Burren with their great expanses of wild countryside.
But also featured in the NPWS portfolio is a charming and immaculately maintained garden with a county council bungalow, barely an acre in its charming extent.
This is Shekina Garden, in the townland of Kirikee, not far from Glenmalure in the heart of County Wicklow. It is the home of a remarkable lady of taste and initiative called Catherine McCann who has invented something very special here.
Now in her eighties, she has not lost her sense of wonder at the views she enjoys from the vantage of the sun-room tacked on to the original 1930s cottage.
Look up to view the majesty of Fananeiran Mountain, or gaze across the Avonbeg River – which flows past just a stone’s throw away - to admire the oaks of the Ballinacor Estate.
Now bring the focus a little closer and see that the garden with its tumbling stream and the well-kept lawn in more than simply a place for plants.
Since first setting foot here in 1979 Catherine has accumulated a collection of statues, a score of them, to display around the grounds.
Local authorities, businesses and householders may think to make a grand gesture and acquire a single piece of outdoor art as a centre-piece for
some park or garden.
The creator, carer and curator of Shekina Garden, on the other hand, was never going to stop at one after making her first purchase more than three decades ago.
And now Catherine loves sharing these lovely, mainly abstract, objects with visitors, introducing them to the fruits of her quiet passion.
Once a nun, she finds a spiritual quality in the place and encourages those who come to discard their shoes while exploring her fascinating acre.
It makes the tour around her delightful acre something of a pilgrimage and she is happy to confide something of her own pilgrim’s journey along the way.
Now into her eighties, she says cheerfully: ‘I am a Dubliner – from D4, Donnybrook. I have had a gift filled life. I have been extraordinarily blessed.’
The childhood blessings for her and her four siblings included a nice house and a big garden, though it was garden which did not feature sculpture. The well-to-do family moved after the death of her father when Catherine was eighteen.
She took a secretarial course followed by a domestic science course before ending up in a convent as a Sister of Charity.
She remained a member for 25 years and, looking back, she says that she enjoyed every minute of her quarter century in holy orders.
The time as a nun gave her not only a vocation, while that lasted, but also a profession.
Her superiors considered that she might have the makings of a teacher though a spell of school work in California proved that she was not cut out for work at the chalk-face.
Instead, she trained as a physiotherapist, which proved very useful when the time came to change course.
She also spent three years in Rome at the time of the Vatican Council studying theology and the
atmosphere of liberal reform which the council fostered proved unsettling.
‘I heard a call to come out,’ she says matter of factly, recalling how her time as a sister terminated abruptly while she was on a retreat.
‘The lay life was not a jolt for me. I got my own apartment and moved on, practising as a physiotherapist until I retired.’
Away from the support of the convent community, she did not surrender her faith or the spiritual dimension to her life.
Yet being a lay person gave her a fresh set of individual choices, including the search for somewhere to call home.
Forty years ago, an estate agent showed her around ‘a typical County Wicklow cottage’ in deepest countryside at Kirikee. She was less interested in barn which a previous owner had used as a workshop than in the delights of the location and the stream running through the land.
The purchase was completed in August of 1979 and at first Catherine was able to stay in the house only at weekends. She spent those precious days diverting the pond to feed a couple of ponds and planting shrubs.
The barn did not last long before it was taken down, with priority given instead to a patio where she could sit out and relish the view out towards Ballinacor.
And one pleasant day in the mid-1980s, she was doing precisely that when inspiration struck out of the blue.
‘I thought a sculpture might look nice there’: it was as simple as that. ‘So I talked to a friend who said she had a sculptor living on her road.’
The sculptor turned out to be the very distinguished Cliodna Cussen and parting Cliodna from one of her works proved not altogether straightforward.
Before being approved as a customer, Catherine was first invited to join the artist and her family for dinner in Sandymount.
The conversation over the meal was conducted almost exclusively in Irish, leaving their guest largely uncomprehending. She must have passed the test, however, as it was agreed that she could have a fine piece made of Dublin granite.
Once it was completed, Cliodna arrived with it in her car ready to put it into position.
An eight-sided chunk of rock with a hole in the middle, it was later blessed by a priest as Catherine invited a few friends around for a commissioning party. It is formally untitled but referred to irreverently as ‘The Polo Mint’ and the mineral in the rock continues to shimmer in the evening sunshine just as attractively as it did on arrival in 1987.
The Shekina collection was now up and running, with the polo mint followed by another piece of granite – Scottish granite this time – sculpted by Fred Conlon (RIP).
The Sligo man, who became a friend, came into the hills to install his creation, but he had scarcely left when his client decided it was in the wrong place.
She called in a man with a JCB to move it into what she considered a more appropriate position.
The collector has not confined herself to granite, with pieces in metal and limestone and steel and bog yew following in through the gate, all by Irish based artists.
‘There are twenty pieces altogether in the Shekina,’ she reckons. ‘I thought that it had finished five years ago but then I called in to see a Wicklow man just six weeks ago.’
The Wicklow man was Séighean Ó Draoi and he tempted her with a fish made of Kilkenny limestone.
Christened ‘Éist’ it has now taken its place where the stream leaves the garden to run the final few metres to join the Avonbeg.
From an early stage, Catherine was keen to share her treasures with the wider public, opening the garden four times a year.
Then in 1996 she reviewed her situation as a single lady with no dependents and came to a radical decision.
She offered her home to the State and then Arts Minister Michael D Higgins approved the most unusual and far-sighted acquisition.
He returned as President in 2017 to open an exhibition celebrating 20 years of sculpture in Glenmalure and complimenting its curator.
So now the sculptures may be experienced by individuals, by retirement groups, by picnickers, by spiritual groups – by anyone who rings and books in advance at (0404) 46128.
Catherine loves welcoming gardeners to her domain, though she confesses that she is unable to tell them the names of all her plants.
She encourages everyone to take their time, to kick off their shoes and to sit a while on some of the many benches scattered discreetly around the grounds.
She takes them in her guided tour through their five senses, with special reference to seeing and hearing and touching.
‘You might get an insight, see something in your life from a different angle,’ she muses, noting that the exercise of exploration sometimes unlocks hidden emotions and prompts tears. ‘It is a wonderful place and it is nice to be able to share it with others.’
She cannot put her finger on what inspired this long term project: ‘Sculpture came out of the blue, though I remember being fascinated by pictures of Henry Moore abstracts in magazines.’
The collecting bug has abated: ‘I don’t want to fall in love with more.’
The name Shekina, by the way, is Hebrew word meaning the presence of God with his people, represented variously by a pillar of fire at night or a cloud during the day.
The smallest sculpture in the collection is an enamel piece fired in the oven of Anne Murphy on display beside the front door and called ‘Shekina Symbol’.
THEREARE TWENTY PIECES IN SHEKINA. I THOUGHT THAT IT HAD FINISHED FIVE YEARS AGO BUT THEN I CALLED IN TO SEE A WICKLOW MAN JUST SIX WEEKS AGO
Catherine McCann in Shekina Garden in Glenmalure.
Shekina Garden in Glenmalure.
Granite Ring Sculpture in Shekina.
Modern Globe Sculpture.