Shek­ina is an oa­sis of peace and tran­quil­ity


Wicklow People (West Edition) - - INTERVIEW -

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’.


Catherine McCann in Shek­ina Gar­den in Glen­malure.

Shek­ina Gar­den in Glen­malure.

Gran­ite Ring Sculpture in Shek­ina.

Mod­ern Globe Sculpture.

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