Shedding new light on Ireland’s luminous beauty

One of the features that makes this book so different, says Peter Harbison, is the startling light effects, making us realise the drama of the Irish landscape and what is in it

The Giant’s Causeway: the luminosity of the Irish landscape provides the inspiration for the book’s title. Photograph: Chris Hill / taken from Ireland – A Luminous Beauty by Peter Harbison and Leslie Conron Carola (Collins Press)

The Giant’s Causeway: the luminosity of the Irish landscape provides the inspiration for the book’s title. Photograph: Chris Hill / taken from Ireland – A Luminous Beauty by Peter Harbison and Leslie Conron Carola (Collins Press)

 

My co-author Leslie Conron Carola – an American lady of Irish extraction, as you can see from her middle name – is a Connecticut publisher whose love and admiration for Ireland knows no bounds. I had already done two beautiful books for her and with her when she worked with Hugh Lauter Levin Associates – the wonderfully large-formatted Spectacular Ireland (1999) and, five years later, Ireland’s Treasures, 5000 years of Artistic Expression, with stunning photographs of Irish landscape, art and antiquities selected in both volumes from a variety of photographers, each a specialist in his own field.

The quality of these illustrations impressed me so much, and made it such a joy to work with her, that I jumped at the opportunity to team up with Leslie again when she asked me to co-operate on Ireland – A Luminous Beauty, which appeared last year under the Collins Press imprint. The title is hers, and so apt for the photographs, including that of the Burren on the jacket by Carsten Krieger, a young German but Clare-based photographer to whom I had introduced her for this volume.

Divided into three worlds – the ancient, the natural and the cultivated – I did most of the texts, and Leslie’s eloquent prose style contributed the remainder, in addition to her searching out and choosing the photographs, and working with the American publisher, Tom Dunne of the St Martin’s Press in New Jersey.

One of the features that makes this book so different from the previous ones – but also from other picture books about Ireland – is the startling light effects making us realise the drama of the Irish landscape and what is in it. We quickly become aware that Ireland is not a land of perennial blue skies, but one of almost miraculous and painterly cloud combinations, alternately illuminating or threatening. The contrasting nature of land and seas, together with the reflective nature of water in lake or rivulet, make this into a thrilling book, causing us to drool lovingly at each passing page.

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But the very variety of topics and themes chosen for discussion and illustration was what created the real challenge for me, as the text has to be neatly wrapped around and integrated with the pictures while, at the same time, giving a taste of Ireland’s history and landscape to attract newcomers or long-established aficionados on both sides of the Atlantic. The archaeological and artistic bits presented no problem to an old hand like myself, with the pleasure of revisiting afresh many of my old stomping grounds, ancient monuments such as Newgrange and Knowth in the Boyne Valley, Poulnabrone dolmen in the Burren, Cork’s Drombeg stone circle and Kerry’s alluring Skellig Michael. In addition, there were the classic beauties of the Book of Kells and the Ardagh Chalice, where pictures can do so much more than words to express their mastery of craft and design.

It proved more difficult to create appropriate and apposite texts for the natural world, where factual description gives way to imaginative and more poetic fantasies. Here, the Burren again comes into its own, and the Cliffs of Moher on its edge, as does the coastal scenery of wind and wave, the octagons of the Giant’s Causeway and other notable northern Irish seascapes. This is the section where the luminosity of the Irish landscape provides the inspiration for the book’s title, and would doubtless have made Paul Henry jealous and eager to paint.

The cultivated world concluding the book is very different, bringing in the human element, both in the form of individuals working or enjoying themselves, or the man-made environment, subtly presented with the grandeur of Georgian houses and the contrasting simplicity of the simple Irish cottage, evocative gardens and the English Market in Cork which the Queen of England enjoyed so much on her visit to Ireland in 2011.

This is a book as exhilarating to look through as it was to work on, the fun, the challenge, the joy, and the feeling of being bowled over by the unexpected ? all give an emotive image of a tranquil and fascinating land both to visit and to live in. The book is just so different from all the others of its kind that it brings a smile to my face every time I browse in it, giving me a feeling that Leslie and I have produced a beautiful and exciting evocation of Ireland as it was ? and is.

Ireland – A Luminous Beauty by Peter Harbison and Leslie Conron Carola (Collins Press, €19.99)

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