Musical project honours Cork woman who has crater on the moon named after her 

AISLING MEATH talks to Cork musician Jessie Kennedy about her latest musical project for West Cork History Festival, which pays tribute to a Cork legend in the world of astrophysics
Musical project honours Cork woman who has crater on the moon named after her 

Jessie Kennedy. Picture: Richie Tyndall

THE beautiful little chapel Christchurch in Glandore, which nestles in the cliffside, hosting stunning views across the majestic harbour, was the venue for two recent concerts, one in May and more recently in July, presented by West Cork musician Jessie Kennedy.

Supported by a grant from Cork County Council, Jessie held the audience in thrall with her ethereal voice, accompanied by vocal support from her talented daughter Lauren, as well as wonderful musical accompaniment by Billy Kennedy, Justin Grounds, Tess Leak, Susan McManamon, internationally acclaimed saxophone player Richie Buckley, Paddy Sherlock, and the sixties legend that is Donovan, who joined her on stage to sing Catch The Wind.

As a friend of her family, Donovan has known Jessie all her life, and he is clearly very proud of her steady trajectory into a very talented musician, who not only plays guitar and sings, but also plays violin with the unique Vespertine Quintet, as well as composing original music.

COLLABORATION: Jessie Kennedy with folk legend Donovan, who lives near Mallow. He has known her since she was a child and says she will “carry the Irish music tradition into the future”
COLLABORATION: Jessie Kennedy with folk legend Donovan, who lives near Mallow. He has known her since she was a child and says she will “carry the Irish music tradition into the future”

Jessie has performed many times with Donovan at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, The Everyman Theatre and the Opera House in Cork.

“I have known Jessie since she was a child and she is a musician who will carry the Irish tradition into the future” said Donovan, who lives near Mallow.

Jessie’s music has been featured on Rachel Allen’s RTE Coastal series and John Creedon’s Wild Atlantic Way TV series, and she also wrote the soundtrack and featured in the National Geographic’s Wild Atlantic Way’film.

Her recent concert in Glandore was opened with a short speech from fellow Cork woman Dee Forbes, Director General of RTE, who reminded the audience of the importance of the arts in our lives, the joy of the post-lockdown return to live concerts, and how support for musicians must continue to be a key factor in nurturing the cultural life of Ireland.

In her introduction to the Bruce Springsteen track Devils And Dust, Jessie told the audience how that song became the highlight of her lockdown experience when she could neither collaborate with other musicians nor play live gigs.

Jessie Kennedy and sax player Ritchie Buckley at Glandore
Jessie Kennedy and sax player Ritchie Buckley at Glandore

One day as she was sitting in her garden, she got a phone call out of the blue to say that a previous recording she had made of the song had been chosen for an album Ladies Sing The Boss, released on Ace Records, featuring women who had recorded Springsteen numbers such as luminaries Patti Smith, Lucinda Williams, and Emmylou Harris.

In recent days, Jessie has been contemplating the wonder of the cosmos from which she has drawn inspiration for her latest musical project Thus She Shall Go To The stars..., a concert she was commissioned to write for the upcoming West Cork History Festival on August 5-6, which will be performed at Rosebank House, Skibbereen, and also be live-streamed.

It’s based on the life and works of another Skibbereen woman, Agnes Clerke, who died in 1907, and the concert was also inspired by the poetry of Agnes’ sister Ellen Clerke.

Agnes, who was a leading commentator on astronomy and astrophysics, wrote: “Knowledge will appear in time the merest ignorance to those who come after us. Yet it is not to be despised, since by it we reach up for groping fingers to touch the hem of the garment of the most high.”.

Her best known work, A Popular History Of Astronomy During The 19th Century, was published in 1885, and it was her hope that her work would reach as wide an audience as possible.

Just as the light of the moon shines through the veil of the darkness of the night sky, music breathes life into a subject, and Jessie’s musical tribute to the life and times of this remarkable woman will contribute to ensuring that her incredible legacy will live on, and that her life’s work will not be destined to merely rest in books beneath the floating dust motes of a library.

“Agnes even has a crater on the moon named after her,” explained Jessie, and indeed The Clerke Crater is located near a valley on the moon which was the landing site of the Apollo 17 mission.

In 1973, the International Astronomical Union decided to bestow this honour upon this woman who had no formal education, but held a lifelong passion for astronomy which began when she was growing up in Skibbereen,.

This passion was encouraged by Agnes’ father John William Clerke, who was a bank manager in the town, and by her mother Catherine Deasy.

John owned a four-inch telescope and Agnes spent hours gazing through it at the night sky, and thus developed a keen interest in all things celestial from an early age.

The family moved to Dublin when Agnes was 19, and although she could not attend university because of her gender, she was tutored by her younger brother Aubrey, and studied university level physics, advanced mathematics, and astronomy.

Jessie Kennedy with Dee Forbes, Director General of RTE
Jessie Kennedy with Dee Forbes, Director General of RTE

There are 1,578 craters on the moon named after individuals and only 32 named after women, so it’s yet another reason for Corkonians to be proud that one of their own achieved this honour for her role in bringing astronomy and astrophysics to the public during the Victorian era.

“My aim as an artist is to weave the life stories of Agnes and her inspirations into a musical performance.’ explained Jessie.

“Her story is a significant one in terms of both Irish and West Cork women’s history, considering that this Skibbereen woman achieved much at a time when women were not generally even permitted to use a telescope in the main observatories.

“I hope that it will shine a light on a character that is relatively unknown here by the general public.

“Much of my work leading up to this has been themed around interesting and elusive historical people and stories, always focusing on revealing the true characters and their honest and unique experiences within the stories.”

In preparation for the upcoming concert, Jessie has undertaken meticulous research on the life of Clerke, supported by historical advisor Victoria Kingston, including visiting observatories where Clerke worked.

“Having the opportunity to work with Victoria as my mentor on this project has been a joy as it has allowed me to access archives and resources from libraries, historians and museums,” said Jessie.

“Archaeologist and speaker Finola Finlay has also generously contributed her research from her talks on Agnes.”

Jessie has created the project in collaboration with musician, artist and writer Tess Leak, and the project has received an Agility Award from the Arts Council Ireland.

“Working with Tess is also such a joy to me.

“It’s always organic and easy to work on music and words together,’’ said Jessie, who will also be accompanied by The Celestial Quartet, composed of three cellists, the aforementioned Tess, as well as Diana Llewllyn and Francesca Flowers, and the concert will also feature the talented pianist Susan Mc Manamon.

Another stellar performance to look forward to in Skibbereen.

West Cork History Festival, August 5-7.

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