Harvest Thanksgiving in the Church of Ireland – A Visual Arts Project by Debbie Godsell

Debbie Godsell is an artist and educator based in Macroom Co Cork, who has been documenting the harvest tradition in the Church of Ireland. This project is supported by the Arts Council of Ireland Visual Arts bursary and the Cork Arts visual Bursary award. Mentorship by Deirdre Nutall and support by the National Folklore Archive at UCD.

Richard Wood and Mick O’Shea making sheaves.

The Very Rev. Cliff Jeffers has been in touch with Debbie and asked her to tell us more about her project. Debbie writes:

In 2022 I received funding from the Arts Council of Ireland and the Cork County Arts Office to undertake a project which would include documenting Harvest Thanksgivings across a number of County Cork Parishes. I hoped to provide a visual archive of this custom that is unique to the Church of Ireland and that has been celebrated throughout Ireland since 1899. 

As a child I attended St Mary’s in Marmullane, Passage West where the Harvest Thanksgiving was a highlight. The church was lavishly decorated with vegetables, fruits, flowers and sheaves of wheat. It was always a well attended occasion. As a budding artist the visual beauty of the decorated church clearly had its mark on me.

Over the last number of years my professional art practice has incorporated aspects of folk tradition and custom. I was naturally very interested in the broader roots of the Harvest Thanksgiving custom and its connection with much older Celtic traditions. The Harvest Thanksgiving as a church rite first began in 1843 in Morwenstow in Cornwall by the somewhat eccentric Rev’d Robert Hawker. It was more than likely adapted from the traditional Celtic festival ‘Lammas’ which means loaf bread. Lots of rituals around the cutting of the last sheaf and preserving the spirit of the harvest were celebrated throughout Ireland and Britain. These were huge social event with music, dancing and singing. The Irish equivalent festival was called Lughnasadh. 

I was hugely inspired by writer Deirdre Nuttall who published Different and the same, A Folk History of the Protestants of Independent Ireland in 2020. I first heard Deirdre speaking on the National Folklore Collection podcast on the subject of traditions and customs unique to the Church of Ireland. Previous to Deirdre’s research, the collecting of Church of IreIand folk history had tended to be overlooked in the early days of the nascent NFC.  I visited the expanding archive in Dublin where I read hundreds of interviews and questionnaires completed by members of the Church of Ireland community. A common thread throughout the transcripts were fond memories of the Harvest Thanksgiving, not only the church service itself, which was a highlight but also the social events and farming activities surrounding it. Older interviewees spoke a lot about threshing, the sharing of farming equipment with neighbours and of course the celebrations that marked the successful gathering in of the harvest. It was a time when southern protestants could show how they cherished the land in a space that was separate from politics and history. I was delighted when Deirdre agreed to be a mentor for my project.

As with all art projects this soon developed into a much broader and richer project than anticipated. I documented Richard Wood on his Farm in Dripsey as he moved through the seasons from ploughing, to sowing, growing and harvesting oats and barley. Last August I documented Richard making sheaves in preparation for the Harvest Thanksgiving in St Senans, Inniscarra. Richard has been making sheaves for the Church for the last 25 years. Over a six week timeframe I photographed fourteen decorated churches throughout West Cork. All these works will be deposited in the archive of the National Folklore Collection. When you type ‘Harvest Thanksgiving’ into the search engine in years to come there will at last be a visual record of this unique tradition.

Richard Wood preparing for harvest.

The third aspect of my work was to develop a personal project taking a more cerebral approach. I created some sculptural, filmic and photographic works where I explore the aspects of identity within the Church Of Ireland as both a social and cultural group. This work has been very rewarding and has initiated some very interesting conversations. I am very grateful to all the churches who opened their doors to me. In particular I would like to thank Cliff Jeffers, Richard Wood and Sam Jennings who were so helpful and supportive throughout the project.

The harvest archives are part of project exhibition entitled ‘Flail’ will be developed into two solo exhibitions for 2024. Flail is showing in Cork Printmakers studio Gallery until April. I will be participating in an ‘In conversation’ with arts writer Sarah Kelleher and author and ethnologist Deirdre Nuttall on March 25th at Cork Printmakers Studio Gallery, and all are invited.

Visual Artist Debbie Godsell.


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