Looking through my recent work, I was surpised to realise that I haven’t painted many paintings of Arranmore Island in the last couple of years despite visiting the islands in the summer. So I have put that right with a series of new paintings.
As always I am entranced by the journey to and from the island. You can read my short History of the Island here
Arranmore is lucky to be served by two ferry companies. There is The Arranmore Ferry (Blue) which is based on the island and Arranmore Ferry (Red) which is not. Yes, I know the names are almost identical, just a small matter of “The”. They both offer a fantastic 15 minute journey from Burtonport (Ailt An Chorráin) to Arranmore Island. On a calm and sunny day the view on the crossing are just heavenly. Sometimes there are dolphins too.
The ferrys sail through a narrow passage past a scattering of islands on the way to Arranmore.
Rutland Island (Inis Mhic an Doirn) lies between Burtonport and Arranmore, Donegal. William Burton Conyngham (a local landowner for whom Burtonport takes its Anglised form) had warehouses, a street of houses, a post office and a school built c. 1784 to capitalised on a the abundant herring fishing. Unfortunately, the herring disappeared very early in the 1800’s and the station fell into disuse. The island was inhabited until the 1950s. These are the remains of the fish factory and landing stage on Rutland Island.
Opposite is Inishcoo Island with Mount Errigal in the distance peeping out from under the clouds. The jetty in the left hand corner belongs the magnificent Inishcoo House (see painting below)- once a coast guard house, built in the C18th.
There are several tiny holiday homes dotted across the islands (and cows)
A you can see the views are quite idyllic. Whether from the ferry or from the island. To be honest, I wish the ferries were like the Circle Line on the London Underground, where you can ride the tube rround and round (it takes and hour and an half apparently, I have never done it) and you could ride them back and forth to the island all day!
Here is my latest Donegal painting. I am delighted that it will be going to its new home in California, USA, very soon.
A narrow lane curves down to a shining white cottage and outbuilding and to the right. This is not a public road but a lane to the house, just around the bend. Here it is bathed in glorious winter light. The low sun creates long dark shadows along the lane. The sheep look up, they are not used to strangers (not like the sheep on the Gower that barely give visitors a second glance). On the horizon, you can make out the tiny but distinctive shapes of Muckish and Errigal mountains . You can just make out a line of fence posts that lead down towards the small natural harbour that gives its name to this place: Poll Na Mbadaí or Poolawaddy. The meaning of Poolawaddy (also spelled Pollawaddy) is often disputed. In irish Poll a Mhadaigh, could mean Poll – the harbour, a Mhadaigh – of dogs or Poll na mbadaí, Poll – the harbour, na mbadaí – of the boats. I suspect that the harbour of the boats is more likely, as it is a natural harbour and pier, but I could be wrong. I only have a basic understanding of Irish but I like to try and read it because place names are very descriptive (as they are in Welsh too) and often poetic. A harbour of dogs is just as possible, after all, there are tiny islands nearby named Calf, Duck and Gull Island.
It feels like it has taken me 7 months to get here. The last painting I finished just before I broke my leg in eraly March was also a painting of this area (see below). It has taken me so long to recover my “painting stamina” and gradually paint larger canvases (although some artists would not consider 80×60 cm “large”). I don’t think I will go any larger for now. I feel exhausted after finishing a large painting these days.
I like to understand what it is that I am painting, to get a sense of its history and the people who live/d there. I might call a building an “outhouse” for example but very often that building was once a family home, a newer bigger one having been built next to it. It matters to me to know that. It helps me make sense of a place. I only know only a little about the History of Arranmore, however, so what I have written here has been taken from articles I have found online (I have included links and a list of websites at the end).
Life on the east side of Arranmore Island, where Pollawaddy is located, is marginally easier than on the west side. This is because Cnoc an Iolair, the highest peak on the island (reputedly once home to golden eagles), provides relative shelter from the prevailing westerly Atlantic winds. This side of the island certainly seems more sheltered, gentler.
After the Protestation plantation in the 17th century, Arranmore Island, Donegal’s largest island, like other large parts of West Donegal, had been given to the English Lord Conyngham. However, when the terrible potato blight leading to the Great Hunger (“an Gorta Mór”, in Irish) spread during in the mid-1840s he declared the island, which he had never set foot on in his life, as unprofitable and sold it to a Protestant man John Stoupe Charley of Finnaghy, Belfast on 29 June 1849. The new landlord came to live on the island, building a “Big House” (now the Glen Hotel) after 1855 just down the road from Poolawaddy. Very near Poolawaddy, RIC police barracks were built, presumbably built around at the same time to protect the landlord’s property. Interestingly, the RIC left the island after about 40 years and there is still no police station on the island (although the Guards do visit on a regular basis).
Landlord Charley decided to clear as many starving tenants off the land, so he demanded them to present the receipts of their rent payments or face eviction. Of course, few if any had been given written receipts, let alone kept them since most of them could not read or write. The choice they were faced with was either the poor house in Glenties or to emigrate to America in a ‘coffin ship’. Many of these subtenants were evicted in 1847 and 1851. Many who made it into the new world settled on ‘Beaver Island’ (Lake Michigan, USA ). The two islands are twinned. The Árainn Mhór & Beaver Island Memorial, built in 2000, and the sign that Beaver Island is 2,750 miles away, is a memorial to this link. Many of the first islanders who emigrated to Beaver Island were from Poolawaddy. Evictions carried on after John Charley’s death in 1879, when his widow Mary and his brother Walter Charley MP were left to manage his lands. The British government even sent a gunboat, “Goshawk” in 1881 to “assist … the serving of ejectment processes on the tenants in the island of Arranmore”!
The Islanders who left for America emigrated permanently, but seasonal emigration was a more common feature of island life, with many young people working as labourers for farmers in the Lagan, a fertile area in northwest Ulster, and also in Scotland as ” tattiehokers” for the summer. Rósie Rua was one such youngster. She was born in 1879 and was reared on Aranmore Island by her mother and her step-father, the Butcher. In adult life, she gained renown as the best traditional singer in Aranmore and wrote a memoir of her life with the help of Padraig Ua Cnaimhsí. Unfortunately, the memoir seems to be out of print, but I could read some sections of it on google.books.
In her memoir she describes how at aged nine she was hired out to farmers in the Lagan. Her family home was not far from Poolawaddy and she describes catching the boat to Scotland to work as a farmworker or ” tattiehoker” for the summer. She wrote that “the steamer had dropped anchor off Calf Island, and we saw the boats pulling out from the shore with their passengers. In no time at all, we were all down at Pollawaddy ourselves and one of the small boats brought us out. Lily was the name of the steamer.I was amazed at the size of her…just about a hundred passengers in all boarded the Lily at Calf Island.”
Rósie Rua has a singing festival, Féile Róise Rua held in her name on Arranmore. The first was held in 2019. Sadly the pandemic distrupted the 2020 festival. The festival went online on facebook and you can watch some of the performers here. Fingers crossed the next one can go ahead in 2021! I will leave you will a clip of Jerry Early singing “I’ll Go” (5.55 onwards). Just look at the view out of his window!
I recently join the Stair Árrain Mhór – Árrain Mhór History Facebook group and was overwhelmed by the positive response I received from the members when I put my most recent post online there. I was asked if I had any more paintings of Arranmore for them to see, so here’s a collection of all my paintings of the Island that I have completed in the last two years.
Where it reads (Private Collection) it means that the painting has been sold. I hope you enjoy looking at them.
The other day, I was walking home from buying bread in my local Co-op, when I spied a ladder reaching across my path. Ladders and solitary magpies usually provoke a struggle in my mind. What to do? Avoid it? There wasn’t much space. I would have to go out of my way to walk under it. There were two mask-less builders nearby too. There was a brief clash of science and superstition in my head but they actually coincided nicely. So I took a route which led me into the middle of the road. I usually salute magpies, but not so anyone sees me doing it. Yes, I am a reluctant believer in (some) superstitions.
My mother isn’t very superstitious; she merrily says “thirteen, lucky for some”. My grandmother, whose family had originally come from rural Bedfordshire, was a fervent believer, though. She’d believed that seeing a chimney sweep would bring luck, she would eagerly race across a road to touch a sailor’s collar for luck (they never minded and apparently they happily grinned at her) and incredibly spat three times if she ever saw a haywagon in urban Cardiff. All are such rare sights today, you can see why they such beliefs have died out, along with the idea that if you dropped a glove it was bad luck to thank the person who picked it up and handed it back to you. Most people are familiar with superstitions surrounding lucky black cats (lucky or unlucky if they cross your path, it varies on where you live), the number thirteen, throwing salt over your left shoulder, avoiding ladders and various numbers of magpies. Maybe less familar is the the belief that if someone going on a journey forgets something, they should not turn back, because if they did, it would bring bad luck. If you were living in an Irish house, up until quite recently however, many more aspects of your daily life in the home would have been guided by these sorts of beliefs.
Piseoga, or superstitions, were ancient customs, some of which probably predate the coming of Christianity to Ireland. The Catholic Church, often incorporated these beliefs and rituals, into their pantheon of saints and feast days; converting magical wells into holy wells and goddesses into female saints. Many fairy “forts” are actually prehistoric burial cairns but thousands more were early medieval ringfort settlements, built during the Christian era, in the 6th-10th centuries. I was interested in this topic, because I was trying to get a better understanding of how the old houses I was painting had been constructed and how they were lived in.
Cappeen Ringfort in Co Cork. Photograph: National Monuments Service
There is an article by the folklorist, Kevin Danaher, called “The Luck of the House” (Published in Ulster Folklife, Volume 16, 1970), but unfortunately, I could not get hold of it. I decided instead to do some research of my own. The folklore accounts below describe these traditions in greater detail and are based on information supplied by schoolchildren to the Irish Folklore Commission in the late 1930s. Fortunately, these accounts are published online and you can read what the school children wrote in their own hand.
People believed in two realms; “This world” which was visible and inhabited by mortals and along side it there coexisted another “other world” where the Sí, or ‘good people’, (na daoine maithe in irish) who lived in an invisible preternatural world. We might call them fairies or part of the fairy host (an slua si in irish). The fairies were believed to be the Tuatha de Danann, one of the first tribes to arrive in Ireland, who had been defeated by the later Milesians. They were believed to inhabit ring forts and old burial grounds and to travel on paths invisible to human. They lived parallel lives to humans: they kept cows; enjoyed whiskey, hurling, Gaelic football, music, singing and dancing; liked gold, milk and tobacco; and hated iron, fire, salt, urine and Christianity. There was lots of evidence of the existence of the sí in the human world including unexplained accidents, spoiled food, poor harvests and ‘bad luck’. Farm produce (especially milk and butter) and farm animals were constantly under threat from fairy activities and various practices and folk magic were necessary to avert interference, throughout the year.
Where (not) and when build your house
In County Leitrim, when a site for a new building had been decided upon, four corner stones were put in place and left for a month. If the stones were “In anyway moved out of the position in which they were placed” it was taken as a sign that the site was on a “fairies pass“, or a path that fairies regularly used.
Another location was found for the new house. It was commonly believed that “no one ever interferes with these forts because the old people said it was not right to do anything with them. The old people always said it was not right to cut a tree or take sand or stones out of it because the fairies would follow you for ever and also there would not be any luck in the house for so many years”. In 2017 recurring problems with the Kerry/Cork N22 road were blamed on the fairy forts in the area by a local politician. The British press dubbed this a “fairy curse.”
Friday was regarded as a lucky day for beginning some particular sorts of work such as ploughing, sowing or reaping corn, and house-building, or moving into a new house. In Galway, people believed that it was very unlucky, however, to start any special work such as house-building and ploughing, on a Saturday.
How to protect your house
It was common to bury a symbolic object in object within the structure of the house – this is called foundation sacrifice, a practice common throughout the world. The most widely secreted items were horse skulls, it is also
known that cooking pots, a cow’s head or a hen’s head have been used. Cats (living ones, I am sad to say) were buried within the foundations. In more recent times a coin (in particular an English florin as it had a cross on it) or a religious medal would be placed in the foundations. In some parts of the country on St Martin’s Day (11th November) it was believed that if “fowl was killed and blood was sprinkled on the four corners of the house and on the door in honour of St Martin, that the house would not suffer any disease.” The blood was also collected and used to make a sign of the cross on the family’s foreheads, again as a protective talisman.
Crosses were a very popular talisman used to protect the home and the byre, where the animals were kept. In County Roscommon, people made crosses of straw and rushes. They wove the straw around two sticks which were in the form of a cross. They pegged the crosses which were about six inches long to the roof. These crosses were supposed to keep bad luck from the house.
Cross making was often done on saint’s days such as St Patrick’s and Saint Brigid’s. St Brigid was believed to protect the house from the threat of fire. At Christmas, in Co. Limerick. “everyone gathered holly and put some in the cowhouses and in the stables and in every house in the farm-yard”. There were several other crosses hung up on the walls of the bedrooms, they were made from pieces of cloth and timber, and some of them were made from stone. These crosses were meant to bring good luck to the house.
In County Offaly, people made a cross of wet bog mould and left it to dry. “When it is dry they put it in a wooden frame and nail it up to the chimney. This is said to bring luck to the house.” When there is a thunder storm it is the custom to leave a window open on each side of the house and to put the tongs into the centre of the fire. This was said to keep away the dangers of lightning. Archaeologist, Marion Dowd, has discovered that other objects such as prehistoric stone axes would hidden in around houses and farm buildings, as “thunderstones”. These objects were believed to protected the farmstead from the dangers of lightning.
Another way to protect them home thunderstorms (or rather lighning and fire) was to plant Sempervivum tectorum, also known as the Common Houseleek or St Patricks’ Cabbage, the “forever alive plant of house roofs,” on the roofs. This plant was believed to have the power to protect against lightening, storms, fire, witchcraft and other evils. It was also a useful way to fill a hole, I suppose.
The fireplace, or hearth, was in a very real and emotional sense, the heart of the house. There were many sayings about fire such as “when a sod falls from a fire it is a sign of a stranger coming to the house, if the sod that falls from the fire is black the stranger will be dark, but if the sod is red the stranger will be fair.”
Doors, windows and chimneys were points of contact between the human and supernatural worlds. It was widely believed that if a visitor went in one door of a house and out the other he would unknowingly carry away the luck of the house. On New Year’s Eve in Co. Louth, people would up at one o’clock in the morning to open the door to let the old year out and the new year in.
It was commonly believed in many parts of Ireland that if a red haired person came in on New Year’s Day, there would be bad luck in the house until that day twelve month again. If a black haired person came in there would be good luck in the house for that year. Many people, especially northerners and Scots, would recognise this as a form of “First footing“. As a young man, my dark-haired father, used to have to take a lump of coal across the road to Mrs Reece’s (my mother’s mother, and yes, they lived across the road from each other) to perform “First Foot” on New Year’s Day in Cardiff. It was also considered bad luck (and probably downright inconsiderate to those who might be nursing a hangover!) to visit their neighbours’ houses on New Years Day in Louth. In Co. Mayo it was considered wrong to go to bed and fall asleep on New Year’s Day. It was said, if you did you would be “sleeping for the whole year”.
Women wouldn’t sweep the floor away from the hearth to the door. They always swept it up from the door to the hearth because it was believed they might sweep out their good luck. When a family moved house, it was the custom that the broom (and the poor cat) would be left behind. People would not let anyone light their pipe with a coal from the fire while butter churning was going on in the houses. Churning was a common household chore, especially during winter months, and it was surrounded my many rituals and supersitions to prevent the fairies stealing it (there is more about these below). Similarly, coals from the fire were not to be taken out of the house for fear the good luck of the house would go with the person who took them.
On the Bonfire Night it, which was on the 23rd June , the night before St Johns Day. It was the custom in Co. Roscommon that when the Bonfire is quenched to bring some of the ashes into the house, because it is supposed to bring good luck upon the house. It was believed that the family would have “turf in plenty” the year after (turf was commonly burnt on the fire for heating). When a person returned from a funeral at which he helped to carry the coffin, in Roscommon, he put a grain of salt into his mouth and the rest in the fire for fear of having bad luck.
Keeping the house clean
It is believed that if water which feet were washed in was thrown outside the back door on a Saturday night the fairies would put good luck on the house. On May Eve it was customary to remove the bands off the spinning wheel in Co. Roscommon as people believed the “Good People” worked the wheel during the night. They also paid a visit in November, in Co. Sligo, when it was customary to leave the door open, water in the kettle and to clean the hearth because it was believed that the fairies used to come in on this night and if they did not get these things done they would bring bad luck on the house. However, a baby was never left alone in the cradle for fear the fairies would come and take it away!
On the eve of May day. The people in County Louth gathered may flowers primroses and gorse, and those were thrown on top of the houses and hung in bunches over the door. This was done so as to keep off the fairies who would put bad luck on the house during the year. It was said that was unlucky to bring hawthorn blossoms into the house (I have heard that said too). There was a pink flower called “Burn the house” which is also said to bring ill-luck into the house in Co. Meath. The boor tree, or Elder, is said to be unlucky in Donegal. It was said that “if you burn a branch of boor in the fire you will bleed from the mouth. They say this to keep children from bringing boor tree bushes into their houses”. However, a whitethorn bush was brought to the house in Co. Clare, as it was believed to bring luck to the house for the year.
Horse-shoes are regarded as omens of good luck, and so when people found a horse-shoe on the road they always brought it home and hung it up, because it was thought to bring good luck to the house. Donkey shoes were also tied to the back door for luck. A piece of iron, usually a donkey’s shoe, were also put under eggs to bring luck and also help protect birds from being killed in the shells by thunder and lightning. In Co. Roscommon, old people used to hang a horse-shoe before the cows head as it was supposed to bring luck on the house.
In Donegal, it was believed that if a black cat came to a house it brought good luck. If the cat went away again the good luck left with it! If crickets came to a house it was believed that they brought good luck, but like the black cats, if they left the luck left with them being replaced by bad luck. If a cock crowed three times in front of the door of a house in daytime it was said to bring good luck. However, if the cock crowed in the night time, that was a different matter, as it was the sign of a death.
Cows were never given names except the black cow. It was believed that if you were humming a song when milking a cow, she would give the milk more freely. When people were milking cows, passerby were meant to call out “God bless you“. A visitor to a pig house was similarly meant to say “It’s a fine pig God bless it”. In Co. Sligo, when cattle were taken to the fair on May Day, horse shoe nail was tied onto each animal. “This was done to prevent the fairies from bringing away the cattle.” It was believed that if goats were kept among cattle they helped ward off disease.
When people were “setting” an egg, that is putting it the in a warm environment to hatch or under a broody hen, they nearly always sprinkled holy water on them. The hens were worth watching as their actions could also hint at the future. When hens pecked themselves it was taken as a sign of rain. They must have pecked themselves often! When there was a wisp trailing after a hen’s foot it was believed there would be a funeral. Eggs or fowl were never to be given away without getting some coin usually a penny. Otherwise the luck was bekieved to leave the house. An oft- repeated phrase (which I had had said to me as a child) was, “A whistling woman and a crowing hen they are neither good for God or men”
Tame geese flying directly over a house was believed to bring ill luck to that house. When a robin was seen round the house was meant to be a sign of snow. It was sensibly thought that to strike an animal with a broom brought misfortune. People were also warned against chasing or killing black rabbits as they were actually fairies, or a human being who had been changed to take on that form.
Milk and making Butter
There is a proverb that states, a long churning makes bad butter. Milk was not to be given away on May Day. If this happened there would not be much “butter on the milk” for the year. On May Eve the in Co. Clare, the fairies went around looking to steal the farmers’ butter from the dairies. If the fairies saw bread left on the table they would take it and leave sods of turf instead. On May-day, in Co. Clare, it was believed that if a person came into the house when butter was being made, and did not help, it would bring bad luck for the year.
If a person was seen coming home from a well on May morning with a bottle of water, it was a custom to spill the water and break the bottle, otherwise, farmer would not have butter for the year. In Donegal, to prevent the fairies from stealing the butter, a “certain man” was supposed to go about from house to house with a donkey’s shoe. When the household would be churning this man would put the shoe in the fire, then he would then take it out and put it under the churn. They thought that this practice prevented the (butter) fairies from stealing the butter.
In many parts of Ireland, marriages were not “for love”. The bridegroom used to send a man called the Matchmaker to the bride’s house to make a match and to secure a fortune for him. The location of the marriages changed over time in Co. Laois, originally they were performed at home, then in the priests houses, and finally in the church. In Galway it was customary for the the party to be held at the bride’s house before the wedding, in the daytime. Then went to to the church and get married and returned to the groom’s house for a night party, where they used to have a big supper and a dance till morning.
In Galway, the month of May was considered to be unlucky for marriage and also Friday and Saturday of each week. It is considered unlucky (and expensive, I should think) for two members of the same family to marry within the same year. In Kerry no marriages took place in May, August, or September because they were believed to be unlucky months. Marriages do not take place on Mondays, Wednesdays, or Fridays either was they were believed to be unlucky days.
According to Aiden Gallagher, on Arranmore Island, Donegal, most couples got married in the two weeks before Advent and Lent as marriages were not allowed during those two religious periods. Weddings were held late in the evening and it was not unusual to have five or six weddings at the same time. Candles were used in the church – as there was no other form of lighting – and sometimes a sister swapped places when one did not like the match. There was always a big age gap, men would be in their 50s and the woman maybe in her early 20s. “No romance, just business” as he says. The first Sunday in Lent and in Advent was known locally as “Domhnach na smut” the Sunday of the long faces – for those who had not been matched!
In Westmeath, people used to get green rushes and leave them on the table a month before they got married. If the rushes were withered on the day of the wedding it would bring good luck to the house.
Folklore is really history from the ground up and we can see that people who lived in rural Ireland had a close relationship with the natural (and supernatural) world. This has only been a selection of some of the many stories I came across in the Schools Collection. There were more about Halloween and Christmas that I did not have space for here. Whilst some might regard such supersitions as nonsense, they served a useful purpose in respecting and preserving the past. Sadly, such beliefs that stopped farmers ploughing up fairy forts (aka archaeological sites such as ringforts) are fading and it is not unusual for developers and more often than not, the government, to destroy ancient sites when building new roads. This was the case with Dublin’s orbital motorway the M50 which ploughed through the site of Carrickmines Castle.
The whole family had their part to play in keeping malevolent forces at bay, and encouaging good fortune, whether it was the wife and daughters in the house, or the farmer and his sons in the fields or byre. In a world where there was much uncertainty and calamity were common occurrances, these folk beliefs helped give people a sense of control and connection with each other, their neighbours as well as the supernatural. That supernatural world included God, and all the angels and the saints as well the “other world” which included the dead and the “good people”. They were full and busy worlds. The understood that the present was deeply rooted in the past and could foreshadow the future. It is important that we do the same and work hard at preserving the past (especially the “fairy forts” and vernacular houses) for future generations. When they are gone they are gone and we will have lost far more than material objects.
Owey Island (Private Collection)
Find out More
An excellent article on the building of vernacular houses and the luck of the house see – Barry O’Reilly, “Hearth and home: the vernacular house in Ireland from c. 1800” Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature Vol. 111C, Special Issue: Domestic life in Ireland (2011), pp. 193-215
Our visit to the island of Inishbofin last month was one of those rare “perfect” days in life. The weather was warm and sunny with enough of a sea breeze to blow away any viruses. We have been looking and admiring from afar the tiny, remote island of Inishbofin, off the coast of Donegal, for quite a while now.
It is 3km/2miles from the pier at Machaire Uí Rabhartaigh / Magheraroarty but that didn’t stop me painting the shoreline of the island a couple of years ago. I also wrote about the island (here) long before I ever got the chance to visit it.
It is very easy to confuse the Donegal island with the more southerly Inishbofin near Galway on the internet as google likes to show you maps and ferry pages for the Galway island, even if you type in “Ferry times inishbofin, Donegal”. I think this must because a regular ferry service in Donegal was only started this summer by Harry Coll and his brother, Owenie. Harry has recently retired from his life as a fisherman in Killybegs, Donegal, and decided to buy a boat called Saoirse na Mara II ( which translates, I think, as “Freedom of the Sea II”) in order to run a daily ferry service to the island. As far as I can tell, they have not received any government funding to help them in their venture.
You will notice that the flyer for the ferry is in Irish and English. This is an Irish speaking area of Ireland, the Gaelteacht. This was the first place I heard Irish spoken this year, in fact. Inishbofin is an Irish-speaking community and it was a real pleasure to hear people speaking Irish/Gaeilge, although I could only pick out the odd word as I only have a very basic understanding of the language. We were told by the islanders that “Inishbofin” is actually pronouced “Inish-bofin-yeay”. You can here that pronunciation in this Irish-language video here.
The name Inis Bó Finne means “island of the white cow” in English. The white cow, Glas Gaibhnenn, was owned by a blacksmith on the mainland but was stolen by Balor, the mythical one-eyed King of neighbouring Tory Island and hidden on Insishbofin. This wasn’t any old cow, it was a magical cow. It had huge teats that never ran dry which produced an unending supply of milk. Obviously, such production required a great deal of fuel and in no time the cow ate all the grass on the island and had to move on elsewhere. The island is tiny, a mere 2km long and 1km wide or about half a square mile/300 acres so I could well believe that the Bó Finne ate all the grass pretty quickly. Yet, although it looks tiny from the mainland yet it doesn’t feel that tiny when you are on the island.
The first inhabitants are believed to have been of Scandinavian origin, who arrived at the time of the Viking raids on Ireland’s coast in the C9th and C10th. Their descendants are thought to have been exterminated by Cromwellian soldiers in the mid-C17th. I wondered whether they had all been killed as I noticed that all the islanders had blue eyes, possibly suggestive of Scandinavian genes. Subsequently the island was settled by mainlanders from Donegal escaping oppression, poverty and famine. We met one islander who jokingly said his family had “recently” moved to the island, in the 1840s.
It is said that the islands potatoes, like those of neighbouring Tory Island were unaffected by the potato blight which destroyed the main food source of Ireland’s peasantry in the mid-C19th. The blight, and other factors (such as criminal mismanagement of resources by the British Government) led to An Gorta Mór or “The Great Hunger“; starvation and famine fever which led to over a million deaths and mass emigration.
As recently as the 1960s, a population of roughly 120 islanders enjoyed a tranquil, if tough, existence, fishing and farming. Nowadays, only a few islanders spend all year on the island, farming on a part-time basis. Many of the houses on the island have been renovated, mostly for use as holiday homes. From March to October many of the former inhabitants return to fish for lobster, crab and Atlantic salmon, or to gather shellfish and pick edible seaweeds such as cairrigin (carrageen) and creathnach (dulse) from the rocks. Other families move back for the school holiday in the summer months. The new ferry service has made visiting the island even easier for families and day trippers.
The morning we visited the island there were lots of people waiting at the Magheraroarty Pier for the ferry and the Coll brothers made several trips to bring them all over to the island. The trip only took ten minutes and the sea was smooth. Stepping off the ferry we were transported to a tranquil and calm world. All the time I was on the island I saw one car and heard only birdsong and the wind. It was bliss.
Inishbofiners working on a roof
Drying in the sun
The island has two halves connected by a narrow, sandy col. There are two villages on the island, one near the harbour of An Clachan (Cloghan), and the other a short distance away at An Garradh Ban, also known as East Town.
The southern half of the island is fertile and was cultivated in the past in the traditional “clachan and rundale” manner, involving communal usage of scarce arable soil and cattle pasture. The ancient field boundaries are still in place, though the fields have now reverted to grassland, providing essential habitat for geese and especially corncrakes – flourishing here, unlike in the rest of the country.
Aerial View of Inishbofin (from BoffinFerryDonegal.com facebook page)
The islanders are very friendly and several people stopped to chat to us to tell us about the island. They have a reputation for speaking to visitors (preferably in Irish Gaelic, but in English too) and like telling stories about the island and its history. One of the islanders, Daniel, mentioned the mystery of the missing millionaire. In 1933 Arthur Kingsley Porter, a professor of Fine Arts at Harvard University, bought Glenveagh Castle in the heart of the Derryveagh Mountains and made it his home. He also built a house on Inishbofin which he used for weekend breaks with his wife. On the morning of 8th July 1933 Kingsley Porter disappeared after going for a walk the morning after a massive storm, and was never seen again.
Conspiracy theories abound. Had he accidentally fallen from a cliff or had he taken his own life? Had Arthur been murdered? Or had he faked his own death and re-emerged with a new identity on mainland Europe? All of these are a possibility, as Arthur was gay at a time when it was illegal and regarded as deeply shameful (50 states criminalized same-sex sexual activity until 1962). To make things worse, Harvard, Arthur’s employer was running an anti-gay campaign. The college held a secret court to expose and expel gay students and faculty. Two students, accused of being gay, had already died by suicide. Arthur was fearful his homosexuality would be revealed and there would be a scandal. So here we have a possible motive for suicide.
At the inquest – the first to be held in Ireland without a body – his widow, Lucy, told of her frantic six-hour search with local fishermen. “I think my husband must have slipped off the cliffs, fallen into the sea and been carried away,” she said. Some of the islanders thought that his wife might have done away with him. Yet at the same time there were rumours of a boat that had been seen near the island at the time of his disappearance. If anyone had the money to start a new life in a new country it was Arthur, and Arthur knew Paris with its gay nightlife well as he had studied there as a student in 1923. I suspect however, that if he had started a new life in Paris, he would have eventually been recognised by one of the many American emigrées who also lived there.
Anchorage on Inishboffin is too exposed to leave boats afloat and so they are pulled up onto the foreshore.
Inishbofin has witnessed a number of maritime tragedies. In 1929 an island fishing boat was cut in half by a steamer in thick fog off Bloody Foreland, and all but one man drowned. Another boat was swamped in 1931 in the “keelie”, the sound between Inishboffin and InishDooey. During the Second World War, in December 1940, a Dutch ship by the name of Stolwiik broke down after leaving a covoy in a westerly gale. The Arranmore lifeboat made truly heroic rescue of the crew. Read more about it here.
The island has a stunning coastline and a view that include Mount Errigal, the Seven Sisters and seascapes stretching from Cnoc Fola to Tory Island.
I will end with some a film and some paintings of Inishbofin by the very talented artist Cathal McGinley. His paintings were on exhibition in the parish hall on the island – my photos aren’t great but I hope you get a sense of the intense colours and energy of the paintings. Cathal chatted to us outside his beautiful cottage for over an hour and kindly gave us a cup of tea and a bag of carrigeen.
It was quite a shock getting off the ferry at the busy pier at Magheroarty after the incredible peace of the island. We will be back.
Getting there – The Ferry
The journey only takes 10 minures (weather permitting)
To book the ferry from Magheroarty Pier to Inishboffin Island:
– Telephone Harry on 087 4345892
– Text – Whatsapp – Viber message to 087 4345892
– Email on: email@example.com
– Social media (facebook / Instagram) www.boffinferrydonegal.com
I love looking at maps and finding out the names of places. This is particularly true of the islands that litter the coast of West Donegal near the Rosses. I am always asking my husband, what island is that? He’s usually pretty good at knowing the names (I check on a paper map later). In the summer I spotted a house on a tiny slip of an island to the south of Arranmore. Can you see it in this photograph below?
View from Arranmore
Closer. See it now?
I thought it was just one lone house (was that another house at the other end of the island, maybe?). What glorious solitude! What must it be like to stay on that island all with the spray of the sea so close looking at big Arranmore? This is my painting of the island. I was curious about the feint outlines of ruined houses I could see either side of the restored summer house. I wondered about them and their families.
This is Iniskeeragh. Ireland (like Wales) is rich in descriptive place names. They usually describe are named after features of the landscape, such as hills, rocks, valleys, lakes, islands, and harbours. In Irish, its name is “Inis Caorach” which means “Sheep or Ewe Island”. So either sheep were kept on the island (it seems pretty small for that) or its a shape reminded people of a ewe, which might be more likely?
After some research (online and in books) back home I discovered that the island had at least 12 familiesliving there permanently, it also had a schoolhouse. I find this incredible for such a small, lowing lying island. It’s 650m x 300m (2132ft x 984ft) in size. I tried to work that out in football pitches. It’s the equivalent to 40 football pitches, so maybe its not as tiny as I think. It is very low. It’s no higher than 11 feet above sea level. Yet you can read their names in the 1901 census here.The family names of the farming families are familiar Donegal ones: Gallagher, Boyle, Sweeney, Rodgers, O’Donnell and a sole Bonner, Grace (35) who was listed in the census as a knitter, she was one of only 2 knitters on the island.
These Donegal islands may seem remote to modern eyes, but they played their part in the culture and history of modern Ireland. Gola Island, Gweedore, may well have served as the model for Robert Louis Stevenson’sTreasure Island. Two men from Gola, Patrick McGinley and Charles Duggan, were aboard the Asgard, the yacht that brought arms into Howth in north county Dublin in 1914, in preparation for the Easter Rising of 1916. Tiny Inishkeeargh also had its connection with the wider world. Writer and political activist Peadar O’Donnell(1893-1986) was a for a time teacher’s assistant at the school on the island and he set his second novel, The Islanders, here. Peadar went on to become one of Ireland’s foremost radicals of the 20th-century.
Life was tough on the island. Roise Rua described her work on the island kelp-making as “tedious and exhausting”. The tenants had to pay rent of £50: £26 for the use of the land and £24 for the use of the seashore – making kelp, picking winkles or shellfish, dulse and the like.” Sadly, like many other Donegal island communities, such as Owey and Gola, the people of Inishkeeragh was forced to relocate to the mainland in the 1950s.
Sea levels played a big part as at least twice in the twentieth century an exceptionally high tide coinciding with a bad gale forced the islands to take refuge in the two houses that had lofts. They apparently spent hours “in terror, fearing the overloaded floors would collapse.” A storm in 1953 washed away the pier and the government of the day would not pay for it to be repaired. This meant that subsequent storms swept through the houses and within 5 years all the families were forced to leave the island.
There was a reunion of Inishkeeragh families and their descendants in 2015 on the island. Internationally renowned Country singer, Daniel O’Donnell, was part of the celebrations (his mother was born on nearby, Owey Island).
You can see the photos of the day on their facebook page here. You can visit the island with Arranmore Charters, be sure to book beforehand.
Addition sources for Inishkeeragh (Inis Caorachin) came from:
We are all told to stay local in Wales, until July anyway. I am still recovering from the operation to pin my broken leg so all of my journeys are very short, and very slow, anyway. I have been taking more adventurous journeys of the mind to Donegal, and to the little village of Maghery in particular.
It lies just a stone’s throw (4 miles or about a 10-minute drive) down the road from Dungloe (I regard Dungloe as the center of my universe when I am in Donegal because it has supermarkets like Lidls, Aldis, Supervalu, and The Cope). The Irish name for Maghery Glebe is An Machaire. We know that people lived here over 5000 years ago because they built stone circles, left tombs, a Crannóg, and a stone fort.
We have only ever been to Maghery twice. On both occasions, it was to visit Crohy sea arch. We failed to find the arch, but we did see some very fine sea stacks called Na Bristí on our second visit. We also found found two beautiful beaches, a Napoleonic signal tower, and Second World War look out post and my favouite, and an Éire Sign.
I would like to visit again, but instead, I can only visit online and “in paint”. The drive through the village has inspired my latest series of three paintings. (The first two paintings have gone to collectors in France and the USA). I was drawn to paint the pink and mauve old houses in particular, mixed in with the white stone cottages.
Its only now that I realise the mauve house in my 3rd painting is a very similar colour to the early morning sand on the pristine beach nearby.
Maghery Beach, with Maghery village and Napoleonic signal tower
People have been looking out at the Atlantic Ocean and the surrounding land from the hills near Maghery for hundreds of years. They haven’t always been admiring the view, either. During the Napoleonic Wars, a signal tower was built on the headland in the years 1804-6.
This was one of a series of 12 towers built along the Donegal coastline, to watch out for invasion from French forces. We dont have these in Wales, although Wales invaded by a French force in 1797. That’s beacuse it was not built to protect the Irish population from the French, but because the British did not trust the Irish not to welcome the French with open arms. A few years earlier Irishman, Wolfe Tone, had attempted but failed to land a French force near Lough Swilly. The plan had been to throw the British out of Ireland. His landing failed but there was a successful landing of French forces further down the coast in Mayo. A brief declaration of an Irish Republic followed, but the Irish Rebellion ultimately failed, after a series of battles in Wexford culminating, in defeat at Vinegar Hill.
The signal tower is thus a symbol of deep mistrust by the British. This particular tower is well preserved and surrounded by walled farmer’s fields. The men who were garrioned here communicated with neighbouring signal towers by raising and lowering a large rectangular flag, a smaller blue pendant and four black balls in various combinations along a system centred on a tall wooden mast. This must have been very difficult if not impossible in poor weather conditions.
About 200 meters down the road is the Second World War Eire sign. I am not sure why but I was more excited to see this than the tower. Perhaps, because it was tucked away, designed only to be seen from the air. Perhaps also beacuse it is cut into the grass like a prehistoric chalk horse.
The letters spell the word Éire, which means “Ireland” in the Irish language. Over 80 of these numbered Éire signs were dotted around the coast of the Republic during the Second World War. I originally thought this was to warn German bombers that they were flying over a neutral country. This was important as neighbouring Northern Ireland, being part of the United Kingdom, was not neutral. I was wrong, the main purpose of these numbered signs was as a navigational aids for the Allied planes.
Although the Republic were offically neutral they were indirectly involved in the war. In the Spring of 1939, expecting another European War, the British Government had asked the Irish Government to set up a Coastguard Service. The Irish Government agreed to build a series of small concrete huts, known as Look Out Posts (or LOPs) along the coast. There is this one at Crohy and there was another on Arranmore Island near by. The letters Eire (without the accent on the “E”) were written in stone nearby to give aircraft an idea of where they were. The stones were painted white. The numbers (74 in the case of Crohy) were added in 1942 after the Americans entered the war in December of 1941. (Thank you to Séan Bonner for this information).
These huts were pre-built in parts and assembled on site by the army (as the Coastguard Service was under the control of the army). The Irish Government agreed to build the huts and set up the service but on condition that they only would supply radios to the huts in the event of a war. Coast watchers worked around the clock in pairs, reporting every activity observed at sea or in the air by telephone.
Allied aircraft were allowed to fly over the Republic through the “Donegal Corridor” to airbases in County Fermanagh. These airbases were crucial to provide “cover” for the shipping convoys that came across the Atlantic bringing industrial raw materials and food to Britian. Without fear of air attack, German U-boats would operate as ‘wolf packs’, picking off the ships one by one. All flights were meant to take place at “a good height”. If any aircraft crashed, as at least six did, if they could claim they were on a non-combative mission, they would be repatriated. While it was easy for Allied pilots to make that claim, it was not realistic for Luftwaffe pilots to do so, they tended to be interned. Ireland also helped Britain in secret by setting up an armed air/sea rescue trawler called the Robert Hastie at Killybegs, Donegal, to help any shipping casualties and to supply planes that had run out of fuel.
I didn’t realise it at the time but this is just an updated version of the Napoleonic tower. The ruins above the Eire sign is that of a coast watch station. Coast watchers worked around the clock in pairs, reporting every activity observed at sea or in the air by telephone.
Further along the road is Crohy Head. I think techically is Crohy Head, South. Although there is space to park and a sign announcing its presence, you can sense that the local authority are not all wildly keen to promote this attraction in case people fall down the steep field/cliff face trying to get a good look at it.
I am sitting here with my pinned leg resting on a chair, and it’s twitching unhappily at the sight of these photos now. My leg does not like to think about rough terrains right now. I can just about manage a slow walk around my local park these days (it’s going to be a long slow build up to full recovery). We must have been mad! I thought so at the time too. Still, my husband Séamas who climbed down to the beach to take some photos whilst I sat on the hill holding onto some yapping dogs. To my shame, there was an artist with his easel painting en plein air at the top of the field. I wonder if he could hearing me hushing the dogs and telling Seamas to hurry up.
Sadly, the light was, in my opinion, in the “wrong direction” and early morning would be a better time of day to catch the sea stacks. The sea arch, was just out of sight around the corner. I think that I will save up and buy a drone to take photographs from higher up without imperilling any of my (or my husbands’) limbs! Or a boat. Things to dream about from my chair.
Here is a marvelous drone photo of Crohy Head.
As with all of Ireland, you scratch the surface and discover an ocean of history. These are some of the sites I used for research:-
I love the Donegal islands for their peace and quiet. Oh, the relative absence of cars, the abundance of nature but I particularly love their houses. You may have noticed that I painted quite a few of them, lately; lovely long strings of houses.
I love their simple clean lines. I enjoy the old-style aesthetic. In Donegal, houses were whitewashed and woodwork was painted red. You still see a few houses like this. Sometimes you might see one with a thatched roof. Usually, their thatch has been replaced with tiled roofs.
When is a house a cottage? When it’s small and old and hand-built by its inhabitant, I suppose. In England, the term cottage originates from the Anglo-Saxon term for the peasant or “cottar”, in Irish the word for these houses is “teachin” or “teach beag” which means small house. You can watch a short film on how to say “teach” in Irish here, you may think that word looks like an English word, but it’s pronounced very differently in Irish.
Cottages literally grew out of the landscape that surrounded them. It stands to reason that in the past homes were built from local materials. If the stones and wood had to be carried by donkey or man-power it wasn’t likely to come from very far away. Stone would predominantly be used in coastal and rocky areas, muddy clay in the midlands and even turf in boggy areas.
Cottages came in different sizes; from the tiny laborer’s cottage or Bothán Scóir (a one-roomed house with mud floors and often not even a window); the byre dwelling (a slightly larger cottage that was shared with the animals) to the thatched mansions – two-storey thatched farmhouses that were often extended from single-storey cottages as the occupants become wealthier.
In Donegal “direct entry” houses were typical, where the front door open directly into the room with the fireplace. The most popular form of cottage is that with the living area at the center with the hearth fireplace and a bedroom on either end.
The fireplace or hearth usually formed of stone and located at the center of the house with a bedroom behind it to further absorb the heat. Most families lived in a single room.
In rural Ireland, they did not usually own the land it stood on. This is why landlords could evict tenants for non-payment of rent (usually, if they wanted to replace people with more profitable sheep), even those the occupants had built those houses themselves. In the case of John George Adair of Gleanveagh, he had the houses pulled down after the tenants were thrown out! This was common eviction practice. Anyone who has seen the excellent film Black 47 will know that this practice, could and did, lead to the death of old and frail tenants in winter.
Houses were designed through necessity. The general rule was that the front door of the cottage faced south, to shelter the house from the prevailing westerly winds. Windows were small in order to retain heat in the winter and to keep cool in the summer. Ground floor windows usually faced to the south, not on the gable ends.
There were often small windows on the first floor of the gable walls where there were loft accommodations. The walls of a cottage were typically about 600mm thick to support the roof and beams, this led to the attractive deep window reveals found in most cottages.
You may have noticed that many old Irish houses are not one single unified block, but are made up of several extensions, a kitchen at the back, an extra room to the side. Homes were enlarged when money was available. Often this money was earnt far away from home as hardship forced family members to look for seasonal work far away in Derry, Tyrone or even in Scotland.
Modern houses in Donegal, like modern houses in most places, are comfortable, spacious with plenty of windows. Older people, here as elsewhere, I suspect prefer bungalows for their lack of stairs.
Yet, there is still a space for the old style. On Cruit Island there is a holiday village of new-build holiday homes in the “old” style.
They are single story with thatched roofs but they are large, comfortable, and furnished with wooden rocking chairs, and folksy bedspreads. They also have a beach a stone’s throw away. Obviously, there are real old houses you can stay in on Cruit Island too.
I sometimes wonder if I am painting a “fake” version of Ireland. I am giving the impression that all of Donegal is covered in little quaint white houses? It isn’t, but they are there. Especially in the Rosses and on the islands. Not all of the houses are quaint in North-West Ireland; the “bungalow blight” that affects parts of Donegal has been commented on by others. I suppose I am drawn to the clean lines of the old houses.
This is a theme I have explored in a different context, previously. A couple of years ago I explored the “Hollowed Community” of Brynmill and painted the Edwardian terraces that surround my home in Swansea. I was also interested in a lost community. The old way of life (pre-internet) that is fast vanishing, where your neighbors lived next to you for years, not for weeks or just the summer months.
I was delighted to see my two Donegal paintings “Up Bloody Foreland, Donegal” and “The through Road, Donegal” on the walls of the London Irish Centre (Camden, London). These two oil paintings form part of a “real room” of an Irish family in 1950s Britain installation. The exhibition, which is on during August through to […]
Donegal is a big mountaneous county in a big country. Imagine my shock when I discover that it’s only the 4th largest in Ireland (after Cork, Galway and Mayo) at 4,860 km2 (1,880 sq miles). It seems even bigger as there is no railway or motorways here, so it takes a long time to travel around all the mountains. One of joys of the county is that it’s relatively empty (the 5th least populated in Ireland) with 32.6 people per km2.
There’s a good reason why landscape painters use the “landscape” orientation for their canvases – i.e. the longest side is horizontal – and that’s because you can fit more landscape in that way. I have recently discovered another good reason – social media and wordpress thumbnails don’t like tall narrow paintings and crop them.
Everybody loves the Georgian Houses It seems like certain styles never go out of fashion. Last year Georgian-style houses topped a poll of the most popular home styles. I suspect that people like scale of the house as well as the the pillars and generous sized windows. Nothing says lord of the manor like a […]
New Work & Recent Sales
Arch at Whiterocks Beach, Portrush
The Peace Bridge (Derry) by Emma Cownie
St Eugenes, Derry City
Polite Houses of Maghery- Emma Cownie
Abanoned (Glentornan, Donegal) -Emma Cownie
Low Tide, Summer Morning on Three Cliffs – Emma Cownie
Boat on Inch Island Donegal
Across Whiterock Beach, Portrush
Dunluce Castle from Whiterocks Beach
Towards Bloody Foreland (Donegal) _ Emma Cownie
Houses at Port na Crin, Gola
Errigal reflection (Donegal) _Emma Cownie
Washing Line, Arranmore _Emma Cownie
An Port, Donegal_Emma Cownie
House on Ishcoo, Donegal-Emma Cownie
Over Glenlough Bay, Donegal-Emma Cownie
Still, On Gola (Donegal)
Inishcoo (To The Fore of Arranmore) – Emma Cownie
Kinnagoe Bay (Inishowen, Dongal)
A Road through Chalford (Cotswolds)
Painswick Yews (Cotswolds)_Emma Cownie
On Rutland Island, Donegal -Emma Cownie
Sun on the Reeds (Glentornan, Donegal)-Emma Cownie
View from the Pier (Portnoo)-Emma Cownie
From Port to Glenlough (Donegal)
Errigal from Cruit Island. Donegal _ Emma Cownie
Spring on THree Cliffs Bay, Gower_Emma Cownie
Fishing Boat at Port Donegal-Emma Cownie
Portnoo Pier, Donegal_Emma Cownie
Down to Rossbeg Pier, Donegal
Over to Fanad Lighhouse (Donegal) _Emma Cownie
Errigal painting – A Commission 2022
From Arranmore (Donegal)- Emma Cownie
Ferry Home (Arranmore, Donegal) by Emma Cownie
Summer Morning on Pobbles Bay
On the Way to Kinnagoe Bay (Drumaweer, Greencastle)
Down to Doagh Strand (Donegal)-Emma Cownie
Lambing Season at Fanad Head
Fanad Lighthouse (Donegal)
Down to the Rusty Nail
Carrickabraghy Castle, Inishowen
Upper Dreen_Emma Cownie
Portmór Beach, Malin Head, Donegal
Down to the Rusty Nail, Inishowen
The Walls of Derry
Painting of Derry City
Derry Walls by Emma Cownie
Shipquay Gate by Emma Cownie
Over to Owey Island (Keadue) Donegal
Lighting the way to Arranmore
Old Stone Cottage in front of Errigal (Donegal
Boat at the Pier, Gola
House on Inishbofin, with distant Seven Sisters (in studio)