A year’s a long time in art. When I look back at my paintings from early 2019, it feels like I made them much longer ago than that! This selection of “popular” (most likes/biggest reach) is based on my Instagram account, there are many more images that I shared on Facebook, that were also popular but are not included here. The work in progress photos are often very popular, sometimes they are more popular than the final painting!
The most popular nine posts/paintings are all of Donegal, Ireland, paintings.
Here are my most popular posts/paintings of landscapes, people and animals of Gower, Wales and Stroud, England.
Finally, a selection of commissioned work. I particularly enjoyed painting the beautiful Maine Coon cats, especially as pet portraits are usually of the canine variety!
My personal favorite from 2019 is this one. There is something about the neatness of the houses on the island that I relish in this painting.
Of course, the irony is that one of my most popular posts of 2019 on social media was not a painting but a photograph that my husband took on the spur of the moment of us in woolly hats (and my new Donegal jumper) on Christmas Day!
Here’s wishing everyone a Happy, Healthy and Prosperous 2020!
Autumn brings incredible colours to the west coast of Ireland. As the grass and bracken die off, they turn a fantastic shade of orange and pink. The pink granite rocks that litter the landscape accentuate the warm colours. They have provided me with much inspiration for my landscape paintings of Donegal, Ireland.
This series of paintings has been inspired by the Old Railway Walk which starts near Burtonport, near Dungloe in Donegal. There are no railways in Donegal anymore. There used to be. The line to Burtonport was built in 1903 as a joint venture by the British government and the Londonderry & Loch Swilly RailwayCompany to attempt to alleviate poverty in north West Donegal.
The trains used to carry fish from the port at Burtonport in Donegal to Derry, in the neighboring county. It also carried many seasonal workers to and from Derry and Scotland. After 1922 the line crossed from one country into another; from the Irish Free State into Northern Ireland.
In the 1940s, however, the Irish government decided to close down the railways in Donegal. I have never really found a clear explanation for why this happened but I am going to assume that the cost of running the line was an important factor. There were also concerns about the safety of the line.
In January 1925 disaster had occurred on the at theOwencarrow Viaductwhen winds of up to 120mph blew carriages of the train off the viaduct causing it to partially collapse. Four poor souls lost their lives.
After the Second World War, the Irish government presumably decided it would cost too much to continue the maintenance of the line and it was closed in 1947. The Burtonport-Gweedore section closed in 1940. There is a great graphic on the Donegal Daily hereillustrating the shrinkage and disappearance of the railways. Donegal became a very remote part of Ireland, with no railways and no (still) motorways. Communication with the area improved in 1986, however, whenDonegal airportstarted operations.
It seems that for half a century nothing much happened on the old railway line. In 2009, however, there was a heavy snowfall, and some of the old railway line was cleared to access water mains that needed repairing. The remaining section was later cleared and gradually developed as a walkway with the support of the local community. A massive effort has gone into creating this beautiful and peaceful walk.
Here are some of my paintings inspired by my husband Seamas’s photographs of the railway walk.
There are many features of the old railway remaining which you can view along the way such as stations, gatehouses, accommodation crossings, lots of pillars, cuttings, embankments, a bridge and rusty gates. There are also lots of shelters for walkers to hide from passing showers to use.
Photo credit: James (Seamas) Henry Johnston
Youtube video- Siúlóid an tSean Bhóthar Iarainn—The Old Railway Walk by Ralph Schulz.
Find out more about the Railway Walk by clicking on the links below:-
The Opening night of an “Open” exhibition is an affair full of nervous energy! This is because 90% of people in the room are artists who are all relieved/happy to have their work included in the exhbition in the first place and secondly have come to see where their painting/s have ended up? Are they in a corner? Can they be seen?
Open Exhibition is where the organisers invite or “call” for artists to submit their work (for a small fee). The best works are then selected to be included in the exhibition. There are massive national exhibitions (like the BP Portrait Prize) that are so massive that they have a preliminary round where digital photos are first sent for consideration. The Glynn Vivian, does it the old fashioned way by requiring artists to bring their paintings to gallery for submission. You can submit up to two works each. As, it’s only open to artists living in the Swansea area, it’s not too onerous to drop in the paintings.
All artists fear rejection. We are sensitive souls. So to have to face the prospect of being rejected (one or two paintings) isn’t pleasant. Inclusion isn’t automatic, even if your work has been included before (I was in 2017), especially as the people doing the choosing (or “curating”) change every year. This year’s curators were Richard Billingham and Durre Shahwar. Richard is a photographer and filmer maker who was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2001. Shahwar is a writer, editor, and creative facilitator. Thankfully they chose both of the works I submitted.
I had deliberately decided to arrive an hour into the Opening party as I remember it being very crowded to last time I came in 2017. It was still very crowded at 3pm and the numbers only really thinned out after 4pm. There were 245 pieces in the exhibition. The two rooms in the gallery were filled to the brim with paintings (and artists). were overwhelmingly 2D art. Paintings, sketches and prints, but there were films and sculptures too.
Of course, the first thing I did was try and find my paintings. They were in the second room. I was initially surprised to see that they were not together but had been arranged separately as part of themed groups of colours. I thought that the arrangement worked well. It’s a funny feeling seeing your paintings in amongst lots of other paintings. It’s like a familiar face amongst a crowd of strangers.
There’s no way I can get a photo of both paintings, I thought. Actually, for a long time, I could not get a photo of each painting as the gallery was so crowded.
For some reason, people stood in front of my second painting, Autumn in the Rosses for the longest time. Different groups of people too. So I had to wait quite a while to get a photo of it and even then I had a person’s shadow on it!
It wasn’t just me trying to get a photo of my work. These artists were very excited about being in the exhibition. Their joy was a delight to see.
There was so much to look at in the exhibition. There was such a variety of work too. Here are just a few that caught my eye. The most affecting work were the two bird sculptures by Mike Hill. One was made of fishing tackle detritus and the other was in the shape of a cormorant smothered in tar. In fact, the tar-bird was so affecting that I had to fight back the tears. There were quite a few works that touched up the climate emergency and waste but these two, in my opinion, were the most powerful ones.
I particularly liked the animal/nature themed wall.
I also really liked Myles Lawrence Mansfield ” Rejections/Acceptance Machine”. I liked it even more when it was explained to me that it moved when you turned to handle! I always like things that do something. Thinking about it now, it may well have been a comment on the life of an artist!
I had to pleasure of meeting fellow artist Wendy Sheridan in real life (after many online interactions via social media). She very kindly took my photo!
I would highly recommend visiting the Glynn Vivian to see all the works in the Open Exhibition. It’s on until 23rd February (closed on Mondays) and is free!
The landscapes of Donegal, Ireland have provided me with so much inspiration for my art I thought I’d share some background about our house just outside Burtonport. My husband, Seamas, has spent far more time and effort than me on Meadow Cottage. Thus, this blog post is a bit of a photo-essay as I have been absent for about half of these events. I have stayed behind at home in Wales, feeding our pets and keeping the Art business ticking over.
1. I thought I’d start with the Estate Agent’s photos. In Ireland, estate agents are called auctioneers, in the US I think they are known as realtors. Kenneth Campbell’s aerial photos are great, and doesn’t the yellow gorse look pretty? I changed my mind about gorse, later. What attracted me to the house (other than its location near Donegal airport, as well as walking distance from Burtonport, the ferry to Arranmore Island, a garage shop and Dungloe a short drive away) was the fact that unlike many Donegal homes, it had two rooms upstairs. Why do I care about an upstairs? Well, firstly I have only ever lived in a house with stairs and secondly and more importantly the light is better to paint by. Especially if it comes from a north-facing skylight. That will provide steady cool light. There was no north-facing sky-light only south-facing, but that could be easily changed
In our first spring visit, we concentrated on essentials for the cottages. Thankfully the previous owners were very generous in including a lot of furniture with the cottage so we just had to think about buying things like pots and pans and bedding. We started to explore the area. There was a large area behind the rocks which was overgrown with gorse and brambles. We made some inquiries about getting someone in to do the garden, but they didn’t quite come to anything.
2. Summer visit. Everything had grown. A lot. The grass was now waist-high! The brambly bit of the garden at the back now looking like something out of a sleeping-beauty nightmare.
We looked around at the gardens around us and saw a lot of neat lawns and hedges. Oh dear, we were the neighbourhood scruffs. We had a lot of work to do here. We had brought an electric grass-strimmer with us. It wasn’t much good. There was just too much grass. Even after Seamas had cut it was still a foot deep! Steep learning curve! We bought a petrol strimmer and Seamas studied it carefully. He would be back!
In the mean-time, we hacked away at the biggest interlopers in the garden. There were a couple of fir trees that had spread their seedling all over the grass and were also sprouting up through parts of the drive. They were also blocking the view of drivers pulling out of the side road onto the road to Dungloe. They had to go. I hacked down one with a hand saw and Seamas and I cut down the larger one together (you can see it behind him in the photo below).
We painted things like fences, walls window sills and the gate.
The cutting things down then extended (rather belated in our stay) to cutting back the gorse. There had been gorse fires in the spring that had been extensive and destroyed one family’s holiday cottage. It had been an important source of income for them. So I wanted to get rid of the gorse near the cottage. It had grown so much that it came up to the back windows of the cottage. We hired a skip and started to fill it. It was hard work. I am not used to it. Still, we got stuck in.
It’s springy stuff. I jumped up and down on it a lot.
We filled it up and when the skip was collected by Paddy Sharkey, he managed to jam a fair bit more in the skip and jump on it.
It was back-breaking stuff. What you needed, Paddy said was a “man with a digger”. We got the number of the man-with-a-digger, and a lot more besides, Tom Ham, and he called round to look at our rocks and gorse. Yes, he could do something with it, in about 6 weeks time. So we left for Wales, with plans.
3. Seamas came back in the to autumn to report back on some improvements he’d arranged to be done whilst we were away. Pauric Neely had put clear glass put in the front door to let light into the hallway.
Seamas painted the back of the house and got the hang of the petrol strimmer.
4. Seamas’s winter visit. Part 1- More changes: – a new north-facing skylight put in by Paddy Campbell. Yeay. Light to paint by!
Best of all, Tom had removed the gorse by the back of the house. It was gone!
That was great. The brambles were still lurking behind the rock. That was the next stage of the project. It was somewhat fortuitous then, that Seamas’s flight was canceled. He actually went to the airport and waited for his flight. He watched the two-engine plane starting the approach to its landing but very strong cross-winds prevented it from landing. So it returned to Dublin!
Part 2: – Seamas decided to stay another week for the next stage in the work. This was clearing the land behind the rocks and preparing the foundations to put in a couple of wooden clad cabins to act as an art studio and an art gallery. This was a lot of work.
Finally, the brambles are gone.
There’s a lot of land here!
Seamas has achieved a massive amount over the last year. He’s so happy when he’s in Donegal. He loves our cottage. He is never happier than when he’s working on it. There’s a lot more to do. He has more plans that he’s hatched with Tom, that I am looking forward to happening. I think that when I am back in the spring that I will be planting a lot of grass seed! I am looking forward to my second year and hoping to spend much more time here.
I would like to thank Kenneth Campbell, Pauric Neely, Paddy Sharkey, Paddy Campbell, Lucy of the Parlour Shop, who drove up from Killybegs on a Sunday evening (with her mum) to deliver a table and last but definitely not least, Tom Ham, for all their excellent work.
Update: June 2020 we had a portacabin art studio (designed by Séamas and Stephen Primrose) and built by H.E. Haslett Co. Ltd of County Tyrone delivered. It looks great. If you are wondering, the giant window which is positioned to for the northern light, is round the other side.
As you can see the garden has GROWN! I hope the insects and wildlife are all enjoying the overgrown garden. My broken leg and the pandemic prevented a another visit (and a lot of gardening) in 2020.
I am really looking forward to using this studio later this year (all going well with vaccinations, fingers crossed)!
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:
I had been trying to finish it but the weather and the light were so bad here in Wales over the weekend, I had to leave it until Monday. I struggle to see greens in poor light and as the grass at the bottom of the painting was so important to the success of the image, I decided to wait until I could see it.
It’s is such a joy to look at the bright blue skies of Donegal and the wonderful clear light.
It was a year ago that I painted my first painting of Donegal. Here it is. It is a small one.
It’s quite a modest painting. You could say that I started off tentatively. I was feeling my way. The light in Donegal is very clear and the scenery is beautiful. That’s an overused word in this age of social media, but it is beautiful.
My husband, Seamas (he likes counting things) tells me that I have painted over 50 Donegal paintings (including 3 commissions). That pretty much averages out at one a week. I am pleased to say that I have already sold over half of them.
I discovered that I had to use a different palette from the one that I use in Wales. The greens and yellows were more yellow ochre than lemon yellow and the sea was more turquoise (but not quite as turquoise as I first painted) thanks to the clear water.
On The Way To Arranmore
From Ferry Coll SOLD
Over to Owey Island, West Donegal, Ireland
I loved the rocky landscape of the Rosses. It was a landscape like no other I’d seen before. Someone has said to me that it’s quite alien, like a moonscape in places. I love the granite rocks. We have a massive one behind our cottage in Donegal. I feel very affectionate towards it. It’s a protective presence, especially when it’s windy.
Over to Tullyillion
Of course, when you are in a different country to the one you were brought up in, everything seems fascinating. I have loved painting both the modern Donegal houses as well as the old cottages.
From Cruit Island
Over to the Rosses
House by the Wild Red Flowers (Arranmore)
I will freely admit I am quite obsessed by landscape spotted with old cottages on the Donegal islands, on Arranmore and Gola in particular.
Across to Inishbofin
This Beauty That will Pass
A House on Gola
Up From the Pier (Gola)
Oileán Ghabhla (Donegal)
Around Cloughcor (Arranmore)
Cottage on Inishcoo
On Eighter Island
The Red Roofed House, Arranmore (Private Collection)
I haven’t really got to grips with the mountains of Donegal. What I mean is that I need to visit them a lot more, walk up them and get to know them better. So far I have just admired the “Seven Sisters”, including Mount Errigal and Muckish from a distance.
Across to Dunfanaghy
Mount Errigal from Ballymanus Beach, Donegal
Over to Kinclassagh
The Pig’s Back (Muckish) Donegal
Of course, the real joy of Donegal is the clouds. The changes skies. I am used to it raining, (I have lived in Wales for over 25 years) but the light is different by the North Atlantic Ocean. It is often more slivery, and more changeable.
From Magheraclogher Beach (Bunbeg)
Near Dunmore Strand
Rain over Dunfanaghy
I think about Donegal every day when I am in Wales. My husband will place his current favourite Donegal paintings in the bedroom and in the lounge so he can look at them whilst we still have them.
Here’s my most recent painting Donegal painting. I am currently working on a painting of Arranmore Island, unfortunately, it rained so much here yesterday, the light went and I have yet to finish it.
Commissions are usually pretty interesting because they will challenge me in some way or another. This particular commission’s challenge was about scale. Now, I don’t usually paint large paintings because I just don’t have the space to store many of them. I have a few but I am not keen to paint many more as and I find it difficult to paint in a crowded attic studio, both on a practical level (if you look at my photos carefully you can see its crowded in my studio) and also psychologically (it starts to bug me). So if a commission requires me to go large I am quite excited by that prospect. Excited and a bit scared.
This commission was based on a relatively modest-sized painting I had recently painted of Gola Island, Donegal. This is 41x33cm, that’s 16 x 13 inches for non-metric people.
Up from the Pier (Gola)
As you can see from the studio photo, the original fits on the seat of a chair. It is a favourite of mine. I have many favourite paintings, this is my current one.
The commission canvas size was to be 120 x 80cm (47×32 inches). Which is pretty big for my little studio. The canvas I could cope with, but the cardboard box it was arrived in is annoying me as it’s ended up by the railings by the steps to the attic. It’s in my way.
So I pondered the issues with scaling up this painting. The joy of small paintings is that you can hint at all sorts of things with a brushstroke or two and the brain will do the rest of the work. There’s no hiding place when the canvas is over a metre in size.
So the first change in my approach was scale. I printed out my reference photo on a much larger piece of paper. My original photo wasn’t much bigger than 10cm (4 inches) square. Don’t ask me why. I like to print off a lot of images at one time and then ponder which one I want to actually paint. For the commission, the photo was closer to A4 size (7×11 inches) and amazingly, I could see much more detail! So I focused a lot of attention on the buildings and caravan on the horizon. I paint with a small brush get the details of the light on the houses and ruins.
I generally work from left to right when I am painting so as not to smudge work with my hand and the next part I worked on were the rocks and the grassy verge to the left of the track. The real joy of painting vegetation in Donegal is the many varied greens and yellows. I love picking out the different hues. I have to make sure that my colours match the colours in the reference photo as closely as possible. It sounds daft, but I hold up the paintbrush next to the photo to check I have the right tones.
The grass and bracken in the main part of the painting were carefully reconstructed. Saying that I use much larger brushes than I do for my smaller paintings. I make sure that blocks of yellow ochres and green grass or darker bracken are in the right place. There are both warm and cool greens here. There are splashes and smudges of oranges, pinks, jade and turquoise in there too. I am trying to convey not only colour but the shape of undulating land; where the grass has grown up and in some places, covered completely the old stone walls. The island is covered in lots of wooden fence posts, but I don’t want to paint in all the wires as the eye wouldn’t see them all in that much detail so I pick out just a few of them. I wanted to recreate the spirit of the smaller painting rather than create a new painting so I have to adjust a few patches of grass, on the left-hand side of the painting, so their bluish tones echo the first painting and balance the colours in the whole. The tiny golden yellow flowers that are gathered at the bend in the pinkish track are added.
The sky is painted last. Sometimes I paint skies first, especially if it is a cloudy or stormy sky, but in this case, it’s a blue powdery summer blue and it comes last. It has the effect of bringing the whole painting together.
The commission next to the study painting of Gola
So the final stage is to sit with the painting and check that it has the same “vibe” as the smaller study painting. I think it has. I regard it as a big beast, but one I like.
I wonder what it would be like to have a massive studio where you could store bigger paintings? Would I paint larger paintings? Well, in the winter when light is short I would still paint smaller works that could be completed relatively quickly, but in the summer months when I have acres of daylight? You bet.
The ferry to Tory Island runs all year round. In the summer months (June onwards) there are extra sailings. We had decided to get an early boat as Seamas, my husband said the weather forecast was for sunshine in the morning, cloudy around midday and then sunshine in the afternoon. I think we are learning to take weather forecasts for Donegal with a pinch of salt. Some forecasts for “cloudy” days translate into blue skies with a few clouds, others into a damp drizzle. We were optimistic but when we arrived at Magheroarty Pier it was overcast. Once we had parked in the generously sized car park, we had to hurry to get the boat. Magheroarty Pier is tidal, so sailings have to leave on time, time and tide wait for no man, etc.
We were not quite the last people on the boat but all the downstairs seat were full so we stood on the top deck, me leaning against the body of the ship and Seamas found a large metal box to sit on, the dogs sat close to him. We could feel the movement of the boat as soon as the ferry left the shelter of the harbor at Magherorarty and at times we had to hang onto a metal grill that housed a lifeboat ring.
Two men who were standing nearby to us were talking to each other in Irish. Tory Island is probably the strongest Irish-speaking area in the country. It sounded a bit like a Scandinavian language at times – a third Irish speaker stood to one side, listening. They each looked very different from each other in appearance, one was very blonde, one was dark-haired and the third had white hair. The dark-haired man had freckles and light eyes. It is a “look” I have seen a lot in Donegal, Seamas says it’s common in County Derry too.
The trip took just under an hour. The motion of the boat made me feel quite ill by the time we reached firm land. I think being on the top deck made me feel the motion of the baot more than if I have been on the lower deck. It took me at least 30 minutes to shake the feeling of a dodgy stomach. Someone, later asked if we had felt ill on the crossing, and laughed when I said I had. It’s not unknown.
Tory Island lies 8 miles off the coast of Donegal. The origin of the name of Tory Island (Oileán Thoraí in Irish), isn’t universally agreed on. Yes, the word Tory may come from from the Middle Irish word tóraidhe; modern Irish tóraí; meaning a robber or bandit. Ever wondered why one of the oldest British political parties, the Conservatives, are also known as the “Tories”? The term was originally a term of abuse and meant “an Irish rebel”. The insult goes back to the era of Oliver Cromwell’s brutal campaign in Ireland when a band of Irish guerilla fighters was known as Tories.
Another explanation for the name, however, is that it may mean the “island of Tors”. The shape of the island from a distance is a tower, and its northern coastline is peppered with massive tors. This seems just as likely. I suspect that people, however, prefer the story of the name meaning Pirate Island instead of the Island of Tors as it’s more exciting. The remote location of the island has meant that the islanders have had (and continue) to rely on their ingenuity and resourcefulness.
They have lived on the margins of the so-called “civilized world” and kept to their own rules and customs, which were not necessarily those of the mainland. Famously they refused had fallen behind with their rents and rates and a British gunboat, HMS Wasp, was sent in 1884 to forcibly collect the arrears and evict the tenants. Luckily for Tory, it hit a reefnear the island and sank rapidly (not so good for the 52 who died). The locals put this stroke of fortune to the power of their cursing stone! This event is one of many Donegal stories about the spooky powers of Tory Island. You can read more in theNational Folklore Collection UCD Digitization Project.
One custom that marks Tory as different from Ireland is that they have a king. It’s not a hereditary position, rather one chosen by consensus as a leftover from the days of Gaelic chieftains. Patsy Dan was asked to become king by the children of the previous king Padraig Og Rodgers in the 1990s.
He was a talented musician and painter and acted as a very successful ambassador for the island. At a young age, he had befriended English artist Derek Hill, who regularly painted on Tory and he helped set up a gallery on Tory, where island artists sell their work. He was clearly an energetic man, as was known for personally greeting all the visitors to the island as the ferry arrived from the mainland. He apparently made a point of shaking hands with visitors and saying “Welcome to my island.”
Sadly, Patsy Dan Rodger, died last year and now rests in the churchyard. I saw his grave decorated a wooden cross and with stones around it. I did not take a photo because it felt like it would be an intrusion on the island’s grief. The island is without a king for the time being.
The island itself is a strange mix of very old and modern. People have lived here for over 4500 years. There are a few old cars and vans driving back from the harbour after picking up stuff at the pier.
Tory feels a long way from the mainland, although you can see the coast of mainland Donegal when the weather is clear. It is less than 2 miles long and only half a mile wide. My overwhelming first impression (once the cars and vans had driven off) and we had walked out of the tiny West Town (An Baile Thiar) was of birdsong.
Sparrows, larks and other moorland birds just singing their hearts out. The landscape is full of bold little brown birds, pipits and larks. Some of them even come near to you and sing, possibly as a challenge. We walked along a single tracked road eastward towards the other settlement or “clachan” on the island. We passed a Second World War torpedo that had been painted bright red and erected by the side of the road.
I marveled at the ground on Tory. To the south of the road, it seemed to be a dried bog and the north it was very stony ground, reminding me of a hardcore carpark. How had anyone, let alone over 200 (at one point it rose to 400) islanders managed to eek a living from such a tough terrain? I have looked at the small stony fields in Galway and thought how tough life must have been for the farmers, but this was much worse. The potato was a versatile crop and remarkably the blight that brought the Great Hunger to mainland Donegal, did not reach the island. Of course, the Tory islanders did not live from farming alone, they were also fishermen and brewers ofpoitin whiskey.
There was a group of German tourists ahead of us (they all seemed to be wearing blue jackets for some reason). They veered off the road to the left towards what looks like a dip in the earth. We followed them, so see what they have gone to look at and discover that is a massive hole with a cave down to the sea. I would not have guessed this was here from the road.
We carried on up to the northern edge of the island. What a view! I am not good with heights as the best of times and I felt quite ill looking over the edge. I lay down on the grass to take photos. The reddish cliffs and cream coloured sea stacks were stunning.
We spent a lot of time walking along the cliffs and back again, taking in the views.
There were sea birds flying and squawking. Lots of gulls and razorbills and one lone puffin to be seen. The birds of Tory are the highlight of the visit for me.
We then find the weather has closed in on us. We could see the mist and cloud descending on the lighthouse to the west of us, at the other end of the island. I’d foolishly hoped it would stay on that side of the island!
On the island, weather changes from moment to moment. I am reminded of the sign outside Derek Hill‘s house warning that “Winter weather can happen at any time in Donegal”. Yes, it can.
Mainland Donegal has vanished in a cloud of rain. We get increasingly damp, but not quite soaked through. There’s no shelter anywhere. No trees. No bus shelters (what an utterly daft idea, here). We have a lively discussion about the conditions (I keep thinking of that weather forecast of sunshine in the afternoon) and I optimistically suggest that it will pass soon enough. I am encouraged by the fact that the group of German visitors (off in the distance) haven’t given up and are scaling the heights of Ardil Iril, and are looking over the cliff. So we carry on and by the time we reach Port an Duin, which has a small concrete pier, the rain has halted.
We sit down on some rocks and eat our sandwiches and crisps. The dogs get some too and a drink of water from their bowl that I am carrying. The weather brightens up considerably as we climb up to the highest part of Tory. This is Dun Bhaloir (Balor’s Fort), which is an early Iron Age Fort, which is covered in piles of massive rocks, which were part of the defenses. Balor apparently was a fearsomecyclopswarlordwho could kill a man dead with asingle glanceof his evil eye!
From here we can get a view of the rest of the island snaking off to the west. It has brightened up now and we take off our coats. The dogs are getting hot and panting.
There’s a discussion about the return time of the ferry as Seamas’s smartphone has died (and I don’t have one). We’d asked about the times when we got off the ferry but after the long walk we aren’t sure of what we were told, was it 2.30 or 3.30? We could see the ferry heading back to the mainland at 1.30 so I reason that it will be at least 2 hours before it returns. However, we would easily be able to see it returning so we would just need to keep an eye out for it. So we started plodding back to An Baile Thiar and the pier. We were all very tired now. So we start the walk back to the harbour in An Baile Thiar.
We made it back to An Che (the pier) and could see the approaching ferry in plenty of time. I got some extra water for the dogs from a tap in the parish hall. This time we got seats on the ferry so I don’t feel queasy on the journey back. The German tourists are also on the ferry.
As we were coming towards Magharoarty harbor, three dolphins surprise us all appearing in the sea alongside the ferry. I saw a flash of strong blue-grey bodies and then the three of them arching in and out the water behind the ferry. All the passengers on the boat were very excited (as was I). These are my first wild Donegal dolphins. I spend a long time looking at my photos afterward, reliving the experience. I wish the photos were better.
I left with an impression that Tory wasn’t like the other Donegal islands. It felt a lot further away from the mainland for a start. Life was (and probably still is) tough here. When the rain covered the island we might as well have been a thousand miles from the mainland. I know that is true of all islands to some extent, but you really felt it here. We visited in summer, I can hardly imagine what it is like in the winter, surrounded by the raging Atlantic Ocean. I didn’t get to speak to anyone, beyond a “hello” but the islanders are very clearly very independent and resilent. Looking over my little guide book to Tory I realise that there was lots more to see on the island, that we didn’t have the time or energy to see, namely the lighthouse on the west end of the island, Derek Hill’s painting hut, the Art Gallery, or the round tower or the curious T-shaped “Tau” Cross.Next time, I visit, I will bring more sandwiches and a hat in case it rains again.
On a grey overcast day, when the clouds seemed always about to descend on us, we drove to a smart red Georgian house by Lough Gartan, near a place called Churchill (Irish: Mín an Lábáin). This is Glebe House.
It had been the home of the English-born artist Derek Hill, who died in 2000. He had bought this massive estate in the 1940s for the bargain price of £1000. There was a sign in the car park, I wish I had taken a photo of it now, which pointed out the guests who were planning to explore the extensive grounds to be well-prepared as “Winter weather can happen at any time of the year in Donegal”.
We had a tour around the house. There were about 10 of us in our group. What a house! It was a riot of colour and packed with fascinating objects and artworks. I loved the design and feel of the house.
If was an interior designer, I’d use it as a source of inspiration. I spent a lot of time, thinking, I’d love a chesterfield sofa like that, or the patchwork quilt is to die for! It was beautiful, artistic and decidedly a home too.
We were, unfortunately, hurried around the house and asked not to take photographs (I took a few before this message got through to me). The explanation given for this was there were plenty of good photos on the website. It wasn’t about flashlight damaging the artifacts, as no one was using flash photography. I suspect, however, it was so that they could speed us around the house as quickly as possible. I went to the website, afterward expecting a feast of photographs, but was disappointed by the limited number of images. There was nothing wrong with the photos, it’s just that there were not enough of them. There were so many fascinating objects and paintings in the house that weren’t properly documented on the website.
At the end of the tour my head was buzzing with the names of so many artists, whose works hung on the walls of the house (Picasso, Victor Passmore, Francis Bacon, James Dixon, Edward Landseer) and stories about the rich and famous friends of Derek Hill’s who came to visit, including Hollywood star Great Garbo who only ate slice apples. Actually, little is known about her 1967 visit and that gap was filled by writer Frank McGuinness’s play “Greta Garbo Came to Donegal“.
Derek Hill came from a very wealthy family and (based on this tour) never seemed to struggle much in life – there were famous friends and artists aplenty. The house was richly decorated in William Morris prints, wallpaper, and carpets. I really liked the richness of the colours of his house but was disappointed that were not given more time to take it all in. Sadly, there isn’t a photograph of his richly wallpapered bathroom on the site.
Photos OPW from Glebe Gallery website.
I wondered if he was gay on the basis of his taste for lavish decorations and he didn’t have any girlfriends, or wives, just female friends – the snakeskin slippers under the bed, the flashy cravat collection also gave me a strong hint in that direction. Maybe there was a hidden struggle in Derek Hill’s life, after all. Homosexuality was illegal for much of his life in the UK and Ireland (it was decriminalized in the late 1960s and early 1990s respectively), and general social acceptance is a relatively recent phenomenon. There were creative men who risked prosecution, such as Francis Bacon and Cecil Beaton, by persuing sexual/and romantic relationships, but it was emotionally difficult for them and their lives were often fraught with guilt and shame. Others, like Hill, probably avoided the complications by becoming what was known as “confirmed batchelors.“
His jacket hanging in his wardrobe was very poignant as it still held the shape of his body, 19 years after his death. It reminded me of Dylan Thomas’s suit that hangs in the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea, in Wales. Derek Hill made his living from painting portraits of rich and important people. None of those paintings were here. His portraits of Donegal people are excellent. They were the best paintings in the house by far. The portrait of his head gardener (Below) caught the wiriness and strength of his physique well.
There is a great little coffee shop in a courtyard near the house. Its walls were also covered in original paintings, some by Derek Hill, others by the artists from Tory Island that he befriended and encouraged on his regular summer visit to the island.
With more research that I discover that there was a lot of “emptiness and disappointment” for Derek Hill. The British artistic establishment and critics dismissed Hill’s landscapes as out of date because they were too representational. Welsh artist Kyffin William’s work was dismissed on similar grounds. British galleries refused to buy his portraits, although the best of them (see below) are powerful works.
It is clear that Derek Hill loved Ireland and Donegal and its people, in particular. In 1981, Derek Hill donated Glebe House, its contents and the gardens to the people of Ireland. His studio and guesthouse were transformed into the Glebe Gallery displaying items from the Derek Hill Collection. He moved into a small cottage on the estate for the remaining 19 years of his life. It is clear that Ireland loved him back. In 1998 he was granted honorary Irish citizenship. in 1998, President McAleese told him that he had become “more Irish than the Irish”.
You probably think that artists are good at creating paintings/images in all mediums; oil, watercolours acrylic paints. Many probably are, but I am not. I need to work at it. It’s a bit like being an athlete. You might be great at football but it doesn’t automatically mean you are a great sprinter, tennis player […]
What’s in a name? It’s complicated The name of the city I am living in right now is contentious. It’s official name is Londonderry but no one here seems to call it that, not even the council. Most people in the city itself, Protestants as well as Catholics, call it Derry. This suggests it is more […]
The ‘Illuminate’ festival is running over two weekends in Derry, 17th – 20th and 24th – 27th February, from 6pm – 9pm. We visited it on Thursday night. It was very cold (double socks and thermals weather) but mostly dry. This was important was all the sites we visited were out of doors. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and a brilliant introduction to Derry.