We visited Ramelton several times in this summer. It is a fascinating and historic town tucked away in the north-eastern corner of Donegal. Ramelton, (Irish: Ráth Mealtain) is also known as Rathmelton, this caused me great confusion when map reading. Yes, we have a sat nav but I am an old-fashioned girl and I like the immediacy of the map book. I thought Ramelton and Rathmelton were two different places. It is also not too far from another village called Rathmullan. I got very confused. We also didn’t know how to say the name properly to ask directions; we put the emphasis on the first syllable “RAMelton” but it’s said “RamELton”, if you look at the Irish Ráth Mealtain (bearing in mind you don’t say “th”s in Irish) it makes more sense.
Ramelton is a pretty and interesting place to visit. We entered from the north end, over the narrow stone bridge that crosses the flat, slow-flowing River Lennon. There are many fine Georgian-era houses to look at. The Mall runs along the south side of the river from the Bridge to Gamble’s Square. We enjoyed a very pleasant walk along the Mall towards the old buildings that form the Quays.
Further to the east lie the the Quays and the old warehouses, once commercial buildings, some of which are quite neglected, once formed the historic commercial centre of the town.
The town was founded in the early 1600s as a plantation settlement, on the site of an O’Donnell Castle by William Stewart of Ayrshire. Stewart was professional soldier (in otherwords, a mercenary) who had fought for kings of Sweden and Denmark before coming to Ireland for James I (VI of Scotland). He built and gave his name to fortications at Fort Stewart and Newtownstewart. In 1623 he was made a baronet and granted the castle of Ramelton, becoming the biggest landowner in the town. He also gained valuable fishing rights on Lough Swilly.
The word plantation has a special meaning in Ireland. This may cause confusion for some North American readers. In the South States of the USA the term is used to mean a large farm. In Ulster, the northern most province of Ireland, however, the plantation was the mass conviscation of land from the native Catholic Irish by the crown mainly under King James, from c.1609 onwards, and continued under Oliver Cromwell. The conviscated land was “settled” or colonised by Scots Protestants, like William Stewart’s followers. In this sense Ramelton, was a town planned and “planted” by Scots and English settlers.
Ramelton was built where the River Lennon flows into Lough Swilly. We approached the town from the north, over the narrow stone bridge. Unlike many other Irish towns, who seem to turn their backs to their rivers, Ramelton is focused on the River Lennon. In fact, the town is dominated by the wide flat river, with a good part of the old town being built along its shore.
Map of Ramelton, donegal
The location of the river helped the town develop into an important port and a prosperous centre for industry, trade and local government. In the 18th and 19th centuries Ramelton became the biggest linen bleaching town in County Donegal. Linen was a booming industry in Ulster. By the 1720s flax growing and linen weaving replaced food crops as the staples of Ulster agriculture. In the 18th century the domestic linen industry had expanded so rapidly that annual exports of linen cloth increased 40-fold! The peak period of flax cultivation was the decade of the 1860s (when there was a “cotton famine” in England) during which more than 200,000 acres were grown across Ireland. In the second half of the C19th Ulster produced at least ninety per cent of the national crop. Boats from all over the world docked in Ramelton to trade their wares in return for the Irish linen.
The flax for the linen was grown locally and then treated at the tanyard. Some of the linen was fed into voracious shirt-making industry based in nearby Derry City. The booming trade in linen for the export market helped provide much of the money needed to knock down old plantation houses and replace them with impressive new town houses. These spread westward and eventually grew into a riverside promenade lined by trees, known as The Mall.
Unfortunately, for Ramelton, there was a decline in the linen industry in the 1840s due to competition from Belfast. Although Belfast became firmly established as the linen capital of the world, the bulk of the raw material, however, was no longer produced in Ulster but imported from Belgium and Russian the majority of its production was destined for export too.
In the 1850s the town decline began in earnest as as the port began to silt up although a steam boat would leave from Ramelton to Derry and on to the emigrant ships that left from Derry. Later a new railway line was built in Letterkenny in the early years of the 20th century. This all contributed to the decline in industry in Ramelton. Its role as a centre for local government also ended with the abolition of the Grand Jury system in 1898.
The town is home to McDaid’s, a soft drinks manufacturer, whose drinks are sold throughout Donegal and further afield. Its most famous drink is the Football Special which was originally produced to celebrate the successes of Swilly Rovers Football Club.
We ambled passed the end of the Quays and then looped around and then past some very derelict buildings in sore need need of rescue, to walk back up Castle Street past the old centre of the town. The space which once formed the very centre of the town, is completely given over to a large tee-juntion and cars. Ramelton was also once a “Market Town” with a market cross, which signified the right to hold a market granted by the monarch, or local barony. In Ireland, market crosses were often located in a space, mid-way between church and castle. this was once the case at Ramelton but the market cross itself is long gone.
Open for Business, Ramelton (Donegal) – Emma Cownie
Postcards, drawings and numerous photographs from the 19th century show how prosperous and picturesque the setting of the town was. The town retained its importance as a rural business and market centre into the twentieth century.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Ramelton had seven churches which is pretty impressive for such a small town. It was known as ‘The Holy City’ due to the religious diversity found in the town. These days there are just three churches. Crime writer Paul Charles, used this diversity as a backdrop for one of his Inspector Starrett detective novels “Dust of Death”. which is based in Ramelton. I read this book, hoping to find out more about the town but apart from the odd mention of the Conway’s Bar and Bridge Bar, there was little background information.
We passed a very modest old end terrace cottage on Bridge Street in Ramelton, Donegal. We didn’t realise it at the time buy this the house where Patsy Gallacher (1891–1953) (also spelt Gallagher), Celtic legend, known as “the Mighty Atom” lived as a child. Patsy’s family were desperately poor, he had been born in the workhouse, and later they moved to Scotland.
On the north side of the river, Bridge End was developed around the large mill sites and bleaching green which is County Donegal’s largest surviving industrial heritage site associated with the linen trade. Although we passed Bridge End on the way into the town, we didn’t cross back over the river to visit this area. If I had known about the mills and bleaching green, I would have made the effort to see it. Next time we certainly will.
Find Out More
Most of the information about the History of Ramelton was taken from “Ramelton Action Plan for Donegal County Council” here .
More about Ramelton here and Rathmelton here (yes, it’s the same place but there are two entries)
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
– Social media (facebook / Instagram) www.boffinferrydonegal.com
Someone told me that once we got to Ireland, “it will be like being on holiday everyday!” Hmmm, I have had some pretty eventful holidays in the past. Funny how the disasters are more memorable that the sunny easy holidays. Let me see. Here are three that come to mind; we once got flooded in a campsite in Yorkshire, had a sleepless night holding on to the tent during a gale at a campsite in the South of France, and finally we drove a tempermental campervan around Ireland a decade ago. It only started some of the time. A helpful Polish guy got it started very early in the morning so we could catch the ferry in Wexford.
So far, this “holiday-everyday-life” is proving to be pretty good (that’s a English understatement, by the way). There were quite a few “bumps” to start with, however. A lot of things seem to go wrong at the same time. At first we could not get into the studio, as the door lock was jammed, then one of our dogs, little Mitzy had a stroke (the vets was over an hour’s drive away), Bingo the cat got lost and finally the toilet flooded and we couldn’t use it for several days.
The studio makers sent someone all the way from County Tyrone to replace the lock so we could get in! The vets kept Mitzy in over the weekend and thank to a pile of drugs and lots of basket-rest, she has recovered well. Her balance isn’t great and her head is at a permanent tilt but she chase after the ball again and is still telling us what to do.
Ann Marie at Burtonport Animal Rescue put out a notice on their facebook page, asking people to look out for Bingo, and it was shared many times. She gave us useful advice and support too.
Thankfully, Bingo came home late at night, after the traffic had died down. The flooding toilet issue is more complicated, has been solved for the time being but will need some more work in future. Don’t ask me to explain it.
We had a heatwave with unprecedent temperatures of 30 degrees celsius soon after we arrived. This was very unexpected and I had thrown out a lot of my clothes during the move and I only had one summer dress. Fortunately, I did have bathers so we could go for a swim in the sweathering heat. That was fantastic. The water was crystal clear and surprisingly warm (or not as cold as I thought it would be).
As for painting. That was bit more difficult. I was not able to paint for two months as I was either helping un/packing up the house, paints were packed away or I was just too exhausted to do anything. I knew it was going take a while to find my painting groove again as I needed to recover my energy levels and adjust to a new location. I am very fussy about arranging my paints and the position of my easel and it took a while sort things out to my satisfaction. It took longer than I thought but I am getting there now.
What do I love about Donegal? The way it looks and sounds. Everytime we take a trip into the nearest town of Dungloe, to post a painting or to do our food shopping, I marvel at the views. At night, when I awake, I listen to the slience. I find it so relaxing. I had had enough of the noise of city life. Donegal is so beautiful too. There is so much abundant nature on our door step, quite literally under our feet. The length of the west coast of Ireland is called the Wild Atlantic Way, and it really is wild in every sense.
A carpet of Flowers at Gweedore
The weather is very mercurial. I thought I was used to rainy weather, living in Swansea in Wales, but this is something else. I may awake to thunder and downpours, but by lunchtime the sun is shining and the sky is full of fluffy clouds. Sometimes it may rain, the sun will come out and then it rains again, all in the space of ten minutes. Today, we are in the midst of a gale, that no one has seen fit to name, with 50 mile-per-hour winds. Standing outside in the buffeting winds is surprisingly envigorating. I think its the negative ions.
It may be grey all all day or the sun might come out in a bit. Passing a window, I might be struck by the beauty of the clouds. Sometimes I point them out to Seamas, or take a photo. Often just drink them in. I hope I never stop marvelling at them.
Come and Visit
We are now in a position to receive visitors to our private gallery, at the rear of Meadow Cottage, on a appointment only basis. We ask that social distancing is observed and that masks are worn inside the gallery.
Please call either our mobile no.s +44 782757 4904 or
+353 87963 5699 or landline +353 74 959 1593 to book a viewing.
Bloody Foreland is one of my favourite locations in Donegal. It is one of the wildest, windiest and most beautiful places I have been. The light is sharp and clear. You feel healthier for breathing the air here.
The wind is always blowing. It is very remote and feels a bit like the edge of the known-world.
The name Bloody Foreland (Cnoc Fola in Irish means Hill of Blood) does not to refer to some past battle that took place here in mythic times, but intense red hue of the rocks at sunset. The Irish language dominates here.
Folklore records that Balor, the one-eyed supernatural warlord was eventually slain by his grandson Lugh Lámh Fhada on the slopes of Cnoc Fola. Indeed, some say that the tide of blood which flowed from Balor’s evil eye stained the hillside and gave it its name.
I particularly like the incredible stone walls, made of massive granite boulders, that snake across the hills here. They date from the 1890s. They suggest to me a landscape where stones were plentiful and labour cheap. It is also the sort of place where writers come to get away from the modern world and think about writing. Dylan Thomas, travelled to An Port, further south to write poetry, but left without paying his bills.
Old Farm Buildings, Bloddy Foreland
Bloody Foreland, also makes a refreshing contrast to the slopes of Brinlack and Derrybeg, round the corner, which are heavily peppered with larger modern houses and bungalows from the era of “Bungalow Bliss“.
This is the first time that I have been able to paint Ireland whilst in Ireland. Previously, I have worked from my photos back in Wales. Now I think that being surrounded by these colours all the time is affecting my work in a different way.
I am experimenting a little with less detail and letting my under painting show through more – to give a greater sense of the roughness of the landscape here. I am feeling my way. I don’t know how my paintings will develop in the future, but not knowing is a sort of freedom from painting the same thing in the same sort of way.
Here’s a photo-story about our move to Ireland. The photos are all by Séamas Johnston, my husband. He is also the architect of the move, the new studios and our new life. He’s been amazing. It’s great to see all his hard work finally come together.
Just to warn you. I have access to wifi this weekend (on a 3 day trial) but we decided to use a different company for our internet but they can’t install it for another 10 days so my responses will be delayed. My business remains closed until the middle of this month (July 2021).
Caravans tucked away on coastal inlets and islands are not an unsual sight in Donegal. I am always impressed by their presence as there are no roads for lorries and it must have taken a good deal of effort and ingenuity to get it there. Getting to have a “Staycation” in 2021 amidst all the uncertainty of vaccine rolls out & third (or is it fourth?) waves looks like it will take an equal amount of effort! So instead join me in imagining the view from the static caravan’s wide window across the rugged terrain of Gola Island on this late spring morning.
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
My work recently has undergone two small but important shifts in focus.
The first is a compositional one.
I have decided to revisit some of the “rules” I first used in 2017 when painting my Welsh “Urban Minimal” paintings (see my paintings for my exhibition in the Cardiff MadeinRoath festival here).
My “rules” for composition and painting this project were:- no cars, no people, bright light. There must be shadows – at diagonals if possible and simplified forms – there must be as little detail as possible. I want to explore the interplay of the geometry of shadows and man-made structures – the tension between the 3D buildings and the 2D shadows. Simplified blocks of colour.
I later extended these “rules” to painting the villages of Gower, labelling them (half jokingly) “Rural Miminal” (read more here).
Lately, I have been reflecting on my recent body of work and have realised that many of these ideas got lost in the heady excitment of exploring the new landscape (and skies) of Donegal. Also much of my energy got diverted into recovering from my operation and subsequent recovery after I broke my leg/ankle. I spent several months painting watercolours in my bedroom (as I could not reach my oil paints in the attic)and that led me to think more about composition and simplifying forms.
When I finally made it back to my easel, I could only manage short bursts of paintings so I focused on smaller pieces. The clear blue skies outside my window in Wales may well have influenced my fascination with the weather back in Donegal. Note that my use of colour has changed, they have softened, become more subtle. That’s because both the light and the landscape in Donegal is quite different to Wales. It’s also because I was observing more carefully.
This brings me on to my second shift. Colour. I was always aware that I played around with colour, brightened them just a little, to create cheerful and vibrant works. For many years I painted cheerful paintings when I, myself, was anything but.
Painting saved my sanity after a breakdown and going back to a teaching job that I found stressful. The bright colours were a bit of an emotional crutch, perhaps? I am not sure. They may have also been a result of hastiness/laziness, over-confidence with a dash of insecurity.
But change has been coming for a while. I was aware that I sometimes struggled with getting the colour of distant mountains correct. Often the problem lay in the fact that some of my colours were too strong and they needed softening.
I read somewhere that distant colours needed not blue or purple added into in them (as I had thought) but it’s complementary colour. That’s the colour’s opposite number on the colour wheel.
I bought a colour wheel to try and perfect those muted tones and watched a few videos on painting about tone and value. They didn’t really hit home with me. My colour wheel did not have brown on it, I noticed. I had to look for another one.
My distant hills improved. I held my paint brush up close to reference image more often before I placed it on the canvas. I used to only do that occassionally. Now I was trying to do it all the time. Work was slower as I thought and carefully considered my colours.
I saw a video that reinforced this growing fixation with getting colours exactly right. I saw a video on artist Mitchell Johnson’s Instagram Stories feed. I don’t know who made the video, otherwise I would include it here. I watched many times. Why was watching this clip so fascinating? I was getting excited about watching paint dry!
The tutor had three pieces of coloured card and he mixed the same exact shades of paint so that the paint seemingly “vanished” into the card. The cards were an acidic green, greyish blue and bluish grey. The colour combination he mixed were fascinating as he added colours that I thought were not going work and yet in the end they did (often a dab of orange did the trick). I noticed that he was using a small pallette knife to do the mixing. I ordered some palette knives to mix my paint with too. I have found that I can mix a larger quantity of paint. It means that the colour remains consistent.
The tutor made the comment that his students often asked him “Isn’t this close enough? Will this do?”. “No” he said. That sunk home. I knew I was guilty of thinking “This will do”. No more.
So I set to combining these two “shifts” in thought. The return to simplified forms and the focus on naturalistic/realistic colours.
My first effort was a large painting of the townland of Maghery in Donegal. One or two houses in the middle distant were edited out to simplify the composition. We decided to call this “The Polite houses of Maghery” because they have all been built looking away from each other! My husband says he finds this painting very calming.
I then revisited Gola Island to simplify my compositions futher. I had to resist the impulse the darken the shadows; to strengthen the colour of the pale pink sky, to add lots of yellow and bright greens to the grass. I think the result is also calming. It is ever so less frantic and a bit more chilled than my previous paintings of the island. There are still details, in the tiny reflections and pools of light on the doors and sills. You cannot have colour without light.
I suspect that these paintings better reflect my post-broken-leg state of mind. I go every where slowly and carefully (at the pace of a tortoise, according to my husband). I look at the ground to ensure that I do not trip. I gave up drinking coffee and caffeinated tea to reduce my swollen ankle so I am no longer pepped up on caffeine either. I always am mindful of where my feet are. I am now mindful of my colours too! Slowing down has helped me see colours better.
There are still many challenges to be solved. How will I include clouds in my rural miminal paintings? Will this approach work on a overcast day? Those are problems for another day!
We are all glad to see the back of 2020 but I am pausing for a moment to reflect on some of my painting sales over the year. Sadly, my accident and having my leg in a cast meant that I couldn’t get up the steep stairs to my attic studio (or anywhere else) to paint any oil paintings for over three months but things have ticked over during 2020.
I would like to say thank you Rob and David who waited a very long time in the cold with me for the ambulance to come, to the paramedics and firebrigade who got me out of the woods, to NHS staff at Morriston who fixed my very broken leg and looked after me, as well as to the Physical Therapists who gave me lots of advice on exercises over the phone. I still have a way to go!
I have to say an absolutely massive thank you to my brillant husband, Séamas, who trudged up and down two flights of stairs with trays of food many times a day (and lost weight doing so) for months. He kept my spirits up when I got frustrated and tearful. It wasn’t that often as I was so glad to be home but it was all hard work for him in the midst of a pandemic! He also kept the show on the road by packing up and arranging the shipping my paintings. He was, and remains, utterly wonderful!
Here’s a selection of some of my sales from 2020
Here’s to a happier and healthier 2021 to everyone!
In my last post I decribed visiting the abandoned fishing village of An Port tucked away in a remote corner of the Donegal shoreline (read it here). We were inspired to seek out this very remote spot by American artist Rockwell Kent, who visited and painted the area in the 1920s. I was waiting for […]
An Port has loomed large in my imagination for a long time. It’s very remote and quite difficult to get to. To reach it, you have to drive down a very, very long single track road (it’s about three miles but it feels longer) on the way to Glencolmcille. There are plenty of sheep and […]
Rossbeg (sometimes spelt Rosbeg) is a tiny townland on the west coast of Donegal, just south of Portnua and Nairn. There is a pier and a scattering of houses, some are modern, but many are old cottages, probably used as holiday lets. The day we visited the weather was calm and sunny. It was just perfect.