The rain finally stopped yesterday morning and the temperature rose a few degrees. We just had three days of steady rain. The temperatures also went up a bit. I was amused to discover that this “event” made the news. The headline in “The Donegal Daily” an online newspaper read: “Weather- Another Mild Day in Store for Donegal”. This publication is favourite of mine. It is a heart-warming mixture of stories with happy endings (swimmers get into trouble in rip tide but they are all rescued by a passer by and a lifeboat crew), lost dogs, sport stories and local crime cases (often from two years ago).
Anyway, we felt encouraged by the dry (ish) weather to do some light food shopping in Dungloe and then drive to an Affordable Art Fair in Derrybeg, Gweedore. This Art Fair was held at An Gaillearai, which is located at Ionad Aislann, Na Doira Beaga (Derrybeg).
We have never been to Ionad Aislann before and I was very interested to see what this cultural centre was like. I know that “Ionad” means a centre of some sort in Irish but I didn’t know what the word “Aislann” meant. I tried looking it up on google translate but drew a blank so I thought it might be someone’s name. It was wrong. “Áislann” is a word derived from combining two words from the Irish vocabulary of South West Donegal, Áiseanna (facilities) and Lann (building).
The centre also houses, amongst other things, a public library and nursery. When I looked it up here I discovered that the building hosted much more than that: a theatre/cinema, sports hall, meeting rooms, local history centre, PC centre, a gym and a tea room! This cultural centre was set up in 1992 expressly to cater for local people as well as for visitors to the area, including the many artists like me who come to live here. It was also meant to help strengthen bonds within the local community via cultural/artistic pursuits and leisure activities.
The Gallery is large and airy and there was plenty of room for visitors and artists. Everyone was wearing masks too which was reassuring.
As our house is already over flowing with paintings we generally don’t buy other people’s art (although I have one painting by Welsh landscape artist, Warren Heaton, in the bedroom) but we changed the habit of a lifetime yesterday and bought two small paintings at the art fair. I know that Séamas wanted to buy more. We left the two paintings on the wall with red stickers next to them (hoping that sign of success would encourage more sales) and will go back on Thursday to pick them up.
After so long in lockdown and avoiding people, it was really great to go out somewhere and to meet new people. Ionad Aislann certianly did its job of helping to strengthen the bonds between local community via cultural/artistic pursuits and leisure activities. It was well worth a visit and if you are in area I would highly recommend stopping by. The Art Fair is on for several more days, from 12 to 5pm until this Thursday 14th October 2021.
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.
Here’s my summer newsletter. I am shutting up shop for a month from 20th June to 20th July. All going well, we will be safely installed and open for business (online at least) in Donegal by mid-July. I am already longing to get back to my painting routine. I can’t quite believe that after being ground so long by my broken leg and the pandemic that we will actually move house/studio to another country by then. It’s a huge step! Fingers crossed it all goes smoothly!
On Thursday I did something I have never done before. I did a presentation to a bunch people in London via the internet. During the darkness winter days of lock down I have sat at my computer and listened to quite a few people give presentations on subjects as diverse as Art (Jennifer Pockinski, Elizabeth O’Reilly), Irish Language (Manchán Mangan), Irish Bogs (Creative Rathangan Meithea), Irish Cottages (Ulster Architectuaral Society) and Literature (Gabriel Byrne) and thoroughly enjoyed them.
This Thursday, I got my chance to see behind the scenes of these sorts of events and talk about my experiences for Mental Health Awareness Week with On Thursday I did something I have never done before. I did a presentation to a bunch people in London via the internet. During the darkness winter days of lock down I have sat at my computer and listened to quite a few people give presentations on subjects as diverse as Art (Jennifer Pockinski, Elizabeth O’Reilly), Irish Language (Manchán Mangan), Irish Bogs (Creative Rathangan Meithea), Irish Cottages (Ulster Architectuaral Society) and Literature (Gabriel Byrne) and thoroughly enjoyed them.the team behind the online gallery, Artfinder (www.artfinder.com). I was also featured in a news blog on their website. During the pandemic many people are probably used using Zoom or Teams for their work meetings but I have never had this experience before. I think this is why I suggested a quick trial hook up the day the before. I had also seen things go slightly awry during those webinmars. My personal favourite was when the speaker’s laptop battery suddenly died and he had to rush off to find another laptop and the chair had to fill in for ten minutes whilst he did this!
I am so glad that we did a practice run with Jane and Kirsty. We started with Zoom. The sound on my laptop was dreadful and everything sounded like it was underwater. Jane and Kirsy sounded like a couple of unintelligable dolphins! Between my old Laptop and a ropey internet connection (Now TV, or “Not, Now TV” as we like to call it in this house), it wasn’t working. I wanted the throw the laptop across the room, cry and/or swear a lot. Obviously, I did neither.
Eventually, Kirsty, the tech genius, came up with the idea of doing the meeting with Google Meet. “It is very low tech”, she said. “That’ll suit me just fine, I am low tech”, I said! The rest of the test worked well and we had a chat about what it was like working remotely.
On the afternoon of the presentation I waited nervously for the meeting to start and even said a prayer beforehand. Then all these youthful faces pinged onto the screen. More and more until it was full with 9 boxes and more names listed along the top of the screen of people I could not see. I am not sure if the prayer helped because I still had problems getting my screen to share my powerpoint. Thankfully Michal (the CEO) talked me through which buttons to press , in which order and we were finally in business.
I then had that wierd moment before you start speaking that seemed to stretch on for ever. I looked at my screen. All I could see was my presentation, no faces now, which was odd too. I took a big breath and began.
OK – I am just going to give you the highlights.
In 2006 I started having panic attacks on the motorway – I saw a couple of (not very good) therapist/hypnotherapists and bought a lot of books on panic attacks. It did not solve my problem. I avoided motorways.
2012 Minor Car Accident – which led to me developing PTSD & Burn Out (also known as a “Breakdown”). This resulted in hypervigilance/nightmares/flashbacks/inability to concentrate/exhaustion. I found a very good therapist and had EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and during the course of this therapy started painting every day. It was a very slow recovery and it took a year to return to work part time
How art has helped me with my recovery / mental health over the years: – I find it calming, restorative, meditative and it boosts my fragile self-esteem. It also improves my concentration & energy levels. It provides a positive focus to my life, I find the colours therapeutic and painting also provides an intellectual challenge as there is a lot of problem-solving in painting. It also provides social connections through blogging & social media
As this was a presentation to Artfinder staff I talked about how important Artfinder has been in my journey into becoming a professional artist.
My husband, Séamas, joined the Artfinder site on my behalf in April 2013. He also set up a website a blog for me.
My first sale on Artfinder was in June 2013. It was a giclée print of “A Tenby Reflection” for £39
I sold my first painting via Artfinder July 2013
In the last 8 years I have sold over 800 works via Artfinder and gained over 6000 followers, which makes me the most followed artist on the site!
I left teaching in 2017 and became a full-time artist – I put a lot more time and energy into my painting, my website, blogging and social media sites
Mental Health, the Covid-19 pandemic and other emergencies
PTSD – I tend to think of the worse possible outcome to most things at the best of times. I usually have to talk myself down from my initial extreme reaction, but for once in early 2020 I was RIGHT! This new virus was an end-of-the-world scenario!
I kept a diary to help cope with the sense of panic and anxiety I was experiencing and then. I took my dogs for a walk in the woods on my own (Séamas was in Ireland)
I tripped and broke my leg and had to wait 5 hours for the emergency services to rescue me. You can read that long story here.
I spent 9 days in hospital waiting for an operation to pin my leg.
During my long recovery from this experience, I reflected on the differences between how we all, myself included, treat physical and mental health issues. With physical health issues there is the physical pain (there was certainly lots of that), the practical difficulties of getting around, frustration at the loss of independence and the physical exhaustion as your body heals. I also discovered that this sort of trauma was easy to talk about. There was a lot of public sympathy & concern from people.
It was a lot easier to deal with than mental health issues. I was delighted to realise that I dealt with the trauma and pain with (mostly) good humour and fortitude – although that wore off a bit when my rehab took a whole lot longer than I was expecting. I felt mentally sound even if my body wasn’t.
In contrast, when I experienced my mental breakdown, there was a lot of isolation, shame, fear, embarrassment on my part as well as physical exhaustion. I had always been a tough, independent and reliable person and I hated that my breakdown changed that. I still struggle with accepting my limitations. It was clear that a lot of other people felt sorry for me. That was not easy to bear either.
One of the few positives of the pandemic is that people have been more open about how they have struggled with their mental health. I think that it has shown people that a lot of mental health issues are related to having to bear “unbearable” situations. My huband, Séamas, says I didn’t have a breakdown down but a break through. My life, as it was, was making me ill and it had to change. During the pandemic that unbearable situation was universal. Everyone had to deal with having our freedoms curtailed, especially the freedom to see our family and friends. Many people people discovered that the joy of doing things with your hands/body such as gardening, yoga, painting, baking saved their sanity. I know that in my darkest hour I was making scones with Séamas! Art continues to keep me sane.
I answered a number of questions from Michal and staff at Artfinder. What came up: Had I painted before the 2012 accident? What can Artfinder do to help people with Mental Health Issues? How do you help someone with mental health issues? Different therapies and medications and how they might work for person and not for another.
The presentation wasn’t recorded, and in a way I am glad about that. I don’t think I would have been so open about my experiences if I thought what I said could be picked over and examined by people who weren’t present at the time. It was a strange situation to give a talk to a group of people I couldn’t really see. When I have given talks before I have had people’s faces and body language to help gauge their reactions to what I was saying. This time I didn’t. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the whole thing afterwards because of this although the staff were all very positive. I hope that my audience got something out of the experience!
I will finish with a quote from “Anthem” by the Canadian singer and poet, Leonard Cohen.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
On Thursday afternoon I went on my first proper “Walk” with a capital W since I broke my leg and ankle last spring (read about my horrible adventure here). It’s not that I haven’t visited parts of the coast since March 2020. I took numerous short strolls along flat grassy parts of Gower (Mumbles, Oxwich and Pennard) last autumn before we were launched into the never ending autumn/winter lockdowns. Thursday was the first time I really challenged myself and ventured along tracks that I would not have thought twice about walking along before. We left the dogs at home to give our full concentration to walking (and not tripping up).
Life recovering from a broken leg and ankle is all about surfaces and angles. A lot of my walks involve looking at the ground. I make myself stop when I want to look at the scenery. Rough ground can be challenging for my ankle. Going down hill is a lot harder than going up. I often think of my ankle as being like my sewing machine foot when I try and make it sew thick fabrics! Unfortunately, my sewing machine foot has been known to fall off. I am not sure if that’s a reminder to take care or its just not a great analogy.
My ankle doesn’t just have to contend with up and down movement but side to side movement too. I have done a lot of practicing standing on my left leg and on my toes. My muscles are 90% there but not quite what they once were. I have been told that I have to keep doing the exercises until the left leg/ankle is as good as the right one.
Cefn Bryn at our backs and the “cottages” of Penmaen.
Anyway, Thursday was election day. Something I had completely forgotten. I usually get out and vote first in the morning but I had been waiting in for a delivery of paint and it had slipped my mind. That is until, we arrived as Penmaen and saw the “Polling Station” sign in the car park. “Oh, no!” I wailed. “The suffragettes will be spinning in their graves. I have to vote!” “Perhaps, you could vote here?” my husband, Séamas, suggested hopefully. “No it doesn’t work like that, you have to vote in your own area with a piece of paper and a pencil. It’s not that hi-tech, yet”. “Oh” he said.
We usually launch ourselves down an uneven track towards the coast but Séamas was worried that the uneven gravel would be too much for me. I agreed.
So I thought about it, and came up with an alternative route. We turn off the the right and along a wide grassy path across some fields. This was a nice gentle stroll. I paused and admired the view. Behind us was Cefn Bryn and the cottages that line the main road. They are hardly visible from the road, partially hidden by stone walls and trees. From here you could see that these houses all have very large windows from which to see the magnificent views. I wondered how many of them are holiday homes and how many are lived in all year around.
The waters of Oxwich Bay sparkled off in the distance. The tide was in.
Once we walked across the field I faced my first challenge as the path dropped away down hill. Gower really isn’t accessible to the disabled, is it? I thought to myself. That’s why you only see the really elderly at Rhossili where they have a massive car park and wide tarmac paths.
I shuffled cautiously down this part of the track (we just came from up there)
Our solution was for Séamas to walk right up in front of me so I could rest my hand on his shoulder for extra balance if I needed it. That worked surpingly well. I found that so long as I went really slowly, and I mean REALLY slowly, shuffling really, I was fine. We finally reached the coastal path and turned left.
Here the path enveloped in Nicholston Woods. Stretches of the path had bluebells scattered amongst the trees.
The next section seemed to plunge off into the distance and I almost lost my nerve. As I said, down hill is a lot harder than up hill for me. “We could shuffle down on our bums, if its too difficult?” I suggested. “No, it will be fine if we go slowly” said Séamas. So we did our slow shuffle again, with Séamas in front: “I can fall onto you I said”. Thankfully I didn’t need to. There are no photos of this part except the last bit where I got more confident again as it was uphill.
At the top there is a beautiful old wooden gate where you can pause and take in the view of Great Tor. Adders (Britain’s only poisonous snake) have been seen along this part of the path already this year. I saw one once many years ago near here. It wasn’t interested in us, it just moved away quickly. We didn’t see any today.
The next part of the track was easy but lengthy and I could feel myself tiring a little. I was cautious about over doing it and not being able to get back to the car. PTSD makes me conjure up the worst scenarios in mind at a moments’ notice. I briefly, I imagine the amubulance and emergency services having to rescue me all over again and me having to explain why I thought a coastal walk was a good idea. Time to rest and stop thinking daft thoughts. Séamas is with me. I am not alone. I have not broken my leg again. We find a bench and look at the view and listened to the birds singing.
Now I know I should be sensible and just turn back and go home but I really want to see Three Cliffs. It’s been so long. I have learnt that if I want to go far with this leg/ankle the trick is to go slow and steady. Speeding off does it no good at all and it start to hurt. So we carried on. A little more slowly.
Finally. This is the view I came for! I sat down and rest and looked across the bay. We watched the cloud shadows as they moved across the land. It was wonderful.
Finally, we decided to return back to the car. I decided to face the uneven track. As its uphill, it might be OK and it was.
I had to stop and rest several times, but I made it! I was disappointed to discover that I had walked less than 2 miles. I felt like a much bigger adventure than that! It was an important step to restoring my confidence again.
When we get home I staggered off to the local polling station to vote. All covid measures were in place. All the doors were open, there were big circles on the ground to tell people where to stand in socially distanced queue. Fat chance! As usual, there was me and the election people and no one else. The majority (60%) of people in my area don’t care about the suffragettes and don’t bother voting. The masked-returning officier was behind a screen, she did not touch my polling card. I went into the polling booth to cast my vote but found the usual pencil on a string was missing. This threw me. The returning officer had a collection of pencils on her table. I dug around in my bag for a pen. I noticed that one of the candidates lives in Penmaen. I wonder if we passed their house today. So at least one of those houses is lived in all year around. I cast my votes and folded up the three sheets of paper and pushed them into the large black metal box. The suffragettes can rest easy.
I waited to see if my leg and ankle would hurt afterwards. They weren’t too bad although both legs ached a bit from unaccustomed walking and that kept we awake in the early hours until I took a painkiller. I was too tired to paint. I am still feeling very tired three days later, but I think I will be back to normal tomorrow.
I am sometimes asked if I hold workshops or produce intructional videos, and unfortunately, the answer is that I don’t as I am usually busy painting (and blogging). There is so much already available on the internet that I don’t feel I can compete. Others have done it better already!
So I have put together, instead, a short list of tips and links for any one who is interested to help them develop. Please feel free to comment or suggest your own. There are no affliate links in this blog. I have included websites and video clips that I have found personally useful.
My Top TEN TIPS
Paint, paint and paint some more.The more you paint, the more your work will improve. Most artists keep a sketch book and sketch and paint in their spare moments. It is important to pratice without worrying too much about the expensive canvas you are painting. I used to work in oil pastels on paper when I was younger but now I try to paint in oils most days. I have also experimented with water colours and acrylics. It is only by doing and looking that you will develop as an artist
Look at Art. Decide what you like. Look at the works of many artists. Think about what they are doing and how they do it. You don’t have to copy them but you can be inspired by them.
I particularly like pre 1950s artists (especially post impressionists like Matisse, Marquet, Derain, Bevan, Gilman) for their use of colour and portayal of light.
There are many fascinating interviews with artists on Savy Painter that are well worth a listen!
It is important to see paintings “in the flesh too”. Van Gogh and Monet need to be seen in real life to appreciate their scale, and how they have used the paint. I once saw a Picasso in Swansea’a Glynn Vivian Museum, and its presence quite blew me away. It was very big. I got a powerful sense of an artist who knew what he wanted to achieve and knew exactly how to do it. If I had just looked at online I would got none of that. I save images of work I like on my pinterest account.
Paint – buy the best paint you can afford. Try out different brands. A paint may have the same name but look very different depending on the brand. Only buy Artist’s oil paints. The student version are cheaper and inferior. They are fine for underpainting only. They fade. My favourite brands include Lefranc and Bourgeois Extra Fine, Lukas 1862 Finest Artists’ Oil Colour, Sennelier Finest Artist’s Oli Colour, Talens Rembrandt Artists’ Oil Colour, Schmincke Norma Professional Artists’ Oil Colour, Michael Harding Artists’ Oil Colours. It took me a long time to really understand what colour opacity and the transparency of paint meant in terms of my painting. I am still learning how to use this knowlege.
Canvas– invest in good quality canvas. I love linen canvas as they are really strong and hard wearing. In my early days, I painted on cheap cotton canvases that years later would tear easily. It was quite heart breaking to realise that I had wasted my creative energy on an inferior product.
I particularly like the natural ones painted with clear gesso. If you buy the white ones, it’s helpful to paint the canvas with a coloured ground before you start painting. Here’s a excellent video on how to do it.
Composition – shapes and how they are arranged, lines and their direction.
I like looking at how photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Vivian Maier, William Eggleston and Harry Gruyaert used light, colour and composition in their work.
“If the arrangement of the big shapes is strong and coherent, it’ll carry the painting. You are 90 percent of the way toward achieving a composition – and consequently a painting – that will work from “Mastering Composition“by Ian Roberts
6. Tonal value – The value of a color is how dark or how light that color is. It is easy to see value shifts looking to an image in black and white or in grayscale; it is a little trickier to see it in color.
Colour – warmth/coolness of colours and their intensity
Get a Colour Wheel
There is more than way to mix a particular colour. Sometimes its a matter of trial and error. Practice mixing colours and understand why some combinations (the three primary colours for example) result in mud. Mixing “warm” and “cool” colours doesn’t work either. See an explanation here. Remember that brands vary. I have found that not all “Vandyke Browns” are the the same.
8. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Yet don’t forget the details!
9. Using Source Material (photographs)
Don’t be afraid to change what is in the source photos you use, leave out things, simplify forms. Sometimes a really good photo doesn’t make a really good painting. I take photos with the express idea of using them for painting, that means they are not necessarily good photos but they have the information I need.
Peggi Kroll Roberts – demonstrates a “high key” painting, where values are kept at a narrow range, in the lighter shades of value.
10. Watch videos and save them – If you want to know how an artist does something, look it up. It might help, it might not. I have found that looking up a technique say “scumbling” is more useful that “how to paint clouds” because I have realised that I have to find my own way of doing something. I save links on my pinterest account.
Finally, find your own voice. Forget all of the above points and just create. Don’t copy. By all means steal good ideas. You have to have your own style, like you have a style of hand writing you have a style of painting. Let it develop. Good Luck.
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
Here is a short series of paintings based on the shadows in a backlane in Swansea. The photographs I used for these paintings were taken a couple of years ago. I came across them in my folder of printed images and decided I wanted revist my “urban minimal” themes. The light in St Thomas is quite different to that in Brynmill, where I am at the moment. I don’t know if its because the sea is closer to this part of Swansea, or because Kilvey Hill has a particular angle of steepness, but on a sunny day the light is luminescent.
I particularly wanted to used a glazing medium called liquin, to see if I could add depth to my shadows. I first did an under-painting using red ochre and sepia and then used the medium to add colour to shadows.
Back Lane, St Thomas (Swansea)(2021)
As I grew in confidence I used more liquin medium to paint the drying washing on the line and shadows on the stone wall.
I think the darker shadows were more successful than the lighter ones.
I particularly enjoyed the contrast between the neat house with its clean, fresh drying washing and the apparent ugliness of the rough breeze-block wall in the backlane. This painting is very hard to photograph because of the very light and very dark colours. Some part of it end up too light or too dark! I think I got about right but I am still not happy with the final image. Just a reminder that you need to see a painting in real life to really appreciate it.
The rain finally stopped yesterday morning and the temperature rose a few degrees. We just had three days of steady rain. The temperatures also went up a bit. I was amused to discover that this “event” made the news. The headline in “The Donegal Daily” an online newspaper read: “Weather- Another Mild Day in Store […]
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 […]
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 […]
New Work & Recent Sales
Up Bloody Foreland, Donegal
Quay Street, Dungloe (Ireland)
On the Road to Maghera, donegal
The Yellow House, Bunaninver
Not a Cloud in the Sky (Bloody Foreland, Donegal)
View From Dunmore Strand (Work in Progress)
Winding Road, Bunaninver
The Old Shed at Marameelan, Donegal
On the Way to Arphort, Arranmore (Donegal, Ireland)
The Old House at Marameelan
Down to Magheraroarty, Donegal
On the Back Road to Dungloe, Donegal
Approaching Storm on Dunlewy
Three Chimneys Arch, Gower
Main Drag, Gola (Donegal, Ireland)
Up Through Gola, Ireland
Electricity Lines, Marameelan (Donegal)
The Pyramid, Three Cliffs Bay, Gower
Tidies Out, Tullyillion (Ireland)
With a Road Running Through It
Spring Tide, Three Cliffs Bay
The Incoming Tide at Great Tor, Gower
Lanmadoc, North Gower
Ship Cottage Pwll Du (Gower)
Across to Three Cliffs, Gower
Time Was, Gola (Donegal, Ireland)
Sally’s Loch (Donegal, Ireland)
Early Morning Shadows at Low Tide, Three Cliffs (Gower)
Down from Knockfola, Donegal
Down to the Pier, Gola (Donegal, Ireland)
Soft Light, Gola (Donegal, Ireland)
The Polite Houses of Maghery_Emma Cownie
Backlane Basketball (Swansea)
Back Lane, St Thomas (Swansea)(2021)
Side View, Brynmill (Swansea)
Meemacladdy, Donegal, Ireland
The Dusty Road (Gola), Donegal, Ireland
The Traditional House, (Gola)
Tormore Island from Rosbeg, Donegal
Autumn on Poolawaddy (Donegal, Ireland)
Tenby Quay, wales
Out of the Tenby Shadows
Donegal Thatched Cottage (Cruit Island)
Home Farm Penrice
The Day’s End, Ireland
Arranmore Donkey, Ireland
Jimmy’s House (The Rosses, Donegal)
Illion, Arranmore (Private Collection)
Above Aphort (Arranmore, Donegal)_Emma Cownie
Underhill Cottage (Oxwich, Gower)
The White Bridge, Arranmore, Ireland
The Approaching Storm (On Dunlewy Lough), Ireland – In my attic studio