My left leg and ankle is now at the rehab stage of my recovery (if you would like to know how I ended up with a broken leg you can read about it here). That means I can put partial weight on the leg and I have to do a series of exercises 5 times a day. My ankle is incredibly stiff and my leg is pretty weak from almost 2 months of inaction. When I try to lift my toes, I can feel the plates in my leg. It’s very wierd. It feels a bit like aliens have control of my ankle! The muscles get sore. It’s also very tiring. Actual walking seems a long way off!
In terms of practicality, it means that I am pretty much confined to my bedroom and cannot use my usual oil paints. This is due to the lack of room and the fact that oils are much too messy for a bedroom. So I have dedicated myself to spending this time with my watercolours. I have learnt a lot about the qualities of the different colours and how I can and can’t use them over the past few weeks. I have been frustrated and pleased in equal measure.
In between the exercises, I have been painting birds in watercolours. I have painted many garden birds in oils over the years. I am particularly fond of sparrows. Here’s a selection of my oil paintings to illustrate:-
Sparrows in Winter
Two Waiting Sparrows
I have also painted many robins, wrens, blackbirds and a few puffins too!
Robin on a Branch
Painting of a Robin
I have decided that watercolour is a medium that works really well for painting garden birds. It is quite possibly better than oils. Its transparency is particularly well-suited to conveying the lightness of birds. I am experimenting with tight control of the paint versus letting it bleed in parts of the painting. The results of interesting and varied.
I have been trying out different watercolour papers too. My earliest birds were painted on Etival 300g/m (140 lb) rough texture paper. It was what I happened to have in the cupboard.
Watercolour painting of robin
Watercolour of wren
Out of curiosity, I tried a different make, Bockingford. Their paper is Acid-Free, and archival quality. I tried two weights. First I tried very heavy 425g/m (200 lb) paper, rough texture. I liked the substantial thickness of this paper, and the paintings turned out well enough but the grain of the paper doesn’t photograph well. I might try scanning them instead, when I am finally up and about.
House sparrow painting
Watercolour bullfinch (male)
The second Bockingford paper I tried was a lighter 300 g/m rough texture paper. I think that this suited me best in terms of how the paintings look in photographs.
watercolour painting of robin
Watercolour painting of robin
I have ordered some Bockingford 300 g/m cold press (not) texture paper to try out too. That should be coming early next week. So trying that out will come as a welcome break from my rehab exercises!
Perhaps I should have called this post “the invisible people”. I have a bit of a fascination with things and people that often go unnoticed. The unnoticed have now become the invisible. With the coming of the terrible coronavirus crisis, the sight of elderly people on the street is a thing of the past. They are now “self-isolating” for anything up to 12 weeks.
My confinement is more of a challenge than the “lock-down”. My broken leghas me confined to my bedroom and the bathroom. We have too many steep stairs for me to go anywhere else. I just look out the window and take satisfaction in the quietness in the street outside. As an artist, I am used to quite a high degree of isolation. Yet, I know that this level of isolation must be incredibly hard, especially for the elderly or vulnerable if they do not have the internet or can’t work messaging apps. Even if they can, it’s still hard. People need face-to-face interactions with other people, even if it’s only buying groceries at the local shops. I know my father is missing his shopping trips.
Swansea People painting by contemporary artist Emma Cownie
Swansea People painting by contemporary artist Emma Cownie
Swansea People painting by contemporary artist Emma Cownie
I hate how news reports of coronavirus deaths often like to report that a certain number are elderly or “had underlying conditions” as if that somehow means those people don’t matter so much. Every single one of them matters. They are all someone’s loved ones; nan, dad or sister, son. My husband has “an underlying condition” as do my parents, my brother-in-law and many of my friends. They are sheltering indoors, relying on the fit and young to keep the hospitals and shops up and running.
Swansea People painting by contemporary artist Emma Cownie
Swansea People painting by contemporary artist Emma Cownie
So today’s gallery of my people paintings has an added significance for me. This is a reminder of all the vanished; the people you don’t see on the streets. They are still here, at home, maybe, watching TV or listening to the radio. I hope that they are chatting away on skype or messenger or maybe like me they are just peering out their windows.
My “The Walk of Life” painting has added significance for me. When I painted it was struck by the old lady’s determination and how tiny she was in comparison with the younger people around her. I thought the composition captured the variety of life on Swansea, Oxford Street on a summer’s afternoon.
I never thought that I would have my own zimmer frame, but I do. I have to keep the weight off my healing left leg for another 4 weeks so it is vital for getting from my bedroom to the bathroom. It’s a fantastic bit of kit. Light and simple yet sturdy and reliable. Like the lady in the painting, mine has two wheels at the front and I will sometimes carry an object like a book in a bag from one room to another. I have tried holding stuff in my mouth but it just doesn’t work.
I am delighted that the American collector who recently bought this painting is a nurse who works with elderly ladies like this one. He will understand just how liberating a zimmer frame is to the disabled and elderly. During my stay in the hospital, I watched very elderly ladies, who had fallen, broken their hips and had them replaced, push past pain and discomfort slowly but steadily make their way up and down the ward with the help of a frame. Once they proved their mobility they could negotiate their return back home. I have a set of crutches but I like the frame better. So although “The Walk of Life” always was a celebration of the human spirit and determination, but I now know that the old lady is just getting on with her life. She probably doesn’t want applause or pity but she certainly might want to have a good chat.
I used to like painting landscapes and cityscapes with clear blue skies. I waited for the bright sunny days of early summer to walk around, taking photos and looking for inspiration. Thus, my series of urban minimal paintingsof Swansea, made the town look a bit like a Mediterranean location!
What a joke. It rains a lot in Wales. It has rained incessantly for the past two days. Since my extended visits to Donegal, however, I have become increasing inspired by cloudscapes and the silvery light along the Atlantic coast. With my “new eyes” I have started waiting cloudy days in Wales to go out looking for inspiration. Not overcast days, but days with patches of blue sky and sunshine.
I drove down to Pennard, with the idea that I wanted to paint Pennard Pill, the river that follows into the sea at Three Cliffs Bay. The BBC forecast claimed that it would be sunshine and clouds all morning. When I looked at the Mumbles and Caswell Bay webcam, one showed sun and the other was overcast. I set off, anyway. I would go for a walk, regardless. On my way there the sun came and went. As I drove past Mumbles head, I could see it swathed in a light misty cloud. I wondered whether there would be anything to see when I got to Pennard.
Thankfully, the sun was shinning at Pennard as I made down the path that runs alongside the golf club. The tide was coming in and I could just see Great Tor in the distance, through the peaks of dunes. When got close enough for a clear view the sun promptly went in! I looked up at the sky and looked for blue patches. There were quite a few. So I carried on towards Pennard Castle, which is situated on the top the of the high dunes, further inland. I hoped the sun would reappear by the time I got to Pennard Castle. I tried to work out which way the clouds were traveling. Usually, they move from Oxwich Bay towards Three Cliffs. Today they were going the other way. The sun came out a few times on my walk. Just as I was climbing up the sandy path the castle I came out and lit everything up like a technicolor Hollywood film!
The sun promptly went in again. I stood in the ruins of the castle and waited. I thought about the fairies who had supposedly destroyed the castle with a sandstorm when the lord of the castle had refused to invite them to his wedding party. Eventually, the sun broke through and lit part of the valley below.
I watched the light move across the valley and the colours burst into life.
I then decided to walk back towards the sea and see if I could photograph the three peaks that give the bay its name. The clouds rolled in.
I would have gone home at this point, as there was a cold wind and it was almost lunchtime but I could see bright light off in the distance. It was on the far side of the Bristol channel. I could see a ship on the horizon lit by this light.
How wide was this stretch of water? Miles. How long would it take for that shaft of sunlight to make its way over to the Gower coast? A while. So I waited. I am not very good at standing still so I walked around a bit, watching the dog walkers and small family groups vanish from the landscape.
The clumps of large mushrooms spotted about the grassy parts of the dunes, made me think of the fairies again.
I climbed dunes, trying to decide good locations for photos for when that shaft of sunshine arrived. It was definitely coming my way. A new set of walkers was arriving on the beach. They were all optimists too!
Hunger was starting to make itself known. I slouched down against a dune. Patience. Patience. What was the point of giving up now when I had waited so long? Impatience comes from wanting to be somewhere else. I needed to be here now. I thought of a line I heard Van Morrison sing at his 2015 Live 70th Birthday Concert at Cypress Avenue, Belfast “It has always been now” (52 mins into the clip). He’s a genius. He captures the joy of being truly present in the moment. Just as I was saying that to myself when the sun arrived and the technicolor lights were on!
That doesn’t quite capture it. Here let me show you. My view of the world.
That’s more like it.
Now I could go home and eat lunch. Paint and listen to Van Morrison.
Commissions are usually pretty interesting because they will challenge me in some way or another. This particular commission’s challenge was about scale. Now, I don’t usually paint large paintings because I just don’t have the space to store many of them. I have a few but I am not keen to paint many more as and I find it difficult to paint in a crowded attic studio, both on a practical level (if you look at my photos carefully you can see its crowded in my studio) and also psychologically (it starts to bug me). So if a commission requires me to go large I am quite excited by that prospect. Excited and a bit scared.
This commission was based on a relatively modest-sized painting I had recently painted of Gola Island, Donegal. This is 41x33cm, that’s 16 x 13 inches for non-metric people.
Up from the Pier (Gola)
As you can see from the studio photo, the original fits on the seat of a chair. It is a favourite of mine. I have many favourite paintings, this is my current one.
The commission canvas size was to be 120 x 80cm (47×32 inches). Which is pretty big for my little studio. The canvas I could cope with, but the cardboard box it was arrived in is annoying me as it’s ended up by the railings by the steps to the attic. It’s in my way.
So I pondered the issues with scaling up this painting. The joy of small paintings is that you can hint at all sorts of things with a brushstroke or two and the brain will do the rest of the work. There’s no hiding place when the canvas is over a metre in size.
So the first change in my approach was scale. I printed out my reference photo on a much larger piece of paper. My original photo wasn’t much bigger than 10cm (4 inches) square. Don’t ask me why. I like to print off a lot of images at one time and then ponder which one I want to actually paint. For the commission, the photo was closer to A4 size (7×11 inches) and amazingly, I could see much more detail! So I focused a lot of attention on the buildings and caravan on the horizon. I paint with a small brush get the details of the light on the houses and ruins.
I generally work from left to right when I am painting so as not to smudge work with my hand and the next part I worked on were the rocks and the grassy verge to the left of the track. The real joy of painting vegetation in Donegal is the many varied greens and yellows. I love picking out the different hues. I have to make sure that my colours match the colours in the reference photo as closely as possible. It sounds daft, but I hold up the paintbrush next to the photo to check I have the right tones.
The grass and bracken in the main part of the painting were carefully reconstructed. Saying that I use much larger brushes than I do for my smaller paintings. I make sure that blocks of yellow ochres and green grass or darker bracken are in the right place. There are both warm and cool greens here. There are splashes and smudges of oranges, pinks, jade and turquoise in there too. I am trying to convey not only colour but the shape of undulating land; where the grass has grown up and in some places, covered completely the old stone walls. The island is covered in lots of wooden fence posts, but I don’t want to paint in all the wires as the eye wouldn’t see them all in that much detail so I pick out just a few of them. I wanted to recreate the spirit of the smaller painting rather than create a new painting so I have to adjust a few patches of grass, on the left-hand side of the painting, so their bluish tones echo the first painting and balance the colours in the whole. The tiny golden yellow flowers that are gathered at the bend in the pinkish track are added.
The sky is painted last. Sometimes I paint skies first, especially if it is a cloudy or stormy sky, but in this case, it’s a blue powdery summer blue and it comes last. It has the effect of bringing the whole painting together.
The commission next to the study painting of Gola
So the final stage is to sit with the painting and check that it has the same “vibe” as the smaller study painting. I think it has. I regard it as a big beast, but one I like.
I wonder what it would be like to have a massive studio where you could store bigger paintings? Would I paint larger paintings? Well, in the winter when light is short I would still paint smaller works that could be completed relatively quickly, but in the summer months when I have acres of daylight? You bet.
I needed to paint this picture. I have painted a lot of landscapes lately and I was missing the challenge of the human form. Or rather painting light on their clothes and faces. I was spending the week with my parents who live near Stroud. My favourite day for street photography is on Saturdays when there is a farmers’ marketand there are lots of people and dogs. Ilike painting dogs in particular. These three friends were enjoying the autumn sunshine on a bench in Stroud. I liked how they sat close together. Are they related or just friends? The two on the left have a similar style. Perhaps they are married? The street is very steep and although the bench is level, its always as if gravity has pulled the three of them to one end of the bench.
I loved the colours of the woman’s green mac and purple hats and how they worked so well with the men’s pink and blue tee shirts. They seemed to sit in a comfortable silence a lot of the time. The pigeons were not important. They were just hanging around. People often eat here as a baker’s shop is near by. The pigeon in the foreground was in the process of stepping forward, and she is forever preserved as if she only has one leg. When I lived in London, a couple of decades ago, I often saw pigeons with toes and feet missing. They were presumably eaten away by a sort of pigeon leprosy, so I always delight in seeing a pigeon with healthy feet. The man in the pink top looks down, is he looking at a pigeon or just lost in thought. Later on, I spotted this trio walking around the town, the lady in the green mac still in the centre of the trio. On another visit later in the week, the man in the flat cap was sitting on the same bench on his own.
The ferry to Tory Island runs all year round. In the summer months (June onwards) there are extra sailings. We had decided to get an early boat as Seamas, my husband said the weather forecast was for sunshine in the morning, cloudy around midday and then sunshine in the afternoon. I think we are learning to take weather forecasts for Donegal with a pinch of salt. Some forecasts for “cloudy” days translate into blue skies with a few clouds, others into a damp drizzle. We were optimistic but when we arrived at Magheroarty Pier it was overcast. Once we had parked in the generously sized car park, we had to hurry to get the boat. Magheroarty Pier is tidal, so sailings have to leave on time, time and tide wait for no man, etc.
We were not quite the last people on the boat but all the dog stairs seat were full so we stood on the top deck, me leaning against the body of the ship and Seamas found a large metal box to sit on, the dogs sat close to him. We could feel the movement of the boat as soon as the ferry left the shelter of the harbor at Magherorarty and at times we had to hang onto a metal grill that housed a lifeboat ring.
Two men who were standing nearby to us were talking to each other in Irish. Tory Island is probably the strongest Irish-speaking area in the country. It sounded a bit like a Scandinavian language at times – a third Irish speaker stood to one side, listening. They each looked very different from each other in appearance, one was very blonde, one was dark-haired and the third had white hair. The dark-haired man had freckles and light eyes. It is a “look” I have seen a lot in Donegal, Seamas says it’s common in County Derry too.
The trip took just under an hour. The motion of the boat made me feel quite ill by the time we reached firm land. I think being on the top deck made me feel the motion of the baot more than if I have been on the lower deck. It took me at least 30 minutes to shake the feeling of a dodgy stomach. Someone, later asked if we had felt ill on the crossing, and laughed when I said I had. It’s not unknown.
Tory Island lies 8 miles off the coast of Donegal. The origin of the name of Tory Island (Oileán Thoraí in Irish), isn’t universally agreed on. Yes, the word Tory may come from from the Middle Irish word tóraidhe; modern Irish tóraí; meaning a robber or bandit. Ever wondered why one of the oldest British political parties, the Conservatives, are also known as the “Tories”? The term was originally a term of abuse and meant “an Irish rebel”. The insult goes back to the era of Oliver Cromwell’s brutal campaign in Ireland when a band of Irish guerilla fighters was known as Tories.
Another explanation for the name, however, is that it may mean the “island of Tors”. The shape of the island from a distance is a tower, and its northern coastline is peppered with massive tors. This seems just as likely. I suspect that people, however, prefer the story of the name meaning Pirate Island instead of the Island of Tors as it’s more exciting. The remote location of the island has meant that the islanders have had (and continue) to rely on their ingenuity and resourcefulness.
They have lived on the margins of the so-called “civilized world” and kept to their own rules and customs, which were not necessarily those of the mainland. Famously they refused had fallen behind with their rents and rates and a British gunboat, HMS Wasp, was sent in 1884 to forcibly collect the arrears and evict the tenants. Luckily for Tory, it hit a reefnear the island and sank rapidly (not so good for the 52 who died). The locals put this stroke of fortune to the power of their cursing stone! This event is one of many Donegal stories about the spooky powers of Tory Island. You can read more in theNational Folklore Collection UCD Digitization Project.
One custom that marks Tory as different from Ireland is that they have a king. It’s not a hereditary position, rather one chosen by consensus as a leftover from the days of Gaelic chieftains. Patsy Dan was asked to become king by the children of the previous king Padraig Og Rodgers in the 1990s.
He was a talented musician and painter and acted as a very successful ambassador for the island. At a young age, he had befriended English artist Derek Hill, who regularly painted on Tory and he helped set up a gallery on Tory, where island artists sell their work. He was clearly an energetic man, as was known for personally greeting all the visitors to the island as the ferry arrived from the mainland. He apparently made a point of shaking hands with visitors and saying “Welcome to my island.”
Sadly, Patsy Dan Rodger, died last year and now rests in the churchyard. I saw his grave decorated a wooden cross and with stones around it. I did not take a photo because it felt like it would be an intrusion on the island’s grief. The island is without a king for the time being.
The island itself is a strange mix of very old and modern. People have lived here for over 4500 years. There are a few old cars and vans driving back from the harbour after picking up stuff at the pier.
Tory feels a long way from the mainland, although you can see the coast of mainland Donegal when the weather is clear. It is less than 2 miles long and only half a mile wide. My overwhelming first impression (once the cars and vans had driven off) and we had walked out of the tiny West Town (An Baile Thiar) was of birdsong.
Sparrows, larks and other moorland birds just singing their hearts out. The landscape is full of bold little brown birds, pipits and larks. Some of them even come near to you and sing, possibly as a challenge. We walked along a single tracked road eastward towards the other settlement or “clachan” on the island. We passed a Second World War torpedo that had been painted bright red and erected by the side of the road.
I marveled at the ground on Tory. To the south of the road, it seemed to be a dried bog and the north it was very stony ground, reminding me of a hardcore carpark. How had anyone, let alone over 200 (at one point it rose to 400) islanders managed to eek a living from such a tough terrain? I have looked at the small stony fields in Galway and thought how tough life must have been for the farmers, but this was much worse. The potato was a versatile crop and remarkably the blight that brought the Great Hunger to mainland Donegal, did not reach the island. Of course, the Tory islanders did not live from farming alone, they were also fishermen and brewers ofpoitin whiskey.
There was a group of German tourists ahead of us (they all seemed to be wearing blue jackets for some reason). They veered off the road to the left towards what looks like a dip in the earth. We followed them, so see what they have gone to look at and discover that is a massive hole with a cave down to the sea. I would not have guessed this was here from the road.
We carried on up to the northern edge of the island. What a view! I am not good with heights as the best of times and I felt quite ill looking over the edge. I lay down on the grass to take photos. The reddish cliffs and cream coloured sea stacks were stunning.
We spent a lot of time walking along the cliffs and back again, taking in the views.
There were sea birds flying and squawking. Lots of gulls and razorbills and one lone puffin to be seen. The birds of Tory are the highlight of the visit for me.
We then find the weather has closed in on us. We could see the mist and cloud descending on the lighthouse to the west of us, at the other end of the island. I’d foolishly hoped it would stay on that side of the island!
On the island, weather changes from moment to moment. I am reminded of the sign outside Derek Hill‘s house warning that “Winter weather can happen at any time in Donegal”. Yes, it can.
Mainland Donegal has vanished in a cloud of rain. We get increasingly damp, but not quite soaked through. There’s no shelter anywhere. No trees. No bus shelters (what an utterly daft idea, here). We have a lively discussion about the conditions (I keep thinking of that weather forecast of sunshine in the afternoon) and I optimistically suggest that it will pass soon enough. I am encouraged by the fact that the group of German visitors (off in the distance) haven’t given up and are scaling the heights of Ardil Iril, and are looking over the cliff. So we carry on and by the time we reach Port an Duin, which has a small concrete pier, the rain has halted.
We sit down on some rocks and eat our sandwiches and crisps. The dogs get some too and a drink of water from their bowl that I am carrying. The weather brightens up considerably as we climb up to the highest part of Tory. This is Dun Bhaloir (Balor’s Fort), which is an early Iron Age Fort, which is covered in piles of massive rocks, which were part of the defenses. Balor apparently was a fearsomecyclopswarlordwho could kill a man dead with asingle glanceof his evil eye!
From here we can get a view of the rest of the island snaking off to the west. It has brightened up now and we take off our coats. The dogs are getting hot and panting.
There’s a discussion about the return time of the ferry as Seamas’s smartphone has died (and I don’t have one). We’d asked about the times when we got off the ferry but after the long walk we aren’t sure of what we were told, was it 2.30 or 3.30? We could see the ferry heading back to the mainland at 1.30 so I reason that it will be at least 2 hours before it returns. However, we would easily be able to see it returning so we would just need to keep an eye out for it. So we started plodding back to An Baile Thiar and the pier. We were all very tired now. So we start the walk back to the harbour in An Baile Thiar.
We made it back to An Che (the pier) and could see the approaching ferry in plenty of time. I got some extra water for the dogs from a tap in the parish hall. This time we got seats on the ferry so I don’t feel queasy on the journey back. The German tourists are also on the ferry.
As we were coming towards Magharoarty harbor, three dolphins surprise us all appearing in the sea alongside the ferry. I saw a flash of strong blue-grey bodies and then the three of them arching in and out the water behind the ferry. All the passengers on the boat were very excited (as was I). These are my first wild Donegal dolphins. I spend a long time looking at my photos afterward, reliving the experience. I wish the photos were better.
I left with an impression that Tory wasn’t like the other Donegal islands. It felt a lot further away from the mainland for a start. Life was (and probably still is) tough here. When the rain covered the island we might as well have been a thousand miles from the mainland. I know that is true of all islands to some extent, but you really felt it here. We visited in summer, I can hardly imagine what it is like in the winter, surrounded by the raging Atlantic Ocean. I didn’t get to speak to anyone, beyond a “hello” but the islanders are very clearly very independent and resilent. Looking over my little guide book to Tory I realise that there was lots more to see on the island, that we didn’t have the time or energy to see, namely the lighthouse on the west end of the island, Derek Hill’s painting hut, the Art Gallery, or the round tower or the curious T-shaped “Tau” Cross.Next time, I visit, I will bring more sandwiches and a hat in case it rains again.
Donegal has lots of breathtaking scenery. I love the coast and the old white houses and a lot of my recent paintings have been concerned with depicting a more intimate impression of Donegal. I don’t like to get into a rut, and I will switch subject matter to challenge myself and keep my work “fresh”.
Painting mountains is one way of doing that for me. I have painted three pictures of the Derryveagh mountains since October 2018. They are based on a series of photographs we took on a trip to Horn Head. For an excellent interactive map of the area click here
I had been worried about driving along precipitous cliff tops and we had parked up and walked up to Horn Head. The view was great but the overcast conditions did not make for particularly good photographs. We climbed up part of the spongey hill. I call it spongey because every time I put my put on something that wasn’t a rock, it sort of sank into the heather or boggy grass. It was very unsettling. So I leap from rock to rock. From here we took in the strong breeze and could see across to Dunfanghy.
There were also sweeping views across back towards Falcaragh and Bloody Foreland (Cnoc Fola in Irish). What a great name that is, it refers to the colour of the headland, not to some gruesome incident of the past. The light was in the “wrong” direction for decent photos but the view was lovely.
On the way back down to Dunfanaghy, the sun broke through the clouds off in the distance, we stopped and Seamas took some pictures. These are the photos the three paintings are based on.
These paintings are quite a commitment, in terms of effort and resources as they are physically large (for me, anyway) and mentally demanding. I usually like to paint bright and quite detailed landscapes. These paintings, in contrast, were an exercise in subtly and knowing when and where to include more or less details.
With all of them, I begin with the sky and work my way down the canvas. As with a lot of my work, I use the paint quite thinly and I find this helps keep the clouds feeling “light”. They are just layers of water vapor, after all. The linen canvas I use is primed with a clear primer so it is brown rather than white in colour. I find this brown works well as a base for dirty looking rain clouds!
My first two paintings I initially painted the distant mountains a range of graduating purples until I stood back and realised that they had to be lightened a lot. I spent a lot of time holding up my paint covered brush next to my reference photograph to compare the shades. I learned that the mountains had a lot of warm grey in them.
The greens of the mid area and the foreground were much easier to gauge although I still visually checked that my tones were correct by holding the paint next to the reference image. The many walls and varying tones of the fields required a great deal of concentration. This was the most detailed part of the painting. I wanted the viewer to look into the distance rather than be distracted by detailed grass in the foreground. So the grass in the foreground is quite flat with only the odd change in colour to hint at roughness.
By the time I had painted the third, most recent, painting in the series, I had learned from experience to keep the colour of the mountains light. The falling rain over the far mountain meant that most of the tones of the grass and bogland were much more muted than in the earlier paintings. There was a lot of greys and purples in the grass and gorse.
Each of the three paintings, although they are of a similar view, each has quite a different feel to it. They remind me how on some days you can stand and watch the light and colours change second by second in Donegal as the clouds move and showers sweep in from the west. The last one does that the most. I think my next challenge will be to paint a mountain scene without any houses at all, just sky and mountain and resist the urge to add detail!
I love the Donegal islands for their peace and quiet. Oh, the relative absence of cars, the abundance of nature but I particularly love their houses. You may have noticed that I painted quite a few of them, lately; lovely long strings of houses.
I love their simple clean lines. I enjoy the old-style aesthetic. In Donegal, houses were whitewashed and woodwork was painted red. You still see a few houses like this. Sometimes you might see one with a thatched roof. Usually, their thatch has been replaced with tiled roofs.
When is a house a cottage? When it’s small and old and hand-built by its inhabitant, I suppose. In England, the term cottageoriginates from the Anglo-Saxon term for the peasant or “cottar”, in Irish the word for these houses is “teachin” or “teach beag” which means small house. You can watch a short film on how to say “teach” in Irishhere, you may think that word looks like an English word, but it’s pronounced very differently in Irish.
Cottages literally grew out of the landscape that surrounded them. It stands to reason that in the past homes were built from local materials. If the stones and wood had to be carried by donkey or man-power it wasn’t likely to come from very far away. Stone would predominantly be used in coastal and rocky areas, muddy clay in the midlands and even turf in boggy areas.
Cottages came in different sizes; from the tiny laborer’s cottage or Bothán Scóir (a one-roomed house with mud floors and often not even a window); the byre dwelling (a slightly larger cottage that was shared with the animals) to the thatched mansions – two-storey thatched farmhouses that were often extended from single-storey cottages as the occupants become wealthier.
The most popular form of cottage is that with the living area at the center with the hearth fireplace and a bedroom on either end.
The fireplace or hearth usually formed of stone and located at the center of the house with a bedroom behind it to further absorb the heat.
In rural Ireland, they did not usually own the land it stood on. This is why landlords could evict tenants for non-payment of rent (usually, if they wanted to replace people with more profitable sheep), even those the occupants had built those houses themselves. In the case of John George Adair of Gleanveagh, he had the houses pulled down after the poor tenants were thrown out!
Houses were designed through necessity. The general rule was that the front door of the cottage faced south, to shelter the house from the prevailing westerly winds. Windows were small in order to retain heat in the winter and to keep cool in the summer. Ground floor windows usually faced to the south, not on the gable ends.
There were often small windows on the first floor of the gable walls where there were loft accommodations. The walls of a cottage were typically about 600mm thick to support the roof and beams, this led to the attractive deep window reveals found in most cottages.
You may have noticed that many old Irish houses are not one single unified block, but are made up of several extensions, a kitchen at the back, an extra room to the side. Homes were enlarged when money was available. Often this money was earnt far away from home as hardship forced family members to look for seasonal work far away in Derry, Tyrone or even in Scotland.
Modern houses in Donegal, like modern houses in most places, are comfortable, spacious with plenty of windows. Older people, here as elsewhere, I suspect prefer bungalows for their lack of stairs.
Yet, there is still a space for the old style. On Cruit Island there is a holiday villageof new-build holiday homes in the “old” style.
They are single story with thatched roofs but they are large, comfortable, and furnished with wooden rocking chairs, and folksy bedspreads. They also have a beach a stone’s throw away. Obviously, there are real old houses you can stay in on Cruit Island too.
I sometimes wonder if I am painting a “fake” version of Ireland. I am giving the impression that all of Donegal is covered in little quaint white houses? It isn’t, but they are there. Especially in the Rosses and on the islands. Not all of the houses are quaint in North-West Ireland; the “bungalow blight” that affects parts of Donegal has been commented on by others. I suppose I am drawn to the clean lines of the old houses.
This is a theme I have explored in a different context, previously. A couple of years ago I explored the “Hollowed Community” of Brynmill and painted the Edwardian terraces that surround my home in Swansea. I was also interested in a lost community. The old way of life (pre-internet) that is fast vanishing, where your neighbors lived next to you for years, not for weeks or just the summer months.
Read more about the history of the Irish cottagehere
I have been back in Wales for three days now and the big difference from Donegal is the temperature and light. It is much warmer in Wales. Last week I was wearing a jumper – here I am in a T-shirt. In Wales, last night it was very dark by 10 pm. In Donegal, however, the light seemed unending. I struggled to sleep, despite being very tired, because although the sunset was after 10pm, it didn’t seem to get properly dark until after well after 11pm. Then it started to get light pretty soon after 4am!
I would sometimes wake in the early hours and look at the dark as a novelty. That’s something I’ve never done in Wales. Yet, I got used to this abundance of light. I made me feel active. With no television to slump in front of, I would find myself doing things after tea, such as the evening I found myself sanding a table at 9pm. I got used to life without news on the radio, although I did listen to some podcasts I had downloaded before I left Wales.
The day we visited Arranmore Island was a sunny Saturday. No jumper, just a shirt. There are two ferry companies that operate from Burtonport Harbour, the Red, and the Blue. They run all year round. In the summer months, they put on extra sailings. We plan to catch the 12.30 ferry, which is the Red Ferry. That’s the favourite colour of Seamas, my husband’s, beloved football team, Liverpool, so he’s happy. The ferry is very busy. It’s delayed by 10 minutes as the last car fills the boat to capacity. There are lots of teenagers and families on board. We stand by the rails as all the seats are taken.
The journey to Arranmore is always a treat. The ferry is speedy. It takes not much more than 15 minutes to complete the three-mile journey. I love looking at the islands (and their houses) that lie alongside the route.
Rutland Island is one of the largest of these and lies to the west. There are some very beautiful modern houses on Rutland, alongside ruins which date from the 18th century. These were part of the planned settlement built by William Burton Conyngham. He also owned Arranmore Island. In my painting “From Ferry Coll” (below) you can see the remains of the fish landing and processing complex on the left side of the painting. There was also once a post office, houses, and a school-house here.
On the eastern side, lies the islands of Edernish, Inishchoo, and Eighter. Here there are old cottages tucked in amongst the rocks. There is sparkling sunshine, but once we leave the shelter of the islands, the sea becomes quite choppy.
When we arrive at Arranmore harbour there are lots of friends and families waiting for the ferry. There is a lot of waving and photos taking whilst we wait for the cars to drive off the ferry. Then the people can get off the ferry. There are lots of hugs, laughter, and chatter as the passengers finally get off the ferry. It’s a delightful scene.
Arranmore is well worth visiting. It is the second-largest Irish island (the largest is Achill, in County Mayo, if you want to know). It is seven square miles in size and it is dominated by an imposing hill called Cnoc an Iolair (“Hill of the Eagle”, 750 feet) which can be seen from most of the coast of Gweedore ad the Rosses. It has both sandy beaches along the south coast (three of them) and imposing sea cliffs (120 meters) along the west and north side of the island. Many of the islanders are native Irish speakers.
Many islanders used to support themselves through fishing, wild salmon in particular, but in 2006 the EU banned salmon fishing. This has caused a great deal of hardship and anger. It has also meant that many of the young people have been forced to move away in search of work, so the population of the island is dwindling and aging. You can watch a beautiful short film, “A Foot of Turf” about island life here.
Fortunately, the island has recently undergone huge technological advancement and has become the recipient of Ireland’s very first offshore digital hub. In celebration they wrote an open letter to American and Australia, hoping to entice new businesses to the island. Sadly, the story went viral and got distorted in the process. British tabloids, in particular, decided to reframe the story as the island being desperate for immigrants, “begging US citizens to move there” and decided to be offended that they “forgot” to invite British people, writing headlines like: “Anyone but the English”. This caused a great deal of distress on the island as this wasn’t what was intended at all. The letter was meant to appeal to American businesses to help boost the economy by giving islanders jobs – and visit the island.
So we are visiting the island. First, we made our way eastwards, towards the lifeboat station. We then backtracked and walk up the road past The Glen Hotel, which was the island’s first hotel in 1928. It was once the home of John Stoupe Charley, a Protestant from Antrim, who bought the island in 1855.
It was a long hilly road with a beautiful view across to the mainland. There were many old cottages and outbuildings here. The road was generally quiet but we were periodically passed by several cars. I like to take note of where cars are from, in Ireland registration plates in include letters to denote the county of registration. There were many with “DL” Donegal plates, but also plenty with “D” Dublin and Northern Ireland plates. Although I’d seen plenty of German and Dutch vehicles driving along the Wild Atlantic Way (past our house) there were none on this stretch of Arranmore road.
It’s considered good manners in Donegal (and elsewhere, of course) for the driver and pedestrian to acknowledge each other when the car has to slow to pass and the pedestrian has to clamber into the grassy verge. In Donegal, the driver will lift the index finger of his right hand. The pedestrian will similarly lift his or her finger but not necessarily raising the hand to do so. Smiles will be exchanged too. Nothing to exuberant, but friendly. It’s rare that this doesn’t happen, sadly it does on occasion and then it is followed by a short discussion between Seamas and myself about the drivers of particular makes of cars and/or people from NI/Dublin/hirecars.
We get so far and decide to retrace our tracks and walk in a big loop along the west side of the island, which provides us with sweeping views across to Burtonport and Dungloe. If you look carefully in the photo below you will be able to see the old courthouse to the right. This was built at Fal an Ghabhann (Fallagowan) around 1855.
Eventually, the road wound downhill. We could hear the sound of singing on the wind. A choir singing? We eventually came to a large white Community Hall, the doors were open and inside were lots of young people singing in Irish. These were some of the hundreds of teenagers who come to the island as part of a summer scheme to learn and improve on their Irish language skills.
As if to reinforce this, a tall teenage boy passes us and greets us in Irish. Seamas manages a greeting but then tells me that the lad had used a different form of words to the one he’d learned over 30 years ago. It seems that the Irish language is very similar to the Welsh, in that it has many regional variations in terms of accent, pronunciation, and words used.
We finally made it back to the harbour and had two delicious cheese paninis in the sandwich shop.
The journey back to Burtonport harbour on the Red ferry was very enjoyable, with the passengers still in a buoyant holiday mood, waving at the passengers on the Blue ferry as we passed. A holiday maker’s car alarm kept going off. His embarrassment levels pretty much matched that of his children’s amusement.
I kept a lookout for dolphins or seals but saw none. Only sea birds. An American told me that he’s seen Minke Whales in Clew Bay recently. We had seen dolphin on the way back from Tory island. He had a theory that there was a bumper crop of fish 8 miles out at sea, which was where the wildlife were. Usually, the waters around Burtonport would have plenty of seals and dolphins. That’s something to look forward to seeing another time.
For more on Arranmore and other Donegal islands in general doub;e click on the link
It was a long walk to the lighthouse at Whiteford Point on the northern tip of the Gower Peninsula. The last time I walked here, I just looked at the lighthouse from the beach. This time I wanted to get up close. We had left it late and the tide had already turned when we got here. The last stretch to the lighthouse is across lots of slippery, small rocks were surprisingly difficult to walk across. It took a good 20 minutes to make our way across them.
I was accompanied by Seamas, myy husband, and our loyal dogs, Biddy and Mitzy, who were not keen on the rocks but will follow Seamas anywhere.
The iron victorian lighthouse had cormorants perched on it when I got there (ahead of the others) but a motor boat came past and they all flew off!
Here’s my painting. I love the colour of the rusted iron of the massive thing and the sea-life that clings to the lower half. It was a hazy day so the sky is bluish and the sea has a slight mauve tinge to it. The waves are gentle but advancing.
The lighthouse looks quite forlorn in the sand. It has no rock to perch on, just the sea bed. The cormorants, don’t care. They like their iron perch!