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!
The title of this post comes from a 2005 albumby American musician, Robert Rich.
The inspiration for this album comes from mundane everyday experiences that culture usually overlooks, such as footsteps, casual voices and other ordinary sounds. Although I am sort of “New Wave” (that’s sooo old now, you’ll probably have to look it up) in my musical tastes, I have a sneaky liking for experimental music, if its “live”. I like how it encourages you to pay attention to all the sounds around you, instead of tuning them out with your thoughts. Its sort of mediative. The ordinary appeals to me.
The other day I finished one of my paintings, placed on the other side of my studio to inspect and found myself quite-spell bound by it. I could not stop starring at it. This is not always the way I am with my finished work. More often when I have been excited about a painting, finishing it is a bit of an anti-climax. Maybe, it wasn’t quite what I thought it was going to be. All I can see are the errors. The solutions that weren’t quite right, or not as good as they could have been.
So what was this painting that had me transfixed? You’ll probably laugh when you see it. It was a little painting of two blue tits on a branch. Not a spectacular painting, in any sense, I know. I realised, however, that what had me transfixed were the details. This is really geeky stuff. A shadow under one of the bluetits fell onto the branch below in a really pleasing way. It’s hard to show it here.
This is my most recent painting below. I choose to paint this because I liked the juxtaposition of the mountain behind the semi-derelict house.
I didn’t realise at first that the gable end window is boarded up. It could be mistaken for a blind. Maybe it is a roller-blind pulled down.
I think the back door is also boarded up. These things are not immediately apparent. There is a large boulder to the left of the house. There is also a pile of building bricks and a tarpaulin in the yard to the right-hand side and old rope in the drive. This is a house at the start or midway through renovations. The details I really relished painting were the shadows of the chimney, roof and the telegraph wire that dissects the window at neat diagonal. It’s only by paying attention to these details that the Donegal light can be properly conveyed.
I have always had a fascination for the ordinary details that are easily overlooked. I want to convey what a scene looked like at that moment. If you were really paying attention. Yet, I am not a painter who works in the hyper-realist style. I am not skillful or patient enough for that. I often cringe when I see my paintings close up because I think some of my brushwork is crude. Yet, “perfect” representation can seem dead and unlife-like.
I think in the errors, the gaps, our brains fill in the gaps the image can come alive. I like that my paintings aren’t just copies of what I can see but an interpretation; the colours brightened, edges sharpened or softened, some details omitted to make for a simpler composition. Deciding what to leave out or simplify is as important as what you decide to include. Rather like Robert Rich’s “Echo of Small things”
I love the Donegal islands for their peace and quiet. Oh, the relative absence of cars, the abundance of nature but I particularly love their houses. You may have noticed that I painted quite a few of them, lately; lovely long strings of houses.
I love their simple clean lines. I enjoy the old-style aesthetic. In Donegal, houses were whitewashed and woodwork was painted red. You still see a few houses like this. Sometimes you might see one with a thatched roof. Usually, their thatch has been replaced with tiled roofs.
When is a house a cottage? When it’s small and old and hand-built by its inhabitant, I suppose. In England, the term cottage originates from the Anglo-Saxon term for the peasant or “cottar”, in Irish the word for these houses is “teachin” or “teach beag” which means small house. You can watch a short film on how to say “teach” in Irish here, you may think that word looks like an English word, but it’s pronounced very differently in Irish.
Cottages literally grew out of the landscape that surrounded them. It stands to reason that in the past homes were built from local materials. If the stones and wood had to be carried by donkey or man-power it wasn’t likely to come from very far away. Stone would predominantly be used in coastal and rocky areas, muddy clay in the midlands and even turf in boggy areas.
Cottages came in different sizes; from the tiny laborer’s cottage or Bothán Scóir (a one-roomed house with mud floors and often not even a window); the byre dwelling (a slightly larger cottage that was shared with the animals) to the thatched mansions – two-storey thatched farmhouses that were often extended from single-storey cottages as the occupants become wealthier.
In Donegal “direct entry” houses were typical, where the front door open directly into the room with the fireplace. The most popular form of cottage is that with the living area at the center with the hearth fireplace and a bedroom on either end.
The fireplace or hearth usually formed of stone and located at the center of the house with a bedroom behind it to further absorb the heat. Most families lived in a single room.
In rural Ireland, they did not usually own the land it stood on. This is why landlords could evict tenants for non-payment of rent (usually, if they wanted to replace people with more profitable sheep), even those the occupants had built those houses themselves. In the case of John George Adair of Gleanveagh, he had the houses pulled down after the tenants were thrown out! This was common eviction practice. Anyone who has seen the excellent film Black 47 will know that this practice, could and did, lead to the death of old and frail tenants in winter.
Houses were designed through necessity. The general rule was that the front door of the cottage faced south, to shelter the house from the prevailing westerly winds. Windows were small in order to retain heat in the winter and to keep cool in the summer. Ground floor windows usually faced to the south, not on the gable ends.
There were often small windows on the first floor of the gable walls where there were loft accommodations. The walls of a cottage were typically about 600mm thick to support the roof and beams, this led to the attractive deep window reveals found in most cottages.
You may have noticed that many old Irish houses are not one single unified block, but are made up of several extensions, a kitchen at the back, an extra room to the side. Homes were enlarged when money was available. Often this money was earnt far away from home as hardship forced family members to look for seasonal work far away in Derry, Tyrone or even in Scotland.
Modern houses in Donegal, like modern houses in most places, are comfortable, spacious with plenty of windows. Older people, here as elsewhere, I suspect prefer bungalows for their lack of stairs.
Yet, there is still a space for the old style. On Cruit Island there is a holiday village of new-build holiday homes in the “old” style.
They are single story with thatched roofs but they are large, comfortable, and furnished with wooden rocking chairs, and folksy bedspreads. They also have a beach a stone’s throw away. Obviously, there are real old houses you can stay in on Cruit Island too.
I sometimes wonder if I am painting a “fake” version of Ireland. I am giving the impression that all of Donegal is covered in little quaint white houses? It isn’t, but they are there. Especially in the Rosses and on the islands. Not all of the houses are quaint in North-West Ireland; the “bungalow blight” that affects parts of Donegal has been commented on by others. I suppose I am drawn to the clean lines of the old houses.
This is a theme I have explored in a different context, previously. A couple of years ago I explored the “Hollowed Community” of Brynmill and painted the Edwardian terraces that surround my home in Swansea. I was also interested in a lost community. The old way of life (pre-internet) that is fast vanishing, where your neighbors lived next to you for years, not for weeks or just the summer months.
I 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
In my last post I decribed visiting the abandoned fishing village of An Port tucked away in a remote corner of the Donegal shoreline (read it here). We were inspired to seek out this very remote spot by American artist Rockwell Kent, who visited and painted the area in the 1920s. I was waiting for […]
An Port has loomed large in my imagination for a long time. It’s very remote and quite difficult to get to. To reach it, you have to drive down a very, very long single track road (it’s about three miles but it feels longer) on the way to Glencolmcille. There are plenty of sheep and […]
Rossbeg (sometimes spelt Rosbeg) is a tiny townland on the west coast of Donegal, just south of Portnua and Nairn. There is a pier and a scattering of houses, some are modern, but many are old cottages, probably used as holiday lets. The day we visited the weather was calm and sunny. It was just perfect.