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Those Uncertain Roots – Retracing the Past in Gweedore

Painting of Donegal Errigal
Donegal painting, a beach on a sunny day.
Dunmore Strand (with Mount Errigal in the distance)

I have written before about how my husband, Seamas, is a bit obsessed by Donegal’s highest peak, Errigal,  and how loves to tell me that you can see Errigal from different places such as the beach, the airport, the house, the top of the garden and so on. His father helped run a boxing club named after the Donegal peak too. Actually, after spending the week getting sucked down the rabbit hole that is “family history” research, I have decided this love of Errigal is in his genes.

Painting of Donegal and Errigal
Over to Kinclassagh

If you have ever attempted to trace your family tree you will know how absorbing and frustrating it can be. There are many dead ends, but there are also many highs. Tracing families in Ireland can be difficult as a lot of 19th-century census records were destroyed, however, the 1901 and 1911 censuses are online (http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/)  and free to search.

Furthermore an excellent site www.irishgenealoy.ie gives you access to images of birth, marriage, death records. I think I found this a more startling insight into Irish History than all my years teaching 18th & 19th century British at High School. The course title was something like “The History of Wales and England 1785-1914”. In fact, we covered relatively little about the History of Wales (except for the Chartists), but a lot about the History of Ireland. I learned that you cannot begin to understand the History of England without knowing about the history of Ireland.

We tracked Seamas’s great-grandmother’s family, the Colls, to an area of Donegal known as Gweedore. They lived in a townland called Meenderrygamph (Min Doire Dhamh in Irish) which is on the edge of a mountain not far from the Clady River, and the modern-day Gweedore Court Hotel. They would have been able to look up and see Errigal as they worked their land. This was very marginal land and life was very tough indeed. The Coll’s land in Meenderrygamph was on the edge of peatlands. The grazing was rough. Their family had worked it for generations and but it was not theirs. It was rented.

Donegal painting of Mount Errigal, Ireland
Passing Clouds on Errigal

This was typical of 19th-century Ireland. The ordinary Irish people, who were mostly Catholics, did not own the land they farmed. It was rented from Protestant landlords, who made it virtually impossible for Catholics to own land. Few, if any Catholics in Gweedore, had the right to vote. Up until the 19th century, the population of the area remained low and the lack of roads in the area meant that landlords, agents, and the police generally did not interfere in tenants’ lives. It is evident that this wasn’t from lack of trying. Around 1834 local people had beaten up “two revenue police parties” who had been collecting tithes for the (Protestant) church. The police gave up and left Gweedore.

Without interference from Landlords, the people were able to graze the whole area, and the land was divided up by a system known as “rundale.”  This was an ancient form of land division that, despite its faults, allowed everyone access to the best land, water and common grazing – it’s not dissimilar to the open-field system of farming used in Medieval England. This was a sustainable system of farming that worked well on marginal land that was very difficult to farm.

That all changed, however, when Lord George Hill (1801 -1879) bought up large areas of land in Gweedore in 1838 and started “modernising” things. Some of these changes may look like encouraging developments to modern eyes. The first road into Gweedore was constructed in 1834 when the Board of Works constructed a road from Dunlewey to the Gweedore River and Lord George Hill further improved the roads on his estate, he built a Hotel for visitors to the area. Lord Hill also built the port of Bunbeg in the late 1830s to encourage fishing. He also built a grain store on the quay, opened a shop and a bakery and encouraged women to knit socks for sale. Lord Hill, however, made sure that no one else opened up in opposition to him. Margaret Sweeney was evicted for trying to set up a bakery without permission.

Lord Hill’s land reforms were certainly not welcomed by the people in Gweedore. Lord Hill outlawed the building of any further new houses, any subdivision of land, or the sale of land. He had the area surveyed during 1841-1843, and then began to allot new consolidated larger holdings to each tenant. Under these circumstances, providing land for sons was impossible and the only option for them was emigration.

James Glass of Gweedore people phot
Photo by James Glass of Gweedore people

There were partial crop failures in 1831, 1837, 1854 and 1856, and complete crop failure in the years of “the great famine” (1846-48). Surprisingly, there was not a great loss of population in the Gweedore area compared with other parts of Ireland. This was probably partially due to the efforts of the landlord, and also to the availability of edible seaweed. Lord George Hill tried to help his tenants; he wrote begging letters to the Society of Friends (the Quakers), the Irish Peasantry Improvement Society of London and the Baptist Society. He sold grain below cost and sooner than directed, contrary to government policy, although he was recompensed generously by the government for grinding Indian Corn.

Lord George Hill believed the famine was a judgment by God on the people for their morals and farming practices! He actually said “The Irish people have profited much by the Famine, the lesson was severe; but so were they rooted in old prejudices and old ways, that no teacher could have induced them to make the changes which this Visitation of Divine Providence has brought about, both in their habits of life and in their mode of agriculture.” He saw the famine as justification for phase two of his reforms. Sheep.

The Scottish Blackface, like several other breeds of sheep, was brought to Ireland by Lord Hill (and other landlords) as a way to make up for lost revenue during the famine. This made life very hard for the farmers of Meenderrygamph. The farmers were deprived of their mountain grazing. If their animals wandered onto unfenced land (that had previously been common land) their animals were impounded and the farmers were saddled with massive fines of £2 or more. Things were so bad that John and Daniel Coll had had to apply for poor relief.

Not everyone took this lying down, of course. In December 1856, around forty Irish tenant farmers raided the house of a Scottish shepherd and ordered him to leave the country. More raids followed. Hundreds of sheep were killed (or went missing). Hundred were found dead on the land near Meenderrygamph. This was known as the Gweedore Sheep War.

We know that a Thomas Coll had been arrested for the perpetration of “outrages” and was in jail in 1858 but we don’t know if he was one of the Colls from Meenderrygamph. By the following summer, numerous arrests had been made, new taxes put in place (to pay for the police), and the police presence expanded. By summer 1858 the Gweedore Sheep War was effectively over. The Irish farmers had lost, the sheep remained.

People of Gweedore as photographed by James Glass 19th century
People of Gweedore as photographed by James Glass

The Colls in Meenderrygamph were much reduced in number. In the 1850s there were 6 families bearing the surname farming the land there. By the end of the century, there were only three Coll families, two of whom were sons of Daniel Coll, possibly the late Denis Coll had been his son too, we don’t know. Where had the others gone? Many Gweedore families started to emigrate to America and Australia in the 1860s, perhaps this is where they went too.

The Land War of 1879 to 1882 saw the issue of rents take a deadly turn. Lord George Hill had died in 1879 and his son, Captain Arthur Hill, took over the Gweedore estate. This coincided with the rise of discontent over “landlordism” in Ireland and through a judicial review some rents were reduced on the Gweedore property and 10,000 acres of mountain grazing was given back to the tenants by the Land Commission which sat at Bunbeg. However, Father McFadden, the chairman of the National Land League, an organisation founded in 1882 to oppose “landlordism,” this was not enough and he organised a boycott on the payment of rent. In return, Captain Hill began to evict tenants.

Family Evicted from Hill estate in 1880s
Family Evicted from Hill estate in 1880s
Gweedore Priest
“Fighting” Father James McFadden

Father McFadden, known as the “fighting priest of Gweedore” was put in prison 6 months in 1888 for organizing a boycott and the non-payment of rents. Things got worse in February 1889 when, having finished mass at Derrybeg, Detective Inspector Martin turned up to arrest him again for encouraging resistance to local evictions. The locals quickly acted to defend the priest but in the melee, Inspector Martin ended up dead on the steps of the Priest’s house, some claimed that he’d hit his head on a curb, others that he’s been beaten to death. It was a shocking death. The priest and 40 of his parishioners were charged with murder. Incredibly, the murder charge was dropped and Father McFadden pled guilty to obstruction of justice. The parishioners were charged with manslaughter and given long sentences. McFadden’s was banned from involvement in any further political activities by his bishop and he was transferred to another Donegal parish.

A generation later, life was still very hard for people in Gweedore. It was, over this period, one of the poorest parts of Ireland. Many left, some temporarily for work in Scotland or permanently in America and Australia. Seamas’s great-grandmother Rose Coll had to leave home as a teenager to find work possibly as a servant in a farm near St Johnston. She spoke Irish and English but could not read or write. Looking through records of the area, this seemed to be unusual for people of her generation. Most young people could read by the end of the 19th century. She could not, nor could her two brothers. Healthcare was also a luxury they could not afford. When Rose’s father had died a decade or so earlier in 1888, the registrar’s record noted that he had suffered from some sort of “debility” for two years. The precise cause of the illness was unknown as the family had not been able to afford a medical attendant in all that time. Possibly when her father died, Rose and her brothers were kept home to help with the farm.

Modern day Meenderrygamph
Modern-day Meenderrygamph, Gweedore

So, family history ends up raising more questions than answers but it really makes you appreciate how much we take for granted in life today, the ability to read and write and reliable access to food, healthcare and to a good pair of shoes. To illustrate, I’ll leave you with some incredible photos of Gweedore in the 1870s and 1880s taken by Derry photographer James Glass.  

If anyone reading this knows of the Coll family from Meenderrygamph and can help us fill in some details my husband and  I would greatly appreciate it?

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Dunmore Strand, Donegal

Painting of Donegal landscape beach,

I have been ill this week so this is a short post.

In last week’s post, Seamas, my husband and I were standing on rocks looking out towards Gola island in Donegal. This week we are looking back inland to Dunmore Strand, and beyond to Mount Errigal.

Donegal painting, a beach on a sunny day.
Dunmore Strand (with Mount Errigal in the distance)

As soon as I saw this scene I knew I wanted to paint it. I loved the dark shadow under the protruding lip of the undulating dunes.  It gave the impression that the grasses were merely a thick blanket laid across the top of the sand.

 

Scattered along the beach and in the water, were granite rocks. These were so large that they were more like massive boulders. They were a beautiful pinkish colour close up. The sand was also very slightly pinkish but closer to the shoreline it was almost white. Lines of seaweed marked the rising and falling tide.

 

The tiny white houses gave a sense of sense scale of the dunes. They reminded me a little of boats on the surface of a heaving sea; humans eeking out an existence on the edge of nature. The ocean itself was calm and benign. It was as clear as glass at the shoreline and further out was a beautiful turquoise. It is not always this smooth creature, in autumn, I have seen it roaring and thrashing the shoreline like a wild beast.

 

Mount Errigal dominates this part of West Donegal, known as Gweedore. The mountain looks close but it’s an optical illusion, it’s actually about 10 miles away to the east. The top of Mount Errigal was swathed in clouds. The mountain always seems to have clouds around its shoulders, or totally smothering it. I had to wait for about 3/4 of an hour for the mists to part for a clear view of the peak. The clouds near to me were dirtier rain-filled clouds that were building and threatening to release their burden on the land somewhere nearby.

 

Another wonderful thing about this beautiful beach is that on this chilly April afternoon is that there was not another soul there. The only people we saw were the postman in his van on the way down the long lane to the beach.

 

My next post will peer “through a glass darkly” at Seamas’s Donegal family history (it is very dark in places) and the History of Gweedore along with the controversial issue of modernizing landlords.

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Donegal Blues

I warn you now that this is a blog post about paint; about one shade of blue in particular. It might even involve watching paint dry. Which, unless you are an artist, probably isn’t very exciting.

Paints represent a sort of non-verbal language for me. I actually find it hard to put into words how I feel about paints. I have a “feeling” in my stomach and I want to wave my hands about a bit to express those feelings, but it all seems very inadequate. I don’t know if other artists are like this. I see colours in life and think of the paints I might use to represent them on the canvas. There is a particular warm shade of brown that I am yet to satisfactorily find in a paint. For a long time, I struggled with particular shades of green, until I found that mixing turquoise produced the right level “zing” in my summer greens. In Donegal the greens need yellow ochre to make them ring true.

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The Madonna’s ultramarine cloak

I am particularly obsessive about a particular colour that until yesterday, I was even sure how it was pronounced. This is phthalo blue. I doubt you have ever heard of it. It’s not like Ultramarine blue, made from lapis lazuli stone, which was was famously so expensive it was solely reserved for painting the Virgin Mary’s cloak.

Now, I am absolutely no good at saying words I haven’t heard someone else say out loud. That “ph” at the beginning really confused me and I used to call it “p-th-al-ff-oo” blue, deliberately tripping over the syllables because I’d never heard it said out loud. Until yesterday, when I realised I could look it up! So it did.

What! It’s pronounced “thalo”!! Why don’t they just call it Thalo Blue? I noticed in the comments below the video that someone else said ” I say it as pfthpfthpfthpfthpfthpfthpfthalo blue”. I don’t recommend, however, that you listen to the Russian pronunciation of “пхтхало блю” on google translate because it’s sort of like my original managling of the word!

phthalo-blue-organic-pigments
Phthalo blue pigments

You are probably thinking, who cares? Well, I care because I am passionate about Phthalo blue. No, that’s not true I am obsessive about it. It is very useful colour in my messy box of paints. I particularly like the version made by French paint manufacturers Lefranc & Bourgeois.

 

Phtahlo Blue paint
I love you!

It’s not cheap but it a very useful colour. Its very strong. It’s very dark and I love it for creating really dark blues, blues that mixed with Van Dyke Browns and make wonderful dark clouds.  I don’t like to use black for dark shades as it has a tendency to “kill” a colour.  I have found that its essential for both the massive white Cumulonimbus clouds and the really filthy rain clouds of Donegal. It’s actually a synthetic pigment from the group of phthalocyanine dyes. When it’s mixed with Titanium white it makes a delightful light blue that’s also very useful for skies.

Painting of Errigal
Swirling Clouds Round Errigal
Paint
Phthalo Blue with titanium white

Oil paints are in essence pigments carried in oil (once upon a time vegetable oil was used) usually linseed today. The pigments were originally derived from mineral salts, a few from organic materials such as roots.  Many of the historical pigments were dangerous, such as the wonderful greens called Paris Green (copper acetoarsenite) and Orpiment (arsenic sulfide), which were highly toxic.  Happily, these pigments are no longer used. Later, man-made or synthetic, pigments increased the range of colors available, phthalo or phthalocyanine blue is one of these modern colours.

Chemists first developed this blue pigment in the late 1920s and it was sold under the trade name “Monastral in 1935. This list of alternative names is bewildering. Here are some of them; monastral blue, phthalo blue, helio blue, thalo blue, Winsor blue, phthalocyanine blue, C.I. Pigment Blue 15:2, Copper phthalocyanine blue, Copper tetrabenzoporphyrazine, Cu-Phthaloblue, PB-15, PB-36, C.I. 74160.  I want to add to this long list of names Hoggar blue. Surprisingly, this colour is also used in Lidl’s Dentalux Total Care Plus toothpaste!

Now, I am sometimes faced with the situation that I have used up all the paint in a tube (and I really do get all the paint out of the tubes) but I can’t read the name or number of the paint to reorder the right one. I might be able to work out the manufacturer but its name or number. Here’s an example of what I mean.

IMG_7346
What’s your name?

 

 

IMG_7345.JPG
Still a bit of paint in here!

Lefranc & Bourgeois are the oldest artists’ quality colourmen in France. They share the same parent company as Winsor & Newton. This is why, it difficult to get their paints in the UK most stockists carry Winsor & Newton paints instead. A while back they decided to have a rebrand and they changed their labels and the names on the labels. This caused me great confusion because neither of the two suppliers where I usually ordered this great colour listed “phthalo blue” anymore. I’ll show what I mean. Here’s the Lefranc & Bourgeois page from the Great Art website.

Great Art.JPG

And here’s the page from L. Cornelissen & son in London:-

Capture.JPG

So I ordered a Phthalo blue made by another paint maker, Lucas 1862. It was OK but not half as good as the L&B version. It didn’t feel the same, and it didn’t mix with other colours in quite the way I wanted.

IMG_7351-1.jpg
Left L&B and Right Lucas 1862

Looking back now, I can see that Hoggar Blue and Phtalocyanine Blue are actually the same colour, phthalo blue. The colour I thought they had stopped making. This meant I spent weeks eeking the last drop of paint out of the what I thought was my last tube, thinking that this colour was no longer to be had in the UK. Then I realised that I had another tube in a drawer so I got it out and studied the label carefully.

IMG_7358
All those different names

I realised that the names for this paint in other languages used Hoggar a lot (the Hoggar mountains are in Algiers, once a French colony); Blu Hoggar /Azul Hoggair /Hoggarblau so I went back and looked at the Great Art online catalogue and worked out that my phthalo blue was actually now listed as Hoggar Blue. So I ordered this Hoggar Blue and it was the same colour as Phthalo Blue. I was so happy! It meant that a part of my vocabulary was restored to me and I wasn’t going to run out of words!

So, you can see that I wasn’t exaggerating when I said I was obsessive about colour. Who else but an artist has a celebration over a particular shade of blue? The moral of the story is that all paint is not created equal and it’s always worth being obsessive about colour.

Painting of Errigal, Donegal, Ireland
Brooding Clouds Over Errigal

Oh yes, if you want to watch the video about paint drying, be my guest. I have watched and actually found it interesting (OK I actually skipped the drying bit to see the different colours)!

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Under The Shadow of Errigal

Oil painting of Mount Errigal, Donegal, Ireland
Under the Shadow of Errigal (SOLD)

In Steven Spielberg film “Close Encounters” (1977) Richard Dreyfus experiences a close encounter with a UFO and subsequently becomes increasingly obsessed with subliminal, mental images of a mountain-like shape and begins to make models of it, including one made from his mash potatoes.

CloseEncounters_DreyfussLED
Richard Drefus’s dinner is about to turned into a mountain

I bring this up because my husband got a bit like that with Mount Errigal. It has a very distinctive shape and it can be seen from miles around. My husband was always pointing it out to me. His father used to help run a boxing gym called Errigal in Derry, Northern Ireland, so it has an added resonance for him. Again and again he’d announce “There’s Errigal” to me.

It looks like it should be an extinct volcano, but I’m not sure entirely that it is. We saw it when we flew in from Dublin, from the runway at the airport, from the beach at Carrickfinn, From Bunbeg beach, from the Rosses, from Gweedore. Its barren surface is rather moon-like, but when the sun catches its slopes its quite mesmerising. When it was hidden by cloud you knew the sun wasn’t going to come out for some time. The surface isn’t covered with snow but light-coloured quartzite scree that glows pink in the sun.

I would like to climb it one day. I have been told it only takes a couple of hours (from the other side). In the meantime there is a nice time-lapse film of clouds floating past Errigal for you to watch.

You can purchase my Donegal landscape paintings here

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Donegal

Mount Errigal from Ballymanus Beach, Donegal

The night before last, I woke up in the dead of night, not sure if I was in Ireland or Wales.  It’s now five days since we returned from our week in Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland.

It’s taken that long to recover my energy levels. I hadn’t fully recovered from the virus that keeps coming back, and it was adrenaline that powered me round the place. I don’t get out much, to be honest, and everything was exciting to me; the airport in Cardiff  (on 4 hours sleep), the flight over Wales, looking down at our house, even the long wait in Dublin Airport for the connecting flight to Donegal was interesting. I hadn’t been to Dublin for years (and by years, I actually mean a couple of decades) and it had changed beyond recognition. I enjoyed watching how things are organised and how they connect (when I am not in charge of them, that is).

The final flight into Donegal airport was stunning. Most of Ireland is a patchwork of small green fields until just before you reach the approach to Carrickfinn Airport. Then the fields melt away to be replaced by an expanse of mountains and rusty red boglands.

Donegal is at the north-western corner of the Republic of Ireland. Facing out towards everything the Atlantic has to throw at it. It is very big, very beautiful and very empty. More people live in the city of Swansea (241,300), than in the whole of Donegal (158,755). Swansea is 380 km² and Donegal is 4,861 km². No wonder Swansea feels very crowded.

View across the sea to Owey Island
Owey Island from Cruit Island

The stunning landscape is immediately apparent, but what took a little longer to dawn on me was just how really friendly and well-mannered people are. People wave and say hello when you pass them in the street, when crossing a road cars pause and stop to let you cross, when driving, its a battle of “who’s the politest” at junctions. When people stop for a chat, they chat for 20 minutes or even more.

DSC_0014.JPG
A straight road

I love driving around Donegal because the roads were pretty empty. I am not a fast driver, and wiggly roads without crash barriers are certainly not on my list of favourite things. Add a drop down a steep hill, and you have me driving at a snails’ pace. So what a joy it is to crawl along these hairy roads with no one behind my car. In fact, at Horn Head, I was getting nervous about sheer drops and bends so I pulled over and left my car to walk the last few  bends to the viewing point. No cars passed us, either the way up or on the way down. It was a joy.

flock-of-seagullsI think I was happiest walking along the wind-swept beaches looking at the sea. The wind was always blowing. We quickly developed “Donegal-hair”, from the wind. My husband’s hair started to look that guy from the 1980s band Flock of Seagulls. On some beaches, the sand was almost white. I loved the Atlantic Ocean. It was a strong dark blue, but where the waves lifted, green showed through. The sea was so clear that the shallows, were green too.

 

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Ballymanus Beach

One of my favourite beaches was Ballymanus, which is just round the corner from Carrickfinn Aiport. From the rocks you can see Mount Errigal, the highest peak in Donegal. It’s a curious dome-shaped mountain and looks like it should have been a volcano, but I don’t think that it was. In this painting I tried to capture the deep blue of the Atlantic and the ever-changing cloudscape. The colours of Donegal are very different to South Wales. There are more purples and greys and the light is cooler, less golden. Painting this picture has helped “embed” Donegal for me. It will be in my dreams for a while longer, I think.

Landscape painting in Oil of Mount Errigal, Donegal, Ireland
Mount Errigal from Ballymanus Beach, Donegal (SOLD)