Caravans tucked away on coastal inlets and islands are not an unsual sight in Donegal. I am always impressed by their presence as there are no roads for lorries and it must have taken a good deal of effort and ingenuity to get it there. Getting to have a “Staycation” in 2021 amidst all the uncertainty of vaccine rolls out & third (or is it fourth?) waves looks like it will take an equal amount of effort! So instead join me in imagining the view from the static caravan’s wide window across the rugged terrain of Gola Island on this late spring morning.
Last night I dreamt I was making a turquoise green rug. Odd as I have no plans to make a rug.
We have all shifted from being bit-part players in the Hollywood film “Contagion” to being Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day”. Although numbers of new cases have fallen in Wales, Covid is still very close. Our neighbours came down with it two weeks ago. So lockdown still feels very necessary, even if it seems unending. There have been times it has felt unbearable. When my parents’ second Pfizer vaccination was moved from early January to March I was very disappointed. When I read that the Prime Minister’s father, Stanley (who has broken lockdown rules more than once), got his second jab in mid January I was very angry. I had to cook some scones to distract myself from my feelings of anger, fear and frustration. They still haven’t had their second jab. Who knows when our vaccinations will take place. Online calculators predict mid to late April for the first one and then July for the second one. I seems so far away so I try and put it out of my mind and live in the day. It’s not always easy.
During the first lockdown, I couldn’t leave my bedroom, as I had a leg in plaster. Then in the summer, once I was able to get back into my studio, I was kept very busy with a series of painting commissions. I worked on them one after another using other people’s images. I had to squeeze “my own” work in between them. I did not have a lot of time to reflect on what I was painting until now. I haven’t had a commission since before Christmas and this has given me a lot of freedom.
This freedom has also presented quite a few challenges. Lockdown means that I cannot go out and take new photos of Gower, and I definately cannot leave South Wales. I am working from photos taken over a year ago. Some of the images are much older than that. I trawl through my collection again and again, hoping for something to the catch my eye, something that I had previously missed. I recently painted a series of “rural minimal” paintings based on the island of Gola, off the coast of Donegal.
Then I try and forget them as I dont want to copy them. I decide that I need to achieve both simplicity and “depth” in my work. I am not exactly sure how to do this. So I keep painting.
All the time I am thinking and ruminating. I have recently returned executing underpaintings in red ochre and sepia. I have done this before. It’s not a straight forward process. Sometimes, I feel like I have made a small but important breakthrough, and at others I feel like I have hit a dead end. Often I feel like I am hitting my head against a brick wall. It’s like that uncomfortable feeling of boredom, before you think of what to do next.
Boredom and forced inactivity is very good for creativity, so long as you put away your phone. Scrolling isn’t good for creativity. It seems that in the absence of stimulation the brain will fill in the gaps for you. Maybe brain was keeping me busy by making a rug in my dreams? People with something called Charles Bonnet Syndrome, which involves visual hallucinations for people who have lost their sight, have had worsening symptoms during the pandemic. Not so good.
I also read this week that scientists believe that about 42,000 years ago the earth’s magnetic poles flipped and flipped back again. This event is known as the “Laschamps excursion”. It had a catastrophic effect on earth as the protective shield magnetic fields, which usually provide protection against damaging cosmic radiation, was disrupted. This resulted in huge electrical storms, widespread auroras, and lots of cosmic radiation. It possibly also played a role in a major events ranging from the extinction of Australian megafauna, accelarating the growth of ice sheets, shifted rain belts and helped bring about an end to the Neanderthals!
Researchers have called this danger period the ‘Adams Transitional Geomagnetic Event’, or ‘Adams Event’ for short – a tribute to science fiction writer Douglas Adams, who wrote in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that ’42’ (i.i. 42,000 years ago in this case) was the answer to life, the universe, and everything.
Why? Because out of this apocalyptic era came the emergence of red ochre handprints left on cave walls in places like modern day Spain, France and Argentina. Red ochre – the same pigment I use for my underpaintings.
It has been suggested that humans may have used the pigment as a sunscreen against the increased levels of ultraviolet radiation hitting the Earth as a result of the depletion of ozone. The ancient greeks and romans used kohl eyeliner for a similar reason, although the ancient Egyptians used it for fashion purposes too.
There seems to have been an increasing use of caves between about 42,000 and 40,000 years ago. This was possibly as shelter from the more intense sun. We know that something important happened around the same time, as there was a surge in figurative artworks, including cave paintings, rock sculptures, and bone, antler and ivory carvings that date from this period.
It has previously been argued that this was due to a change in the human brain (listen to the episode on the Swimming Reindeer carving in the BBC’s series History of the World in 100 objects) but it may well have been that stone age people experienced a form of lockdown sheltering in their caves from the extreme sun.
Perhaps they were already doing these things but now left tangible evidence of it amongst the rocks. Not only did they decorate these places, they also made music and no doubt held ceremonies (or maybe parties) ate, had sex, and left carvings. The time in the caves probably helped bind communities. I am quite envious of the face-to-face socialising they must have had. It may well be that Neanderthals and humans also got it together in the caves as suggested by a jaw bone of part human/neanderthal ancestry that has been found in a Romanian cave, dating from this period. Afterall, a tiny percentage (1.5 to 2.1) of Neanderthal-inherited genetic material is found in all non-African people.
It seems very odd to ask if lockdown can be good for us. Obviously it’s good for our physical health, reducing the levels of covid and deaths in our communities, whilst we wait to be vaccinated. It has undoubtedly done a lot of damage to people’s mental health, not to mention their waistlines. It has ruined a lot of businesses that rely on social interactions. Many people have really struggled with the limitations of life, my parents have not been in a shop since last March. Many people have also struggled with being forced-fed a daily diet of fear by news bulletins. Young people in particular have sufffered during a lockdown that largely protects their elders, not their peers. It can have an upside for creativity. I suspect, however, that that thousands of books, essays, diaries, plays, sketches, paintings, songs, pies, cakes, puzzles, X-box games and even rugs (turquoise or otherwise) have been written, draw, painted, made, read, eaten and listened to during this lockdown. It has been suggested that Shakespeare may well have written Macbeth and then King Lear in plague quarantine. After the boredom and frustration comes creativity.
It’s what makes us human.
Read more about Boredom and Creativity here
Read more about the Adams Event
(The first two include short explainer video clips)
My work recently has undergone two small but important shifts in focus.
The first is a compositional one.
I have decided to revisit some of the “rules” I first used in 2017 when painting my Welsh “Urban Minimal” paintings (see my paintings for my exhibition in the Cardiff MadeinRoath festival here).
My “rules” for composition and painting this project were:- no cars, no people, bright light. There must be shadows – at diagonals if possible and simplified forms – there must be as little detail as possible. I want to explore the interplay of the geometry of shadows and man-made structures – the tension between the 3D buildings and the 2D shadows. Simplified blocks of colour.
I later extended these “rules” to painting the villages of Gower, labelling them (half jokingly) “Rural Miminal” (read more here).
Lately, I have been reflecting on my recent body of work and have realised that many of these ideas got lost in the heady excitment of exploring the new landscape (and skies) of Donegal. Also much of my energy got diverted into recovering from my operation and subsequent recovery after I broke my leg/ankle. I spent several months painting watercolours in my bedroom (as I could not reach my oil paints in the attic)and that led me to think more about composition and simplifying forms.
When I finally made it back to my easel, I could only manage short bursts of paintings so I focused on smaller pieces. The clear blue skies outside my window in Wales may well have influenced my fascination with the weather back in Donegal. Note that my use of colour has changed, they have softened, become more subtle. That’s because both the light and the landscape in Donegal is quite different to Wales. It’s also because I was observing more carefully.
This brings me on to my second shift. Colour. I was always aware that I played around with colour, brightened them just a little, to create cheerful and vibrant works. For many years I painted cheerful paintings when I, myself, was anything but.
Painting saved my sanity after a breakdown and going back to a teaching job that I found stressful. The bright colours were a bit of an emotional crutch, perhaps? I am not sure. They may have also been a result of hastiness/laziness, over-confidence with a dash of insecurity.
But change has been coming for a while. I was aware that I sometimes struggled with getting the colour of distant mountains correct. Often the problem lay in the fact that some of my colours were too strong and they needed softening.
I read somewhere that distant colours needed not blue or purple added into in them (as I had thought) but it’s complementary colour. That’s the colour’s opposite number on the colour wheel.
I bought a colour wheel to try and perfect those muted tones and watched a few videos on painting about tone and value. They didn’t really hit home with me. My colour wheel did not have brown on it, I noticed. I had to look for another one.
My distant hills improved. I held my paint brush up close to reference image more often before I placed it on the canvas. I used to only do that occassionally. Now I was trying to do it all the time. Work was slower as I thought and carefully considered my colours.
I saw a video that reinforced this growing fixation with getting colours exactly right. I saw a video on artist Mitchell Johnson’s Instagram Stories feed. I don’t know who made the video, otherwise I would include it here. I watched many times. Why was watching this clip so fascinating? I was getting excited about watching paint dry!
The tutor had three pieces of coloured card and he mixed the same exact shades of paint so that the paint seemingly “vanished” into the card. The cards were an acidic green, greyish blue and bluish grey. The colour combination he mixed were fascinating as he added colours that I thought were not going work and yet in the end they did (often a dab of orange did the trick). I noticed that he was using a small pallette knife to do the mixing. I ordered some palette knives to mix my paint with too. I have found that I can mix a larger quantity of paint. It means that the colour remains consistent.
The tutor made the comment that his students often asked him “Isn’t this close enough? Will this do?”. “No” he said. That sunk home. I knew I was guilty of thinking “This will do”. No more.
So I set to combining these two “shifts” in thought. The return to simplified forms and the focus on naturalistic/realistic colours.
My first effort was a large painting of the townland of Maghery in Donegal. One or two houses in the middle distant were edited out to simplify the composition. We decided to call this “The Polite houses of Maghery” because they have all been built looking away from each other! My husband says he finds this painting very calming.
I then revisited Gola Island to simplify my compositions futher. I had to resist the impulse the darken the shadows; to strengthen the colour of the pale pink sky, to add lots of yellow and bright greens to the grass. I think the result is also calming. It is ever so less frantic and a bit more chilled than my previous paintings of the island. There are still details, in the tiny reflections and pools of light on the doors and sills. You cannot have colour without light.
I suspect that these paintings better reflect my post-broken-leg state of mind. I go every where slowly and carefully (at the pace of a tortoise, according to my husband). I look at the ground to ensure that I do not trip. I gave up drinking coffee and caffeinated tea to reduce my swollen ankle so I am no longer pepped up on caffeine either. I always am mindful of where my feet are. I am now mindful of my colours too! Slowing down has helped me see colours better.
There are still many challenges to be solved. How will I include clouds in my rural miminal paintings? Will this approach work on a overcast day? Those are problems for another day!
Read more about
PTSD and my art https://emmafcownie.com/2016/04/ptsd-creates-the-need-to-paint/
Me and watercolours https://emmafcownie.com/2020/04/watercolour-painting-2/
My Urban Minimal paintings for the Madeinroath Exhibition https://emmafcownie.com/2017/11/paintings-of-swansea-2/
The Hollowed Community Exhibition https://emmafcownie.com/2017/10/exhibition-swansea-artist-3/
Composition and my work https://emmafcownie.com/2020/02/the-art-of-the-large-landscape-painting/
Coloir Wheel and Colour Mixing
Gola is a Donegal island I painted and thought about long before I set foot on its shores. I have written about it before here. Last month I was fortunate to visit it. The wind had woken me in the night. The early dawn had me awake by 6.30. I felt so tired and my limbs ached that I drank the last can of caffeinated energy drink that was sitting in our fridge (leftover from the epic drive up north).
We drove the 40-minute drive from Burtonport to the little harbour at from Magheragallon Pier, Bunbeg. The final part of our drive was along single-track road across flat grasslands which were home to both a graveyard and a golf course. That sounds grim but there’s plenty of space for both here.
It was the most perfect of days. The sun was shining, the sea was sparkling and flat and the sky was a hazy light blue. The sand was very light, but not white. The sea was incredibly clear and on a clear day like this, you could easily see the seabed, giving the sea a beautiful turquoise colour.
The pier is well set up for waiting travelers with benches and a portaloo. We sat on a bench and waited for Sabba the boatman to give to signal to get on board. Seamas, my husband, tells me that Sabba the boatman has been sailing since aged 7. He has a facebook page here where he will post times of sailings and photos.
It’s only a 15 minutes crossing. As soon as we set foot on the island, I am struck by the sense of peace here. Most of the sounds you are of nature. Birds singing. Sheep bleating. The wind. That’s it.
This is because there are very few motor vehicles here, one or two cars and some tractors.
Gola is in the Donegal Gaeltacht, where many people speak Irish. They are brought up speaking Irish at home and in school. So the signs are in Irish. Some have English translations, but not all did.
In 1911 as many as 169 people lived here but in the 1960s people started leaving as jobs and a better standard of living on the mainland and abroad had a stronger appeal than full-time life on the island. Only a handful of people live here all year round now.
It’s so peaceful. The land is covered vast stretches of long yellow prairie-like grass spotted with rocks and a few sheep and their sturdy lambs. The houses are scattered across the island along tracks.
Some of the houses are modern, others have been renovated and are still lived in during the summer months at least, others are boarded up but many lie ruined, without roofs or reduced to crumbling walls.
It was interesting to see the houses on Gola close up after looking across the water at them from Dunmore strand (see painting below). The houses are spaced much further apart than I supposed them to be. I was not satisfied until I had walked all the way to the southern tip of the island, so I could turn and look back at the houses. In this way, I could make sense of what I saw in early spring.
The houses are close but not that close. All of their front doors face southwards, towards the mainland. Mount Errigal and Muckish are off in the distance. I didn’t realise that you could see Muckish this far south. I suppose I have had never been here on such a clear day before.
I tried to take a photo of two camera-shy woolly donkeys in a field. They took exception to my presence and brayed very loudly at me. I got the message and left them in peace. Even the sheep eye you up, they are not used to strangers. They seem to look at you as if they are saying “You are not our farmer, what are you doing here?”.
Houses facing the mainland
On they way back to the boat we pass the infomation centre – an Teach Beag – its a large shed with tables outside. We are hot and I fancy a cup of tea. I try out the one bit of Irish I know on the man behind the counter “Dia duit” (“Hello”) I say. He then says something back to me which I dont understand. That stumps me. Turns out that he just said “Hello” back to me (“Dia is Muire duit”). I need to get a few more phrases/word in Irish under my belt!
This is Paddy Joe, who is 73 years old and still volunteers for the local lifeboat (training and teaching younger volunteers). It is noticeable how fit and active people in Donegal are, especially the men. We talk in English. I love listening to his accent, Irish is his first language. It’s musical. Part Ulster accent, part something else, something almost Scandinavian. Certainly, of the north. It sort of reminds me of the halting accents of Welsh-speaking farmers in North-Wales, as they seem to trip over their words as they think the right word in English.
Paddy Joe tells a story of going fishing down the Kerry coast and stopping in a pub for a drink. There are Irish speakers there but they do not understand the Irish speakers from Donegal, and the Donegal Irish speakers do not understand them either! I know that its similar in Wales, where Welsh speakers from the North use many different words from those in the West or South.
We decide to catch the 2 o’clock boat back as we have eaten all our sandwiches and the next boat is at 6pm. There is plenty more island to explore on another visit. We haven’t seen the sea arch at Scoilt Ui Dhúgáin, the lake Loch Mhachaire n nGall.
The boat is setting off, when Sabba spots two girls who came across with us at 11am. He returns to shore to pick them up. They get on the boat looking very relieved. They clearly didn’t fancy waiting until 6pm for the last boat back. The sky is starting to cloud over as we cross and by the time we reach Magheragallon Pier it is overcast.
Read more about Gola Island here
My husband, Seamas, loves islands. He’s not alone, many people dream of living on or even owning their own private island. I just love looking at them and painting them. Which is handy, as the coastline of West Donegal is completely smothered with them. Looking out from the coast of Donegal, one of the longest in the country at more than 800 miles, is a bit like looking at the night sky and trying to name as many of the brightest stars as you can. Seamas seems to know most of their names without having to look at a map.
Around the coastline of the island of Ireland, there are 365 small islands, and a good number of those lie off the coast of Donegal. Wikipedia has individual pages for 20 of them, but there are many more than that. I can’t find an exact number. Many islands near the coast are little more than rocks big enough for some seaweed to cling to the edges of, visible only at low tide. Maybe these are just baby islands, islets. How big does a piece of land surrounded by water have to be to be an island, I wonder? If it’s big enough for some grass and a cow it must definitely be an island. There are quite a lot of those near Burtonport. The cows are well known for swimming between the island in search of better grass. I kid you not, it’s common off the coast of Inishcoo – click here for more evidence. I think the association between cows and island grazing is an ancient one as several islands take their names from cows, such as inishbofin (Inis Bó Finne) means island of the white cow and Calf island near Aran Island.
There are also about 100 sea stacks. Are these thin, vertical towers of rocks jutting out of the sea proper islands, I wonder? Slighter bigger and desolate are The Stags, or Stag Rocks, also known as The Three Sons of O’Gorra (Na Trí Mic Ó gCorra) which lie someway to the north of Owey island. Legend says that they were three pagan swimmers who were turned to stone by St. Colmcille the 6th Century missionary, also known as Columba.
Then there are islands that have (or used to have) people living on them. Arranmore is pretty big (8 square miles) and is home to a sizeable community of about 500 people full-time residents. Some islands are easy to get to, such as Cruit, which has road bridge to the mainland, and Arranmore and Tory which have a daily ferry. There are others that have only summer ferry such as Gola and Owey Islands.
There are a lot of islands with no ferry but can be reached relatively easily by boat or kayak such as Inishsirrer, Inishmeane, Edernish, Rutland, Eighter, Inishillintry, Inishinny, and Bo, Go and Allagh, Inishmeane, Inishdooey, Insihbeg, Inishfree Lower but are close-ish to the mainland, and others that are pretty remote, even to people with their own boats such as Umfin, Tororragaun and Raithlin O’Birne and then finally there are the very remote ones are Stags Rocks mentioned above and Roan Inish. Some like Arranmore and Tory are inhabited all year round, others like Owey and Gola are mostly home to people during the summer months.
I love the descriptive names of the islands thus Cruit (An Chruit) means harp-shaped, Owey (Uaigh) means cave as there’s one under the island, Island Roy (Oileán Ruaidh) means Red Island, Inisheeney (Inis éanaigh), bird island and Tory Island, (Toraigh) means High Tower and when you see photos of the island you understand why that is a good description of the island.
I have driven across the little bridge to long Cruit Island and I have boldly reversed my car onto the ferry to Arranmore and back again. I have spent a fair bit of time standing on the shore looking across the water at islands, Owey is a good example of this.
My latest subject for this mainland-based island-gazing is Gola. Its name sounds vaguely sporting, forever muddled in my mind with football and trainers probably because I used to have a pair of Gola gazelle trainers back in the 1990s. The island has nothing to do with trainers or goals. The name Gola, or Gabhla in Irish, means “forked”. If you look at a map of the island the name makes sense. The fork is the split in the west face of the island.
We set off on a sparkling afternoon in early April. The sun is out but it’s cold, with a chilly wind. I’d wear my big wooly hat in the car but the bobble on top is too big and it hits the headlining. So I drive without it on. In order to get to a good look at Gola, we drove past Donegal’s tiny airport at Carrickfinn, along a long single track road. There’s a lovely view of Mount Errigal off in the distance.
The track then rises and winds its way past a series of isolated houses, both and old and modern. The road is a bit threadbare in places, in good condition in others.
We follow the road until we reach a fine modern house overlooking what I’d call a beach, but this sort of long stretch of curving sand is known as a strand in Ireland. I think this is Dunmore Strand (An Tra Bhan). We climb out the car (I leave my window open in my excitement), with hat and gloves on and various cameras slung around our necks and stuffed in jacket pockets. The tide is out so that I don’t realize that the long stretch of dunes reaching to the north of me, is actually part of a tidal island, Inishinny.
The blond sand is strewn with majestic pink granite boulders and rocks. The clear sea is a most beautiful violet and turquoise. I have never seen anything quite like it. We spent a lot of time staring at the water, trying to fix its colour in our memories. The seaweed resting in between cracks in the rocks is a fantastic livid green.
Beyond the dunes is in the distance to the east is Gweedore and the village of Bunbeg and Magheraclogher beach. The terrain is peppered with lots of little white houses, most of them modern. In the opposite direction to the east is a very different landscape.
We have to walk along the sheltered beach and climb across a series of massive rocks to get a better look at the island. The island of Gola seems tantalizingly close, it’s only about half a mile. We can see the ruins of many houses, but also many painted white and with good roofs.
Seamas was very excited to see the island, as there is a possibility that his Donegal Coll forebears may have lived on the island. However, although we know his paternal grandmother originally from the Gaeltacht (Irish speaking area) somewhere in Gweedore, we cannot track her down in the records. There are lots of possibilities but no certainties.
Gola, is a small, very rocky and rather exposed-looking island. Mind you, I was looking at it from across the water, and it is consistently described as “beautiful” by visitors. The silvery quality of the light on the white-washed building nearest the shore certainly caught my eye. I tried to convey the quality of the light in my first painting of the island.
We then clamber across another set of massive pink granite rocks to the headland nearest the island. It is more exposed here. You can get a better look at the houses. I am fascinated by the ribbon of little white-washed houses that look out towards the mainland. They look they were positioned with the prevailing wind (blocked by the hill to the west of them) and company in mind. There is a larger modern house set back from the old cottages.
I wonder whether that belongs to one of the few full-time residents that live on the island. My second painting of Gola, I think give you a sense of just how rocky the island is. The hills and fields are peppered with boulders, rocks and stone walls. The coastline along the south side of the island is a rampart of geometric rocks. No wonder the little harbour is tucked in on the sheltered eastern side of the island.
The island is pretty small. It covers about one square mile (500 acres). Although it seems quite flat in comparison with Aranmore, it is “mildly hilly” on its west side, rising to 238 feet at Cnoc an Choillín and 212 feet at An Mhaol Mhór. These hills provided vital shelter for the houses that stretch along the east side. (Images taken from Google Streetview).
On the other side of the island is as statuesque sea-arch.
Gola was once inhabited by a surprisingly large community of over 200 souls. I looked across at this barren-looking land and wondered how on earth they could grow enough food to survive. Mind you, the land is not as bleak as the tiny fields of west Galway, full of stones. Yet survive they did, thrive even. Vegetables could be grown on the land fertilised with seaweed and turf could be cut from the bog to heat the homes. Many of islanders were fishermen and they would also travel to Scotland for seasonal to work each summer to supplement what they could grow on their small farms. Surprisingly, up until 1920s, the island population continued to grow, but it declined after 1930 and then became deserted in the late 1960s.
Yet, the island was never completely abandoned. Families would come and spend summer months here. Although most of the buildings on the island are derelict, many have been renovated by Gola families as holiday homes. The island now has mains electricity and water supply and a small number of people live on the island all year round.
Being an island the sea sustained island life but it also curtailed it. Bad weather could cut the island off from the mainland, especially in winter. The coast of Donegal frequently faces some very severe weather from the prevailing westerlies and the heaving Atlantic Ocean. Gola was immortalised in the sad lament “Baidin Fheilmidh” (Feilim’s little boat), a song about a Feilim’s bat which sets off for Gola and then Tory but was crushed against Tory island, sinking with poor Feilim in it. There are various versions of this song you can listen online including one by Sinead O’Connor but I think I like this paired back version best, which also has the lyrics in Irish & an English translation here.
There is a ferry service that runs from Bunbeg from June to September. Sabba, the ferryman, also runs facebook page under the name “Gola Ferry Service” and it it is a good idea to check before planning a visit.
We were too early in the year, sadly, to visit by boat. I am pretty sure that Seamas and I will be making a trip to Gola island in July when we are planning to be back in Donegal. We returned home to Burtonport for tea and biscuits to warm up in front of the fire.