Someone told me that once we got to Ireland, “it will be like being on holiday everyday!” Hmmm, I have had some pretty eventful holidays in the past. Funny how the disasters are more memorable that the sunny easy holidays. Let me see. Here are three that come to mind; we once got flooded in a campsite in Yorkshire, had a sleepless night holding on to the tent during a gale at a campsite in the South of France, and finally we drove a tempermental campervan around Ireland a decade ago. It only started some of the time. A helpful Polish guy got it started very early in the morning so we could catch the ferry in Wexford.
So far, this “holiday-everyday-life” is proving to be pretty good (that’s a English understatement, by the way). There were quite a few “bumps” to start with, however. A lot of things seem to go wrong at the same time. At first we could not get into the studio, as the door lock was jammed, then one of our dogs, little Mitzy had a stroke (the vets was over an hour’s drive away), Bingo the cat got lost and finally the toilet flooded and we couldn’t use it for several days.
The studio makers sent someone all the way from County Tyrone to replace the lock so we could get in! The vets kept Mitzy in over the weekend and thank to a pile of drugs and lots of basket-rest, she has recovered well. Her balance isn’t great and her head is at a permanent tilt but she chase after the ball again and is still telling us what to do.
Ann Marie at Burtonport Animal Rescue put out a notice on their facebook page, asking people to look out for Bingo, and it was shared many times. She gave us useful advice and support too.
Thankfully, Bingo came home late at night, after the traffic had died down. The flooding toilet issue is more complicated, has been solved for the time being but will need some more work in future. Don’t ask me to explain it.
We had a heatwave with unprecedent temperatures of 30 degrees celsius soon after we arrived. This was very unexpected and I had thrown out a lot of my clothes during the move and I only had one summer dress. Fortunately, I did have bathers so we could go for a swim in the sweathering heat. That was fantastic. The water was crystal clear and surprisingly warm (or not as cold as I thought it would be).
As for painting. That was bit more difficult. I was not able to paint for two months as I was either helping un/packing up the house, paints were packed away or I was just too exhausted to do anything. I knew it was going take a while to find my painting groove again as I needed to recover my energy levels and adjust to a new location. I am very fussy about arranging my paints and the position of my easel and it took a while sort things out to my satisfaction. It took longer than I thought but I am getting there now.
What do I love about Donegal? The way it looks and sounds. Everytime we take a trip into the nearest town of Dungloe, to post a painting or to do our food shopping, I marvel at the views. At night, when I awake, I listen to the slience. I find it so relaxing. I had had enough of the noise of city life. Donegal is so beautiful too. There is so much abundant nature on our door step, quite literally under our feet. The length of the west coast of Ireland is called the Wild Atlantic Way, and it really is wild in every sense.
A carpet of Flowers at Gweedore
The weather is very mercurial. I thought I was used to rainy weather, living in Swansea in Wales, but this is something else. I may awake to thunder and downpours, but by lunchtime the sun is shining and the sky is full of fluffy clouds. Sometimes it may rain, the sun will come out and then it rains again, all in the space of ten minutes. Today, we are in the midst of a gale, that no one has seen fit to name, with 50 mile-per-hour winds. Standing outside in the buffeting winds is surprisingly envigorating. I think its the negative ions.
It may be grey all all day or the sun might come out in a bit. Passing a window, I might be struck by the beauty of the clouds. Sometimes I point them out to Seamas, or take a photo. Often just drink them in. I hope I never stop marvelling at them.
Come and Visit
We are now in a position to receive visitors to our private gallery, at the rear of Meadow Cottage, on a appointment only basis. We ask that social distancing is observed and that masks are worn inside the gallery.
Please call either our mobile no.s +44 782757 4904 or
+353 87963 5699 or landline +353 74 959 1593 to book a viewing.
My leg and ankle are recovering from my accident this springand although I can walk a faster than I used to, I still cannot walk long distances which means that a lot of my favourite Gower walks are off limits to me. I find staying indoor too much isn’t good for my mental health (especially during the Pandemic) and it is vital to get out and see different places nearby. Fresh air is good for the soul, the mind and more importantly it blows away the virus!
This blog is about a very short road trip around parts of the Penrice estate down to Oxwich Bay we did this week. My husband drove and I took the photographs. Penrice Castle was built by the Mansel Talbots. They were one of the most powerful families in South Wales and certainly one of its biggest resident landowners and MPs for Glamorgan in the Victorian era. The “new” Castle at Penrice was built by Thomas Mansel Talbot in the 1770s, as an alternative residence to the rambling old house at Margam. Thomas, who had travelled to Euope and considered himself a man of great taste had a neo-classical villa built. He also had the land around the house landscaped and a park laid out to improve the romantic scenery that had first attracted him to the place. His son, Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot, who was born at Penrice in 1803, modernised the old Aberavon Port and renamed it (modestly) Port Talbot as an industrial hub for South Wales. The house at Margam was also pulled down and a new mansion was built there between 1827 and 1830 near the ruins of the old abbey.
I will the road trip start with a map. All road trips need a map. There is an excellent map of Gower at Mapsta here. Our trip starts at the top left hand side of the map where a lane turns a sharp left from the A4118 road down a narrow single track lane. A word of warning if you fancy this road trip. This is not a trip for a large vehicle. Most of the lanes are single track and are very narrow. We spent most of it praying that we did not meet any thing coming the other way, and we drive a tiny Kia, as it would have possibly meant a ggod deal of reversing! Thankfully we didn’t.
We saw people. There were not too many but enough to watch. There was even a small wedding party having their photos taken on the beach off in the distance. It was heartening to see people managing to commit to a future together come what may! It must have been next to impossible planning their day as we have had a national lockdown, a local lockdowns and a mini-firebreak and there are rumours of another lockdown after Christmas.
On the way back home, we continue anti-clockwise on our loop back up a steep hill to the main road past Underhill Cottage. It was originally the Head Gamekeeper’s cottage. It has a lovely, sunny position overlooking the beautiful Oxwich Marsh and the sea with Nicholaston Woods behind. These days it is a holiday cottage. It is possibly one of the few sorts of holidays you could be confident of not getting cancelled these days (if you live locally, that is).
Buy my book “Footnotes: An Artist’s Walk around the Gower Coast” here
Rhossili Bay is a vast beach. The beach is 3 miles long. Photos do not do it justice.
A number of landsmarks are frequently photographed (and painted) along this great expanse – Worms Head the tidal island that stretches along at the Southern end of the bay, the old rectory that looks out from the middle of the shelf above the beach and in the midst of the sand, the Wreck of the Heletiva. If you look very closely at the photo above you might just be able to make it out.
Need help? It’s the group of shark-like fins that are poking out of an impossibly small pool in the midst of the sand. The Helvetia sank into the sand over 130 years ago and only her stubs of her wood ribs remain.
From on top of the Rhossili cliffs, it looks tiny. I have only been down onto the beach to visit it once. It’s usually surrounded by people photographing it.
A quick online search will turn up many, many images of this wreck close up; some with shadows, others with reflections, lots with beautiful sunsets, and a few stunners with starry skies. I don’t know how they arrange it when more than one photographer wants to take a photo at sunset?
She is surprisingly small. These remains must be just the “nose” of her bow. I am very taken with how organic she is. She is made of greenish rotting wood. Presumably being underwater for long parts of the day means that she is only rotting very slowly. Up close, the rotted bow looks dragon-like. The iron nails that protrude from the wood are like the teeth of the beast. The rust from the iron colours the wood orangey-red. Red and green, the colours of Wales.
I wanted to find out more about this ship. What did she look like before she sank? Did anyone die? Why was she called Helvetia?
I discovered that The Helvetia had been a Norwegian barque, which is a kind of sailing ship. She had been built in 1855 and registered at the port of Bremerhaven (in modern-day Germany). She had sailed from New Brunswick, on the East coast of Canada in late October 1887. Although the sea around the Gower coast seems tame in comparison with the wild North Atlantic off Donegal, the coastline has seen the demise of many ships over the centuries. The Helvetia was caught in bad weather and hit the dangerous sandbank of Helwick Sands. She was then swept around Worm’s Head and into Rhossili Bay. Her captain decided to drop anchor but the galeforce wind meant her anchor was ripped free from the sand and she was wrecked on the sands of Rhossili beach. Fortunately, no lives were lost.
During the following weeks, her cargo of timber was collected from the beach and gathered for auction sale. The wreck itself was sold to a local man, who intended to strip the precious copper keel from the vessel but before he got the chance, the Helvetia sank into the sand. Local legend says that he had to settle for salvaging the ship’s deck boards!
I tried to find a photo of the Helvetia before she sank and I discovered that there are many ships that have born that name in the past and in also in the present day. Here are some examples.
This got me wondering why Helvetia was such a popular name for ships. What did it mean anyway? So I did a bit of research and found out that Helvetia was the personification of Switzerland, like Britannia, is for Britain, Marianne for the French Republic, or Erin is for Ireland. So why were Norwegians naming their ship Helvetia? It seems I was totally on the wrong track here.
I did some research and I found that Hel is also an Old Norse word. It has several meaning. It could mean “Hel” who in Norse mythology was a goddess who ruled the underworld, Helheim, or Hel. Hel-Víti thus means “Hell-torment”. That would be a great name for a Viking ship, I think. Hel, however, also means luck which is possibly a better name for a ship, especially as sailors are incredibly superstitious people. If you made your living on the changeable sea you’d be very superstitious too. On a tangent, it was apparently customary among Vikings to say “hell og lykke” (luck and happiness) when they met. This is supposedly were English speakers get the greeting “hello” from.
Anyway, I had assumed that there was a rule that only one ship at a time could bear a particular name – like the Ark Royal, but it could be reused again and again. No so. There were many other ships in the C19th with the name Helvetia – more than one of these ships were passenger ships that took people who wanted to emigrate to the USA, another Norwegian ship, SS Helvetia spent much of the 1870s & 1880 steaming across the Atlantic from Liverpool to New York. Conditions must have been poor as there was a cholera outbreak on one of these voyages in 1866 and the ship was forced to return to Liverpool.
I found another Norwegian ship called Helvetia, operating across the Atlantic in this period. On the “Noway Heritage” website this ship is described as a Bark (Barque) like the Rhossili ship. This ship was also built in Bremerhaven, but in 1858 not 1855, and was wrecked in 1888, not 1887. I don’t know if this is the same ship as the Rhossili wreck. Quite possibly. There is an online passenger list for the Bark Helvetia from her 1861 voyage from Germany to New York here, and you can see the names of the framers and skilled-labourers who were looking for a new life in the United States. According to the “Norway Heritage” website, the Bark Helvetia also sailed to Quebec, in Canada, on a regular basis. She also sailed to Swansea twice in 1866. This Canadian link makes me think that it is the same ship. She regularly sailed from Norway taking hundreds of passengers presumably looking for a new life in Canada in the 1860s (you can see the passenger list here). Incredibly, between 1825 and 1925, more than 800,000 Norwegians immigrated to North America—that’s about one-third of Norway’s population! Most of them immigrated to the US, and lesser numbers immigrating to Canada. Hunger and poverty pushed them to leave their homes. The voyage must have been grim beyond belief. In 1861 a ship called the Helvetia, possibly not the Rhossili ship, is recorded as carrying 344 passengers in steerage from Drammen (Haagensen)but by the time they arrived in Canada, there had been five deaths. Looking at the other ships that arrived in Canada in that summer, smallpox, and measles were also rife on board the crowded ships. Deaths were not uncommon.
Later on in the 1870s the Helvetia sailed from London and then Truro, in Cornwall. I am guessing that she took English passengers to North America and brought timber back to Europe. This intrigued me. Distant relatives of mine left Scotland in the 1860s and started a new life in the States, setting up a successful business selling furs in snowy Des Moines, Iowa. Perhaps they traveled on a ship like the Helvetia? Interestingly, many Norwegians settled in Iowa too.
For a sea-faring nation, Britain has preserved precious few sailing ships from the past. The Helvetia (and her many namesakes) deserves to be remembered as one of the thousands of ships that played a role in the mass migration of peoples from Western Europe to North America in the 19th century. She may have met her end on in the sands of a Welsh beach, but she had been a workhorse of the North Atlantic and it was very fortunate that her final cargo was timber and not people. It seems very fitting that this Scandinavian ship lies on the sands of Rhossili Bay. As behind her off to in the distance another dragon, the Wurm, or Worms Head stretches across the horizon. Wurm is a Viking word. It means “dragon”.
The Wreck Of The Helvetia, Rhossili, Gower
Footnote October 2022
I was contacted by Sam Zhang who had an image of a model that was made of the Helevtia in her hayday It is a cut out from The Illustrated Times news paper in German, dated 6th August 1859. unfortunately the article it is for is cut out and most likely lost. I am very grateful to Sam for sending me this image.
Here is my latest Donegal painting. I am delighted that it will be going to its new home in California, USA, very soon.
A narrow lane curves down to a shining white cottage and outbuilding and to the right. This is not a public road but a lane to the house, just around the bend. Here it is bathed in glorious winter light. The low sun creates long dark shadows along the lane. The sheep look up, they are not used to strangers (not like the sheep on the Gower that barely give visitors a second glance). On the horizon, you can make out the tiny but distinctive shapes of Muckish and Errigal mountains . You can just make out a line of fence posts that lead down towards the small natural harbour that gives its name to this place: Poll Na Mbadaí or Poolawaddy. The meaning of Poolawaddy (also spelled Pollawaddy) is often disputed. In irish Poll a Mhadaigh, could mean Poll – the harbour, a Mhadaigh – of dogs or Poll na mbadaí, Poll – the harbour, na mbadaí – of the boats. I suspect that the harbour of the boats is more likely, as it is a natural harbour and pier, but I could be wrong. I only have a basic understanding of Irish but I like to try and read it because place names are very descriptive (as they are in Welsh too) and often poetic. A harbour of dogs is just as possible, after all, there are tiny islands nearby named Calf, Duck and Gull Island.
It feels like it has taken me 7 months to get here. The last painting I finished just before I broke my leg in eraly March was also a painting of this area (see below). It has taken me so long to recover my “painting stamina” and gradually paint larger canvases (although some artists would not consider 80×60 cm “large”). I don’t think I will go any larger for now. I feel exhausted after finishing a large painting these days.
I like to understand what it is that I am painting, to get a sense of its history and the people who live/d there. I might call a building an “outhouse” for example but very often that building was once a family home, a newer bigger one having been built next to it. It matters to me to know that. It helps me make sense of a place. I only know only a little about the History of Arranmore, however, so what I have written here has been taken from articles I have found online (I have included links and a list of websites at the end).
Life on the east side of Arranmore Island, where Pollawaddy is located, is marginally easier than on the west side. This is because Cnoc an Iolair, the highest peak on the island (reputedly once home to golden eagles), provides relative shelter from the prevailing westerly Atlantic winds. This side of the island certainly seems more sheltered, gentler.
After the Protestation plantation in the 17th century, Arranmore Island, Donegal’s largest island, like other large parts of West Donegal, had been given to the English Lord Conyngham. However, when the terrible potato blight leading to the Great Hunger (“an Gorta Mór”, in Irish) spread during in the mid-1840s he declared the island, which he had never set foot on in his life, as unprofitable and sold it to a Protestant man John Stoupe Charley of Finnaghy, Belfast on 29 June 1849. The new landlord came to live on the island, building a “Big House” (now the Glen Hotel) after 1855 just down the road from Poolawaddy. Very near Poolawaddy, RIC police barracks were built, presumbably built around at the same time to protect the landlord’s property. Interestingly, the RIC left the island after about 40 years and there is still no police station on the island (although the Guards do visit on a regular basis).
Landlord Charley decided to clear as many starving tenants off the land, so he demanded them to present the receipts of their rent payments or face eviction. Of course, few if any had been given written receipts, let alone kept them since most of them could not read or write. The choice they were faced with was either the poor house in Glenties or to emigrate to America in a ‘coffin ship’. Many of these subtenants were evicted in 1847 and 1851. Many who made it into the new world settled on ‘Beaver Island’ (Lake Michigan, USA ). The two islands are twinned. The Árainn Mhór & Beaver Island Memorial, built in 2000, and the sign that Beaver Island is 2,750 miles away, is a memorial to this link. Many of the first islanders who emigrated to Beaver Island were from Poolawaddy. Evictions carried on after John Charley’s death in 1879, when his widow Mary and his brother Walter Charley MP were left to manage his lands. The British government even sent a gunboat, “Goshawk” in 1881 to “assist … the serving of ejectment processes on the tenants in the island of Arranmore”!
The Islanders who left for America emigrated permanently, but seasonal emigration was a more common feature of island life, with many young people working as labourers for farmers in the Lagan, a fertile area in northwest Ulster, and also in Scotland as ” tattiehokers” for the summer. Rósie Rua was one such youngster. She was born in 1879 and was reared on Aranmore Island by her mother and her step-father, the Butcher. In adult life, she gained renown as the best traditional singer in Aranmore and wrote a memoir of her life with the help of Padraig Ua Cnaimhsí. Unfortunately, the memoir seems to be out of print, but I could read some sections of it on google.books.
In her memoir she describes how at aged nine she was hired out to farmers in the Lagan. Her family home was not far from Poolawaddy and she describes catching the boat to Scotland to work as a farmworker or ” tattiehoker” for the summer. She wrote that “the steamer had dropped anchor off Calf Island, and we saw the boats pulling out from the shore with their passengers. In no time at all, we were all down at Pollawaddy ourselves and one of the small boats brought us out. Lily was the name of the steamer.I was amazed at the size of her…just about a hundred passengers in all boarded the Lily at Calf Island.”
Rósie Rua has a singing festival, Féile Róise Rua held in her name on Arranmore. The first was held in 2019. Sadly the pandemic distrupted the 2020 festival. The festival went online on facebook and you can watch some of the performers here. Fingers crossed the next one can go ahead in 2021! I will leave you will a clip of Jerry Early singing “I’ll Go” (5.55 onwards). Just look at the view out of his window!
Watercolours are not usually my thing but circumstances have changed that, for the time being. When I came out of the hospital after my operation to fix my broken left leg, I knew that I going to off my feet for at least 6 weeks. I also knew that it would probably take another 2 to 3 weeks to be fully mobile again. I had all sorts of vague ideas about oil painting again but when I got home I realised that they were hopelessly impractical. My house is full of steep and narrow stairs, so that meant I was going to pretty much confined to my bedroom.
My husband, Séamas, went to a lot of effort to set up the bedroom ready for me. He dismantled the round kitchen table and reassembled it in the bedroom. He also brought up an armchair and two dining chairs for me to sit on and rest my recovering leg on. The table is not very big so that means that the only sort of paint I can hope to use in this limited space are watercolours.
I have a love-hate relationship with watercolours. They are portable and come in cute little boxes but they are the least forgiving of all mediums. If you make a mistake it shows. I used to dabble in them many years ago but I always prefered to use acrylics, oil pastels and oil paints, because with all of those mediums you can scrape back or paint over mistakes. Not so with watercolours. They show you up are the second-rate artist you fear you are!
In my first efforts with the watercolours I used them in pretty much the same way I always had done.
Whilst I was reasonably happy with the foliage and grass in the picture, I thought the sky was too muddy.
I decided I needed some technical help. So I got Séamas to go up to the attic and dig out my tiny Collins Gem book on Watercolour Tips by Ian King. What a marvel this book is!
It has many excellent pointers on mixing watercolour paint, making washes, the translucent nature of some colours, as well as the importance of simplifying the composition.
So I took these points on board, in particular the importance of simplifying the image. I realised that less is more. It changed what I painted. I was much happier to edit my compositions in a way that I don’t usually in my oil paintings. So I decided to simplify my compositions as much as possible and paint a series of studies of the houses on Gola Island.
I was cautious, however, of unintentionally taking on another artist’s style of painting. I wanted the skills but not the style. I didn’t want to paint like these watercolourists, I wanted to paint my way, but in watercolours. I also wanted to keep the paint as “light” possible to keep the painting looking fresh and airy.
Gola Houses (watercolor)
It might sound odd, but I wasn’t familiar with the properties of the colours in my paint-box. Blue watercolour paints act differently to blue oil paints. I needed to experiment and learn how they were different.
In the end, to help me understand what each colour could do I painted each one on a piece of paper so I could look at it when deciding which color to use. This helped me enormously.
I also struggled with how to paint a “simple” wash for some time. One online artist recommended mixing up a lot of paint so that it was “like tea”. This did not do the trick for me. I was reassured by another artist that washes were actually pretty tricky and some colours were harder to use than others. I found this reassuring. I helped me keep perservering. There’s nothing like someone saying “Oh, but it’s easy” to make you want to give up when it’s not easy!
Eventually, after a conversation with my mother (who was a keen water colourist), I tried a different brush and also several pots of water. One to rinse my brush in, the others to dip my brush into before I put it in the watery paint mix. That seemed to work for me. I felt slightly more in control of the process and my skies were less lumpy.
I have a long way to go but I am lot happier with my paintings and I hope that I can use these skills to paint “en plein air” when my leg is better it is safe to go outside again, whenever that will be. Until then, I will keep practicing!
Post Office at Baile Ailean
I would like to thank Séan Ó Domnhaill for the use of his photographs of the red-roofed Post Office on the Outer Hebrides and the Isle of Lewis.
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.
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 History 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 and the Rebecca Riots), but quite 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. Maybe 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
I am just going to post the photo of this woodland painting, it seemed to take all week to paint. I kept rushing out to take photos of the woods in the glorious (but worryingly warm) February sunshine we had early in the week, so I sort of lost my usual rhythm with the painting. Still, I doubled down and worked hard and I am pleased with the final result.
The clouds of pinkish trees off in the distance are hundreds of hazelnut catkins, catching the light. What I love about this ancient woodland is that, although its managed, and trees are cut back, and paths kept clear, fallen trees are allowed to rot in place. I have painted at several fallen (and falling), trees in this composition. Three lie in the stream, the other reaches across the canvas in an arc.
I’ll let you into a secret. I have been known to hug a mossy tree. They are like nature’s sofas. they are soft and springy. They provide so much for the eco-system. Mosses, lichens, ivy, and fungi grow on their surface and the creviced bark provide homes for hundreds of insects. The dying trees send nutrients back into their roots, passing on to their neighbors (who are usually their offspring). In our urban lives, we are insulated and somewhat shut off from the ebb and flow of natural life. My visits to the woodland remind me that life and death are constantly happening and that release from one form of life provides life for others. Don’t believe all that hype about “survival of the fittest”, nature is more sophisticated than that. It is all about balance, no one species rules the woodland, thousands live, cooperate and thrive here.
Here’s a fascinating TED talk about how trees communicate.
I like to explore nooks and crannies and I usually use a map to help me. This way I can find interesting scenes to paint. I love looking at maps but I didn’t have one in Donegal. I thought I’d get one with the hire car but instead we were given a Stat Nav (Satellite Navigation). You can’t spend hours looking at the lay of the land on a Stat Nav. It spent the holiday in the boot of the car. I thought we’d get one in a filling station but in Ireland you don’t fill up your own car and wander into the garage shop to look at car related stuff and packets of sweet, you have a friendly young chap filing your car up for you! We sort of knew where we were going. My husband, Seamas, had spent hours “driving” down the roads and lanes of Donegal on Street View Google.
So, in the spirit of adventure I turned off the coast road, which runs from the airport to Dungloe, in search of the sea. The roads are narrow but fortunately we didn’t meet anyone coming the other way. After following an undulating single track road, it widened out and then seemingly vanished over a hill into the sea. I didn’t fancy doing a lot of reversing so I parked up to explore on foot. Over the other side of the rise was the beach. It was low tide. The track I’d been on ran down to beach and then started up again on a island on the other side of the beach.
This is Fall Island and it is only 300 metres long. There is only one lone house on the island. The house was shut up for the winter.
I was fascinated by the rocky landscape and the houses perched on the rocks. These rocks are made of granite. Granite is an igneous rock which it was once magma which crystallised as it cooled down. It’s a dense and useful rock. It can be cut, carved and shaped. It is also resistant to water and pollution.
The granite rocks along the coastline are massive. Monumental. Their edges smoothed by the sea and the wind.
I am very excited to have an article in today’s Irish Independent on Sunday about me and work by Niall McMonagle. Below is my expanded Q & A interview that was much edited to feature in Niall McMonagle’s What Lies Beneath feature . It’s interesting to see that the online version had a different […]
This is the second part of my expanded Q & A interview with Niall McMonagle of the Sunday Independent. Read part one here This section is more about how I work, my style and influences. Q: How do you choose your places to paint? And is there a particular time of year that […]
I am delighted to have another of my painting adapted for a novel cover by an Irish writer. This time my painting “Cottage on Bunbeg Harbour” (2019) has been used for the Spanish translation of Donal Ryan’s “Strange Flowers” or rather “Flores Extrañas”. I have started reading the original and I am thoroughly enjoying it. […]
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 […]
New Work & Recent Sales
Washing Line, Arranmore _Emma Cownie
Inishcoo (To The Fore of Arranmore) – Emma Cownie
Kinnagoe Bay (Inishowen, Dongal)
Over Glenlough Bay, Donegal-Emma Cownie
Still, On Gola (Donegal)
An Port, Donegal_Emma Cownie
House on Ishcoo, Donegal-Emma Cownie
On Rutland Island, Donegal -Emma Cownie
Spring on THree Cliffs Bay, Gower_Emma Cownie
Sun on the Reeds (Glentornan, Donegal)-Emma Cownie
View from the Pier (Portnoo)-Emma Cownie
From Port to Glenlough (Donegal)
Fishing Boat at Port Donegal-Emma Cownie
Portnoo Pier, Donegal_Emma Cownie
Down to Rossbeg Pier, Donegal
Errigal reflection (Donegal) _Emma Cownie
Errigal from Cruit Island. Donegal _ Emma Cownie
Over to Fanad Lighhouse (Donegal) _Emma Cownie
Errigal painting – A Commission 2022
From Arranmore (Donegal)- Emma Cownie
Abanoned (Glentornan, Donegal) -Emma Cownie
Ferry Home (Arranmore, Donegal) by Emma Cownie
Summer Morning on Pobbles Bay
On the Way to Kinnagoe Bay (Drumaweer, Greencastle)
Down to Doagh Strand (Donegal)-Emma Cownie
Lambing Season at Fanad Head
Fanad Lighthouse (Donegal)
Down to the Rusty Nail
Carrickabraghy Castle, Inishowen
Upper Dreen_Emma Cownie
Portmór Beach, Malin Head, Donegal
Down to the Rusty Nail, Inishowen
The Walls of Derry
Painting of Derry City
Derry Walls by Emma Cownie
Shipquay Gate by Emma Cownie
Over to Owey Island (Keadue) Donegal
Lighting the way to Arranmore
Old Stone Cottage in front of Errigal (Donegal
Boat at the Pier, Gola
House on Inishbofin, with distant Seven Sisters (in studio)