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A Donegal Year: Footnote

This is a footnote to Sunday’s post about A Donegal year.

I had been trying to finish it but the weather and the light were so bad here in Wales over the weekend, I had to leave it until Monday. I struggle to see greens in poor light and as the grass at the bottom of the painting was so important to the success of the image, I decided to wait until I could see it.

Donegal painting of house on Arranmore
Rusty Roofed House (Arranmore)

It’s is such a joy to look at the bright blue skies of Donegal and the wonderful clear light.

See it here 

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A Donegal Year

It was a year ago that I painted my first painting of Donegal. Here it is. It is a small one.
Old School, Owey Island
Old School, Owey Island
It’s quite a modest painting. You could say that I started off tentatively. I was feeling my way. The light in Donegal is very clear and the scenery is beautiful. That’s an overused word in this age of social media, but it is beautiful. My husband, Seamas (he likes counting things) tells me that I have painted over 50 Donegal paintings (including 3 commissions). That pretty much averages out at one a week. I am pleased to say that I have already sold over half of them. I discovered that I had to use a different palette from the one that I use in Wales. The greens and yellows were more yellow ochre than lemon yellow and the sea was more turquoise (but not quite as turquoise as I first painted) thanks to the clear water.  I loved the rocky landscape of the Rosses. It was a landscape like no other I’d seen before. Someone has said to me that it’s quite alien, like a moonscape in places. I love the granite rocks. We have a massive one behind our cottage in Donegal. I feel very affectionate towards it. It’s a protective presence, especially when it’s windy. Of course, when you are in a different country to the one you were brought up in, everything seems fascinating. I have loved painting both the modern Donegal houses as well as the old cottages. I will freely admit I am quite obsessed by landscape spotted with old cottages on the Donegal islands, on Arranmore and Gola in particular.
donegal painting of Gola, West Donegal.
Spring Light on Gola
I haven’t really got to grips with the mountains of Donegal. What I mean is that I need to visit them a lot more, walk up them and get to know them better. So far I have just admired the “Seven Sisters”, including Mount Errigal and Muckish from a distance.
Painting of Irish mountain
Swirling Clouds Round Errigal
Of course, the real joy of Donegal is the clouds. The changes skies. I am used to it raining, (I have lived in Wales for over 25 years) but the light is different by the North Atlantic Ocean. It is often more slivery, and more changeable.   I think about Donegal every day when I am in Wales. My husband will place his current favourite Donegal paintings in the bedroom and in the lounge so he can look at them whilst we still have them. Here’s my most recent painting Donegal painting. I am currently working on a painting of Arranmore Island, unfortunately, it rained so much here yesterday, the light went and I have yet to finish it.
Donegal painting
Back Road to Burtonport
 
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Painting the Derryveagh Mountains

Painting the Derryveagh Mountains

Donegal has lots of breathtaking scenery. I love the coast and the old white houses and a lot of my recent paintings have been concerned with depicting a more intimate impression of Donegal. I don’t like to get into a rut, and I will switch subject matter to challenge myself and keep my work “fresh”.

Painting mountains is one way of doing that for me. I have painted three pictures of the Derryveagh mountains since October 2018. They are based on a series of photographs we took on a trip to Horn Head. For an excellent interactive map of the area click here

Horn Head, Donegal
Horn Head, Donegal

I had been worried about driving along precipitous cliff tops and we had parked up and walked up to Horn Head. The view was great but the overcast conditions did not make for particularly good photographs.  We climbed up part of the spongey hill. I call it spongey because every time I put my put on something that wasn’t a rock, it sort of sank into the heather or boggy grass. It was very unsettling. So I leap from rock to rock. From here we took in the strong breeze and could see across to Dunfanghy.

There were also sweeping views across back towards Falcaragh and Bloody Foreland (Cnoc Fola in Irish). What a great name that is, it refers to the colour of the headland, not to some gruesome incident of the past. The light was in the “wrong” direction for decent photos but the view was lovely. 

View Towards Bloody Foreland

On the way back down to Dunfanaghy, the sun broke through the clouds off in the distance, we stopped and Seamas took some pictures. These are the photos the three paintings are based on.

These paintings are quite a commitment, in terms of effort and resources as they are physically large (for me, anyway) and mentally demanding. I usually like to paint bright and quite detailed landscapes. These paintings, in contrast, were an exercise in subtly and knowing when and where to include more or less details.

Donegal painting
Across to Dunfanaghy SOLD

With all of them, I begin with the sky and work my way down the canvas. As with a lot of my work, I use the paint quite thinly and I find this helps keep the clouds feeling “light”. They are just layers of water vapor, after all. The linen canvas  I use is primed with a clear primer so it is brown rather than white in colour. I find this brown works well as a base for dirty looking rain clouds!

My first two paintings I initially painted the distant mountains a range of graduating purples until I stood back and realised that they had to be lightened a lot. I spent a lot of time holding up my paint covered brush next to my reference photograph to compare the shades. I learned that the mountains had a lot of warm grey in them.

Painting of Donegal mountains
Wild Wind Over Dunfanaghy SOLD

The greens of the mid area and the foreground were much easier to gauge although I still visually checked that my tones were correct by holding the paint next to the reference image. The many walls and varying tones of the fields required a great deal of concentration. This was the most detailed part of the painting. I wanted the viewer to look into the distance rather than be distracted by detailed grass in the foreground. So the grass in the foreground is quite flat with only the odd change in colour to hint at roughness.

By the time I had painted the third, most recent, painting in the series, I had learned from experience to keep the colour of the mountains light. The falling rain over the far mountain meant that most of the tones of the grass and bogland were much more muted than in the earlier paintings. There was a lot of greys and purples in the grass and gorse.

Each of the three paintings, although they are of a similar view, each has quite a different feel to it. They remind me how on some days you can stand and watch the light and colours change second by second in Donegal as the clouds move and showers sweep in from the west. The last one does that the most. I think my next challenge will be to paint a mountain scene without any houses at all, just sky and mountain and resist the urge to add detail! 

Rain over Dunfanaghy
Rain over Dunfanaghy SOLD)

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The Cottages of Donegal

Cottages of Donegal, Ireland
Donegal painting of Owey Island
Owey in Late Spring

I love the Donegal islands for their peace and quiet. Oh, the relative absence of cars, the abundance of nature but I particularly love their houses. You may have noticed that I painted quite a few of them, lately; lovely long strings of houses.

Donegal Painting of Inishbofin
Across to Inishbofin SOLD

I love their simple clean lines. I enjoy the old-style aesthetic. In Donegal, houses were whitewashed and woodwork was painted red. You still see a few houses like this. Sometimes you might see one with a thatched roof. Usually, their thatch has been replaced with tiled roofs.

Traditional Donegal House
Traditional Donegal House (with a thatched roof)

When is a house a cottage? When it’s small and old and hand-built by its inhabitant, I suppose. In England, the term cottage originates from the Anglo-Saxon term for the peasant or “cottar”, in Irish the word for these houses is “teachin” or “teach beag” which means small house. You can watch a short film on how to say “teach” in Irish here, you may think that word looks like an English word, but it’s pronounced very differently in Irish.

Cottages literally grew out of the landscape that surrounded them. It stands to reason that in the past homes were built from local materials. If the stones and wood had to be carried by donkey or man-power it wasn’t likely to come from very far away. Stone would predominantly be used in coastal and rocky areas, muddy clay in the midlands and even turf in boggy areas.

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Photographs of a Gweedore cottage by James Glass

Cottages came in different sizes; from the tiny laborer’s cottage or Bothán Scóir (a one-roomed house with mud floors and often not even a window); the byre dwelling (a slightly larger cottage that was shared with the animals) to the thatched mansions – two-storey thatched farmhouses that were often extended from single-storey cottages as the occupants become wealthier.

In Donegal  “direct entry” houses were typical, where the front door open directly into the room with the fireplace. The most popular form of cottage is that with the living area at the center with the hearth fireplace and a bedroom on either end.

The fireplace or hearth usually formed of stone and located at the center of the house with a bedroom behind it to further absorb the heat. Most families lived in a single room. 

Traditional large fireplace (Kerrytown< Donegal)
Traditional large fireplace (Kerrytown, Donegal)

 

Interior of cottage with family. Aran Islands, Co. Galway, c. 1900
Interior of cottage with family. Aran Islands, Co. Galway, c. 1900
 
Note the bed by the fire
Note the bed by the fire

 

In rural Ireland, they did not usually own the land it stood on.  This is why landlords could evict tenants for non-payment of rent (usually, if they wanted to replace people with more profitable sheep), even those the occupants had built those houses themselves. In the case of  John George Adair of Gleanveagh, he had the houses pulled down after the tenants were thrown out! This was common eviction practice.  Anyone who has seen the excellent film Black 47 will know that this practice, could and did, lead to the death of old and frail tenants  in winter. 

Painting of Donegal, Arranmore
Over to the Rosses (Donegal, Ireland) SOLD

 

Houses were designed through necessity.  The general rule was that the front door of the cottage faced south, to shelter the house from the prevailing westerly winds. Windows were small in order to retain heat in the winter and to keep cool in the summer. Ground floor windows usually faced to the south, not on the gable ends.

Meadow Cottage
Meadow Cottage – note the first-floor window in the gable end

There were often small windows on the first floor of the gable walls where there were loft accommodations. The walls of a cottage were typically about 600mm thick to support the roof and beams, this led to the attractive deep window reveals found in most cottages.

IMG_2439
Cottage with outhouse (Gweedore)

You may have noticed that many old Irish houses are not one single unified block, but are made up of several extensions, a kitchen at the back, an extra room to the side. Homes were enlarged when money was available. Often this money was earnt far away from home as hardship forced family members to look for seasonal work far away in Derry, Tyrone or even in Scotland.

Donegal painting house Gola
A House on Gola SOLD

Modern houses in Donegal, like modern houses in most places, are comfortable, spacious with plenty of windows. Older people, here as elsewhere, I suspect prefer bungalows for their lack of stairs.

New Houses, Letterkenny, Donegal
New Houses, Letterkenny, Donegal

Yet, there is still a space for the old style.  On Cruit Island there is a holiday village of new-build holiday homes in the “old” style.

 

They are single story with thatched roofs but they are large, comfortable, and furnished with wooden rocking chairs, and folksy bedspreads. They also have a beach a stone’s throw away. Obviously, there are real old houses you can stay in on Cruit Island too.

Donegal painting of thatched cottage, Ireland
Donegal thatched cottage #2 SOLD

I sometimes wonder if I am painting a “fake” version of Ireland. I am giving the impression that all of Donegal is covered in little quaint white houses? It isn’t, but they are there. Especially in the Rosses and on the islands. Not all of the houses are quaint in  North-West Ireland; the “bungalow blight” that affects parts of Donegal has been commented on by others.  I suppose I am drawn to the clean lines of the old houses.

Painting of Irish Cottage in Donegal
On the Way to Arranmore (SOLD)

This is a theme I have explored in a different context, previously. A couple of years ago I explored the “Hollowed Community” of Brynmill and painted the Edwardian terraces that surround my home in Swansea. I was also interested in a lost community. The old way of life (pre-internet) that is fast vanishing, where your neighbors lived next to you for years, not for weeks or just the summer months. 

Donegal painting of Owey Island
Owey Island (SOLD)

 

See available paintings of Donegal 

To find out more about the history of the Irish cottage see the links below

http://www.askaboutireland.ie/reading-room/history-heritage/folklore-of-ireland/folklore-in-ireland/vernacular-architecture/The%20Irish%20Cottage/

https://www.irishamericanmom.com/the-thatched-cottage-as-a-symbol-of-ireland/

Why do irish cottages have so few windows? 

https://www.nihe.gov.uk/Documents/Community/traditional_buildings

Irish Cottage History

 Places you can visit

http://www.glenfolkvillage.com/

https://www.museum.ie/en-IE/Museums/Country-Life/Exhibitions/Hearth-and-Home

Doagh Famine Village

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Gola Island – Oileán Ghabhla

Donegal Painting of Gola
Donegal painting of Gola Island
Oileán Ghabhla (Donegal) SOLD

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.

Gweedore from Magheragallon (Machaire Gathlán)
View of Gweedore from Magheragallon (Machaire Gathlán)

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.

Magheragallon Pier
“The Cricket” at Magheragallon Pier (Machaire Gathlán)

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.

Fisherman off Gola
Fisherman off Gola

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.

Gola
Gola Pier

This is because there are very few motor vehicles here, one or two cars and some tractors.

IMG_2711
A fine red tractor

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.

Gola is part of the Gaeltachta - an Irish speaking area of Donegal.
Gola is part of the Gaeltacht

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.

Boat for Sale on Gola
Boat for Sale on Gola

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.

Houses on Gola
Houses on Gola
Houses on Gola
Houses on Gola

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.

donegal painting of Gola, West Donegal.
Spring Light on Gola

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.

Gola - View Towards the South West
Gola – View Towards the South West

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?”.

Donkeys on Gola
Donkeys on Gola – No photos please!
Port an Chruinn
Port an Chruinn
Cottage to Let
Cottage to Let

Gola 2

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.

Some of the few trees on Gola
Some of the few trees on Gola

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.

Clear Seas off Gola
Clear Seas off Gola (Bloody Foreland in the distance)

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.

Donegal painting Gola
A House on Gola SOLD

Read more about Gola Island here