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The Road by the Loch, Ireland

Landscape Painting of Donegal Ireland by Emma Cownie

A while back I came across a quote on the internet that has stuck in my mind:- “If I knew the world was to end tomorrow, I would still plant an apple tree today.” I was quite struck by this sentiment, especially in the light of current events.
I could not remember who said it. So I did some research. I was intrigued by what I discovered online. I found a number of statements:-

  1. It was originally said by Martin Luther, a 16th century German monk yoJyC
  2. It was originally said by Martin Luther King Jnr, the 20th century African-American Civil Rights Campaigner. NzGsK
  3. It wasn’t said by 1) or 2)!

This puts me in mind of one of my favourite internet memes by that teller-of-truth Abe Lincoln…
Lincoln-quote-internet-hoax-fake
Just joking!
The apple seed quote apparently originates in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, in the Protestant Confessing Church, which used it to inspire hope and perseverance during its opposition to the Nazi dictatorship.
To be honest, it doesn’t matter who said or when (although there’s a lesson about taking things at face value there) because I like the sentiment. No matter how dreadful things seem, they will pass. Eventually.
Here is my apple seed for this week.

Donegal Ireland landscape painting Emma Cownie
The Road by the Loch, Ireland (80x60cm/ 31.5×23.5″)

 
 

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The Art of the Large Landscape Painting

Landscape painting Ireland

Failures are always a challenge. When I used to be a Secondary school teacher, I always learned more about teaching when I faced a difficult class than a nice docile one. They made me go away and think about what I was doing and how I could do it better. Painting is no different.

 

I have been thinking about the composition of larger paintings. When I used to think about painting a scene I used to think in terms of  “that’s a small painting, it won’t “stretch” to a larger canvas”, or “That’s a mountain, definately, therefore, it’s subject suitable for a large canvas”. I am parodying myself somewhat but generally, I have this feeling that small birds belong on small canvases and big landscapes belong on larger ones.

My thinking was challenged by a commission I did in the summer where a client asked for a very large version (120 x 90cm) of a relatively small painting (41 x 33 cm). So I scaled up and despite my anxiety, it worked. This was important as my confidence had been dented by a previous large landscape painting that hadn’t work out for me.

Painting of Gola, Donegal
Small and Big Versions

It got me thinking about composition. I understood the basics and had looked of compositional grids in Artbooks as a teenager and thought I’d internalized them. I realized that I had got sloppy. I’ll explain.

A Beginners Guide to Composition
A Beginners Guide to Composition

I am not going to do an information dump about theories of composition here (I have added links to some good blogs on the subject below) but the “rule of thirds” is one that springs to mind here.  The idea that you should look for naturally occurring in divisions of thirds in a scene and try and locate points of interest at the intersection of the “Golden section”.


I had been influenced by ideas of composition from photography and the work of artist-turned photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson,in particular.

Rule of Thirds - Henri Cartier Bresson
Rule of Thirds – Henri Cartier Bresson

I liked his use of diagonals in particular, and this has influenced my paintings of urban scenes.

When I came to Donegal I was so blown away by the vast overarching skies and majestic landscapes. I got very excited by everything I saw. I tried to capture everything. The houses, the mountains, the sea, and the sky. Most of the time it worked.

You can probably look through these paintings and tick off the composition approaches I instinctively used; the diagonal, the pyramid, the rule of thirds and so on. They all worked.

Then, it really pains me to admit it. I lost it. I got carried away and overreached myself and painted this big beast.

Painting of Donegal Coast
Sailing By Edernish

What was I thinking? There is far too much sky in this painting. Worse than that, it was a large canvas. There are things I like about the painting, the light on the island in the bottom half of the painting, but the sky was just too vast. It pained me that I had such a large reminder of my errors of judgment. I don’t mind screwing up every now and then but I hate waste and that was an expensive canvas. It’s no coincidence that I am planning a blog post on reusing stretcher bars to stretch my own canvases.

My confidence was dented. It put me off large paintings for quite some time. It wasn’t until I did the commission I mentioned earlier, that I got thinking about what had gone wrong. I realized that I had to rigorously apply the same rule of composition to large canvases as I instinctively did to my small ones. So I tried an experiment, I took a successful composition of a medium size painting and did a much larger version of it.  This composition was based on a compound curve.

Over to the Rosses
Over to the Rosses 60x40xm
landscape painting of Ireland
View From Arranmore, Ireland 92x73cm

It wasn’t a copy of the smaller painting. It wasn’t meant to be, although it was meant to encapsulate the same feel of the smaller work, with some adjustments. I have included some more detail, changed the tree, and added a shadow and a ditch in the bottom third of the painting. I think it worked.

I have since done another small oil sketch of another composition before I scale it up. It’s another diagonal composition. Although, the larger version will not be “portrait” format but my usual “landscape” orientation.

I will add the larger version later in the week. So you will have to wait to see if that composition works as well as this smaller one. Watch this space!

 

Blogs on composition

http://photoinf.com/Golden_Mean/L_Diane_Johnson/The_Basics_of_Landscape_Composition.htm

http://www.workovereasy.com/2019/06/13/a-beginners-guide-to-composition/

https://feltmagnet.com/painting/Value-Pattern-Painting-Composition

 

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Cottage in Roshin Acres, Ireland

Painting of Irish landscape

This is only a short post because my cold from hell isn’t shifting and I have been ordered to rest by Séamas, which as you see, I am failing to do!

I like red and orange. Especially in winter. I have noticed that I like to paint red and orange things in wintertime. I previous years it has been red coats on the harbor beach at Tenby, or grandparents buying ice-creams in Brynmill Park. This year it’s the autumnal orange foliage of Donegal.

Painting of Cottage in Donegal, Ireland

Cottage in Roshin Acres, Ireland (SOLD)

I painted this small painting over a number of days, over Christmas. I would usually paint a picture like this in one day but the light kept going and I wasn’t very energetic so I decided not to rush it and wait until the next day. I think my patience was well-rewarded.

I have painted this house before, in a much larger painting. It’s interesting how the more distant view produces a cooler more airy painting. 

Painting of Donegal landscape, Ireland
Roshin Acres, Ireland

(SOLD)

 

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In the Glynn Vivian Open Exhibition

Exhibition - Emma Cownie 2019

The Opening night of an “Open” exhibition is an affair full of nervous energy! This is because 90% of people in the room are artists who are all relieved/happy to have their work included in the exhbition in the first place and secondly have come to see where their painting/s have ended up? Are they in a corner? Can they be seen?

Open Exhibition is where the organisers invite or “call” for artists to submit their work (for a small fee). The best works are then selected to be included in the exhibition. There are massive national exhibitions (like the BP Portrait Prize) that are so massive that they have a preliminary round where digital photos are first sent for consideration. The Glynn Vivian, does it the old fashioned way by requiring artists to bring their paintings to gallery for submission. You can submit up to two works each. As, it’s only open to artists living in the Swansea area, it’s not too onerous to drop in the paintings.

 

All artists fear rejection. We are sensitive souls. So to have to face the prospect of being rejected (one or two paintings) isn’t pleasant. Inclusion isn’t automatic, even if your work has been included before (I was in 2017), especially as the people doing the choosing (or “curating”) change every year. This year’s curators were Richard Billingham and Durre
Shahwar. Richard is a photographer and filmer maker who was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2001. Shahwar is a writer, editor, and creative facilitator. Thankfully they chose both of the works I submitted.

I had deliberately decided to arrive an hour into the Opening party as I remember it being very crowded to last time I came in 2017. It was still very crowded at 3pm and the numbers only really thinned out after 4pm. There were 245 pieces in the exhibition. The two rooms in the gallery were filled to the brim with paintings (and artists). were overwhelmingly 2D art. Paintings, sketches and prints, but there were films and sculptures too.

Crowded Glynn Vivian Open
Crowded Glynn Vivian Open

Of course, the first thing I did was try and find my paintings. They were in the second room. I was initially surprised to see that they were not together but had been arranged separately as part of themed groups of colours. I thought that the arrangement worked well. It’s a funny feeling seeing your paintings in amongst lots of other paintings. It’s like a familiar face amongst a crowd of strangers.

There’s no way I can get a photo of both paintings, I thought. Actually, for a long time, I could not get a photo of each painting as the gallery was so crowded.

Spring Light on Gola (top centre)
Spring Light on Gola (top centre)
Spring Light on Gola (top centre)
Spring Light on Gola (top centre)

For some reason, people stood in front of my second painting, Autumn in the Rosses for the longest time.  Different groups of people too. So I had to wait quite a while to get a photo of it and even then I had a person’s shadow on it!

Spot my painting?
Spot my painting?
Autumn in the Rosses (top left)
Autumn in the Rosses (top left)

It wasn’t just me trying to get a photo of my work. These artists were very excited about being in the exhibition. Their joy was a delight to see.

DSC_0040-001.JPG

"Textile Bouquet" by Eleanor Anne Owens
“Textile Bouquet” by Eleanor Anne Owens

There was so much to look at in the exhibition. There was such a variety of work too. Here are just a few that caught my eye. The most affecting work were the two bird sculptures by Mike Hill. One was made of fishing tackle detritus and the other was in the shape of a cormorant smothered in tar.  In fact, the tar-bird was so affecting that I had to fight back the tears. There were quite a few works that touched up the climate emergency and waste but these two, in my opinion, were the most powerful ones.

What are we Doing? What Have we Done? No.1 and No2.
What are we Doing? What Have We Done? No.1 and No2.
What are we Doing? What Have we Done? No.1 and No2.
What are we Doing? What Have we Done? No.1 and No2.
DSC_0044-001
Dafydd Williams “A Coded Reverie”
Steve Pleydell "Margot"
Steve Pleydell “Margot”
Amanda Puleston "Doolin, Ireland"
Amanda Puleston “Doolin, Ireland” – It’s knitted art!

 

I particularly liked the animal/nature themed wall.

I also really liked Myles Lawrence Mansfield ” Rejections/Acceptance Machine”. I liked it even more when it was explained to me that it moved when you turned to handle! I always like things that do something. Thinking about it now, it may well have been a comment on the life of an artist!

DSC_0082-001
Myles Lawrence Mansfield ” Rejections/ Acceptance Machine”

I had to pleasure of meeting fellow artist Wendy Sheridan in real life (after many online interactions via social media).  She very kindly took my photo!

Emma Cownie Exhibition
Me at the Glynn Vivian

I would highly recommend visiting the Glynn Vivian to see all the works in the Open Exhibition. It’s on until 23rd February (closed on Mondays) and is free!

Find about more about the Open Exhibition here 

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Echo Of Small Things

Painting of Donegal House

The title of this post comes from a 2005 album by American musician, Robert Rich.  

The inspiration for this album comes from mundane everyday experiences that culture usually overlooks, such as footsteps, casual voices and other ordinary sounds. Although I am sort of  “New Wave” (that’s sooo old now, you’ll probably have to look it up) in my musical tastes, I have a sneaky liking for experimental music, if its “live”. I like how it encourages you to pay attention to all the sounds around you, instead of tuning them out with your thoughts. Its sort of mediative. The ordinary appeals to me.

The other day I finished one of my paintings, placed on the other side of my studio to inspect and found myself quite-spell bound by it. I could not stop starring at it. This is not always the way I am with my finished work. More often when I have been excited about a painting, finishing it is a bit of an anti-climax. Maybe, it wasn’t quite what I thought it was going to be. All I can see are the errors. The solutions that weren’t quite right, or not as good as they could have been.

So what was this painting that had me transfixed? You’ll probably laugh when you see it. It was a little painting of two blue tits on a branch. Not a spectacular painting, in any sense, I know. I realised, however, that what had me transfixed were the details. This is really geeky stuff. A shadow under one of the bluetits fell onto the branch below in a really pleasing way. It’s hard to show it here.

Two Blue Tits
Two Blue Tits (detail)
Painting of Two Bluetits
Two Bluetits

This is my most recent painting below. I choose to paint this because I liked the juxtaposition of the mountain behind the semi-derelict house.

Painting of Donegal cottage with Mount Errigal
Near Dunmore Strand

I didn’t realise at first that the gable end window is boarded up. It could be mistaken for a blind. Maybe it is a roller-blind pulled down.

Near Dunmore Strand - detail
Detail (work in progress)

I think the back door is also boarded up. These things are not immediately apparent. There is a large boulder to the left of the house. There is also a pile of building bricks and a tarpaulin in the yard to the right-hand side and old rope in the drive. This is a house at the start or midway through renovations. The details I really relished painting were the shadows of the chimney, roof and the telegraph wire that dissects the window at neat diagonal. It’s only by paying attention to these details that the Donegal light can be properly conveyed.

I have always had a fascination for the ordinary details that are easily overlooked. I want to convey what a scene looked like at that moment. If you were really paying attention. Yet, I am not a painter who works in the hyper-realist style. I am not skillful or patient enough for that. I often cringe when I see my paintings close up because I think some of my brushwork is crude. Yet, “perfect” representation can seem dead and unlife-like.

I  think in the errors, the gaps, our brains fill in the gaps the image can come alive. I like that my paintings aren’t just copies of what I can see but an interpretation; the colours brightened, edges sharpened or softened, some details omitted to make for a simpler composition. Deciding what to leave out or simplify is as important as what you decide to include. Rather like Robert Rich’s “Echo of Small things”

 

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Arranmore Island, Donegal

Donegal paintings for sale

I have been back in Wales for three days now and the big difference from Donegal is the temperature and light. It is much warmer in Wales. Last week I was wearing a jumper – here I am in a T-shirt. In Wales, last night it was very dark by 10 pm. In Donegal, however, the light seemed unending. I struggled to sleep, despite being very tired, because although the sunset was after 10pm, it didn’t seem to get properly dark until after well after 11pm. Then it started to get light pretty soon after 4am!

I would sometimes wake in the early hours and look at the dark as a novelty. That’s something I’ve never done in Wales. Yet, I got used to this abundance of light. I made me feel active. With no television to slump in front of, I would find myself doing things after tea, such as the evening I found myself sanding a table at 9pm. I got used to life without news on the radio, although I did listen to some podcasts I had downloaded before I left Wales.

The day we visited Arranmore Island was a sunny Saturday. No jumper, just a shirt. There are two ferry companies that operate from Burtonport Harbour, the Red, and the Blue. They run all year round. In the summer months, they put on extra sailings. We plan to catch the 12.30 ferry, which is the Red Ferry. That’s the favourite colour of Seamas, my husband’s, beloved football team, Liverpool, so he’s happy. The ferry is very busy. It’s delayed by 10 minutes as the last car fills the boat to capacity. There are lots of teenagers and families on board. We stand by the rails as all the seats are taken.

Donegal landscape
Arranmore Red Ferry and an Oystercatcher

The journey to Arranmore is always a treat. The ferry is speedy.  It takes not much more than 15 minutes to complete the three-mile journey. I love looking at the islands (and their houses) that lie alongside the route.

Ednernish and Rutland Islands

Rutland Island is one of the largest of these and lies to the west. There are some very beautiful modern houses on Rutland, alongside ruins which date from the 18th century. These were part of the planned settlement built by William Burton Conyngham. He also owned Arranmore Island.  In my painting “From Ferry Coll” (below) you can see the remains of the fish landing and processing complex on the left side of the painting. There was also once a post office, houses, and a school-house here.

Donegal painting of landscape
From Ferry Coll

On the eastern side, lies the islands of Edernish, Inishchoo, and Eighter.  Here there are old cottages tucked in amongst the rocks. There is sparkling sunshine, but once we leave the shelter of the islands, the sea becomes quite choppy.

Painting of Irish Cottage in Donegal
On the Way to Arranmore

When we arrive at Arranmore harbour there are lots of friends and families waiting for the ferry. There is a lot of waving and photos taking whilst we wait for the cars to drive off the ferry. Then the people can get off the ferry. There are lots of hugs, laughter, and chatter as the passengers finally get off the ferry. It’s a delightful scene.

Arranmore is well worth visiting. It is the second-largest Irish island (the largest is Achill, in County Mayo, if you want to know). It is seven square miles in size and it is dominated by an imposing hill called Cnoc an Iolair (“Hill of the Eagle”, 750 feet) which can be seen from most of the coast of Gweedore ad the Rosses. It has both sandy beaches along the south coast (three of them) and imposing sea cliffs (120 meters) along the west and north side of the island. Many of the islanders are native Irish speakers.

Many islanders used to support themselves through fishing, wild salmon in particular, but in 2006 the EU banned salmon fishing. This has caused a great deal of hardship and anger. It has also meant that many of the young people have been forced to move away in search of work, so the population of the island is dwindling and aging. You can watch a beautiful short film, “A Foot of Turf” about island life here.

Fortunately, the island has recently undergone huge technological advancement and has become the recipient of Ireland’s very first offshore digital hub. In celebration they wrote an open letter to American and Australia, hoping to entice new businesses to the island. Sadly, the story went viral and got distorted in the process. British tabloids, in particular, decided to reframe the story as the island being desperate for immigrants, “begging US citizens to move there” and decided to be offended that they “forgot” to invite British people, writing headlines like: “Anyone but the English”. This caused a great deal of distress on the island as this wasn’t what was intended at all. The letter was meant to appeal to American businesses to help boost the economy by giving islanders jobs – and visit the island.

So we are visiting the island. First, we made our way eastwards, towards the lifeboat station. We then backtracked and walk up the road past The Glen Hotel, which was the island’s first hotel in 1928. It was once the home of John Stoupe Charley, a Protestant from Antrim, who bought the island in 1855. 

View Above the Glen Hotel, Arranmore
View Above the Glen Hotel, Arranmore

It was a long hilly road with a beautiful view across to the mainland. There were many old cottages and outbuildings here. The road was generally quiet but we were periodically passed by several cars. I like to take note of where cars are from, in Ireland registration plates in include letters to denote the county of registration. There were many with “DL” Donegal plates, but also plenty with “D” Dublin and Northern Ireland plates. Although I’d seen plenty of German and Dutch vehicles driving along the Wild Atlantic Way (past our house) there were none on this stretch of Arranmore road.

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

It’s considered good manners in Donegal (and elsewhere, of course) for the driver and pedestrian to acknowledge each other when the car has to slow to pass and the pedestrian has to clamber into the grassy verge. In Donegal, the driver will lift the index finger of his right hand. The pedestrian will similarly lift his or her finger but not necessarily raising the hand to do so. Smiles will be exchanged too. Nothing to exuberant, but friendly. It’s rare that this doesn’t happen, sadly it does on occasion and then it is followed by a short discussion between Seamas and myself about the drivers of particular makes of cars and/or people from NI/Dublin/hirecars.

Artist in Donegal, Ireland
Me on Arranmore Island, Donegal

We get so far and decide to retrace our tracks and walk in a big loop along the west side of the island, which provides us with sweeping views across to Burtonport and Dungloe.  If you look carefully in the photo below you will be able to see the old courthouse to the right. This was built at Fal an Ghabhann (Fallagowan) around 1855.

View Across Arranmore, Donegal.

Painting of Donegal. Arranmore.
Old Courthouse, (Arranmore Island)

Eventually, the road wound downhill. We could hear the sound of singing on the wind. A choir singing? We eventually came to a large white Community Hall, the doors were open and inside were lots of young people singing in Irish. These were some of the hundreds of teenagers who come to the island as part of a summer scheme to learn and improve on their Irish language skills.

Donegal painting for sale
Gortgar, Arranmore

As if to reinforce this, a tall teenage boy passes us and greets us in Irish. Seamas manages a greeting but then tells me that the lad had used a different form of words to the one he’d learned over 30 years ago. It seems that the Irish language is very similar to the Welsh, in that it has many regional variations in terms of accent, pronunciation, and words used.

Painting of Donegal, Landscape
House By The Red Wildflowers

We finally made it back to the harbour and had two delicious cheese paninis in the sandwich shop.

Blue Ferry to Arranmore Donegal, Ireland
Here comes the Blue Ferry!

The journey back to Burtonport harbour on the Red ferry was very enjoyable, with the passengers still in a buoyant holiday mood, waving at the passengers on the Blue ferry as we passed. A holiday maker’s car alarm kept going off. His embarrassment levels pretty much matched that of his children’s amusement.

I kept a lookout for dolphins or seals but saw none. Only sea birds. An American told me that he’s seen Minke Whales in Clew Bay recently. We had seen dolphin on the way back from Tory island. He had a theory that there was a bumper crop of fish 8 miles out at sea, which was where the wildlife were. Usually, the waters around Burtonport would have plenty of seals and dolphins. That’s something to look forward to seeing another time.

For more on Arranmore and other Donegal islands in general doub;e click on the link

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Across to Inishbofin

Painting of Donegal, Across to Inishbofin

Inishbofin, Inis Bó Finne in Irish, means Island of the White Cow. There are two different islands off the coast of Ireland bearing this poetic name. The name suggests the importance of cows in early Irish society. This is not surprising at all as cows have been vital in many ancient human societies. The “other” Inishbofin is off the coast of County Galway further down south. The one I have painted is off the coast of Donegal, near Machaire Uí Rabhartaigh (Magheraroarty).

It was a chilly, sparkling day when we visited in late spring. We walked along the quay at Magheraroarty and watched a The Queen of Aran ferry come in and pick up some passengers for Tory Island 9 miles to the north. 

Queen of Aran
Queen of Aran
Map of Donegal Islands
Map of Donegal Islands

Much closer than Tory Island is Inishbofin. It’s a mere 3km (1.8 miles) from the mainland. I took photos of the houses on the island with my zoom lens. They were still very small.

Inishbofin, Donegal
Inishbofin, Donegal

I originally wanted to paint this whole stretch of the island’s coastline but I realised that without a more dramatic (cloudy) sky, most of the canvas would end up being a lot of light blue and a tiny strip of land at the bottom of the painting. So I chose a section of the coastline and focused on the details of the houses that I could make out.

I get a lot of pleasure from looking at the clean lines of the old houses – I also enjoy a landscape with no cars. If you have eagle eyes you will spot a solitary caravan on the hill above the main street on Inishbofin. The island is approximately 1.2km wide and 2km long with a small seasonal population of about 50 people, who are Irish-speakers. I believe, a few hardy souls live there all year round

Here’s a lovely video about the people who live on the island in the summer months. It’s in Irish (as they are Irish-speakers) but there are subtitles.

I get very attached to my Donegal island paintings. I’m not sure why. Maybe its because I get such pleasure at looking at those unmodernized houses. I like the length of the image too. Perhaps it because, so far, I have looked across the sea at them and had to reconstruct the landscape with care.

Across to Inishbofin
Across to Inishbofin (detail)

It’s hard to explain, but it’s like my mind has “felt” the shape of the land, the rise and fall of the shingle beaches, the spread of seaweed on the shore, the rocks and hills behind the houses. It’s usually my paintings of animals that find it hard to part with!

Donegal Painting of Inishbofin
Across to Inishbofin
Inish Bofin beach
Inish Bofin beach

That house with a red front door on the right side of the painting is for sale.

Inishbofin
Teach Johnny, Inishbofin Island

You can see it here. It’s beautiful inside.

Many of the islands have seasonal boats. We are planning to visit one or two of these island in the next few weeks when we are back in Donegal. My list of islands to visit include:- Gola, Inishbofin, Tory and Owey. I don’t think we will manage more than two of those this visit. It depends on the weather and energy levels. 

Collectors wanting to buy any of my work will need to contact me by Sunday 23rd June (to be shipped on Monday) at the latest, otherwise, you will have to wait for your paintings until 16th July, when we return. 

Here are my other Donegal island paintings (I have parted with two of these).

donegal painting of Gola, West Donegal.

Spring Light on Gola – Seamas’s favourite painting!

Donegal painting of Gola Island
Oileán Ghabhla (Donegal) SOLD

Donegal painting of Owey Island

Owey Island (SOLD)

See all my available Donegal paintings by clicking here 

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Those Uncertain Roots – Retracing the Past in Gweedore

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

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

Painting of Donegal and Errigal
Over to Kinclassagh

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

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

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

Donegal painting of Mount Errigal, Ireland
Passing Clouds on Errigal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modern day Meenderrygamph
Modern-day Meenderrygamph, Gweedore

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

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

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Dunmore Strand, Donegal

Painting of Donegal landscape beach,

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Donegal Islands: Gola

Paintings of Donegal, Gola, by emma Cownie

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.

Map of West Donegal
The larger Islands of the Coast of West Donegal

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.

Stag Rocks, Donegal
The Stags

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.

Painting of Donegal
From Cruit Island

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.

Donegal island
Tory Island from the mainland

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.

Donegal painting
Owey Island
Painting of Donegal Island, Owey
Over to Owey

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.

Gola, West Donegal
Map of Gola 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. 

Donegal airport

Mount Errigal
Errigal from Carrickfinn

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.

Towards Bunbeg
Dunmore Strand

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.

IMG_1061
Woolly hat back on, taking photos of Gweedore and Bloody Foreland

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.

Gola West Donegal
View towards Gola

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.

Donegal Island, Gola
Houses on the south side of Gola Island

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.

donegal painting of Gola, West Donegal.
Spring Light on Gola (80x40cm)

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.  

Donegal painting of Gola
Oileán Ghabhla (80x 40cm)

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.

Donegal Sea Arch
Sea Arch, Gola Island, Donegal

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.

Ferry to Gola Donegal
Gola Ferry Service Facebook Page

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.

IMG_1119
Seamas and Mitzy in front of Gola Island.