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Round the Rosses

Landscape painting of the Rosses, West Donegal, Ireland
Round the Rosses (SOLD)

The Rosses (in Gaelic, Na Rosa) is a region in the west of County Donegal, Ireland. The name comes from “Ros”, the Irish word for headland. It is a curiously rocky place. Not rocky, in the sense that national parks in the American west, like Utah and Arizona, are made of 100% rock, but rather the bedrock is covered with a thin layer of earth, with slabs of rocks and boulders poking through. It’s a barren but beautiful landscape, studded with a myriad of lakes and inlets of the sea.

Aerial View of the Rosses
Aerial View of the Rosses, from the aeroplane (with Mount Errigal in the background).

It may feel like the edge of the known world but this area has been inhabited “since time immemorial” according to Wikipedia. Coastal places like the Rosses, in Donegal, looked out onto a massive highway – the sea. Missionary Celtic saints were busy in this area in the 6th century AD. These saints relished a challenge and liked to travelled up and down the Celtic waterways to spread Christianity to nearby Scotland. In the 1990s it was fashionable to argue that these Irish monks  had in fact, “saved civilisation” by copying the books being destroyed elsewhere by Germanic invaders, eventually bringing them back to the places from which the books had come. Part of this movement included women like St. Crona or St. Crone (Cróine) , a female religious of royal blood. She found a monastery in Termon near Dungloe. She was a cousin of the the better known St. Columba (St. Columcille in Irish) one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland, who founded the monastic settlement at Iona.

Much later (about a thousand years or so) in the 16th century, a number of ships from the Spanish Armada sank off or landed off its coast. Some 24 to 26 Spanish Armada ships are believed to have foundered off the Irish coast in 1588 while returning from a failed invasion of England by King Philip II. This is not just local myth as the wrecks of two Spanish ships were discovered by archaeologists in shallow water near Burtonport, Donegal, in 2008/9.

Donegal Wreck
Donegal Wreck

What happened to the survivors of these wreck is unclear. We know that as many as 9,000 Spanish soldiers and sailors lost their lives off the Atlantic coast of Ireland, either through drowning or were killed by English troops or Irish chieftains after they were washed ashore. However, not all died. Some Irish who were sympathetic to the Spaniards sheltered them and some kept them on as soldiers. Local legend, credits black-haired locals as being descents of these men, but they are possibly the descents of much earlier people who came from the Iberian peninsula after the end of the last ice age.

I found this area both beautiful fascinating. Donegal manages to combine a sense of isolation with company, should you want it.  This area is littered with houses, old and modern. Many homes are built on the rocks, or have massive rocks in their gardens. People have had to work around the boulders and outcrops.The prevalence of pines dotted across the landscape gives the area a Scots or Canadian feel to it; Caledonian in fact.

Cruit Island

Cruit Island

Although in many senses there is plenty of space, houses seem to huddle together in clusters, isolated but within sight of others. A lot of them (the newer ones, anyway) face out towards the Atlantic Ocean. It seems that in many cases old cramped cottages have been replaced by larger modern buildings. Many tiny cottages, or abandoned derelict buildings are overshadowed by bigger ones. The smaller cottages ended up as holiday homes for visitors. Most of the houses are painted white, but with some older stone cottages and out-houses are left “au naturel”.

On one of the few sunny afternoons we had, we raced round taking photographs of the houses on the rocks. Each bend in the narrow road revealed different vistas. It was hard to decide which one I liked the best. Not only did these houses look out to the sea, behind them were hills and mountains. My painting “Round the Rosses” captures a typical cluster of old and new homes perched on the top of rocky landscape. The light from the afternoon sun glints in the windows of the large house, that faces out to the ocean. The older, smaller buildings look to the east; away from the force of rain and storms and towards the rising sun.

Oil painting of West Donegal Landscape
Round the Rosses (SOLD)

Round the Rosses (SOLD)

 

 

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Donegal

Mount Errigal from Ballymanus Beach, Donegal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A straight road

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

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

 

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Ballymanus Beach

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

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