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Our First Year in Donegal, Ireland

The landscapes of Donegal, Ireland have provided me with so much inspiration for my art I thought I’d share some background about our house just outside Burtonport. My husband, Seamas, has spent far more time and effort than me on Meadow Cottage. Thus, this blog post is a bit of a photo-essay as I have been absent for about half of these events. I have stayed behind at home in Wales, feeding our pets and keeping the Art business ticking over.

1. I thought I’d start with the Estate Agent’s photos. In Ireland, estate agents are called auctioneers, in the US I think they are known as realtors. Kenneth Campbell’s aerial photos are great, and doesn’t the yellow gorse look pretty? I changed my mind about gorse, later. What attracted me to the house (other than its location near Donegal airport, as well as walking distance from Burtonport, the ferry to Arranmore Island, a garage shop and  Dungloe a short drive away) was the fact that unlike many Donegal homes, it had two rooms upstairs.  Why do I care about an upstairs? Well, firstly I have only ever lived in a house with stairs and secondly and more importantly the light is better to paint by. Especially if it comes from a north-facing skylight. That will provide steady cool light. There was no north-facing sky-light only south-facing, but that could be easily changed

In our first spring visit, we concentrated on essentials for the cottages. Thankfully the previous owners were very generous in including a lot of furniture with the cottage so we just had to think about buying things like pots and pans and bedding. We started to explore the area.  There was a large area behind the rocks which was overgrown with gorse and brambles. We made some inquiries about getting someone in to do the garden, but they didn’t quite come to anything.

2. Summer visit. Everything had grown. A lot. The grass was now waist-high! The brambly bit of the garden at the back now looking like something out of a sleeping-beauty nightmare.

We looked around at the gardens around us and saw a lot of neat lawns and hedges. Oh dear, we were the neighbourhood scruffs. We had a lot of work to do here. We had brought an electric grass-strimmer with us. It wasn’t much good.  There was just too much grass. Even after Seamas had cut it was still a foot deep! Steep learning curve! We bought a petrol strimmer and Seamas studied it carefully. He would be back! 

Mizty in the grass
Mizty in the grass (after a trim)

In the mean-time, we hacked away at the biggest interlopers in the garden. There were a couple of fir trees that had spread their seedling all over the grass and were also sprouting up through parts of the drive. They were also blocking the view of drivers pulling out of the side road onto the road to Dungloe. They had to go. I hacked down one with a hand saw and Seamas and I cut down the larger one together (you can see it behind him in the photo below).

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Seamas cutting things down

We painted things like fences, walls window sills and the gate.

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We can see clearly now…

The cutting things down then extended (rather belated in our stay) to cutting back the gorse. There had been gorse fires in the spring that had been extensive and destroyed one family’s holiday cottage. It had been an important source of income for them.  So I wanted to get rid of the gorse near the cottage. It had grown so much that it came up to the back windows of the cottage. We hired a skip and started to fill it. It was hard work. I am not used to it. Still, we got stuck in.

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The encroaching gorse

It’s springy stuff. I jumped up and down on it a lot.

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We filled it up and when the skip was collected by Paddy Sharkey, he managed to jam a fair bit more in the skip and jump on it. 66442595_10217375162305895_527527661619118080_o

It was back-breaking stuff. What you needed, Paddy said was a “man with a digger”. We got the number of the man-with-a-digger, and a lot more besides, Tom Ham, and he called round to look at our rocks and gorse. Yes, he could do something with it, in about 6 weeks time. So we left for Wales, with plans.

3. Seamas came back in the to autumn to report back on some improvements he’d arranged to be done whilst we were away. Pauric Neely had put clear glass put in the front door to let light into the hallway.

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New front door

Seamas painted the back of the house and got the hang of the petrol strimmer.

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4. Seamas’s winter visit. Part 1- More changes: – a new north-facing skylight put in by Paddy Campbell. Yeay. Light to paint by!

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New glass in the back door – so we can see the jungle outside!

Best of all, Tom had removed the gorse by the back of the house. It was gone!

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Just lovely pink rock!
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Thank you, digger!

That was great. The brambles were still lurking behind the rock. That was the next stage of the project. It was somewhat fortuitous then, that Seamas’s flight was canceled. He actually went to the airport and waited for his flight. He watched the two-engine plane starting the approach to its landing but very strong cross-winds prevented it from landing. So it returned to Dublin!

Part 2: – Seamas decided to stay another week for the next stage in the work. This was clearing the land behind the rocks and preparing the foundations to put in a couple of wooden clad cabins to act as an art studio and an art gallery. This was a lot of work.

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We can see the fabulous pink granite rocks
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There’s a lot of rock

Finally, the brambles are gone.

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There’s a lot of land here!

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The path by the house is finally clear

Seamas has achieved a massive amount over the last year. He’s so happy when he’s in Donegal. He loves our cottage. He is never happier than when he’s working on it. There’s a lot more to do. He has more plans that he’s hatched with Tom, that I am looking forward to happening. I think that when I am back in the spring that I will be planting a lot of grass seed! I am looking forward to my second year and hoping to spend much more time here.

I would like to thank Kenneth Campbell, Pauric Neely, Paddy Sharkey, Paddy Campbell,  Lucy of the Parlour Shop, who drove up from Killybegs on a Sunday evening (with her mum) to deliver a table and last but definitely not least, Tom Ham, for all their excellent work.

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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.

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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

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All hands to the Pumps

Blog about gorse fires

When I decided to write this article I was not entirely sure I should. On Easter Monday I was gripped by the unfolding story of a massive, dangerous gorse fire spreading across the Rosses, a part of West Donegal. It worried that it would get completely out of hand and burn down people’s homes and destroy their livelihoods. I was checking twitter and my newsfeed for news of what was happening on an hourly basis to see if the fire had been brought under control. I was also worried about our own house in the Rosses. I love the area very much and feel attached to it. Yet, I felt guilty of being an outsider, what my husband calls a “Sasanach” (Saxon) or a “blow in” to the area only concerned about my house when brave local people were fighting desperately to quell the fires and save their homes. Actually, I was full of admiration for the community spirit and sheer grit and determination of the local people to fight the fire and save each other’s homes. 

Donegal is often called the “forgotten county” on account of the belief that it is ignored by the government of Ireland, even in times of crisis. Maybe it’s because it’s so far away from the capital Dublin, or because of its location on the border with “troubled” Northern Ireland. On Monday that perception seemed to be borne out by events.

Painting of village in West Donegal
Over to Kinclassagh SOLD

It had been an unseasonably warm Easter weekend. It was the warmest for 70 years. This followed on from the warmest Irish winter on record, that was also drier than average. Unfortunately, this has dried out the moorlands in many parts of Ireland. In recent weeks there have been many fires over moorland in Ireland and the UK; Limerick, Kerry, Down, and across 700 acres of Yorkshire. Moorlands (and in Ireland the boglands) are “usually” by their very nature wet and soggy places but climate change has changed all that; in these drier conditions, (along with the heather and gorse that grow on them) have become tinder-boxes.  Spring and early summer is the most dangerous time of year for gorse fires,  between i.e. March and June, when ground vegetation is dead and dry following the winter period.

The Rosses in West Donegal seems particularly vulnerable to gorse fires breaking out. Gorse is a stubborn plant with thick branches, prickly thorns and vibrant yellow flowers during the spring and summer. It is also highly flammableAt least three gorse fires broke out last week; one near Kinclassagh, one near Crolly and another near Drumnacart, Annagry, which actually destroyed two homes. 

The gorse fire that broke early in the morning on Easter Morning between Loughanure & Annagry was a different order of scary fire. The dry conditions coupled with the ever-present wind whipped it up and it quickly got out of control and spread over a large area threatened many homes. Fires in windy dry conditions will soon leap and fly. Just to complicate things there was a separate fire at Belcruit/Kinclassagh. It has since been claimed that a fire hydrant, in the village was blocked, preventing fire crews and locals from having a readily available water supply to combat the blaze. 

When this fire started 5 fire engines came to try and put it out. By the end of the day, 15 fire engines had come from all over Donegal. One fire engine even came across on the ferry from Arranmore Island. Hundreds of local volunteers also came out to help, many of them were fighting to save their own homes from being destroyed. Trenches were dug, houses were doused with water. It must have been hard, dirty and frightening work. Farmers brought slurry spreaders filled with water to douse the area. Others looked after the people fighting the flames, bringing them bottled water and food. 

Fighting the wildfire in Wst Donegal
Dousing the gorse

One fireman told a local newspaper, the Donegal Daily: “This is unreal stuff. I have battled a lot of gorse fires over the years but this is amongst the most dangerous. “Everything is bone dry and there is a strong wind so these are perfect conditions for the fires to spread rapidly.”

The local authorities and the Pat “The Cope” Gallager, the TD for Donegal, lost no time in asking (at 9.30am) for The Irish Air Corp for helicopters to help fight the fire. For some reason, they were not forthcoming. The Council waited and waited. Then a group of the firefighters fighting the separate fire near Belcruit were trapped by the flames. The area had been doused by water, so they weren’t in immediate danger, but it was a very worrying plight for them to be in. I can’t imagine what that must have been like to be surrounded by flames, like that. 

Donegal County Council decided they could not wait any longer for the Air Corps, and decided to hire a private helicopter to fight the fire. It took 7 hours before the Air Corps finally arrived from Dublin on the scene at 5pm and proceeded to scoop up 42,000 litres of water from the nearby sea and lakes and drop them on the fire. They seemed to have made all the difference. 

The Firemen at Belcruit escaped the flames when water was dropped on the fire, clearing a safe path for them. It must be a very difficult job aiming the bucket at the fire but from the video clip here, you can see the Air Corps are very good at it.

I got quite a shock when I saw the photo of Kinclassaagh below on twitter. It is a village I have painted a few times. You may be able to pick out the blue house to the left of the photograph below, which is in the centre of my painting “In the Shadow of Errigal”. The houses in the village are presumably being in doused in water in preparation of the worst-case scenario.  

Fortunately, by the evening the fire was eventually brought under control and no new fires have broken out. The images of the aftermath are shocking. So many houses are surrounded by blackened gorse. They were clearly very close to being destroyed. It must have been the stuff of nightmares for the people who lived in them.

The fire will have been devastating for local wildlife and bird populations, their chicks and nests were not saved.  This is the sort of event that Birdwatch Ireland calls “carnage in our mountains and hills, yet silence from our Government”. Rare plants whose precious seedlings have just emerged are also scorched along with hares, badgers, lizards, frogs, mice and all sorts of beetles.

Gorse Fires West Donegal 2019
The aftermath of the gorse fires
West Donegal Gorse fires
The extent of the fire

 

 

When I first heard of these terrible wildfires, I assumed that it was due to climate change and global warming. Yet, when I did a bit of research, I found that it was a bit more complicated than that. Yes, dry winters and summers are factors but it seems that there are other reasons that have contributed to this issue, not only in Ireland but in the British Isles as a whole. So it seemed to me that these issues need to be dealt with more urgently than they have been so far. For all our sakes. Tackling the problem of the gorse fires could actually help with the issue of climate change. 

Most gorse fires are started by humans, although we don’t actually know how Monday’s fires were started, and it seems pretty clear that they were not started by a local farmer.  In many cases, however, it seems that wildfires are started deliberately by landowners, or by arsonists, or even accidentally by tourists’ barbeques (as in the case of the recent fire in Yorkshire).  Northern Irish fire service estimates that in one month in 2017 they dealt with more than 500 fires, of which 466, it believed, were started deliberately.  

Gorse is so difficult to clear, its not uncommon for farmers sometimes burn the land so it can be cleared. It is currently against the law in Ireland to burn land from 28 February to 1st September. This is to protect nesting birds and their young. Paradoxically, part of the problem is that these fires don’t happen often enough. Many Irish hill farms have been abandoned or neglected and regular burning has not taken place, allowing layers of detritus to build upon the ground while gorse and heather have grown leggy, meaning that fires are harder to control. Thus, the rise in the number of gorse fires may have more to do changes in farming practices than climate change, as such.  

In an ideal world, I believe, upland farmers would not be paid to clear land but instead, be paid to grow native trees on their land. Yes, call me a tree-hugging hippy, but by reintroducing trees, shrubs, birds,  insects, and large mammals would have their ancient habitats restored. Ireland needs more trees. The world needs more trees. This is a good way to tackle climate change, instead of cutting down the rain forest at ever increasing rates. More trees also reduce the risk of flooding. A recent study by Bangor University (the one in Wales) found that water was absorbed 67 times faster by native woodland than on grass.  Once 80% of Ireland was covered in trees, now it’s only 10.5%; the lowest in Europe (the average is well over 30%). Of that native trees comprise just 2% of the total! These incredibly low numbers are primarily due to human activity in the 18th and 19th centuries, and to a lesser extent also activities in the early 20th century.

The government does plan to increase Ireland’s tiny forest cover to 18 percent by 2046, under the Strategic Plan for the Development of Forestry,  but unfortunately, the vast majority of new trees are Sitka spruce tree farms. These are non-native trees, planted in crowded, rows, robbing light from the forest floor. They do not encourage wildlife in the way that native trees would. They are barren places. They also need fertilizers and pesticides. They are patently, the wrong trees. The woodland League recently ran an excellent scheme supported by President Michael D Higgins, called “Forest In A Box”, involving 700 children in nine primary schools in Co Dublin, Co Offaly and Co Clare. The “box” in question is a native tree seed box – a metre square – which can provide up to 200 healthy native trees every two years. It would be great if this scheme could be rolled to the whole of the country, maybe there are plans to do so. 

One thing they are not short of in West Donegal is community spirit. On Monday evening, the brave people of West Donegal will come together again, for a massive clean-up operation to collect all the objects like water bottles, spades and face masks that were dropped whilst fighting last week’s fire. Yet again it will be all hands to the pump. It will also be a good opportunity for the brave, hard-working people of Donegal to “debrief” after such a traumatic experience. This fire won’t be forgotten for a long time, but fortunately, no lives were lost. 

Crainn

“Carinn n hEireann – The Trees of Ireland”

(Here’s link to a beautiful Irish language series on Irish trees, it’s well worth watching, because it’s atmospheric, poetic and informative. Click the “CC” logo on the bottom right of the screen for English subtitles )

 

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It’s a long way to Donegal

It’s a long way to Donegal. About 400 miles. That includes the bit of sea, St George’s channel, that lies in between West Wales and the Republic of Ireland.

It took me 3 days to drive from our house in Swansea, South Wales to our house in Burtonport, Donegal. It took me another 2 and a half days to drive back (I got faster).

Map Ireland

I know Google maps says you can do the journey in 12 hours in 3 minutes but that doesn’t take account factors such as ferry crossing times, day-light and human exhaustion and how slowly I drive.

I avoid motorways. I have a phobia of driving on motorways. It was triggered by a panic attack that occurred at night on the motorway bridge between Neath and Swansea many years ago.

I have had hypnotherapy, read countless books but to no avail. So, my top speed is about 60-miles per hour but I tend to cruise at about 50 (depending on the conditions and the speed limit, of course). I took me a while to get to 60 miles per hour.

I usually only drive locally so it took me a while to feel comfortable driving over 60 miles per hours.

I did all the driving, my husband in the passenger seat, taking care of the dogs and navigating our route to Donegal.

We decided to break the journey up and Seamas had booked four separate B&Bs to stay in en route (with our dogs) to ensure that I could cope with the driving. I have been back in the UK a week, have come down with a cold but it was worth every bit of effort.

Driving through a country is a real education; it is quite different from flying. Where you mostly see the insides of airports, although the flight into Donegal’s tiny airport is absolutely stunning and no wonder they been voted most scenic landing in the world for the last two years running.

Ireland is a big country (I expect those from North America & Australia are scoffing at that statement) but it’s not quick to travel across unless you are flying. Correction, it’s relatively easy to get to Dublin but not so easy to get to Donegal. There is no railway line (they were closed in the 1940s), no motorway and the most direct route cuts through Northern Ireland, which is only a problem as the “A” roads in Fermanagh are small, windy and not as quick to drive along as the “N” routes in the Republic of Ireland.

The Republic of Ireland has changed a lot since I first visited it in the early 1990s. The impression you get driving across the South-Western countries and the Midlands is of a, modern, confident, prosperous and fast growing country.

The rolling landscape of Kilkenny reminded me of Monmouthshire on the Welsh borders with England, the Midland counties are full of farms and the roads, whilst busy, are in no way as hectic as British roads.

Crossing into county Donegal and then approaching Donegal town, I felt real excitement at the sight of dramatic mountains looming in the distance.

It felt like seeing Snowdonia or the Highlands of Scotland.

This was a different part of the world. The road behind me and ahead was almost completely empty. This helped a lot, crossing a massive bridge on the “N” road, as I could slow down without annoying other road-users, thus helping with my anxiety.

Emma Cownie in Donegal
Outside the cottage in Burtonport

Burtonport is an area of Donegal known as the Rosses.

Along the west side lies the Atlantic Ocean, it’s sometimes merciless and raging, at others it is as smooth as a silk sheet and as clear as glass.

The coastline is full of inlets and tiny islands. Inland the landscape is strewn with loughs with massive granite rocks. It’s like no other landscape I have seen. It has more in common with the Highlands of Scotland (they used to be part of the same continent millions of years ago) than anywhere else in Ireland. It feels different from the South too.

The accents here are very different too as they are Ulster accents. Ulster is the name given to northern-most counties of Ireland. There are nine countries in total, six of which, since 1921, lie in Northern Ireland and three, including Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland. This part of Donegal is in the Gaeltacht, which means that Irish spoken here. It means that many of the signs are in Irish. The roads signs are usually bilingual in all of the Republic of Ireland (we have bilingual road signs in Wales too) but here the signs don’t always have the Anglicized name so if you don’t know that “An Clochan Liath” is the Irish for Dungloe or “Ailt An Chorrain” means Burtonport, you may miss the turning! Thankfully my husband is a student of the Irish language and so he could direct me.   

What I particularly love about the Rosses is the little rocky inlets, smothered in seaweed at low tide and turquoise sea at high tide.

Lots of houses and cottages dot the landscape, with many islands having a house (or two) perched on top, with little jetties for returning boats. 

Each with its idyllic view and solitude.

Yet, if you want company and good chat Donegal is the place to come. As my husband says, having a good chat is the first order of the day. Everything works around that.

Many an in-depth chat was had about the world with people we met. The issue of Brexit and the border-question was on a lot of people’s minds, businessmen were particularly worried by its implications.

My husband, being Irish, was a lot better at chatting at length than me. His record was a two-hour chat with a man he met on a morning walk. 

I am going to leave you with one of the first paintings I have finished since returning to Wales. I have had a lot of social media stuff and commissions to catch up on since returning.

I really enjoyed my break and will regale you with thoughts on life with less internet/tv in another post.

Donegal Landscape painting
Over to Tullyillion SOLD
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The Old School, Owey Island

I sounds mad, but I didn’t have a map when I was driving around Donegal. I sort of hoped I could buy one in a petrol station but I never did. The Hire Car people lent us a Sat Nav but I could not be bothered to plug it in and it stayed in the boot the whole week.

I am very lackadaisical when it comes to planning holidays, I think all my energy goes into the logistics of getting there. Anyway, I assumed that my husband would tell which places were worth visiting. Afterall, he had spent hours “flying” up and down the roads of Donegal on StreetView. I sort of knew where I wanted to go; Bunbeg, Bloodyforeland, Falcaragh, Dunfanaghy, Derryveagh,  Kincasslagh and Dungloe and the distances between them were not very great.

Donegal Islands Map
Donegal Islands Map

On the only properly sunny afternoon we had in Donegal, I took a left off the road from Dungloe to Kincasslagh. The sign said “Cruit Island Golf Club”.  I reasoned that golf clubs are usually located in beautiful places, near the coast. So I followed a single track road and over a small concrete bridge on to Cruit Island. If you look at the map above, you can see that Cruit Island is long, three miles long, in fact.

Bridge to Cruit Island
Bridge to Cruit Island

Cruit Island at Low Tide

Cruit Island at Low Tide

After a pleasant drive along a single track road, and passing what can only be called mansions at the north end of the island, we reached the golf club. Now in the UK golf clubs can be funny about other people coming onto their property, but there was nowhere to turn the car so I kept driving. Eventually we reached the golf club car park which looks out across wild waves to an island. This was no calm inland lough. This was the Wild Atlantic. The wind was fierce and the waves crashed and boomed.

Owey Island, Donegal.
Owey Island, Donegal.

It was mesmerising. The island was just across the turquoise water. It was dotted with houses, some clearly derelict, others in good order. I didn’t know it at the time but this was Owey island.

Quay on Owey Island
Quay on Owey Island

It turns out that Owey island is uninhabited for much of the year, having no permanent residents, but people do live there in the summer months. It was last inhabited on a full-time basis in the mid 1970s. The last residents were three old boys who were moved to the mainland of Donegal, or as the islanders call it, Ireland. All the houses were built on the south side of the island, facing Cruit Island Golf Club. The north of the island is too rocky and too exposed to the north Atlantic Ocean gales.

Buildings on Owey Island
Buildings on Owey Island

My eye was drawn to one building in particular. Standing on the brow of a hill, its missing roof caught my attention. It had also had a walled yard behind it. I was too far away to be able to tell whether this was a derelict old building or an incomplete new one. There are many incomplete “new” buildings littering the Irish landscape.

Painting of the old School, Owey Island, West Donegal
Old School, Owey Island

This turned out to be the old school. The walled yard was the play ground. It was a tiny school with just one teacher who would have to teach all ages of the small number of island children.  It was a school for the younger children, and when they were old enough the children would then be sent to the mainland for their secondary school education.

Apparently, the school children had to bring a sod of turf to school each morning. The turf was fuel for the fire and the idea was that they provided the heating for the school room in the cold months. It has been pointed out that as the teacher’s table and chair were at the front of the room, they would usually sit right in front of the fire. When I used to be a teacher, I used to teach in a “temporary” demountable  classroom (it had been there for 40 years) and in winter, I would often stand next to the gas fire, myself. So I liked that idea!

Available landscape paintings can be seen here: https://emmacownie.artweb.com/available-paintings-donegal-ireland

To read more about life on Owey Island see: http://www.welovedonegal.com/islands-owey.html

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Under The Shadow of Errigal

Oil painting of Mount Errigal, Donegal, Ireland
Under the Shadow of Errigal (SOLD)

In Steven Spielberg film “Close Encounters” (1977) Richard Dreyfus experiences a close encounter with a UFO and subsequently becomes increasingly obsessed with subliminal, mental images of a mountain-like shape and begins to make models of it, including one made from his mash potatoes.

CloseEncounters_DreyfussLED
Richard Drefus’s dinner is about to turned into a mountain

I bring this up because my husband got a bit like that with Mount Errigal. It has a very distinctive shape and it can be seen from miles around. My husband was always pointing it out to me. His father used to help run a boxing gym called Errigal in Derry, Northern Ireland, so it has an added resonance for him. Again and again he’d announce “There’s Errigal” to me.

It looks like it should be an extinct volcano, but I’m not sure entirely that it is. We saw it when we flew in from Dublin, from the runway at the airport, from the beach at Carrickfinn, From Bunbeg beach, from the Rosses, from Gweedore. Its barren surface is rather moon-like, but when the sun catches its slopes its quite mesmerising. When it was hidden by cloud you knew the sun wasn’t going to come out for some time. The surface isn’t covered with snow but light-coloured quartzite scree that glows pink in the sun.

I would like to climb it one day. I have been told it only takes a couple of hours (from the other side). In the meantime there is a nice time-lapse film of clouds floating past Errigal for you to watch.

You can purchase my Donegal landscape paintings here

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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)