Bloody Foreland is one of my favourite locations in Donegal. It is one of the wildest, windiest and most beautiful places I have been. The light is sharp and clear. You feel healthier for breathing the air here.
The wind is always blowing. It is very remote and feels a bit like the edge of the known-world.
The name Bloody Foreland (Cnoc Fola in Irish means Hill of Blood) does not to refer to some past battle that took place here in mythic times, but intense red hue of the rocks at sunset. The Irish language dominates here.
Folklore records that Balor, the one-eyed supernatural warlord was eventually slain by his grandson Lugh Lámh Fhada on the slopes of Cnoc Fola. Indeed, some say that the tide of blood which flowed from Balor’s evil eye stained the hillside and gave it its name.
I particularly like the incredible stone walls, made of massive granite boulders, that snake across the hills here. They date from the 1890s. They suggest to me a landscape where stones were plentiful and labour cheap. It is also the sort of place where writers come to get away from the modern world and think about writing. Dylan Thomas, travelled to An Port, further south to write poetry, but left without paying his bills.
Old Farm Buildings, Bloddy Foreland
Bloody Foreland, also makes a refreshing contrast to the slopes of Brinlack and Derrybeg, round the corner, which are heavily peppered with larger modern houses and bungalows from the era of “Bungalow Bliss“.
This is the first time that I have been able to paint Ireland whilst in Ireland. Previously, I have worked from my photos back in Wales. Now I think that being surrounded by these colours all the time is affecting my work in a different way.
I am experimenting a little with less detail and letting my under painting show through more – to give a greater sense of the roughness of the landscape here. I am feeling my way. I don’t know how my paintings will develop in the future, but not knowing is a sort of freedom from painting the same thing in the same sort of way.
Caravans tucked away on coastal inlets and islands are not an unsual sight in Donegal. I am always impressed by their presence as there are no roads for lorries and it must have taken a good deal of effort and ingenuity to get it there. Getting to have a “Staycation” in 2021 amidst all the uncertainty of vaccine rolls out & third (or is it fourth?) waves looks like it will take an equal amount of effort! So instead join me in imagining the view from the static caravan’s wide window across the rugged terrain of Gola Island on this late spring morning.
I have found that my energy is slowly but steadily returning after my operation on my broken leg in March (although painting light is shrinking with the shortening days). I spent much of the spring and early summer sitting in my chair wishing I could go outside into the fresh air or climb the stairs to my attic studio. I painted watercolours instead, and thought a lot about colour and composition. I learnt to simplify my images and edit them with more ruthlessness than I had done before.
I have attempted to carry these lessons into the compositions of my oil paintings. I suspect that I need to go further. I am always torn between a desire to accurately convey what is probably a well-known location to local people, and the need to create an effective composition. In otherwords I want to create an engaging painting, regardless of whether a viewer has visited Donegal or not.
Here’s an example of editing my composition. I used several reference photos for this painting of Bád Eddie (Eddie’s Boat) but you will see that I decide to leave out the all the lamp posts. I felt they made the picture look cluttered. I also left out the the skylights on a couple of the houses for the same reason. I did, however, decide to include a couple of series of fence posts on the right side of the painting as they lead the eye down the hill.
I have gone further with my editing of the reference image in my most recent painting of Arranmore. This is a painting of a (probably abandoned) white house that I had painted a watercolour of earlier in the year .
A lot of the compositional work is done when composing the reference photograph, but there is often a bit more tinkering to be done to clarify the image further.
Here you can see that I have again removed most of the telegraph poles, just leaving one further down the road. The fence posts as usual, get to stay. The ones on the right led the eye down the road. The central part of the painting on the right side is too cluttered for my liking too. It’s very confusing for the viewer. I have since discovered that this is because there are too many “tangents“. The word “tangent” usually just indicates that two things are touching, but in art the term describes shapes that touch in a way that is visually annoying or troublesome. This also describes those telegraph poles I removed. It all makes for an image that is easier to “read”.
I also removed a several of the buildings so that there is a clear view over to the tiny island of Inishkeeragh with its solidary summer home. Finally, I also simplied the pair of yellow buildings to the far right. I found the semi-abstract result pleasing and I felt that the lack of detail balanced the detail in mud, rocks and grasses on the near side to the left of the painting. I like to balance detail with areas of flat colour, such as the roof of the house or the sea, as I think that too much detail all over makes the head sore. The human brain doesn’t process images in this way any way. Our eyes/brains will focus on one or two areas and “generalise” other larger areas of colour.
Thus, I hope I have created a succesful painting rather than slavishly copying a photograph.
Read more about avoiding confusing tangents in compositions here
I decided to apply the detailed techniques I have used for painting the hilly city of Swansea to the rural homes of the coastal townland of Bunbeg. I am usually drawn to painting old fashioned Irish cottages, as I like their clean lines and simple shapes. This time, I decided to challenge myself by painting modern Irish houses. The homes of this part of Bunbeg are almost all modern homes, although there are one or two old cottages tucked in amongst the two-storey houses. I found the arrangement of houses on the hilly a pleasing one. I was particularly keen on the road that snakes its way down the hill on the far left of the composition. I decided to leave out all the lamp posts as I felt the cluttered the scene. However, the real joy of the composition is rather unexpected (if you have never seen it before, that is) shipwreck on the right-hand side of the painting. Bád Eddie.
Mageraclogher beach, Bunbeg, on the West coast of Donegal, is a vast, beautiful, and usually windswept beach. It is like a natural amphitheater. In its center, fleetingly illuminated by the autumn light, just for a moment is the ruined hulk of a boat.
Bád Eddie, Ireland.
This is a shipwreck, known locally as Bád Eddie, Bád meaning boat in Irish/Gaeilge. I initially thought “Bad Eddie” was a nickname like Paul Newman’s character in the movie The Hustler, “Fast Eddie”. It made me think the wreck had been some sort of errant boat, but no it just means Eddie’s Boat in Irish. This is, after all, Gaoth Dobhair (Gweedore), an Irish speaking area of Ireland.
There are shipwrecks and there are shipwrecks. I am very familiar with images of bones of the Helvetia that have lain submerged on Rhossili Beach on the Gower Peninsula for over 120 years. Bád Eddie, however, is loved in a way that the Helvetia can only dream of. She has starred in a pop video with Bono and Clannad, no less! She has had a film about her life made and broadcast on the TG4 the Irish language channel (see the film below, it is well worth watching), she has her own popular Twitter account too – Bád Eddie @CaraNaMara
Bád Eddie, isn’t her real name. She was actually named Cara Na Mara (Friend of the Sea). Her first career was as a fishing boat and she was originally built in Brittany, France, and bought by local fisherman Eddie Gillespie. In 1977 she needed two planks repaired and she was towed ashore onto Magherclougher beach and somehow got left. The repairs were never done and she has lain here for over 40 years. So this, if there can be such a thing, is a happy shipwreck. No one died when this ship was washed up. No one had to rescue the crew. There are no sad memories, except for Eddie who never fixed his fishing boat.
In fact, Bád Eddie has helped create nothing but good memories. Over the years she became the playground to the local people and families on holiday in Gweedore. She has featured in thousands of family holiday photos and locals include her in their weddings, communions, even christenings. Sadly, the Atlantic Storms have taken their toll on Bád Eddie, and there’s less on her today than when I saw her two winters ago.
The locals love her and also recognize that she is a big tourist attraction and they want her preserved to keep that tourism alive. So there is an ambitious plan to create the first permanent sculpture in the sea in Ireland, a stainless steel full-size replica of the boat, incorporating what is left of the structure. I think a sea sculpture is a brilliant idea. There are some amazing sea sculptures in England, “Another Place” by Antony Gormley at Crosby, Near Liverpool in England and “The Scallop” by Maggi Hamblin at Aldeburgh, on the Suffolk coast – both have had their share of controversy (The Scallop has been called “The most controversial piece of Art in Suffolk”) but they have certainly increased tourism to their areas. I don’t imagine the Bád Eddie sea sculpture will cause too much controversy. The difficulty is around getting enough money together to build it. The project has the support of Donegal County Council, but more funding is needed so a gofundme campaign has been set up.
I recently join the Stair Árrain Mhór – Árrain Mhór History Facebook group and was overwhelmed by the positive response I received from the members when I put my most recent post online there. I was asked if I had any more paintings of Arranmore for them to see, so here’s a collection of all my paintings of the Island that I have completed in the last two years.
Where it reads (Private Collection) it means that the painting has been sold. I hope you enjoy looking at them.
Here is my latest Donegal painting. I am delighted that it will be going to its new home in California, USA, very soon.
A narrow lane curves down to a shining white cottage and outbuilding and to the right. This is not a public road but a lane to the house, just around the bend. Here it is bathed in glorious winter light. The low sun creates long dark shadows along the lane. The sheep look up, they are not used to strangers (not like the sheep on the Gower that barely give visitors a second glance). On the horizon, you can make out the tiny but distinctive shapes of Muckish and Errigal mountains . You can just make out a line of fence posts that lead down towards the small natural harbour that gives its name to this place: Poll Na Mbadaí or Poolawaddy. The meaning of Poolawaddy (also spelled Pollawaddy) is often disputed. In irish Poll a Mhadaigh, could mean Poll – the harbour, a Mhadaigh – of dogs or Poll na mbadaí, Poll – the harbour, na mbadaí – of the boats. I suspect that the harbour of the boats is more likely, as it is a natural harbour and pier, but I could be wrong. I only have a basic understanding of Irish but I like to try and read it because place names are very descriptive (as they are in Welsh too) and often poetic. A harbour of dogs is just as possible, after all, there are tiny islands nearby named Calf, Duck and Gull Island.
It feels like it has taken me 7 months to get here. The last painting I finished just before I broke my leg in eraly March was also a painting of this area (see below). It has taken me so long to recover my “painting stamina” and gradually paint larger canvases (although some artists would not consider 80×60 cm “large”). I don’t think I will go any larger for now. I feel exhausted after finishing a large painting these days.
I like to understand what it is that I am painting, to get a sense of its history and the people who live/d there. I might call a building an “outhouse” for example but very often that building was once a family home, a newer bigger one having been built next to it. It matters to me to know that. It helps me make sense of a place. I only know only a little about the History of Arranmore, however, so what I have written here has been taken from articles I have found online (I have included links and a list of websites at the end).
Life on the east side of Arranmore Island, where Pollawaddy is located, is marginally easier than on the west side. This is because Cnoc an Iolair, the highest peak on the island (reputedly once home to golden eagles), provides relative shelter from the prevailing westerly Atlantic winds. This side of the island certainly seems more sheltered, gentler.
After the Protestation plantation in the 17th century, Arranmore Island, Donegal’s largest island, like other large parts of West Donegal, had been given to the English Lord Conyngham. However, when the terrible potato blight leading to the Great Hunger (“an Gorta Mór”, in Irish) spread during in the mid-1840s he declared the island, which he had never set foot on in his life, as unprofitable and sold it to a Protestant man John Stoupe Charley of Finnaghy, Belfast on 29 June 1849. The new landlord came to live on the island, building a “Big House” (now the Glen Hotel) after 1855 just down the road from Poolawaddy. Very near Poolawaddy, RIC police barracks were built, presumbably built around at the same time to protect the landlord’s property. Interestingly, the RIC left the island after about 40 years and there is still no police station on the island (although the Guards do visit on a regular basis).
Landlord Charley decided to clear as many starving tenants off the land, so he demanded them to present the receipts of their rent payments or face eviction. Of course, few if any had been given written receipts, let alone kept them since most of them could not read or write. The choice they were faced with was either the poor house in Glenties or to emigrate to America in a ‘coffin ship’. Many of these subtenants were evicted in 1847 and 1851. Many who made it into the new world settled on ‘Beaver Island’ (Lake Michigan, USA ). The two islands are twinned. The Árainn Mhór & Beaver Island Memorial, built in 2000, and the sign that Beaver Island is 2,750 miles away, is a memorial to this link. Many of the first islanders who emigrated to Beaver Island were from Poolawaddy. Evictions carried on after John Charley’s death in 1879, when his widow Mary and his brother Walter Charley MP were left to manage his lands. The British government even sent a gunboat, “Goshawk” in 1881 to “assist … the serving of ejectment processes on the tenants in the island of Arranmore”!
The Islanders who left for America emigrated permanently, but seasonal emigration was a more common feature of island life, with many young people working as labourers for farmers in the Lagan, a fertile area in northwest Ulster, and also in Scotland as ” tattiehokers” for the summer. Rósie Rua was one such youngster. She was born in 1879 and was reared on Aranmore Island by her mother and her step-father, the Butcher. In adult life, she gained renown as the best traditional singer in Aranmore and wrote a memoir of her life with the help of Padraig Ua Cnaimhsí. Unfortunately, the memoir seems to be out of print, but I could read some sections of it on google.books.
In her memoir she describes how at aged nine she was hired out to farmers in the Lagan. Her family home was not far from Poolawaddy and she describes catching the boat to Scotland to work as a farmworker or ” tattiehoker” for the summer. She wrote that “the steamer had dropped anchor off Calf Island, and we saw the boats pulling out from the shore with their passengers. In no time at all, we were all down at Pollawaddy ourselves and one of the small boats brought us out. Lily was the name of the steamer.I was amazed at the size of her…just about a hundred passengers in all boarded the Lily at Calf Island.”
Rósie Rua has a singing festival, Féile Róise Rua held in her name on Arranmore. The first was held in 2019. Sadly the pandemic distrupted the 2020 festival. The festival went online on facebook and you can watch some of the performers here. Fingers crossed the next one can go ahead in 2021! I will leave you will a clip of Jerry Early singing “I’ll Go” (5.55 onwards). Just look at the view out of his window!
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!
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).
We painted things like fences, walls window sills and the gate.
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.
It’s springy stuff. I jumped up and down on it a lot.
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.
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.
Seamas painted the back of the house and got the hang of the petrol strimmer.
4. Seamas’s winter visit. Part 1- More changes: – a new north-facing skylight put in by Paddy Campbell. Yeay. Light to paint by!
Best of all, Tom had removed the gorse by the back of the house. It was gone!
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.
Finally, the brambles are gone.
There’s a lot of land here!
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.
Update: June 2020 we had a portacabin art studio (designed by Séamas and Stephen Primrose) and built by H.E. Haslett Co. Ltd of County Tyrone delivered. It looks great. If you are wondering, the giant window which is positioned to for the northern light, is round the other side.
As you can see the garden has GROWN! I hope the insects and wildlife are all enjoying the overgrown garden. My broken leg and the pandemic prevented a another visit (and a lot of gardening) in 2020.
I am really looking forward to using this studio later this year (all going well with vaccinations, fingers crossed)!
Gola is a Donegal island I painted and thought about long before I set foot on its shores. I have written about it beforehere.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.
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.
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 herewhere he will post times of sailings and photos.
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.
This is because there are very few motor vehicles here, one or two cars and some tractors.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 flammable. At least three gorse fires broke out last week; one near Kinclassagh, one near Crolly and another near Drumnacart, Annagry, which actually destroyed two homes.
House destroyed by gorse fire in West Donegal
House destroyed by gorse fire in West Donegal
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.
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.”
Photo credit Brid Sweeney
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.
In the Shadow of Errigal
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.
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.
(Here’slink 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 )
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).
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.
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.
I have recently been spending time with my parents in the Cotswolds in Gloucestershire. On a bright sunny Sunday morning I explored some of the winding tracks of a near by village called Chalford and Chalford Hill. Where is that? In the South West-ish of the English Midlands ( see map below). The Parish of […]
I was absolutely delighted to spot Claire Keegan’s “Foster” (and my painting on the cover) at the BBC’s screen of this year’s British Academy Film Awards, known as the BAFTAs. The Irish language film “The Quiet Girl” was nominated for Best Screenplay (Adapted) catagory. The film’s director Colm Bairead wrote the screenplay, adapted Claire Keegan’s beautiful novella. The moving film was also nominated for the Best Film Not in the English Language.
I am very excited to have an article in today’s Irish Independent on Sunday about me and work by Niall McMonagle. Below is my expanded Q & A interview that was much edited to feature in Niall McMonagle’s What Lies Beneath feature . It’s interesting to see that the online version had a different […]
New Work & Recent Sales
Washing Line, Arranmore _Emma Cownie
Inishcoo (To The Fore of Arranmore) – Emma Cownie
Kinnagoe Bay (Inishowen, Dongal)
Over Glenlough Bay, Donegal-Emma Cownie
Still, On Gola (Donegal)
An Port, Donegal_Emma Cownie
House on Ishcoo, Donegal-Emma Cownie
On Rutland Island, Donegal -Emma Cownie
Spring on THree Cliffs Bay, Gower_Emma Cownie
Sun on the Reeds (Glentornan, Donegal)-Emma Cownie
View from the Pier (Portnoo)-Emma Cownie
From Port to Glenlough (Donegal)
Fishing Boat at Port Donegal-Emma Cownie
Portnoo Pier, Donegal_Emma Cownie
Down to Rossbeg Pier, Donegal
Errigal reflection (Donegal) _Emma Cownie
Errigal from Cruit Island. Donegal _ Emma Cownie
Over to Fanad Lighhouse (Donegal) _Emma Cownie
Errigal painting – A Commission 2022
From Arranmore (Donegal)- Emma Cownie
Abanoned (Glentornan, Donegal) -Emma Cownie
Ferry Home (Arranmore, Donegal) by Emma Cownie
Summer Morning on Pobbles Bay
On the Way to Kinnagoe Bay (Drumaweer, Greencastle)
Down to Doagh Strand (Donegal)-Emma Cownie
Lambing Season at Fanad Head
Fanad Lighthouse (Donegal)
Down to the Rusty Nail
Carrickabraghy Castle, Inishowen
Upper Dreen_Emma Cownie
Portmór Beach, Malin Head, Donegal
Down to the Rusty Nail, Inishowen
The Walls of Derry
Painting of Derry City
Derry Walls by Emma Cownie
Shipquay Gate by Emma Cownie
Over to Owey Island (Keadue) Donegal
Lighting the way to Arranmore
Old Stone Cottage in front of Errigal (Donegal
Boat at the Pier, Gola
House on Inishbofin, with distant Seven Sisters (in studio)