Musings in the Donegal Gaeltacht

a cháirde, tá faitíos orm nach mbeidh mé ag scríobh go ró-mhinic i rith mí Meithimh mar tá deacrachtaí leis an idirlíon thuas anseo i Mín a’ Leá. ‘Every picture tells a story’ mar a deirtear i mBéarla ach ní bheidh mé in ann pictiúirí a chur suas ach oiread, fairíor. Tá na sléibhte thartímpeall orainn go h-álainn ar fad agus tá mé tar eis na mílte grianghrafanna a thógaint cheana féin… Don’t be concerned, I’m not going to write it all in Irish – although it’s wonderful to be living up here in the heart of the Donegal Gaeltacht or Irish-speaking area.

But there’s an old road that winds its way up through Muckish Gap and there’s a bridge on this road called Droichead na nDeor ( pronounced like: Dri-hyid na nyore ). In the old days, many people from Donegal would travel to Scotland to work on the potato farms there. The family would travel some of the way with them but would stop at Droichead na nDeor to bid a final fairwell. In English the name means: Bridge of Tears.

During my stay in Mín a’ Leá, at Ceardlann Cló na gCnoc (see, I’ve been walking along parts of an abandoned railway line that runs from the city of Derry to Burtonport on the West coast of Donegal. I’m making a series of drawings of the old railway bridges that still remain along the way. ( Many of the railway stations still exist as well – I might write about them another day ) I’m thinking of calling this project Droichidí na nDeor, or the Bridges of Tears.

My brother Piaras sometimes tells me that my art is too sad. I need to think about that – but not today. Today I have some questions for my artist friends out there in Bloggyland. One: If I do a series of drawings of old bridges, would you know that it was a project about emigration, or would you just think that it was a series of bridge drawings? Two: It rains a lot here, it’s handier to take a quick photo sometimes, what’s so special about making drawings instead of using the camera? If Turner had a pocket camera, would he have used that instead of carting all his painting gear over ‘rocky lane and fen’ ? I’d love to hear your opinions …please add your comments below, your email address won’t be used for anything else.

Slán go fóillín



  1. Sounds truly wonderful Eoin. I do wish my Irish was better though, as I had trouble with the first paragraph. A linguaphone cd set must be got in the near future.

    A series of drawings of bridges would be wonderful and evocative.
    How individuals read it is something entirely different. Maybe that why we have the artist statement of intention along side!

    The camera surely is handy, but in no way communicates the artist’s will and free hand. My feeling is that Turner may well have used a snap camera but his work would surely not have reached the pinnacles it did. Hand, Eye, Heart.

    What do you reckon? – Richard


    • Thanks for your comment Richard. I’ve been wondering about this. In a way, doesn’t it all come down to whether you think the concept or the form is more important? I’ve been wandering around this mountainy area and the landscape lifts my soul. I could set myself down almost anywhere and start painting – but I’ve been thinking about the story of Ireland too and how so many people have had to leave, down through the centuries; I believe that art can somehow bring a deeper understanding of various aspects of life, delve into areas that are perhaps, beyond words. Having said that though, here I am, wandering and wondering… and sometimes, a startling cloud formation, a sudden patch of sunlight or the sight of an eagle stops me in my tracks. eoin


  2. Lucky you Eoin, with time to wander in the stunning beauty of Donegal. My grandmother was an Irish speaker from West Donegal and she used to talk about the dreadful sadness of the ‘American Wakes’ the night before a family member left for the U.S. Many of my Donegal relatives also went to Scotland and I’m sure you won’t find a family up there without similar stories to tell. Rich material for anyone with time to listen.

    I think Richard is right, I wouldn’t necessarily connect drawings of bridges with emigration unless the artist statement (which I always read) or the exhibition title referred to it. And bridges are not necessarily sad, they are also images or metaphors for hope and connection, even if they need a little repairing. They also allow traffic both ways (like the railway tracks) so that those that leave can always come back, with all the learning and skills that they have gained while they were away. But this in no way minimises the decimation of families and communities caused by emigration or the on-going sadness it continues to cause to all involved.

    Regarding painting or drawing in the landscape, I know that the rewards are huge in terms of really ‘seeing’ the place, as opposed to taking a quick snap. Your artwork is then infused with the experience of your walk there and back, the wind and rain on your face, your discomfort as you sit on a cold rock to draw, and the lifting of your soul that you describe above. All these elements find their way into your work and inhabit it. Savour the soaring eagle, the patches of sunlight that transform the landscape, the drama of the clouds, and even the rain. Soak them up, drink them in, and they will sustain you and feed your work for many years to come. They will also enlarge your heart and expand your mind so that the more serious issues you seek to explore will find fertile soil. There will always be sadness but you won’t always have this wonderful opportunity to wander at will and marvel at the beauty around you. Embrace it with every fibre of your being!

    Alice Maher wrote about her Berry Dress and other works that involved long periods of walking and gathering. Even though she may have collected thousands of berries or thorns, only a few hundred ended up in the final piece. Maher believes, however, that the whole act of gathering, the walks, the conversations along the way, etc., etc., are all silent but vital parts of the artwork, though the viewer may be ignorant of them.

    Apologies for such a long comment but your post really spoke to me and your questions are pertinent. Happy rambling and “Sonas ar do lámh”!



    • Dear Marie, it was lovely to receive your comment and the delay in my responding is simply because the internet is so unreliable here. I liked your idea of bridges being metaphors for hope and connection. I hadn’t thought of that. For me they seemed to be forlorn reminders of a time long gone when the railway was a vibrant channel of communications between Donegal and the rest of the world ( between 1903 and the late 1940s ). You’re right of course, the bridges aren’t necessarily sad but a carefully chosen title to an artwork might set one thinking of those who had crossed over them, perhaps never to return… eoin


  3. Bhael tá suil agam go raibh am iontach agat agus nár ith na midges thú. A truly beautiful if not incredibly lonely spot. Such silence and darkness at night. My dad was from Cashelnagcorr and my cousins lived in Mín a Leá. Manys the day I walked the old line and saved and turned turf not that i was too happy then about working on the bog. Fearghus filled a bag or two. We had a house in Mín a Craoibhe and loads of sheep -my brothers now. Isn’t life full of coincidences. Bail ó Dhia ar an obair.


    • Lovely to hear from you Fidelma, and you’re absolutely right about the midges, (there might yet be a whole post devoted to those dastardly creatures of the night) But thanks for getting in touch, I didn’t realise that you knew the area so well. If there is a gentle breeze blowing to keep away the midges, it really is a heavenly spot. Regards to Billy, slán go fóill, eoin


  4. Hi Eoin,
    I’m a bit late in coming to the discussion as i know you are now back in the big smoke. Big questions, I imagine the open space and time allowed you to ponder. If I saw drawings of bridges, would a subtext be evident without the accompanying artists statement? A Title to a piece can really lead the public into having an insight or perspective into what the artist is about, so in a round about way, drawings of railway could be connected to emigration. but with a caveat, bridges have strong symbolic connotations in passing from one place to another particularly across water. but a railway line?

    Taking a quick photo or drawings? I don’t think there is anything particularly special in using either medium, both can serve well in different situations. It is a question of identifying what best fits that particular situation. An artists way is I believe not to “take a quick snap” as has been mentioned previously, but to work in a reflective way, with camera or not I have a friend who is a photographer who limits himself to no more than five photographs when he is out working and then only once he has become really familiar with his subject I think in the age of digital it is all to easy to snap! I think a qualitative benchmark is how an artist uses his or her tools no matter what the tool
    Regards John


    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments John, I was thinking since that perhaps my interest in railways comes from the fact that I grew up beside an abandoned railway in Dublin. That railway line has since been re-established for the Luas light-rail system but during my youth, it was completely overgrown and it was an exciting place for us children to play and to seek adventure. I sometimes dreamed of following the line out to Bray but of course it was much too far and it never happened. But railways are interesting I think, because they can connect us to faraway places ( if only in our dreams ). As for bridges, perhaps a broken bridge would be a more poignant metaphor…

      Speaking of photographs, I took a lot of photographs during my stay in Donegal but I never considered them as ‘artworks’ but simply as visual notes, to be used later as references in my studio. Fidelma mentioned midges – I never encountered such relentless and ferocious midges as I did in the mountains of Donegal. Perhaps it’s true that one can learn more from sitting and drawing the subject than by ‘snapping photos’ but sometimes it’s just not possible to spend the time in the landscape ( unless maybe if one wore a beekeeper’s suit ). However, my original question was more about how to respond to the landscape, ie : recording the landscape by whatever method was one instinctive reaction but were there other ways to respond? – by collecting things, by making some kind of Land art, I don’t know, by performing some sort of primeval scream ( ! ). The midges do tend to drive one to the very edge.


  5. Droichead na nDeor… you know there’s a bridge in Venice called the bridge of sighs? It too was a bridge of farewells. Sounds like an amazing project, go n-éirí go geal leat! Will people know it’s about emigration? hard to know, possibly not but the lonesome sentiment of a place abandoned could still be quite strong even if the viewer doesn’t know why.
    Camera v’s plein air….you could always bring along a camera when you go out to sketch/ paint, take some pics and work from them too and see in the end which result you’re happiest with! There will be a difference in the work but one is not necessarily better than the other.


    • An-dheas a chloisint uait, a Dheirdre. I’m back home in Dublin now and I’m still wondering about this story. Actually, I’d have to say that it a pretty wet month of June up there in the Northwest corner of Ireland so I couldn’t stay out for very long but I was lucky that my residency included the use of a fully equipped print studio in Cló so there was always something to do. I’m only a novice when it comes to print but I learned a lot, I’d say, and I hope to continue with it in the future. Slán go fóill, eoin


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