What would you expect to see inside this old overgrown cottage on the side of the road in Donegal? Would you just pass by or would you try and get in to have a look? Well, I was passing this cottage every day a few years ago until eventually, my curiosity got the better of me.
It wasn’t that difficult to enter, despite the tangle of brambles and weeds, but the door was open so I walked in. Ooooh, but it was eerie. There was a hole in the roof which let in some light from above. But I got such a fright when I saw someone peering back at me in the gloom! Hang on, it was me! I was actually staring at a dusty, cobwebby old mirror. See below.
I was on an artist’s residency in Donegal and I had met with the Gaelic poet Cathal Ó Searcaigh the previous day. He read me a wonderful poem that he’d just written about how spirits haunt the land long after the people who had lived there were gone. The poem is called: “Na Bailte Bánaithe” and here’s a short extract, with my translation below.
Tá ochlán chaointe sa ghaoth
a shéideann aniar ó Altán
is anseo tá damhán alla
ag fí aibíd an bháis
i bhfuinneog bhearnach an tseantí
inar chonaí mo chineál fadó.
There’s a loud wailing cry on the wind
that blows eastward from Altan
and a spider weaves a shroud
in the vacant window of the house
where my people lived long ago.
So this was the inspiration for a new body of work and I have been painting empty fireplaces in abandoned homes on the west coast of Ireland since then. I was thinking about how central the fireplace was to the home, how people used to keep the fire going throughout the night and throughout the year, and how it really was the ‘hearth’ of the home. If people were moving home, they would take a lighting sod of turf with them from the old house to begin the fire in the new house, so as not to break the cycle. Seeing these abandoned fireplaces, each with its own distinctive personality, was quite distressing and I undertook the series of paintings as a sort of requiem for those who had gone, a commemoration of the diaspora.
Now, in a week’s time, these paintings will be presented in Olivier Cornet’s new gallery on Great Denmark Street in Dublin (beside Belvedere College). And the show is creating a bit of a buzz, I think. It is featured in the current edition of the Irish Arts Review! – an article by Brian McAvera.
And don’t forget, your comments are always welcome. Click on the little brown speech bubble up at the top right of this post and you can put your comment there. Slán go fóill, eoin