The following is from Michael’s diary while Shona and Michael were artists in Residence at the Cill Rialaig Art Project pre famine cottages in County Kerry Ireland.
Getting out of bed with the rising sun here is a sleep-in. Chilled nights, I sleep very little, naps really, interrupted with just laying there, hours of listening to wind whipping around the cabin and along this lonely coast, gusting and sweeping into little conicals of spinning air, miniature tornadoes, wandering aimlessly across the sea, releasing their energy and dying as easily as they came. There are the occasional nights where sleep allows me to enter the dark silence of the night and then to wake with memories of other worlds, a night of dreams, of reoccurring characters, of beautiful memories to take with me into the morning but easily released and forgotten.
This morning I looked through my porthole size window to watch the Atlantic waking up. Opposite my cabin is a flat area to park a car or, more perfectly, to stand gazing at my new world and to sip at an early morning cuppa, sort of religiously taking in the morning sky play ‘spectacular’ along this rugged Kerry coast.
I am staying at the Cill Rialaig Artist’s village set up by a wonderfully eccentric Irish lady, Noelle. We thank her for her gorgeous craziness, to rebuild a pre famine village for artists to escape to the edge of the sea, at the edge of the world but anchored to the coast by its gruelling antiquity.
This morning I hurriedly dressed, sloppy jacket, painting trousers, some socks and clogs, scarf and hat and raced out to the parking space. A strong fast front was coming in from the ocean and a slow one coming in from the land, colliding on the distant peninsula. Misty clouds tracing falling rain, traveling across the sea and over the islands, the ones I love to paint. Two distant islands acting like a gateway, perhaps pedestals for giant sentinels welcoming ancient trading partners of distant lands and tongue are partially hidden in the coming tempest. The morning sun, barely above the hills screams through gaps in the heavy clouds, and brilliant, blinding rays of golden morning light throw patches on the sea, dappled by a choppy surface.
Strong red light out at sea from the early sun reflected again and again in mirky brown clouds with a watered down wash of pinks and reds above. I run to get my paints.
It is impossible to paint what you see. There is also no table of course so I balance the little box of water colours in one hand and pad on my arm while I mix water from the bonnet of a car, from the morning drizzle. I mix little packets of paint to find colours I am happy to represent some part of this ever changing sky, sea, land. I can’t get it down quickly enough and the wind keeps wanting to turn the page to start another sketch. I can only hand over in the excitement, and hope to get something that captures some small part of the feeling and experience.
The morning cold has begun to climb, numbing toes and feet. The colours dancing on the water are shifting to greys as the sun rises higher. I am aware my ears are freezing and my toes are wet.
The cabin is bleak and only warmed with the knowledge the thatching on the roof is new. It should keep any heat created on the right side. I googled before I got here, ‘peat’…. amazing stuff, old dirt, dried you can burn, and now with some new found experience, it is best mixed with a little wood and briquettes if you want any heat satisfaction at all, to justify that straw on the roof – it has taken a few grizzly days to get the chill out.
Settling in, getting to feel your new home takes some doing too, I have moved the furniture around trying to get a sense of it, that horrid nesting instinct. The table aged by frustrated artists scribbling and gauging for inspiration. It slides easily across the grey lino floor so I tried it under the window and then behind the grimy cotton covered lounge, then at the edge of the studio, marking studio from living suggesting the importance of working or the the importance of eating depending what side you stand on. I put it in the middle, and walked around studying it like some stupid sculptural installation, and then put it back where I found it, in front of the broken heater on the wall; imaginary warmth at eating time.
I find myself staring at the stone wall searching the cracks between the carefully laid stone and realising they have used ugly grey cement to renovate this ancient home. The roof of the studio, skillioned against the main portion of the building is of glass to let the northern light down into the studio space, but outside is a dark greying sky and above on a rocky outcrop some black crows are attempting a landing.
Some more morning sketching, a fight with the peat and fire lighters to push the cold out, a long breakfast and more dreaming and talking. Secretly it’s our favourite time the morning; a time of dreams, problems, lows and crescendos with humility on its heals and a return to the day. I love Ireland, it has, as I have been told, ‘soft rain’.
Perhaps I am lazy, but I never fully prepare. I have brought with me a simple box of Rembrandt water colours and a single pad to work in, there is no need to be precious I tell myself, I have two brushes, that should be enough. Setting out with cap and scarf and a leather jacket to keep the rain away, box of paints in hand and pad inside my coat. We don’t want to be obvious, we just want to paint and draw our response to the land and the sea.
The old road passes the cabin, between it and the car park, and slowly climbs the hill towards the headland passing so many years of past lives we cannot help getting lost in them all. It is a wonderful walk, it thrills me, my imagination goes wild and we find ourselves passing the very old man who constantly mumbles the ancient stories of a lost culture, desperately trying to remember them all, to pass them on, but in vein; no one wants to remember his stories, they are all too busy and anyway, he is mad.
The rain gently lays on my cap, shoulders and legs as we walk around a little bend in the road which has recently seen its edges burned to coax another few patches of grass to feed multicoloured painted grazing sheep. Looking now to find our friend, he is a Robin, scarlet breasted, who always comes to meet us, always sitting on an old chimney pot from the original village now laying in ruins. He points the way, daily he casts a direction for us to go, to go straight ahead up the road or through the gate on the right, through bogged fields, saturated, drenched, up towards the Megaliths and the old ring fort.
The road curves and winds effortlessly with shoulder height walls on both sides made of liver coloured rocks with ebony white points from countless ages of gathered moss, hardened, petrifying, capping each one, declaring their age.
A little further on is the Ring house, fallen in and filled with sodden dirt and now housing the remains of ancient monks buried, just no dirt on their Skellig island monastery to dig, yet bury. Shona is obsessed with them, she sees them in every single man here and there are many in this land, too shy to partner.
If you want to meet one of the other artists, you will find them at the ring house. It is alive with its history, the oratory caving in, tracing the walls spiralling, discovering the entrance, the escape tunnel, small standing stones. It is a natural magnet for the curious artist.
Distracted, a calling to leave the others, there is another path down the hill, towards the ocean cliffs. Along narrow weathered sheep trails that come and go dwindling the choice of direction, through ancient forgotten potato rows and mounds, days of hunger and bare foot turning sods, praying, praying for an edible spud, and on through the dried red bracken ablaze against the vivid green of this land.
Excitement builds and becomes uncontrollable, there is no where to go, only the massive fall into the swirling waters. I want to look over but surely the cliff crumbles here. My heart is pounding, I sweat, I hold the rock wall tightly, going no closer.
Just beyond there is a grassy corner tucked in by the cliff. The edge is just beyond a fallen stone fence who offers only slight protection from the fall to the water. I cross, careful not to trip, sure of each step, planted to the soil but my guts, feel, the ground, slipping, and dropping underneath me. I could retreat.
Height has its effect. I am normally brave, very brave, but heights call and then there is that urge to go over, to experience the drop, always to experience that drop.
Leaning heavily on a solid rock back behind the stone fence my sketch pad open, I draw.
Taking a strong, dark, blunt pencil; I start. It is done with conviction, the first line. Amazing how its character varies and speaks as it travels down the page. The edge of the cliff is in.
The sea is lazy now and slops around the rocks creating rolling patterns of Chinese cloud motifs, like fingers and knobbly hands wrapping around the edges, dipping into the sea.
The drawing is finished and it is a good one. It has a feeling of a Japanese wood cut. The lines cut the page attempting to tell the story.
Last night was one of those nights of dreams, filled with so many happenings I can’t put my mind to just one, they all float into each other somehow creating an inner warmth today.
Robin has greeted us again as he always does, on the chimney pot. Little skips and whips of his wings facing one way and the next. There is pure joy in him today. His voice is sweet and rises above the chorus of the land, a simple melody. It is a meditation to be standing here in front of Robin listening to his tune.
There is an old blue acrylic cord about a meter in length someone has used to tie the walking gate closed. Sinking into thick black pissy smelling mud, I want to untie it quickly so I can open the gate and move to some drier ground but it is hopelessly knotted and takes some doing to free. Sliding our feet up the rise to greener patches, grabbing the air for balance and laughing at the sodden complaining shoes with every careful slippery step.
Past ancient stone walls and another older ring fort or perhaps an ancient farmhouse in the round with its little stone outcrops giving shelter to sheep through the agonising centuries of living. It’s not so high up, but it feels like the top of the world.
The morning is golden, white gold, like the extreme temperatures of a smelting furnace, impossible to look at directly. The sea is the sky, there is no division.
The two islands, with their nippled tops and the sentinels they have lost, hang in the sky casting the lightest of reflections before them. From the Atlantic a soft rain drifts in and gently erases one island and the next.
A lone morning crow crosses my way, distraction, his casual caw menacing. He glides along the coast, over the rocks and sea below, simple even strokes of his wings taking him away from me. He is by the cliffs I drew all those days ago, the scene pulls at me. You become aware of your place here, you begin to listen to the earth’s sounds, you begin to question your history, your token ancestral lineage and finally we look up, we find ourselves standing in the debris of our modernity stretched too thinly over ancient wisdoms.
It is funny, it is as if the crow speaks, I feel he knows me, has he confused me with someone else? The ancients say crows never forget a face.
There was a time, many years ago when I was a young boy, Johnny and I were working on a dry old farm out in the West Australian plains collecting hay. The heat drove us indoors by nine in the morning, and we would be back at work at six in the evening. Six to nine and then six to nine, morning and evening.
We were boys, middle class suburban emptiness. By midday we were bored so once, only once, we took out an air rifle to shoot something, anything, so long as it moved. The big black Crow, and they are massive in Australia, sat on top of an electric pole, we shot it and we shot and we shot it again, it refused to die. We shot that rifle so many times. It just kept looking at us, his black eyes hitting us with more power than we could ever dream. Defeated, we withdrew to our verandah shelter, miserable and drowning in the knowledge of our weakness.
The sky has moved through its morning brilliance and now growing grey, the soft rain has moved along the coast, over my rocks, the crow has moved on, the rain is now with us. You stand in this ‘soft rain’ for a bit but then it just gets silly. The sheep do it all day but even they get sick of it and go looking for some ancient little shelter in the hills.