Rugged, rural Ireland inspires colony’s artists
BALLYCASTLE, County Mayo, Ireland — I stand atop the cliffs of western Ireland gazing out across vast sweeps of the Atlantic Ocean. The tempestuous waters churn below, erupting to touch the wings of circling gulls with salty mists, then crashing against the nearby island rock face of Dún Briste just offshore.
The wind is strong enough to push one over the edge and I can imagine (as legend has it) St. Patrick separating this hermitic sea stack from the mainland, known as Downpatrick Head, to save the neighboring villagers from the ravages of the ogre Deodruisg who lived there.
Seeking shelter from the downpour, I climb back into my car and drive along the narrow coastal roads, reminded that this pristine area is still very much unknown even in Europe. In the distance dairy farms dot the plush green hills. Old rock walls give way to wild flowers that stretch across tall, billowing grasses to where the great cliffs drop to the sea.
Amid this bucolic landscape I arrive at the village center of Ballycastle to find the Ballinglen Arts Foundation, a unique rural revitalization project that draws world-class artists here for inspiration. Many of them have fallen in love with the natural surroundings and return each year for working holidays, while others have purchased cottages abandoned since the famine years. The result has turned Ballycastle into something of a small international artists’ colony.
It all began in 1981 when Margo Dolan and her husband, Peter Maxwell, of the Philadelphia gallery Dolan/Maxwell, were touring the country by car. One night they found themselves driving through the verdant twists and turns of North Mayo toward Ballycastle. Enchanted, they began to think of ways to prolong their visits and how they might help gentrify the local farming community.
Since formally launching in 1992, the nonprofit foundation has drawn over 200 Ballinglen fellows to this countryside through a competitive selection process, providing each with a studio and a house to live in free of charge. Artists are required to donate one work completed during their stay, selected by the artist along with Dolan and Maxwell, which becomes part of the foundation’s Ballinglen Archive.
Among the first of the Ballinglen fellows was Catherine Kernan of Somerville, Mass. “The landscape had found its way into every aspect of my work,’’ she says. “On early trips I explored the coastal cliffs, tidal pools . . . waterfalls, groves of trees, and stone work. Subsequently I moved inland to streams and glens, then to ravines and chthonic [underground] locations without horizons.’’
These natural forms repeat themselves throughout the landscape and pull the artist’s eye toward the majestic. One example of this is the mighty Stags of Broadhaven, visited by fishermen and kayakers alike for their jagged beauty as they rise out of the foamy sea about a mile and a half offshore. Others find inspiration in the simplicity of cows grazing on an abutting farm.
As afternoon approaches I walk up Ballycastle’s Main Street toward the Ballinglen Centre’s Courthouse Gallery, which, in part, houses the archive. The breeze carries the soft smoke of turf. There is a butcher shop and a little general store that doubles as a delicious alehouse called Polke’s, a local favorite owned by Brian Polke. Many visiting artists have left gifts of their work hanging in Polke’s, which now boasts an impressive collection. Often artists can be found here chatting with the locals over a Guinness and a ham sandwich.
“The farmers . . . share with the artists some of the same attitudes toward existence,’’ wrote Maxwell in an exhibition catalog. “The farmers work all the time — morning, evening, during the night if some animal is having trouble giving birth — seven days of the week. The artists work the same schedule. And visual artists and farmers are practical people who deal with special tools dedicated to their work which they know a great deal about. And they are both involved in creation.’’
On special evenings the locals enjoy dinner at nearby Enniscoe House, a bed-and-breakfast in the grand style of a Georgian mansion, on the shores of Lough Conn under Mount Nephin. Owner Susan Kellet, whose ancestors built the home in the 1740s, often stops to chat during the five-course meal. She has embellished the house with family portraits and antique furniture.
The tenderness and beauty of the area can seem particularly charming when a little boy or girl shepherds sheep or cattle through the village center, bringing traffic to a standstill. Some Dubliners have purchased cottages in the area for scenes like this, of “the real Ireland,’’ they say.
In search of vistas many artists prefer the breathtaking cliffs of Céide Fields high above the ocean. This is the most extensive Stone Age site in the world, dating some 5,000 years. Here, buried beneath blanket bogs, is a complex of fields, houses, and tombs that can be visited today.
I continue on to the only restaurant in the village, a beautiful old stone tea room known as Mary’s Cottage Kitchen, owned and run by Mary Munnelly. Wild smoked salmon, warm buttery scones, hot broccoli quiches, savory fruit tarts, scrambled eggs, and bacon are among the temptations here. While admiring the artwork from Munnelly’s many friends that adorn the walls, I choose from a selection of teas and dainty biscuits.
The day begins to wear on and rays of sunlight pierce the clouds. I head for Lacken Strand, the golden beach in tiny neighboring Lacken, where high tide brings the visible play of breaching dolphins and low tide invites the occasional artist.
This remote part of the world may be the last place anyone would expect to find an artists’ colony. Their work renders this rugged landscape immortal.
John Vitale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.