Away From It All: Sketching in Schull, West Cork

Away From It All: Sketching in Schull, West Cork

I recently had a great week of sketching in a lovely little Irish town in West Cork, but in mid-February, a somewhat un-sketching-friendly time of year…

It’s A Long Way To West Cork

I turned fifty recently. I’m sure I had vague plans to be somewhere exotic when the big day rolled around, but it wasn’t to be. Our youngest, Olivia, is 13 and a sailor of 420 racing dinghies. There was a week of training for these young sailors planned in Schull, out on the peninsula of West Cork, and my husband and I had decided to head down there for the school mid-term break en famille. There is a somewhat sheltered bay there, making it ideal as a training ground for the kids. I didn’t mind the fact that I would spend most of the day packing and driving, as there is no better company than my husband Marcel and our kids (of whom two would be travelling with us, Olivia and her brother Paddy). Besides, I was happy to get out of Dodge. And so it turned out: it was a nice day for a drive, all five hours of it.

Schull turned out to be a sleepy little town consisting of one steep, twisting street with shops and pubs on it, and little else. It looked very cute in the early spring night. In Schull we settled the kids and our little long-haired Jack Russell Reuben, who disgraced himself, and by extension us, by immediately cocking his leg in the house where we were staying. We had been very kindly invited by a good friend who had a male dog of their own, so it was terribly awkward. The dogs set each other on edge and the “host” dog was terribly upset at having to share his space. Unable to take the embarrassment any longer, Marcel and I headed out for a pint.

We found a pub that looked nice around the corner from the jetty called Newman’s. There were two or three other people inside by the crackling fire, chatting in their gorgeous soft accents. Inside Marcel ordered a pint of weissbier for me, which is my favourite tipple. It came in an enormous glass, with a slice of orange floating in the spume on top. We remarked on the size of the glass to the barman. “That’s the glass you want in a bar fight,” he said. His singsong West Cork accent made a bar fight sound like a jolly wheeze with the locals. Since it was my birthday, Marcel could hardly object to me doing a bit of sketching: I drew the beer taps on the first page of my new sketchbook, and Marcel checked the weather for the coming week. Weather watching is his favourite pastime, and now it was imbued with a satisfying sense of importance seeing as the kids would be sailing in it.

A Snowy Sunday

Next morning I went back to sketch the exterior of Newman’s. The yellow walls matched the interior, which was good, because I like a page to have a colour theme if I can manage it. I looked for somewhere to sketch, found a deep doorway directly opposite the pub and established via a local that no one would be coming in or going out for the forseeable future. Tucked in there, I tuned into the voices of the locals tripping past in the wind and hail. “What time is the bingo?” said a young woman to her friend. Then it started to snow. An elegant woman passed in a full-length brown mink coat, spotted with white snowflakes. “You need the fur in weather like this,” she said. An elderly man crossed and chatted about painting for a while, and I explained the concept of urban sketching, which he received with polite enthusiasm. He was very happy, having just come from the pancake café across the street. “I always ask for lots of maple syrup,” he said in a clipped English accent. There are a LOT of posh English types in Schull, attracted by the isolation and wild beauty of West Cork.

Newman's Pub, Schull, watercolour by Róisín Curé

Messing About In Boats

As Marcel could have told us thanks to his forecast-watching, Monday dawned wild and windy. It was the first day of sailing for the young sailors, who range in age from 12 or so up to 19. A 420 is sailed in pairs, and Olivia would be sailing with her friend Isabella (“Call us Livabella”). I drew them as they prepared to launch. I was very pleased to have a chance to use my new document red ink by De Atramentis and, like all their other document inks, it flowed beautifully and is waterproof. I was disproportionately happy to have a red pen to write the numbers on our girls’ sail, and a blue one for the 420 logo. Soon though, waterproof or not, I had to give up, as a heavy shower came through.

Schull, watercolour by Róisín Curé

I moved on to the fishing nets by the quay, and started sketching. They were just what an urban sketcher likes – bright colours that would barely need mixing. After a while, lo and behold, a shower came through. This time the showers were hail but I persevered, with the help of a somewhat flimsy umbrella. I wasn’t too happy with the result of my sketch, despite the amazing subject – I was just too uncomfortable to concentrate. On top of that, my Raynaud’s disease meant my poor fingers were reduced to painful white claws without feeling, and I went home dissatisfied. To make matters worse, Reuben was still marking his territory in our host’s home. Something had to be done, and so I nipped out to Centra to buy him some nappies.
“I’ve bought him Little Swimmers,” I told Marcel. “They’re meant for babies going swimming. I got just the right size, too, meant for newborns!”
“That’s marvellous,” he said in his public-school accent. “Now he won’t foul the ocean.”
“I think dogs wait till they get out of the sea to pee,” I said, but we went home feeling armoured against the dreaded leg-cocking disaster.

Next day was bright and sunny. I snuck out early, leaving Marcel to help Olivia get ready to sail, and grabbed the early morning sunshine to make the previous day’s sketch of the nets a bit more dramatic. I liked the bench for its slatted back which threw nice shadows across the jetty. I felt a lot better about my sketch, and was surprised that adding shadows on an already-painted sketch could work so well.

I liked the lobster pots on the left. Apparently lobsters are territorial and won’t let any other lobsters into the pot with them, but crabs are very social creatures and invite everyone in for a party. When you pick up a crab pot, it has lots in it. Poor things.

Fishing nets at Schull, watercolour by Róisín Curé

Bog Hopping In The Sunshine

Later that morning I climbed a hill towards Mount Gabriel with Marcel and a group of four other friends whose kids were also sailing. There is an observatory at the top and one of then men thought it would make a nice destination for a hike. After a short drive out of Schull, we parked up and walked along a path through a farmyard and up the hill behind. The rising, scrubby ground was poor and bleak, and was covered with gorse, grassy hillocks and ominous-looking outcrops of reeds. The going became more and more waterlogged as we climbed. Three cheers for very inexpensive hiking boots from German discount retailers, which kept my feet dry (at least until I plunged my foot into a hole up to the knee). The hillside was very exposed, and it was kind of sad to see the ruins of dwellings up there, stone upon stone – it made me conscious of the desperate lives some locals used to live. A merciless, pitiless way to eke out a living. But in the here and now, the view was breathtaking: the sea stretched out all around the coast beneath us, the bay dotted with islands and a cute lighthouse. The sun split the stones, the sea sparkled and although I panted a bit on the climb I was very happy to be fit enough to do it. On the journey to the top, we sat on some rocks for lunch. As we munched chicken sandwiches and drank hot tea, one of the dads got a message that his 10-year-old daughter, leaning slightly out of her Optimist sailing dinghy in the bay far below us, had been clipped by a passing boat. She wasn’t badly hurt but she was a bit shaken up. We decided not to climb all the way to the observatory, which was music to my ears – I wasn’t feeling THAT fit.

Back home that evening, I rang my friend Lorraine.
“Have you ever been embarrassed for 24 hours straight?” I asked her. I told her about Reuben and the leg-cocking, and our plans to get the better of him. She laughed until she cried and demanded that I draw the nappies and the poor little dog wearing them. So here you are…courtesy of Lorraine’s suggestion.

Reuben's Ignominy in Schull, watercolour by Róisín Curé

Reuben was so good, letting me flip him upside down to have the nappy put on, and licked my hands as if to say “I forgive you – whatever you are doing, and it does seem very strange, it’s probably for the best.” I had to cut a hole for his tail, and as I fiddled around with the nappy with the little dog on his back, I was reminded of doing the same thing when my son was a baby. I couldn’t stop laughing.
“You never had to cut a hole in the kids’ nappies,” said Marcel.
Although the optics were good once the nappy was on, and Reuben didn’t cock his leg any more, he doesn’t have the anatomy of a little baby boy, and his “part” wasn’t quite covered by the nappy, which only made me laugh the more. When it was on nice and snug, I had to resist the urge to bounce Reuben up and down on my knee, saying “There you are! Such a lovely dry boy! Such a LOVELY dry boy!”

Hanging Out On The Docks

The 420s looked very pretty as they sailed out into the bay. I drew the launch off the slip outside Schull Sailing Club, and looked to my right, at the craggy rocks jutting out from the land. The sea is always that greenish-blue colour off the West Cork peninsula, which is one of the things that makes it so gorgeous. The pebbles on the beach were lovely shades of purple and green and I resolved to come back and do them more justice.

The beach off the slip at Schull, watercolour by Róisín Curé

Later that afternoon I hung out on the quay where the fishing boats come in and sketched a colourful trawler with satisfying bits of rust on it. I was all alone (except for poor Reuben, his lead tied to the leg of my portable stool) and once again, the weather was pitiless. A young man drove a car slowly up and down the quay. Very, very slowly. I decided he was a drug-smuggler, waiting for a shipment, and now that I had seen him, I would not be permitted to leave in once piece. That’s urban sketching for you – alone with your thoughts, they run away with you. Well, mine do anyway. The man didn’t kill me, as it happens, and I felt bad for casting aspersions on the lovely town of Schull. Then I saw a sign that said, “We need your help! If you have seen any suspicious activity that could be related to drug-smuggling, please call this number…” or words to that effect. (The wonderful thing about West Cork is its intricate, rugged coastline, because it’s startlingly beautiful, and the bad thing about West Cork is its intricate, rugged coastline, because it’s impossible to police every bit of it.)

Schull, watercolour by Róisín Curé

The next afternoon I offered to take my son Paddy and his friend Max, both of whom are 16, for a bit of urban sketching. I had seen some Japanese lettering painted incongruously on the gable end of a blue building, and I felt that it was the perfect subject for the novice urban sketchers: I wanted them to draw something intricate but not daunting, or that would leave them feeling that they had gone wrong along the way. So it turned out, or would have, if it hadn’t been for the hail and rain that swept through the town every ten minutes. The boys did their best from the car but they couldn’t really leave. Actually, Paddy spent most of the time showing memes on his phone to Max. I, on the other hand, had to finish once I’d started, as I hate an unfinished sketch.

Japanese Characters in Schull, watercolour by Róisín Curé

We tried to guess the meaning of the characters, which we only knew were Japanese from the flag underneath it. One of the lads suggested that it meant “you won’t find this on Google Translate.” I’m sure someone knows, despite what is no doubt very poor handwriting…

On Your Marks, Get Set…Wait A Bit Longer

Friday was the first day of the races planned for the 420 sailors. I sketched them rigging their boats, or preparing to – in the end, after countless postponements, the race was called off for the day.

Preparing to race in Schull, pen and ink sketch by Róisín Curé

I wandered off to the beach by the slip and had a go at painting the pebbles on the beach. I had just put down some lovely colour when…a heavy rain shower came through. This time there was no waiting it out and I watched as the colour on the page rapidly washed away and splashed onto the stones. Once the paint is dry nothing will remove it, but if it’s still wet…it joins the rivulets of water and runs right off.

I went home to our lodging and sat for two hours waiting for the rain to stop, but it wasn’t of a mind to do so. It was one of the few days of sitting around staring at the fire that sometimes happens in bad weather on holidays in Ireland, but the young sailors had a ball, playing loud games of cards with each other. Reuben’s nappy sat rejected in his bed. Now when I tried to put it on, he gently nipped at it, in between licking my hand. The other male dog sat in Reuben’s bed. Reuben danced around him like a featherweight boxer, pleading in dog language for him to go. The other dog licked himself, studiously insouciant. The dog got up to stretch and I put my hand down to bar his passage back to Reuben’s bed (no one was watching, or I would pretended I didn’t care) and he bit me. It wasn’t hard, and the dog is very small, but it was enough to give me a fright, and feel righteous about me AND my dog being wronged. Oh well – we were guests in his house, and uninvited ones at that, as far as he was concerned.

Saved By The Sun

“It’s not going to rain until 11am tomorrow,” said Marcel, the weather watcher. He seemed very convinced and so I hit the beach early to put the colour back on the lovely pebbles. Then I figured it was important to include the context, so I did so. The man on the boat you can see is fiddling with flags, something to do with the race that finally took place some hours later. But aren’t the pebbles wonderful? Heather, sage, russet – rounded, like ours on the beaches here in south Galway, but without the blue of our limestone bedrock.

Schull Beach Pebbles, watercolour by Róisín Curé

Spotify And A Furry Pussy Cat

The young sailors, while not getting out sailing every day, were having a high old time, in each others’ houses every evening, playing cards, playing tag (yes!) and generally having the sort of non-WiFi-dependent fun that kids occasionally still have. Paddy and his friend Max were having a great time too, even though they weren’t sailing (both are sailors, but there was nothing planned for them this week). I invited them to join me for a bowl of soup in Hackett’s a pub on the main street in Schull. The soup menu in the pub was amazing. The West Cork (ie. blow-ins) influence was stamped all over it – North African Chickpea soup, Chorizo and Spinach, Thai Green Vegetable…it looked delicious. It gave me a lot of pleasure to see the boys stroll in and join me at my table where I sketched – a lot of young people move so little without someone driving them, but they were free to do what they liked in Schull.

Hacketts, Schull, watercolour by Róisín Curé

I loved the idea of the doorway through which you could see people enjoying their lunch. In fact, there were two doorways, with interesting objects between each one, as well as an alcove to the left, so it was a real urban sketcher’s dream. The cherry on top was the pub cat (who turned out not to be the pub’s cat at all, but a hanger-on). It was black and fluffy, and sat bolt upright in front of the fire. The pub welcomed dogs who behaved nicely. Reuben kept me company under the table all afternoon and ignored the pussy cat, but other sailing mums and dads told me that it was too much for some of the dogs, who strained at their leashes to have that cat.

The music was super…I learned that Spotify finds out what you like and plays lots of similar things for as long as you want it to. I listened to The Animals, The Mamas & Papas, Neil Young, Van Morrison…music from the sixties and seventies that reminded me of my art school days in the late eighties..

The next day was time to go home. We hung around while the sailors raced – at last there was a short weather window of opportunity for them to take to the seas, although the wind died the minute they got out to the middle of the bay. We picked up Olivia afterwards, and she said her back was so sore she had trouble getting changed. We figured she’d been leaning out too far without using her trapeze. In the house before setting out for the five-hour return journey, she complained about being cold. That was normal after spending so long in the bay in dead calm conditions. But once we hit the road, Olivia got colder and colder. I held her hands to warm them but they were like ice. Then I noticed her legs and body were burning…she had a temperature. She insisted on being covered with coats and blankets and screeched if a corner of a jacket slipped off…it was time for paracetamol. Half an hour after that was administered she felt much better, but she spent the ensuing week in bed with ‘flu. I felt terrible for being instrumental in having her sit in stationary boat in a freezing bay off the coast of West Cork for three hours with the ‘flu brewing. Terrible!

Olivia is better now and champing at the bit to get out sailing again, as is her brother. Now Olivia says she wishes she was back in Schull. My husband wants me to say that my fiftieth birthday celebration was not a five-hour journey in a beat-up car, but is deferred! The truth is, I had a wonderful week, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

Okay, maybe I’d do something about the freezing weather, and Olivia’s illness, and maybe Reuben’s need for a nappy…

Roll on Schull Sailing Week, February 2019!

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