Monday 11th July
“Welcome to your holidays!” I greet my mother, Cinnie, as she comes to a halt outside my house in her tiny turquoise car. We are going to spend a week together, and the plan is to head off to sketch in the countryside near me. I have been converting my older daughter’s bedroom from a bombsite back to a beautiful guest bedroom over the last week, in between preparing and teaching online classes. There have been many black bags filled and many emotions felt of raising a girl who is a carbon copy of the unguided missile I was at her age, but I am a grown woman and I need to behave like one. I did try to guide, as did her wonderful father, but sometimes a young human missile is on a trajectory of her very own, and there is very little in the way of guiding a parent can do. She is an artist – a true original – and the true ones, by definition, don’t fit any mould. (I didn’t either.) But it has a happy ending: she is thriving in every way, and throughout the renovations of the room I concentrate on that. The end result is fantastic. There is no standard higher than my mother’s: Marcel and I have repainted the walls, deep-cleaned the floor, dressed the bed in new linen and scrubbed every surface. As an ex-unguided missile myself not unfamiliar with the resulting bombsites, it’s a good feeling, if a little late in the day, to clean and prepare this thoroughly. The bedroom and its creamy Travertine marble bathroom are fit for a queen…and my mother. Cinnie adores her room, with its deep plum velvet curtains, lavender sprigs in a white jug and elegant four-poster, demanded by our daughter (she had a vision that had to be followed), bought for €60 as a superking frame in stacks of mahogany posts on Done Deal, cut down to a double and painted a smooth matte black by her dad. The surfaces of the desk and bedside table are less than presentable (the desk was Ground Zero of countless art projects) so I cover them with wallpaper with a pattern of Chinese-style peonies or chrysanthemums in duck-egg blue and top them with sheets of toughened glass. A huge ceramic jug of soft turquoise filled with dried flowers is the finishing touch. I retrieve three paintings from a gallery in Galway City that I did last year and had forgotten about, which didn’t sell, and delightedly hang them in the bedroom. To create the paintings, I painted my own versions of three black-and-white vintage photos of women in traditional dress and gave them a technicolor backdrop pertaining to the textiles that each of those women would have been involved in making: a veiled Algerian and her geometric tiles; a Vietnamese “grosse tête” tribeswoman with her intricately-woven cloth; a Moroccan beauty with her exquisite rug. There’s a reason they haven’t sold – they mean nothing to anyone – but that same reason makes them perfect for a guest room, and the loss of the potential buyer is very much my gain. (One of the four sold, a Mandarin with a painted silk backdrop, and now I wish I had kept it.)
Cinnie has had a difficult time of it, health-wise, but something inexplicable has happened recently and now, in her eighties, she is enjoying the fruits of a healthily-led life. She is fit and slim, tanned and beautiful, and walks with speed and conscious confidence. She even has a daughter with a clean driver’s license, a comfortable car and a week off – everything you could require for a sketching adventure. The icing on the cake is the fact that I am an art-supplies merchant, and I give her the makings of a goody bag: a brand new set of Roman Szmal watercolours in the palette I have curated, some more magnets to attach them to her sketchbook and a portable stool.
Tuesday 12th July
We spend the morning in a drzzly, dark Galway City, but it’s better that way than to be trapped in the city when it’s sunny. My youngest, Liv, is with us. We spend nearly an hour in TK Maxx and the same again wandering the busy streets of Galway, then top it off with a dish of “Asian street food”. It’s perfect. We head home in the middle of the afternoon.
Cinnie and I spend a sunny evening at Mulroog, one of the many tiny coves near my home. The beach isn’t much to look at, it you’re into golden sand and that kind of thing, but they have a hidden beauty that only the person willing to explore a little further will see. At high tide, you can jump off the pier, and the sea is full of life at Mulroog, which you will only discover if you take to the water with a snorkel and facemask. Oysters, mackerel and pollock and the seals that hunt them are all in evidence here. Many are the walks I have taken with my friend Lorraine and our dogs. This sunny evening I don’t see much to sketch but we settle on the rocks with the tide lapping at them, long shadows cast by the evening sun. While I like sketching rocks, I need a little more so I sketch my mother. Mum is sketching beside me: she distinguishes between sketching and painting, but other than the black handwriting she always adds to a sketch, I can’t see the difference: I paint, and often don’t use something with a fine line such as a pen, but I call everything I do a sketch. I have asked my mum to explain it, but she just says seriously “Oh, they’re very different, Róisín, completely different,” every time. But I’m none the wiser.
(When I paint a canvas in oil or acrylic, I don’t call it a sketch, because I am doing it from my head. Is that the difference?)
Wednesday 13th July
Mum and I drive out towards the Burren. We drive through Kinvara, a few miles south of me, and on through green fields and pale blue-grey limestone hills. A mile or two past Kinvara the road rises to our left and we find ourselves climbing up a hill. Just past the Hazel Mountain Chocolate Factory I pull into the side of the road at the start of a green country path. I think it’s the path that leads up the mountain that I climbed with Marcel and Paddy, husband and son respectively, in April last year. I am always self-conscious about “being in the way” when I park, which is so stupid. I need to be more assertive (but would that mean I didn’t care about blocking people?). I park as tightly and as unobtrusively as I can, close to a stone wall, next to someone’s beautiful front garden. I’m so close that Mum has to get out before I park. We walk up the hill and are five minutes into it when a black Jeep come to a halt beside me.
“I thought I had better advise you to pull in a little closer to the wall,” says the farmer at the wheel.
“Do you think so?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says, “last time, a car was parked there, and he wasn’t parked very tight into the wall, and I was driving agricultural machinery, and I hit his wing mirror a bang. It wasn’t broken mind, just doing this -” he dangles his forearm to suggest a mirror hanging loosely – “and the fella comes back and I say, I’m awful sorry, I’m after hitting your mirror a bang, but it’s not broken, and he says “you will be hearing from my insurance company” and I says to him, I says, “There’s a man coming down here now in a tractor, and he’s blind, I thought you should know,” and I tell you, I never saw a man drive off so quick!”
I roar laughing and thank him and say I will park a little more closely to the wall. My mum wants to know what has me laughing and I tell her about the wing mirror that wasn’t broken. She loves this story. After I park so close to the wall that you’d barely fit a sheet of paper between it and my car, Mu and I resume our climb. There is no one around and we’re soon flanked by tiny open fields to our right surrounded by dry stone walls, and tiny meadows to our left studded with limestone outcrops. Everhwre we look we see pale pink, white and deep pink orchids, crane’s bill, buttercups, ox-eye daisies, herb robert, harebells and many more wild flowers. We hop a low barrier made of a piece of twine and settle down to sketch in one of the tiny fields.
I have never seen actual hazelnuts on a hazel tree, not really, and not in this abundance, and so I draw a hazel tree in fruit. Mum sketches the view across to the hill on the other side of the valley. My mother’s sketch captures the atmosphere really well. It’s her second sketch: the first didn’t go well, and I love the way my mum mutters and curses under her breath when a painting isn’t going well. I find it endearingly eccentric and vocal. Her second is a howling success, though. I try to capture some wild flowers too (above, right) but I don’t hit the mark – the sketch executed, boringly, without any muttering.
We stop for a coffee and a cake in Hazel Mountain Chocolate Factory, both of which are really expensive. The coffees are too small (my mum’s americano came in a flat white-size cup) and my mum’s salted hazelnut brownie is disappointing. I must say that my white chocolate coconut slice is divine. The cakes cost €5.80 each which is about €2 more expensive than most places. Still, the setting is perfect, and I do appreciate that when you’re well off the beaten track it’s harder to make a business work. My feedback to the nice people running it is to be a bit more generous with the coffee, which can’t possibly make much difference to the cost per cup, and reduce the price of the cakes by a euro.
Afterwards, relaxed and happy, we set off for the lovely beach at Fanore. To get there we drive through the pretty village of Ballyvaughan and along the spectacular coast road past Black Head, with a vast blue sea just over the wall to our right. This stretch of coast is gorgeous in summer. The Burren hills rise dramatically to our right as we drive south. Soon we come to the village of Fanore…you only know you’re in a “village” by the fact that there’s a chop here and a few more houses than on the road before it.
I use my masking fluid pen to block out the surf curling at the tops of the waves, and make a total mess of predicting, and sketching, the shapes of the people watching their kids play in the water. The first couple are standing motionless while I capture things that aren’t going to change: by the time I get onto drawing them, they are restless and fidgety and ready to go. A large man comes and perches on a rock, while his little boy, a lad of about two, whacks a rock pool with his bucket and spade, and I think what a lovely pair he and his tiny son will make, facing each other in their baseball caps: but no sooner has the thought formed in my mind than the little boy sees a rock pool he likes better and off he runs, dad in tow. That’s a big fail and I will have to try to disguise my aborted sketch with rocks and clumps of seaweed, of which there is many.
I lend Mum the masking fluid pen and she uses it with a slightly less heavy hand than I: therefore she conserves a little less white, but it looks good all the same. She is quicker than me with her people.
Thursday 14th July
I wake in the early hours and don’t really fall asleep again until just before it’s time to get up, but I use the time wisely, planning the best route to go today. I really, really want to go to Connemara, as it’s ethereal and beautiful, but there are a few reasons not to go there. It’s a long way, the roads will be extremely busy with summer traffic and my car’s gearbox is complaining in fourth gear. It’s also likely to be mistier in Connemara than in the south of Galway or Co. Clare. In the end I decide that another day in Co. Clare is probably the better option, and hope it won’t be a case of “but we’ve BEEN here already” for my mum.
I have a trick up my sleeve. Last summer, Marcel and I and the two younger kids went to a spot in Burren National Park that has become a dreamy memory of sunshine and beauty in my mind; that’s where I’m taking Mum today. It’s called Lough Avalla Farm, and we stumbled across it by chance last year, looking for somewhere nice to walk.
I know from the start that Mum and I are going to love this place. We walk up a gravelled road, flanked on either side by rocky platforms of limestone and scrubby hazel woods. Everything other than the road on which we walk looks as it would have done a hundred, a thousand years ago. No houses and just the eternal hills surround us in the distance. After fifteen minutes of very slow walking (everything MUST be admired at leisure) we come to the start of the trail itself. The path becomes more cultivated, and we catch glimpses of fields, golden in the sunlight, through hazel trees, ferns and yet more wild flowers bursting from hedgrows. It’s fairytale countryside and like yesterday we are all on our own. Mum and I surrender to the beauty and just revel in the moment. We have tea, coffee, brownies and apple tart at a beautiful Hansel and Gretel-like house, which turns out to have been built be the farmer himself, a Dutchman called Harry with a big heart and a vision to make his beautiful farmland accessible to the public. Mum and I don’t quite make it up the mountain, but last summer we passed beautiful Belted Galloway cattle standing as picturesquely and prettily as if they had been carefully arranged by some kind of designer of idyllic countryside…
The tearoom episode was wonderful and ALMOST resulted in the start of new puppy life (see my Sketch Therapist podcast for details; I’ll just say that Reuben the Jack Russell terrier met the One That Got Away that afternoon). Later, I explain to Marcel that he had a chance, but didn’t take the initiative. “He’ll think about her for the rest of his life,” says Marcel.
I sketch Harry’s house and Mum sketches the entrance to a ruined cottage opposite it.
Afterwards, on the way back along the path to the car, we hop a stone wall and sketch the view of Mullaghmore. I make a mess of the sketch of my mother: that is, it’s fine, but it doesn’t at all capture her loveliness. Great legs though! I do like my sketch of the slumpy Mullaghmore. My mother mutters eccentrically throughout the sketch, displeased with her efforts, which in the end we both realise are fab and not at all worth muttering over. I am glad she got to paint the stone wall. As for me, I am boring myself with my sketching style, and need to do something drastically different. I think I might start lugging great pots and tubes of acrylic, and big canvas boards, into the field with me…
Friday 15th July
It’s hot and sunny at last. We spend a pleasant morning in Galway City with the kids and lounge about in the garden all afternoon. Mum is a total sunworshipper and will quite happily lie facing a hot midday sun. I do NOT understand how she has put up with the Irish climate for sixty years. I love the heat and sun, but not sitting IN it. I like shade. Hats. Hats with very wide brims in pale colours. And water. As long as I can swim somewhere I adore the hottest of sunshine.
Saturday 16th July
Marcel’s birthday is on Sunday and we are going shooting at a gun range to celebrate. My mother is possibly the most excited of us all, despite being a lifelong pacifist (or so she says!). I sketch in the car on the way down to Co. Kerry. It’s a lovely straight drive down along motorway and then through pretty villages festooned with hanging baskets of flowers and lined with thatched cottages. I am very happy that Mum has had a chance to experience and enjoy another, very different part of Ireland than what she is used to…
…but the really big success is the shooting. She loves it! She hits the bullseye with her pistol AND the rifle. Not bad at all for a lady in her eighties with eyesight that is not what it was. The instructors are so solicitous of her wellbeing, it’s wonderful. They are really impressed with Mum’s shooting ability. I tell them she’s always been really sporty.
“I’d say she’s as tough as nails,” says one of the instructors. Mum is thrilled with that. (The place is called Irish Shooting Centre and I recommend it.) The birthday boy has a ball too, and is resplendent in what he calls his “drug baron” shirt, which is black with gold dragons on it. It’s funny how we are united in our horror of gun culture the world over, and yet cannot wait to tote and shoot a gun ourselves. Just try to take our guns! From our cold, dead hands!
My brother is staying with our father to keep him company while Mum is with me. He tells me his friend Ado has been admiring Mum’s stunning garden and, upon hearing of her skill with a firearm, has come up with a new moniker for her.
“Mrs Guns and Roses,” he says. Mum beams with pleasure.
The next day is Sunday, Marcel’s birthday and we lie around in hot sunshine. It marks the end of the sketching week with my mum. I feel super, super lucky to have had this time with her.