Back in June I was contacted by the inimitable Sharon Sugrue, who asked me to participate in the Bluefish project, a joint Irish-Welsh scientific project funded by the EU. She had been tasked by Dr Paul Connolly of the Marine Institute to find a suitable plein air artist for the project. Sharon is a wonderful young woman from the heart of Co. Kerry. The plan was that Sharon and I would take a road trip together around the parts of the Irish and Welsh coasts where the Irish and Celtic seas provide a living for businesses of different hues: Sharon would identify the stakeholders in question, ask them how they benefited from the sea and if or how they saw climate change affecting their business. My role would be to draw something to illustrate what they did and how they did it, live and direct, so to speak. The Bluefish partners in question wanted the public to experience the strong impact of art, to feel directly what the marine environment means to the people who use it.
“You can’t eat scenery,” goes the saying. But it turns out that some of the most beautiful places along Ireland’s coast provide people with a living, in all sorts of ways. How do people make a living on the coast these days? And what does making that living actually look like? Over two weeks in August and October I went on a road trip with a charming companion to sketch how coast-dwelling people make their livelihoods from the ocean. This is a PREMIUM access article. We use a simple to use web wallet that can be filled up using a credit card, PayPal or with XLM using a secure payment system. Once you have paid, you will have ongoing access to the article from the device (tablet, phone, PC) that you used to pay for it. You can access the post by topping up your web wallet with 20 stellar lumen tokens (the price of a stellar lumen is currently [price id=”stellar” fiat=”usd”] ) if you haven’t already done so and then making a micropayment of 2 lumens to continue reading this post Remember: NO subscription required, NO monthly fees, NO personal information, just a new secure micropayment mechanism for content you want to see.
We set off on our first trip in August. We would spend four days and three nights on this part of the trip, starting with the long drive to Co. Kerry. From the moment Sharon and I met we got on tremendously, and as the miles crept up we became good friends. We both love the countryside and all its feathery and furry inhabitants; we share a taste in chart music (although she can keep her 80s music, which brings back tragic teenage memories I’d rather forget); and we both love wasting precious time we’ll never get back doing stupid things on our phones. Sharon tried to show me how to use Snapchat: I appreciate that it’s fun, but I can’t believe how long it takes to fiddle around with all the stickers and stuff. I’ll pass on Snapchat (to the immense relief of my 14-year-old, who doesn’t want me in “her” space. Her and a zillion others).
We drove south to Kerry, and the motorway eventually gave way to cute little towns that got greener and more colourful the further we went. Hanging baskets of colourful flowers started to proliferate outside the front of colourful, pretty pubs and shops, as did the number of statues. A bronze billy goat King Puck and an emigrating woman carved from an old oak tree in Killorglin – other towns had their statues too but they faded a bit from my mind as one pretty Kerry town gave way to another. Eventually, in a gap in a stunning valley, we saw the beautiful beach called Inch Strand below us. This would be our first stop, for the surfing school that operates from the sandy stretch along the water.
It was a typical summer’s day in Ireland – ie. it could rain at any second, but wasn’t right now, so there were lots of people mucking about on the sand. I pulled up my stool opposite the waves and started my first sketch. A surf class was just beginning. A dozen or more children dressed in wetsuits with green t-shirts on top were under instruction, the guy in charge in a red t-shirt. After a few minutes’ chat, they raced into the water, their shrieks just audible over the wind. I was transported to the time I first surfed: the freedom, the exhilaration…the ineptitude. I saw wet clouds on the horizon and knew I didn’t have long, so I painted as fast as I could. No sooner had I put the last splash of paint on than the clouds made good their threat and opened up on us.
I find that using wet-on-wet with these kind of rain-soaked clouds works really well. You can drop a mix of burnt umber and indigo into a watery patch on your page, and it will develop into just the cloudy shape and feel you want – as long as you do NOT touch it once you’ve dropped paint on. You can still add more colour on the underside of the cloud – just think of that being the bit where the rain is pooling. As long as you add it while the page is still very wet, you won’t get a bloom – and even if you do, it looks beautiful, in my opinion.
But you can’t continue once it’s raining…or I cannot, at any rate. So Sharon and I retreated into the dry of her car and I painted the next subject through the window.
I really loved the orange of the flags, and of course the signs. As is my wont, I used more than one shade of orange, even though there was only one shade there. If I had used just the one shade of orange it would have looked dull and a little unexciting. The flags are out on the beach as long as the surf shop is open. Sharon managed to speak to the chap in charge – I think he was called Ciarán – and asked him his feelings on climate change.
“It’s been a problem for us,” he said, “at least this summer. When it’s hot there are no waves and no one wants to get into a wetsuit. But the real problem is something different: coastal erosion has been tackled by the council, but the engineers went about the solution all wrong, and since the protection mesh they have put in, the erosion has been even worse. Of course they wouldn’t ask the surfers – God forbid – but we know a lot more than they do, we use the beach every day and we know what’s happening with the shifting sands.”
I can vouch for that, sort of. I know first hand what the sandy bed under the waves does, because I found out the hard way: by barrelling my face into it, after having been thrown more violently than usual from my board many years ago in Doonbeg, Co. Clare. I can tell you that being mown into a seabed made of uneven sandy pockets due to shifting currents is very sore and abrasive on the skin.
When I was finished, Sharon was impressed with the sketch, and suggested I show it to the guy in the orange sweatshirt who had been hanging around outside the surf hut, presumably left in charge while Ciarán was doing something. I know from experience that it can go either way when you show a sketch to someone who appears in it – they can be delighted, or utterly bored by it. But I agreed to show it to him. This chap was neither delighted not bored – he spoke not a single word of English, and hadn’t a clue what we trying to tell him. For all he knew we were trying to make him buy it. He wasn’t engaging, and as it was lunchtime and still raining a bit Sharon and I nipped into a restaurant for a nice bowl of chowder. Lovely. We bought enormous cookies made with butter and stuffed with chocolate chips and started our journey to Dingle, filling the car with crumbs. First we wanted to find a guy who runs a seafood restaurant. Let’s call him Jack Toby. Sharon had texted Jack the week before to see if he was available for an interview. He said he was, and she arranged to meet him the afternoon we arrived. Sharon phoned him once or twice to confirm, and he wasn’t picking up. She knows what he looks like from TV appearances and as she was walking down the street she finally got a text from him. “Sorry,” it said, “can’t meet, I’m not around till Thursday.” As Sharon opened and read the text, she saw Jack a few feet in front of her, in person, in the doorway of his pub, writing on his phone. She quickly crossed the road – she didn’t want to catch him in the act – but we decided then that in future to be blanked by someone is to be Jack Tobied. (Support group: “Have you been Jack Tobied? Help is available”) The neck of him!
Luckily there was someone else we wanted to see, who turned out to be a lot more friendly. Sharon wanted to chat to the man who runs dolphin-watching tours from the town, more specifically, Fungie the lone male dolphin who has lived in Dingle Bay for twenty years, and makes an obliging appearance for parties of tourists who go to look for him in a pleasure boat. They say that poor Fungie is an outcast, and that he just can’t get on with his pod. Their loss is our gain.
I’m sorry to say that there are those cynical types who believe that Fungie the Dophin is a collective, rather than an individual – that there have been many Fungies over the years. “That’s not the case,” said Jimmy Flannery, who operates boat tours from Dingle. “If it were so easy, don’t you think other harbours and bays would have their own dolphins? They don’t. Besides, Fungie has a nick on his dorsal fin that makes him immediately recognisable.”
Jimmy invited us onto his boat for a chat. We sat on deck and I tried to get a sketch done. I didn’t quite have room for the yellow rib that Jimmy takes tourists out in. He gets passengers to put on a splashproof suit and get really up close and personal to the dolphin. I very much want to go on one of Jimmy’s tours. And if you don’t see him, you don’t pay.
“I’ll put it to you like this,” said Jimmy to Sharon, while I sketched from the deck. “Fungie has put my three kids though college. I can’t put it nay more plainly than that. On the other hand, I can’t say exactly what I think about climate change, simply because I wouldn’t really have the education to know more. Is it natural cycles? or something more sinister? I don’t know.”
Jimmy’s humility was one of the most thoughtful responses we encountered.
I chose to draw the statue of Fungie with no one sitting on it. This was a grave error, as there followed barely a minute when there wasn’t a child upon its back. There was another heavy shower, and I was nowhere near finished. Luckily, Sharon was on hand with a large umbrella. Still, I had to abandon shadows on the statue mid-sketch because of the rain. It is never worth trying to paint in 100% humidity.
We stayed in Dingle that night, in two different B&Bs, because we didn’t coordinate our reservations well. In the morning we compared notes.
“My place was clean,” I said, “but it was a long, narrow attic room, and when you opened the door you were immediately met by steep stairs, and I bumped my head all the way down on the ceiling – clearly a staircase for ants!”
“I barely slept,” said Sharon. “There was a céilí band just under my room. I made a video of myself Irish dancing in bed under the covers and snapchatted a few people. Here, listen to how loud it was.” I listened, and it was indeed very loud. “Very nice music,” she continued, “but not at 1.00 am.” As well as getting a free listen to the concert downstairs, Sharon’s pillows were paper-thin.
The next morning I sketched Dingle Aquarium. In statue-loving Kerry tradition, there is a large statue of a penguin outside the aquarium.
“I KNOW it’s not a real penguin,” said a little girl to her big sister who was clearly in charge of her little sister on this visit to the aquarium.
A woman gave a bewildered-looking American man a generous handful of change for the parking meter without asking for anything in exchange, and hushed away his thanks. “Anyone would do it,” she said. I wouldn’t, I thought, and decided I would the next time.
Just as I was finishing up Sharon called me over to a trawler moored along the slip, to sketch a crate of crabs that was just about to be hauled out of a trawler and dumped onto the slip. I love crab, despite feeling very sorry for them, most of the time.
“How long do I have?” I asked Timmy, the fisherman.
“Half an hour,” said Timmy. I started sketching like the clappers, which was just as well because after a scant fifteen minutes the crate was whisked away. I tried to catch the auberginey-russety colours of the beautiful creatures, who appeared furious with the unfolding events.
Timmy was one of the few people who didn’t believe in climate change.
“Not a thing,” was more or less his opinion.
After that Sharon was a very happy lady because we were heading to her neck of the woods, so to speak. Sharon’s father has harvested mussels along the strand in Cromane for much of his working life, and now his son and his son’s friend and business partner Emmett run Réalt na Mara oysters and mussels from the same spot on the strand just behind the house where Sharon grew up. Sharon likes nothing in the world more than to be at her family home in Co. Kerry, and was thrilled when she realised that the oysters produced there were perhaps the only ones we’d find on our travels – meaning we HAD to go and sketch there.
We drove into the tranquil paradise that is Cromane, the the tiny peninsula where Sharon’s family live, making our way to the strand where oyster harvesting was taking place. There we encountered Sharon’s father, Michael, and her mum, Pat. Both gave me a warm welcome, and made me feel very much at home. From then until my departure the following day I was treated like royalty. Sandwiches, tea, cakes, biccies, wine, a lovely warm bed, huge brekkie…I’m recommending them on Trip Advisor! (Joke. It was only for me.) After meeting Pat and Michael, I was introduced to Mícheál, Sharon’s brother, and two of the lads who work on the boat.
Being familiar with the speed of an encroaching tide, I drew the oyster trestles first. Fast as I was, they were still covered by the tide by the time I had finished them. Next was the seaweedy shore next to the water, and it was disappearing fast too. I wanted to show the muddy tyre tracks before they filled up with water. The algae was bright, light green, and even though I thought it might look garish I decided to paint it as it was – it was garish, after all. The lads posed for me on deck of the boat of which they are very proud – they had it designed specially for them in France – and their oyster-eating dog, Benny, sat on deck too, so he made it into the Realt na Mara family photo. Then a cormorant drifted by and I put him in the sketch quickly.
In the afternoon, I sketched the purification tanks where the oysters and mussels are prepared for sale. It was a challenge to capture that flowing water, but I did so by sketching in the lightest of lines, made with the reverse of an already-thin nib, in grey ink. I wanted to show as few lines as possible. In a way it wasn’t too bad, because the flow was constant and unchanging, so I could take my time. I concentrated on the shadows rather than the crystal-clear bubbling water. It was the same for the oyster and mussel shells under water: I’m not sure if I succeeded in showing the water over the shellfish, but it was so clear there wasn’t much in the way of any kind of colour in the water above them.
In the same way I sketched the name of the business: a very thin nib meant that I could make a few mistakes in my attempts to make a nice roundy shape and they wouldn’t be noticed. The lads, Mícheál, Emmett and Sharon stood around and chatted as I sketched. Mícheál has a very adorable dog called Cooper who very quietly nicked one of my pens on the ground as I sketched and chewed the top. Luckily he didn’t chew the business end, and now it’s easier to see which pen has brown ink – it’s a tad…well, shorter than the grey-ink one. I didn’t mind in the slightest (amazing how if you love a dog you think everything they do is cute) but I watched him after that.
I love drawing machinery and the hopper that sorts the sizes of the shellfish was just up my alley. Mícheál is the one shaking out mussels from the bag into the hopper, and those big arms are the result of shaking hundreds of bags of heavy oysters and mussels every day.
Back at the house, I was treated to a few choice oysters. Now, I am passionate about oysters, and I am lucky enough to live in an oyster-producing area. They are exported all over the world, and are to die for, but they have stiff competition from the lads in Cromane. The oysters I was offered were plump and so full of taste.
“Benny loves oysters,” said Sharon, “don’t you boy? Look, I’ll show you.”
Benny likes to eat one oyster from a proffered shell and then he’s had enough. The indignity for the oyster: not alone to be wrested from your cosy bed and offered not to a magnificent seabird of the sky but to a dog, and worse, to end up rejected and alone on the cold kitchen floor because the dog has already eaten one of your fallen comrades…rough.
Next morning we made the long journey south to Cork. First stop would be Roaring Water Bay Mussels. Unfortunately the lady in the GPS machine was unable to take us there. Down the umpteenth twisting, fern-lined bodhreen and many u-turns later, we were starting to become a little worried that we’d never find the place, when Sharon happened to glance in her rear-view mirror. She’s not a shore-reared girl for nothing, and caught the briefest of glimpses of the sea in the mirror – and her eagle eye noticed black bobbing items in rows on the surface…long rows of floats supporting ropes of mussels. She made a bee line for that bit of the coast and eventually we found the quay where the mussel fishermen leave from.
“You’re very hard to find,” said Sharon.
“Maybe we like it that way,” said Colin, the owner of the business. Then he very kindly offered to take us out with him and his second-in-command Andrew, as they were leaving in the next few minutes to haul in mussels. We accepted happily: the sun was shining and it was warm – what better way to spend the next couple of hours?
We motored gently along the coast in Colin’s boat, past Jeremy Irons’ restored castle (bet he likes being hard to find too) until we came to the spot where the mussels would be hauled into the boat. Andrew did the hauling of the ropes of mussels into the boat. He was a young fella in his early 20s who was as in love with the sea and the business as his father and grandfather, the latter of whom first laid the ropes. He had light blue eyes, thick black eyelashes and a serene smile. I sat on the deck and painted yellows, reds, jade greens and blues of Colin sorting mussels into bags and the crates on the deck and pondered not for the first time on my great fortune to have stumbled across such a wonderful activity as urban sketching all those years ago in Mauritius.
Sharon, being of the sea and all, started helping pack up bags of mussels, making me look bad. You can’t compete with Sharon so you’re better off sticking to whatever it is you’re good at. Then she chatted with Colin in the wheelhouse.
“Climate change has certainly started to affect our business,” said Colin. “The acidity of the water has changed and if it goes beyond a certain point they won’t survive. I read a paper recently that said there’s a heap of permafrost in Siberia or somewhere that locks in vast amounts of methane, and that if it melts…well, that’s it. Doom. Apparently it’s been showing signs of melting…”
After we docked back at the quay, Colin presented Sharon and myself with a bag of mussels each, probably because Sharon had tied and packed many bags of mussels. He kindly gave me some too, couldn’t not, really. They stayed alive and kicking, so to speak, until after we got back home the next evening, and they were delicious. Not a single one had expired by the time I got them into the saucepan. Better end than a dog or kitchen floor (although it’s never going to end well for a mussel…)
That afternoon Sharon and I went to Baltimore, our last stop on this leg of the journey around the coast. I know the tiny town well, as my children have partaken in the sailing week for Optimist sailors which takes place there every February. It’s still winter in February in West Cork, but if you’re lucky you’ll get a crisp and cold gold and blue day to enjoy the scenery to its fullest. The town is very sweet, and it’s all centred around the harbour: that’s where the sailing club is, and it’s where the ferries to the islands off the coast depart from, and it’s where the trawlers and ships come in to unload their cargo. Now, in August, the colours and shadows were soft but strong, and the sea was still that crazy blue-green colour that you get down here all year around. I sat on the quay, taking up position behind a dinghy that clearly hadn’t moved in yonks. There was a teaching session going on, and I know about those. Oh yes. Many is the time I have had to draw youngsters preparing to sail away, with a mere minute or two to capture a sail before it’s gone. So when a young man appeared and said in a very “sailing club” accent (if you’re in one, you’ll know what I mean), “You’ll have to move soon I’m afraid,” I was able to tell him with confidence that actually, I wasn’t in anyone’s way. I also knew that the boat trolleys I was drawing would definitely be gobbled up by returning sailors wanting to tow their boats back up the slip, so I drew them and their shadows first. Next was the ferry, because it’s the nature of them to sail away…
The fellow who’d told me I’d have to move answered Sharon’s questions.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have worked all over the world with sailing,” he said. He then gave a sort of chapter and verse of how climate change works, with great confidence. The he added, “I teach sailing as a summer job, and to be honest I don’t see how climate change will affect me.”
It’s beyond my pay grade to comment.
As the sun was starting to set I got one last sketch in. There was a pretty trawler docked against the harbour, covered in pretty nets and fenders around the outside.
Finally it was too dark to see more, my fingers were stiff white claws, and we went for dinner in the lovely Casey’s, then on to our respective B&Bs. Now, this isn’t an ad for places to stay in Baltimore, but if you have wheels and don’t mind driving a couple of minutes away from the town then you really MUST stay in Lough Hyne B&B. It was amazing. Beautiful “country house” decor but in exquisite taste. I drifted off to sleep to the sound of a waterfall trickling outside my window. It was perfect in every way imaginable…breakfast was out of this world, and the proprietor Sheryl was an angel.
The next day was hot. I had to change into shorts (hurray for overpacking!). We were going to drive straight home to Galway but we couldn’t resist driving the extra few minutes out the road to Lough Hyne itself. Lough Hyne is a large saltwater lake replenished by a narrow inlet open to the sea, and the colour of the water is the same startlingly beautiful blue-green as the open ocean itself, except that in the lough it is as still as glass, and you can see fish milling about, and mussels clinging to the edges of the lake. You can climb the hills around it and enjoy the view from the top, as I did a year or two ago on one of our sailing trips, or you can just sit and draw. I sketched a pile of kayaks under a tree, a mother helping her young daughters to gain swimming confidence and my good mate chilling in the sun. A man swam past. “Draw him, quick!” said Sharon. It did seem like great subject to sketch, a man swimming slowly through the beautiful still water, his rhythmic strokes the only sound breaking the silence, but the reality would have been a blob (his head) and some scribbles (the splashes). Besides, he was past me too quickly. That one is just for your imagination.
We left Lough Hyne that afternoon and began the long journey back to Galway, with a sheaf of sketches and interviews under our belt. We put on Top 40 chart music and talked about our plans for the weekend (Sharon’s were cooler than mine) and enjoyed the drive. I’d like to say I’m a better Snapchatter than before the trip but I’m not, and I’m not sorry either. I did, however, discover some hidden corners I never knew were there before (I’m thinking about you, Colin!) and revisited others I knew already but got to know better. through ink and watercolour.
And the sketches looked cool, and Paul was happy, and I have a new pal, and it was all great. I am very lucky.