Wednesday 28 August 2013

Oveheard: Good Guide, Bad Guide

(Well, sort of an 'Overheard' - at two heritage sites in July 2013).

First person interpretation (i.e. a living, breathing, human guide) at its best is what all other interpretation aspires to be: personal, intimate, detailed, tailored to fit individual needs and interests.

The guide at Glebe House (to my sorrow I've forgotten her name) was wonderful.  Warm, personable, clearly both knowledgeable and enthusiastic about her subject.  It helped that she had known Derek Hill and so was able to act as a link between him and us, telling us anecdotes about him and the people who had visited him.

Contrast that with a recent experience I had visiting a National Trust property.  The guide  reeled off from what was clearly a prepared script (I have no issue with scripts, I've used them myself, but you shouldn't sound as though you're reciting from one) displaying absolutely zero enthusiasm for the house or the history it represents.  The lowest point was when the guide referred, several times, to a wealthy 'higher-ess' who had revived the family fortunes.  I promise this is not a dig at the pronunciation - just that it was symptomatic of a general 'can't be bothered' attitude.  She seemed bored - and in consequence the tour was boring.

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Derek Hill, His House

Imagine a brick red Georgian house, ringed by dripping greenery, set in a sodden valley under a rainwashed Donegal sky.  Imagine walking into the front hall, walls the blue of billiard cue chalk (walls covered, in fact, with billiard cue chalk) and paintings as far as the eye can see: Augustus John, Jack Yeats, Louis LeBrocquy, Oskar Kokoschka.  Welcome to the home of Derek Hill, English portrait painter, Irish landscape painter, founder of the 'Tory School' (yes, that Tory), resident of Churchill, Co. Donegal.

Derek Hill in a series of vignettes:

Hill's friend Henry McIlhenny (of the Tabasco McIlhennies), connoisseur, philanthropist, who bought nearby Glenveagh Castle and later left it to the Irish State, didn't care for Hill's style of decorating.  When asked his opinion of a Tiffany lamp in the dining room, McIlhenny sniffed, 'it's vulgar. But it goes with the rest of the house.'

Hill painted the great and good and many of them came to Donegal for their sittings.  One visitor was Greta Garbo, who graced the tapestry chair by the fire in the sitting room with her presence.  She had a perfect profile, but for some reason Hill never painted her.

He did paint Yehudi Menuhin and it's said that Menuhin treated the people of Gartan to a performance.  The legend goes that Hill's housekeeper Gracie was asked by one of the locals who the grand fiddler was.  She wasn't exactly sure of the name, but Hiúdí McMenamin sounded about right.

The pipes in the kitchen are painted in different primary colours. On a shelf of the red dresser is a ceramic platter designed by Picasso.  There's also a portrait of Gracie, by Hill, hanging above Gracie's chair.

His bathroom - still with his toothbrush in its holder - is papered in rose-spattered wallpaper and has a pile of Country Life magazines within handy reach of the bath.

He liked bright silk ties and embroidered slippers.

The walls, and more interestingly the ceiling of his study, are papered in original William Morris 'Blackthorn' wallpaper to create an illusion of lying under a woodland canopy.

The house is preserved more or less as it was left in 1981 when Hill donated it, its contents and his art collection to the Irish people.  Every surface is adorned, every wall covered; every room a story, a work of art in its own right.

Glebe House and Gallery, Churchill, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal.

Monday 26 August 2013


Zut.  Today I'm taking a break from all things island and returning to France.  I don't know why I didn't post these photos at the time (they were taken at the end of June) but I thought they'd be a nice celebration of the summer before we get into September and autumn - and an antidote to a Monday morning.

Alors, HTLT presents la Sardinade: starring sardines, sardine grillers, the village square, bright colours and two adorable nephews.

Just a few euro bought you a plate of grilled sardines and bread; frites were also available with mayonnaise or ketchup or both, for the indiscriminate (like me) who like to mix.

The eldest adorable nephew discovered candy floss.

The slightly smaller adorable nephew discovered sardines, frites, churros and ice cream.  He likes to eat, this one.  Like his auntie.

A la prochaine!

Thursday 22 August 2013

Tory Blue

Unlike yesterday's red features, nobody has been applying blue paint to Tory.  I think it's more that the island's colour palette creates a beautiful backdrop that allows all things blue to shine.

Tuesday 20 August 2013

Tory Red

As I mentioned yesterday, I was very struck by the intense colours on Tory.  Those and the painterly aspects of the island will form a bit of a theme in the blog this week.  Today's focus is on the colour red, which I couldn't help but notice because someone seems to have gone about the island with a pot of red paint.

Monday 19 August 2013

Fáilte go Toraigh*

The day we went to Tory Island, there was much singing of Báidín Fheidhlimi.  This is a song that every Irish child learns, about a fisherman (Feidhlimi) who takes his boat to Tory with sad consequences.  (For lyrics and translation see here.)  It's actually quite a jolly song, in spite of the whole shipwreck thing.  Anyway, I'm glad to report that we made our way safely to Tory.  Of all Ireland's offshore islands I read somewhere that it is the farthest offshore and the ferry trip takes about 45 minutes.  Like many Irish islands, Tory is a Gaeltacht, and Irish is the first language of the islanders.

One of the things that makes Tory special is the fact that the island has its own king, Rí Thoraigh, who is elected by the islanders. The current king, Patsy Dan Mac Ruadhri, meets every ferry at the quay, driving up alongside in his royal Mercedes.  Please note the personalised numberplate.

The hub of island life is an Baile Thiar, the west village, where the hotel/pub, cafe and a couple of shops are located, as well as the ferry dock.  Despite the island's relative remoteness, the inhabitants are still proud Donegal supporters, which is why so many of the buildings are painted green and gold, the colours of the county football team.

Happily, the green and gold buildings blend well with the island's natural colour scheme.

In Celtic mythology, Tory is famous as the island where Balor of the Evil Eye cast his daughter Eithne into prison because it was foretold that her son would kill him.  As these things usually worked out, Eithne still managed to bear a son who did, in fact, kill his grandfather.  Since I feel a certain solidarity with all Eithnes, I'm glad she had the last word.

We walked to the far end of the island, to Balor's fort (the cliffs on the east end of the island which have the remains of a prehistoric settlement) passing several currachs on the way.  I liked this one and the abandoned machinery - some kind of winch for pulling in boats? - beside it.

The island is decidedly dramatic: with little vegetation, you get spectacular views from end to end.

From the cliffs, we walked back to village and had excellent chowder at the Harbour View Hotel.  I'd tell you to make sure and visit it if you're ever on Tory - except that as it's the only pub on the island you almost certainly would anyway.

Tory is bleaker than other Irish islands I've been to. It's remote and windswept and, apart from a few sheep, there's very little in the way of farming.  You get the distinct impression that life here has always been hard.  But it is has that stripped down, bare beauty that I've seen on Greek islands, where the colours are pure and intense against the sea and sky.

Come to think of it, Balor of the Evil Eye does sound a bit Greek ... Perhaps the island shop needs to stock up on some Ματόχαντρα.  

*Welcome to Tory

Thursday 15 August 2013

The Lutyens Youth Hostel

Everything is connected.  Inspired by my visit to Lambay, I did some more reading about Lutyens' work in Ireland and discovered that a hunting lodge he designed in Donegal was now a youth hostel. A youth hostel just a stone's throw from the place I spent every summer as a child - and, as chance would have it, had planned to visit the week after Lambay.  Strangely, though I'd passed it a hundred times, I'd never been inside the youth hostel.  Obviously, this was the moment to make good on that.

This is not the youth hostel.  This is the rather striking sculptural arrangement of abandoned lorries sitting in front of it.  

This is the youth hostel - and once I saw it, I could see the connection between this and other Lutyens buildings.  Those sweeping, slightly curved, cross between pagoda- and chalet-inspired roofs.

Though I suspect that the accommodation is somewhat basic, you do have stunning views over the Atlantic Ocean - and a rather lovely porch wrapping around the house from which to appreciate them.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

Overseen: Matchy Matchy II

Overseen on Tory Island, Donegal, Ireland, July 2013.  Just recently I wrote about those chic Frenchies, matching their vans to their window treatments.  But look!  The good people of Tory have matched a van to an electricity sub-station.

Now that's style.

Tuesday 13 August 2013

Enchanted Isle

Lambay island sits in the Irish Sea, just a few kilometres off Dublin.  It's privately owned, but visits can be arranged by appointment and, from the moment I heard that there was a beautiful Sir Edwin Lutyens-designed house sitting at its centre, I plotted to find a way to get there.  To be perfectly honest, the island almost didn't make it on to my blog at all.  I was quite tempted to delight over the experience in private.  

Being a private island, there's no ferry service to Lambay: our trip was by fishing boat.  We were tossed a little on the waves, but our first glimpse of the misty island made up for this.  

The island is really a perfect microcosm of Edwardian life (with some traces of the earlier Tudor, Viking, Neolithic inhabitants).  From the moment you step onto the pier and catch a glimpse of the real tennis court, you have a sense of being in a place that might be in the early 21st century ... but might equally still be existing in 1912 or so.

There are actually two main houses on the island.  This first was built for the grown up daughters (and families) of the original owners.  By Lutyens, naturally.  The pantile roofs are his hallmark and all I can say is - oh please, won't my parents build me one of these?

This house is shaped like a letter 'E' without the middle cross: two wings and a central section.

One wall of windows gives almost directly on to the sea.

And just across the fields is the island chapel.

But please bear in mind that this is only the warm up act, so to speak.  The main event is encircled by this sturdy wall.

You go through this rather lovely gate,

and walk into a wood which looks like every magical wood from every story you ever read as a child.  Quite apart from their charm, the curtain wall and wood serve the very practical purpose of protecting the garden within from the elements, a key consideration for any would be island-gardeners.

The would-be island gardener in this instance being Gertrude Jekyll.  I know: a Lutyens house and a Jekyll garden.  It's not really fair, is it?  Although apparently Miss Jekyll never actually visited the island (more fool her) - she drew up her plans in consultation with Sir Edwin and they were executed by others.

Encircled by all this loveliness sits the house, the labour of love of Sir Edwin Lutyens, working closely with his clients, Maude and Cecil Baring.  Onto the original 16th century castle (or fortified house, to be perhaps strictly accurate) has been added a typical Lutyens-style design (more pantile roofs).  The joins between old and new-er haven't been hidden (in fact, Lutyens went to some pains to develop a kind of architectural grammar that indicates where the walls are original and which he added) but each section flows gracefully into the next.

Having walked around and seen the house from multiple angles, levels and visits all I can say is - I was within seconds of sitting down on the floor and refusing to move.  I'm not sure I've ever fallen harder for a house.  But sadly the tide wouldn't wait and our boat had a narrow window to get back off the island.  So we said goodbye to the island.

Throughout the visit I kept thinking of a book called The Enchanted Castle - of one of E. Nesbit's (author of The Railway Children and Five Children and It) less well-known children's books.  In the story, the castle may or may not be enchanted and magic may or may not be responsible for the events that take place.  The book was published in 1907, just a couple of years before the house on Lambay was completed.  I did try to find a connection between Edith Nesbit and Edwin Lutyens - it's not impossible that they would have known each other - but nothing has come up so far.  But apart from their shared Edwardian sensibility, perhaps both of them understood that a castle ringed by gardens and woods and stone walls and fields and sea must be enchanted.

I certainly thought so.    

Monday 12 August 2013

In Praise of Islands

A couple of years ago, I was inspired to write a life list - a kind of to-do list for life.  This was on the back of two years of adventure, when I'd taken a leap of faith, packed up my flat and packed in my job in London and set off around the world.  The life list was written in the spirit of trying to keep that sense of adventure present in my life, even if my travels wouldn't always be to such exotic places.

I can't remember exactly what prompted number 21 on my list: visit all of Ireland's inhabited offshore islands.  It's true that I have a love of islands.  It's true that I think that one of the most romantic and exciting things in the world is to get on a ferry (luckily, since I grew up on and have returned to live on an island, albeit a relatively large one.)  It's true that my metaphor-reflex finds islands very useful - in fact I based an entire museum concept on the idea of stories being islands, which in turn could form archipelagoes, through which visitors would navigate, following different currents depending on their interests.  But island-love notwithstanding, I think that no. 21 was written without much forethought and it was almost by accident that I decided to visited island #1, Cape Clear, a couple of years ago.

At the time I was struggling with some mixed emotions about Ireland.  Having lived overseas most of the time since I was 19, I felt like a stranger in Ireland and Ireland felt strange to me.  I wasn't sure if I 'got' it anymore or, if I did, if I liked what I was getting.

Cape Clear (albeit it on an idyllic summer's day) helped to remind me what is special about this country.  I'm beginning to realise that Ireland's islands represent a kind of distillation of some of Ireland's most amazing qualities.  The unique beauty of the landscape (the distinctive blend of greens, greys, blues I've never seen anywhere else); the sense of community; the sense of ancientness - because there are places in Ireland that look more or less as they have for the past thousand years.  Though not all of the islands are Gaeltachts (areas where Irish Gaelic is the first language), many of them are - reinforcing the impression of timelessness.

None of this is to say that I want the islands to remain preserved as some kind of heritage theme park.  What's wonderful to see are the ways in which the ancient and the modern combine: when we saw the yurt camp and the goat's milk ice cream parlour on Cape Clear, or heard some locals on Rathlin discussing the best online shopping.

I've recently added two islands to my list (for a grand total of four, so I still have quite a way to go) and am loving the discoveries I make with each one.  Not only am I exploring hitherto unknown parts of the country, everytime I'm on a ferry heading back to the mainland, it's as though I'm arriving in Ireland for the first time - excited and full of anticipation.

So this week's posts (delayed somewhat because of moving house, sorry about that) are all in praise of islands.

Wednesday 7 August 2013

Overseen: Inisboffin

Overseen, Donegal, July 2013:

This is Inisboffin, a small, sometimes-inhabited island of the coast of Donegal, which we passed by on the way to Tory.  One day I will hopefully visit it.  One day when the sky is a little less grey and the sea  a little less choppy ...