Stone. There is just stone everywhere on Inishlacken. I felt compelled to walk the periphery of the island as soon as I arrived. It’s a small place, but encircling it can’t be done quickly. The ground is uneven and changes underfoot often. It takes time to pick steps over the boulders and flagstones and to find a path around the boggy places. If it’s green and plushy, beware.
Greenery often gives way to a soft, squelchy and sodden underbelly and while it is tempting to dander among the flag irises, it’s not smart unless of course your intention is to sink into it. It’s better to step out, surefooted onto stone.
On the Atlantic side of the island, even as late as the summer solstice, I watched a sheep drop her newborn lamb onto a sloping slab of solid stone, exposed to the weather coming off the sea – the wind brought mizzly air and, while it wasn’t colder than about 12 degrees that day, it looked an inhospitable cradle. The ewe was practiced and focused. She licked the lamb clean and nuzzled it in a businesslike and systematic way. Eventually, it staggered to its feet.
The lamb stood, fell, propped itself up on its front legs, fell, and did that all over again and again until it managed a few steps………. backwards………. and fell again.
I only stayed a while to watch them. It felt a bit intrusive to do otherwise, though they didn’t seem at all bothered. At one time this tiny island had a population of 200 people or so. They farmed and lived off the sea.
There are plenty of rabbits – another reason to walk slowly and to take care where your feet go. They burrow deep into the shell midden and the dunes on the east side of the island. Catherine Gaston, a gifted visual artist from Belfast who was also on this residency could hear them underground when she pressed her ear to the earth.
On our residency, we were blessed with beautiful though changeable weather. Catherine, myself and another artist Helen “skuldugery tatu’ McDonnell, stayed out in the schoolhouse overnight around the summer solstice.
There is no electricity on the island. We lit the fire and sat and later, we slept, near it, telling stories, watching the light change, drinking wine. It was still and quiet otherwise. We did have a ‘voice’ join the conversation at one point during dinner. It became a bit of a pre-occupation amongst some of the others next day when we talked about it again. It was a man’s voice.
We were there at the invitation of Belfast artist Rosie McGurran. Rosie has organised this residency every year since about 2000. She followed the footsteps of Belfast artist Gerard Dillon who created some of his most famous works on Inishlacken.
The place itself is charged; there is a life-force about it and the gathering of the artists, apart from being a privilege, has, it seems, some reciprocal impact for the better, on the place – it’s special. The light, the panorama, the raucous, hiving life of it – everything is alive, whether you experience the place up close, or take a long view. You are in the painting – it might be a Gerard Dilllon painting where you are among the stones, the donkeys, or sitting at the fireside. You might, equally, be within a Paul Henry as the colours of the Twelve Bens shift and stretch the definition of the spectrum of blue/grey/lavender. On the beach, you step into the well-lit searing clarity of a world created by Mick O’Dea, and in the evening, the playful, imaginative,feminine, fantastic feral otherness, of a Rosie McGurran.
The experience will stay with me for some time to come. I had time and space to reflect on all that has changed for me in the past two years in particular. I am grateful to the people and the place. More later.