Residency in Ireland- Part 1

Alison Critchlow Abstract Landscape Artist Irish Residency Cill Rialaig

February 2023 saw me boarding a ferry, bound for an artist residency at Cill Rialaig on the west coast of Ireland. It’s fair to say I was beyond excited to be en route.

I have been meaning to write about my trip ever since I came back, and here I am, half a year later, at the end of summer, reliving a magical time spent in County Kerry. I have used the notes I made while I was away (in italics), leaving them mostly as they were written; notes and thoughts, and not always whole sentences!

I am never happier than sitting on the deck of a ferry, with a sketch book, in the sun. The weather is kind, the crossing is very calm, and it is just long enough for journeying headspace to take hold. I often think well on journeys; something about the speed and rhythm of travelling opens up new, untethered, thoughts, (perhaps you leave normal mind boundaries behind). Leaving the tiny port of Cairnryan, watching orange hillsides slip past, I write in my sketchbook,

‘You see the shape of the land differently from the sea. You see the edges’.

I begin with a night in Dublin, staying with old friends who I love, and set off the next day, taking my time to drive across Ireland to County Kerry. As I get further west the roads drop to one lane, tractors appear… I start slowing, physically and mentally (in a good way) and the scenery grows. Mountains disappear into sky.

‘Very pale soft grey green sea…rain showers and brightness. I wonder about how a place seeps into us- in mind and eyes- colour, atmosphere, vibe, pace and rhythm.’

My friend Tara sends me a text…’Postscript’ by Seamus Heaney, it begins, ‘And some time make the time to drive out west’. Perfect timing. I park up and wander along a beautiful strand, right out to the end. Watch the way beach talks to sky until all is one big moving whole. I scribble down notes.

Alison Critchlow  Artist Abstract Landscape Irish Residency County Kerry Rossbeigh Strand
Alison Critchlow Artist Irish Residency. Image of a strand in County Kerry Ireland
Alison Critchlow Artist Photo of Sand Dunes, County Kerry, Ireland

‘Under a pale grey sky, beautiful thin light.

Ripples and cloud banks…majestic greys and blue purples. Frothy sea- nimble wet reflections. Threatening sky. Pocketful of shells already…I’m using the excuse it’s like picking up a palette of colours.

Amazing at the end of the strand- becomes low dunes and marram grass – quieter, dryer, different sand…take off my hat, it’s like walking into sacred space.

Wondering about the nature of strands – liminal spikes right out into sea. Places to walk out to the end.’

Alison Critchlow Artist Abstract Landscape  Irish Residency Sketchbook
Alison Critchlow Artist Abstract Landscape Irish Residency Bogland Sketch
Alison Critchlow Artist Irish Residency Sketching At Derrynane Beach

I have a few days before I am due at Cill Rialaig, which I spend exploring and drawing- getting to know this beautiful, wild place. I love the feeling of travelling across the bog and into the Gaeltacht- ‘ochre colours in transit- red/yellows and pink purple scrub of the peatlands in winter. Watching the light move across the bog land- mesmerising. You can feel the depth of history here
I know I am only drawing what I see in a glimpse… you’d need a lifetime here to really understand this place. I walk, drive, draw and wonder, filling a sketchbook with quick drawings and notes. This is my usual way of getting to know a place, I find that drawing helps me to see properly and gives me permission to sit and absorb a place. I am struck by the scale and wildness, the wind and a particular quality of light. Most of all I am blown away by the friendliness and warmth of the people I meet.

Alison Critchlow Artist Crossing The Bog Irish Residency Oil And Acrylic On Board 2023

At some point, up on a high turn in the road, I suddenly see the Skellig Islands. Oh my goodness! I have read about them of course, but I had no idea just how jagged and inhospitable they are or what an impact they have. Skellig Michael is the largest of the islands and is a UNESCO world heritage site. There was a monastic site built there between the sixth and eighth century which was continuously occupied until the 12th century -up to 12 monks lived out there in beehive cells, devising their own system for purifying and collecting water. I am told that there is a hermitage on the south peak; answering a need for isolation I suppose!

Alison Critchlow Artist Irish Residency photo of Skellig Islands

My eyes are constantly drawn out to those jagged triangle shapes on the horizon and my mind heads out there too. At first I am baffled as to why and how those monks chose this inhospitable island to build their monastery. The Skellig islands become a constant reminder of human possibilities-thoughts about time and thinking and expanded headspace…

I have reached the edge of land. I needed to get here…’

‘Wind picking up today. Wonderful to be here. Going to sleep wondering about those monks. They reckon there was a monastery out there for 6 centuries, so it clearly worked out well for them. Will have to come back at a different time of year and make that trip…idea of expanded headspace at the edge of land. I am reminded of something Danish painter, Per Kirkeby wrote about ‘incidents while travelling’ ‘…the map is your knowledge and also the limit of your imagination…without the map, no time and no direction…we were beyond all jurisdiction’. Love this idea that you can free your imagination from time and perceived limits. I think those Skellig monks knew that – massive internal freedom out there?’

Alison Critchlow Artist Sea Painting St Finans Bay  Irish Residency Cill Rialaig

St Finan’s Bay rapidly becomes a favourite place. A wild Atlantic surf and a shelving beach…nothing better! I am reminded of the last time I was on a residency, which was on the Isle of Iona, in February 2017 (you can read blogposts from that trip here if you’re interested). On that residency I spent all of my time painting outside on the beach. My aim in Ireland is to paint mostly in the studio at Cill Rialaig. My work has moved on in the six years between these residencies, and I am keen to paint this place from the inside, using my ‘mind’s eye’ more. I am hoping to bring back some Irish air to breathe into the big abstract canvases I have under way in my studio at home. My notes to self read,

‘not about recording time…rather painting from the inside. How this place feels, what memories it sparks. Moving in/through/beside/ above…immersed in a moving mass of sea…exhilarating…magical land’
Breezy, wild, raucous, buffeting, dazzling, dark, glorious…bring it all back into the studio’

Alison Critchlow Artist  Cill Rialaig, Irish Residency Mist
Alison Critchlow Artist Irish Residency Cill Rialaig
Alison Critchlow Artist Irish Residency No 7  Cill Rialaig No 7

Cill Rialaig is a remote pre famine village high up on a cliff in the Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) area of County Kerry. The place was bought by Noelle Campbell Sharpe, in 1991, a wonderful woman who I was lucky enough to meet, and over a cup of tea she explained how the whole project had come into being- what an inspiring person and a perfect way to start my residency. She gave me a quick tour of the art centre and explained how the Cill Rialaig project works, it is a beautiful endeavour- a fine renovation and a great ethos…So special to be invited to work in this place- I can’t wait to get stuck in. She wishes me luck and I jump in my car and head out of the village, up a road which seems to go on for ever…getting grassier, steeper. Low cloud, damp air- driving into the sky – a beautiful fog , soft grey light, no view, just a sense of the cliff falling away to my left.
I let myself into no 7 and feel my shoulders drop immediately, I will love working in this little house. The cottages are built gable end to the sea. Simple and solid, they have been renovated using traditional techniques- a studio and living space downstairs, with bedroom in the roof. I unpack, stick the kettle on, light the fire and climb into my painting trousers, feeling right at home straight away.

I will write about the rest of my Irish residency in Part II. If you would like to receive an email link once I have written part 2 please contact me or sign up below for my mailings.