The Best of My 2018

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2018 raced in, trailed by snow and storms and chaos, and just a manic as its arrival, it’s almost gone. With a few weeks left in the year, I’d like to look back on the events of the past 12 months, for me a year of change, growth and creativity.

I put on my first photo exhibition (and hopefully not my last), I started a photography course in NCAD that is proving to be challenging and so rewarding. I did some travelling, in Ireland and outside, but more than that, I made strides towards a more creative life.

Below is just a short roundup of everything I’ve done or been involved in this year. May 2019 bring even more adventures!

Photography Challenges

Projects and Exhibitions, oh my

This year has been momentous for me with my photography; in July I exhibited some images for the first time. In print, on a wall, for everyone to see. I had been awarded some funding to develop my idea and put the finished product, 11 monochrome portraits of College staff, on the walls in Trinity College Dublin. I’d never before exhibited anything, and very rarely printed any of my images, even for family and friends. It was a steep learning curve, executed in a very short amount of time and exhibited in even less time. I was sad to see it being taken down, but I really hope this is the first of many and the start of my photography career.

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And some more good news, four of my images have been selected to go on display in my workplace. The images have been beautifully printed and framed and will be on show for others to enjoy.

As I mentioned above, I’ve started a year-long part time photography course in the National College of Art & Design (NCAD). It has been a collection of firsts: a portfolio, presenting & explaining my work, working in different photography genres. I’ve completed the first project, a documentary photography project, and am in the middle of a difficult second one, environmental portraiture. I have one more after that, and then a paper to submit. It’s been a few years since I was in a classroom (as a student), but the challenge of thinking critically about my work, looking at new ways to photograph and pushing myself out of my comfort zone has meant I have already learned so much. I’ll be back with a review of the course in April, and some new images to share.

Rise & Repeal

Landslide Relief

On 25th May, Ireland voted to repeal the 8th amendment. The relief emitted from Irishwomen was felt around the world. As other countries worked to roll back women’s reproductive rights, Ireland took a step forward. For a country that had only closed the last Magdalene laundry in 1996, this was a massive development.

I had taken part in the previous years’ March for Choice, and on those cold September Saturdays it didn’t seem like anything would ever change. We would be marching forever. When the date for the referendum was announced, everybody braced for the clash of bitter words and accusations. Roadsides were wallpapered with graphic posters of foetuses and doctors urging a no vote. It seemed as if the anti-choice side had taken over our visual landscape. Election posters are an eyesore at the best of times, but these were particularly heinous.

Leaflets of (mis)information were pushed through letterboxes and shoved into reticent hands on busy streets. The battle for our bodies was frantic. In the end, or perhaps it is the beginning, compassion prevailed. A resolute 66.4% of the electorate said Yes, removing the misogynistic and cruel amendment. The result was unequivocal.

As a woman who has lived in the shadow of the amendment all of her adult life, the relief is something I still find difficult to articulate. I worried about a silent majority of No voters. I wasn’t wholly convinced we as a nation had made any progress in regards to women’s lives. I was steeling myself to fight on another year, another march. I know it would have taken a while to recover from the disappointment if the result had been different. I wholeheartedly believe the repeal of the 8th amendment is one of the greatest triumphs of 2018, for Irish women and men.

 

*Update: we still have a long way to go. Legislation to provide abortion care in Ireland has just recently been passed, coming on the same day we celebrated 100 years since (some) women got the vote in 1918.

To the West

The Great Western Greenway, Inishbofin and Achill

As has become a tradition, I headed west this year, away from the frenetic rush of the city once more. I hit the Great Western Greenway in May, my second time on this converted railway line and carried on to Achill in search of calm. This was one of the most difficult cycles I’ve undertaken. The Achill landscape is tough to conquer, and on a bike, perhaps the island had the upper hand. I met some friendly, helpful people who took pity on my transport choice and drove me around the island. The dramatic landscape, swept by strong Atlantic winds, laid out before me at every turn looked like it was painted by the masters.

The island of Inishbofin in June did not disappoint. It is one of my favourite places in the world, and the lack of a good internet connection is its biggest attraction. The currachs and stone ruins, lobster pots dotting the coastline, calls of the elusive corncrake and nonchalant sheep make this place a quintessential west of Ireland spot to lose yourself, even for a long weekend. I wrote, I walked, I clambered over gates and walls. But mostly, I was swathed in silence. With all of our technological advances and hyperconnectivity, finding stillness is always an achievement.

Dingle

Cycling the Peninsula

On the very edge of Europe, jutting out into the Atlantic lies the pretty town of Dingle. All along this rugged peninsula of spectacular seascapes and majestic mountains rolling into the sea, I was met with hospitality, warmth and good humour during my visit in July. It was my first time in Dingle and on the Slea Head Way, and I’m still going through the many images I took during the 3 days, but I long to travel back, to see the Blasket Islands for a start. Like much of the Wild Atlantic Way, and the west coast of the country, it is very much a paradox: wild and calm. It’s a chance to slow down and connect with nature, which at times can be ferocious.

Hong Kong travels

This city wears a lot of hats

My big international trip of the year was to Hong Kong at Easter. This was the first time I’d been to this dazzling fusion of cultures and contrasts. Ornate temples sat amidst high rise buildings; cityscapes mixed with lush green parklands. The ultra modern existed beside important historical relics. The rush was exhilarating; the mass of people out on the streets every evening was a gift to people watching. It is a city that promises a mixture of different cultures of food and always delivers. My favourite place to eat was on the street, tasty and fast with a queue winding round the corner (so you knew it had to be good). If the signs weren’t in English, you could just as easily point to curried fish balls, egg waffles or fried squid tentacles on offer.

You would never be bored in a city like this, and if you needed a break from the feverish pace, there are expansive green spaces on your doorstep. There is ample space to practice tai chi in the morning, looking out over the harbour, or take a trek up to the Big Buddha and Po Lin monastery on Lantau Island.

With plenty to see and do for all the family in Hong Kong, and now with direct flights from Dublin, there’s no reason not to make this city bursting with energy a part of your plans in 2019.

 

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Island Conversation

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Inishbofin

I’m inspired by Inishbofin’s windy paths, wild flowers and a sea washed shells discarded upon the sand.

I’ve returned to Inishbofin for some much needed quiet and time out from the chaos of the city. The island is still calm, the air filled with the shouts of children playing ball and little birds chirping to each other, coded messages of affection. A romantic pair find space on a twisted branch to serenade each other. Just as quickly as they perch, they are off again to spread their love.

My first stop was Dumhach beach, a green coast awarded beach, to search for the empty shells of crabs and lobsters. These seem littered across the white sands. Discarded arms that once suggested power were wedged between rocks or tangled among the bleached sea weed.

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The sky was filled with greying clouds but the sea was calm. Seagulls raced across the water and a group of sheep strolled across the sand far up the beach. A light rain fell but the beach was offering up delights like brightly coloured shells, strings of seaweed and sadly the occasional piece of plastic. Even on milder mornings, as mist stretched into the early afternoon, this is my favourite part of the island.

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The following day, with my book was now finished, the rain had stopped and I could leave the hostel. The sun had started to break through the clouds and spread a little sunshine. I used the island’s tourist map to find the start of the West Quarter (purple) loop walk. This 8km walk takes you out along the western side of the island, a quieter, less inhabited part. Passing through bog lands and out passed the Stags I saw a seal sunning itself on an outlying lump of rock. Like the pace of the rest of the island, it unhurriedly basked in the mid morning sun.

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Looking out from Dún Mór cliffs, neighbouring island of Inishark was starting to peak out from under a blanket of mist. The remains of abandoned houses pointed up out of the haze, reminding me that Ireland’s islands were once regarded as home to many people. Pink ribbed sheep sat watching the walkers and cyclists following the path, their offspring a little more startled by chattering and metal spinning. I scrambled down to Trá Gheal beach, a white sandy beach with the music of the sea playing on its shore. The path is more pronounced in this last section of the loop. Just one or two more scrambles over metal foot bridges brought me back into Fawnmore. Here was a good opportunity to refuel for the next walk out to Cromwell’s Barracks ruins at the harbour. If the delicacies of the Inishwallah double decker bus don’t tempt you, the crab meat open sandwich at Doonmore Hotel certainly will. A much deserved cup of coffee later and I was ready to take off again. Sadly there were no dolphins romping in the harbour this time, delighting adults and children alike the previous day.

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The walk out to the Barracks ruins is not an easy one, and more like a climb than an easy walk. High tide was at 5pm so I have plenty of time to get out there and enjoy the views of the mainland and the island. To get out to the ruins, you need to follow the beach around, but with no clear path and the beach disappearing in parts, it requires climbing up and around hills, trying to avoid the marshy ground, and not frightening the sheep too much. An overturned boat is anchored in one of the inlets, creeping seaweed giving it a new husk.

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The ruins finally come into view as two territorial seagulls squawk and fly low over my head. It must be nesting season. At the barracks, windows in the stonework contain pink coastal flowers, quickly becoming my favourite flora. The surrounding area is quiet but for the ferry docking with more holiday makers. I sit and look out on the Galway coast, Cleggan not too far away. It’s my last day on the island and a little sad.

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Being out here on Inishbofin I am reminded of the power the West of Ireland landscape can have to move men (and women) to create, to try to capture its savage beauty. Back on Dumhach beach the sand sparkles; the sea is still, reflecting the warmth of the sun in greens and blues. A carpet of seashells guides swimmers to the edge. On a nearby farm a cockerel calls out, confused about the time of day perhaps. Birds sing to each other nearby and the elusive corncrake sends out its mating call. Nature couldn’t be more beautiful at this moment. I sit and soak it all in for a while, unwilling to let this visit end. A few more tents have popped up among the dunes. I leave the next morning under a dense shroud of mist.

To see some more images from my trip, have a look at the album on Flickr here.

Visting Inishbofin – Part Four The West Quarter Loop

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Sunday arrived. The last day of my Inishbofin adventures. The rain was intermittent. I layered on my clothing before I left the hostel and four minutes down the road, before the sheep and its hungry lamb appeared, I pealed it all off again. The sheep weren’t interested in my rolled up water proof protectors. Looking briefly before resuming their interrogation of a clump of grass, I set off again, towards the western side of the island. My last day and my last loop walk.

I passed the double decker bus, but the shutter was down. Birds perched on the roof, flitting off to chase insects. The grass around the wheels shuddered in the breeze. In the distance sheep bleated messages to each other. Life started later on a Sunday. I followed the coastline passed whitewashed cottages and a hotel, and a triumvirate of cows on what looked like a regular stroll down the quiet Sunday road. Representing all colours, sandy, then red, then brown, they neatly stuck to the left hand side, allowing for passing traffic. They’d obviously taken this route before.

Further up, passed the ram’s head skull, I came upon the gate into the loop path, guarded by a sheep mother and infant. Horned and purple streaked, like gate keepers from a sci-fi movie, I cowered. I stood and went through all possible outcomes of this standoff. The sheep gazed back and eventually moved off, through a very convenient hole in the wire. I breathed a sigh of relief. I scrambled over the ladder and followed. The track was accidental, created by farmers’ vehicles as they rounded up their livestock I imagined. I was bracketed on one side by the grassy mountain itself, dotted with sheep of every colour. On the other, the wild Atlantic ocean, made wilder on this day by unforgiving winds that lashed the ruins of abandoned houses on Inishark. Bring binoculars to see them more clearly, for they are a strange sight. Abandoned in 1960, the ruins are a reminder of the cost of progress.

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I kept going, following the track passed Inishark, grazing sheep and napping lambs to Dún Mor cliffs, all the way to the sea stags and the island’s seal colony, where two seals frolicked among the rocks. I sat for a while, watching the other visitors as they took in this breathtaking landscape. This was by far my favourite walk. It even included bog in the process of being cut. Mounds of turf were protected under tarp, awaiting their owners return, and soft white bog cotton held onto their roots as the wind whipped them around. Bikes were strewn here and there as cyclists abandoned their horses for escapes up hills and out onto cliffs.

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I could have stayed there forever, just watching the water, feeling the wind wrap itself around me. I saw a vision of Ireland I thought was long gone. Stone houses, wooden gates, wandering sheep and colonies of seagulls, all existing effortlessly beside each other. It seemed to have sprung straight from a Paul Henry canvas. I trudged back to the hostel three hours after I took off that morning with a heavy heart. I was leaving the following day. I was leaving behind this landscape, soft and resilient.

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Visiting Inishbofin – Part Three Cloonamore Loop on a Bike

I need a short bike, so I can hop off at a moment’s notice and not feel like I’ve jumped from a height. Not the black mountain bike for men, but the ones behind: blue, smaller, for short women like me. I test the seat and the brakes and then I’m off. Today, the East End of the island to uncover the treasures of the East.

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The dunes are lined with old boats, some left to decay, others rescued from the salty air. A currach bobs gently on the water below. Children laugh and run back in to see if there are any more crab shells floating around. The seagulls only venture ankle deep, pecking seaweed and hoping for a delicious surprise. Mothers cheer their offspring’s latest accomplishment with a bucket and spade.

It’s 13 degrees and partly cloudy in Ardnagreevagh according to the weather app. I put my phone away as the pings announce another work situation. It can wait until Monday. The lapping of the water calls me and I silence the interruptions.

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A black and white collie teases its owner, bounding back into the warm Atlantic water each time the middle-aged hopeful comes close to catching the dog. Cries of ‘come back’ reverberate across the beach. Never in mankind’s history has animal or child obeyed the instruction and today is no different. Children continue their construction of complex castles with motes and land agreements, and the world is slow for just an afternoon on the East End beach on Inishbofin.

I have parked my bike against a green wooden bench and watch two industrious bumble bees gather enough pollen for the rest of the hive. They hover and hop. Eventually they move off to a bunch of honeysuckle at the next bench. Visitors gather outside whitewashed cottages at the edge of the beach, soaking in the calm.

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The sun dips a little, but the currach keeps its rhythm, bobbing up and down to the sea’s cadence. Conversations continue, dogs run, children build more and more elaborate structures, making the castle a complex of dwellings. Quickly a town appears, lined with shells and protected at the gate by two mismatched crab claws.

The water ripples blue to green and back again. The wind picks up a little but the mountains in shadow across the bay stand firm. Mother Nature has worked hard here, carving out for her rocky fortress a sandy paradise for people, animals and her hard working bees.

Gorse bushes and brambles, honeysuckle and wild daisies, the roadside is a jungle of plants. Stepping in to take a photo, I tread carefully, in this eco-friendly place, a flattened plant is an affront to lamb calling down from high to passing walkers, the corncrakes flitting from bush to briar, the cows who sit idly as chickens peck the earth around them.

I gather my bike and bag and keep going along the Cloonamore Loop walk, straining to get up slopes and jumping off in time to allow cars to pass. I catch a sun shower on the way back to the hostel. It comes quickly and leaves promptly. It’s warm. Like a thief, I wait for the rainbow to complete the postcard of rural island life. I return the bike with droplets gathering on the frame. People move towards evening as the light changes. My feet ache; my hands are sunburned. I’ll be doing it all again tomorrow.

Visiting Inishbofin – Part Two

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Clouds hang low over speckled hills. Stone walls run like arteries over grassy slopes, and boulders break through the earth like an announcement. The evening beckons on Inishbofin.

The hostel is well worn. It’s a basic room that fits six. Windows on either side of the first floor room protect me from the howling wind as mothers cry out for their lost lambs. A long thread of Spanish flows in the next room as a mother instructs her child in neverending sentences or so it seems. The child is quiet. He stomps down the stairs, unhappy with the outcome of their conversation.

The smell of grilled shrimp weaves a path to my dorm room. The shared kitchen is a hive of activity as campers and hostellers co-ordinate a dance of chopping, dicing, stirring across the narrow stainless steel room.

The narrow roads of Inishbofin take me down the highways of childhood memories.

The air is clean. The moon is clear in the sky already and children can be heard playing outside on the campsite. It feels like my childhood, with the clock striking ten and everyone still outside taking in the last rays of the sun. Somewhere a lawnmower is working hard to shave the grass of its spring shadow. The smell takes me back to summer holidays spent idly playing in fields, catching tadpoles and hunting for the cat’s kittens. The narrow roads of Inishbofin take me down the highways of childhood memories.

Roads are quiet now, narrow and windy, interrupted by gates and houses and sharp turns. Hedgerows reach out to meet each other but for the occasional car that swiftly removes outstretched branches.

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A rainbow disappears, taking away the promise of its treasure. The sky has turned from a burning red to a dark and cloudy grey. It’s time to go inside, peel off shoes and socks and find a cosy nook somewhere before turning in. It’s been a long day of sea air, walking, cycling and jogging one’s memory. It’s time to turn in until tomorrow’s excursion to the East End of the island.

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Visiting Inishbofin – Part One

Island of the white cow

Like a painting, distant mountains in shadow, shy to reveal themselves. Blue skies interrupted by white clouds spun straight from a candy floss machine. Even whiter sheep grazing in the fields below, one stumbling to keep up with his injured leg. All marked electric pink like a teenager at a concert.

The music is the howling wind, tossing birds about like paper planes. Smaller birds dart in and out of hedgerows, dive bombing in front of me as I amble down narrow roads.

Inishbofin, the island of the white cow, is a soothing haven from a noisy, chaotic Dublin. ‘Haven’ is the word banded about on travel sites, and the island does not disappoint. There is something calming about its landscape.

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Getting There

If you are planning to get there, and don’t have the luxury of driving, there is the patience-testing public transport option. Buses from Dublin to Galway are frequent, with City Link there are seventeen buses daily. From Galway’s new bus terminal, you can then catch the Cliften bus to Cleggan Pier for the ferry to Inishbofin. The Cliften bus only goes five times a day, so timing your connection is crucial. Winding through breathtaking Connemara, the bus takes almost two hours, delivering passengers right to the harbour as the ferry starts to depart. If you’re organised, you can just jump off the bus and onto the boat with seconds to spare. Sailing three times a day over the summer period, the ferry takes just over 30 minutes to cross, revealing some of the most beautiful coastline and preparing you for a feast for the eyes on your Inishbofin adventure.

I sit on the deck, hoping to get a glimpse of dolphins or other sealife, but sadly none appear. In no time, a boatful of tourists are hopping off onto Inishbofin pier. Even the air is different. I immediately feel recharged.

Little boats of blue and red bob gently on the water, as seaweed gather by the barriers. Three geese are picking lunch from among the plantlife that floats near the pier. I walk to the end of the pier and read every sign, not that there are many, looking for an illuminating arrow pointing me towards the hostel. None appear, so I follow the crowd of luggage draggers towards the church spire. Some divert off towards flags, others take the slope towards ‘The Galley’ and ‘Bike Hire’. I scroll through my emails to see if in the correspondence I’ve received directions. I haven’t, but it can’t be far. I follow some people with backpacks, stereotyping the whole way. Who has a backpack and doesn’t stay in a hostel. It works. 700m up the road from the harbour is Inishbofin Hostel & Campsite. A yellow painted old house, converted into low cost accommodation for city visitors looking for that elusive sense of quiet.

Houses nestle on hillsides. Some from the past; some from the future.

The walk to the hostel takes me past lush green fields. I peer in to watch lambs follow their multicoloured mothers around. Undulating hills are broken up by stone walls. Houses nestle on hillsides, some from the past, some from the future. I pass the bike hire place and make a mental note to come back tomorrow to rent a bike to see the outer parts of the island, not knowing that I would spend more time walking the bike around than cycling. But I’m here, on Inishbofin, and it is enough for today.