Philip A. Terry, Author, Artist, and Poet in Residence
It has been over twenty years since my wife and I first traveled the back roads of Ireland. Each trip brought a fuller appreciation of its beauty and charm. The valleys, mountains, rivers, streams, waterfalls, rocks, stone formations, ruins, walls, oceans, seas, villages, farms, castles, demesnes, plants, pastures, fields, bogs, lakes, harbors, people, animals, food, clouds, sunbeams and sports all captivated my interest. The landscapes are intensely attractive and active. The weather is ever changing. Around each corner is another view, another picture for the travel album. We took roll after roll of film only to be disappointed upon our return when the developed pictures did not match our expectations. It became apparent that the scenic splendor couldn’t be adequately captured with a camera - at least not by me. Even if you could capture the visual beauty you would still be lacking the cacophony of sounds; the wonderful dialects and idioms of the colorful language in everyday use; the sounds of the music in the pubs; the sounds of the cows lowing in the fields; the gentle sound of sheep; the call of the Coo coo bird, the Jackdaws, the Crows, or any of the birds for that matter; the sounds of the ocean; the howling or gentle blowing of the wind; the sound of a tractor working in a far off field; or sometimes the absence of sound which is in itself incredible. Nothing can adequately capture the smell of turf burning in the hearth, the smell of a decent pub, or the whiff of a fragrant farm on the wind. All of the senses are intensely involved with the day to day living in Ireland. We tried to capture the visual and sound aspects with a camcorder but that also was a disappointment. My wife said she felt like most of the trip she was traveling by herself in silence since the camcorder was constantly in my face lest I miss anything, and talking would drown out some significant sound. The results again were not up to expectations.
On our third trip we decided to just relax and record what we could mentally for recall later, while sharing a bottle of wine back in California. On the first two trips we put over 6,000 miles on our rental car. This doesn’t include the miles backing up to see something again. We saw every nook and cranny of the island staying in a different B&B each night. We decided this trip would have just a few objectives: rent houses for a week at a time, find the perfect Aran “hand-knit” sweater, and attend the Balinasloe Horse Fair.
The Balinasloe Horse Fair and later the Millstreet International Horse Jumping competition were the beginning of my efforts to record my feelings and sightings. The Balinasloe Horse Fair is held in October and made up of a number of events. I was content to sit on a rock wall and gaze at the horses, each held by the reins. I had never seen so many horses together at one time. There were horses of all shapes, sizes and colors. Some of the horses were in excess of seventeen hands. I was entranced by the sounds of the horses and the subtle movements of the tails, the legs, the ears and the heads, as they stood there obviously aware of the other horses. Suddenly in the midst a black shiny horse began to rear, rising on its two hind legs kicking the air with its front two legs. The horse was beautiful and silky with trim lines, Over and over it rose, staying up for what seemed a long period of time. The man holding the reins struggled to maintain control as the other horses moved away. After what must have been eight to ten minutes of this dance between horse and man the horse settled down but still pranced around. The horse’s coat was frothy from the exertion. The clouds, which had been a solid gray suddenly, parted briefly and a small beam penetrated the otherwise gray world and lit up the horse. The horse turned a dark blue color. I assume it was the result of moisture or oil on the hide. I had never seen a blue horse before nor since for that matter. For some reason, I wanted to paint a picture of that blue horse I’d seen at the Balinasloe Horse Fair. On the way back to our rented house we bought acrylic paints and thus began an obsession to capture the beauty of the blue horse. Horses are hard to draw or paint, in part because every time they move, they seem to change in dimension. For example, if they reach down and out with their mouth for a bit of grass, the neck becomes longer. All the muscles change when they move. A few nights later we attended the International Jumping Completion in Millstreet. I was fascinated. I painted blue horses for six months. A friend later pointed out to me that Frans Marc had painted blue horse before the First World War.
On this same trip, we happened to come across“The Miniature Art Gallery” at Ballydehob. Its fittingly small sign was flapping in the wind. An elderly gentleman was teaching art to a dozen or so small children within. The man had a wild shock of white hair that seemed to have been last combed by a violent wind. In a calming voice, he said he’d be with us shortly as he was just finishing his class for the day. I looked around the small room, which was perhaps 15 feet by 20 feet. Small, single paintings, at eye level and at respectable intervals, wrapped around the entire room, such that each painting commanded its own space. I looked at each painting but was drawn back to a painting of a ship being tossed about in a choppy sea under roiling clouds. I was deep in thought when the old man spoke quietly near my left ear saying that the painting had “captured my eye”. I agreed that I found the painting very appealing. He then explained the artist’s technique of using the various movements of sails and seas such that my eye always was brought back to the safety of the deck. A long discussion of techniques was finally ended when I asked one naïve question too many which was, “Why are the paintings so small?”
He said, “You are from California, no doubt, where the paintings have to match the sofa or the rug. In Europe, many people live in small apartments and they buy something with which they can decorate their small private spaces. The paintings mean something to them. They derive personal satisfaction from them and they are not just for decoration.”
"How much?” was my next question and the price of 120 punts settled the question. I promised the man, I would return the following year and buy the painting if he still had it. To make a long story short, I did return and I did buy the painting but at a craft shop in Skibereen. I just happened to come across it next to small sign that said, “The miniature paintings are from The Miniature Art Gallery in Ballydehob. To purchase, please speak with the proprietor.” I had already been to Ballydehob but the gallery had been closed. The proprietor said that the old man from the miniature art gallery had “just disappeared”. That few minutes with the old gentleman had helped me decide to paint small to appeal to people’s private nature and not their public wall space needs.
Ireland has fascinated me for years and my experiences have been enriched by my trips to that beautiful country. In July of 2006, for the 37th year, the people from the village of Ramelton, County Donegal, have held the Lennon Festival. I have been fortunate enough to have attended five and the organizers have seen fit to publish four poems that were written especially for the festival "programme."
One of the highlights of the festival is a “Singing Pub” contest. People gather each night in a different pub to hear the music provided by their friends and neighbors and an occasional outsider, in a friendly contest. At the end of the contest a winning pub is selected. The exact criterion escapes me but it has to do with which pub supplied the best entertainment. I was asked to sing a song on my first visit there in the year 2000. When I said I didn't sing well, I was asked "What can you do."
I said, "I paint landscapes and write poems." I was then asked to compose a poem and read it after the singing. On the third night, I read a poem written for the contest in lieu of singing a song and dedicated it to the people of Ramelton. It was written while riding around the Irish countryside during the day. During the contest the judge asked me if I had written my poem and when I replied in the affirmative he said he would get me on right after the singing. Then a group of women from Liverpool came into the pub and it got extremely noisy. They said they had come over for a wedding the next day. A young man was doing Elvis impressions complete with body contortions and the crowd was going wild. The Judge turned and asked if I was ready. I said I didn't think anyone could hear me since there was so much noise.
He said "Okay then", and I assumed I was off the hook. Moments later he said, "You're up!"
I was surprised when the announcer said "We have with us tonight a young man all the way from San Francisco. Well he was young once! He has written a special poem just for us."
A few minutes later I was standing in front of at least a hundred slightly intoxicated festival "attendees". The term "slightly" is perhaps understating it just a bit. When they handed me the microphone I was astounded at how quiet the room had become. You could have heard a pin drop. After the reading I was approached by an older woman who said about the the poem "that was touching - it was."
Then a man put his hand on my arm and said, "That was from the heart - it was."
Years later it dawned on me that maybe that was the best that they could come up with in terms of encouragement! I asked my wife what she thought and she said she could not hear me because there was so much noise. I told her there was no noise - it was perfectly quiet. She replied that the stress must have cut off my hearing.
I was entirely surprised and delighted that it was published in the Lennon Festival programme in the year 2002. In July 2003 I went again to Ramelton determined to sing in the "Singing Pub contest."
It didn't happen and I admit that I just couldn't bring myself to offending all those people by trying to sing in 2003 nor did I attempt singing in 2004. In 2005 I was approached by the pub owner after I had entered the pub of the night. She said to me "Aren't you the man that writes the poems in the programme?" When I admitted it she asked me to read my poem before the singing started." I said I would be delighted. This time I was prepared and made sure I had everyone's attention before I began to read. I also had my wife filming a video of the reading. It came out very well and I have listened to the video many times, especially to the clapping and cheers at the end. The next night we were in the next pub in the series and shortly after I walked in I was approached by the owner and she said "I understand you read your poem in the pub last night. When I said "I had", the woman said "Well you know, there are some of us in this town that weren't in that pub last night, so would you be willing to read it again tonight - here in this pub?" When I said I would be delighted she seemed happy! I didn't realize it could be that easy.
I wasn't able to be there this year (2006) due to family considerations but I did leave behind a poem which reflected on feelings I had when observing an old cottage within easy walking distance from the village center. I hope that from these writing some of you will actually attend the Lennon Festival in July in Ramelton, County Donegal.
Have a wonderful time!
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