Brittas Bay: memories of an Irish Beach

FG Irish Beach

A diptych, and painted from memory without photographs, which is unusual for me, and freeing. Oil on canvas, measuring 30″ x 80″. Painted spring of 2013.

Ireland, a land of seasons. I miss the beauty of it even with the damp and cold.   I remember going to this beach as a child, about an hour’s drive from where we lived. We’d all pile into the Toyota Hiace van, the only vehicle big enough for the eight children, two parents, the grandmother, a dog or two, the buckets and spades, the picnic of dozens of sandwiches and drinks, the towels and sweaters (yes), and most importantly the windscreen.

Here I am living in Jamaica. No one has ever heard of a BEACH windscreen. Well, in Ireland when you go to the beach you’d better carry one because the chances of a still warm sunny day are laughable. When you get to the beach you look around for a good-sized rock so you can hammer the poles into the sand (who ever carries a hammer to the beach?) and then you’re set, shielded by a 4′ x 12′ striped canvas from the cold wind that whips sand into your eyes. And into your sandwiches. And your mouth. You huddle together in a cosy group and are as happy as Larry until the wind changes direction.  As going to the beach was something we often did with friends there’d be a few windscreens marking our spot on the never-ending white-sand beach, and depending on how blustery the day was, they’d be hammered in a circular configuration….I seem to remember that the set-up took a lot of discussion between the mothers and the fathers, a fair bit of laughter and the odd curse-word…Never a dull day, going to the beach in Ireland.

We kids would amuse ourselves playing in the grasses, usually after going for a swim…Why the sea always looked so alluring is a mystery to me now, so soft I’ve become living on a tropical island, but nevertheless, a non-negotiable  and exciting part of going to the beach was getting into the sea. A 10-minute dip, not including the time it took to get into the water, which was torture, would last you the day. After a so-called ‘swim’ in the Irish Sea you’d be so exhilarated, your body tingling from top to toe from the shock of immersion in near-freezing water and the subsequent charge from having survived, you’d be feeling on top of the world. You wouldn’t even need the windscreen anymore. That was for the mothers, trying to tan, brushing off the sand that was continually blown onto their limbs, and occasionally covering with towels to shelter them from the odd shower of rain passed that by. No, we kids would take to the grasses on the dunes just above the wide white-sand beach and play hide-and-seek or some kind of war game, or roll down the dunes as fast as we could.

You could get lost in those grasses. They were all in tufty growths, a sharp stickly grass, hardy I suppose to be growing there. They grew in a wide swathe across the top of the dunes, and we could make tracks and nests and hiding places within this world. In between the clumps I occasionally found a sandy spot that was warm and protected, and there I would sit and be still…. and maybe sometimes fall asleep.

That’s where this painting comes from. Memories of an Irish beach.


Pathway to Heaven


Summer 2013, the days searingly bright and the the nights dark and close. Escaping Kingston city’s assault of constant heat is the only sane thing to do; I  took to the hills.

The Blue Mountains and the foothills that lead to them flank the city plains, so getting away is no more than an hour’s drive. The steep winding road is the only route of others with the same escape in mind, heading to homes tucked away behind mango trees, bamboo thickets and ever-thriving bush. I was luckier than they were though; I was meeting some friends who had linked up with a guide, and so we got off the road and were led to a hidden trail that had to be cleared with a machete. At least initially. Once we hacked away the curtain of tall grasses we found the bridle path that used to be the only way to ascend this particular hill, on top of which was once a flower farm. The lady who owned it used to walk this path with donkeys and filled  their baskets with flowers to carry to the city to sell. Yes, up here in the hills where a soft drizzle keeps dampening the trees and the carpet of golden leaves beneath them, flowers could thrive.

Up we walked, the light low under the cover of thick canopy. The path was magical; strange growths like charred bulbous mushrooms, black and glistening in treasure-trove clumps, and delicate fronds of fern. Silence. A feeling of timelessness, of entering into a place of cool shade where the natural way of things is all there is, and a reconnection with the ongoing life force of the planet that city-living tends to veil.

About an hour of walking, makybe more,  and we emerged into the hilltop garden, beautifully maintained by the Sharp family and now run as the heart of their coffee business. Clifton Mount house and garden is surrounded on three sides by sheer drops, the scrubby cascading land sinking to deep valleys before rising again, creating a dramatic panorama of a view. Mists drifted through, nothing beneath them but coffee bushes, thousands of them. And there we were, in the garden of a demure mountain home, a gracious old lady settled into her throne of hydrangeas and roses, heathers and lilies. It was the hydrangeas that captured me with their abundance, an array of pinks and blues and creams. They reminded me of my grandmother and her garden in Ireland. One or two large bushes is all she had, but to a small child that was plenty, enough to submerge into and marvel at the intricacy of these flowers. Here I got a chance to reacquaint myself with their world, and I determined that when I returned to the hot city I would paint these hydrangeas with their cool hills as a backdrop. And so I have.