Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a five-part series entitled “Writer’s Notebook: Ireland.”
Dingle – Coumeenoole Beach – Dunquin
“Inspiration in Dunquin”
The monk has a friend he thinks I would like to meet – an artist he has known for many years here, whom he met in the vibrant art community of Dingle. He had brought her to meet the mystic John Moriarity before he died, and they’ve been friends ever since. When he calls to set up a visit, she tells him “give me an hour” and, an hour later, we “call in” – often in this area, people just stop in without ringing first and it is very much accepted. It was me who suggested we call first and she tells me, when we arrive, that she was grateful to have had the time to tidy up. There is such quaint charm to the idea that people welcome friends at their door unexpectedly, something I think has been lost back home. The last time that happened to me was on September 11, 2001, when we were all desperate to see one another and we were all mostly home glued to our televisions. My neighbor appeared, ashen-faced and, of course, I was happy to see her, to share my fear and grief. Here, it happens regularly and there doesn’t need to be a reason other than to say hello and to sit over a cup of tea and catch up.
We drive up the road from Coumeenoole Beach, nearby her cottage, where we have been walking for the hour. From the small gravel driveway, the first sight is a tall white stone wall enclosing the garden and cottage, but you see nothing except the wall. Once we enter under a tall garden arch with dormant rose vines, we are in the walled pebbled garden with areas of cut-back perennials waiting to come into bloom. The whitewashed cottage is a traditional Blasket Island style with an arched front door, with an original Blasket cottage roof she had brought over by boat after the last residents resettled on the mainland in the mid-1950s. I feel as if I am in an enchanted place, transported back in time.
From the bright red door half-door ahead, Maria Simonds-Gooding is waiting, her beautifully expressive smile greeting us in the open top of the door she has pulled open. I am surprised when she speaks an Irish greeting in a distinctly aristocratic English accent which is rare here. I later learn that her mother was Irish, and her father was a colonel in the British Army in India where she was born and lived during her youth, traveling around the country, never feeling a sense of home until she landed in this far remote part of Ireland.
Maria is a renowned visual artist who does etchings and works in metal and plaster. She arrived on the Dingle Peninsula in 1968 and never left. She tells me that she had just finished art school, traveled out to the Dingle Peninsula, and bought the cottage for 800 Irish pounds with borrowed the money because she knew she had to live here. She felt an immediate affinity with the extremes of land and sea which she embraced as the subject of much of her art.
With the view she has from the back of her cottage and attached studio, across the sea to the Blasket Islands, it would be hard to put a price on it now.
When we enter the small cottage – only 12ft by 22ft, except for the extensions she has added over the years of a galley kitchen at one end and a bedroom, bath, and studio out the back – the first thing I notice is all the simplistic but colorful, striking art covering the wall directly across from the door.
“Is that Mike Ó Gaoithín’s work?” the monk asks.
“These are only prints; I donated the originals to MoLI.”
MoLI, she explains to me, is the Museum of Literature Ireland, a literary museum in Dublin, nicknamed MoLI in homage to Joyce’s Molly Bloom. She had given Mike Ó Gaoithín, who was a Blasket Island born poet, his first set of paints and brushes only a few years before his death. He started painting then; now, he is considered an important Irish folk artist who captured the simplicity and authenticity of life on the Blasket Islands. He was the son of one of the last residents of the Blaskets, the storyteller, Peig Sayers. Maria obviously takes great pride in having ignited his artistic talent.
She’s eager to show us her recent book and brings it to a long pine table that takes up most of the left side of the cottage. It’s a book about the life and work of Ó GaoithÍn, who would simply come to be known as “The Blasket Painter.” It’s an extraordinarily beautiful, coffee-table style book with a letter by Maria’s old friend the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, himself a poet, at the beginning. In her own introduction, she writes of her first visit to Ó Gaoithín’s sparse cottage where he wrote his poetry, “You might say he had nothing, yet he had everything.”
As we begin to look through the book, she brings a round, well-worn wood board with slices of raisin studded bread and a pot of tea to the table. She takes hand-thrown mugs from a pine dresser that is filled with local pottery plates, mugs, and bowls, as well as more delicate china cups hanging from hooks. It is like something I had seen in many houses that were attempting to have country charm, only this was the authentic, truly lived in charm of someone who completely embraces the utilitarian beauty of having her few well-used and well-loved pieces within an arm’s reach of her table. It is that spareness and authenticity that I find so appealing about her home and her company.
The book launch was last November at MoLI, and it was introduced by no less than the prize-winning poet, Paul Muldoon. “He arrived at my door one day, you see, and I asked him to launch the book for me,” she tells us. I think back to when I took my Irish Literature class to hear Paul Muldoon speak when he visited Fairfield University several years ago. He was wild-looking in his appearance, with a big mop of hair and dramatic gestures as he spoke. It seemed very likely he much preferred a setting like this to discuss his poetry, rather than the staid hall of a suburban college campus. I thought about the two worlds he and Maria inhabit. The formal, scholarly world of art exhibits and book launches in urban museums, universities, or libraries, and this – a remote, simple life in a fierce landscape to which they return to nurture their creative souls, in the company of like-minded artists.
She invites us to her studio. It is stone addition, larger than the cottage, with a soaring cathedral ceiling and three large panes of glass along a wall overlooking a grassy slope and another on the opposite side that looks out over the ocean and the Blasket Islands. It is the most beautiful studio I have ever seen. When the monk tells her I am writing a book, she asks me to read over her artist’s statement that she has to send to the Royal Hibernian Academy.
As I read, I’m beginning to understand what matters to this exuberant woman so full of stories she freely shares about her love of this unique corner of the world. She also has a home and studio near Joyce’s Tower in Dublin, but it is clear that her heart and soul are here.
She’s always been fascinated by fields ever since she was two years old in India. She asked her nanny to carry her to a corn field as a child, never imagining it would be so central to her art, she writes in her statement.
“What I’m really trying to convey,” she tells me, “is that it’s not enough for me to admire a landscape and get inspired by it, because any land that doesn’t have fields and boundaries doesn’t interest me as much. So, if I saw a vast piece of land, I might think how wonderful, how beautiful, but I can’t find the spirit in it if it hasn’t been touched. So that’s the main thing about my work.”
I continue reading and learn that it is the spirit of the human imagination, the ingenuity and intuition that humans use to survive on the most extreme of landscape that fascinates her. It’s how extremities are harnessed by those “amazing people” like the ones who lived on the Blasket Islands that she finds interesting. She says that when she started evolving in her work, she did something that people didn’t like at all. She made big works in plaster, and they had very little on them, but it was meant to show the power of simplicity. They were meant to show, she writes, the beauty and strength of living with just the essentials, as the rugged Blasket Islanders did – with a single pair of tongs, one table, one cot, one chair.
“I thought that was out of this world and I still think it. I find that very powerful,” she wrote.
There’s nothing I would change about anything in the statement, but I make a few small suggestions and she seems pleased about them.
Maria retrieves three glasses of red wine from her kitchen and continues to share stories of her life in Dunquin. The chatter is warm and lively. The sun is setting outside the large glass window of her stone studio, and she sits with her profile in the shadows, with the Great Blasket and the Dead Man fading from view behind her, the sky a striking mix of the peach of a setting sun and the grey of dark stormy skies. I thought how rich a life she continues to live and to create for herself. I could see Brigid being friends with Maria or, at least, admiring her from afar as a kindred spirit. She’s living the life Brigid is seeking when she leaves Belfast in 1977 for the same remote, extreme piece of land that called Maria here.
She and the monk walk out of the studio and back into the cottage through the small passage that connects them, but I linger for just another moment taking it in – the beauty of the large windows overlooking the extreme landscape that fascinates both her and me, the three easels at the end of the room waiting for her, the large table with glass jars filled with paint brushes, covered in piles of large pieces of paper with half-finished sketches, a bookcase, and a gallery wall where some of her etchings hang. Tacked up one wall there is a piece of paper with something hand-written in an artistic script, so I move closer to read the words:
To a Child
Child do not go
Into the dark places of the soul,
For there the grey wolves whine,
The lean grey wolves
I have been down
Among the unholy ones who tear
Beauty’s white robe and clothe her
In rays of prayer
Child, there is the light somewhere
Under a star
Sometimes it will be for you
A window that looks
Inward to God
– Patrick Kavanaugh
And another one, in the same script, that I note down:
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field.
I will meet you there.”
– Jalal ad-Din Rumi
The monk later tells me that Maria attended Catholic boarding school when her family returned to England from India. She says her rosary, he tells me, but she is also deeply spiritual in her connection to nature, to living in this place that called to her soul so many years earlier. The choice of poems providing me an interior window into what the artist finds inspirational to have on the walls of her studio.
As we gather up our coats, I glance around the front room to take it all in again, reluctant to leave. At the far end, an opening in the stone wall was the original type of fireplace – no mantle, no surround. There is a square of bright green paint around it, setting it in contrast to the otherwise stark white of the cottage’s interior. One of her own etchings hangs above. The fireplace crane, a green wooden one rather than an iron one, was originally from Peig Sayer’s house and is Maria’s most prized possession, linking her to the famous Blasket Island storyteller in a way that suits her own artistic vision. Simple, utilitarian, beautiful.
The visit with this extraordinary woman, which began shortly after lunch and ended after finishing a glass of wine as the sun set outside a darkened studio, was unforgettable and impressionable. Six hours long but feeling like a moment, so close to International Women’s Day, reminds me of how well women share stories, how effusive they can be with details, and how warm and welcoming a woman’s well-loved, artistic, and open home can be to a traveler from any part of the world.
Marie Hulme is a local writer who resides in Weston and teaches at Sacred Heart University. She earned her B.A. in English from Smith College, an M.A. in British and American Literature from NYU, an M.A. in Teaching from SHU and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Fairfield University. Prof. Hulme has received national awards for her creative writing in fiction and non-fiction, and previous to her life as an academic, she worked as a journalist for ABC News in London.