In Conversation with Mary Donnelly

Cover Image – ‘Sweet Song of Spring’ by Mary Donnelly

(This article will feature in the February edition of the Connemara Journal, out shortly.)


Mary Donnelly has lived and worked as an artist in Connemara for most of her adult life. She has received many accolades throughout her career, among them the Oriel Gallery Award for a landscape of distinction at the Royal Hibernian Academy in 2004. She also received the prestigious Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant in 2013 and she has had solo shows in Dublin, Australia and New York. Her most recent show was in the Paul McKenna gallery in Omagh last autumn.

Originally from County Louth, Mary uprooted her painting studio from Dublin’s Temple bar in 1991 in search of a new landscape.  She found in Connemara ‘a place of extreme weather and sublime beauty,’ conditions that would combine to feed her artistic practice here for the next quarter of a century. Mary takes her inspiration from the contours of Connemara, often seeking out quieter places – a small copse or field, rather than the dramatic mountainous peaks you might usually associate with the West of Ireland. Mary describes her landscapes as ‘groundless’ and many appear to exist without a distinct skyline or depth of field in the traditional sense. More significant for Mary is the metaphor this provides for an exploration of the transcendent nature of landscape. She views the line of the horizon as a sacred place where Heaven and Earth come together. The surface of her paintings appear suffused with a silvery light, the half-light of winter, Mary’s favourite season of the year. It is under this delicate film, that the land and it’s timeless mysteries are revealed – the hidden furrows of another era or the gentle arch of an animal grazing, as animals have grazed here for centuries.


Dusk, Cow with Calf by Mary Donnelly

‘Dusk, Cow with Calf’ by Mary Donnelly



In some paintings, the activity of man is evident in the form of a telegraph pole or the faint outline of a building, but it is always unobtrusive. Others paintings contain an object within the work – a wire strung across the canvas might indicate a fence. Mary explains that the external nature of the additional material may serve as a gateway or threshold for the viewer.


Frosted Darkness by Mary Donnelly

‘Frosted Darkness’ by Mary Donnelly



The poetry of Patrick Kavanagh was an early influence and Mary cites the poems ‘March’ and ‘Wet Evening in April’ especially.  The lines from ‘March’ continue to resonate with her most current work –


‘There’s a wind blowing

Cold through the corridors,

a ghost-wind..


( Patrick Kavanagh 1904 – 1967 )


Other artistic influences include the sepia water colours of Victor Hugo, the light filled landscapes of J.W.M. Turner and the work of contemporary American artist Lawrence Carroll.

Music fills Mary’s studio, helping her to focus. Currently she is listening to ‘Stabat Mater’ by Italian composer Agostino Steffani and the music of contemporary mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli. Mary quotes the words of William Blake who said that poetry, painting and music are ‘the three powers in man of conversing with paradise’

Most of the paintings are worked on for several months at a time, in some cases up to a year. Each begins with a drawing and layers are built up slowly and carved away to create the sense of a surface that has been revealed. Mary tells me that the best advice she has been given in relation to her art is to hold on to the adage to ‘never give up.’ I ask what advice she might give to aspiring artists and she replies; ‘to understand that being an artist is a privilege and to always remember that you are a seeker of truth.’


Mary’s work may be viewed in Clifden at the Lavelle Art Gallery or online at






Time Out

I booked a holiday earlier this year when the Autumn seemed like a very long time away. It’s been a long and full Summer and now that the month of October is almost here, I’m ready for a break and a change of scene! I won’t be posting while I’m away so you’ll hear from me again, revived and refreshed on Monday October 8th.

I’ll leave you with a song from The Dubliners who played here last week for the Clifden Arts festival. This one’s a favourite of mine and I think the perfect blend of writing and melody, with words by Patrick Kavanagh and music from the traditional song ‘The Dawning of the Day‘. As the story goes, the song was born when Luke Kelly of the Dubliners met Kavanagh in a pub in Dublin and it was agreed that Raglan Road should be sung as a ballad.




On Raglan Road


On Raglan  Road on an Autumn day I met her first and knew

That her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue;

I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way,

And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.


On Grafton Street in November we tripped lightly along the ledge

Of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion’s


The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay –

O I loved too much and by such, by such, is happiness thrown



I gave her gifts of the mind, I gave her the secret sign that’s known

To the artists who have known the true gods of sound and stone

And words and tint. I did not stint for I gave her poems to say

With her own name there and her own dark hair like clouds over

fields of May.


On a quiet street where old ghosts meet I see her walking now

Away from me so hurriedly my reason must allow

That I had wooed not as I should a creature made of clay –

When the angel woos the clay he’d lose his wings at the dawn of



Patrick Kavanagh  (1904-1967)



Cover image taken from a thrifty mrs.

Apple-Ripe September

Ripe apples, back to school, my birthday, blackberries, evening classes, woolen scarves, crispy air and pink skies. These are just some of the things I like about September.

We’ve been collecting apples from our trees for the last few days. We have just two – a crab and an apple blossom. The crab is still young so not enough fruits yet for jelly, but their colour brightens up the garden (below), a last hurrah before the Autumn settles in.

G likes to stew the apple right down to a pulp, then he adds molasses and pours it over yogurt. I like it barely cooked with porridge, a set-me-up for the day, delicious and all the sweeter because it’s our own. It was warm and bright this morning so I took some photos to capture them before they disappear into the kitchen.


crab apples




All this talk of September and apples brought the much loved Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh to mind. His poem ‘On An Apple-Ripe September Morning’ with its imagery of early Autumn and the threshing recalls another time. Men folk gathered together to get the crops in, neighbours and friends lending a hand or paying their dues and all the loose chatter and gossip in between. Nature soaks through the lines – mist-chill fields, wet leaves of the cocksfoot and glistening bog-holes. The last verse ends on a note of awe and admiration towards all this beauty  ‘I knew as I had entered that I had come through fields that were part of no earthly estate.’


On An Apple-Ripe September Morning


On an apple-ripe September morning

Through the mist-chill fields I went

With a pitch-fork on my shoulder

Less for use than for devilment.


The threshing mill was set-up, I knew,

In Cassidy’s haggard last night,

And we owed them a day at the threshing

Since last year. O it was delight


To be paying bills of laughter

And chaffy gossip in kind

With work thrown in to ballast

The fantasy-soaring mind.


As I crossed the wooden bridge I wondered

As I looked into the drain

If ever a summer morning should find me

Shovelling up eels again.


And I thought of the wasp’s nest in the bank

And how I got chased one day

Leaving the drag and the scraw-knife behind,

How I covered my face with hay.


The wet leaves of the cocksfoot

Polished my boots as I

Went round by the glistening bog-holes

Lost in unthinking joy.


I’ll be carrying bags to-day, I mused,

The best job at the mill

With plenty of time to talk of our loves

As we wait for the bags to fill.


Maybe Mary might call round…

And then I came to the haggard gate,

And I knew as I entered that I had come

Through fields that were part of no earthly estate.


Patrick Kavanagh

(1904 – 1967)