‘Sky, sea and land shift like a kaleidoscope’ in a restored Clare Island cottage

Restoring a homestead that had fallen into ruin has been a labour of love for Ethna Phelan

For retired doctor Ethna Phelan, restoring her family homestead on Clare Island has truly been a voyage of bringing it all back home to the island.

Today, the beautifully restored cottage is an image that her cousin, the late Tony O’Malley, deemed one of Ireland’s “most important and innovative artists” of the 20th century, would not have conjured when he visited the ruined island cottage of his paternal forebears during the 1970s and 80s.

Phelan’s links with the island, located about 3½ miles off the west coast of Co Mayo, and home to about 160 permanent residents, are with her family, as her mother was born there. These links have strengthened in recent years, based on her strong emotional connection with the place.

A recently retired consultant paediatric radiologist, who worked for many years at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin, she now divides her time between Dublin and the island.

In 2006 she built a modern house overlooking a dramatic land and seascape, which had been part of her family’s narrative for over four generations.

It is also where her great grandfather and his brother drowned in the late 1880s when their yawl capsized in rough seas, whilst attempting to leave a little mainland harbour. Poignantly, they were married to two McHale sisters, Mary and Sarah, who had moved to the island from the village of Emlagh across the bay on the mainland.

The two women persisted during those tough times of gunboats and battering rams, repeated potato failure and mass emigration, to raise their families in the village of Ballytoughy Mór, on the northern shores of the island. For a time, both widowed sisters lived in this little cottage until after the Congested Districts Board, which had purchased the island in 1895, built a cottage nearby for Phelan’s great-grand-aunt.

It was in the original island cottage that her mother, Maureen, grew up before leaving for the mainland and a professional life devoted to nursing. It is where her aunt, Sal O’Malley, the schoolteacher, lived with her lighthouse keeper husband, Dick Hayes. Indeed, to this day islanders continue to call the cottage - even when its thatch had fallen in and its walls had begun to crumble -“Dick’s”.

“As a child, I slept in the house and I remember the thatched roof and the smell of turf smoke and chatter around the fire. Down through the years, even when I worked in Australia for a time, there was always an emotional yearning for this place. The main thing for me was to bring it all back to life. I wanted to make as few changes as possible: to keep the original footprint of the house and capture as much of the original ambience,” says Phelan.

Restoring the cottage

So, in 2018 Phelan turned her attention to renovating the cottage, which had fallen into ruin in the 1970s. She says she was fortunate that Westport architect, Siobhán McCarthy and island craftsmen, Brendan O’Leary, Michael Pinder and Martin Gallagher were equally committed and skilled to realise her vision.

“The layout of the rooms is largely unchanged with the two original smaller bedrooms, now transformed into the kitchen and bathroom. The open fire in the main room was replaced with a small, refurbished Rayburn cooker, which acts as backup for heating and cooking if there is a power-cut during one of the winter storms, It is fuelled by my own locally sourced timber,” she says.

Meanwhile, the main bedroom still has the original fire surround and alcove.

Phelan explains that whilst the loft was not in use in her memory, it had accommodated visitors in the past.

“In restoring it, we achieved additional headroom by lowering the floors of the kitchen and the bathroom. We were still able to retain the original window and door openings, with all of the sills and most of the lintels still intact and left unpainted to show the original stonework,” she continues.

The doors were handmade by island carpenter Michael Pinder, who also built the loft stairs, and two Connemara men installed the polished concrete floor.

“I wanted to make the house as eco-friendly as possible and one of my aims was to avoid having to bring fossil fuel to the island. To that end we installed an air-to-water underfloor heating system with air exchange. The walls are plastered with breathable limecrete and the roof insulation is made from recycled paper,” says Phelan.

The only addition to the original cottage is a utility room and new entrance to the rear, she adds.

It includes a large picture window looking out on two old birch trees and a stile on the boundary wall. Indeed, after some digging, the original flagged “street” was discovered under layers of grassy overgrowth. The stone walls were then rebuilt and repaired by stonemason, Martin Gallagher.

Artistic journey

But Phelan did not stop at just renovating the cottage.

From an early age, she was interested in the arts. Unsurprisingly, this was whetted by her cousin Tony O’Malley’s profile and practice, some of which was inspired by the remote ancestral home of his forebears. Some of his Clare Island paintings are among the permanent exhibition of his work at IMMA (Irish Museum of Modern Art). Clearly, the island provided a perfect muse for an artist whose paintings spoke to the landscape and its embodiment of the spirit of personal and folk history.

“I first came in contact with the arts as a teenager through meeting Tony O’Malley, who made a number of visits to the island after many years living in St Ives. Tony had been a regular visitor to the island as a young man, as his father was born and reared in that house and he was my grandfather’s brother,” she says.

As Phelan began to return to the island more regularly during recent decades, she felt that the old cottage would be “a perfect place for artists to stay, especially given its connection to Tony”, but also realised they would need a dedicated studio space.

“The studio is a repurposed shed which was built in the 1960s. The single block construction was insulated outside and then covered with black cladding. The concrete floor is heated from the system in the cottage, with skylights and windows ensuring the many moods of the island’s light and when it is benevolent amazing views,” says Phelan.

‘Where the sky shifts like a kaleidoscope’

The cottage on Clare Island now offers a two-month artist residency each year in the newly renovated studio, on offer through the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA). The RHA also offers another residential studio associated with Tony O'Malley in Callan, Co. Kilkenny. This residency is courtesy of his widow, Jane O'Malley, also an artist.

Indeed Phelan says she received invaluable advice from artist Jane, who really encouraged her to approach the RHA about offering an annual two-month residency.

The Clare Island scheme, which began in 2021, allows an artist to stay in the cottage for two months and also use the separate studio at a nominal cost of €250 a month to cover utilities.

“To be able to offer a studio in Mayo and on Clare Island is a fabulous opportunity for the academy and any artist who is lucky to use it,” says Patrick T Murphy, director of the RHA.

In its first year, about 70 applicants applied for the programme, and last year the Clare Island Studio Residency was awarded to Hannah Fitz, the Dublin born and Berlin-based sculptor, whose work focuses on inexact versions of furniture and figures.

Fitz had been living in Germany for the past few years and upon her return home wanted time to “just work and think”. She was researching studio residencies when she saw the Clare Island residency listed on the RHA website.

“I grew up hearing about Clare Island, as did my mother, who was told about it in America where she was born to Irish emigrant parents. My grandfather spoke about the island and his family’s history stretching back to the 16th century’s pirate queen, Granuaile. Our family connections with the island have always held a mythical promise of “belonging”.”

And this sense of belonging was closer than Fitz originally thought.

“It actually turned out that the residency cottage was the conserved ruin of my family home on the island, but I had no idea when applying to the RHA, even though I had described my connections,” Fitz recalls.

Phelan agrees that there was a certain serendipity to the fact Fitz was coming back home too, in a manner of speaking.

“Hannah was aware of her family’s connection with the island but neither of us knew until after we chatted that her great grandfather was my grandfather’s brother and had grown up in the house. Isn’t it so Irish?”

Although Fitz is a sculptor, she used the time on Clare Island to teach herself video-editing, read a lot and made plans for what she wanted to do for a show she has in October in the Kerlin Gallery.

“I had maybe thought of the island as a retreat from the human noises of the city and how tuned in I am to the built world around me. Instead, I became hype- aware of the human relationships around me and their effect on the surrounding objects and place.

“As I set off for the island last October, I was worried about the darkness of the winter months but instead I got more light than I think I’ve ever had. Instead of the darkness I expected I found so many different types of light: finding I had my own moon shadow was particularly special. Each day’s dawn transformed the landscape, totally changing the colour texture and visibility of the land, making the sky, sea and land shift like a kaleidoscope.”

The next residency on the island will be announced on the RHA’s website during May.