Glowing Terms – An Irishman’s Diary about light connoisseurs

St Ives in Cornwall  St Ives in Cornwall

St Ives in Cornwall St Ives in Cornwall

 

I have always been suspicious of people who, explaining why they live where they do, or – even worse – where they go on holiday, talk about the “quality of the light” as a decisive factor.

To me, that’s on a par with admiring the “body” of a wine in casual conversation. Not that I’m going to pick an argument with the speaker on either subject. If you don’t automatically appreciate how special the light or the wine is, by implication, you’re an uncultured muck-savage who’s well advised to shut up.

But I was delighted to see a letter in the Guardian recently from what seemed, on this question, to be a man after my own heart.  

He was responding to the paper’s description of a new art gallery in Cornwall, and specifically to this claim: “Deftly chiselled into the bedrock, the huge 600sq m space captures the magic of St Ives’ famous light.”

Now, never having been to St Ives, I might have let that slide.

But not Paul Mitchell, from Bristol, who wrote to the editor, asking: “Is there any chance that art and architecture critics will stop saying silly things about light, for example ‘the magic of St Ives’ famous light’? Presumably the light in that Cornish town is roughly the same as at any other location roughly 50 degrees north (or south), give or take the presence of water and a history of a nearby school of painters.”

Well said that man, I thought, sorry I hadn’t disrobed the emperor myself.  

But his wasn’t the last word on the subject. Because, before I could congratulate myself on a prejudice justified, one Dr Jacqui Stewart from Exeter responded to the first letter, supporting the original claim.

“The special light in St Ives is not a media illusion,” she wrote. “The town is situated on a promontory with wide beaches on three sides. They are made of quartz-based sand, which reflects light particularly brilliantly and which is found where granite rock has eroded. Such beaches are found elsewhere, for instance in Cornwall and parts of Scotland. Some of the Scottish colourists [a 1920s art school] may have been familiar with similar beaches: perhaps an art expert could provide further illumination on this?”

Perhaps indeed one could.  

But in the meantime, I am at least partly chastened. I have now also become curious to hear from landscape connoisseurs in Ireland as to where they think our best quality light is, and for what reasons (email your nominations to: fmcnally@irishtimes.com).

It’s not a competition or anything. I do, however, promise readers that the most convincing answer will in time be misappropriated as my own and that, at some future date, I might even buy a holiday home there so that I too can say at dinner parties: “It was the light that drew me to the place.” 

Until then, I will as usual limit myself to passing judgments on the quality of the darkness in different parts of Ireland. That’s a simpler matter anyway. You just need to get out of Dublin, and as far from any town as possible, albeit this gets ever harder to do.

Growing up in south Monaghan, we used to think we lived in the country. We had a farm, after all. But it was a suburban farm and, even by the 1970s, the town’s footpaths and streetlights were marching past. It was only when we children were lent out to our Auntie Mary, who lived a few miles away in the hills of East Cavan, that we found out what a night sky looked like.

The trips there were often just after Christmas. And I remember one such January, in 1974, when we were searching for something called Comet Kahoutek, which had been hyped for months.

In practice it was a flop. But that didn’t matter much up around Auntie Mary’s, where the night sky was awe-inspiring even without any added special effects.

That was on star-lit nights, of course. Many years later, my eyes by then used to Dublin permaglare, I was again shocked on a first visit to my future in-laws in Munster at how appallingly dark the countryside there was on cloudy evenings.  Hi-vis jackets hadn’t been thought of then yet, so you could walk into people on roads before you’d see them.

That’s if you didn’t walk into a hole first.

I took to referring to the place as “darkest Tipperary”, which I’m sure was not strictly true.

Even so, at the risk of sounding like I’m at a dinner party, the intensity of lack of light was extraordinary. 

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