Tuesday 22 May 2018

What Lies Beneath: Snowdrops on Angel Hill

Snowdrops on Angel Hill by Sarah Longley, Oil on board, courtesy of the artist

Snowdrops Angel Hill by Sarah Longley
Snowdrops Angel Hill by Sarah Longley

Niall MacMonagle

Childhood sounds: waves on a beach, a kicked ball, the jingle of an ice-cream van? When Belfast-born Sarah Longley was 13 she heard gunshots, screaming. The ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road had been gunned down. The next day she and a friend placed carnations on the spot and, to console her, her father, poet Michael Longley, named her all the wild flowers of the Burren.

Nature still consoles and having lived in "noisy Edinburgh for 18 years" she and her partner, a kiltmaker, and two children now live in a crofter's cottage in Kirkton on the road to Skye in the Western Highlands. The Troubles? "A distant memory." In A Year's Turning, her "hugely personal," first solo show in Scotland, vibrant landscapes, all painted en plein air - even if that meant "battles with midges, rain and bitter cold" - capture "the seasonal changes within one year".

Angel Hill - "a mysterious place captivated me ever since we moved here." She spent four hours in February painting snowdrops and, even though it's a graveyard, "I couldn't help but be aware of the poignancy of beautiful spring flowers bursting into life among gravestones. I'm not especially scared of my own mortality and find comfort in the close proximity of life and death."

Like daughter, like father; Michael Longley has also responded to these same snowdrops among headstones and war graves on Angel Hill - "wintry love-tokens" for those Highlanders, "home from the trenches". And Michael remembers "Sarah as a baby asleep in her carrycot among the rushes at the Carrigskeewaun lake, and then perched on my shoulder as I walk up the stony path.

"From the very beginning of her life my Mayo retreat was becoming as crucial to her soul-development as it has been to mine. Now Sarah has her own soul-landscape which, in a blessed reciprocity, she shares with me."

The Western Highlands remind him of Carrigskeewaun, "but I am also stimulated by differences in rock and cloud formation, and in the sea's behaviour. Sarah's pictures and my poems thrive on such insinuations."

Father and daughter, poet and painter, soul-mates, soul-makers.

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