It was as a dull and thoroughly unremarkable day in Birmingham, as the suburban sky moved sluggishly through more than fifty shades of grey towards evening, when it hit me. I’d been sitting, looking out of the workshop window onto a forlorn cityscape of unvariegated sullenness. I had spent the whole of the last hour daydreaming - of home in Connemara. Two recent family bereavements weighed heavily that day.
Home in Connemara. My home in that notional region along the rugged west coast of Ireland hadn’t been my home for all that long then – probably nine years? I say the region is ‘notional’ because it is not defined by maps, Eircodes, boundary stones or civic jurisdictions. Instead, it is a construct of romantic cultural identity. Such is the strength of that identity that if tested, its natives’ identities would vie for primacy between ‘Irish’ and ‘Connemara’. Being ‘of Co. Galway’ would always be secondary. Other counties need not apply.
Connemara folk say they have always had it hard. Leaving aside all the historic badness endured at the hands of the absent English and the consequences of mass migration, life in Connemara was always difficult. An often adverse climate, the poor country’s poor communications, the sparseness of its population and the lack of fertile land - plus the stoicism required to survive there - each worked to cement the exceptionality of Connemara folk.
Of course, as a late-comer I knew nothing of these hardships. My introduction to Connemara in 1996 was as a naïve Englishman on holiday. From its steel-blue sky to its unique scenery and a boundless ocean, Connemara’s beauty became instantly captivating. Dazzled by it all, my wife and I settled in Claddaghduff and the rest is history – perhaps to be told another day.
Where was I. Back in the Black Country (another ‘notional’ geographical region of the English midlands defined only by an immutable cultural identity), I was dreaming of home in Connemara. As I said, I was in my first little workshop in the utility room at the rear of our house in England in 2010 (I had been studying glass-making there for a while) when the idea hit me. I would turn my Connemara day-dream into a landscape scene in glass!
My favourite way of planning my projects is to sketch ideas in felt-tip pen directly onto glass. Reaching at the same time for suitable pens and an available piece of glass, I assembled some ideas in my mind.
The handiest glass was a slender remnant, some 60cms by 15cm (24” by 6”). The pen acquired a life of its own as I scribbled marks here and there on the glass. Turning a vague, romantic notion of home into a tangible, glassy scene seemed impossible. Impossible, that is, until I swapped the glass around. I moved it from the traditional, horizontal (or landscape) to the vertical, portrait orientation.
I closed my eyes and thought of home. Out of the tip of the pen flowed a scene just like the view from the windows of my Connemara home. The royal blue ocean adjoined a swathe of bright yellow sand, which bordered tall, brightly coloured houses. Native Black-Faced sheep, the hardy, indigenous breed found only in regions where, like Connemara, a thick lanolin-laden coat is essential for their survival in the keen Atlantic wind, grazed behind the houses. Vivid green pastures rolled beneath the rolling mountains of the Twelve Bens. The scene came alive to me when I added a representation of a traditional sailing boat frequently found striding the waves around these parts – the Galway Hooker. It only then required a finishing touch – some birds in the sky. I imagined these as ill-tempered, sharp-beaked gulls, wheeling and cawing as they rode the strong gusts from the ocean.
I stood back and examined the rough sketch on glass – and I remember this as vividly as though it were yesterday – at that single light-bulb moment, the fused glass panel that I call ‘John Conneely’s Sheep’ emerged.
As the very select band of clients who have purchased one of my ‘John Conneely’s Sheep’ panels will know already (because I tell everyone all about it if they show a scintilla of interest!) John Conneely is my neighbour.
When at home in Connemara I look out of my window and see John’s flocks in two of his fields located between my house and the sea. He often divides them between these two fields, which are separated by a low stone wall atop which is a temptingly insubstantial-looking wire fence.
During the summer, when the ewes have had their lambs and small sheepy families of ones or twos have formed, I’ve taken delight in the optimism of their behaviour. It seems to me that no matter how John divides his flock, the sheep in the near field try to surmount the stone wall and the flimsy fence in order to gain access to the far field. And the same happens in reverse! Several sheep at a time will patrol the wall and fence, searching for vulnerabilities, lured by the urge to gorge on the tantalising pasture just out of reach.
Of course, this is the story of our human condition, isn’t it? Don’t we always say that ‘the grass is always greener…’? So, that day-dream of Connemara, had in the dingy industrial midlands of England, gave birth to one of my favourite pieces.
Over the seven, nearly eight, years since then it has been intensely rewarding to see that so many people have shared my love of Connemara - and appreciated my passion for the glass I make - enough to want to take some of it home with them. Such is the popularity of ‘John Conneely’s Sheep’ that, while I attempt to make each one different, it is becoming hard to stay true to the original concept! But look closely at every panel and you will see there are truly no two alike – and there never will be.