In early summer every year, you can leave Galway City and head west for a few minutes, and find yourself in heaven. Lorna McMahon opens her garden, Ard Carraig, to the public for three consecutive Sundays each May to support Mental Health Ireland. Lorna pots up literally thousands of plants to sell at the open days, and it raises lots of badly-needed funds for the organisation. But at 75, she's beginning to find the work involved in that a bit much, and next year will be the last year that she opens Ard Carraig to the public.
I first visited Lorna's garden about sixteen years ago. That time, I was on my own, and tears came to my eyes as I walked through the woodland area. Dappled sunlight filtered through birches, making bluebells, wild garlic and ferns glow in the greenish gloom, and I was transported to another woodland on the side of a mountain in Co. Wicklow, where I grew up.
Two years later, I carried my baby on my back through Lorna's garden, and later again, my toddlers hopped over the rocks and played in the streams that twist and turn through the garden. And then a few weeks ago, my eldest - the baby in the back carrier - had to be bribed to come with us, and sulked from start to finish, but I saw her running her hand over the bark of a silver birch, and feeling the fronds of a fern through her fingers.
"Lorna must have lots of help with the garden," said my husband, as we walked through five acres of immaculate, weed-free beauty.
"No, she does it all on her own," I answered. "In fact if her family want to contact her, they have to write or call in - she rarely hears the phone."
The day we visited, I asked Lorna if I could come back and paint in the garden: I thought between us, we might be able to do something with the paintings, to raise money for the charity she supports. She was delighted.
"Thirty years ago, I held a dance to raise money for Mental Health Ireland," she said. "People didn't want to buy tickets. If they did, they did so anonymously, because they didn't want to be associated with the stigma of mental health issues. It's much better now, but it's still there."
I told her that I had had my troubles in the past, and that I wanted to play my part to help, if I could.
This is the herb garden. "It used to be a tennis court," Lorna told me. "but none of the children played anymore. So I made these raised beds, and when I had to move a bed for some reason a while back, the white lines were still visible. It could all be moved away again in three days, if necessary."
I marvelled at the variety of herbs I saw.
"There's a section of herbs that appear in Shakespeare, and another with herbs that appear in the Bible...but on the whole, the herbs have been chosen for their medicinal, ornamental or culinary value."
Then I was left on my own to draw. Suddenly I heard a terrible squeaking, as if a rat was being attacked by a flock (a murder?) of crows. Any sketcher will tell you that nothing short of an apocalypse will get you to move, but I had to see what the noise was about. A huge frog squatted near the hedge on the right. I wondered if it had been injured, so I poked it lightly with the edge of my paper. It squeaked loudly and hopped away...so now I know that frogs squeak.
This drawing is from the primula and azalea garden, chosen because they were at their best when I was there a couple of weeks ago. Sadly, I didn't do the beautiful primulas justice, which are more like a troupe of pretty ballerinas that the measly stalks I produced. But I have an idea up my sleeve that will fix that when the time comes.
There are also lots of luscious hostas alongside the primulas, and as they aren't in any way fiddly to draw, I have no excuse. I'd love to go back and do them again.
Lorna has made all these little private areas within the garden, each with its own focal point, like the Japanese temple (if that's what it is) in this sketch. It was heaven to draw - all those strong, simple shapes - but I can't say the same for the blossoms everywhere. Ah well, it's all a learning curve and it'll be fun getting there, and I'll have plenty of opportunities over the year as I return to paint the garden some more.
As usual, time went far too fast. In stark contrast to the crowds that were there on the Open Days, I had the entire place to myself, with nothing but the sounds of very relaxed birds singing around me, and no more alarming squeaks. I had plenty of time to reflect on the great good fortune that was the discovery of sketching, how it's been therapeutic beyond words for me...and how I might be able to help others in some way through this practice.
Tip: Lorna's hostas were magnificent, and didn't have a single slug bite. Lorna says if you go out on a nice day in January and kill the slugs, before they get a chance to breed, you won't be troubled by them for the rest of the year.