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It’s not every day an igloo appears on the County Down landscape so when one arrived last week when the Mourne mountain tops were covered in snow it certainly got a lot of attention on social media.

Stephen Rooney outside his igloo on Slieve Muck. Photograph: Besim Haxhijah
Stephen Rooney outside his igloo on Slieve Muck. Photograph: Besim Haxhijah

The work of local artist Stephen Rooney, it took a week to build, with the daily ‘commute’ involving a climb to the top of 634 metre high Slieve Muck complete with saw and trowel in hand. Ireland's only igloo stood proudly in all its glory for several days attracting many visitors, before returning back to water, thanks to the recent thaw.

Passionate would be a perfect word to describe the young Mourne artist. Stephen, 29 is passionate about his home of Dunavil between Kilkeel and Cranfield, passionate for the entire Mourne area, passionate about nature and boy is he passionate about snow!

As a tiny two year old he was the only one who wanted to get out of the family car to play in the snow at Spelga Dam and the memory of that childhood fascination with the white stuff has lived with him ever since.

Stephen having fun in the snow when he was just two.
Stephen having fun in the snow when he was just two.

Never grew up - Just got bigger

I never grew up, I just got bigger explains Stephen “It’s so so true because whenever it snows I go back to that four year old boy that loved to play in snow. I never ever changed, everything I loved to do as a wee boy, I still do today, only in a more mature way I suppose. - I think that’s the key to being happy in life.

“it’s not about money and successes, none of that appeals to me. When you are looking to be an artist you don’t have money or possessions and you make every sacrifice to make it work. I don’t even drive or have a car because I can’t afford the bills, I don’t want the bills, I just want to be me. To be happy in life. I think you just have to follow your dreams and make every sacrifice to make sure it works. I’m so happy I stayed true to myself. I never changed.”

"I hope you get your snow"

Another life experience that cemented the life-long love of snow, involved Kathleen Kerr a much loved neighbour who passed away in January 2013. Stephen explains “She was very well known and well loved. We grew up with her and all the Kerr family. Even though we are not connected, we’ve always been family.

“On the night Kathleen was slipping away we had a conversation and the very last words Kathleen said to me (she was holding my hand) 'I hope you get your snow and I hope you do well with your art' - and would you believe not long after that conversation Kathleen slipped into a coma and passed away."

Stephen woke the next morning and went for a walk "I was taking my dog for a walk before going over for the wake and snow flurries started to fall and it snowed for every single day of the wake, and the morning of Kathleen’s funeral it snowed very heavily and everything was white with snow, and even though it was one of the saddest days of my life I’ll never forget coming out of the chapel and heading round to the grave, and the snow falling thick and fast and the stark contrast between the black clothing and the white snow and the brown coffin, and even though it was so so sad, it was one of the most beautiful images I have ever seen.

“It’s always been a plan of mine to paint it. I know the minute I lift the brushes and go to paint, I will cry my eyes out. That image is ingrained. It’s one of the saddest days I’ve ever experienced because we were so close but it’s one of the most beautiful images I’ve ever seen.”

Stephen with friend and neighbour Kathleen Kerr.
Stephen with friend and neighbour Kathleen Kerr.

“I always thought to myself, whenever I go - hopefully it’s a very long time, but whenever I go I want them to hold on to me till it snows. - My plan would be - hopefully when I’m 110 years old, I would love for my ashes to be buried in the snow so that I melt with the snow!

“Snow was my life and my love so right to the bitter end I want to be in snow.”

Saw and trowel

Explaining how the idea for the igloo came about Stephen said “On the Saturday before I started building the igloo, it was very very cold, the winds were blowing gale force on top of Slieve Muck and it was snowing heavily and I though to myself, if I had a pop up tent it would be a great investment because I could stay longer on the mountain because I could go into the shelter and get warmer.

"I was sitting in between snow drifts about 5ft deep at the Mourne Wall and I had dug myself a hole in the snow to get out of the worst of the wind. I sat there for about four hours and whilst digging the snow, I had this idea - I could build an igloo. It was born within 2 minutes and I came back home that evening after spending 5 hrs on the mountain and I told my father and a couple of other ones ‘I’m going to build an igloo tomorrow, and they thought you’re mental, you’re crazy and you’ll never do it and I quietly had no confidence that I could do it either."

Armed with just a quick look on the internet for what was involved Stephen began "I took off Sunday evening under the cover of darkness, just a saw and a trowel and I dug the hole for the igloo with my bare hands, then began cutting out the first blocks from the snow drifts. I made myself a quarry and I built the first two layers for the wall. I seen that it was working and I knew I could do it so every evening from Sunday till Thursday I worked on it and I got it finished on Thursday about a quarter to twelve at night."

The finished igloo certainly was quite a large structure, standing about eleven blocks high with room for five people inside.

Hard at work building the igloo. Photograph: Besim Haxhijah
Hard at work building the igloo. Photograph: Besim Haxhijah

The young artist enjoyed every single second. "The weather was so poor, one of the evenings there was a wind chill of -16.There were wind gusts of just below 50mph and I was on the very summit so you can imagine how exposed it was, and yet I was never cold. I was in the right gear, I always go well prepared with plenty of food and hot drinks and even though the weather was so poor - I could hardly see in front of me, I know the mountains very very well, I never once got into danger

"I just enjoyed the whole experience going from sunset right through to eleven at night and just working with the snow and seeing what the snow does in a certain light, seeing the snowflakes fall and stick to my frozen coat. I found it was so inspiring. I was never cold. I think when you are doing what you love and enjoy you are warm inside"

Stephen can see Slieve Muck from his bedroom window and it has been his favourite mountain since he was 14 years old "I’ve hiked every single mountain in Mourne from I was 14 and I’ve always looked for that one spot that I’ll fall in love with and I found myself continuing to return to this one spot of Slieve Muck and sitting down, overlooking the whole world down below."

The spot overlooks Lough Shannagh, The Silent Valley Ben Crom and Spelga. You can also see to Lough Neagh, as far south as Dublin and on a very clear day even Snowden in North Wales 

“I’m sat up there and the whole world below me has got its problems and it’s doing things and the cars are busying themselves around the roads and I’m sat up there in my own wee world  and I just love it.”

“I love being alone and feeling alone and taking the whole world in, I find that so inspiring.” Stephen adds.

Following in the family footsteps

The finished igloo and what a view. Photograph: Stephen Rooney.
The finished igloo and what a view. Photograph: Stephen Rooney.

“Some people are calling me a snowmason instead of a stonemason.” Stephen’s Granda Rooney who he never got to meet was one of the original men who built the Mourne Wall. He left school at 15 to work in the Annalong Quarry. He carried two baskets of granite a day from Binnian quarry down to Annalong Harbour and from there it went to Liverpool and Newcastle upon Tyne and North Wales and to build the streets in England.

“It was like kind of following in your family’s heritage and footsteps. Even though I was working with snow, I was still cutting perfect blocks of snow and I was sculpting them with a trowel and cutting with a saw. That’s the only tools I used. And then my bare hands to brush of the soft snow to reveal the layer of hard snow compacted by the wind." added the artist.

At one stage Stephen spent two hours cutting blocks of snow only to find that they were too soft in the middle and couldn’t be used.”It was quite a nightmare at times but I never ever once found it a chore to do, it was beautiful to work with”

Climbing Everest twice

Slieve Muck is 634 metres elevation and on one day Stephen was up and down the mountain three times. The amount he trekked in the past two weeks totalled an incredible 20,228 metres, the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest twice!

It really was quite a long trek to work but Stephen managed to reduce the climb time to an incredible 25 minutes. Explaining the operation Stephen said “Once I would ascend that mountain I was going on to work for seven hours in the elements minimum every evening. I did it under the cover of darkness, I’d leave the house at half three and sunset just after four. I was working under the cover of darkness, just the head torch. My aim was I didn’t want to be spotted or found, I was just building the igloo as a fun project and I knew if I did it during the day there was a risk of somebody hearing the commotion and the work going on and word getting out. I was like an M15 agent, nobody found the igloo until three days after it was complete. I didn’t tell anyone the location, I was very secretive until eventually people found it after day three and then word spread very very fast.”

She said ‘I Gloo!’ 

Nestled on Slieve Muck the igloo certainly had  the perfect position. Photograph: Stephen Rooney
Nestled on Slieve Muck the igloo certainly had the perfect position. Photograph: Stephen Rooney

The absolute highlight of the project for Stephen was when his friend Sarah Patterson and partner Graeme Shannon got engaged in the igloo. “On the very last day before the thing turned back to water, there was an engagement and that was the icing on the cake for me.” 

Can’t hang a shelf

Stephens believes if you set yourself a goal you can acheive it “I really do have a great sense of achievement because I have never built nothing in my life. I’ve never done anything like that, I couldn’t even hang a shelf. To actually build an igloo that would fit five people inside was a real feat of engineering. I was just a man on a mission determined that I was going to have an igloo and it’s funny when you put yourself a goal you can achieve it.

“You are using nature and it returns to nature and the mountain has never been harmed and that’s the beauty. I’m very passionate about when you go to do something you should never disrespect the landscape or take away from it.That’s the beauty of it all.”

Stephen never got to stay in his igloo as the conditions were never just right but he is already planning his next one. “I’m constantly reading the Met Office long range forecast because they are very accurate. It’s even looking promising in about ten days time but especially end of January coming into February . I’m already gearing myself up for the next project snow sculptures as well but another igloo for sure, maybe a bit bigger” said Stephen

Inspiration

Stephen has been painting and drawing literally since play school “I would have been very much as I am now enjoying my own company so I would have sat in the corner of a room in play school just drawing and painting and never really mingled with crowds. The interest has been there from word go, as soon as I picked up a pencil or pen I wanted to draw and paint.”

Stephen is  working on, recreating JMW Turners masterpiece, which he referred to as his darling, ‘The Fighting Temeraire’
Stephen is currently working on, recreating JMW Turners masterpiece ‘The Fighting Temeraire’, which Turner referred to as his darling!

Stephen prefers to paint his own stuff, what he loves and what inspires him and snow paintings feature heavily in his landscape offerings. He’s beginning to get into portraits too

On inspiration Stephen says  “I always say Winter is my time to be inspired. I normally put the brushes down when the snow comes. I find I need to soak up every last drop of inspiration like a sponge. This gets me through all year. I depend every winter on a fall of snow - Without snow it really affects my work it’s amazing. Last winter there was very little snow and the months following the snowless winter, I was at my least productive in years and I did very little painting. It’s a vital inspiration for me”

“I cannot wait now to throw myself into a whole series of snow paintings. Now that I physically worked with snow and seen it in all sorts of light. I now understand snow better that ever I did so that should come across in paintings, which I’m very excited about.”

You can follow Stephen on Twitter @ArtistRooney or on Facebook at WWW.FACEBOOK.COM

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