The Duggan sisters are now following their dream and their love of creativity, art and nature, to pursue something they have always found to be meaningfu
Lockdown has been difficult for everyone, and has seen many lasting changes to all of our lives. Few will have made the sort of wholesale lifestyle changes Roisin Duggan and her twin sister Aislinn have these past 12 months, and the experiences they’ve had.
After becoming ill and being hospitalised late last year, the two young women have since left the pharmaceutical industry jobs in which they were unhappy. They are now following their dream and their love of creativity, art and nature, to pursue something they have always found to be meaningful.
Their work shows scenes from the Irish countryside and old Irish mythology. The tranquility of the artwork belies the turbulent nature of the journey of recovery, and of how difficult it can be to accept that a chosen path was not the right one —and the courage to change that.
The pair grew up in Owning in South Kilkenny, where they are very much involved in the local community. As teenagers, in school they felt they were being steered in a particular direction.
“We were kind of told in school that art wasn’t really something you could do as a career,” Roisin says. “We’ve always loved it as a hobby and subject in school, and did it up until Leaving Cert and then kind of were told it wasn’t the responsible choice to go into art. So we went on to do science in college, and both studied genetics — separately — in DCU and UCD.
"So we both moved to Dublin which was a big change from here where we live — very rural, countryside and we love nature and animals and the Irish countryside. It was a very big change of lifestyle. We both did our degrees for four years in Dublin and it was fun for a while, but we aren’t really city people. So we missed the countryside.”
They continued to dabble in art while in college. Through social media they offered to do commissions as a kind of business, and also got involved in a local art gallery in Carrick-on-Suir when home during the summer or weekends. They kept that up as a side business while studying. People often requested pet portraits or family portraits, or historical scenes.
“Our family would have a big interest in Irish history and we have a background there, our dad is very interested in local history,” Roisin says.
“As children we would have always read Irish myths and legends and it’s a big part of our inspiration, feeling connected to the Irish countryside, our heritage and all the old stories of magic, the Fianna, fairies and that side of things. We are very into environmental conservation as well, and are big lovers of nature.”
Though both studying genetics, in Dublin, the twins were in different colleges, and lived separately on opposite sides of the city. During that time in college, they were both very much set on doing science as a career. They did so in the understanding that science is an employable career field.
“We studied it with an eye to doing it for life. That was kind of where we were at, and doing art on the side,” Roisin says. “We would come home every second week or third week at the weekend, home to our family, and we’d do painting. But it got put on the backburner while we were in college.”
In their formative teenage years, advice on further education and career choices came from different quarters, including teachers and guidance counsellors.
“We were both quite good at science, and did well in science subjects,” Roisin says. “So, they kind of advised us to go into science. Art would have been favourite other than that, but art was written off as not a career, and not something you can go into.”
Roisin says the pair then faced a decision, and decided that the responsible thing to do was a STEM course at third-level. That was the prevailing school of thought.
“Go do a STEM course, go to college, get a job. So that was what we aimed to do, and that was what we did,” she says. “Then last year, lockdown happened during our final year of college, so we both finished our degrees online and graduated. We were home for the summer during lockdown, and then we both — like any graduate — applied and got jobs early in September and moved back to Dublin.”
It was exciting starting off, but the more they worked in it, the less they found themselves enjoying it.
“During lockdown, the social isolation and the pressure of working, trying to put a square peg into a round hole, and we would be much more free spirits than most people in big pharma industry,” she says.
Things, after a fashion, became more difficult. “Lockdown living in Dublin was very different, and working was very different,” Roisin says.
“With college, you have an end goal in sight, but working was kind of indefinitely for the future. It was a very grim outlook, and with no social contact, it was a very tough few months.
“That was when we both became very unwell. We both developed anorexia over the course of college, by kind of just forcing ourselves to do something that didn’t come naturally.
It kind of happened as a result of that.” Last month, psychiatrists from the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland revealed that services and GPs around Ireland reported a large increase in eating disorders during the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly at the end of 2020.
“We were kind of managing it until this autumn until we started work and lived alone in Dublin again,” Roisin says. “Work was stressful and this time, we’d moved to a new area, there was no sense of community. We missed the countryside but couldn’t go home because of travel restrictions.
“It was a very tough few months and we became very unwell, and ended up in hospital in December after working for that few months and being in lockdown, very isolated. We both just went downhill a lot.” One thing that became quickly clear is something that many people will now; mental health services are very under-staffed in Ireland.
“We had made appointments to see —I was aware of anorexia in December of 2019 and had gone about going to the doctor and getting an appointment. There are only two eating disorder wards in the country and they are both in Dublin,” says Roisin.
“I had gone about getting an appointment to see a consultant in one of them, but the waiting list took a year for the appointment.”
Anorexia, as is often the case, had been a progressive thing for Roisin, first beginning in school. “It was always an underlying thing and never took as much an effect on my physical health because I could manage it through college,” she says.
“They say it’s a coping mechanism for things, and that was my coping mechanism for following a path I didn’t want to be following. It was only when working in it became a reality that it really got bad. The lockdown took away all of the social supports and family and friends, and community, and that caused it to get much worse.
“So I had been kind of struggling for a few years, and it’s not really talked about in Ireland. I didn’t go about getting help, I kind of denied it was happening, and was like ‘no, I can think my way out of this and manage it on my own’. And that didn’t work. You can’t really think your way out of something like that.”
As things got worse last year, then, Roisin went to the doctor to see what help there was for her.
“There is very little help available outside of Dublin. The services are very under-staffed and under-funded,” she says.
She got an appointment in June for December to see a consultant in Dublin. In the meantime, she tried to manage the condition.
“Because of work and stuff I kind of let it go on, and was like ‘no, I can’t take time off work’,” Roisin says.
“As a graduate, you’re kind of expected to work hard for your first year. And you find it’s just work, stress, adjusting to being back in Dublin, lockdown. It was a combination of all those things, and it got very bad.” She had been holding out for the December appointment but became very underweight and weak physically.
“I couldn’t stand for the whole of my shift and was fainting and getting lightheaded. Very unwell. Managing, really not eating and going to work, you can’t really function, and I was really not functioning well. Just tired and cold all the time.”
The appointment was still a few weeks away and she decided to ring the hospital and ask for anything sooner, a cancellation. She was told to come in for inpatient treatment.
A lot of the treatment for the condition is finding out the background cause. Part of this, she feels, was pursuing a career and future she didn’t really want to be doing. “I do think that was a very big part of it. It was manageable up to lockdown,” she says.
Roisin cites a study showing there was a 66% increase in hospitalisation due to eating disorders during lockdown.
“Where people might have got help sooner, during lockdown, however bad it was before, it was much worse. Appointments more spaced out, waiting lists were longer. People didn’t go for more routine checkups, they only went for emergencies, and ended up being hospitalised, which is what happened to us,” she confirms.
They both spent a few weeks in hospital over the winter and Christmas. They left their jobs, and now in recovery, decided to see it as a second chance. A chance to do something else.
They have now seized that chance through a renewed focus on their shared passion for creating art. They have a good base built up, and as they develop their talents and experience, now want to increase their efforts to make it a career as opposed to a side endeavour.
"The beauty of the Irish countryside is our main inspiration,” Roisin says. “We paint a lot of animals because in the area where we live, people feel very connected to animals.”
There’s also the legends, stories and mythology side of things. Roisin explains they try to see the countryside as magical and as a child would see it. In the current lockdown, they are at home in the family house in South Kilkenny surrounded by nature. They continue to recover from their illness, and painting is a welcome activity. “At the moment, we are both still in outpatient treatment, in contact with the hospital every day and doing Zoom appointments or Zoom sessions. When we are not doing that, we just kind of paint for most of the day,” says Roisin.
“Creativity doesn’t always run on a schedule, you can’t really do it 9-5. Sometimes, the inspiration hits you at night time so you paint at night, or early in the morning. We try and spend a good bit of time out and about in nature as well.”
They are now planning to build an outdoor shed to make into a studio. At present they paint in the attic, which also serves as their dad’s home office. The next move will be to establish a website for the studio in addition to their social media presence. They have a Facebook (aislinnandroisindugganart) and Instagram pages, and have previously exhibited work in the gallery in Carrick, although it is closed due to lockdown at present. They receive requests for a wide variety of commissions — family pets, landscapes, hurlers, Irish family trees.
“We’re hoping to get our name out more and expand our audience. If possible, get involved in more exhibitions and art festivals. Expand into Kilkenny City a bit more, because Kilkenny City has a huge art circle,” says Roisin, of what’s to come next.
They also want to promote some awareness of their experience, so that other people don’t end up in the same situation that they did.
“And to promote the awareness you can pursue other paths in Ireland that aren’t getting a STEM job or pharma and academia. You can do creative things and keep that arts sector alive. Somebody has to do the creative side of things and alternative lifestyles that are very much being beaten out of us in school at the moment."
It’s refreshing to hear someone with a different perspective .