Rugby brought Doug and Monique Howlett to Cork but it is friendship that kept them here. Now artist Monique is marking the end of their Irish journey with a beginning of her own, writes Marjorie Brennan.
When Monique Howlett and her husband Doug, with their six-month-old baby Charles in tow, touched down at Cork Airport at the end of December 2007, it was with the intention of staying here for two years.
Almost 12 years and four more children later, the couple are now closing the curtain on their Irish adventure, and are preparing to return to New Zealand in August.
The Howletts moved to Cork when former All Blacks rugby star Doug signed for Munster.
The beginning may have been inauspicious but it wasn’t long before the couple fell hard for the Rebel county.
“It was hard at the very beginning because we came from our summertime into the winter and it poured rain for a whole week,” laughs Monique.
However, the warmth of the Cork welcome more than made up for the chill of the weather.
The family initially rented a house in the suburb of Ballintemple, and ended up buying another house in the same area because they loved it so much.
While their Irish journey is ending, another exciting one is beginning for artist Monique, as she launches an exhibition of her art at Hazelhurst Gallery in Monkstown.
For the 37-year-old, it is the perfect way to say goodbye to her adopted home.
“It is a celebration of our journey and our time here. It is so important to us that we maintain our ties with all our Irish friends and it is lovely to think that with my art, they will have a piece of me in their home.”
The decision to return to New Zealand was certainly not an easy one for the couple, whose five children, Charles, Tom, Sam, Ruby Sue and James, range in age from 11 down to three.
But ultimately it is the strength of their family ties that is pulling them home.
“We went home at Christmas and then on the way back from Dublin, we were driving down and we had our kids crying that they wanted to be back in New Zealand with their grandparents,” says Monique.
Both sets of grandparents are hale and hearty, as is Doug’s grandmother, who is 96 years old.
“We really want the kids to spend time with their grandparents, to go fishing with their grandad, to grow a vegetable garden with their nana and great-nana.
"There is just so much that the grandparents can add to their lives. Doug and I have great memories of our childhood and we want the same memories for our kids. While it has been an amazing journey here, it is just time to go home.
"Charles is nearly 12, we need our kids to start making those memories. They will always have their memories from here as well.”
Monique studied art and design at Auckland University of Technology before working as an art and design director for a media company.
She is looking forward to pursuing her artistic career further on her return to New Zealand and having family support when it comes to childcare.
“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing and painting. My mum sent me a photo the other day of when I was a child, and I was out sketching the bushes.
"The exhibition is the start of a really great thing because the kids are a bit older now, and I will also have the grandparents on board.”
While life has been busy for Monique, she has built up a significant body of work in her time here.
“I set up a studio in one of the bedrooms at home,” she laughs.
“It has taken a long time to build up the pieces for the exhibition, I will be showing about 40 or 50 and there will be prints as well. They are all for sale, for the first time.
Monique draws much of her artistic inspiration from the Irish landscape, particularly the beaches and scenery of west Cork.
“We stay in a friend’s house down in Goleen, it is so gorgeous down there. The kids go crab fishing, there is so much for them to explore. When you are driving down to west Cork, you are always passing fields of cows and horses and donkeys. I keep telling Doug to stop the car and pull over in a ditch so I can take photographs,” she laughs. “I capture a moment and then put it into paint. I also have a series of wildflower paintings because I am obsessed with the wildflowers that grow on the side of the road. They are so beautiful.”
Children also feature a lot in her work, and she says their imagination and curiosity is an endless source of fascination for her. While she enjoys escaping to her makeshift studio, she also wants to share the creative process with her children.
“I might be sketching and the kids are at the same table, drawing. It is good for them to watch what I am doing. Ruby Sue often tells me how proud she is of me. She aspires to being an artist too, she is very good.”
Monique has also blended the sporting and artistic in her work, creating a poignant and powerful piece of work to mark the passing of Munster rugby legend Anthony ‘Axel’ Foley.
The painting, called Brothers in Arms, is a beautifully rendered representation of the camaraderie and strong bonds forged on the field.
“When Axel passed away, Munster had a minute of silence [at Thomond Park] before playing their match. I thought I needed to paint it because it was so beautiful, the emotion of that silence, everybody felt it. It was a very sad time but I thought it deserved to be captured. I won’t ever sell that one, Doug wants to keep it. It is something we will bring home with us.”
While Doug hung up his boots in 2013, the family’s connection to rugby in Munster and Cork remains strong.
After he finished playing, Doug did an MBA and was appointed Munster’s head of commercial and marketing. And, while son Charles has honed his skills playing for Cork Con, those talents will now be on offer to New Zealand.
“It’s Charles’ dream to play for the All Blacks. No pressure,” laughs Monique. “He is really good but we’ve been warning him that he might be the smallest in the team because the guys over there can be a bit bigger, with the Pacific Islands influence and all of that. I’m sure he’ll love it.”
Cork Con isn’t the only club to have benefitted from the younger Howletts’ sporting prowess; the family has spent plenty of time cheering on Charles’ younger brother Tom at Blackrock hurling club. And if dad Doug has anything to do with it, Tom will be sticking with the sliotar, even on the other side of the world.
“Tom is a little dinger at the hurling and Doug loves it too. I think he has scouted out four hurling clubs in Auckland, so the hurleys will be coming back with us.”
As for the tricky question about who they will be supporting on their return, Monique says family loyalties are sure to be tested.
“If you ask Charles who he supports, it’s the All Blacks but if you ask the rest, it’s Ireland. When you ask my three-year-old who he supports, green or black, he says green. We have very good friends in the Irish team so it’s hard for us. We are very much on the fence now.”
While Monique is looking forward to showcasing her work, she is less certain about being in the limelight, a spot normally occupied by her husband.
“It is a bit weird. I like being in the background. Doug is also not the type to be putting himself in the foreground. He is very humble, which is what I love about him. This exhibition is more about doing something that celebrates our time here, our journey.”
Monique says the support she has received in putting on the exhibition has been invaluable, and she singles out the owner of the Hazelhurst Gallery, Ivan Wolfe, for special mention.
“My friends have boosted me and encouraged me to do this exhibition, because it hasn’t been easy with the kids and getting ready to move. Having it in Ivan’s gallery makes it even more special because he has been such a special friend to me. It is great to be bringing it to life together.”
Monique says they will also be keeping the door open for all the friends they have made here.
“When we go back, we will have a guest room for all the Irish people to come and stay,” she says.
“This exhibition is a celebration of all the friendships we have made but it will be hard to say goodbye — I am telling everyone they are not allowed come to the airport because I will be bawling.”
Monique Howlett: Solo exhibition of drawings, paintings and prints, opens at the Hazelhurst Gallery in Monkstown, Co Cork, today and runs until June 30; 30% of all proceeds from sales on the opening day will be donated to the CUH Children’s Charity. www.moniquehowlett.com