Tuesday, December 28, 2021

John Kelly’s Think and Thank Garden in West Cork

An edited version of this article appeared in the Times Ireland on Christmas Eve - 175 years after N.M. Cummins’  letter was published in the Times of London.


On this day in 1846, at the height of the Great Famine, a letter addressed to the Duke of Wellington was published in the Times of London alerting an indifferent British public to the scale of the disaster, especially in the West Cork region. Earlier in the year, the Duke had written a singularly unsympathetic letter to a clergyman in Armagh (the Rev. H.P. Disney) claiming that as Commander-in-Chief of the Army he had no control over measures to be adopted for the relief of the distress. Go ask the Lord Lieutenant was his conclusion. As the Duke and the British ruling classes tucked into their kedgeree on Christmas Eve, they were presented with a graphic vision from within the Empire of what starvation and its attendant fever entailed. The author of this chastening missive was N. M. Cummins, a Justice of the Peace for West Cork. He gave witness to the horrors he witnessed when he visited homes in South Reen on the eastern side of Castlehaven Bay, near Skibbereen: “In the first, six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horse cloth, their wretched legs hanging about , naked above the knees.”


John Kelly, an internationally successful Australian artist with familial links to Ireland, moved here in 2003. On an earlier exploratory visit, Kelly and his wife Christina Todesco-Kelly, also an artist, fell in love with a large property on the remote Reen Peninsula, near Union Hall. Having settled into his new home, Kelly began to explore the dark history of a region that had been the epicenter of the Great Hunger. He came upon Cummins’ letter through a neighbour, Ann Shaw, who had attended school with a descendant of the concerned Justice . While landscaping his property and seeding it with his sculpture (including his iconic Cow Up a Tree), Kelly determined to create a permanent monument to its tragic past using Cummins’ historic missive. 


Two notions informed Kelly’s concept and they both centered on Sir Henry Tate – founder of the original Tate Museum. Tate had been a grocer in Liverpool during the Famine period, owning a string of shops. While there is no direct evidence that he was one of the many British businesses importing foodstuffs from Ireland during the Famine, it is an established historical fact that such activity continued as people starved. Tate sold his grocery business and invested his money in buying the patent for sugar cubes and subsequently built his fortune (via slavery) by importing sugar from the West Indies. This fortune, coming from questionable sources, led to the philanthropy that built and stocked the Tate Gallery. (It’s not hard to see some parallels with the Sackler imbroglio today – although sugar is, of course, less addictive and less lethal than Oxycontin.) Another aspect of Kelly’s interest in the Tate was the absence of paintings in the museum that recorded the greatest cataclysm in Irish history. Irish artists painted to please their paymasters and there was a perception that, as art historian Catherine Marshall opined, “such work would not be acceptable to the establishment.” Kelly’s rationale for his creation is simple: “Cummins’s words painted the picture that the artists could or would not.”


Kelly built a scale model of the Tate Modern from a forty-foot container that he had previously used to ship art to the 2011 Gothenburg Biennale. His Gothenburg exhibit contained a copy of Cummins letter but he determined to locate a more lasting exhibit on his Reen property. He had the text etched on a limestone tablet and placed on the floor of his Tate model. This was accompanied by another stone tablet bearing an eye-witness account of the Famine’s horrors from a local doctor. The building also contains a large cast-iron pot from the Famine period that he discovered on his property. It bears the distinctive Phoenix symbol indicating that it was donated by the Quakers. Its presence acknowledges the exemplary role of this group during the Famine. The title of Kelly’s land sculpture is the Think and Thank Garden. This is an ironic take on the Tate family motto: Thincke and Thancke. As we settle down tomorrow to our Christmas dinners, let us think back to our less fortunate ancestors and give thanks, even in these blighted times, for our good fortune.


The Think and Thank  Garden will be open to the public in 2022 through various West Cork festivals. These include the Arts Festival (Uillinn),  the West Cork History Festival and the West Cork Garden Trail..



 John P. O’Sullivan

December 2021




Thursday, November 18, 2021

Recent Reads – November 2021


A Very Strange Man: A Memoir of Aidan Higgins by Alanna Hopkin


After reading this you come away with two impressions: Alannah Hopkin is a saint and Aidan  Higgins is an insufferable prick, childish and demanding. The two met when Hopkins was a jobbing journalist and Higgins had commenced his long slide into irrelevance – but still dining out on the attention he garnered for his first novel Langrishe, Go Down and to a lesser extent his second one Balcony of Europe. Hopkin’s early romantic attachment soon curdles into a rueful acceptance of the nature of the beast she has embraced. She keeps the show on the road both financially and domestically and occasionally escapes the lair of her demanding lover for air. She is very honest about the strains of living with an egotistical despot but clearly retains an affection for him to the very end when he required constant nursing. The book is good on these domestic strains and also on the literary milieu in which they both live. We get some decent gossip also – hearing yet again of John Montague’s shortcomings as a house guest: “Montague turned up yet again to have supper and stay the night without contributing a bottle.” Oh dear. 



Francis Bacon – Revelations by Mark Stevens and Annalynn Swan



This is undoubtedly going to be the definitive biography of Bacon – coming in at over 800 pages and exhaustive on the life and on the work. Despite the smallish print, it’s an easy and entertaining read because it’s so well-written and organised. I’ve read plenty of other Bacon biographies but this covers ground I am unfamiliar with – especially his early days in Ireland. The authors clearly like their subject and it shows. His early dabbling in interior design, his work ethic, his incontinent gambling, his deeply strange love life, and his etreme and widespread generosity all get full measure. And yet we don’t ever really get to know him beneath the surface. He famously hated any narrative around his work and discouraged speculation. The weirdest incident in the book is when his occasional lover George Dyer was found dead on the toilet in their Parisian hotel room the morning after a flaming row with Bacon. The row had been about an Arab rent boy with smelly feet that Dyer had brought back the previous night - it was the smell not the infidelity that irked Bacon. He flounced off and slept elsewhere. Left on his own, Dyer overdosed (accidentally?) with pills and alcohol and died of a heart attack. A major show was scheduled for the Grand Palais in Paris that day and Bacon went ahead with the speeches, gala dinners and attendant events while the hotel covered up the death until the next day. Such impossible chutzpah showed a hard and controlled side of the man. A couple of weeks later he returned from London to the same hotel and stayed in the room where his lover had died. Now that’s weird.



 The Best Catholics in the World by Derek Scally



The title of course is ironic but I had expected a different book – a wide-ranging survey of the many ways the Catholic Church fucked the people of Ireland. Instead Scally narrows his focus to concentrate on some of the individuals affected by the Church’s disgraceful protecting of the child abusers in its ranks. In addition to hearing from the victims we also get the views of brave priests like Fr. Kevin Hegarty who spoke out and were banished to remote parishes as a result. We know the generality of this story but it’s an excellent introduction to some of the specifics. 


Burning Man – the Ascent of D.H. Lawrence by Frances Wilson



In terms of the sheer silliness of some of his obsessions and prognostications D. H. Lawrence is right up there with Yeats - but lacks of course the latter’s greatness. His novels have aged badly and his latest biographer rates his non-fiction work and poetry much higher than his turgid, high-flown fiction. She’s unsparing on Lawrence’s social climbing, his pomposity, and his priggishness. He emerges as a deeply unlovable character. Her focus on his travels and on the characters he met along the way make it an entertaining read. Chief amongst these characters is Mabel Dodge Luhan, the American heiress, Native American Indian lover, and literary groupie. She it was who lured Lawrence to New Mexico and made him part of her entourage. A lesser known character was the unfortunate Maurice Magnus who after claiming a sizable amount of both the author’s and Lawrence’s time, commits suicide in Malta. And then there’s the monstrous Frieda – Lawrence’s long-term partner who took his doctrine of free love to its extreme. No man in her orbit was spared her very overt advances – often as Lawrence sat miserably by. Although by no means a straight forward biography it contains fascinating glimpses into the writer’s life and his premature death from the TB that he never fully acknowledged.










Sunday, November 07, 2021

Reviewing the Reviewers

I get the Irish Times on Saturdays mainly for the book reviews, and to read Keith Duggan in the Sport section. The quality of the book reviewing has waned in recent years – since the demanding and acerbic Eileen Battersby died and John Banville stopped being a regular contributor. The overall impression of its reviews is blandness and a desire not to rock the boat. It needs a Michael Hofmann figure to come in occasionally to slaughter a holy cow. A job he did recently for the TLS in his review of Colm Toibin’s The Magician (https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/the-magician-colm-toibin-book-review-michael-hofmann/). However, there were a number of decent reviews in yesterday’s edition. Desmond Traynor does a sympathetic job on Rob Doyle’s Autobibliography - a book that encourages reading across the centuries, beyond the conventional, and occasionally into the dissolute depths. And Sean Hewitt writes a knowledgeable piece on the peerless Derek Mahon – a poet who should perhaps outrank Seamus Heaney but lacked the latter’s amiability and engagement with his public. Roddy Doyle celebrates The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present by Paul McCartney (edited by Paul Muldoon) in his own direct and highly-readable voice. Sadly Niamh Donnelly’s review of Brian Cox’s autobiography (Putting the Rabbit in the Hat) lets the side down. It is a rather prissy affair with the likeable and talented Cox being chided for being white, male and for daring to refer to a female actor as an “actress”. Not so much a review as an examination for wokeness that the septuagenarian Cox failed miserably. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

A Farewell to My Old Doubles Partner

Last Monday I attended the funeral in Carrigaline of my old tennis-playing friend, and regular doubles partner, Robin Gill. He was my next-door neighbor during my secondary school years when I lived in the Campfield in Cork. There were eight tennis courts across the road from our houses and we made good use of them. We played in all the junior tennis tournaments around Munster and even on one occasion graced the courts of the exclusive Fitzwilliam club in Dublin. Robin had a very good forehand and I had an equally accomplished backhand so we complemented each other nicely - unless of course our opponents started hitting the ball down the middle. We won a number of tournaments and were a fixture on the CBC tennis team that won the Munster Schools championship five out of my last six years in secondary school. The year we didn’t win we were disqualified for playing our team in the wrong order against Glenstal. (Our worst player ended up playing their best - their Alastair Conan against our Mick O’Neill if I remember correctly.)

Outside the tennis courts we were never the closest. He had a tight-knit family scene, sailing at weekends and spending quality time with his parents whereas I was inclined towards dubious companions and dissolute behavior far from my family’s eyes. We had the occasional physical fights and as we grew older he developed the nasty habit of making moves on girls I had initially met and nurtured. He was blonde and good-looking in a Lord Alfred Douglas way, whereas I was going more for the greaser look as popularized by Elvis. After school he got into HR and ended up managing a pharmaceutical company in Ringaskiddy, just outside Cork. I tended towards the Arts and a highly erratic career path that took me around the world. So we lost touch.

Time healed our teenage antipathy and when we met accidentally or at class reunions over the years we always got along well. I do remember however been invited over to his house one evening while I was in Cork and assuming it was for dinner (it was 7 pm) I brought along a bottle of wine. Alas, no dinner materialized as apparently they had eaten earlier and the bottle of wine proved a source of embarrassment all round. I last met him about seven years ago at a major class reunion. He was immaculately dressed in a smart tweed suit complete with waist-coat, tasteful shirt and tie, and a fine pair of brogues. However, he had contracted a virulent cancer of the oral cavity and a substantial portion of his tongue had been removed (he had been a habitual pipe smoker.). This badly affected his speech and made conversing very difficult. I felt it was brave of him to turn up at all and admired his courage in persisting with his social life despite his difficulty.

Despite his later misfortunes, Robin had apparently lived a full and active life in Carrigaline and was very involved with the local Catholic Church and with community activities. His abiding love of public speaking was only moderately curtailed by his recent handicap. It was somewhat of a surprise to hear he had remained a devout Catholic - alone amongst my friends from that time.

He was always a keen music buff. I remember his very enlightened father buying him a copy of the Beatle’s Rubber Soul for his birthday in the Sixties. He departed from the church to the stirring sound of the Chieftains.

Congratulations if You Got into the RHA Annual Exhibition 2021

It’s good to see some transparency from the RHA about how difficult it is to get work accepted for its Annual Exhibition. In an email from director Pat Murphy to the RHA’s mailing list he informs us of the following:


1.     A total of 3,900+ (a tad vague that plus) works were submitted as electronic images.

2.     Of these, 720 were brought in for physical viewing and final selection.

3.     Less than half of these, 323, were selected for the exhibition.


This tells us that you have about one chance in twelve of being selected. Not great odds for all those hopeful punters. Members of course don’t go through the selection process so the total number of works in the exhibition will be closer to 500.


It’s also a nice windfall for the RHA as at €20 a submission it stands to make nearly €80K even before the money starts flowing in from sales. However, given how poorly our government supports the arts you can hardly quibble. It’s a well-run organization which contributes mightily to the Irish art scene and deserves all the support we can afford it. The exhibition opens on Monday 27th September - get your arse in there.