Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Monday, May 23, 2022

Michael Hartnett by Edward McGuire

When doing my quarterly art at auction preview for the Irish Arts Review, I wasn’t aware (because of deadlines) of Edward McGuire’s portrait of Michael Hartnett on offer at Adam’s June 1st auction. This is an outstanding work by an artist who has been described (by Brian Fallon) as Ireland’s finest portraitist since John Butler Yeats. We all know McGuire’s striking portrait of Seamus Heaney – housed in the Ulster Museum. The portraits have McGuire’s ubiquitous birds in common but they capture very different moods and personalities. We see the young, confident Heaney sitting four-square - eyeing us frank and free. A man going places. The Hartnett portrait captures a very different mood.. We see a diffidence here and the sadness and furtive melancholy of a man whose life was blighted in later years by marital discord and alcoholism. However,  the sensitive, evocative and pointed poetry lives on. Such a fine poet. Such a fine painting.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Hughie O’Donoghue – Original Sins at the National Gallery of Ireland

This is a longer, unedited version of an article published in the Spring 2022 edition of the Irish Arts Review.

The magnificent Shaw Room at the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI) has been transformed radically. Daniel Maclise’s monumental The Marriage of Aoife and Strongbow has new neighbours. Gone are those stern 18th and 19th portraits of the celebrated and the forgotten. In their place is Original Sins, Hughie O’Donoghue’s intriguing new exhibition. It was commissioned by the NGI as a site-specific show to complement Maclise’s painting. It consists of six works of epic scale (350 x 250 cms) based on historical personages: Saint Deirbhile, the Anglo-Saxon King Wuffa, Aoife MacMurrough, William the Conqueror, Emily Davison the suffragette and Michael Collins. O’Donoghue describes them as “players in history – sometimes overlooked.” The exhibition is part of a series to mark the Decade of Centenaries and its eclectic cast of characters is bound to invite conjecture and create controversy about how they relate to our past. O’Donoghue has stated that “I don’t want the paintings to be thought of as portraits or likenesses”  – his core theme is how we construct our identity and he has selected these characters as players in this process. His aim was to produce  “paintings that ruminate on history and open ups a discourse on the complexity of our origins.”

The sexes are represented equally, the sine qua non of all group shows in our rigorously woke era. It’s a strangely disparate group you might think at first until you explore further and links and associations began to manifest themselves – hunger strikes, Normans, inter-twined lineages, women’s freedom to make decisions, migrant incursions and more. Three of the characters are Irish and three are English, or at least are significant figures in English history. This makes the point that whether we like it or not, our history is inextricably bound up with that of our nearest neighbour. This duality reflects O’Donoghue’s own bifurcated past and present. He was born in Manchester, the son of a Kerry man and a Mayo woman. He currently lives half the year in Greenwich, London and the other half in the remote region of Erris, in Northern Mayo. He is not interested in nationalism or nationalities and likes to describe himself as Manchester Irish. 

These are not portraits. In any case an essay in creating portraits would have been highly speculative  - there is only a substantial photographic record of one of the characters, Michael Collins. The few images of Emily Davison are dominated by a series of pugnacious hats. Instead of attempting to achieve or imagine “likenesses”, O’Donoghue uses members of his own family as surrogates. Thus his son Vincent plays Michael Collins and his daughter Katy is Emily. The only photographic images are of Michael Collins as a swash-buckling military man, and of Anmer, the King’s horse that Emily Davison upended, with its unfortunate jockey Herbert Jones. The paintings aim to represent the complex nature of history where “definite truths are elusive.” The works do however have a strong sense of place. There is a horizontal swathe of landscape at the top of each painting that anchors the subject to a significant location. With St. Deirbhile it’s Blacksod Bay in Mayo, with Wuffa it’s the North Sea, and with Aoife the woods of Leinster. The paintings also contain elements that suggest how these individuals might be portrayed by the contents left in their tombs – a suffragette badge perhaps or a crucifix. O’Donoghue has always been interested in buried evidence of our past – from the bog people of Ireland to the ongoing excavations at Sutton Hoo – where there is speculation of a link with King Wuffa. O’Donoghue has said that all of the six “are significant because they are remembered and contribute in varying degrees to how we see ourselves.” His efforts to convey the slippery truths of history extend to the industrial tarpaulin on which the paintings are created. The tarpaulin had originally been folded and an irregular grid is still visible, referencing their own history as objects: ghostly intimations of their original shape. The paintings are adorned with symbols such as a portcullis from the suffragette’s badge, the harp for Ireland and the raven Fiachra of the West – an oracular bird. These symbolic addition were inspired by a set of Courtly Household Cards from the 15th century, replete with symbols, that O’Donoghue came across at an exhibition (The World in Play, Luxury Cards). in the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2016. Connoisseurs of playfulness will be delighted to note that the dimensions of O’Donoghues paintings are in the exact same scale as a conventional playing card (3.5  by 2.5 inches). 

In keeping with the size of the paintings, the scale of the endeavour is broad. Two of the figures, Saint Deirbhile and King Wuffa come from the Dark Ages where myth and truth mingle freely. Two come for the Medieval Period, Aoife MacMurrough and William the Conqueror, where tangible data starts to emerge. William appears as a character on the Bayeux Tapestry – and now reappears in these large tapestry-like works. The 20th Century is represented by Emily Davison and Michael Collins, both of whom died for their causes. Davison’s sacrifices also included her hunger strikes which severely weakened her before her death. A resonance with the tactic much favoured by Irish Republicans up to the present time. 

The personal is never far away in Hughie O’Donoghue’s work. His earlier paintings featured glimpses of his father’s World War II activities and he has done a whole series on his mother’s birth place in Famine-haunted Erris. Even his recent show at the Marlborough Gallery in London, with those towering images of the rusting hulk of the MV Plassy, are based on childhood trips to Inis Oirr with his father. The inclusion of Saint Deirbhile again points to his ancestors in North Mayo. Saint Deirbhile is one of the lesser-known Irish saints – information about her is primarily contained in the Annals of the Four Masters - but she is revered in the Blacksod, Erris region. St. Deirbhile’s Church and St. Deirbhile’s Well near Belmullet attract regular pilgrims. She represents the monastic tradition that’s part of the fabric of our culture. Her origins are even more shadowy and speculative than St. Patrick’s. The story goes that she rejected an unwanted suitor who had admired her eyes by plucking out said eyes, thus sending the poor man on his way. She then went to a nearby well and bathed her presumably empty sockets and her sight was restored miraculously. She subsequently devoted her life to prayer and solitude in the Wild West of Ireland. The painting, A Solitude in the Ocean: Deirbhile, shows a strapping young woman with golden hair on the left. In the middle section we see a saintly figure in white, holding a large crucifix, her features only barely visible beneath an enveloping shawl. On a the right a sinister raven, symbol of the West of Ireland stands atop a pole. This bird could represent the ostensible evil from which she escaped and also, these birds been partial to eyeballs, the hurt she inflicted upon herself. 

The Michael Collins painting, Boreen: Mícheál, is the most direct in its narrative.  The painting is divided into three vertical sections, the folds of the tarpaulin facilitating the triptych effect. On the right a photograph of a more callow Collins, standing by a piece of luggage. The young buck heading to London and a job in the Post Office, or perhaps Collins dressed as a civilian for the Treaty Negotiations. On the left is the famous image of the masterful military man, pistol hanging from right hip and a definite swagger in evidence. In between the two versions of Collins sits a golden harp, emblem of the nationhood for which he fought and died. A heroic figure cut down in his prime – our very own JFK. The Boreen of the title, depicted in the horizontal section at the top of the painting, is a pointer to Collins rural West Cork origins and a sinister suggestion of the landscape where he was ambushed. Incidentally, and yet another example of O’Donoghue’s taste for keeping it personal, Michael Collins was best man at his second cousin Paddy O’Donoghue’s wedding, which took place in Stephen’s Green in 1919 when Collins was on the run.

While the activities of Michael Collins led to Irish freedom, those of Emily Davison and the suffragette movement led to the first substantial step in the liberation of women: In 1918 Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act 1918 Which  granted the vote to women over the age of 30. While Collins appears swashbuckling, Davison is depicted not as a virago in a funny hat but rather as a beautiful, bare-headed, saintly vision in virginal white. Her frequent imprisonment, her hunger-strikes, her horrific force-feeding and her untimely death make her the primary martyr of the Women’s movement. The painting , The Kings Arrows and the Kings Horse: Emily, emphasises her imprisonment with both the barred window and the threatening portcullis. The  King’s horse Anmer and its  jockey dominate the left side of the work. Perhaps worth our sympathy, but also standing as a potent metaphor for an uncaring British establishment riding rough-shod over basic human rights. Davison’s use of the hunger strike tactic and her willingness to die for her cause all resonate with our own 20th century freedom fighters.

The exhibition is entitled Original Sins and when you consider our history of occupation and subjugation it’s hard not to lay a lot of the blame on Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster and his beautiful daughter Aoife. In an attempt to regain power in a country riven with rival rulers and ongoing wars and skirmishes, he decided to enlist some serious military firepower in the form of the Normans. He bartered his daughter Aoife’s hand in marriage to seal the alliance. The Norman invasion was sanctioned by King Henry II. It was led by the Earl of Pembroke (Strongbow). His forces wasted no time in turning a foothold into outright possession and thus began the 800 years of oppression, dispossession, and servitude that is only now beginning to end. It could be said that MacMurrough was the Judas of Irish history, who sold out his country for personal gain. Like Juan he didn’t live long enough to enjoy the spoils – dying shortly after Strongbow’s invasion. However, his daughter went on to initiate a royal lineage that included all the kings of England since Henry IV and of Scotland since Robert 1 – and much European royalty besides. A secondary consequence of this Norman invasion was that it established the Catholic Church in a country where the liberal Brehon laws still obtained. Ironically it was these laws that allowed MacMurrough to take the second wife who was to become Aoife’s mother. 

Of the six characters featured in the ehibition, King Wuffa is probably the one least familiar to an Irish audience. Students of Anglo-Saxon literature would know him as the first king of East Anglia in the 6th Century. This attribution was made by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People and it is disputed by later scholars who see him as more a representative, composite figure for the Wuffingas dynasty. It is also claimed that in the ongoing Anglo-Saxo excavations at Sutton Hoo are connected to rulers from this dynasty. These people originated in Jutland and went on to become the dominant force in Britain until late in the 8th Century. So what’s Wuffa doing in an exhibition that forms part of our centenary celebrations? There is of course the link with the Vikings who also swept into Ireland so we share a common set of ancestor-invaders. There is also the inference that our people, like our neighbours, are descended from migrants and all of us are the product of diverse origins.

Although William the Conqueror never set foot in Ireland he has had an immense influence  on our history. He created the template in England and Wales for those Norman armies who swept into Ireland after Dermot MacMurrough opened the door. Faced with scattered and divided local armies they quickly mopped up the opposition and changed the course of our history. O’Donoghue sees William as a more significant figure than Strongbow in our history – the latter was merely an agent of Norman expansion. Unlike the subsequent invasions, the Elizabethan wars and Cromwell’s brutal campaigns, the Normans settled here and were absorbed into Irish society. They built keeps, castles and churches and could be said to have brought with them a European sensibility. They also brought the Catholic Church unfortunately.  William was the first Norman king of England and during his reign, following the Battle of Hastings, the old Anglo -Saxon aristocracy (Wuffa’s descendants) were replaced by a Norman one. William is represented on the Bayeux tapestry and O’Donoghue’s giant tarpaulin works approach the condition of tapestry. According to O’Donoghue:  “My idea was that it should feel like an enormous tapestry, something that took me in the direction of William of Normandy.” William is represented in the Bayeux tapestry carrying a cudgel – a potent symbol of his brutal tactics.

The overall colour of the six paintings is gold which works sympathetically with the dark blue wall of the Shaw Room. The gold also creates a tension between the opulence of that rich colour and the industrial feel of the silver ground on the tarpaulin. This silver ground was chosen to reflect light as the paintings are situated opposite windows in the Shaw Room. Aside from William the Conqueror there are further references to the Bayeux Tapestry in symbols, words, and pointing fingers. The horizontal strip at the top of the paintings and the opaque, white vertical panel in the centre on which the figures are depicted suggest a hammer. This hammer form, according to the artist, point to the relentlessness of history, the anvil where meaning is forged. The epic scale of this work suggests Anslem Kiefer (an artist much admired by O’Donoghue) and his magnificent paintings that bring us back to the monstrous evil that was Nazi Germany.

It’s hard to think of another Irish artist who could create an exhibition of such scale and ambition. The word “epic” is thrown around carelessly these days but this work is assuredly worthy of this designation. In the Winter 2016 edition of the Irish Arts Review, its late editor John Mulcahy delivered a swingeing critique of the exhibition Creating History at the NGI curated by Brendan Rooney. He chided the NGI for not commissioning  new work by contemporary artists: “Would this not have been a worthy challenge for the likes of Hughie O’Donoghue?”, Mulcahy asked. Whether or not NGI director Sean Rainbird read Mulcahy’s words, he and curator Brendan Rooney have come up trumps this time (to extend the playing card metaphor) and thanks to the bold O’Donoghue have a given us a spectacular and thought-provoking show that must not be missed. And it’s free.

John P. O’Sullivan


January 2022.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Cheltenham Day 4: From Woe to Weal and after out of Joy

After Third Wind’s win in the Pertemps Final on Day 3 I was always going to have a profitable Cheltenham. Day 4 was all about how profitable. My main focus was the Gold Cup (A Plus Tard and Minella Indo see above) and the final race, the Martin Pipe Hurdle where I strongly fancied Langer Dan who had targeted this race since he was second last year. To titillate my jaded palate I did a series of doubles and a treble on the favourites in the first three races. The first two won, Vauban at 6-4 and State Man at 5-2. Consequently there was a considerable amount riding on the third leg, Ginto, who I had backed at 3-1. He cruised into contention (writing about sport demands the odd cliché) between the last two flights and was clearly going to win easily. However, before he reached the last hurdle he broke down horribly on the flat and it was obvious he had fractured a leg. It cast a pall over the rest of the day – and I don’t just mean financially (I’m used to losing on horses that should have won).

Next up was the Cheltenham Gold Cup. I backed the two horses I had backed last year again this year. Last year Minella Indo outstayed A Plus Tard in a tight finish. This year, Rachel Blackmore, riding the latter, timed her challenge better and she won easily. The pace was not as strong as last year and so the speed of the winner trumped the stamina of the runner-up. In addition to my individual bets on the two horses I bagged a very lucrative forecast (it paid just over 22-1). So my financial discomfiture over the untimely demise of Ginto was somewhat eased as I headed towards the last race where I was confident that Langer Dan would augment my winnings. 

Need I tell you dear reader that in horse racing pride truly comes before a fall. There were 23 runners in the Martin Pipe hurdle which makes for a great deal of traffic issues as they head helter skelter for the first few hurdles. I had laid off a few bob on the De Bromhead horse Grand Jury in the same race as insurance – he was a generous 22-1. At the second flight the useless lump fell and in so doing brought down Langer Dan who was playing his usual waiting game at the back of the field. 

For fuck’s sake. The icing was summarily removed from my cake. But you know something, aside from the unfortunate Ginto, it was a most enjoyable and reasonably profitable four days. The Olympics of jump racing with less drugs. Ok, Journey for Me fell at the last hurdle in the Ballymore on Day 2 and Indefatigable, at a fancy price, also departed late when challenging in the Mare’s Hurdle on the same day. But coulda, shoulda is all part of the fun. 

Friday, March 18, 2022

Cheltenham 2022 – Post-Mortem on Day 3 and Day 4 Preview


Back in the black after a good Day 3. The highlight was Third Wind’s success in the Pertemps at 25-1 supplemented by Mill Green’s third place at 33-1 in the same race. I also enjoyed some freakish good luck when backing Ahorsewithnoname at 80-1 in the Mare’s Novice’s Hurdle. I picked him purely on the grounds that his price was way to high for a Nicky Henderson hurdler in a mediocre race. He was in contention coming to the last but just got outstayed up the hill and finished second. A nice bonus.


Day 4 is mostly about the Gold Cup although I have a strong fancy in the last race as well. You could make cases for at least four horses in the Gold Cup: Gavin, Minella Indo, A Plus Tard and Al Boum Photo. Galvin is the popular choice mainly because of his defeat of both A Plus Tard and Minella Indo (see image above) in separate Irish races this season. He also has the requisite Cheltenham course form. However, I wonder does he lack just a little the speed and class we usually associate with a Gold Cup winner – his strength is his stamina. The same could be said of Al Boum Photo however who won the race twice. The latter is now eleven and will surely not do it again. That leaves me with Minella Indo and A Plus Tard who were first and second last year. I backed them both then and will probably do so again this year. I marginally prefer A Plus Tard on this year’s form but Minella Indo could come alive again at his favourite track. Course form continues every year to be a crucial factor. Rachel Blackmore may regret her choice of ride once again.


The Skeltons have been gearing their horses towards the big late seasons prizes and I especially like their Langer Dan in the Martin Pipe – the last race. He was a clear second last year to Galopin de Champ who we now know was in a different class to mere handicappers. He’s got much the same weight this year and has been prepared especially for this race. There are 24 runners so luck in running is going to be a factor. The Skeletons also have Doctor Parnassus in the 1.30 (the Triumph Hurdle) at a fancy 22-1 – his form is in modest races but he looks promising. The next two races should go to Mullins and Elliott:  State Man in the 2.10 and Ginto in the Alfred Bartlett at 2.50. They’re both short prices (2 or 3-1).