Sunday, December 17, 2017

Rancid Ruminations - December 2017

Wherein I decry false Gods and fashionable concerns

The Katie Taylor Farrago

Katie Taylor seems like a very decent woman and is an impressive and dedicated boxer. However I do cringe when I see her being declared a world champion and sporting great after beating a sequence of very limited opponents. The pool of talent in women’s boxing (amateur and professional is very shallow). Nobody can blame Eddie Hearn for trying to carefully contrive a career – a man has to live. However, I’m not impressed with the craven connivance of her cheer-leaders in the Irish sporting press who sing her praises as if she’s a Sonia O’Sullivan or a Brian O’Driscoll – sporting greats tested and proved in the cauldron of genuine competition. Her latest opponents included an overweight nail technician (OK I made that up – but that’s what her appearance suggests) from South America and a chubby clerical worker from the USA. An earlier opponent (Viviane Obenauf) was so friendly that she have her a little kiss towards the end of their fight. Also, this business of parading her in her bra and knickers before the weigh-in embarrasses both me and her. She’s clearly not that kind of girl. I agree with her father – she should retire and reclaim her dignity.

Devastation for Irish Soccer Fans

It is of course devastating for Irish soccer fans (“the best fans in the world” ©) that they have been thwarted of a summer drinking and whoring in Russia. However, I have a small and sad confession to make. I was delighted to see our team fail to qualify for the World Cup. It is an agglomeration of uncreative journeyman (apart from Coleman who’s injured) and would have disgraced us again on the world stage. The Danes did us a favour by exposing our shortcoming on a smaller stage. Also, I listen to a lot of radio and I find that an inordinate amount of time (especially on Newstalk) is dedicated to painfully detailed analysis of mostly forgettable matches – the self-regarding lads on Off the Ball (where everyone is a legend) are particularly guilty. The lead up to the actual event would have would have dominated the airwaves exposing us to the interminable and banal forecasts of retired middle-of-the-road footballers - all of course received by our fan-boy presenters as if they were the mordant utterances of the Delphic Oracle. Is it any wonder that we have the most politically illiterate and inactive population in Western Europe when they expend so much time and energy on so much vacuous shite.

The Christmas Debacle

For me it gets worse every year. The run up now starts in late November and it’s unsafe to enter any large shop as the never ending Christmas songs assail us: Last Christmas by Wham seems particularly ubiquitous this year. The liver damage starts around the 10th when the endless procession of compulsory social events begins. Then there’s the present buying – I’m very bad at this and just throw money at it when inspiration fails again. I would love to go away to somewhere remote but family imperatives rule and I am loth to desert my dogs. In some ways it’s almost worth all the hassle for that glorious feeling on Stephen’s Day when you wake up and realise that it’s over and you can look forward to an afternoon of racing and turkey sandwiches. (But the lurking awfulness of New Year’s Eve stops you getting too cocky.)

Repeal the 8th Amendment

I intend to absent myself from the forthcoming feeding frenzy around the repeal of the 8th Amendment. I’ve always been very queasy about the whole abortion issue and find the idea of marching for the right to terminate life (however flawed) both inglorious and inherently distasteful. But I am fully aware of the ugly pragmatics of abortion and am sure that if I found myself inconveniently pregnant I would do what I had to do despite the pricking of conscience and the bad taste. Therefore I feel it’s women’s right to choose and will leave them to it.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Montague Goes Back to UCC

Head Librarian of UCC John Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Wassell

An edited version of this piece appeared in the Irish Examiner on 29 November 2017.
A portrait of the poet John Montague by Northern artist Colin Davidson was unveiled in the UCC library on Wednesday 29 November in the presence of the Lord Mayor of Cork, the President of UCC and the CEO of Cork County Council. This is an account of how the painting of one of UCC’s best-loved and most influential English lecturers came about and how it ended up in its ideal location.

In April 2014 I drove to Bangor, Co. Down to interview the artist Colin Davidson for a profile I was writing for the Sunday Times. Colin has been in the news recently for a portrait of Queen Elizabeth and for his painting of Angela Merkel that appeared on the cover of Time magazine’s person of the year edition. At that stage, three years ago, Davidson was best-known for his portraits of the North's leading literary lights: Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, and Michael Longley amongst others. Having lunch with Davidson after the interview I asked why he had omitted the Tyrone-bred John Montague from his pantheon of painted poets. I had been an admirer and acquaintance of the poet since I first encountered him in UCC in the early Seventies. I remember him bringing a sexual dimension to Wordsworth's poetry that caused some fluttering in the dovecotes - especially in the serried ranks of nuns that filled the first two rows in the lecture hall. Montague found Wordsworth's Nutting a particularly juicy source of speculation. 

Through beds of matted fern, and tangled thickets,
Forcing my way, I came to one dear nook

More significantly, Montague was generous with his leisure time and often held court in Henchey’s pub in St. Luke’s. He inspired and encouraged a number of aspirant young poets including Thomas McCarthy, Sean Dunne, William Wall, Maurice Riordan and Theo Dorgan.

Davidson said he’d love to paint him but had difficulty getting hold of him as he was mostly out of the country. I offered to see what I could do to enable a sitting. Given Montague's age it was agreed that it should be sooner rather than later. He had been living in Nice for a number of years but I knew he returned every summer to his house in Ballydehob. I got his phone number and email address from Theo Dorgan and sent off a speculative email. A number of calls and emails ensued. Apart from a very brief word with Montague all of the dialogue was conducted with Elizabeth Wassell - his formidably protective third wife. There was a window of opportunity in late August 2014 when they were in Schull. The draughty house in Ballydehob had apparently been abandoned for the comforts of a hotel. 

Before the appointed day for the sitting I got a chance to see the great man in action one more time. An old UCC sparring partner, Eamon O'Donoghue, arranged to bring the poet over from his French base to do a reading during the Claregalway Garden Festival in July 2014. The bold Doctor O'Donoghue had bought and heroically refurbished an old Norman castle in the town and this was the venue for the reading. I met Montague beforehand. He was having a glass of white wine and some cheese in an anteroom. He looked frail but still retained that roguish twinkle. He's never been the greatest of readers, his mild stutter often intruding, so I was a bit apprehensive about how he might perform. It seemed good that he was taking the precaution of having a few glasses of wine beforehand for fortification purposes. I needn't have worried. Inspired perhaps by a very large audience, or the wine he continued to drink, he gave a fine robust reading - even cracking the odd joke. The last I saw of him was with his diminutive wife and the estimable poet Mary O'Malley who were supporting him on either side as they led him to the car that would take back to his Galway hotel.

A couple of months later, in August 2014, the portrait sitting happened in Grove House in Schull. Davidson was granted an hour during which he took photographs and did a number of preparatory sketches. The sitting went well according to the artist. Apparently the two Northern boys found common cause in their speech impediments - Davidson also has a mild and not unattractive stammer. I looked forward to seeing the end result. One dud note was sounded by Davidson about the encounter. Apparently Montague’s wife had insisted on sitting in - thereby inhibiting somewhat the rapport Davidson likes to build with his sitter. 

Following the completion of the portrait, Davidson invited me up to Bangor to check out the finished article. My daughter, who accompanied me, was well impressed with the portraits  of Ed Sheeran and Brad Pitt that lay about the studio. There amidst them on a easel was the painting of Montague. Colin who had only met him that once was eager to hear conformation that he had done him justice. His fears were groundless. He had captured perfectly that sardonic Montague expression and the inevitable twinkle in the eye. I was delighted with it and so subsequently, and more significantly, were Montague and his wife. Now the next job was to get somebody to buy it for UCC which seemed its ideal home.

I called to see the director of the Glucksman Fiona Kearney early in 2015. She said she would love to house it in the permanent collection but didn’t have the acquisitions budget to buy it. Not discouraged I decided to seek out a private individual to donate it to the college. Ideally it would be a UCC alumni who liked art and poetry and who recognised Montague’s contribution to the institution. I went first to the wealthiest member of my extended family who had studied at UCC, as had generations of his family before him. He told me, with regret, that he had been active lately in the property market and couldn’t help because of his “unimpressive liquidity”. I also drew a blank amongst my old CBC buddies who listened patiently but baulked at the asking price which seemed to confirm their feeling that art was a conspiracy against the laity. Time went by and sadly Montague died in December 2016 without seeing the work appropriately housed. However, at the funeral of a relation of mine in Wilton in early 2017 I ran into solicitor and art lover Michael O’Connell who suggested I contact Gerry Wrixon - former president of UCC. He apparently had been a friend and admirer of Montague’s. I also knew, from my time in Cork, that he was an avid art collector. I sent him a detailed email - enclosing an image of the piece. He responded quickly and generously and the deed was done. So now three years on, all legendary obstacles overcome, Montague’s sardonic smile and twinkling eye will be gazing benignly on the toiling undergraduates of the institution he graced for many years

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Death of Stalin - a brief review

Armando Iannucci has made a career out of taking the piss out of people in high places, as viewers of Veep and The Thick of It will attest. Therefore it came as no surprise that he was doing the same with the Death of Stalin. However, having read as much as I have about that brute and his creepy sidekick Beria, I couldn’t help feeling queasy about this film. Despite the impressive setting, the attention to detail around the uniforms etc., and the actual historical framework on which it was built, it still felt wrong to treat a subject as evil and destructive as Stalin in a humorous manner. He was responsible for millions more deaths than Hitler but can you imagine the fuss that would be generated if the Holocaust was treated thus. It was like watching Carry On Up the Kremlin. This impression was reinforced by seeing Paul Whitehouse as Mikoyan channel Kenneth Williams with his fixed sneer and gurning. It was also difficult to take seriously the incorrigibly mild Michael Palin as Molotov. Steve Buscemi as a very slim Khrushchev, and Simon Russell Beale as a very fat Beria were both superb. And a late appearance by Jason Isaacs as military hero Zhukov well-nigh stole the show. It was all very entertaining but for me it left a very bad aftertaste. Of course satire is to be encouraged where our ruling classes are concerned, when they’re alive – it may give them pause. But what’s the point, other than entertainment, of satirising the dead.  I would love to see that period of Russian history, with all its violence and manoeuvring, receive a dramatic rather than a comic treatment.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

RUA Annual Exhibition 2017


A slightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 22 October 2017. 

This review inspired some unexpected abuse on social media from a few people within the art community in the North. This was generalised name calling rather than complaints about specific content - surprisingly trite considering the sources. Particularly exercised was one whose profile photograph suggested a survivor of Franklin's ill-fated Arctic expedition. Can't imagine what got him going but there was a strong smell of injured merit. 

There was a time when the contemporary Irish art scene was dominated by artists from Northern Ireland. In the 1960s and later William Scott, Dan O’Neill, Norah McGuinness, George Campbell, Gerard Dillon, Arthur Armstrong, and Basil Blackshaw were familiar names to art lovers across the island. But things have gone quiet there. The ranks of the dead have been joined in recent years by Basil Blackshaw and prematurely by Willie McKeown following his suicide. These departures leave a dearth if you exclude Willie Doherty and Colin Davidson. Turner prize nominations and making the cover of Time magazine have moved them onto the international scene – neither are represented at the RUA’s annual showcase. The absence of any serious commercial galleries in Belfast hardly helps in the development of artistic careers in the North. Also, the continuing delay in finding a permanent home for the RUA must surely further hinder the aspirant artist. There is a proposed venue in Riddel’s Warehouse in Belfast but the project has not even reached the stage where a feasibility study can be carried out because of the absence of funding.  When you consider the wide range of artistic activities promoted and supported by the RHA in Dublin, you realise what the RUA could do with its own home. Perhaps someone needs to talk to Arlene Foster. In the absence of its own premises, the RUA continues its long and fruitful relationship with the Ulster Museum which houses its annual exhibition and facilitates many of the RUA’s activities.   In terms of a shop window, the RUA’s Annual Exhibition is thus an important event for local artists starved of commercial outlets.  It’s also an opportunity to take the temperature of the art scene north of the border and make some judgements about its health.

Last year was remarkable for the number of artists from the south that were showing but this year there are far fewer. Of the 371 exhibits, less than 20 are from the Republic. The logistics of submission is not the issue as the initial application requires only an electronic image. (Its supplicants thus avoid the annual Via Dolorosa trodden by artists whose work has been rejected by the RHA in Dublin. There an unsuccessful work  must be collected in a very public way at a circumscribed time.) There was a conscious effort to include more print work in this year’s RUA show so there is a bias towards print makers amongst the invited artists a number of whom are from the South.

The composition of the show tends heavily towards the figurative with three quarters of the paintings being either portraits or landscapes. While many of the landscapes fall into the worthy but unexciting category, there is more entertainment to be found amongst the portraits. These are generally looser in approach than academy portraits often are, although Carol Graham still embraces the old formal style. Her waxwork-like portrayal of Dr. Neill Morgan leeches all humanity out of that distinguished gentleman. William Nathan’s An Badoir takes the same formal approach to composition but adds life and character. Elsewhere there is much wit and quirkiness: Cristina Bunello’s precisely painted Becoming with its weird child wearing a wonderful patterned blouse; Michael Connolly’s haunting Saltwater Bride; and Gareth Reid’s large accomplished charcoal work Fallen Head. And while Cruft's may demur, I was much taken with Heidi Wickham's characterful Black Dog 1.

In a yearly show like this there are certain hardy annuals who will provide you with solid reliable examples in their immediately recognisable styles. This is no bad thing if you’re looking for a good-quality work typical of a particular artist. These include Brian Ferran nodding towards Klimt with his gilded abstractions;  Sophie Agajanian with her subtly lit, elegant compositions; Brian Ballard’s dark and intense landscapes and still lives; Michael Wann wielding the charcoal expertly to create his finely detailed trees; and Michael Canning with his portentous plants looming against an elegiac sky. Keith Wilson however surprises us by producing a piece of hard-edged abstraction alongside his customary soft-focus landscape. Another old stager to continue in good form was Neil Shawcross with his large painterly Envelope and Graham Gingles’s Glass Bird was a further addition to this artist’s cabinet of wonders. Elizabeth Magill’s Goat Song (above) was the painting that stood out for me when I viewed the show initially online. It’s still a fine piece in the flesh but I was disappointed in the scale – I had been expecting something larger to do justice to this dramatic composition. Angela Hackett contributed the atmospheric L'été à Nice, a work to keep you warm on a winter’s night. The style and technique employed by Anya Waterworth’s in Night Flight (1) suggests that she has not been uninfluenced by her distinguished father Basil Blackshaw.

You don’t expect much in the way of agit prop or politics in this show (Willie Doherty isn’t around) but Dermot Seymour can always be relied on for a contentious image. This time his beef is with Asahi, reminding us of  environmental issues  in his adopted Mayo. Adding to the gaiety of nations is Gavin Lavelle’s Pot of Eyes which you won’t pass without a smile. There is also an unusual work by Mick O’Dea. It features a pensive figure viewed from the back against a Rousseau-like profusion of trees and bushes

Sculpture and ceramics make up about 20% of the exhibits and there’s plenty of fine quality work. The first room features Mother and Child, Paddy Campbell’s competent but commonplace exercise in Carrara marble. It’s a classical subject but lacks the added twist you might expect from a contemporary artist. Elizabeth O’Kane’s Flow is a thing of simple, solid, beauty fashioned from blue Kilkenny limestone. I also admired Martin McLure’s Redoubt, a formidable construction in stoneware, Jay Battie’s Inner Circle, an immaculately crafted circle of slate, and Helen Merrigan-Colfer’s quirky Girl with the Birds Nest.    Print is well represented and Stephen Lawlor, one of Ireland’s best print makers, shows his considerable talents with the exquisite Was I Awake or Sleeping. Margo McNulty’s stark lithograph Curragh Camp also stands out. Others to note are Penny Brewill’s Unsuitable Pets, James McCreary’s curious Night Flying to Portlligat, and the very elegant Elegance by Anne Corry. It was also nice to see some fine examples of the neglected art of batik by Helen Kerr.

Of the photography exhibits Dominic Turner’s spare and poignant Seasonal Defeat was the most striking. Others of note were Bruce Marshall’s Portrait 1 featuring an ominous black bird and Saprophyte, a portrait of grotesque fungi; and Forest Dream a surreal staging by Ross McKelvey.   Crowding the small number of video and animation exhibits into one corner did them no favours as they contended noisily for your attention. You are distracted from experiencing fully the elegiac flavour of Caroline Wright’s Memorial to the Islanders. However, distraction was a blessed relief from Vince Ruvolo’s criminally tedious video Step Up. Notwithstanding the scenic backdrop (the Giant’s Causeway I suspect) this leaden exercise foundered miserably – its crassness compounded by how pleased the protagonist seemed to be with himself.  

In a show like this of nearly 400 works there is much that is worthy and predictable. This is not Frieze or Documenta, we don’t expect to experience the shock of the new or mercifully to encounter the outer extremes of conceptual claptrap. There’s plenty of good-quality, attractive work on view at very reasonable prices and here and there we do get a little jolt. David Crone’s Dark Plants is a striking semi-abstract study – one of the finest paintings in the show. A close contender was Diarmuid Delargy’s sinister Shark Study. Alison Lowry’s The Home Baby gives us pause as well. It clearly requires a more austere setting but its disturbing mise en scène still suggests dark doings.     

 John P. O’Sullivan
October 2017

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Yellow River at the Triskel

This review first appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 15 October 2017.    

 The Yellow River is a tributary of the Boyne which it  joins near Navan in Meath. It’s also the source of this collaboration between Seán McSweeney’s paintings and the poetry of Gerard Smyth. McSweeney and Smyth recently revisited this area where they had spent their childhoods. While Smyth has quibbled with the term “nostalgic” as applicable to the show, I’d defy anyone over a certain age with a rural background to view it without experiencing that bitter-sweet tug from the past. The restrained and evocative images by McSweeney in watercolour and egg tempera and the accessible accompanying poetry by Smyth (printed alongside on the gallery walls), bring to mind that land of “lost content” referred to in A. E. Housman’s poem, The Shropshire Lad:  “The happy highways where I went and cannot come again”. Those used to McSweeney’s dark expressive bogscapes will be surprised by the almost Japanese lightness and delicacy of many of these works. The Stations of the Cross layout of the Triskel, often a hindrance in displaying art, is ideal for this leisurely journey back to the joy and innocence of youth. Recommended.    

 John P. O'Sullivan      

Reflections on the Arc

If only all horse racing results were as predictable as this year’s Arc. In first place was Enable one of the best fillies of the modern era, albeit in a season where the colts were an average lot. (How would she have done against, for instance, Sea the Stars). She was followed home by Cloth of Stars trained by Arc specialist Andre Fabre – an Irish-bred colt by the aforementioned Sea the Stars. In third place was Ulysses, a good Group 2 horse in reality who struggles in good Group 1 races. In fourth was Order of St. George who ran a sound stayer’s race but lacked the speed to threaten these 12 furlong specialists. The only horse to really disappoint was Capri. He never got involved and his run was too bad to be true. Perhaps, like the illustrious Nijinsky, he hadn’t recovered from those recent exertions in the St. Leger. Although of course in Nijinsky’s case ringworm was an additional factor. Frankie Dettori gave Enable a great ride keeping him up with the pace and out of the scrimmaging that can happen in the Arc. The same can’t be said of Cloth of Stars (who I backed at 28-1) who was given way too much to do by Michael Barzalona. I’m not saying he would have won but he would have gone very close indeed. I suspect we’ll see him to good effect in the Breeder’s Cup – and perhaps next year. He’s very lightly raced.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Martin Dillon - Crossing the Line


  An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 1 October 2017.   

“Of all the British politicians I met, Sir Edward Heath was the most arrogant and obnoxious”.  So Martin Dillon tells us in his entertaining and illuminating memoir. When Dillon tried to break the ice before an interview by complimenting him on his art collection, Heath’s response was “what would you know about art?”  Dillon’s book is replete with colourful stories like this involving the politicians, terrorists, journalists, artists and writers he met when covering the conflict in Northern Ireland.  Readers of this book, and of Dillon’s other works, will concur with Conor Cruise O’Brien’s description of him as “our Virgil to that inferno”.

 Dillon made his name the hard way reporting on Northern Ireland  from both sides of the political divide. It’s a credit to his impartiality that both the IRA and the Loyalist gangs were out to get him. Such has been his prowess at uncovering unpalatable truths that he has been forced to move first to France and then to the USA where he now lives. He’s had a gun stuck in his mouth by John Bingham, a UVF commander; and was warned “if you cross me I’ll kill you” by Brendan Hughes of the IRA . Apart from his reportage from the front lines, he has written a number of books on the Northern troubles including The Shankill Butchers, a chilling account of the psychopath Lenny Murphy and his henchmen. Following the publication of his latest book I suspect that he has added to his list of enemies. BBC management, British Intelligence and certain members of his own family are all on the receiving end of Dillon’s articulate indignation.

 The first 70 pages or so deal with his upbringing on the Falls Road and the colourful cast of characters that constituted his extended family. He remarks more than once on the fact that three grand-uncles and a grand-aunt from the same family were gay. Not an easy thing to be in 50s Belfast and still not easy for some living relatives. One of these grand-uncles was the artist Gerard Dillon whom the author speaks of in the most sympathetic and affectionate terms. When Gerard Dillon died he left extensive diaries which were destroyed (perhaps by his sister Molly) and an archive which somehow disappeared after Dillon’s own father died. Not all the family were happy to have their homosexual members outed. He singles out the executors of his father’s will and his late great-aunt Molly for particular opprobrium.  He is also bitter about the acquisition of a treasure trove of Gerard Dillon’s paintings by the gallerist and dealer Leo Smith. The history of Irish art could do with an extended version of his story about how Smith with the connivance of James White (who valued the paintings) acquired these works for a pittance. The missing diaries and the elegant fraud perpetrated in valuing Gerard Dillon’s paintings still rankle with Dillon. 

 The latter two thirds of the book cover his time with the Irish News, the Belfast Telegraph, and especially the BBC. He hit the streets meeting terrorists, policemen, and intelligence agents, making his reports more authoritative than many of his desk-bound colleagues. He got to know most of the main players in the North including John Hume, whom he admired for his courage in initiating a  dialogue with the IRA, and Roy Bradford, the Unionist politician, who was best-man at one of his weddings.   His time at the BBC was full of incident. He criticises its reporting of the first Ulster Workers Council strike in 1974 when he felt the corporation was too reliant on press releases from the protagonists. Later on he was unhappy with its readiness to accept the British Government party line. He also gives us plenty of detail to support the widespread belief that the British were facilitating the activities of Loyalist terrorist squads and shines a light into the murky world of double-agents such as Freddie Scappaticci.

 One curious feature of the memoir is the fractured relationship with his twin Damian. You sense the  lingering guilt at somehow leaving him behind – literally in the case of his three-year period in a seminary.  “I also felt I betrayed my twin because we had been inseparable”. They lost touch completely for many years and their relationship was never rekindled. When they met after a 15-year gap, Damian, according to Dillon, pretended not to recognise him. Elsewhere he’s giving little away. His three marriages are covered in a few laconic sentences: “I subsequently divorced Mildred and married Catherine”.

 There’s much light relief away from the grimness of the Northern conflict. His story about Oxford, the stray cat he adopted will endear him to all pet lovers. He also enjoyed the company of many literary figures. He has an amusing account of a few days spent in the company of a hard-drinking Ben Kiely (above) and he also recounts an amiable meeting in Dublin with Denis Johnston and Sean O’Faolain. One writer who didn’t impress him was the recently deceased J. P. Donleavy. He recalled a visit to the writer’s home, Levington Park,  with Gavin Essler where it was clear the writer was unenthusiastic about their presence. “He was not obviously rude but he was overbearing”. Dillon’s book is so enjoyable that we’ll forgive him, but not his editors, for the odd typo such as: “deprived” for “depraved”, “ and for that tiresome use of “ironically” when it should be “coincidentally”.          

Merrion Press

 RRP: €18.99

 John P. O’Sullivan              

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Fascinating Arc Today


If you were to believe the bookies then Enable (above) is very likely to win the Arc today. She did me a big favour in the Oaks and then won the Irish Oaks and the King George in great style. We all like to see a great horse confirm its greatness and if she wins today she’ll be up there with Noblesse, Sweet Solera, Oh So Sharp and Treve. However, she’s a filly and they don’t have a great record in the rough and tumble of the Arc – plus she isn’t value for money at 11-10. I decided last week that Aidan O'Brien's Order of St. George at 10-1 was the value in the race. He was third last year, is a stayer on a tough course, and was hugely impressive last time out. But I’m taken aback by the fact that Ryan Moore (O’Brien’s stable jockey) has chosen to ride Winter instead of his stable companion. Winter has been racing mainly over a mile and occasionally 10 furlongs so it’s hard to see how she can be guaranteed to stay 12 furlongs on a tough course. Why Ryan why? Then there’s O’Brien’s other runner Capri who won the St. Leger in doughty fashion and who will certainly be staying on along with Order of St. George. He’s probably even better value at 22-1 and should be placed. The French runners are largely being ignored but I like the Prix Foy as a prep race and the first two in that Dschingis Secret and Cloth of Stars are available a fancy prices. The latter is trained by Andre Fabre who’s won the Arc seven times so I’d risk a saver on him at 28-1. But you know if Enable does win I won’t be surprised or disappointed. It’s a race for racing lovers to sit back and relish whatever the financial consequences.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Candidate


The first time I met John O’Mahony was in the autumn of 1970. I was sitting at a table in the Rest in UCC surrounded by my cronies. I was in Second Year and an established figure amongst the arty set, being involved in both the Dramat (the studen drama society) and  Aire, the student magazine. I had also been selected for the UCC tennis team that year. A made man in our little world. Our table was approached by this slightly agricultural figure in a black duffle-coat with a shock of dark dishevelled hair and a ruddy complexion.  I had never seen him before. “Are you Johnny Sullivan?” he asked me directly. “I am” I conceded, wondering what does uncouth fellow could want of me. “Didn’t you do English and Philosophy last year?” he continued. I agreed that was so. “Can I have your first year notes?”  the young pup had  the temerity to ask. I was so taken aback at the brazenness that I meekly agreed and arranged to meet up with him the next day.

 Thus began my relationship with John O’Mahony who died full of life earlier this year in New York. That opening encounter captured one of John’s abiding characteristics – the ability not to pussy foot about but go directly for  what he wanted. This had its down sides of course, especially where women were concerned, but it took him to many places a politer person would not have reached. In Cork, that most acidulous town, he quickly came to be called The Candidate – after the 1970 film of the same name about an upwardly mobile politician. To this day old acquaintances from Cork refer to him thus.

 He too got involved in the arts scene in UCC and we frequently coincided at theatrical events and the associated social occasions. We both liked drinking and carousing. He managed to alienate himself from the affections of many of his peers at UCC when he decided to piss in the corner of a mutual friend’s living room during a party. It wasn’t so much the pissing she resented as the fact that he splashed a couple of other attendees sitting nearby. Occasionally we may even have had a girl-friend or two in common but we studiously avoided getting into any discussions about that. We were always friends but never very close friends. I knew little about his background except that he was an only child from Bantry and that his mother had died when he was in his early teens.

 Our last UCC involvement came when we both happened to do the Higher Diploma in Education a few years after graduating. We decided that it would be wise to go after an honours diploma with the associated salary boost it gave teachers. To this end we collaborated in studying separate sections of the course and exchanging notes. It worked well and we both got honours but alas neither of us ever made use of this qualification. After UCC we drifted apart. I was on my travels with the oil-rigs and he was working as an arts officer mostly around Cork. 

 After I became tired of risking my life on  drilling platforms  I ran for cover with a software company in Dublin which was looking for technical English teachers to give introduction to computers classes for students from Sweden and Saudi Arabia. It was 1979 and It provided a timely introduction for me into the world of IT.  I flourished there for five years or so. John was going through a period of unemployment and I managed to fix him up with a job there as well. However, it only lasted a few months. We had an office close to Pearse Street Garda Station and would frequently head over to Bowe’s for a pint or two after work. And occasionally during work. John did like a pint in those days and one lunch time he drank not wisely but too well. His afternoon class of Saudi students took umbrage at the state of him (each class had an official representative) and complained to our manager – a woman with a highly-defined commercial streak. Notwithstanding the fact that it was a week before Christmas he was sacked on the spot. No ASTI for him – not even a second chance.

We went our separate ways for a number of years then. I was working abroad while John remained in Dublin where he had some loose association with the Windmill Lane Studios. There was an infamous incident around that time that may have hastened his ultimate departure to the USA. He managed to engineer his girl-friend at the time into a secretarial position at Windmill Lane. She was a pretty girl with a roving eye. This roving eye landed on a singer called Terence Trent D’Arby – a bit of a star at the time and a singularly good-looking lad. She ditched John and took up with the glamorous Terence. John was incensed by this ingratitude and on encountering her in a Dublin night-club he gave her a slap. He was very drunk at the time but this unforgivable behaviour burnt all bridges to the local arts and music scene. So our bould hero hied himself off to New York. 

 He started life with the Irish Echo in New York but soon graduated (if that’s the word) to  the New York Post where he thrived. I visited New York a lot I those days and we’d hook up. His journalist credentials got us into places like the Soho Tavern and other fashionable spots. However he preferred the sleazier side of town. Billy’s Topless, Hogs and Heifer’s and that fine old Bowery bar Milano’s were our favourite haunts. John was always a bit erratic when he drank – especially when he started on the shots. A contrary, insinuating side could emerge. I remember the waitresses in Hogs and Heifers having him kicked out for excessive lip one night. He also committed the awful social solecism of hitting on one of the strippers in Billy’s Topless. Having plied her with dollar bills during her act he followed her over to the bar during the break and tried to get her to go on a date with him. The woman, a professional rebuffer was having none of it but discouraged him gently. God loves a trier.

 Then out of the blue he married an extraordinarily fat girl who was a colleague on the New York Post. This eventually turned out not to have been a good move. However there was a fine wedding in New York culminating in a pipe band from the NYPD escorting them down 5th Avenue. His wife was from California and after an abortive pub venture in upstate New York they headed west to Venice, CA – where they bought property a few minutes from Venice Beach. Things rested so for a number of years. The fat girl slimmed down and set about getting tattoos all over her new body. John was now working for the Bloomberg organisation and getting along fine. A few years ago it all fell apart. The wife fell in love with her tattoo artist and left him – there was some nasty financial fallout  from all this but over time they seem to have arrived at an amiable settlement. John however was never really a Californian so he headed back tout suit to his beloved New York – where he still had his nice rent-controlled apartment.

 Over the years he had health problems. He underwent a major heart bypass operation in the mid-80s. This left with a long scar from neck to navel but otherwise he recovered well and was soon back carousing. Then two years ago he called me for advice about the prostate cancer he had just been diagnosed with. A friend of mine and my brother-in-law had both been similarly afflicted but had come through the operation and resumed their lives in reasonable nick. I hooked him up with both of them and this gave him the data on which to make a decision. Prostate operations frequently offer you the Hobson’s choice of compromised waterworks or compromised erectile function. Being John, he took himself off to Thailand for a month to indulge his carnal side before his ability to do so was impaired. He returned from Thailand and had the operation which was reasonable successful.

 We communicated regularly over Skype for the past few years and we had dinner in Dublin twice in 2016, and went to see Juno and the Paycock. He also sent me a script he'd written for a super hero saga he hoped to have accepted for a pilot TV show. It's not my genre but it seemed pretty good to me and I sent him back some positive comments. My last contact with him was in early December 2016 when he had returned from a very lively holiday in Mexico. He included a YouTube link to demonstrate the carousing he had indulged in down there. Early in the New Year he had a fatal heart attack during a morning yoga class in New York and died surrounded by a crowd of sympathetic women in leotards. A somehow fitting end.      

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Brendan Earley - Back of Beyond

An edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times culture magazine on 27 August 2017

Brendan Earley operates in the rarified world of art fairs (Art Basel Hong Kong, NADA Miami) with occasional appearances in Irish museums and at Mother’s Tankstation - the mothership for his international ventures. Given the avant-garde nature of much of the work you encounter in this milieu you could be forgiven for wondering if this exhibition is a post-modern exercise in thwarting conventional expectations. The Douglas Hyde web site tells us the show runs from 28 July to 30 September and that it can be viewed in Gallery 2 and the Freeman Library. Visiting it on 21 August I was informed that the Freeman Library was closed until 4 September. Also, the exhibition is promoted with a photograph of Earley’s entitled Back of Beyond which doesn’t feature in the eponymous show. Apart from River Return that lurked unseen in the locked library, the show consists of four minimal drawings on paper of Sixties musicians in sylvan settings and a larger installation using ink on silk. The latter featured Gay and Terry Woods posed appositely amongst the trees beneath a purple parasol. Strangely strange.

Douglas Hyde Gallery
John P. O'Sullivan

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Review of Valiant Gentlemen by Sabina Murray

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine 0n 20 August 2017.

The tragic trajectory of Roger Casement’s life – from humanitarian hero to death on the gallows –  continues to engage historians and novelists. Following Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2012 novel The Dream of the Celt that focused on Casement’s last days in Pentonville Prison, Sabina Murray brings us a more rounded portrait of this intriguing character. Her entertaining and historically persuasive novel blends the personal with the political through his relationships with two friends: Herbert Ward (in photo on left with Casement) and Sarita Sanford-Ward, and a host of contemporary characters. Ward was a famous explorer, writer and sculptor who travelled in the Congo with Casement and became a close friend. Sarita was an Argentinian-American heiress who married Ward and who welcomed Casement into their extended family. 

Murray’s novel borrows and tellingly makes plural the title of Sarita’s 1927 biography of her husband:  Herbert Ward: A Valiant Gentleman. Casement’s unspoken love for Ward is a recurring motif. Only occasionally is it made explicit: “Ward leaned right against Casement’s chest and Casement feels that hope – a mistaken drunken hope – flickering in his heart”. Their friendship was so strong that Ward named one of his sons after him – only to change it by deed poll when Casement was disgraced. Their gradual growing apart began when Casement’s interest in colonial abuse shifted from Africa and the Amazon to Ireland and the final break occurred when Ward heard of Casement’s recruiting activities in Germany.

Murray has stated that “historical fiction distinguishes itself by occupying a culture rendered alien to the reader through passage of time”. Her novel certain fulfils this prescription in transporting us back to the multiple milieus in which Casement and his friends operated. We follow their exploits from the Congo, to New York, London, Cape Town, Paris, Putumayo, Berlin, and there’s even an interlude on Inishmaan where Casement enjoys a pint. Murray displays a deft touch in managing harmoniously these abrupt shifts in locale and time. We are never confused as to where we are and with whom. This is a human all to human Casement. He’s Roddie to his friends (as he was in real life) and we follow the mundanities of his daily round, his eating and drinking habits (he likes a gin and tonic) as well as his excursions to Turkish baths and his adventures in New York bars. 

Murray, like Llosa before her, and most historians, clearly accepts that the Black Diaries were genuine. This is a debate that is still running however and as recently as 2012 the historian Angus Mitchell maintained that they were the result of a carefully managed smear campaign by British intelligence. Whether forgeries or not their judicious leaking had the desired effect. It assured in the short term that petitions for mercy could be ignored and in the long term it was designed to tarnish the legacy of a dedicated enemy of colonialism. The Daily Express of the day referred to him as a “pathic” and a  “moral degenerate”. Murray takes a benign view of all this with the sexual interludes depicted as victimless aspects of daily life. This attitude is confirmed by her employment of the quaint contemporary term “musical” as a synonym for gay.

While the three main characters dominate the action Murray draws in a multitude of historical figures as bit players, with a few tart judgements appended. We meet Joseph Conrad in the Congo, John Devoy in New York (Murray has a dig at the armchair Republican), John MacBride, and the indomitable Alice Stopford Green (an early influence on Casement’s burgeoning Republicanism). We are also introduced to the Irish whiskey heir James Jameson who connives in cannibalism to provide a subject for his watercolours.

Sarita emerges as the most sympathetic character of the three protagonists. The only one who is clear-eyed about her motives and consistent in her allegiances. The Casement we meet  is far from the tortured soul we might imagine from our history. Murray restores his humanity depicting a warm, personable, albeit conflicted man. We encounter him at play with the Ward children and trekking with his beloved dogs. He is at home in hammocks and in chateaux, eating bush rat and veal cutlets, socialising with lords, plutocrats and semi-naked natives. His conflicts arise from his homosexuality (a serious crime at the time) and from his slowly emerging sense that the natives in Ireland are also suffering subjugation and abuse at he hands of their colonial masters, his erstwhile employers.       

 Grove Press UK

 PP 490

 John P. O’Sullivan      

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Rancid Ruminations - August 2017

Heartless Brutes

Writing, whether it's high culture or low journalism, can be a thankless pursuit. Your precious foostering with words and romantic quests for the mot juste are a matter of some indifference to most readers, and alas to many editors. A couple of weeks ago I did a small piece on Nick Miller's fine show in the Catherine Hammond Gallery. The show was called Nature Morte featuring still lifes of flowers. In reviewing it I referred to  "daffodils that haste away so soon" - a not terribly original allusion to Robert Herrick's well known poem (Fair daffodils we weep to see you haste away so soon). A judicious sub-editor in London was having none of it. For him (or her) grammar trumped poetic allusion and my words were amended to the prosaic "daffodils that hasten away so soon". While this hasn't runined my life, it certainly cast a pall over most of that Sunday.

Off the Hook

Newstalk eh - it just gets worse. If it weren't for Pat Kenny I doubt if I'd ever listen to it. The problem is I forget to turn it off after Pat and thus am regularly exposed to George Hook. How can such a thing be? I suspect that after years of riding his hobby-horses over vigorously his brains have become scrambled. His dangerous nonsense about the HPV vaccine is only the latest manifestation of a less than noble mind o'erthrown. He should take his Blueshirt/Pres boy shtick and retire to the corner of the Briar Rose where he can harumph away harmlessly. And he's not even the worst of them. That creature Paul Williams on the Breakfast show clearly loves the Gardai, clearly hates all cyclists, and generally brings his prejudices and a vulgar tabloid sensibility to everything he touches. Shane Coleman isn't too bad - a tad conventional perhaps but a pro. Chris Donoghue's heart is afixed to his sleeve - a little more objectivity lad and don't take the water charges so personally. Sarah McInerney seems to lack the substance required for a heavy news slot (listen to Jeffrey Donaldson run rings around her). Bobby Kerr is harmless but boring. Ivan Yates is a stone philistine and is only interesting when he's talking about Irish politics and occasionally horses. I know that Denis O'Brien loves soccer but there's way too much emphasis on the Premier League in England on Off the Ball. Every English-based journeyman who has ever played for Ireland is brought on to hold forth ad nauseum about fuck all - often in a semi-penetrable accent. People often cite Moncrieff as being a good deed in this naughty world but I don't buy it. His over-reliance on quirky scatological items is a bit schoolboyish and check out how snippy he gets if you text in something critical.     

Tipp Toppled 

The summer of course is now over for me after Tipp's defeat by Galway the weekend before last. It was, remarkably, the third one point margin semi-final in a row between these teams. They are well matched opponents, Galway's physicality countering Tipp's skill. This time the stakes were high as instead of Kilkenny awaiting the victors you had a limited Waterford or an inexperienced Cork. Callanan had been injured and I suspect his off day from the dead ball may have been related. Also, the tubby, self-important prick who reffed (Barry Kelly) gave Galway 17 frees to Tipp's 8 - a crucial factor. So it was hard to take. Could have gone either way if only if only etc. Put your house and your children's school fees on Galway to win the final. (I had a substantial bet on Galway to beat Tipp at 10/11.)  

Things Fall Apart

I have been on the road for much of the summer - in California for 3 weeks, in west Cork for 2 weeks, and over in Clare for a while. A litany of ailments has assailed me on my travels. In California I got a vicious attack of bursitis - a malady with which I was unfamiliar. My right elbow swelled up and became extremely painful - the slighest touch was agony and sleep was difficult. Drink deadened it occasionally but there was a double indemnity to pay next day. A kindly old buffer of a doctor in Santa Barbara eventually killed it with antibiotics and deadened it the while with pain-killers but it blighted my stay. Next up I went down to Bantry for the literary festival where I was performing with John Kelly and attending many of the events. I felt a few twinges in my foot on the way down but blamed it on a walk on Killiney Beach which can be rough and rocky when the tide is in. However it got worse and having to change gear (using the clutch) became a chore. I limped sadly around Bantry for a few days, drove on to Allihies for my wife's exhibition opening, and eventually made it back to Dublin in abject agony. I had to stop for pain-killers on the way back and next morning got my ass into A&E in St. Michael's Dun Laoghaire. (Early Sunday morning is an excellent time to go to A&E).  I explained my Killiney Beach theory to the skeptical doctor and nurses and they dutifully sent me for an X-ray and blood tests. The results of the X-ray showed no physical damage but the blood test clearly indicated gout according to my youthful and very competent Indian doctor. He gave me a prescription for tablets that would be immediately effacacious and told me to see my GP as well. My GP was cool. He had it himself a couple of times and said that I could forget all this nonsense about lifestyle changes and red wine. Here's a prescription he said, just take a few of these if you get it again and it'll be gone in a day or two. We're not finished yet. One of my daughters got me a birthday present of a massage in July. I like a head massage, a foot massage or even a gentle back massage. I also prefer if the masseuse is a female - I just feel more comfortable in that scenario, don't bother analysing it. I dutifully headed off to the venue which was reached through a side door between a pub and a hardware store (somewhere on the South Side). I am used to sweet smelling saloons with lots of smiling girls and a comfortingly oriental vibe. This smelled of sweat and embrocation. I found myself in a small room with a chunky little man with a vaguely East-European accent. Initially I attempted to weasel out of it by telling him about my back problems (that lifting my neighbour episode) but he said he'd go easy on me. He didn't. After about 3 minutes I felt a sharp pain in rib that has been with me ever since. Back to St. Michael's where X-rays revealed that while no ribs were broken, one was cracked. More pain-killers and a big patch on the afflicted area. So I'm off to Schull tomorrow with my lingering back problem, my cracked rib, my subsiding big toe, and an elbow that still reminds me off California. Hey ho. I am clearly disintegrating.    

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Review of: Anne Madden: Colours of the Wind - Ariadne's Thread

An edited version of this piece was published in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 13 August 2017.  

 As the muse of Louis le Brocquy, Anne Madden’s place in Irish art history is secure. The permanence  of her reputation as an artist only time will tell. Her work has tended towards the decorative – with a penchant for large scale paintings often in dramatic colours such as cerise, magenta and orange. These are pleasing enough on the eye but somehow lacking that visceral or radiant element that constitutes the real thing. Her current show in the Hugh Lane illustrates her shortcomings. The myth of Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur is a dark and bloody tale of sacrifice, lust and betrayal. Its essence is hardly conveyed by a show that consists of an array of candy-coloured panels, a few cosmic streamers, and some dark intimations conveyed by a brace of horned heads. The painting entitled The Labyrinth (above) is a particularly weakly executed piece lacking both geometry and poetry. The gaudy rhetoric of these works seems unlikely to lead us to “a deeper understanding of the nature of existence” which is the artists’s aim according to her blurb writer. It also begs the question as to whether the show merits three large rooms in one of our major art museums.    

 Dublin City Gallery    The Hugh Lane

John P. O'Sullivan 

Monday, August 07, 2017

Nature Morte - Nick Miller

An edited version (sabotaging the Herrick allusion) of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 30 July 2017.    

The title of Nick Miller’s impressive and expressive new show in Skibbereen can be translated as “still life”. However, the French term “nature morte” carries a resonance confirming that mortality is the issue here. The paintings were inspired by a long-term creative project at Sligo’s North West Hospice and by his mother’s terminal illness. He used a selection of her vases and other vessels to add a personal dimension to the universal truth implicit in the work. The flowers are on the turn, some petals strewn around the bases, but we still see the glory of what they were. They present to us intimations of mortality and a poignant reminder of the transitory beauty of this world. The varities chosen represent the changing of the seasons: the hazel, the honeysuckle, the blackthorn and the fair daffodils that haste away so soon. The paintings have an energy and immediacy that come from being painted at one sitting. The artist is determined to seize the time – tomorrow may be too late.

Catherine Hammond Gallery

 John P. O'Sullivan

Monday, July 24, 2017

Ana Maria Pacheco

An edited version of this piece was published in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 23 July 2017.     

Ana Maria Pacheco is a Brazilian artist who moved to London over 40 years ago when her homeland was ruled by a military dictatorship. She is the first non-European artist to become an Associate Artist at the National Gallery. This auspicious show, her first in the Republic of Ireland, is dominated by the sculptural installation Dark Night of the Soul. It’s a depiction of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, no doubt influenced by her immersion in Renaissance art at the National Gallery, especially the painting of the same subject by Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo. It also has echoes of the painted wooden sculptures of Antonio Francisco Lisboa from her native land. This dramatic work consists of nineteen life-sized polychrome wooden sculptures showing the naked saint pierced by arrows surrounded by brutal enforcers and grieving women.The black mask covering the victim’s head has a contemporary resonance - suggesting Abu Ghraib and and the continuing appetite for inflicting pain and humiliation on those from whom we differ.   

 Festival Gallery,  Galway  

 John P. O'Sullivan

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Vivienne Dick at IMMA


This review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 25 June 2017.

Dick has been described as the “quintessential No Wave filmmaker”. This will be seen as a
compliment in some quarters and an indictment in others. No Wave was punk with added dissonance and nihilism. These days the Donegal-born erstwhile darling of the New York avant garde is lecturing on film in the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology. The show is a survey of her work from her Super-8 beginnings in 1978 to Augenblick, a new piece filmed in 2017. Although the production values have improved over the years, as have the visual aesthetics, the concerns remain the same: social and sexual politics, street life, and the history of ideas. Despite a faint whiff of didacticism the films succeed in being both entertaining and thought-provoking. Dick’s work is presented  alongside photographs by Nan Goldin – a fellow-traveller in her No Wave days. There’s a resonant early image of Dick as wide-eyed ingenue sitting next to Trixie, one of the undead from the New York club scene.

Irish Museum of Modern Art

John P. O'Sullivan

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

John Shinnors - New Paintings


This review appeared originally in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 11 June 2017. 

 John Shinnors, the Chiaroscuro Kid, is back in town after a lengthy hiatus following a serious car accident.  He has rounded up his customary entourage of animals for our delectation. His fondness for Friesians, ideal subjects for exercises in light and shade, is again in evidence and there are a number of nocturnal creatures lurking in the shadows. There are assorted cats, a badger, and a fox rapidly exiting the picture as foxes do. His familiar motifs of lighthouse and scarecrow are also employed, warnings for the unwary that there’s danger out there. You can have fun identifying the figurative elements within these ostensibly abstract paintings. His Figure at a Bustop is the most overtly sinister piece, featuring a dark silhouette against the blood-red vertical of the signpost. Thirty years after his first solo show in Dublin, Shinnors continues to be a distinctive and original voice with his unique blend of the playful and the eerily portentous.            

 Taylor Galleries
 Dublin 2  

 John P. O'Sullivan
 June 2017

Thursday, June 08, 2017

De Profundis


I would like to issue an apology to all logophiles and finely tuned aesthetes who were offended by a piece I wrote in the current (summer) edition of the Irish Arts Review. In my review of the photographer John Minihan’s work in the Under the Hammer section there is a reference to his infamous photograph of the young Diana Spencer in a “transparent dress”. The dress of course was “translucent” and not transparent. To state it was the latter is to infer that the sainted Diana was parading around brazenly in a see-through dress – a profound calumny on the blameless ingenue. A writer struggles daily for the mot juste – the exactly apposite word. In the context, translucent was that word. Transparent is a semi-synonym that just won’t do.         

John P. O'Sullivan

June 2017

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Barrie Cooke - Works from the Studio


This review first appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 4 June 2017.

The National Gallery showed good judgement in purchasing Big Hot Tub from Barrie Cooke’s current show at the Oliver Sears Gallery. Not alone has it got a signature painting by a major artist, but it has also acquired a depiction of another distinguished figure in Irish art, Camille Souter. She was a friend of Cooke’s and the inspiration for the nude emerging from the tub. The works in the show are from his studio (from which apparently more paintings will emerge next year) and compromise a mini-retropsective – spanning his career from 1960 to 2008. The quality and diverse range of the work will come as a pleasant surprise to many Cooke admirers who had grown disenchanted with his late career obsession with rock snot and pollution. There’s a glowering Sheela-na-Gig from 1960 that emanates primitive energy, a number of intimate nudes and some evocative water colours from a visit he made to South Africa in 2007. 

Oliver Sears Gallery
Dublin 2
John P. O'Sullivan 

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

John Gibbons - The Messengers

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 28 May 2017.

The London-based Irish sculptor John Gibbons has described art as “a radiator for the soul”.  Despite its overtly contemporary feel, his latest exhibition makes this metaphor explicit with an array of highly-worked stainless steel sculptures laden with religious suggestiveness. These religious allusions are sometimes obvious as in Cross and elsewhere are confirmed by titles containing terms such as Temple Bell and Basilica. Messenger/Announce (above) brings to mind an antique reliquary and there are indeed relics woven into a couple of pieces in the show. But these are art relics.  Gibbons inherited a store of scrap metal from the great American Abstract Expressionist David Smith and he has incorporated pieces from this sacred hoard into his work  – the subtly different gauge reveals the artful homage. A couple of writhing ink and acrylic drawings on Melinex confirm his Abstract Expressionist affinities. Gibbons has an international reputation with work in Tate London and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona. This outstanding show demonstrates how he has earned it.

Hillsboro Fine Art
John P. O'Sullivan 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

OJ - Made In America

We’ve all had enough of OJ Simpson and his deeply unattractive personality so it took an effort of  will for me to begin watching Ezra  Edelman’s 7 ½ hour documentary on his rise and fall, and the racial politics of his times. It had received laudatory reviews so I thought I'd check it out despite my reservations. It turned out to be as good a documentary as I've ever seen. The only other contender is Shoah, but the greater significance and grim import of that horrifying saga about the Holacaust places in a different category to this extravagant and enthralling drama of a fallen football star. 

The documentary opens with copious footage of his football prowess. I had never realised what a virtuoso he was. He was a running back but not one who caught long throws from the quarter back. Simpson was useless at fielding. His forte was lateral dodging and weaving against packed defences in restricted space. We saw him win games single-handed from impossible positions. For the first time I understood the subsequent fuss and the undying admiration of grown men. He was the Brian O’Driscoll or Henry Sheflin of American Football*.

*(My more sensitive friends objected to my clumsy and oxymoronic juxtaposing of  "grid-iron" and "sphere" as a synonym for American Football so I have reverted to the simpler term.)

 He retired early to follow his Hollywood dreams and it was pretty much all downhill from there (although financially rewarding) as he made crappy movies and moved to Brentwood to become a white man. The films format is basically extensive footage, including home movies and newsreel accompanied by a chorus of friends, former friends, victims’ families, lawyers and police. We are not spared the gory crime scene and forensic details.

We trace the early relationship with Nicole and her regular returns to him despite numerous brutal beatings. We also are shown the complicit tolerance of the local police to whom he was a friend and a hero. Ron Goldman, the collateral damage in the whole bloody affair, receives deserved focus in the coverage – mainly through his still suffering father.  The farce that was the trial is covered in detail and we see precisely how it became a trial of racism in the police department rather than a trial of Simpson for murder. The evidence against him was overwhelming. The trial was held in downtown LA, rather than Brentwood, which meant that the jury was stacked with under-educated black women who had time on their hands – and who, more significantly, were all too aware of the attitude of local police to the black community. The weakness of Judge Ito meant the whole process was dominated by the high-powered collection of legal sleaze bags referred to as “the dream team”. Ito allowed Johnny Cochran with his fancy ties and the cunning F. Lee Bailey to run the show. The wretched Dearden for the prosecution was chewed up by their machinations. The infamous glove incident being the most telling example. Simpson had deliberately stopped taking arthritis medication so his hands swelled and was also wearing a surgical glove to prevent contamination. A stone farce.

 A telling statistic about the trail was that 70% of white people believed Simpson guilty while 70% of black people believed him innocent. Feelings were so high that it became clear that a guilty verdict would have caused serious rioting in LA. An irony considering Simpson’s life-long failure to endorse any kind of black political initiatives. He saw himself as an honorary white man. Once free Simpson took to golf and partying with gusto. His sense of entitlement did for him in the end as he pursued some petty dealers in his memorabilia. The use of a gun to detain some of these wretches in an hotel room meant that he got 33 years for kidnapping rather than 6 months or so for a minor misdemeanour. Poetic justice of course.  

 It was an ESPN production that showed on BBC4 so to watch it you either need access to the BBC iPlayer or VPN software to access ESPN in the USA.             

Friday, May 12, 2017

As Above, So Below







An Edited version of this appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 30 April 2017. 
It’s in our nature occasionally to lift our snouts from the trough, look upwards, and ask ourselves Captain Boyle’s deathless question: “what is the stars?” As Above, So Below aims to stimulate this spiritual questing through the work of 40 artists, ranging from Hilma af Klint to Bruce Nauman. The title of the show is taken from the opening lines of the Hermetica, one of the key texts of occultism. The dark side is explored by number of the artists (including Kenneth Anger and Cameron) who claim allegiance to the Great Beast Aleister Crowley. Patrick Pye’s stagey Old Testament scenes (with their faint whiff of El Greco) may inspire no great feelings of awe in these secular times but few will not be moved by Grace Weir’s superb In Parallel - a 20 minute video concerning Euclid’s Elements. This illustrated geometry lesson is accompanied by philosophical ruminations on man’s repudiation of nature in favour of abstraction. Give yourself time to explore this exhibition – it’s a hugely entertaining and frequently thought-provoking magical mystery tour.   Irish Museum of Modern Art   John P. O'Sullivan.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The McCanns and Anne Enright

In recent times I have have not had that show of love from the Irish Times Letters page as I was wont to have. I have included a recently rejected offering below. In praising a piece by Kathy Sheridan on the press abuse suffered by the unfortunate McCanns I added an example closer to home. I hope the august but lately rather limp organ wasn't trying to protect a sainted literary figure. Perhaps my prose lacked sparkle or my argument was mundane. For I'm sure Ms. Enright can handle a mild rebuke.
Dear Sir,
In Kathy Sheridan’s excellent piece on the hounding of the McCann family (Madeline McCann: the Stolen Decade – Irish Times 29 April 2017) by online trolls and the tabloids, she omits to mention an example closer to home. In the London Review of Books (4 Oct 2007) our own Anne Enright wrote a lengthy Diary piece stating that “Guilt and denial are the emotions we smell off Gerry and Kate McCann”. She also throws in rumours of wife-swapping and a ‘joke’ about Kate McCann having “done a Shipman” on her patients. 

John P. O'Sullivan.
See relevant LRB article:

For those who can't penetrate the LRB firewall (it does offer limited free access for one-off articles) here's Anne Enright's text:

Anne Enright

It is very difficult to kill a child by giving it sedatives, even if killing it is what you might want to do. I asked a doctor about this, one who is also a mother. It was a casual, not a professional conversation, but like every other parent in the Western world, she had thought the whole business through. She said that most of the sedatives used on children are over-the-counter antihistamines, like the travel sickness pills that knocked me and my daughter out on an overnight ferry to France recently. It would also be difficult, she told me, to give a lethal dose of prescription sleeping tablets, which these days are usually valium or valium derivatives, ‘unless the child ate the whole packet’. If the child did so, the short-term result would not be death but a coma. Nor could she think of any way such an overdose would lead to blood loss, unless the child vomited blood, which she thought highly unlikely. She said it was possible that doctors sedated their children more than people in other professions but that, even when she thought it might be a good idea (during a transatlantic flight, for example), she herself had never done so, being afraid that they would have a ‘paradoxical rage reaction’ – which is the medical term for waking up half out-of-it and tearing the plane apart.
I thought I had had one of those myself, in a deeply regretted incident at breakfast on the same ferry when my little son would not let me have a bite of his croissant and I ripped the damn pastry up and threw it on the floor. She said that no, the medical term for that was a ‘drug hangover’, or perhaps it was just the fact that an overnight ferry was not the best place to begin a diet. We then considered the holidays with children that we have known.
How much do doctors drink? ‘Lots,’ she said. Why are the McCanns saying they didn’t sedate the child? ‘Why do you think?’ Besides, it was completely possible that the child had been sedated and also abducted – which was a sudden solution to a problem I did not even know I had: namely, if the girl in the pink pyjamas was being carried off by a stranger, why did she not scream? Sedation had also been a solution to the earlier problem of: how could they leave their children to sleep unprotected, even from their own dreams?
But sedation was not the final answer, after all.
If someone else is found to have taken Madeleine McCann – as may well be the case – it will show that the ordinary life of an ordinary family cannot survive the suspicious scrutiny of millions.
In one – completely unverified – account of her interrogation, Kate McCann is said to have responded to the accusation that the cadaver dog had picked up the ‘scent of death’ on her clothes by saying that she had been in contact with six dead patients in the weeks before she came on holiday. My doctor friend doubted this could be true of a part-time GP, unless, we joked, she had ‘done a Shipman’ on them. Then, of course, we had to row back, strenuously, and say that even if something had happened between mother and child, or between father and child, in that apartment, even if the child just fell, then Kate McCann was still the most unfortunate woman you could ever lay eyes on.
And we are obliged to lay eyes on her all the time. This makes harridans of us all.
The move from unease, through rumour, to mass murder took no time flat. During the white heat of media allegations against Madeleine’s parents, my husband came up the stairs to say that they’d all been wife-swapping – that was why the other diners corroborated the McCanns’ account of the evening. This, while I was busy measuring the distance from the McCanns’ holiday apartment down the road to the church on Google Earth (0.2 miles). I said they couldn’t have been wife-swapping, because one of the wives had brought her mother along.
‘Hmmmm,’ he said.
I checked the route to the open roadworks by the church, past a car park and a walled apartment complex, and I thought how easy it would be to carry my four-year-old son that distance. I had done that and more in Tenerife, when he decided against walking. Of course he was a live and not a dead weight, but still, he is a big boy. Too big to fit into the spare-tyre well of a car, as my father pointed out to me later, when it seemed like the whole world was figuring out the best way to kill a child.
‘She was only a slip of a thing,’ I said.
I did not say that the body might have been made more pliable by decomposition. And I had physically to resist the urge to go out to my own car and open the boot to check (get in there now, sweetheart, and curl up into a ball). Then, as if to pass the blame back where it belonged, I repeated my argument that if there is 88 per cent accurate DNA from partly decomposed bodily fluids found under the carpet of the boot of the hired car, then these people had better fly home quick and get themselves another PR company.
Who needs a cadaver dog when you have me? In August, the sudden conviction that the McCanns ‘did it’ swept over our own family holiday in a peculiar hallelujah. Of course they had. It made a lot more sense to me than their leaving the children to sleep alone.
I realise that I am more afraid of murdering my children than I am of losing them to a random act of abduction. I have an unhealthy trust of strangers. Maybe I should believe in myself more, and in the world less, because, despite the fact that I am one of the most dangerous people my children know, I keep them close by me. I don’t let them out of my sight. I shout in the supermarket, from aisle to aisle. I do this not just because some dark and nameless event will overtake them before the checkout, but also because they are not yet competent in the world. You see? I am the very opposite of the McCanns.
Distancing yourself from the McCanns is a recent but potent form of magic. It keeps our children safe. Disliking the McCanns is an international sport. You might think the comments on the internet are filled with hatred, but hate pulls the object close; what I see instead is dislike – an uneasy, unsettled, relentlessly petty emotion. It is not that we blame them – if they can be judged, then they can also be forgiven. No, we just dislike them for whatever it is that nags at us. We do not forgive them the stupid stuff, like wearing ribbons, or going jogging the next day, or holding hands on the way into Mass.
I disliked the McCanns earlier than most people (I’m not proud of it). I thought I was angry with them for leaving their children alone. In fact, I was angry at their failure to accept that their daughter was probably dead. I wanted them to grieve, which is to say to go away. In this, I am as bad as people who complain that ‘she does not cry.’
On 25 May, in their first television interview, given to Sky News, Gerry McCann spoke a little about grief, as he talked about the twins. ‘We’ve got to be strong for them, you know, they’re here, they do bring you back to earth, and we cannot, you know, grieve one. We did grieve, of course we grieved, but ultimately we need to be in control so that we can influence and help in any way possible, not just Sean and Amelie, but the investigation.’
Most of the animosity against the McCanns centres on the figure of Madeleine’s beautiful mother. I am otherwise inclined. I find Gerry McCann’s need to ‘influence the investigation’ more provoking than her flat sadness, or the very occasional glimpse of a wounded narcissism that flecks her public appearances. I have never objected to good-looking women. My personal jury is out on the issue of narcissism in general; her daughter’s strong relationship with the camera lens causes us a number of emotions, but the last of them is always sorrow and pain.
The McCanns feel guilty. They are in denial. They left their children alone. They cannot accept that their daughter might be dead. Guilt and denial are the emotions we smell off Gerry and Kate McCann, and they madden us.
I, for example, search for interviews with them, late at night, on YouTube. There is so much rumour; I listen to their words because they are real, because these words actually did happen, one after the other. The focus of my ‘dislike’ is the language that Gerry McCann uses; his talk of ‘information technology’ and ‘control’, his need to ‘look forward’.
‘Is there a lesson here, do you feel, to other parents?’
‘I think that’s a very difficult thing to say, because, if you look at it, and we try to rationalise things in our head and, ultimately, what is done is done, and we continually look forward. We have tried to put it into some kind of perspective for ourselves.’
He lays a halting and agonised emphasis on the phrase ‘what is done is done,’ and, at three in the morning, all I can hear is Lady Macbeth saying this line after the murder of Duncan, to which her husband replies: ‘We have scorched the snake, not killed it.’ Besides, what does he mean? Who did the thing that has been done? It seems a very active and particular word for the more general act of leaving them, to go across the complex for dinner.
There are problems of active and passive throughout the McCanns’ speech. Perhaps there are cultural factors at play. I have no problem, for example, with Kate McCann’s reported cry on the night of 3 May: ‘They’ve taken Madeleine.’ To my Irish ears ‘they’ seems a common usage, recalling Jackie Kennedy’s ‘I want the world to see what they’ve done to my Jack’ at Dallas. I am less happy with the line she gives in the interview when she says: ‘It was during one of my checks that I discovered she’d gone.’ My first reaction is to say that she didn’t just go, my second is to think that, in Ireland, ‘she’d gone’ might easily describe someone who had slipped into an easy death. Then I rewind and hear the question, ‘Tell us how you discovered that Madeleine had gone?’ and realise that no one can name this event, no one can describe the empty space on Madeleine McCann’s bed.
Perhaps there is a Scottish feel to Gerry McCann’s use of ‘done’. The word is repeated and re-emphasised when he is asked about how Portuguese police conducted the case, particularly in the first 24 hours. He says: ‘I think, em, you know, we are not looking at what has been done, and I don’t think it helps at this stage to look back at what could and couldn’t have been done … The time for these lessons to be learned is after the investigation is finished and not now.’
I am cross with this phrase, ‘after the investigation is finished’. Did he mean after they’d packed up their charts and evidence bags and gone home? Surely what they are involved in is a frantic search for a missing child: how can it be finished except by finding her, alive or dead? Why does he not say what he means? Again, presumably because no one can say it: there can be no corpse, killed by them or by anyone else. Still, the use of the word ‘investigation’ begins to grate (elsewhere, Kate McCann said that one of the reasons they didn’t want to leave Portugal is that they wanted ‘to stay close to the investigation’). Later in the interview the word changes to the more banal but more outward-looking ‘campaign’. ‘Of course the world has changed in terms of information technology and the speed of response, you know, in terms of the media coming here and us being prepared, em, to some extent to use that to try and influence the campaign, but above all else, it’s touched everyone. Everyone.’