Tuesday, December 28, 2021

John Kelly’s Think and Thank Garden in West Cork

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


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


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


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


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


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



 John P. O’Sullivan

December 2021




Thursday, November 18, 2021

Recent Reads – November 2021


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


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



Francis Bacon – Revelations by Mark Stevens and Annalynn Swan



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



 The Best Catholics in the World by Derek Scally



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


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



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










Sunday, November 07, 2021

Reviewing the Reviewers

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

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

A Farewell to My Old Doubles Partner

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

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

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

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

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

Congratulations if You Got into the RHA Annual Exhibition 2021

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


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

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

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


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


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

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Death in Clonoulty

My first cousin, Philip Maher, died aged 80 last Friday. Diana and I attended his funeral in Clonoulty on Sunday. I rarely met Philip over the years so have two memories only of him. One was of a quiet, unassuming teenager with a passion for horse and dogs who I met briefly in Cashel back in the late Fifties. And the other was as a very frail, elderly man sitting in his living-room near Clonoulty last November. Of his life in between I knew very little – we rarely encountered that branch of the family as his father (my mother’s brother) died prematurely and the family disappeared into rural Tipperary and a couple of them later emigrated to the USA. We lived in Cork and later Dublin. I knew he had never married and latterly lived with his sister - that’s about it. As I parked the car near the church in Clonoulty, I saw that the area around the church was crowded. Coming towards me marching down the main (and only) street was a phalanx of young men carrying the coffin. They were wearing the distinctive green jerseys of the Clonoulty-Rossmore hurling team. This small parish team had outdone itself by winning the county championship a few years ago and was the club of the legendary Declan Ryan who had distinguished himself in the Tipp jersey – winning three All-Ireland medals and later managing the county team. The street through which they passed was lined with spectators – I suspect the whole village was out and many more from surrounding areas. (Probably as many as were at the Sinn Fein funeral that generated all that fuss earlier in the year.)  A great turnout was the common view. 

Inside the church there were about 100 people, spatially distanced and wearing masks. My mother's family are from this part of the world and the church in Clonoulty contains a sacred family relic in the form of a handsome sanctuary lamp (see image). It had been donated to the church in memory of my grandfather Nicholas Maher who drowned aged 39 in Tramore in 1919 - leaving a young family. On and earlier visit to the church my gimlet-eyed brother had espied an inscription etched in the bottom of the lamp:  "To the memory of Nicholas Maher esq. Ballymore House from his loving children June 1925". There it hung, a poignant reminder of an old family tragedy. The funeral ceremony was very traditional in format but was accompanied by some glorious singing from the choir. There were readings from the altar, the handing over of gifts, and Holy Communion. Everyone in the church went up to receive the latter, including all the fine young men in their hurling jerseys. 

The highlight of the service was a lengthy eulogy by Thomas Ryan – father of the great Declan and current owner of Ballymore House wherein my mother’s family used to dwell. He clearly knew Philip very well and was very fond of him – he occasionally fought back tears as he spoke. The content of his eulogy was a revelation for me and I’m sure my sisters who were in attendance. This modest, unconsidered cousin of mine had led a very rich, productive, colourful and above all interesting life. His sporting prowess embraced hurling, long-distance running, horse riding, greyhound owning and training, and, dare we say it, coursing. Ryan made specific mention of Philip being an excellent “ground hurler” – a lost art I fear. In later years at the hurling club he performed various roles including that of masseuse where he favoured a concoction of olive oil and poteen. At tense moments during a match he was known apparently to take a swig of this elexir. Notwithstanding all this sporting activity, Philip was a busy and well-respected carpenter and wood-worker. The quality of his work in this area can be attested to by the fact that his two principal employers over the years were Vincent O’Brien and subsequently Aidan O’Brien. Two men who were perfectionists and demanded perfection from those around them. Aidan O’Brien was extremely kind with practical support for Philip and his family when his health failed.

After the funeral mass the party moved on to the Maher family plot in the beautiful old graveyard at Ardmayle. There was a decade of the rosary, another shorter eulogy from a Clonoulty-Rossmore worthy and then a glorious, extended version of the Tipp hurling anthem Sliabh an mBan. It was sung very professionally by a trio of young men, with guitar and some curious flute like-instrument. There was a very large crowd at the graveyard, but it was a well-scattered crowd with little knots of people rather than any mass. Usually in my experience the crowd disperses quickly after the internment but not on this occasion. The clear sky and the beautiful location (a ruined Norman castle across the road) encouraged lingering. We stayed for about 90 minutes identifying old relations and chatting to all and sundry. As we talked to Philip’s sisters Maura and Helen close to the open grave a bunch of the young hurlers were energetically filling it in – clods of earth flew around us as we spoke. Overall it was a very fine conclusion to a well-lived life. The most striking feature of the event was the solidarity of the parish around Philip and the family. It was a wonder to behold for this city dweller.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Schullduggery – Revisited



Strolling through Schull a few weeks ago I was surprised to see Ian Bailey driving past in a small Toyota – wearing that bizarre headgear he’s adopted with the furry ear flaps. (It seems more suitable for winters in Siberia than summers in Schull.) I had read recently that he was disqualified from driving and so was amazed that he should flout the law so brazenly. However, on enquiry I discover that he’s appealing the disqualification and so can drive freely until this comes to court. It’s hardly surprising that he’s appealing his conviction considering his frequent contention that he can run rings around our Gardai. 


We have been immersed in the whole Bailey debacle for the past few months and one hesitates to be seen as contributing to his relentless self-promotion. We know that he’s beaten his partner viciously and that he’s a bad poet. This year so far there have been documentaries on Netflix and Sky Atlantic, and Nick Foster’s book – a detailed analysis of the case (Murder at Roaringwater Bay). While Netflix points to his guilt, Sky adopts a more tolerant approach and paints Bailey as a bohemian outsider who’s been saddled with a crime without there being conclusive evidence. The Sky version is blighted by Jim Sheridan’s guff and an overwrought script (“the hills cry out for justice”). It sidelines Sophie at the expense of Bailey and Sheridan himself. The primary significance of Sheridan’s production is that lingers over the photographic evidence of Bailey’s assault on his wife. This confirms the view that Bailey is a very violent man where alcohol is involved and where the target of his ire is a diminutive woman. Nick Foster’s book baldly states his guilt although the new evidence he comes up with seems slightly tenuous. It hinges on Bailey lying about meeting the victim and lends undue emphasis to his references to the goddess Kali – a minor obsession of Sophie’s. Nevertheless, a good working hypothesis and the book is a calm and lucid assembly of the facts of the case. He doesn’t share Sheridan’s na├»ve acceptance of the testimony of Marie Farrell – a woman for whom Mary McCarthy’s famous quip about Lillian Hellman (“every word she says is a lie including “and” and “the”) seems apposite. 


My family have five houses in Schull (we’re a large family) so I have spent a lot of time there over the past 25 years. It still took me a long time to actually locate Sophie’s house as none of my family or the people I socialized with knew where it was. You need very specific directions to find it. It’s a bigger and more imposing two-story building than the regular reference to “cottage” suggests. Just beyond the gate on the lane up to the house there’s a simple Celtic cross with Sophie etched on the base. Bailey’s erstwhile home is not as close as I had believed. It’s a good 40 minute walk away and it too is difficult to find without specific directions – in a car it’s 10 minutes at the most.


The evidence that Bailey murdered Sophie is purely circumstantial. Yet there seems enough of it to convince any jury that he’s the culprit:


·       The lack of a conclusive alibi (Jules was asleep) – and he  changed his story a few times

·       The scratches on his hands where none had been the night before

·       The cut on his head

·       The burning of items of clothing

·       The black coat soaking in the tub

·       The history of extreme violence towards women

·       The drunken, maudlin confession: “I did it. I went too far.”

·       The unconvincing assertion that they’d never met or spoken to Sophie

·       The constant, and continuing to this day, attempts to deflect attention towards a French source 

I don’t include Marie Farrell’s sighting of Bailey near the crime scene that night. She has changed her evidence so often that it’s better to discount anything she says. Considering she admits to being near the crime scene with a man on the night in question I find it amazing that she has got away without  having to name who he was. At the very least he should be interviewed to confirm her evidence. She now of course asserts that he’s dead. Local rumour suggests it was a member of the Gardai. And one thing that comes across in all the media about the crime is the sheer incompetence of the Gardai. The sight of one of their number (Dwyer) smugly recounting anecdotes and opinions about the crime (on Netflix) as if he’s a blameless bystander is hard to stomach.


The great mystery is why Bailey, guilty or not, would stick around in a place where at least half his neighbours refer to him as “the murderer”. He’s certainly not popular. I was sitting in Newman’s pub in Schull a couple of years ago and there was a meeting of a local poetry group. About a dozen women sat around taking turns to recite their work. Bailey sat on the fringes of the group without seeming to interact with any of them. When his turn came around he recited his doggerel to general indifference. Those in the pub outside the poetry circle ignored the proceedings. I’d have run off to Spain or perhaps Thailand if I were him.


A recurring theme across all the interviews is Bailey’s attempt to point the finger towards France – a hit man sent by her husband or a scorned lover. All concerned had cast-iron alibis and there was no trace of another French visitor in the area. A stranger would have stood out at that time of the year. Besides, a planned hit would hardly have relied on finding a convenient breeze block. It seems a ruse to deflect attention. 

 While it’s no reason to find someone guilty, there has never been a reasonable alternative scenario put froward in these three recent detailed examinations of the case. This is a situation where perhaps the application of Occam’s Razor should apply. 



Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The West Cork Cowboy - a Profile of John Kelly

An edited version of this profile (with copious images) appears in the summer 2021 edition of the Irish Arts Review.


An Irishman, and Englishman and an Australian walked into the Piccadilly Gallery in Cork Street, London in 1994 and announced his arrival on the European art scene. It was John Kelly, son of an Irish father and an English mother, who grew up in Melbourne - thereby allowing him access to three passports. (This fluid citizenship would prove useful as his career progressed.) Walking into a high-profile London gallery hawking your artistic wares takes nerve and usually leads to a brief encounter and a chastened exit. ‘I guess I’ve got a bit of the Ned Kelly in me’, the artist explained , ‘in the 19th Century I’d have been holding up a bank.’ However, on this occasion Kelly’s quirky and playful work aligned with the current direction Godfrey Pilkington’s gallery was taking (‘He hated abstract art and would have none of it’) and the youthful Aussie was in. 


A series of London exhibitions followed, many featuring his trademark Dobell cows. These shows caught the attention of a French dealer in Australian art Stephane Jacob who had already encountered his work at the Niagara Gallery in Melbourne. Through him Kelly was invited to exhibit at the prestigious Champs de la Sculpture II in Paris in 1996He made a maquette of his proposed work, a sculpture of cow lodged in a gum tree. This was partially inspired by Sidney Nolan’s Ram in Tree and his well-known photograph Untitled (Cow and Calf Carcass) that were responses to an epic flood in Australia. With the support of his gallery, some grants, and sales of the maquette he raised the £100,000 necessary to create an eight-meter high bronze version. The young artist was suddenly launched into international orbit as images of Cow up a Tree on the Champs Elysee went around the world. Time magazine and The Times both featured it. ‘I’d never made any sculpture more than 3 or 4 inches’ he recalled. He was also rubbing shoulders with international art giants such as Tony Cragg, Red Grooms and Nam June Paik. Kelly remembers Red Grooms, the feted American artist, and pioneer of site-specific sculpture, approaching him at the launch to compliment him: ‘John you stole the show.’ Having done well in Australia and London it looked as if he was set fair to conquer Europe. However, an invitation to show in Monte Carlo (where he exhibited another monumental sculpture Three Cows in a Pile) led to a dispute between his gallery and Jacob which deteriorated into a protracted legal dispute (‘it dragged on for five years’) from which nobody ultimately benefitted – not least Kelly. ‘The whole legal mess in Paris really stopped a significant career in Europe.’ However, the costs of this legal imbroglio led Kelly to attend to his finances and he and his wife Christina decided to move to Ireland where he could escape tax on his world-wide earnings, which were considerable. All arts-derived income was tax free here in those days. The plan was to come for a year or two and earn enough to pay off his legal fees – ‘to ride out this storm.’ However, a fateful visit to West Cork and the sighting of a property on a beautiful isolated peninsula overlooking Castlehaven Bay changed their plans. They’ve been here ever since.


Kelly owes much of his considerable career, in different ways, to the humble cow. His working-class family in the Sunshine area of Melbourne struggled for a while to put its talented boy through art college. However, the growing financial demands of a large family eventually resulted in his artistic ambitions being out on hold. But the wheel of fortune turned. His mother entered a Win a Wish competition sponsored by a dairy company that she spotted on the side of a milk carton. Miraculously her name was picked out in the subsequent raffle. This simple twist of fate allowed Kelly to continue his studies and happily his siblings were not forgotten – each getting a new bike. The bovine benefits didn’t end there for Kelly. While studying for his masters degree a few years later he got a part-time job in a library stacking books. He spent a lot of his time there loitering in the art section. One day he came upon the an account of the war-time activities of the Australian artist Bill Dobell (later to become Sir William). Dobell was initially enlisted as a camouflage laborer and was one of a group of artists charged with making life-size, papier-mache cows to fool the Japanese into thinking that air-fields were meadows with grazing cows. Kelly’s interest was piqued by the notion of these ersatz cows and his first exhibition at the Niagara Gallery in Melbourne in 1993 featured a painting Man Lifting Cow – depicting a man lifting Kelly’s quasi-cartoonish version of one of Dobell’s cows.The background included a wind sock indicating the associated airstrip from which the idea came. The man in overalls represented his father – a quarry worker for whom this was a characteristic mode of dress. Twenty-three years later, in 2016, a four and a half meter bronze of the same subject was installed in his home suburb of Sunshine. In between these two events came an eventful career that took Kelly around the world (literally) and eventually deposited him on an isolated peninsula in West Cork. The cows were intrinsic to his success. When he first walked into the Piccadilly Gallery it was the witty drawings of these cows that caught Godfrey Pilkington’s eye. They featured in his first monumental sculpture and in a recent sell-out show in Melbourne they were again generously represented.They have not been milked dry yet.


But, to hazard a mixed metaphor, Kelly is no one-trick pony. His vision encompasses many subjects and many art forms with widely contrasting end results. He can create a massive bronze sculpture with all its creative and logistical challenges or essay a delicate, minimal etching of a penguin.

He paints, he prints, he sculpts, he enlists computers to generate steel cutouts, and in the past he has flirted with installations and the conceptual. He is not adverse to abstraction as the bright fiberglass creations around his West Cork domain and works like Blot on the Landscape and Yellow Head from his recent Melbourne exhibition testify. After Picasso (Jug and Saucer), was selected to hang in the prestigious Yale Center for British Art in 2019. Kelly was also chosen as artist-in-residence on the icebreaker Aurora Australis on an Australian Antarctic mission in 2013. His first Dublin exhibition at the Oliver Sears Gallery coincided with this adventure leaving attendees bemused by the absence of the artist.  The art from this Antarctic trip was shown in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gellery in 2015. His etching Auster captures the beauty and starkness of that region in a few lines and a new Australia postage stamp celebrates his work in the region. He has also painted a series of restrained, beautifully composed studies of the Irish landscape, mostly around scenic Castlehaven but also memorably in the Burren. He also finds time to write and his move to Ireland hasn’t stopped him engaging robustly with the Australian art establishment – particularly in regard to its shabby treatment of indigenous artists. He writes for the Daily Review and Art Monthly Australasia and is proud of his nomination for the Walkley Foundation award for arts journalism in 2017. While in the Antarctic he also wrote a hair-raising blog about his adventures for the Guardian. 


Having landed in South Reen (follow a rough road from Union Hall in West Cork), Kelly became fascinated by its dark history. He discovered a letter dated 1846 from a local Justice of the Peace in Reen, N. M. Cummins, addressed to the Duke of Wellington and published in The Times. It recounted the horrors he encountered all around him: 


‘In the first, six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horse cloth, their wretched legs hanging about , naked above the knees. I approached with horror and found by a low moaning they were alive - they were in fever, four children, a woman, and what had once been a man.’ 


While landscaping his property, and seeding it with his sculptures, Kelly determined to create a permanent monument to the area’s tragic past. He is calling this ambitious piece of land art The N.M. Cummins Think and Thank Garden.  The most monstrous element in the story of the Irish famine was the amount of food that was exported from the country while people starved. The fortune of the Liverpool greengrocer Henry Tate was created during the period of the famine – based on such exported produce. Tate eventually sold his shops and moved into the sugar market and in time became the benefactor behind the Tate Gallery. Kelly had originally built a scale model (about the size of a large mobile home) of the Tate Modern for a show in Melbourne in which he intended to house a copy of Cummins’ letter. He decided however that it would be appropriate that this symbol of the locale’s tragic past should be given a permanent home as a major feature of his planned garden. The title of his garden was an ironic take on the Tate family motto: Thincke and Thancke. Kelly contracted a local stone-carver to create a stone tablet containing the text from Cummins’ letter and placed it on the floor of the Tate model as an enduring reminder to all. This was accompanied by another stone tablet bearing an eye-witness account of the Famine’s horrors from a local doctor. In the structure he also placed a large cooking pot from the Famine period that he discovered on his property. It bears the distinctive Phoenix symbol indicating that it was donated by the Quakers.



The last few years have been a traumatic time for Kelly. While back in Australia in 2017 he contracted viral pneumonia and was hospitalized for a couple of weeks. On returning to Ireland he had a relapse and his illness escalated into something more serious. He collapsed at home and was taken to CUH and put into intensive care. His condition deteriorated and his wife Christina was told at one stage ‘that he was probably going to die’. However, due to the ministrations of the doctors at CUH, and a timely consultation with the Mayo Clinic, Kelly began a slow but steady recovery. Kelly makes special mention of the neurologist Stela Lefter’s role. His resurrection  was marked by a sell-out show at Smith & Singer in Melbourne in March 2021. In this exhibition, featuring a mix of new and older work, the full array of Kelly’s talents were on display. The recent work confirmed that his creative powers have not diminished despite being created while he was still physically frail. The sharp wit that is his trademark is seen in paintings like Incorrect Shadows (A Conversation) where his trademark cow confronts the kangaroo that represents the contentious brand of the Australian Arts Council. Kelly has written some fierce polemics about the very notion of branding art. His response to demands that he use the kangaroo logo on all material relating to his art, was to sabotage the notion by actually incorporating the logo into his art. Hence the cow and kangaroo face off in Incorrect Shadows and works like Big Foot.


Having been brushed by the wings of the Angel of Death Kelly is full of plans for the future. He is growing stronger by the day and is back playing tennis with Christina on his tournament-quality court. He has no immediate plans for a new exhibition but instead wants to complete his land art project. When he seemed to be slipping away last year Christina asked him what his last wish would be. Kelly asked that his N. M. Cummins Think and Thank garden be completed. In addition to the Tate Modern building, and his giant sculptures, he intends to add four further etched stone tablets and other artifacts associated with the Famine. He will also complete his spectacular landscaping of the land with provision for performing spaces and elaborate stone-walled areas channeling epic sea views. While he is confident that his reputation is secure in Australia (‘I feel rather comfortable I’ve made a mark in Australia through Dobell’s cows and other work.’), he feel he needs to do more here in his adopted home. ‘I’d love to create a lot of good work here in Ireland’. He sees his land art project as a major part of his legacy here. ‘I’d like it be unsellable – to leave it to the public in some way.’ Otherwise he is happy with his lot apart from a desire to return to Art Basel again at some stage. There’s a lingering feeling that his European and international ambitions were stymied by his long-running French legal imbroglio and that he needs to get back into that arena. Kelly is still a relatively young man and now that he has regained his fitness I wouldn’t bet against a triumphant return.


John P. O’Sullivan


March 2021.




Thursday, May 20, 2021

Recent Reads - May 2021


Philip Roth – The Biography by Blake Bailey



It’s a shame this book has been withdrawn in the USA – although a new publisher is apparently taking it on. The author has been deemed guilty of various sexual misdemeanors without due process. We know not the truth of the matter. It’s a masterful and highly readable biography of a fascinating character and a very great writer. Updike, Bellow and Roth are the three great 20th Century novelists and the latter was always my favourite. I was hooked by Portnoy’s Complaint and I can remember reading his last great novel Everyman recuperating from a very serious illness in the Blackrock Clinic. The phrase “the superabundance of the past” caught my attention as the elderly protagonist reflected on his dwindling future. The book traces his life in detail and shows us how he transmuted the characters, events and even grudges in his life into the stuff of literature. He specialized in getting revenge and both his wives are portrayed as needy and manipulative monsters. His first marriage to a palpably unstable woman was a disaster and while his second marriage to the actress Claire Bloom had its moments, it too ended in tears. Bloom for her retaliation in first with her memoir Leaving a Doll’s House portrayed Roth as a creepy, controlling misogynist and serial adulterer. Roth’s riposte I Married a Communist was not his finest hour and he continued to fester over Bloom’s book right up to his death. He has many admirable traits including a formidable work ethic and frequent and often anonymous generosity to friends and lovers. However, there was an undoubted cold and ruthless streak evident in his treatment of people when he decided he didn’t want them around any more. It’s hard to forgive him for the way he cast off his vulnerable step-daughter Helen. Also, many of his prodigiously long list of lovers were given short shrift when the gloss wore off. A flawed character, but aren’t we all. It’s an enthralling read both for the rendition of an interesting life and for the details of the literary world in which he moved. 


The Good Hand by Michael Patrick F. Smith



I got hold of this because of a recommendation in the New York Times. It’s a memoir from a middle-class guy who went from being an impecunious musician in New York to work in the oil fields of North Dakota. It’s part philosophical meditation on where he’s going with his life and part-biography. Its strength lies however in his description of the characters he encounters on the oil fields (a veritable legion of the lost) and the milieu in which he lives. We encounter the nether world of bars, flop houses, and crystal meth in and around Williston, Dakota. It’s a well-written account of the hard grind of lives outside our nice middle-class bubble. These are not normal people and it’s rare for their lives to be captured in such detail. 


The Lives of Lucian Freud by William Feaver


This is a very disappointing book. Most of us are by now familiar with the general outline of Freud’s life from the host of tell all biographies that have been published. He was a fascinating monster with a most rigorous work ethic and an unquenchable hunger for women. His basic technique was simple. He would approach women in a pub or restaurant (often complete strangers) and ask them to pose for him. Flattered by the attentions of a well-known artist, most would agree. And a high proportion of these succumbed to the inevitable once in the studio – he liked to paint at night. Feaver’s book gives lots of details about such events and the attendant messy discardings that followed. It also covers his gambling which began to peter out when he started making serious money. There was no fun in winning or losing when it didn’t really matter. The main problem with Feaver’s book is its baggy structure – it’s essentially a collection of anecdotes strung together. Its source material was a series of recorded conversations (hardly interviews) that Feaver conducted with Freud over many years. 




Dostoyevsky in Love by Alex Christofi


Do not be put off by the title. Although it covers D’s relationship with his tragic first wife Maria, the termagant Polina (his on/off mistress), and the sainted and patient Anna with whom he finally settled down, there’s way more to this than love stories. For those of us who don’t have time to read Joseph Frank’s definitive five-volume biography, this is an excellent short biography which captures the main events in his life (Siberia, mock execution, literary rise, gambling habit etc.). The author peppers his account with extracts from Dostoyevsky’s notebooks and letters as well as his novels – giving us an intimate portrait of the man and his thoughts. His moral strength is evident throughout – as is his weakness for gambling. I’m amazed that his wife Anna still married him after he dictated to her (she was his stenographer initially) his novel The Gambler. If ever a book was a salutary warning, this one was. Dostoyevsky continued to gamble as desperately and as unsuccessfully as the protagonist in the novel and the poor woman continued to support him – selling her jewelry and their furniture to sustain it. His gambling medium was roulette – one governed by pure chance. An absorbing read about a great author – albeit one more quoted than read.




Fierce Poise – Helen Frankenthaler in New York by Alexander Nemerov



We are going through a period where many of the women neglected by art history, from Artemisia Gentileschi to Gwen John, are receiving their just recognition. (I can grovel to the feminists as well as the next man.) The latest one to emerge blinking into the spotlight is Helen Frankenthaler. She was lurking in the background as the Abstract Expressionist gang, that army of gunslingers, led by Jackson Pollock swaggered about New York. Frankenthaler had money (her father was a judge) unlike the rest of them and a liberal private education (Dalton and Bennington). She encountered sympathetic teachers in both schools and moved back home to New York to make a life as an artist. Ambitious and hard-working, she was also strategic in her romantic alignments. Her first serious relationship was with Clement Greenberg – a feted art critic at the time and the man who put Abstract Expressionism on the map. Later she moved on to Robert Motherwell. However, its her art that really interests Nemerov and he gives us good reason to appreciate her originality. The book focuses on the 1950s New York art scene and it celebrates that scene as well as Frankenthaler’s significance.



The Hard Crowd – Essays 2000-2020 by Rachel Kushner


I generally like the cut of Rachel Kushner’s gib and have read her journalism in various places over the years in the New Yorker and the London Review of Books. This collection is a bit disappointing – few of the essays merit collecting apart from a short piece on the great Denis Johnson (Earth Angel) and the opening essay Girl on a Motorcycle.