by Aidan Dunne
Artists have long been drawn to the West of Ireland as a region apart, boasting as it does a series of locations of spectacular natural beauty and, the implicit presumption is, retaining a basic cultural integrity. Its visual grandeur is unmistakable, and there is certainly some truth in the notion of the West as a bastion of Irish tradition, at least partly insulated from the pressures and compromises more immediately apparent in other parts of the country, but the reality is, of course, far less clear-cut and much more complicated.
For one thing, the West has never been out of reach of history and, in many respects, historical extremes were more, rather than less keenly felt beyond the pale. It is easy to forget that the character and quality of such beautiful and occasionally daunting landscapes have been shaped by historical currents as surely as has, for example, the fabric of Dublin city. Mick O’Dea’s recent work, encompassing landscape per se, portraits, and paintings based on archival documents, brilliantly explores and visualises the landscape of the West and Northwest not as a neutrally picturesque terrain, but as an inhabited, living environment and a reservoir of often unsuspected, hidden histories and their legacies.
A local rather than a visitor - a native of Ennis, Co Clare, now partly based at Portacloy on the North Mayo coast - O’Dea has, from early childhood, been attuned to the layers of history contained within the region. The work in West
Northwest includes landscapes sited in and not that far from Portacloy, a remote, spectacular setting close to Benwee Head in the northwest tip of the county; a group of outdoor portraits made during an annual stay on Inishlacken Island off Roundstone, Connemara; and two paintings derived from material relating to the infamous Vandeleur evictions at Kilrush, Co Clare in the late 19th century.
Portacloy and its Spartan harbour form a haven between extensive tracts of blanket bog and the vast Atlantic. It merits the term remote, but then so does a great deal of North Mayo. O’Dea often focuses on the bog-capped rocky headlands, their flanks cut by vertiginous streams, that extend into the brimming sea. Bar an elegantly minimal pier, the setting appears untouched by human activity. The paintings reflect the bare expansiveness of the terrain, a natural blank canvas imprinted with the patterns, colours and tones engendered by vegetation, tides, light, wind and rain. Yet turn inland, as the artist does, to provide a rounded picture, and you find tarmac roads, power lines, fences, signage, bungalows and farm buildings, braced against the elements, scoured by the weather and diminutive against the scale of the land: stubborn reminders that people live and work in these epic spaces.
Some way further south, the tiny island of Inishlacken, tucked into the coast at Roundstone, occupies a special place in Irish art history. Memorialised by painter James McIntyre in his book Three Men on an Island (George Campbell and Gerard Dillon being the other two) about a summer spent there in 1951, the area has appealed especially though by no means solely to artists from the North. They include Rosie McGurran, who settled in Roundstone in the early 2000s. McIntyre’s book inspired her to initiate The Inishlacken Project, now an annual June working residency for artists. O’Dea has been a consistent presence. This year, he turned his attention from the landscape to the visitors, in the spirit of the island’s enduring attraction for artists. The paintings are vivid outdoor studies, the subjects crisply defined in the exceptional, quicksilver light conjured by the sea and, to landwards, the extraordinary patchwork topography of earth, sky and literally hundreds of lakes.
Further south again, near Kilrush in Co Clare, what have become notorious as the Vandaleur evictions took place during the summer of 1888. The victims were households vainly struggling to cope with poor harvests affected by bad weather, and depressed markets, and unable to meet the landlords’ demands for rent. Hardly significant numerically by comparison with the mass evictions of the Famine years, they occurred against a background of increasingly organised political and communal opposition and, crucially, they found their way into the media of the time.
Over a fortnight, a veritable small army of officials comprising Hussars, Sherwood Foresters, Royal Berkshires, RIC men, land agents and legal functionaries set about expelling people and their paltry possessions from their homes, and destroying those homes with a 30-foot battering ram. They met opposition, desperate and futile though it was, in nearly every case. But, among the growing crowd of onlookers were photographers, including a Thos O’Connor from Limerick and at least one from the United States. A visiting observer, Major EJ O’Shaughnessy (the son of Famine emigrants), provided eyewitness accounts to American publications, which also published many photographs. The coverage served to inflame public opinion and greatly contributed to shifting the political mood on evictions and the nationalist cause.
Much documentation is held in the Clare County Library in Ennis. O’Dea notes that he was struck by the “Gilbert and Sullivan” nature of the authorities’ approach to the proceedings. The colourful uniforms and emblems, the flourishing of official documents, expressions of the British Empire in all its pomp, were but a transparent attempt to legitimize a singularly squalid enterprise. His work addresses the pomp and pageantry, overlaid on the bare earth, the raw facts.
Of the works in the exhibition, each image is true, each reflects a time and a place, and each offers a glimpse, an insight into a larger reality, encompassing a world shaped by geological forces, conflict, industry and culture.
Aidan Dunne, October, 2021