Fr Kevin Hegarty
For the last month the west of Ireland has basked in the golden glow of a wonderful summer. For those of us of the Christian persuasion, it seems as in the words of Gerald Manley Hopkins that the ‘world is charged with the grandeur of God’.
It is easy to understand why the west of Ireland landscape has been a source of inspiration for artists and writers.
William Butler Yeats encouraged his friend, John Millington Synge to leave Paris and go to the west of Ireland to explore a life that had never found expression. He took the advice and found the experience enthralling. It gave him the inspiration that animates his plays and poetry. Leaving Inishmaan he exclaimed, “Am I not leaving there spiritual treasure unexplored whose presence is a great magnet to my soul? In this ocean alone is there not every symbol of the cosmos?”
The northern naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger agreed with him: “If I wished to show anyone the best thing in Ireland I would take him to Aran. Those grey ledges of limestone rain-beaten and storm-swept are different from anything else. The strangeness of the scenery, the charm of the people, the beauty of the sea and sky, the wealth of both pagan and Christian antiquities, all these help people to make a sojourn in Aran a thing never to be forgotten.”
John M Synge was just one writer, who in the early decades of the 20th century, found imaginative sustenance in the experience of western life. Ulick O’Connor, in his book ‘Celtic Dawn’, has argued that from three great country houses in Connacht – Coole Park, Moore Hall and Tulira Castle – came the people who were to create the ‘Irish Literacy Theatre’ that was the foundation of the literary renaissance. Michael Collins went so far as to argue that, “It is only in such places as Achill Island one gets a glimpse of what Ireland may become again.”
Northern artists and writers seem to have a particular affinity with the west. Paul Henry, who spent seven years on Achill in the early 20th century, was “attracted to the wild beauty of the landscape, of the colour and variety of the cloud formations, one of the special glories of the west of Ireland.” His paintings authentically portray the land and seascapes of the west of Ireland in a way that is tireless.
Another painter, Gerard Dillon, wrote in 1951: “Think of the west and the life lived there. Then think of my childhood and youth in the middle of industrial Belfast. Is not the west and the life lived there a great strange land of wonder to the visitor from the red brick city?”
Andrew Nicholl, a watercolorist, preceded Paul Henry on Achill. He first visited in 1873. It was the start of a long romance. The journey from Dublin took 16 hours. His first encounter with the scenery overcame this inconvenience:
“The scenery all along seen for the first time was entrancing. Mountains clustered in groups showed on the right, and Croagh Patrick across Clew Bay towered above the morning visits, while the early sun glittered on the waters amongst the numerous island.”
He wrote to his father that he had found “a part of Ireland where there was an immense field for the activities of an artist, and that I intended to make it particularly my own, and devote myself to making its wonderful scenery known.”