John A Blakey makes a statement with the colourful Icarus O’Toole
If a story about ‘the incredible naked flying man of Achill’ does not grab your attention, then we’re not sure what will.
Welcome to the world of Achill Island’s Icarus O’Toole, the fantastical creation of acclaimed artist John A Blakey.
But the story of Icarus O’Toole was nearly set elsewhere – that is, until some local musicians stepped in to work a bit of ‘looking after your own area’ magic that would make Minister Michael Ring proud.
Blakey, who has written and illustrated the book, had initially based his character in Doolin in west Clare.
But when he asked Westport-based Chieftain Matt Molloy and Des Cafferkey of the Clew Bay Pipe Band to record music for an accompanying CD, they convinced him there could only be one home for Icarus: Cafferkey’s native Achill Island. Last summer a trip to Mayo saw Blakey travel to Achill Island, and he agreed – it was indeed the ideal location.
So, instead of running along the Cliffs of Moher, Icarus found a new home running naked along the cliffs of Croaghaun, the highest sea cliffs in Europe. And one of the most exposed places in this country to expose oneself.
Last week, Blakey was back in Mayo, this time in Westport, with his long-time friend, actor Hugo Speer, for Speer to voice the audio book for ‘The Legend of Icarus O’Toole’ at Clew Bay Recording Studio at Westport Quay.
Speer is best known for playing the role of Guy in The Full Monty. In more recent times, he starred in the TV series Father Brown. Before any of that, he was a student in Blakey’s class in Harrowgate in the 1980s.
Flight of fancy
“The whole concept is fantastic, it is an incredible flight of fancy,” Speer told The Mayo News last Thursday in the Castlecourt Hotel, after recording had finished.
John Blakey is a man with quite a back story himself. Born in Leeds to a family of Irish heritage, he is now living in Cavan. His wide-ranging career as an artist has taken him all over the world, from Siberia to Mombasa to Costa Rica, and has included a two-year stint as artist to the Sultan of Brunei and the publication of another book, ‘The Tale of Lundravar the Dragon’.
His second foray into publishing is a truly spectacular and enthralling piece of wild imagination.
Blakey describes ‘The Legend of Icarus O’Toole’ as ‘a humorous satirical love story’, and Icarus as a ‘delightful character who falls victim to his own eccentric ways’.
Living on Achill, Icarus enjoys a carefree childhood, but his running naked along the cliffs at Croaghaun is viewed with suspicion, especially when he reaches his teenage years.
“This lovely girl called Daisy Maisy adores him. They become so close that people think they’ve got too close. They give him a really bad beating, which puts him in a sick bed for a year. He loses it then, and he’s transported to Slackwater House, a secure mental institution in Co Kerry, and he’s there for ten years – doesn’t come out until he’s 27,” Blakey told The Mayo News. “Daisy Maisy is transported to one of those terrible laundry places and something terrible happens to her afterwards. There’s a lot of sadness in the whole thing.”
But after he is released from Slackwater House, Icarus goes on quite the adventure.
“Icarus is placed under the care of Eva Caber, a small but dynamic social worker from Glasgow, and they hatch a plan to re-introduce him to society. Now six-feet-ten tall and rather strange looking after his injuries, and still with a predilection for chasing about naked in the open air, it all proves to be a bit of challenge,” writes Blakey in his synopsis.
“Icarus has an interest in art, and he decides to become a performance artist specialising in ‘Feculent Art’. This is where the main thrust of the story reveals itself. His life as an artist takes ridiculous twists and turns, which have him on the run for crimes of obscenity and indecent behaviour. He escapes to Scotland, then to France, where his art is celebrated as something special.
“All the time he has a growing fan base, much to the annoyance of the Arts Council and the self-appointed snobs and guardians of polite society. Icarus, still mourning the loss of his beloved Daisy Masie is steered back to Scotland by a mysterious well-wisher, and eventually to the spiritual Island of Iona, where all is revealed,” added Blakey.
There’s no doubt that through the hilarity and the tragedy that infuses ‘The Legend of Icarus O’Toole’, Blakey is also making strong statements on art and on modern society.
“At the moment the art world is becoming absolutely crazy. This idea that we don’t know what beauty is anymore. We do. The idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder is only part of the story. The truth is beauty is a pinnacle of excellence. It is something that is breathtaking, almost holy. Personal taste is in the eye of the beholder.”
The artist has no time for experimental art forms with no aesthetic merit. He draws an analogy to prove his point. “There’s somebody who wants to be a musician, and he wants to be unique but doesn’t want to do all the hard work. He starts banging his fingers in the spaces between the keys [on a piano] and says ‘There you are, nobody has ever done that before’. That’s what they’re doing in the art world. There is a huge amount of bullshit about it.
“If you poured poison into food because nobody has done that before, we’d immediately know the dangers but that’s spiritually what we were doing in art. Pouring poison. I feel sorry for a lot of students in college because unless they follow the same tact, they won’t get their degree.”
He points to an example of the kind of work he’s talking about. He describes it as ‘a breakfast-cereal cardboard box squashed flat and three squeegees of colour from a bottle of paint you get in primary school and smudged a bit’.
“It was in this frame exhibiting at a major exhibition in London, and the psycho babble that was written about it … that ‘this was a work of great humanity’, ‘showing no inhibitions’, ‘having the great courage to be able to do this’ … it was full of this bollocks,” slams Blakey.
At this stage Hugo Speer interjects.
“It was done by my two-year-old daughter, so I am a bit upset that John is offended by it because it made me a lot of money.” The pair roar with laughter.
Freedom and honesty
Blakey also feels the character of Icarus O’Toole can hold up a mirror to many of the flaws of modern society and relatively recent history.
“He represents a freedom and honesty that exists in all of us, a child-like quality that is often suppressed and abused by people, by authorities, and people are not allowed to live natural lives. You can show somebody blown to pieces with body parts flying all over the place and mown down by machine guns, but if you even mention that someone has pulled down their trousers, people are absolutely horrified….
“When I was a boy nobody ever gave you any sex instruction, it was such a taboo thing. Young girls getting pregnant and their own parents throwing them out in the street, especially in Ireland.
“This part of the book is partly inspired by a lot of the stuff I’ve seen since I’ve come over here, the abuse by the priests, the Tuam Babies graves with 800 bodies buried there … all because sex somehow is seen as a dirty, filthy thing.”
Blakey has no such hang up. “If you believe in God, he gave you a sexual drive so you could use it.”
Clew Bay Pipe Band
The project of Icarus O’Toole comes in four parts – a limited edition book, a general publication, an audio book and a CD of recorded music.
Des Cafferkey is the musical director for the CD, and Blakey is effusive in his praise of the Achill man’s talents. He first saw the Clew Bay Pipe Band at one of the music festivals at Westport House at the invitation of Matt Molloy, and he was ‘blown away’. He brought them to Cootehill, where he now lives, to perform in 2017 at a memorial concert for Capt Dara Fitzpatrick, who was killed in the Irish Coast Guard helicopter tragedy at Blacksod earlier that year. He has remained friends with Cafferkey and Peter Carney of the pipe band ever since.
A piece of music written by Matt Molloy called ‘The Girl I Never Forget’ features on both the audio book and CD. Blakey describes it as ‘one of the most beautiful pieces of art’ in any genre of the arts, saying it is ‘so emotional and so beautifully crafted’.
Blakey has been working on the Icarus O’Toole project since last April, and he hopes that the CD, book and audio book will all be released by next autumn.
“It was a lot of fun,” he observes. You cannot doubt that for a second.
All illustrations from ‘The Legend of Icarus O’Toole’, by John A Blakey.