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The gift that Mayo rejected

County View

County View
John Healy

For Mayo visitors to Dublin over the next few months, two exhibitions should be of significant interest. Both exhibitions feature the work of the same artist – the photographer, Helen Hooker O’Malley, whose links to Mayo form the basis of much of the material on display.
A consummate sculptor, painter and photographer in her own right, Helen Hooker O’Malley was somewhat overshadowed by her formidable, dashing husband, the freedom fighter Ernie O’Malley. Born into a wealthy, influential American family (her antecedents included six governors of the states of Connecticut and Massachusetts) Helen Hooker was strongly artistic from a young age, as well as being a promising sportswoman, winning the American junior tennis championship at the age of 18.
She studied sculpture in Germany, painting in Paris, music and dance in Greece, and theatre design in Moscow, before meeting and falling for Ernie O’Malley on one of his visits to the US following the War of Independence.
In spite of her family’s disapproval and their doubts about the suitability of the Irishman as a marriage partner (Helen’s sister had married John D Rockefeller), they married in London and some time later bought Burrishoole Lodge outside Newport, with the assistance of her father. There they amassed an extensive art collection including works by Jack B Yeats, Paul Henry, Evie Hone and Henry Moore.
She and O’Malley travelled around the country photographing medieval sites and structures, rural and urban landscapes, and people and events, from saving the hay to horse racing on Carrowmore strand, sheep fairs, turf cutting competitions, pattern days, yawl racing, and their beloved Croagh Patrick.
Following her divorce from Ernie O’Malley in 1952, Helen Hooker continued to be a generous patron of the arts in Ireland, and resided in Dublin for six months of every year. She donated 500 of her photographs to the National Library, established the O’Malley collection with the Irish American Cultural Institute, and agreed to a permanent exhibition of part of the collection at the University of Limerick.
But perhaps the greatest lost opportunity of all for Mayo came in 1978 when Helen Hooker O’Malley approached the Government with an offer of donating the 600 works of art of the O’Malley collection to the people of the county. The plan was to house the collection , then valued at $300,000, in a museum to be erected in honour of Ernie O’Malley in his native Castlebar.
The official response appeared positive, all the more so when the Council of Europe announced the designation of Castlebar as one of 20 centres across the EU as repositories of art and culture. The first shipment of the valued collection arrived in Castlebar – paintings and sculpture, artifacts and Mexican folk art – and were housed in the upper floors of the courthouse, securely locked away pending the provision of their final home.
And then, without explanation, everything came to a halt. The project stalled; there were no signs of an O’Malley museum being provided. Questions were asked by the benefactors, but answers there were none. And so, not surprisingly, the offer was withdrawn, and the O’Malley collection was removed from the courthouse to be spirited away under cover of darkness.
Today, the only remaining symbol of the Castlebar link with O’Malley is the sculpture of Manannán Mac Lir on his chariot, designed by Peter Grant, which was provided and funded by the O’Malley family.
It sits on the Mall, directly in front of the derelict, abandoned Imperial Hotel, a building crying out for rebirth as a noble, proud monument to a husband and wife who gave so much, and so generously, to Mayo.