Fr Kevin Hegarty
It is good that Mayo is well provided with art centres. They are places where we can rejoice and reflect, be affirmed and be challenged. To paraphrase the poet Wallace Stevens, things as they are, are changed on the blue guitar.
Ballina Arts Centre has returned to its home on the banks of the Moy after its temporary exile due to reconstruction. The building now is a fine melding of a traditional structure with the requirements of a modern arts space.
The centre is also gifted in its director, Seán Walsh. He was a student of Our Lady’s Secondary School, Belmullet, when I taught there. Even then it was obvious he was interested in the things of the spirit. He brings to his position passion, taste and clarity of vision.
It was appropriate that the inaugural exhibition of the newly-opened centre was a retrospective of the Mayo paintings of Hughie O’Donoghue. Though he was from and grew up in Manchester he has strong Mayo connections. His mother is from Erris and he spent many school holidays in the village of Glencullen.
He studied fine art at Goldsmith’s College, is a member of the Royal Academy and he received an honorary doctorate from NUI, Cork. He is fascinated by the history of art, especially how the great masters made their paintings. He is also an expert draughtsman and maker of prints. He has had exhibitions in major galleries in the UK, Ireland, Spain, France, Holland, Canada and Australia. Later this year he will exhibit his work in Prague.
In an article in The Irish Arts Review (summer 2003), Marianne O’Kane argues that “O’Donoghue’s work has assumed epic proportions in terms of scale, treatment and subject matter. Their explorations of death and rebirth, suffering and redemption, and war are compelling and challenging.”
Among his significant achievements is a series on the passion and crucifixion of Christ which he spent 12 years delivering. He uses the passion as an opportunity “to explore collective ideas of suffering rather than tying it specifically to one occasion”.
O’Donoghue’s father Daniel served with the British Army in the second World War. He served in France and Italy. His father’s letter to his wife during his active service provided their son with the inspiration for a major body of work on the theme of war and its gruesome legacy. They are not military style paintings but instead evoke the terror of the individual caught in the Maelstrom.
The Ballina exhibition concentrated on his Mayo paintings. His Mother left Erris in 1937 to work in Manchester but Erris never left her. O’Donoghue has written: “She never really felt at home in Manchester and always talked about returning home to Ireland at some point in the future. She went back to Erris every year of her life and the place had a complete hold over her sense of her identity. There was a persuasive melancholia that coloured her memories of her home. It was to do with poverty and experienced hardship, the bleakness and the beauty of landscape, its history and memory of the famine years and the fact that leaving it had been a necessity as opposed to an option”. O’Donoghue’s childhood holidays in Erris lodged in his mind and bore fruit in 2003 in an exhibition of abstract and figurative paintship, “Naming the Fields”.
What he remembered most was the melancholia. For him “it hangs about the place like old Christmas decorations. You can feel it and smell it in the air and sometimes you can hear it”
It is a landscape of austere beauty, yet pockmarked by famine, emigration, stunted opportunities and things begun and never finished. The art expert Patrick T Murphy, commenting on one of the Mayo paintings, “Knocknalower, Hill of the Lepers’, writes that the Christ-like figure that occupies the work is ‘Jesus at the moment of atonement’, forlorn and discarded - no redemption here, only cruel evidence.”
The explanation of tragic events is central in O’Donoghue’s work. Not surprisingly, given his Erris connection, he presented in Dublin last year an instalment of his work on the Inishkee drownings of October 27, 1927, the greatest Erris tragedy of the 20th century. Ten young men were drowned on that fateful night. The tragedy broke the spirit of those who were left. By the mid 30s they had re-located to the mainland.
O’Donoghue sees the islanders as independent people, self-sufficient and wary of police and priests, banded together by the naemhóg, a stone totem which they believed protected them from the terror of the sea. It is reported that a priest threw it in the sea in the late 19th century. For O’Donoghue the stone was the magic ingredient that held the community together. Its disappearance was the harbinger of its eventual dissolution.
I saw the Inishkee exhibition “Last days on the island” in Dublin last year and was much moved by the paintings, especially the stoic faces embedded in the landscape.
In his introduction to the catalogue of the Ballina exhibition Seán Walsh reckons that O’Donoghue’s exploration of the north Mayo landscape will continue. What we have so far is “a half-time snapshot.” Indeed and for the Ballina Arts Centre it is “game on.”