Fr Kevin Hegarty
Last month a Paul Henry painting sold for a record price of €420,000. Entitled ‘A sunny day in Connemara’, the actual location of the painting is Lecanvey looking at Achill Island. For well over a century Achill has been a sanctuary and source of inspiration for artists and writers.
The first artist to make Achill well known died 90 years ago this month. He was Alexander Williams. A native of County Louth, his family moved to Dublin where his father established a hat-making business.
Alexander had no interest in male millinery. He immersed himself in ornithology, music and especially art. He first showed his paintings at the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1870 and continued to exhibit there until 1930.
William’s paintings and diaries provide a vivid insight into the Achill of the late 19th century.
He first visited the island in 1873. It was the start of a lifelong romance. Having endured a journey of 16 hours from Dublin, he was captivated by the view: “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 mists, while the early sun glittered on the waters amongst the numerous island. To me, although tired, its was a delightful experience.”
He wrote to his father that he had found a part of Ireland where there was immense possibilities for the activities of an artist and that he intended to make it ‘peculiarly my own and devote myself to make its wonderful scenery known’.
He renovated a house, Bleanaskill Lodge, near Achill Sound, which he used as a summer home. He had found his artistic idyll:
“The air is perfectly still and a dreamy silence prevails, but as I sit, sometimes with my eyes closed, voices of the children of the village opposite travel over the placid water. There is the occasional barking of a dog and mooing of cattle.”
Achill gave ample opportunity to indulge his interest in ornithology. The sea and golden eagle then bred on the sea cliffs. He often saw ‘their splendid flight soaring aloft’.
The song of the blackbird enthralled him: “As the afternoon light of copper coloured sun slants over the bay the hillside glows with a golden refulgent light and as the other birds become quiet the liquid notes of the blackbird echo across the water. There are no trees nor even even bushes on the other side but the beautiful singer instead perches on the stone walls and fences.”
Life on Achill for Alexander was comfortable. He was, however, acutely aware that it was different for most of the local people. Poverty reigned.
Amongst his papers is a graphic description of a typical house:
“Some of the dwellings of the inhabitants at the time were of the rudest description and their sanitary arrangements simply appalling. One particular dwelling close to the shore was constructed by digging a square or a long piece out the sloping bank blocking the end up with turf sods freshly cut and roofing it over with scraws. These scraws were ingeniously about two feet wide and six feet long, rolled up and placed over rough branches and then thatched over with ryegrass. A hole was left for the smoke to find its way out, but most of it escaped through the doorway and there was no windows. An abode of this kind often contained a couple of cows, a pony, calves as well as geese and fowls, the owner, his wife and family.”
In 1901, the art critic of The Irish Times paid tribute to William’s work:
“He has helped to stimulus public taste in the appreciation of native scenery. Many who knew nothing of the enchantments of Achill Island have been led to find them from first seeing the Cliffs of Minaun or the Valley Strand upon the walls of Leinster Hall. His devotion to Ireland in his art is worthy of all praise.”