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Micheál De Búrca - a lightness of touch

Off the fence
Micheál de Búrca – a lightness of touch

Liamy MacNallyLiamy MacNally

“Isn’t it lovely to enjoy an art exhibition?” she said leaving the Custom House Studios in Westport.  Her husband concurred.  Outside they met a lady who informed the gentleman that the artist – Micheál De Búrca (Michael Bourke) – was his relation through marriage.  The woman was unaware that she echoed the Past-President of the Royal Hibernian Academy, Carey Clarke, who, on opening the exhibition, referred to the artist’s ‘lightness of touch.’  The paintings are so beautiful in their simplicity, yet they are far from simple.  The layers of depth touch the soul and you walk away uplifted, with a spring in your step.  Art is, and should be, accessible to the senses.  This exhibition draws you in, bowls you over and gently leaves you back on your feet, smiling at the core of your being – that lightness of touch transferred from the canvas to the heart.  
Micheál De Búrca was born in Tipperary in 1913, reared in Castlebar and spent his final days in Westport.  He was a remarkable man, married to a remarkable woman, Bridie Kelly, a Covie from the Newport Road.  Micheál was son of the respected Castlebar businessman, Thomas Bourke and his wife Madge.  The Bourke family business at Maryland, Castlebar was central to the development of the county town.  It included harness and saddlery, cycles and motorcars, among other services.  The firm also provided electricity to Castlebar! 
Micheál De Búrca studied at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (forerunner to the National College of Art and Design) before being appointed an Art Inspector with the Department of Education.  During this time he visited schools around the country and drew up the national art syllabus.  In 1942, he was appointed Director of the National College of Art, directing staff whose classes he had been attending as a student.  He still painted and exhibited as Director and was living proof that one could fulfil the role of artist and administrator with skill and proficiency.  During the war he re-introduced stained glass, screen printing, weaving and metal work to the college.  Many of these skills are enjoyed at the Custom House where his work is on show and where his daughter, Clora, now works.        
Micheál was a fluent Gaelgeoir and proud of the Irish tradition.  He had a deep respect for travellers and mischievously signed a series of paintings ‘Máirtín Maughan,’ honouring a well-known local knight of the road.  He re-introduced art to the people by arranging to have works of art exhibited in local technical schools as part of a national tour.  These included Sir John Lavery, Walter Osborne, Nathaniel Hone, Patrick Tuohy, Maurice McGonigal, Seán O’Sullivan, Jack B Yeats, John Keating, Laetitia Hamiliton, JH Craig, Harry Kernoff, Charles Lamb and pictures by Micheál De Búrca himself.  The tour was an outstanding success.      
During his term as National College of Art Director and member of the Royal Hibernian Academy there were constant rows about Government support for the arts!  He dealt with many Ministers over the years but the late Patrick Hillery was singled out as the Minister who offered most support to Micheál.   
Micheál De Búrca retired in 1973 and moved back to Westport where he died in 1985.  He had a great sense of humour and loved an argument. He would fire ‘from both guns’ in defence of his position!  Many of us will remember him from his retirement days in Westport and the discussions and craic at the Bus Office on the Mall.  He was a capable match for the antics of my father Joe and Frank Mahon combined! 
Those who knew him and view his works will almost hear him comment as you make your way around the 44 paintings.  He has a spring in his celestial step these days, the glint in his eyes ever sharper as he proudly parades the heavens, enjoying us enjoying him.  Bridie is telling him to settle while the rowl is on with Jackie and Bill Brown, his dapper self even more so these past couple of weeks.
He can be compared with the painters associated with the west of Ireland and can challenge the current dominance of northern landscape painters.  The paintings on show depict numerous scenes from Achill, from Lough Caoite to Keel and Purteen Harbour to the Minaun Cliffs.  Connemara, Galway, and Kilkerrin scenes are also on show including Croagh Patrick. 
The family of Micheál De Búrca – Aodh, Joe and Clora and families – are right to be proud of this exhibition.  The Custom House and Westport Arts Festival also deserve credit for this wonderful show.  It begs for a national stage in the capital where Micheál De Búrca spent many years.  The exhibition runs until November 1, a proud testament to a wonderful artist celebrating a lightness of touch.