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AN ISLAND’S HISTORY Mary J Murphy with her new book ‘Achill Painters - An Island History’ which was launched by John ‘Twin’ McNamara and John F Deane outside Lourdie’s, Dooagh. Pic: Blue Flag Media.

Áine Ryan

IT always seems to come back to Eva O’Flaherty, the feminist, socialite, activist, entrepreneur and, in this case, art connoisseur, who was a pivotal player in the story of Achill during the first half of the last century.
Clearly, author Mary J Murphy’s recent book, ‘Achill Painters: An Island History’, was a natural progression from her earlier biography of O’Flaherty. After all it was the discoveries she tripped across whilst researching the story of this fascinating woman – who like her was entranced by the country’s largest island – that whetted her interest in the armies of artists whose muses were awakened by the island’s unbridled beauty.     
In the words of the author: “A century after Paul Henry left Achill in 1919, this book is unique in that it is the first time that anyone has attempted to collate the names and stories of so many artists who have painted there, beginning with William Evans in the 1830s, the painting master in Eton school,” Mary Murphy says.
And the names trip off her tongue:  Mainie Jellet, Evie Hone, Derek Hill, Liam Proud, Louis le Brocquy, Camile Souter, Wilhelmena Geddes, Sarah Purser, Patricia Lynch, Estella Solomons, Grace Henry, Marjorie Organ, Robert Henri’s artistic second wife. Indeed, there are many many more mentioned within the 282 pages of this illustrated  book that add to the lexicon of tomes about the island.
Describing it as also a ‘potted history’ of her beloved Achill, it gushes through a tapestry of interconnections, with both O’Flaherty and Belgian artist Marie Howet a significant part of the complex and colourful backdrop.
“Marie Howet’s numerous return visits to Achill between 1929 and 1982 coincided with the island lives of both Eva O’Flaherty and Camille Souter, so there are a lot of bumper-car timelines in this yarn, colliding into each other, all the comings and goings somehow tangentially connected,” Murphy writes.  
A longtime resident of Caherlistane, Co Galway, but a regular visitor to Achill for over three decades, the author explains, with characteristic passion, that ‘every line line of this book was written in Dooagh’.
Adding: “This is near the former home of Eva O’Flaherty (1874-1963), the intrepid island entrepreneur, salon hostess, milliner, Parisienne hat model, nationalist, patron of the arts and literary supporter’.
“She knew painter Paul Henry who painted a portrait of O’Flaherty’s half-brother, Arthur O’Gorman Lalor, in 1916 and she also knew the Belgian expressionist, Marie Howet, whose half-century connection with the island is explored in my book for the first time.”

‘En plein air’
LAUNCHING the book ‘en plein air’, appropriately from an artistic perspective, over the August Bank Holiday weekend, Achill native and founder of Poetry Ireland, John F Deane, opined that it was a ‘cornucopia, a treasure trove’ and ‘an aide-memoire’.
“This book is so very full of details that bring back memories to me, so many of the things that I didn’t know that I had already known. In Mary J’s book she captures all of it, in great detail. It is a book that I will treasure, and it will be around for a very long time.”
Shining a light on Howet’s island legacy, Mary J Murphy says: “She was well-known in her native land and across Europe, she knew GB Shaw, was praised by Matisse, and was admired by Derek Hill, Padraic Colum and Nano Reid. A friend of Eva O’Flaherty, she arrived on Achill in 1929 and returned many times over a 53-year period. My book provides, for the first time, an in-depth examination of Howet’s 1934 masterpiece, A La Source D’Ara, which brims with stunning aquarelles of the island.”
This ‘seminal book features many unknown and unseen watercolours of Achill’s desolate landscape, as well as her own descriptions and poems of her time spent there’.
“Achill Painters, An Island History,’ is clearly a labour-of -love and a compendium of stories and yarns, lives and endeavours, written with an open-heart and tenacious pen.  
Referring to the island’s well-documented hypnotic magnetism, Murphy says: “I believe myself that islands are beloved by writers, painters and poets because they are the ultimate places to run away from everything – most especially from ourselves.”

MORE Achill Painters: An Island History, by Mary J Murphy, is available online from bookshops in Mayo and Galway (Knockma Publishing).

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