— Hide menu

Artist’s Statement

ARTIST’S STATEMENT 2009

“Myth is not fiction: it consists of facts that are continually repeated, and can be observed over and over again. It is something that happens to man, and men have mythical fates just as much as the Greek heroes do” Carl Jung.

Myths and folklore last throughout centuries because they possess a special emptiness that gives us space in which to interpret them according to our own generational needs.

Sean’s Stories Fly from his Head, Oil on Canvas, 70x60cm

There is a tendency in the oral tradition to stay on the outside of characters. In myths, we do not find the interior voice of literature. We only know them by their actions. So each generation is able to project themselves onto the characters and situations. This happens because the meaning of myth is not a fixed entity. There is nothing static about these stories. They are not over. They are meant to be passed down generation to generation through the millennia. That is what is so exciting about working with them. I’m not coming from an intellectual, historical, linear angle. My interpretation is purely intuitive, flexible and open to contradiction. After all, it is through such dialogue that the stories will be kept alive.
Artists do not create in a vacuum. The romantic notion of the lone wolf genius who is an aberration in the culture is a supremely capitalistic notion. John Berger claimed that artists are not creators they are receivers. Just as Sean claimed these stories were not his, rather they were cultural deposits, sacred tales handed down. I see myself as part of a new generation that will take these stories and do something else with them. Once more they are handed down. To me, that is the most exciting part of the project. Artists do not invent anything. We channel the culture. We are vessels who receive influences and mix them with our dreams, until, in some strange alchemical process, we pour out work that we pray means something.

painting entitled the path

The Path to Sean’s Door, Oil on Canvas 60x50cm

This body of work is based on the stories of Sean O’Conaill – the story teller of Cill Rialaig. Sean could not read or write. He only spoke Irish. Seamus O Duilearga set out from UCD to record all of his stories. It is almost unbearable to think that if these two men did not meet in the first half of the 20 century, eons of stories would have been lost in one generation; without a whisper, a light on the very periphery of Europe, would have gone out. This ancestral light is a gift to us, inhabitants of the technological globalized world.
These paintings are my personal response to the light of these stories.

HOMAGE TO THE ORAL TRADITION (2009)

Painting entitled the story of hte bull woaked from his head

The Story of The Bull Walked from His Head, Oil on Canvas, 70x60cm

 

 

Though Ireland had been a literate culture for 1500 years, the majority of the population lived on the periphery of that world. One of these people was Sean O’Conaill, a farmer in Cill Rialaig, Co Kerry. The literate culture was separate from everyday reality and it was in the hands of the church, and the ruling class. This written culture served a feudal system that led to our current capitalist society. The oral tradition worked parallel to the written tradition. What is radical, is that the oral traditions preserved subversive elements that the literate tradition wanted to stamp out.
The only vestiges we have of our prehistory are through these stories from the oral tradition. They are the last link to the first of our people. Working with them now I can feel the pulse of the ancient world. A world that would have disappeared if it weren’t for these stories and the storytellers, and those who came to listen by the fireside.

HOW THE HAG ROSE UP IN MY PAINTINGS, (2009)

(Thoughts on the Bull Bhalbhae, the central story at the heart of the Book of Sean O’Connaill, the story teller of Cill Rialaig.) (2009)

painting

The Caillach Acrylic on Canvas 100x70cm

The hag is the cosmic force that rules the underworld. She is the otherworld female that features so prominently in the oral Irish tradition. “This personage is regarded in traditional cosmology as the personification, in divine female form, of the physical landscape within which human life is lived and also of the cosmic forces at work in the landscape.” Gearoid O Crualaoich – The Book of the Cailleach.

The Hag is an otherworldly, non-cultural, nature being. I found myself painting this giant cosmic female; she rose out of my canvas and took me by surprise. Suddenly, I couldn’t hate the hag. I felt her struggle. The Roman Catholic orthodoxy was fearful and tried to smother the power of the creative mother goddess. But she survived in the stories of men like Sean. Interestingly, it is not just women, but also male story tellers that ensured her survival. Her presence pulsates with life thanks to the peasants, not the ruling class. Here on the edges of Europe the hag goddess survives in all her archetypal fury. Her defeat is not complete. The hag in the oral tradition is always an ancient figure that exists beyond human years. She is mother earth. As she is on geological time, she can afford to wait us out.
I love painting the story of The Bull Bhalbhae because of this primordial struggle that goes beyond the surface of events. A world that was submerged by a dominant literate culture survived through the oral tradition. That is the most radical notion; the space in which the oral tradition found itself. The story of the Bull Bhalbhae has so many elements of female power. Yes, the bull struggles to overcome the hag. Who is the bull? As a half tamed beast, he is a threshold figure, a symbol of an agricultural world in direct contrast to the wilderness world of the hag. This bull can evolve and transform. He can become a crow and a man. The Bull goes to a male magician to get the secret to the hag’s death. They have a showdown. He is a representative figure, male/female; technological/natural; Christian/ancestral. He defeats and displaces the divine female agency.
Though this tale is more complex than that; after all, it is the bull’s magical sisters who save the children from the river. Moreover, the Princess is not the typical obedient female that replaces the huge destructive hag figure. I love the princess because her relentless pursuit of the bull is done against the orders of the authority figures in her life, her parents, and her husband. These are the parts of the old stories they never told us about in school. The princess has sexual needs and she voices them. She chooses the bull to be a man by night so that she may be satisfied. Every time the bull tells her to go home she states, “I will not go home. I will follow you until I die.” She is the active agent in the story; the one who undergoes the most profound transformation. She begins as human, and through learning to travel between worlds, she becomes divine.

painting

They Both Were Taken by A Dangerous Love, Oil on Canvas, 70x100cm

In the Bull Bhalbhae my hope lies with the princess not to wipe out the hag but to grow as large as her.
Through my paintings, I want to plunge a hand down into the submerged past to wrestle these figures back into this damaged world where we need them.
It would be wrong to attempt to impose an interior world onto these stories with words. That’s why it feels so natural to paint these characters instead. Paintings take us inside ourselves to the core place that is beyond words.
I’d like my paintings to reenergize the legends. These stories are not fixed, this tradition is not closed. These paintings are a ghost dance, a summons, a re-emergence.

BUTTER BOOTS AND PAPER STOCKINGS, 2007

painting

Butter Boots and Paper stockings – a Tribute to Sean O’Conaill, the Storyteller of Cillrialaig

This is my story. If there is a lie in it let it be so. It was not I who composed it. I got no reward but butter boots and paper stockings. The White-Legged Hound came, and ate the boots from my feet and tore my paper
stockings.

Cill Rialaig
I am a storyteller and a painter in Ireland in 2006. I think of the word story. I think of it all the time for I have given my life to stories. I found a dictionary explanation: Story (stor’e), n. 1. A narrative, either true or fictitious. 2. A way of knowing and remembering information; a shape or pattern into which information can be arranged and experiences preserved. 3. An ancient, natural order of the mind. 4. Isolated and disconnected scraps of human experience, bound into a meaningful whole. “I am finished now with the stories. I am old, and it is not long that I shall be here. All the tales I have are in this book and I am glad that they are there. There is no knowing but they will shorten the night for those who will hear them, and I hope that those who read them or hear them will say a prayer for me and for those from whom I learned them.”

–Sean O’Conaill, story teller of Cill Rialaig, 1853-1931

This man Sean O’Conaill inspired all these paintings. If it weren’t for the urgings of Noelle Campbell Sharpe, and my stay down in Cill Rialaig in the cottage beside his little cottage, this whole body of work would not exist. He was the keeper of the sacred stories of the people. If we lose our stories we lose our soul. We become gentrified. We take on the stories of others, far off stories that have no connection to our lives. Hollywood stories and BBC stories are not our stories. Many of them are merely products; stories manufactured with economics as their sole purpose. Sean O’Connail’s stories are the stories of our people – the Irish. They are unique. Even if we can no longer speak our own native language we can still hear the stories. They are our last link to the first of our people. They make us unique.

“The people of the place thought Sean was sometimes rather odd. He had never been in the least irrational, but he had a certain strange way that some of his neighbours found incomprehensible. Sean had always the greatest respect for his tales and anecdotes, and he would have preferred to lose his worldly goods than to forget them. When times changed and stories and storytellers were no longer sought after, when he was no longer being asked to tell tales and people had lost all interest in them he hit upon a device to preserve them in his memory. He used to tell the tales to himself when he thought no one was within listening distance. When he was alone herding cattle on the hillside or returning to Cillrialaig from the town walking slowly behind the cart, or working in the garden by himself, he would tell a tale to himself “with the speech, the action and the fatal pursuit – “Diarmuid of the Red Beard” or “Ceatach”, or “Iolann” – and as he got well into the story he would spread out his hands to emphasize a passage for the missing audience.”

Staying in Cill Rialaig in February, I walked the same roads he walked, and climbed through the boggy fields to the standing stones from where I could see the cold blue sea on either side of the ragged stony mountain. I imagined Sean walking the roads, talking the stories to himself, protecting them from oblivion. The missing audience turned away, wrapped up in their own lives, looking outward. We are a culture obsessively looking outward, while inside us grows empty with neglect. I felt it was important to listen now more than ever. Seventy-five years after his death I stood on the hill and listened to his stories. One night the electricity was out and I huddled by the turf fire reading his stories by flashlight. I felt the huge darkness envelope me. It wrapped around me, layer after black layer, until I was swaddled and bound by the night. Immediately beyond the intricacy of the fire flames and the beam of my torchlight the dark was endless and impenetrable. Just as loneliness and fear of dying makes God this was the kind of darkness that makes fairies and pookas. As one old woman put it “when the electricity came in the fairies went out.” That night I even woke up sure there was someone walking around the cottage. Another of the painters told me the next morning that it was Sean’s curious ghost coming to see what I was doing. I laughed at the absurdity, but each night alone in the cottage my mind strayed from its rational core and spirits inhabited the periphery as I immersed myself in Sean’s stories. Sometimes the stories are sad. They bespeak of a hard life. One in which poverty, death and uncertainty were as constant as the great slate of Atlantic sea that batters the impassive mountains. Children chasing fairies to the edge of the town with their concerns, “oh rider of the white horse, what cures whooping cough?” Those are worried children with adult anxieties. Wives disappearing for seven years and returning to throw new wives out of the house, “And I do not blame either of ye, but this is my place now,” I could not help but feel for the servant girl who had become the new wife who would now be homeless. Just as I admired the first wife giving no explanation of her seven year absence. The hag reaching down the chimney and groping around the room until she plucks a newborn off her mother’s chest and snatches her away to drown her in the river. The amazing princess in the Bull of Bhalbhae transgresses all boundaries, goes against her family’s wishes and marries a beast, goes against the beast’s wishes and returns home each pregnancy, and then pursues her husband the bull across the countryside and down into the underworld. He urges her to leave him alone and go home but “she told him she would not go, and that she would never return home until she died for him.” This nameless princess gets everything in the end. She gets her husband the bull, all her children back and lives as royalty once more. We use stories to filter our multitude of experiences, to express the pain in a structured way. They heal by their acknowledgement of the mystery of our sorrow. By their nature they are implicit in the understanding that often there is no understanding. They never reveal the mystery; rather the story preserves and nurtures it. Stories give us the dignity to go on in an unfathomable place. There is sorrow in these stories but there is also ferocity and a wit and a delight in the complexity of our existence that resonates through the pages of the book. All religions are really stories we have held to be sacred. The bible, the Koran, the Ramayana, are tales from long ago that have been passed down until they are considered so precious that we organize whole civilizations around them. History is an amalgamation of stories in a supposed progression. Stories are our core defiance in the face of our inevitable universal fate. They give us shape.

Sean’s stories are local; they are Irish stories. That is why we should cherish them particularly as Irish people. Some were familiar to me, and some, like the magnificent centerpiece The Bull of Bhalbhae, were revelations. We live in a country that is currently suffering an identity crisis, where old Irish things are dismissed as embarrassing and painful reminders of a not too distant oppressive past of hunger, colonialism, and suffocating religion. There is a danger that in rejecting the gloom of the past we will throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. We have to be careful at this juncture in our history. We have to cup our hands around the tiny flames of an old Irish culture that is in danger of being extinguished forever. We cannot allow what is sacred in our culture reduced to a cute Disney version of Irishness that no one can relate to. There is evidence that we are living in the sixth great extinction on our planet.  This is a human made extinction that will see 50% of current species disappear before the century’s end. This natural devastation is also reflected in our cultural life, we are seeing native customs, tribes, languages and stories disappear too. Do we want our great grandchildren born into this generic bland global future? Sean understood that these weren’t his stories alone. Indeed many of them end with the disclaimer This is my story. If there is a lie in it let it be so. It was not I who composed it. I got no reward but butter boots and paper stockings. The White-Legged Hound came, and ate the boots from my feet and tore my paper stockings. He never changed a word of what he heard.  He was not an artist in the romantic modern version of the word. In his head he held a whole library of stories and folklore. He was fully aware of what it was worth and was very eager to have Seamus O Duilearga transcribe word for word and preserve them. He was a priest of folklore, an active vessel for the vivid and complex spiritual life of his people. I went on the last day to the lovely graveyard in Balie’nSgeilg where he and his family are buried. I walked around searching for the grave to say that prayer that he asked for. A stark winter sun shone on the old lichen covered stones. I clambered over graves old and new. All stories beneath me. The air smelt of the salty sea. Birds swooped and sliced among the medieval ruins of the abbey. I don’t have a particular God so I hesitated at his grave, marked as it was by a high Celtic cross. I said good-bye and I said thank-you. Then I put on my butter boots and paper stockings and headed back East to Co. Meath to paint some more. I would miss him and this place at the edge of the world. The last words go to Seamus O Duilearga who dedicated his life to saving all these stories for generations to come. May we not forget to remember. Sean is dead but his stories are as alive as the day he first was told them. “I thank God that it came about that I met him and other people like him of the old stock in the remote places throughout Ireland. It is a sorrow and heartbreak that these fine people are going. They take much with them to the grave, and the land is the poorer without them. While they were here, they were ignored. Thousands upon thousands of Irish speakers who had an incalculable inexhaustible wealth of all kinds of oral literature and of pure eloquent vigorous Irish have departed, and in life they were unsought and neglected. The well of tradition was overflowing with no one to tend it…. When these old people die there will be an end to the Middle Ages in Western Europe, and the chain which still links the present generation to the earliest settlers of Ireland will be broken…. Farewell to that pleasant life, and my five hundred farewells to the lovable Gaelic people who poured out for me what they had with big generous hearts! Wherever the remnant of them may be now, at home or in foreign parts, may this book bring them my greetings and my thanks! With the passing of time the mist of forgetfulness will come over the life I once knew, and a generation will arise with no understanding of it or interest in it. I have truly done my best in this book to show the richness of story and tradition stored in the memory of one man of Cillrialaig.”