“The sea, oh the sea, gra geal mo chroi, Long may it roam between England and me, It’s a sure guarantee that some hour we’ll be free, Thank God we’re surrounded by water”. We were down by the river Suir in Thurles in the Source Regional Arts Centre, when these lines of a ballad by the late Brendan Behan came to mind.
The occasion was the glitzy official opening of the “All At Sea” exhibition of paintings by Corkonian, Michael McSwiney of Clonakilty, which continues until October 25th at the Source Regional Arts Centre Art Gallery, Thurles, and is well worth a perusal.
The opening was by self-styled sailor and Chairman of the prestigious Dromineer Literary Festival and Emeritus Director of Library and Information Services at the University of Limerick, the amiable Mr. Pat Kelly of Killadangan Bridge, Puckane, Nenagh, who was accompanied by his wife, Elizabeth. Pat now lives, he stated, “on the West coast of North Tipperary” and for the past 40 years he has worked and lived on the Shannon.
There was a very fine attendance of art lovers from Tipperary, Cork, Carlow, Limerick and Galway for the delightful occasion. The attendance included artists, Catherine Daly, Killenaule, Caitriona O’Connor, Dovea Studios, PJ O‘Connell of Colaiste Mhuire Co-Ed, Thurles, Regina Dorney of Colaiste Mhuire also, Frank Rafter, Thurles, Eddie Kenehan, Thurles, and Michelle Minihan of the Bookworm bookshop, Thurles. As usual, Jane Ryan and the friendly Source Staff had lots of hospitality for us all.
The Acting Source Artistic Director, Ms Aisling O hEocha, welcomed the large Saturday afternoon attendance and introduced Mr Kelly and thanked Mr McSwiney for bringing his work to Thurles. She later thanked PJ O’Connell (Visual Arts Advisor) and Arno Nauwels (Production Technician) of the Source, the Arts Council, North Tipperary County Council and Thurles Town Council.
Mr Kelly, who stated he was “surprised” at being asked to open the exhibition, said “I am no art expert and I expect it was on the basis of being a sailor” “If Compulsive Water Disorder exists, I would be a victim as, I suspect, would be the artist, Michael McSwiney”.
Mr. Kelly said he grew up on the banks of the Liffey in Kilcullen, County Kildare. “I have a vivid memory of my first trip in a boat over 70 years ago and the memory of overhanging trees was kindled by Michael’s’ painting, ”Where The Forest Meets The Sea”.
Mr Kelly spoke of his travels on the Shannon, north to Lough Erne and then his travels east to Dublin, via the Royal and Grand Canals. He has also sailed west to the Atlantic and he sailed from the west Coast, from Clew Bay to Kinsale, in a small sailing boat. But he said: “The sea is a very special place. The sea is stopping place for the soul before and after birth. The Gothic word for soul is saiwala and the Gothic word for sea is Saiwaz”
Mr. Kelly recalled memories of fascination and fear and terror and delight associated with the sea, “which is sometimes gentle and sometimes catastrophic”. Change is the norm and you are never still at sea.” “A boat is an eggshell suspended on the boundary of two chaotic fluids, the ocean and the atmosphere. You are never still at sea.” Mr Kelly said he had been much impressed by images of pictures on Mr McSwiney’s website and, having read Michael’s exhibition notes, he realised this man was not only a painter but also a philosopher.
Mr Kelly, speaking about his world view, said he had stepped away from his ancestral belief system over 50 years ago. “The search for possible replacement yielded two incontrovertible truths – everything changes and everything is connected.
He referred to a meeting with American poet, Jane Hirshfield, in 2007 and a definition of Buddhism in seven words. Mr Kelly’s delightful memories include dolphins in the Shannon Estuary, and puffins on puffin Island, Glandore and other places in West Cork and rounding fastnet Rock.
Mr. Kelly spoke about the television images of the Japanese Tsunami of 2011 with 40m waves 10 km inland wiping most sophisticated works of man from the face of the earth like chalk marks off a blackboard.
Moments of fear included being at anchor in a Force 10 in Crookhaven and being enveloped in a sea mist off the entrance to Smerwick Harbour, through the Blasket Sound, with wind over waves. ”At sea in a small boat you don’t just pay attention-you live attention”, he said.
Mr Kelly asks: ”How are these monumental forces, this immense fluidity, these infinite distances to reduce to stillness in two dimensions? The writer and philosopher, John Ruskin, in ”On how To Paint The Sea” said: ”It is like trying to paint a soul”
Mr Kelly spoke of the “alchemy of art which changes base matter into objects of beauty and delight”. He added:” All we can ask of any artist, painter, poet, rap musician, is authenticity allied to craftsmanship”
“Michael McSwiney triumphs on all counts. His work is infused not only with his vision of the truth but also with his history of place and family. Nobody else could have painted these pictures, works of great skill which can evoke beauty from dereliction (“Slag Heap”) Truth is beauty. I thank Michael for the opportunity to make my own little voyage of discovery. I congratulate him on a magnificent exhibition and I enthusiastically commend his work to you.”
Mr McSwiney has worked in many countries, including Norway, where he was based for eight years (2000 to 2008) and also in India and Egypt. His paintings are in private collections in Australia, Norway and Ireland. He portrays a world of abandoned, often threatening panoramas of land and sea. The influence of colour and atmospherics from living so close to the Atlantic Ocean are intertwined into his paintings. He won the painting prize at An tOireachtas and Iontas in 2000.
There are 24 paintings in this exhibition with the nautical themes and they are from “Ocean Storm” and The Spit Lighthouse” to“ A Flowing Tide” and” Harbour Skies”.
The paintings range from oil on canvas and oil and sand on canvas to oil/mixed media on canvas and oil on board.