Achill home of Paul Henry
I stared at the painting. Who is this artist? He paints like I do. His name was written clearly on the painting - Paul Henry. At first I was upset but then I realized I knew nothing about this artist. I loved his billowing clouds and his mountains. I don't remember now where I first saw one of Paul Henry's paintings. I didn't think much more about Paul Henry but bits and pieces started to fit together like a puzzle. I was traveling in Sligo on my way to Innisfree. The road traveled around Lough Gil and Innisfree was at the end of the road. Along the way we came across an artist's shop and a bookstore in the middle of nowhere. The Irish books were exquisite - some I'd only read about. Since books are heavy I selected only two. On the shelf was a book by Sean O'Faolain and Paul Henry titled "An Irish Journey". More evidence of the artist's work. He is listed as a co-author but apparently was the illustrator. This was their record of a jaunt around Ireland with O'Faolain doing most if not all of the writing. For me it was an enjoyable book to read but it only heightened my interest in Paul Henry.
After I returned I began some serious research. It is easy with Google to do the research but just a few highlights. Paul was trained in Paris and survived as an artist back in Ireland but found a niche in Achill where he painted the native Irish - something that had not been done before and became well known for his work there. His big break came when he was chosen by the Tourist Board to create some posters. Based on the information I'd found we decided to tour Achill and follow his exploits on the island. Since he died in 1957 he was painting long before I was and it is my paintings that I thought resembled his. Only a few of my paintings remind me of his work which I think is gorgeous by the way. With a few bits of information we booked a flight to Ireland and room at a Bed and Breakfast on Achill with the intention of staying a week.
We made our way up from the Shannon Airport toward the west coast. Having traveled along this road before we were happy to book a room at the Olde Railway Hotel in Westport. The William Makepeace Thackeray room was to the left at the top of the stairs on the first floor up. It was a spacious room filled with antique furniture. It faced the street and it was possible to hear the people outside as they walked along the canal. The first time we stayed there was mid-week and not exceptionally noisy. Imagine how delighted we were to again be able to book the Thackeray room and how disappointed we were when the room was now on the right side of the stairs. We tried to switch but the old Thackeray room was already full. I asked the desk clerk if I was just dreaming. I was assured it was only recently switched when they had done some work to the hallway. Then what followed was the reasonable question "Did Thackeray actually stay in the other room?" The clerk looked at me like I was daft and politely said he wasn't sure and it may be the reason why they switched the name plate to the other room. Someone may have pointed out that he slept in the room that is now named correctly. He had me at that. Thinking about it I realized that I would have both rooms covered in any case. 'Irish Sketch-Book' published in 1842 contains a chapter on Westport so it seems Thackeray actually visited the town. He also comments on the inns of the area.
Interestingly Thackeray also wrote "The Adventures Of Philip On His Way Through The World followed by A Shabby Genteel Story". I find this fascinating because I am contemplating naming my collection of stories something similar to that.
For those that are interested in Thackeray here is a Timeline of his life:
1811- William Thackeray was born on 18 July.
1830- He left the Cambridge University.
1836- Thackeray married Isabella on 20 August.
1840- He took his wife to Ireland.
1842- She was confined in a home in Paris.
1847- The novel Vanity Fair was first published.
1849- He suffered from a deadly attack of illness.
1860- He was made editor of the Cornhill Magazine.
1863- The author died on 24 December.
1893- His wife Isabella passed away.
This room wasn't as well laid out but it was good sized and we were happy to be there. There is quite a bit to do in Westport and we walked up the street to Matt Molloy's Pub. We have been in there several times but I never saw Matt. I did get a chance to chat with him when he came here to Marin County as part of the Chieftains. After breakfast, which was more than ample we took to the road again with bright sunshine leading the way.
Since this was a trip about art we wanted to visit St. Patrick’s Church in Newport where one of Harry Clarke's famous Stained glass windows could be seen. The following is from a website about Harry Clarke's work: "Harry Clarke (1889 to 1931) was undoubtedly Ireland's greatest stained glass artist. Internationally the name of Harry Clarke is synonymous with quality craftsmanship and imaginative genius in his stained glass work. His use of deep rich colours, his delicate depiction of beautiful elongated figures with their fine-carved features and deep expressive eyes, is indeed magical to behold. During his short life Clarke created 172 stained glass windows for religious and commercial commissions throughout Ireland and England, and as far a field as the USA and Australia. Also an illustrator of books for Harrap and Co. in London, Clarke illustrated nine books that show his undoubted genius in the area of graphic art."
I thought the stained glass window was beautiful. I could envision a trip to Ireland based on just visiting and viewing Clarke's stained glass windows.
We passed by Mallaranny which is a place I'd like to stop and look around if ever I am there again. It wasn't long before we came to the bridge that connects Achill Island with the rest of Ireland. My first impression was it was sparsely settled and had a wind swept feel to the land. By the time we found our B&B it was raining. A young boy answered the door and led us to a small room at the back of the house. As we passed by a sitting room I noted a fire in the fireplace and casually asked if we could sit in there after we put our suitcases away. The boy said "No" in such a gruff manner it took me by surprise. Sitting on the double bed we realized we couldn't stay there. We had specifically asked for a room with a view since I wanted to paint and the small window looked out on a shed in the back yard. The ocean was on the other side of the house. Just then the woman of the house came in the back door and we explained the room just wouldn't do. She looked disappointed and I explained I was an artist and needed a view of the ocean. I gave her a 10 euro note for her troubles and asked her to recommend something with a view. She then gave us the names of two other B&Bs which were across the road with the ocean view to the rear. The Bervie which was an excellent choice but it was solidly booked. We talked with John the owner for a bit and he asked what brought us to Achill. When I replied we were following the trail of Paul Henry he smiled and said I was at the right place for his mother provided room and board for the man and he sometimes paid with paintings. In fact there was a portrait in the parlor of his mother or grandmother - I am not sure now - and he invited me in to take a peak at it. It was of an older woman in a black shawl. He said he thought his mother mentioned that she occasionally had to kick him out when he was late with the rent. True or not he don't know but there were many stories handed down and I should visit a certain restaurant, the owner of which was a big fan of Paul and his work. He also informed me that a new book was coming out about Paul and his work by S. B. Kennedy. I ordered it as soon as it came out.
The next suggestion was Stella Maris at Keel and it was perfect for us. Stella set us up in the upstairs room with a big window that looked out on the Minaun Cliffs. It rained some more and we were content to sit and paint. The Minaun Cliffs were dramatic and the changing cloud formations and the sunbeams were magical as the highlighted the grays, greens, blues and the various colored clouds.
I can't remember the name of the restaurant now recommended by John of Bervie but we did have lunch there and the owner indeed had a many Paul Henry prints hanging on the walls. I had a chance to talk with the owner and he had several tales to tell. It wasn't an easy life there on the island for Paul as his marriage fell apart but he loved the skies and their clouds which kept him interested and busy painting. There are a number of interesting sites on the island and we drove about for the entire week. It rained almost every day and was chilly when the wind came up so for us the automobile was our mode of transportation even when the sun did come out. We traveled around the island to see the many sites such as the deserted village reputed to be an inspiration to Oliver Goldsmith. It is a fascinating site with the tiny stone cottages in complete ruin with the nearby lazy-beds for potatoes. What struck me was the small size of the cottages and the closeness to each other. Life there must have been interesting living so close to one another. There were narrow passages between the cottages and paths from one to the next. How poor and miserable they must have been particularly when it was cold and raining. Perhaps the cottages were close to provide a wind break and add to the warmth. There was a strange haunted feeling that came from the rubble of someone else’s existence.
Keem Bay was another highlight. We sat on the slopping hill within a booly to get out of the wind and admired the little gem of a bay. Deep blue that day with Gannets diving for fish and on one occasion slicing through the wave with its wing. Captain Boycott had a house here at one time and the islanders had a falling out with the captain and "Boycotted" him hence the word boycott. While we were huddled two Germans came down from the ridge high above us and chatted for a minute urging us to hike up to the top and see the beautiful view of the Atlantic Ocean from up there. They were wearing the leather shorts with the high stockings and suspenders - no jacket. We thanked them for the information but didn't budge from our booly.
The Irish Pirate Queen Grace O'Malley had a castle on the island. It was a starkly dark castle but anchored behind it was a bright orange rescue boat recently purchased by the islanders and with the fliers tacked here and there they were proud of their purchase. It was anchored about where the queen would probably anchor her ship. The castle looked to be a keep, quite common in Ireland. It wasn't open and was boarded up. It was the subject of legends and the subject of one of Paul Henry's paintings.
We did enjoy the craic in the local pubs particularly the traditional music. One night there was an annual party for the Nurses from the Castlebar Hospital. They were dancing and there were very few men. I declined the asking realizing that there was no way I could keep up with them and would probably be hurt trying. They had a few men with them that were priests who seemed to be able to keep up. I was curious about that but didn't know how or to whom to put the question. They do several different dance steps here in Ireland that I've observed among the older couples. One form is like a fast Fox Trot with two people, often two women. They also dance in a group of eight like a square dance or folk dance. This can get very lively and I know I would get hurt if I tried that. I've seen these dance steps in various parts of Ireland but never with the gusto of these nurses from Castlebar.
On a calmer night we were just sitting in the pub sipping a Guinness when two girls passed by the window. One was pushing something which turned out to be a wagon while a younger girl sat on a chair on top of a mattress. I had to go out of the pub to complete the picture. A few minutes later they were carrying a table. I went out again and that is when I noticed a huge pile of debris which included the mattress table and chair plus a lot of yard clippings; all sorts of things really. It had been mounded higher than a house and two men were throwing stuff from the back of a sheep trailer on to the top. One man was standing on his pickup to reach the top of the pile. Satisfied that I now knew what the girls were up to I wandered back into the pub but continued to watch through the window. It was getting dark rapidly and about that time one of the men dosed the pile with gasoline and threw a lighted match on to the pile. There was a loud "whoosh" as the pile ignited. I was thinking it was a way to get rid of your unwanted junk in a community bonfire. I asked and was told it was an annual bonfire on St. John's night. He said that all over Ireland bonfires would be lit in honor of St. John. Every one tried to build the largest bonfire possible. It was quite a sight and we watched it for hours quietly sipping the dark brew. Walking back to our room I thought I could see other fires in the distance.
We'd come to Achill to track down one of Paul Henry's prime painting areas and we could see why he was here for some seven years or so. It was full of beautiful views and the people were warm and friendly. Many other people had been to Achill as well and I was surprised by the variety of well known people that had ventured to this remote part of Ireland. I expect many more people will find their way to the island as it has developed into a Mecca for wind surfing and other water sports. I am happy to have visited the island when I did.
We were still traveling north to Donegal when we stopped in a used book store in Letterkenny. Scanning through an auction catalogue I came across one of Paul's paintings with an expected value in excess of $500,000.00. Maybe I do paint just a little like him.
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