Category Archives: Fieldwork

Up in Smoke

Local sources in Achill Sound have told us a story about a galvanised lean-to shed that was once located on the site of the library. The shed, which was attached to Coynes sweet shop, was apparently rented by an artist and used as a workshop/studio. Martin Coyne, a retired guard, reputedly cleared out the shed after the artist’s departure and found a lot of sketches books, drawings, unfinished paintings, an easel and paint brushes. Unfortunately he took this material down to the across the road and set fire to it.

There is some confusion as to the identity of the artist. We were told the story because it was believed to be associated with Paul Henry, but there is a strong possibility that the shed was actually used by Alexander Williams RHA (1846-1930), who is known to have lived nearby at Bleanaskill Bay.  The source for the story referred to the artist as ‘the sketcher’, a nickname that was possibly used for both Williams and Henry, hence the confusion.

The former location of a lean-to shed in Achill Sound used by Paul Henry.
The former location of a lean-to shed in Achill Sound used by Alexander Williams RHA.

It is unlikely that Henry would choose to spend money on a second rented premises on the island given his well known financial situation. He frequently paid Sweeney’s shop (Achill Sound) in kind with paintings, but all of these also went up in smoke in a fire at the premises in 1926.

John Sweeney at the site where Martin Coyne reputedly burned sketchbooks, drawings and unfinished paintings left behind by Alexander Williams RHA.

Henri and Henry

Although Paul Henry was an accomplished portrait artist he usually only worked on commissions. He was clearly very engaged with the local community during his time on Achill but he found it difficult to get anyone to pose for him. This is was partly due to an uneasiness with having their image taken, but it also transpires that there was an economical reason. Paul Henry couldn’t afford to pay his sitters.  However money was not a problem for the American artist Robert Henri, who painted a multitude of portraits on the island. His sitters were primarily children, many of whom are still alive and living in the UK and America. Henri also painted some of Paul Henry’s friends including Brian O’Malley (1840s-1914). One cant help but wonder about Henry’s reaction having returned to Achill from a stay in Connemara in 1913 to hear of Henri’s blitz of portrait painting and the mini-economic boom it created for the local people he admired so much. Henri rented and eventually bought the house that Henry had been offered but couldn’t afford. To add insult to injury Henri and his wife only used Corrymore House in the summer. An exhibition of prints of Henri’s island portraits is currently being shown at Comhlacht Forbartha Áitiúil Acla. The project was the brainchild of Tommy ‘The Boley’ McNamara, the grandson of John McNamara, with whom Paul Henry used to fish on the lakes or trawl at sea from a curragh.

APH getting a tour of the Robert Henri exhibition with Tommy ‘The Boley’ McNamara, at Comhlacht Forbartha Áitiúil AclaComhlacht Forbartha Áitiúil Acla.
APH getting a tour of the Robert Henri exhibition with Tommy ‘The Boley’ McNamara, at Comhlacht Forbartha Áitiúil Acla.

Tommy did a lot of work finding the Henri island portraits in collections across America and negotiating copies for his exhibition on Achill. One of his childhood friends features in the exhibition as does the grandmother of a girl working at the centre. There is no doubt that Henri’s paintings are an invaluable record of the faces of Achill at the time. Apparently Henri was known to complete the portraits in half an hour, yet hey are very well executed.  We were delighted to get a personal tour of the exhibition by Tommy, a pillar of the community and a true gentleman.

Bogs

Approximately 87% of Achill Island is peat bog.  On our first trip to the island in 2013 we paid a visit to the peat cuttings at Tonatanvally, which lie on the eastern boundary of Doogort East Bog, a natural heritage area.

Bog cotton at Tonatanvally, 2013.
Bog cotton at Tonatanvally, 2013.

The road that runs north to south through Tonatanvally rises and falls with the undulating ground surface, as if the tarmac has been rolled our across the bog like a rug. Occasionally there is a short stretch of track to the left or right, just enough distance for people to park a car and load up their turf. Turbary or the right of private individuals to cut turf for domestic use has been carried on for centuries in rural Ireland but it is now being phased out and not without controversy and protest. The annual turf harvest is a family occasion and it is a common sight to see a couple of cars pulled up and two or three generations cutting, stacking or bagging the small rectangular bars of peat.  A picnic with a flask of tea completes the ritual.

Gentian and Paul taking photographs at Tonatanvally in 2013.
Gentian and Paul taking photographs at Tonatanvally in 2013.

Large stacks of harvested turf featured in many of Paul Henry’s paintings. When we visited Tonatanvally the peat was stacked in little tepee formations or it had already been put in silage or animal feed bags, which were in turn stacked in an ad hoc fashion.  These stacks of colourful plastic sacks stood out in stark contrast with their surroundings, not at all like the harmonious palette of hues and textures observed by Paul Henry. The new form of bagged turf stack is clearly becoming a norm. It provides a new motif for an artist.

Bags of turf at Tonatanvally in 2013.
Bags of turf at Tonatanvally in 2013.

In addition to the stacked and bagged turf, the cuttings offer further interest both in plan and section. A considerable physical and chronological depth is exposed in the face of the cuttings. Each individually owned plot is marked out by a fence, wooden pegs or by long established cuttings. There is occasional mechanical wreckage from harvesting apparatus, long since rusted and overgrown. The most noticeable vegetation during our visit was bog cotton. It produced a beautiful visual effect as it danced in the wind. We will hopefully get to return to some bog locations on our 2014 visit.

Machine parts at Tonatanvally in 2013.
Machine parts at Tonatanvally in 2013.

Keel

When Paul and Grace Henry first on Achill in 1910, they turned their nose up at touristy Dugort and moved on to Keel which was the quieter of the two villages in those days. Paul famously tore up his return railway ticket and scattered the fragments into the sea. They convinced John and Eliza Barrett to provide them with lodgings at the post office in Keel. They had little money and survived largely on credit but the decision was made to sacrifice their relatively comfortable life in London in favour of life on Achill.

Keel Village, Ordnance Survey of Ireland 25” Map, 1899 (osi.ie).
Keel Village, Ordnance Survey of Ireland 25” Map, 1899 (osi.ie).

“Paul [Henry] described Keel as the most gregarious of villages, perhaps about fifty houses in all, huddled close together as if for warmth and companionship, devoid of all plan” (Kennedy, S.B., 2007, p.32). Using the Ordnance Survey of Ireland free public map viewer it is possible to look at the village in plan in 1899. From this we can get a good idea of how the village would have been laid out when the Henrys arrived 11 years later.

A rare example of a historic building in Keel.
A rare example of a historic building in Keel.

When we first explored Keel in 2013 we found that there were not many 19th or early 20th century buildings left standing in the village and those that did remain were concealed within modernisations, used as storage sheds or in ruins.  It was a pleasant surprise to see at least four uninhabited houses reasonably well maintained. It seems some people like to keep the old family home for both practical and sentimental reasons, but choose to build a new house in the vicinity.

Postcard photograph in Valentine's series (no. 62912) titled
Postcard photograph in Valentine’s series (no. 62912) titled “Keel Village (Beehive House), Achill Island. No date (Mayo County Library)

The site of the Amethyst Hotel was of great interest to the APH team as it was here that Paul and Grace Henry first lived on Achill.  A blue plaque on the wall outside records that “Paul Henry (1876-1958), Irish artist lived and worked here and at other locations in Achill 1910-1919”.

The Amethyst hotel, Keel, Achill in 2013.
The Amethyst hotel, Keel, Achill in 2013.

Unfortunately the building has been vacant for c. 27 years and has fallen into disrepair. There are plans for the building to be demolished to make way for a new development. Within the heavily vandalised remains of the interior the APH team found some 1970s fliers for the hotel and a couple of 1965 tourist maps of the island. We were also amused to find that the hotel vinyl collection included Classic Tranquility by Phil Coulter, an LP that has a Paul Henry painting as its cover image.

Postcard photograph of the Amethyst hotel, Keel, Achill. Photo by Charles McGill, Ardara, Co. Donegal. No. 95 (Mayo County Library)
Postcard photograph of the Amethyst hotel, Keel, Achill. Photo by Charles McGill, Ardara, Co. Donegal. No. 95 (Mayo County Library)

Bibliography Kennedy, S.B., Paul Henry: With a catalogue of the Paintings, Drawings, Illustrations, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2007.

Our first trip to Achill

Our first field trip to Achill Island was a short one but it turned out to be very worthwhile.  We covered quite a lot of ground, met some great people and got a good introduction to the landscape that Paul Henry painted prolifically over his ten year stay on the island.

We spent the first two nights at Keel Sandybanks Caravan & Camping Park. We arrived on the Friday evening (28/06/13), dined in style in the campervan and went for a night cap in The Annexe Inn, where the ‘smoking porch’ seemed to be the best place to catch a chat with a wise old local. On the Saturday morning the weather was damp and overcast so we spent our time exploring the village and the surrounding area.

Cloud on Slievemore
Cloud on Slievemore

The sun came out after lunch so there was some quick sketching done at base camp focusing on the dunes and the distant Minaun Cliffs. There were some impressive cloud formations above Slievemore. We set off on our bikes in the afternoon and made our way down to Gubelennaun where Paul Henry famously tore up his return ticket and chose to remain on Achill. Before returning to Keel we took a look at the infamous Achill Henge, where Gentian and Paul did some charcoal sketches on the concrete.  Later there was a quick stop at a fisherman’s house where we bought some ray fins that Gentian cooked beautifully that evening. We once again found ourselves in The Annexe Inn that night, this time for some live traditional music.  We chatted with some more locals and some enthusiastic foreigners who are working on the island.

The 30 seconds of sunshine we witnessed at Keem Strand
The 30 seconds of sunshine we witnessed at Keem Strand

On Sunday we packed up and explored more of the island on four wheels. Keem Strand was our first port of call followed by the deserted village on the southern slope of Slievemore. We then drove through Dugort, which Paul Henry thought was too touristy, and explored some of the bogland to the south in Tonatanvally townland. We finished the day by completing the Atlantic Drive, stopping off at Grainne’s Castle and numerous viewing points. The changeable weather created some stunning views out to sea and an abundance of crepuscular rays. We camped at The Valley House that evening and met some great people in the bar where Paul was roped into singing and playing guitar.  After breakfast the next morning Paul and Gentian did some sketching at Lough Nambrack. Before hitting the road for Cork we visited Madeleine Darcy, writer in residence at the Heinrich Boll Cottage, Dugort and sculptor Ronan Halpin in Keel. There were many more people we wanted to meet but we will have to wait until our next visit.

Turf stacks, Tonatanvally
Turf stacks, Tonatanvally

In future posts we will take a closer look at some of the locations we visited and their significance in relation to the life and work of Paul Henry. There will also be posts on the various components of the Achill landscape that were of particular interest to the team during our visit.