Terra Nostra lecture:Perspectives on landscape.


(Painting courtesy of Serena Caulfield)

Terra Nostra Lecture at Wexford Co. Library, April 5, by Tom Mooney.

Unlike a short story, a novel, a libretto or a play, you cannot with any certainty define poetry? Admittedly, we live with more hope than expectation that a poem shouldn’t be dull, especially as the writer is equipped with a vocabulary that ticks all boxes, and yet the molecular nature of poetry is to defy logic.

Simply put, poems are a bead of words, but there is an immeasurable gulf between the day to day use of words and their exploitation, mishandling and misappropriation by the poet, who sees the world slightly off line. If a poet cannot view their vision as unique, even if it is derivative, or needlessly opaque, or uninspiring, they have no business being a poet. Only poetry can encapsulate the frisson of love in two short lines, such as these from Neruda:

As if you were on fire from within.
The moon lives in the lining of your skin.

As good as that sounds, you should hear the original in Spanish.

Poets begin a poem with the best of intentions but the imagination, once awoken from slumber, has the resolute defiance of a cat. Once released, it is inclined to do as it pleases, and go where it chooses.

It pains me to admit, but anyone who writes creatively, or thinks what they have written is ingenious, is more than likely to exact requirements – and the patience – of the reader, than meets their own demands. However, Babette Deutsche’s definition of what constitutes poetry is contrary to the daily function of language, that it should answer your needs.

Deutsche felt that poetry reveals the realities that the senses record. The realities that the senses record. You can spot the get-out clause from a mile away. For, as all students of David Hume appreciate, reason is the slave of the passions. You act according to how you feel.

But Deutsche isn’t done: poetry should also reveal what the feelings salute. The mind perceives and the shaping imagination orders. That’s more like it: anything goes, in other words, just don’t let the it be dull.

If you cannot grasp the concept of what the mind perceives and the shaping imagination orders, you will not make head nor tail of this couplet:

You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat

Who carried on his shoulder, a Siamese cat.

Even declaimed thus, and declaimed poorly, as the words were conceived to be sung, you can feel the rhythm rise to the surface. Why is that? The building blocks of poetry, that’s why. And unique to poetry. Let’s eavesdrop again and listen to the last words of each sentence and see what they have in common:

You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat

Who carried on his shoulder, a Siamese cat.

Diplomat and Siamese cat. Three syllables each and they rhyme, but that’s not rocket science. But using an anapaestic structure, two short syllables and a stressed third, is. The last syllable of each is cast off into the ether by your tongue. Mat and cat.  And the lengths of the sentences are almost equal: 13 and 11 syllables.

Does it matter that, in this instance, Bob Dylan is obscure. I don’t believe so. It’s his imagery, as valid as when T.S. Eliot introduced three white leopards in Ash Wednesday. I still don’t know what they are doing there, but deploying symbolism in a poem can be like moving up a gear.

And when a predecessor to Dylan wrote in a hurry, many centuries earlier,

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day

Thou art more lovely and more temperate

He also knew what he was doing. Both lines have ten syllables each, organised as a metric foot, as does each line in the fourteen-line sonnet. And not alone that, the stress on each foot of two syllables is placed on the last throughout.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.

But speak it fast, and the line has voltage:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.

Shakespeare’s two syllables, with the stress on the second, called an iamb, is multiplied by five, so you end up with an iambic pentameter line. Imagine the precision he invested into each line. He wrote 154 sonnets, so he repeated this formally organised rhythm across 2,156 lines.

Iambic pentameter was also the ideal mnemonic aid to (a) help actors remember their lines and (b) help the audience hear what the actors are saying, which is why many of Shakespeare’s plays are primarily lines with five metrical feet and strong stresses.

To be, or not to be, that is the question.

Because a soliloquy is the actor’s inner monologue, Shakespeare doesn’t make rhyme a slave to a strict five-foot beat.

Fast forward a couple of centuries and the mnemonic purities of T.S. Eliot’s delightful couplet, with resonant vowels, are self evident.

In the room the women come and go

Talking about Michelangelo.

So, the beauty of English is its very elasticity. When Shelley sought to capture the power and pantheism of nature, the iambic pentameter fell short. He therefore switched the stresses around, and the iamb became a trochee:

O wild West Wind thou breath of autumn’s being.

O wild West Wind: the stress is on the first syllables of the coupling, O and West.

Or is it? Perhaps he used an anapest, three syllables, with the stress on the last one.

O wild West, Wind thou breath…

His compatriot and friend Byron was far bolder and experimental, in his poetry as in his life: he adds two extra feet, so the pentameter becomes a hexameter, the darling of the French, and now the line has the pace his description requires:

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold

And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold

Spoken thus, you have a symphony in words, a Wagnerian overture. That’s what an understanding of scaffolding under poetry achieves. Illumination. Appreciation. It just doesn’t pour onto the page. A perfect score of ten from diving from a height doesn’t happen by accident. And so it is with the writing of poems. In any language.

You don’t have to understand the following couplet from La Bateau Ivre by Rimbaud to hear the music of the flowing dozen syllables.

Comme je descendais des Fleuves impassibles,
Je ne me sentis plus guidé par les haleurs

However, landscape as a subject matter for poets, is the equivalent of watching paint dry. The emphasis is not on pace, but stasis. Inertia. The heartbeat is not that of a howling wind, a smitten heart or a ravenous wolf, but of a glacier in retreat. The pedestrian thaw and not the adventurous blizzard. With landscape poetry, you need Hamlet in your corner, not Casanova.

In landscape poetry, no one can hear you sing.

One of the constant features of Irish painting, since the mid-18th century, is landscape, itself a commentary on the Irish obsession with land ownership. Walking the hallowed corridors of the National Gallery recently, I was struck that in the early years of the new Irish Free State, landscape becomes increasingly allegorical at the hands of Paul Henry, Jack B. Yeats and of course Sean Keating. It is both womb and tomb.

Contemporary painters have not forsaken landscape as the gift which keeps giving, but Irish writers, particularly with novels, short stories, plays and screenplays, have steadily moved from the field to the street, from the colourful to the monochromatic, from the rural to the cosmopolitan.

John McGahern’s The Country Funeral leapfrogs the concerns of those preoccupied with escaping the claustrophobia and poverty of the farm, such as Paddy Kavanagh, by showing with finesses how the urbanisation of the country has started and is irreversible.

An urbanisation bookended by, first, the introduction of electricity followed by television, and finally social media. Today, you can simultaneously hear the bees buzzing on Innisfree while watching Netflix on your Android phone or tablet.

We have developed the technology to reduce the landscape to a two second selfie, not as a means of contemplation before the wonder and grandeur of the natural world, but as a vanity project.

Painters and poets, however, are hanging on. Landscape is more than a backdrop. Landscape cannot be delineated by a frame. It cannot be tamed by selfie-snapping obsessives. You will be familiar with Catherine’s dying wish in Wuthering Heights, to be released upon the heather and the hills, and poets too maintain an intense identification with landscape’s role as the canvas of the natural world, awaiting the spillage from the palette of emotions.

Writes Rosita Boland:

We have been islanded while we slept

In a white sea of snow

The leaves are rinsed from the trees

And the fields drift on past sight.

Everything is stated twice over in this landscape.

Her lines surfaced recently as my train began to slow on the approach to Enniscorthy, the trees crowned by snow and flanking the Slaney near Blackstoops.

Everything is stated twice over in this landscape. Here the poet perceives a single moment through a lens of feeling, achieving what Ted Hughes, who sought solace and sanctuary in Ireland, viewed as the encounter between elemental things, and the living.

Words render the feeling. What the feelings salute.

Returning to her desk after seeing Skellig Michael for the first time, Emily Lawless writes of:

Rocks gaunt and grim as the halls of death

Sculptured and hew by the wind’s rough breath.

No writing about landscape therefore is alive, which is merely written, without the singularity of the poet’s voice, without the sentient identification of place. Baudelaire gave us analogie universelle, where the poet forms his own image and stimulates a relationship between different senses.

Archibald MacLeish nailed it down to a tee: the poem will carry not only the image but the impulse which produced it. From school, you will remember Wordsworth’s ‘inner eye.’ And Yeats’ purpose, one of many, was to make every mountain and lake that you can see from your own door an excitement in the imagination.

The landscape, its history – political, social, cultural, geographical – how we work it, how we divide it, how we segregate it, how we abuse it, is always, always elusive, the salmon which throws the hook, and the poet instinctively knows better than the cartographer that no ordnance survey map can bridle the landscape’s pulse.

In Ireland, poets know they bestride a layered landscape: the karst vista of the Burren, the granite hills of Wicklow, the basalt plateau of the north east, the sandstone of the south and, significantly, the bogs and lakes of the central limestone lowland. Explains Michael Viney in A Living Island: ‘this small island offers change at each new turn in the road, change too, in weather, hour by hour.’

Layers in the land equate to symbolism: the polarity between the use of English and Irish has been feasted upon by poets drawn like moths to the phonetic allure of old Irish, or Irish translated into English.

Consider Seamus Heaney’s Anahorish.

Anahorish, soft gradient
of consonant, vowel-meadow.

Heaney celebrates the topographical inheritance of his childhood stomping ground, the Arcadia of his earliest memory, touching seamlessly on the senses I referenced earlier with Baudelaire, feelings triggered by phonetic stimuli, such as:

My ‘place of clear water,’
the first hill in the world
where springs washed into
the shiny grass.

My place of clear water is an English transliteration of the Gaelic etymology of Anahorish which, oddly, doesn’t appear on any ordnance survey map. It is Heaney’s contention that, in the vernacular of Irish poets writing in English, place poems are etymological daydreams. On the same track, John Montague paraphrased the Irish poet’s predilection for establishing identity between the linguistic and the archaeological of his or her locale, as ‘the primal Gaeltacht.’

For example, when Montague writes:

In high summer, as the hills burned with corn

I strode through golden light

To the ogham script of the burning stone

He is fascinated by how early Irish embraces even earlier traditions. To take this one step further, he uses the word Knockmany, which can mean either of the following: the hill of the Menapii, a tribe of the Belgae, or Ania’s Cove, Ana is the Danaan mother goddess. An Irish place name can net a world with its associations, and Montague called on the poet to contact what was left of the common tradition in their area.

The Irish poet’s strong sense of place is indisputably mixed with identity: the Greeks have a word for it. Topophilia. Topos for place and philia for love. The ancient indigenous poets of Australia would navigate their way across vast expanse of land by repeating the words of songs and poems. They are called Songlines, or Dreaming tracks

There was a time when the best of our novelists and our playwrights chose exile from Ireland, but – in general – not among their numbers are Irish poets. Why would they move abroad when they can inhabit as many cultures at they want in their own county?

And yet Irish poets have long paid homage to the deep-seated influence of European culture: Heaney and Miloz, Montague and Aragon, Seamus Deane and Mandelstam, Harry Clifton and Char, Paul Durcan and Lorca. There might be an obvious explanation for this: unlike English poets, Europeans are taught first to think, then feel.

No Irish writer is as European as Beckett.

Beckett had a lifelong passion for Irish painting and before he debunked to Paris, was a regular visit to the National Gallery. He was an aficionado of Jack B Yeats, whom he knew, and Paul Cezanne, whom he didn’t. His comments about Cezanne’s series of Montagne Sainte Victoire paintings prefigure his attitude to landscape writing, later borne out in his stage directions.

Beckett had no time for the attribution of human characteristic to a place devotion of the earlier Romantic poets, anthropomorphism, and felt that the depiction of a landscape should be ‘incommensurable with all human expression whatsoever.’ Thus, Waiting for Godot is set on a country road.

Simon Schama took a different view: we make room for the sacredness of nature, even veneration, and we interpret nature as either bucolic leisure or primitive panic. It seems a simplistic duality, almost rooted in Freudian semantics, good versus evil, etc.

The veneration of nature in literature, particularly by poetry, is ascribed to the rigid dichotomy between the Classical, viewed as orderly and rational, and the Romantic, subjective and daemonic. Industrialised England in the early 19th century altered the dynamic between the rural and the urban, where the working man and woman became an impersonal unit of factory labour. Poets, predominantly, took up the mantle of asserting individual consciousness. If Shakespeare enjoyed nature, the Romantics idealized it in all its forms, both near and far.

In A Syrian Evening, Thomas Moore writes:

Now, upon Syria’s land of roses

Softly the light of Eve reposes

And like a glory, the broad sun

Hangs over sainted Lebanon.

His fellow Irish poet, James Clarence Mangan, goes further afield, and deploys the Romantic arsenal of melancholy, regret and nostalgia.

In Siberia’s wastes

Are sands and rocks

Nothing blooms of green or soft

But the snow peaks rise aloft

And the gaunt ice-blocks

And why nature specifically? The answer underscores thematically and philosophically the raison d’etre of much writing influenced by nature ever since. And it is simple: as the age of the metropolis took hold, wild nature held firm and allowed writers and painters to exalt the imagination as the most noble of faculties, and in doing so, exalt the individual.

Michael Longley, two centuries later, in The Hebrides, shows how poets value what they fear they are in danger of losing:

Now, buttoned up, with water in my shoes

Clouds around me/ I can, through mist that misconstrues

Read like a palimpsest / My past – those landmarks and that scenery

I dare resist.


The celebration of nature today by poets need not be enmeshed in thematic convolutions. Two of our local poets convey the uncomplicated pleasure of nature at work, by capturing the first retinal sensation, like the Impressionists.

Or join me at Tacumshin

Lake, writes Joe O’Neal,

To drink my Muscadet

And watch arctic terns

Dip and flake the surface in display.


How about these lines for brevity from Mary O’Brien:

A winter evening

On the road to Gorey

Low sky luminous

With pinks and peaches.

They continue the observation of the brilliant but doomed Edward Thomas, who, in Tall Nettles, wrote

As well as any bloom upon a flower

I like the dust on the nettles, never lost

Except to prove the sweetness of a shower

Least I forget, there is no significant presence of God, or a god, in contemporary Irish poetry which takes its cue from nature and landscape – Hopkins aside -and I suspect that the influence of the Romantics and early 20th century modernism continues to prevail: that belief in a Christian God, in the words of Shelley, was an insult to reason and belief.

However, though the edifice of the Catholic Church in this country has been crumbling in slow motion for some time, John F Deane and Wexford poet Philip Quirke have written eloquently and perceptively of the virtues and personal importance of the spiritual perspective.

It is plausible, when you consider the fecundation of the Irish identity, from the Celts forth, from the time we used myths to make sense of a chaotic world, from the development of the imagination and cognition to rearrange experience within the confines of mythology and its boundaries, the landscape, like the collective unconscious, has its own primordial images and buried archetypes, so it should come as no surprise that poets find in landscapes portals to the past.

And what will you find there? Perhaps nothing more meaningful that a sensation, or a bridge to bring the past closer into view, or a cathartic release. Why shouldn’t the land be the matrix of all conscious psychic occurrences, I can hear the Kerry philosopher John Moriarty argue.

Cynicism, or savea indignatio, permeates the rural soaked poems of the most iconoclastic 20th century Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, who turned his back on the saccharine pastoralism of his youth in favour of harsh naturalism. He never ceased to expose the falsity of the Irish pastoral myth. Some of you will remember these lines from the classroom:

O stony grey soil of Monaghan

The laugh from my love you thieved

You took the gay child of my passion

And gave me your clod-conceived

Stoney Great Soil, a short poem, is the precursor to Kavanagh’s epic, The Great Hunger, in which the soil of the former, which clogged the feet of his childhood and where the first gay flight of his lyric got caught in a peasant’s prayer, becomes more dispirited in the latter. In both, Kavanagh taps into a displaced sexual frustration, not atypical of rural Ireland at the time (1940), and bitterly compares the pull of the land as a scheming woman, who uses her sexuality to hold onto her lover and trick him out of self-fulfilment.

The land seduces the young poet like the sirens who called out to Ulysses. Both Kavanagh and Ulysses are slaves to the lure of sensual delights. John Keats memorably concludes Ode on a Grecian Urn with the couplet, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ Towards the conclusion of Stony Grey Soil, Kavanagh summons the ghost of Keats and bitterly remonstrates with his native soil:

You flung a ditch on my vision

Of Beauty, love and truth

But with Kavanagh, there is always an air of unpredictability. He could, when the mood took, sheath the rapier, and acknowledge the charms of the land that he had previously castigated. It is an understatement to say he didn’t suffer fools gladly, and all his contradictions about the lure of the land are encapsulated in his short but superb poem Epic. In eleven of the poem’s fourteen lines, he baits the reader to indulge in mocking the provincial life of squinting windows and feuds, before turning the poem on its head, and wiping the grimace from your face.

Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind

He said: I made the Iliad from such

A local row, Gods make their own importance.

Kavanagh’s resolution is the tip of a metamorphic iceberg. The Latin word for the inviolable sacredness of place is cultus: it can also mean the power of meditation, or cultivation, and today it is the root of culture. Revisiting Kavanagh’s poetry about the soil and the field and the country, we would do well to remember that the definition of culture is of humble origin, for cultus or the sacred was the vernacular ordinariness of things, and the ancient Greek definition of poet was rooted in the ordinary, to make.

Poetry predates writing, and was clearly dependent on an oral tradition for survival, so that the greatest destiny of a poem, such as Homer’s The Illiad, which was not written down, was usefulness for the tribe, like the first cave paintings.

To this day, the eye is taught by the painter, the ear by the composer, and language refined by the poet. What I would like you to glean from Kavanagh is how poetry, before it is woven or hewn or forged, take your pick, is conceived in the maelstrom of strong emotions.

Occasionally, the secret of a poet’s power is what is left unsaid: in an introduction to his short book about Elizabeth Bishop, Colm Toibin said that growing up in Enniscorthy, language was also a way to restrain experience, to take it down to a level where it might stay.

And poetry written in the light of this knowledge had to be led by clarity, by precise description but by no open displays of anything, least of all easy feeling. This precision, adds Toibin, could result in a soaring energy for the writer when it was required.

There is such a fluorescence of language in the last paragraph of The Dead, by James Joyce, and his description of the landscape is as vivid and as sharp as a photograph: My only wish is that Donal McCann was among us to recite it.

Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

The city of Joyce was compact and complex, and though Dublin has changed considerably since his time, his ghost lingers; poets view it as an alternative but viable landscape. Beckett’s preferred view of Dublin was from a distance, Feltrim Hill in Kinsealy, and Louise MacNeice alludes to its proximity to the Wicklow hills in his poem, Dublin, in which the city, like the history of the country, continues to absorb all alien influences.

Fort of the Dane

Garrison of the Saxon

Augustan capital

Of a Gaelic nation

Appropriating all

The alien brought.

It is narrow minded to view the city and what it has to offer as the repudiation of nature, for poets have shown that the state of exile to a city can, in the imagination, bring about a veneration for what is absent. Being without becomes a spark for thinking anew. For many whose childhood was Dublin, or in my case Bray, arcadia was the blue hem of the mountains in the distance in the morning, or cantering among the verdant town parks after school, a line from Dylan Thomas, spoken by a teacher, ringing in my ears: The force that through the green fuse drives the flower, Drives my green age.

From Exploring English 3, edited by Augustine Martin, we were told that God, nature and man permeated the lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem God’s Grandeur, but to a boy in our class at Greystones CBS we were intoxicated by the carefree but ingenious rhythm, assonance, consonance and alliteration of Hopkin’s ode to a patch of land, Inversnaid.

This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in
comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home

Poets whose vision is not dominated by the archetypes of nature, have been free to celebrate the less colourful but enchanting minutiae of city live: it would be remiss if I didn’t draw attention to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which is ostensibly about the sacrifice of cultural identity after the horrors of the Great War, snared in the void between unspoken reality and the unseen city. It is viewed as one of the first truly modern poems in English, a poem of brutal intent: Eliot’s opening salvo, ‘April is the cruellest month’, is a stinging retort to centuries of poetry in which April was thought anything but.

A poet of honest substance whom I recommend is Dubliner Paula Meehan, who traces the essence of place in poetry back to the Dinnseanchas, an ancient history of how places acquire their names, very much an oral tradition, passed on from one generation to the next, much like the griots of West Africa do today. Meehan believes that poetry can provide a mapping, not dissimilar to the Songlines of Aboriginals, of a spirit of place, as opposed to a sense of place, or putting someone in their place. This theme is developed in Eavan Boland’s Once from her collection, A Poet’s Dublin, she imagines:

Irish wolves. A silvery man and wife

Yellow-eyed. Edged in dateless moonlight.

They are mated for life. They are legendary. They are safe.

Paul Meehan contends that the wolves emerge from the ghost forest of Boland’s home, Dundrum, as if the city is subject to the same forces and lore as the country, the city moving through consciousness.

Perhaps, but Derek Mahon, in a recent volume, An Autumn Wind, believes

We tire of cities in the end

The whirr and blur of it, so long your friend

Grow repetitious and you start to choke

On signage and carbon monoxide.

In Chile and in Argentina, they are known as Los Desaparecidos. In Ireland, the disappeared: mothers and fathers and sons murdered by the IRA and then furtively and cruelly dissolved in the vast expanses of our beaches and bogs.

Shortly before he died, Seamus Heaney gave permission for his poem, The Bog Queen, to be used in a television documentary about these disappeared. He recycles the metaphor of the bog as a repository of our history, that human sacrifice and the deposition of the victims is related to sovereignty and kingship rituals during the Iron Age.

A warehouse for the sacrificed or the murdered, such as Cashel Man, butchered in 2000 BC and laid in a pool alongside two hazel rods, and Jean McConville, a recently widowed mother, shot in the back of the head by the IRA in 1973, and buried in an unmarked pit so her family of ten children could not find her.

Heaney has the body in The Bog Queen address us directly:

My body was braille, for the creeping influences

Which conveys an interaction between the landscape and the living – dead, but despite her perilous state, she remains undefeated, and her consciousness, or soul, is described as

A jar of spawn, fermenting underground.

The poem concludes – quite movingly – with Heaney’s very acute image, that you can vicariously imagine, having survived our recent Arctic spell.

I knew winter cold like the nuzzle of fjords at my thighs.

Another September, a poem by Thomas Kinsella, was conceived not a million miles away from here, in a bedroom, beside an orchard, near the Slaney, at Lucas Park near St. John’s Manor outside Enniscorthy, described by Colm Toibin, who knew it well, as a place where mysterious images can appear from the part of the imagination most open to symbolic suggestion.

In Another September, the poet’s peaceful morning is disrupted by the long pitch black breaths outside his window, where the natural world

Rubs her kind hide against the bedroom wall

Another September because of the wealth of images is about love, about mortality and above all about loss, real or imagined. Who among us has not woken abruptly at dawn and envied your partner’s deep sleep? Kinsella writes that his wife, the unspeaking daughter in the poem, must to be in perfect union with nature to sleep so soundly, and that he therefore is not.

The landscape is often like a time-machine for poets, a conduit to another time and another place, the past, which we are reminded is a different country, because they do things differently there. I think all poets who are smitten or intrigued by the landscape experience what Yeats called ‘a lonely impulse of delight’ in An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, and the ancient humming of the landscape can make you confront the arithmetic of your life, well spent, or not.  Yeats’ pilot, fighting in the Great War, believes that when the inevitable happens, it will balance the wastage of his past and his future.

The years to come seemed waste of breath

A waste of breath the years behind

In balance with this life, this death.

In conclusion, the systematic interrogation of your own unconscious and terra nostra may not necessarily put a smile on your face, but sometimes the poet has no choice but to walk the dark corridor in search of their Holy Grail, a true poem.



The Scourge, Wexford Arts Centre

A michelle



Have words, will travel.

Before the premiere of Under Milk Wood in New York, Dylan Thomas chided his fraught cast. ‘Love the words.’ Michelle Dooley Mahon loves words. Her eponymous book, from which The Scourge is adapted, is a paean to language.

Given free rein, her verbosity has the cyclic rate of fire of a Kalashnikov. The Scourge that we know is an unbridled pyrotechnic flow of metaphor and onomatopoeia, bookended by covers.

But she had to up her game remoulding The Scourge for the stage, because this is not a play. This is real life. The quotidian morsels of everyday living laid bare.

The curtains pulled back.

Hesitancy occurs in the writer’s performance at Wexford Arts Centre, but that’s natural. She can’t help but smile at her own humour, and then remembers she’s on stage. Playing a part. Or is she?

Ben Barnes’ biggest challenge as director must have been curbing that infectious enthusiasm, like lunging a horse before hacking out.

The wardrobe is Narnia’s portal, from which the paraphernalia associated with the theme of The Scourge, a long day’s journey into death, emerge.

They are Dooley Mahon’s Songlines, a personal braille to maintain the confluence of her story, and time.

And yet I could picture her sitting on a stool, like Dave Allen, alone under a light, glass of whiskey in hand, but without the props and the Desert Island discs, and being demonstrably as effective.

Because Dooley Mahon, in a hugely courageous performance, reminds us that art and life co-exist and emerge from a single source to assemble coherence. To stand guard against chaos, said Kenneth Tynan.

This is flesh and blood writing, sentient and animate, rooted in grief. And as Dooley Mahon knows only two well, grief has two acts: loss, followed by the remaking of a life.

‘What good amid these?’ asked Whitman. Dooley Mahon provides an answer, ensuring that the powerful play goes on.

Walton at Greenacres

conor x

Walton at Greenacres Art Gallery


 ‘I wanted to learn the skills that I felt I needed to learn and the avant garde simply were not offering it,’ reflects Conor Walton on his time at the National College of Art and Design, from which he emerged, defiantly, with a Joint Honours Degree in History of Art and Fine Art, in 1993. ‘So I thought, give me the skills and I will decide what to do with them.’

Between graduating from NCAD, gaining an MA in Art History and Theory from the University of Essex in 1995 and his first solo exhibition at Jorgensen Fine Art in 1999, Walton received a rigorous training in the practice and tradition of drawing and painting from life at the Charles H. Cecil Studios in Florence: sight-size as a portrait technique has its origins in the practice of Titian, Van Dyck and Velazquez.

In the celebrated Las Meninas, Velazquez documents himself at his canvas, the orchestrator of a conceptual profundity of mise-en-scene and several people – the artist, the subject, the viewer – and in doing so initiated a multiplicity of relationships which will be emulated by artists through the ages. Walton’s self-portraits similarly invite you to draw your own conclusions regarding substance and intention. ‘There is a concern for me to get, at some level, significance or meaning,’ he explains. Velazquez broke with the traditions of his time to allow the outside world in, to give a ‘behind the scenes’ view of the painter at work.

This light-heartedness and openness is often replicated by Walton: you can watch a time-lapse video on Facebook of the evolution of his self-portrait, Push Over, which will be on show at his solo exhibition at The Greenacres Gallery. Equally compelling is the footage of Rest, in which the artist’s handling is direct and fresh, and the viewer is privy to a private symbiosis in which artist and subject are fused.

Walton – born in 1970 – is a figurative painter in the European tradition, pursuing his craft at the highest level, pushing the envelope in his desire to answer the three questions in Gauguin’s famous painting: ‘Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?’ Walton concedes that some of his work is ‘very big and complicated’ – An Ape’s Limbs Compared to Man’s – with a mesh of narrative, philosophy and references to current affairs. This in turn is balanced by a need to ‘be simple and matter of fact, if I can be. It has developed into a yin yang thing, my work as a whole. The complicated pictures to some extent leave me very dissatisfied and it is hard to make them work. On the other side I will try to do something as simple and as basic as I can, which allows for a small achievement.’

His oeuvre, therefore, is breath-taking in its reach: portrait, self-portrait, landscape, still life and allegory, a fluid accentuation of the questions posed by Gaugin. ‘A work of art should tell something of who we are,’ adds Walton. ‘The function of art should give us some insight into what we are.’ It has been said of him that he can be politically conscious without being sanctimonious, but beneath the surface of the larger work is a confrontation of the human and the mythical: The Barbarians At the Gates is a wry multi-layered observation of a mistrustful Europe under siege. But this is Walton standing on his own two feet, creating a world as distinctly his at those of his contemporaries.

His attention to detail has a clinical purity, and in his epic allegories you will encounter the consistencies and discontinuities of life, because each single painting, irrespective of size or ambition, is the spawn of a multitude of perceptions. The exhibition at Greenacres is the work of an artist determined to be faithful to his vision, pursued in the secluded independence of his studio overlooking Wicklow town, where he lives with his wife, Jane, a mountaineering instructor, and three children.

Sean Hillen exhibition, Kamera 8, Wexford


There hasn’t been a photography exhibition of the ilk of Sean Hillen at Kamera 8 in Wexford before, for one reason. Nobody captures his sense of history in reverse, or the cultural filter he deploys to segue pictorial elements from diametrically opposed sources, and deliver a composition.

Consider The Great Pyramids of Carlingford Lough: pure montage, but with a distinctive Hillen trope. I use ‘trope’ deliberately, because the metaphor is more figurative than narrative. So Hillen requires you to look beyond or, better still, look beneath.

Light is a keyhole rusting gently after rain, wrote Derek Mahon in A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford, and time is the undiscovered country in this work. Elsewhere, peruse Trouble With Glacier in Henry Street, Dublin, or The Lia Fail of Wexford, and perhaps Hillen is suggesting that photographic clichés exist to enable us to reconsider reality.

The news photographs rooted in Northern Ireland should have one function: arouse conflicting emotions, and they do, but our empathy is framed by detachment, and perhaps war fatigue. This is no fault of Hillen. With Ecstatic Nuns Outside the Casino at Powerscourt, the montage has the joie de vivre of collage, as if Truffaut is directing from the wings.

Neil Shawcross




In 1935 Allen Lane stood on a platform at Exeter railway station, looking for a good book for the long trip back to London. He had met with Agatha Christie, and must have left empty handed. The stalls overflowed with fiction, but too lurid and low brow for the eclectically well-read Lane, who was an enthusiastic admirer of James Joyce’s Ulysses, an enthusiasm not shared at Bodley Head, where he was managing director.

He hopped onto his train, and set out on his 200 mile return journey in disappointment. But a seed had been planted.

The birth of Penguin Books was Lane’s solution to his conundrum that day in Exeter and a riposte to the anti-Joyceans: proven and quality literature, such as Ulysses, cheap enough to be sold from a vending machine. He wanted his books to look distinctive, to stand out from the crowd, and he was adamant that innovative and good cover design should be no more expensive than bad.

On a July morning in 2017, the light is filling the Belfast studio of William Shawcross, a resident of the city since 1962. He is sitting at a round table close to the window, where he can survey works in progress, walls festooned by art – by him, by others – and a life time’s curating of spectacularly colourful bric-a-brac and ephemera. The effect, irrespective of where you look, is phantasmagorical.

However, what has peaked the artist’s interest is a large canvas behind him, and not in his line of sight. Shawcross describes it forensically, as if his picture memory has its own braille. It is The Fox in the Attic, Richard Hughes’ 1961 novel, yet it is not the content between the paperback covers which occupies Shawcross’s thoughts, but the bold monochromatic design by Ceri Richards.

Richards has plundered from the vaults of German Expressionism to create a book cover which is bold and Freudian. His fox, emerging from a cellar, is a fantastic element, rigidly captured within stark contrasts. Anyone acquainted with the novel’s subject – the rise of Nazism – will recognize the deliberate nightmarish mise en scene by Richards.

Shawcross has reimagined the Ceri Richards cover: his touch is precise and clearly identifiable. He pays homage to the original by deftness and subtlety, yet the technique of Shawcross is his own. He reconfigures the original design by liberating the typeface from the parallel lines.

The Fox in the Attic is by no means a representative of the classic Penguin cover – rectangles of bold colour and line drawing – with which Shawcross would have been familiar growing up in Lancashire, nor is it similar to the original Penguin cover designs. Lane’s concept, which was later perfected by the Bauhaus-influenced Jan Tschichold, was the personification of simplicity itself:  three simple horizontal bands, with the title and the author’s name dead centre. There was no image, except for a Penguin or Pelican, at the bottom.

The design, in a sense, became a slave to the marketing strategy by Lane: high quality writing (and not lurid fiction) for a low price – sixpence for a book, no more expensive than a packet of Sweet Afton. Because he was disinclined to use an image, Lane needed to distinguish fact from fiction, poetry from prose, and his solution was both ingenious and revolutionary: the top and bottom bands were colour coded.

Orange for fiction, cerise for travel (Flying Dutchman by Anthony Fokker), red for plays, yellow for miscellaneous (The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton), violet for essays (Civilisation by Clive Bell), grey for world affairs (The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism by Bernard Shaw), green for crime fiction and dark blue for biographies. Woolworths ordered 63,000 books, sold them, and Lane and his new publishing house never looked back.

Indeed forward thinking and the utilizing of new ideas – modernist design principles – allowed Penguin to keep in step with the times which were, as we know, a changing: peruse some of Tschicold’s fabulous covers in the aftermath of World War II (Caesar The Conquest of Gaul by S.A. Handford, Fantasy Overture, Romeo and Juliet by Tschaikovsky) and the bridge spanning the cool pragmatism of Lane and the dramatic expressionism of Ceri Richards, is ripened by a European vernacular.

Tschicold was succeeded by his German compatriot Hans Schmoller, one of the last species of typographers with a profound background in the history of types, and the evolution in design is almost immediate: the cover of Mary MaCaulay’s The Arts of Marriage by Schmoller, continues Tschicold’s  experimentation, and abolishes completely the strict adherence to bold colour and line, and prefigures the cinematic inventiveness of the Polish artist, Romek Marber.

Marber, who survived both the Plaszow and Auschwitz concentration camps, transformed the Penguin crime series – still colour coded green – with an avant garde, German Expressionism bent. He had three colours to work with: green, black and white, and achieved more with less, thus adhering to the original design philosophy of Penguin. This is part of the background to Shawcross’s imaging of the Penguin book titles, which gild the walls of the National Opera House: decades in the making, the Penguin iconography was an important and seminal visual statement for the young artist growing up in England (he was born in Bolton in 1940), and his love for the rational, functional and yet radical design, has never wavered.

There are very few artists or writers whose career bookends both the beginning and the end of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, but that of Neil Shawcross does: he came to Belfast in 1962 to teach at the Belfast College of Art, and never left, even during the decades of mayhem and bloodshed on the streets of Belfast. The city, its cultural and social life, slowly subsumed him, and the love affair between both has never been breached. “I have had a great life here,’ he explains. ‘The Troubles did not impact on my lifestyle. The department I worked in was bombed, but we were not bombed. It was an abandoned car bomb. Our building went up in flames but fortunately we all got out in time. Over the years, some of the students were injured, but nothing stopped what I wanted to be doing, or to be going.’

Weaned on Fauvism – ‘I love primary colours, black, white, red, red and green together,’ – and inspired by the portraiture of Graham Sutherland, Shawcross came of age as an artist at a time of immense international flux in art, as one movement, born overnight, seemed to overtake another. ‘Sutherland’s portrait of Somerset Maugham would have been a big influence. It has the excitement of drama. It’s theatre. I like his Helena Rubenstein. I find the female portrait quite difficult. Out of my 70 or 80 portraits, there might be six or seven females, which are among the best, and I put it down that they are so striking, that there was something extra special that got my attention.’

Disinclined to be categorized – ‘I sometimes think I am a bit of a butterfly’ – Belfast provided the ideal social milieu for an artist whose eye was forever drawn to the theatrical and even the extraordinary among the randomness of everyday life, as fodder for his portraits, such as a moustouche, or fiery red lips, or a fluorescent coat worn by a pedestrian patrol man outside his granddaughter’s school. ‘I have got to be interested in the character of course, and I hope that comes through, but I need to keep my interest from head to toe.’ As a consequence, Shawcross chooses his subjects rather than accept commissions, and paints from real life. As a portraitist, he doesn’t bother with background, and can complete the cycle of a work, from start to finish, quickly.

‘The very best ones were in one session because there was something going on there. I don’t want to analyse it too much because you could screw the whole thing up. But I am in a certain mood and so is the sitter, and you cannot recreate that again. I can do it quickly but there has been a lot of preparation. I think there is something going on that I am not aware of, but it’s there. It’s an intense, emotional experience.’



The Eesti Kunstimuuseum, or Kumu to you and me, in Tallin in Estonia, is hosting The Savages of Germany,  a typically poor translation into English of Der Blaue Reiter, which is worth seeing if you are knocking around the Baltics, with some interesting asides by Franz Marc, Emil Nolde, Wassily Kandinsky and a few locals, Konrad Magi and Ado Vabbe. In the permanent exhibition space there is too much propaganda dross, but an exception is this room (see pic) by Mare Vint and Jaanus Samma.

Ward at Kelly’s

19458 - Caroline Ward - A3-001 (1)

It is tempting to view the arc of Caroline Ward’s development as meteoric, as she took to painting relatively late. Something in spate was lurking: the lava of her imagination was waiting for an eruption, as Byron might have said.

What was the catalyst? A gift as pressing and as defined and as articulate as hers’ cannot be suppressed indefinitely. Each still life in her first solo show at Kelly’s Resort Hotel will never elicit the same response. A Caroline Ward still life is a state of poise which runs deep. For, in this collection, these are paintings that you study.

Why is that?

The mackerel on the plate, evidently gutted, are at the end of their line. Memento mori perhaps? Yet we don’t inhale the stench of death. The sensation, at first, is purely visual.

Perhaps we marvel at the unobtrusiveness of their existence, irrespective of their condition. The egg is an open invitation to a response that is visceral: something so fragile, and yet so tactile.

The assembled bottles are a theatre of visual relationships, with the intensity of perfect harmony. Her interiors might appear as a distinct genre in this show, but the invitation by Caroline is the same: each work is the synthesis of her inner experience.

I think curiosity and questioning explains Caroline’s love of abstract art, for example, but still life is her calling. It is her duchas and her duende.

I believe it is a folly to define an appreciation of her work as solely clinically detached or calculatingly forensic, like planets with their own orbits.

Her paintings are rooted in her inner experience. Which is what, precisely?

Like Ed Hopper and Vilhelm Hammershoi, Caroline is a fellow traveller of how their subjects are harmonised with feeling.

There is naturally an obsession with the engagement of realism, but what is emphasised is separateness, not common ground.

The single mackerel on the plate offers two narratives: is Caroline stablizing the impression, or recording its transience? Be warned. To own a Caroline Ward is to engage in an eternal conversation about the meaning of still life. However, the means will always justify the end.

Ironically, what we can find in her depiction of the ordinary is how the discontinuities of everyday life must be matched by the consistencies of the artist. Often drawn to the unremarkable, Caroline inhabits the space between tranquillity and the tautness of a moment: within and without each painting is a continuance of an ancient tradition, the artist beckoning us to question our assumptions about the work.

It is curious that when I bracket Caroline with other artists, they are not Irish: there is the Dane, Hammershoi, the Italian Morandi and the Americans Hopper and Andrew Wyeth. Still life is a discipline that is unforgiving, where every stroke of the brush is a gamble. Your eye will not permit a mistake.

There is in a still life the momentum of tension: the fruit and the mackerel are in a state of repose, but nature is always about conquest.

If you can avoid the temptation to view her work as images of visible fact, then you can enter the atmosphere of the artist, and grasp her capacity to perceive.

Caroline is equally interested in what is not immediately visible, or discerning: the profound depth of the unknown outside and beyond the two windows in the bathroom interior. Providing a portal to what is not visible is an enduring strength of Caroline’s interiors, where light has more than a walk-on role. It defines space.

How refreshing that in the age of the confessional, Caroline is an anomaly. Her collection as a whole is the poetry of silence. The restrained elegance of her movement does not dampen its quiet power. Her work is the flotilla of a storm passing on the horizon.

Her emotional range is broad, from the poetic suggestiveness of what is beyond the interior, to the smouldering lightness of being of the objet trouve, such as the study of a bowl, or the bottles, or the tonal subtlety in depicting the domestic flotsam of everyday life: familiar, yet stripped of identity.

Her subjects are therefore not intended to be remarkable – not dressed to impress – but they are a reminder that the definition of still life is always rooted in the Italian, natura morta: the sound phonetically mirrors the meaning.

Whether it is fallen fruit or dead fish or a lemon suspended in water, the handling of the paint has as much contemplative importance as the inspiration. We can only imagine the long gestation of the synthesis of her inner experience, before the brush is summoned, and the easel fixed.

A falconer’s skill depends on their dexterity with the thin leather jesses: we see the bird, but the trick of the falconer is pretending not to be there. So too with Caroline Ward: we are surrounded by her presence, when the artist has long since left the room.

The quality of her natura morta, therefore, is ageless.



In the age of the kindle, bibliophiles must constitute a dying breed, and yet their favourite haunts are, in some cases, easily a century or two old, and still flourishing. I have spent cherished afternoons hunting in O’Gara and Wilson in Chicago, in Hatchards in London, in College Street Boi Para in Calcutta and, most recently, Bayntun’s in Bath, one of the world’s leading antiquarian bookshops. It is in the labyrinthine basement where I have found poetic jewels in the past, and this time was no exception: first editions of Cal Lowlell’s The Dolphin and Theodore Roethke’s The Far Field, for just £5 and £10 a piece. And, because it is Bayntun’s, in excellent condition

Improbable Renditions


American photographer Ming Smith is better known for her portraits of Nina Simone and Alvin Ailey – black cultural figures in American at a time of widespread social unrest  (what has changed?) – and a snippet of her forty year career, with the subjects captured in a state between distortion and definition, can be seen at The Serpentine Gallery in London. If you make it, why not saunter after to the nearby Frank Hurley exhibition in The Royal Geographical Society.

And creatures dream


Segueing several decades of visual art in Wexford are veteran Gillian Deeney (left), now decamped to Tinahely in the wilds of South Wicklow, and Serena Caulfield, decamped from Rosslare to the wilds of Ballyhealy. They are pictured examining three original Caulfields in Wexford Co. Council at the excellent two venue show, comprising 13 artists, curated by Catherine Bowe and Helen Gaynor.