13 proved a lucky number for the closest jazz festival to Wexford, which happens to be in Wales and is also the best of its kind.

Aberjazz, which hosts up to 50 events, including gigs, workshops, busking and forays into blues and folk, in events sprinkled for five glorious late summer days throughout Fishguard, from the seated Theatr Gwaun to the charming and capacious Ffwrn, from the no frills Rugby Club to the epicurean’s favourite, Pepper’s restaurant and art gallery, is unique in Wales.

Part of its charm, which cannot be package and airlifted to somewhere else, is both the village itself – it couldn’t be any more laid back – and the team of volunteers, marshalled by Alice (CHECK), who are effortlessly courteous, enthusiastic and genuine lovers of music. And at a festival, where the vast majority of acts and most of the attendances are visitors, this helps enormously.

If you are arriving from Ireland on the Stena Line ferry, the charm offensive begins immediately: Fishguard has a plethora of good cafes and restaurants for the weary, and – on a clear day – offers some stunning seascapes, especially from Lower Fishguard.

The raison d’etre of the festival, unlike say Cork in October, is jazz: any not just mainstream jazz but a programme which is devoted to all its myriad manifestations. To this end, the exploration of jazz and the proliferation of its inimitable qualities, Aberjazz has been bringing well known acts (Polar Bear, Jacki Dankworth (CHECK)) and emerging acts (The Jasmine Power Quintet) to the village since its inception 13 years ago, is paramount.

There is the combination of the old and the new, the British and the international (Wexford’s Kevin Lawlor in 2015 and the Argentinian Tango Jazz Quartet in 2016), and a fearlessness in the programming: the collaboration between Israeli drummer Asaf Sirki and Polish vocalist Sylwia Bialas and an awareness of evolving trends far from home: Slowly Rolling Camera, with the much in demand musician-producer Dave Stapleton, had excelled at bigger festivals like Love Supreme and the London Jazz Festival. For many of the A-listed concerts, prices range from £5 to £15, but Aberjazz, in its desire to make the music accessible to all, does not have a cover charge for over half of the acts.

It is probable that this year’s headliner, Courtney Pine at Theatr Gwaun, could have sold out twice, or that Aberjazz could possibly have charged twice the admission price (£22.50), because the saxophonist is British jazz’s most restless and adventurous musical prodigy since he made his name with the revolutionary To The Eyes of Creation in 1992. He was not yet 30.

Pine, in concert, does not care to repeat the success of previous tours, perhaps a sensitivity to how his broad output has a tendency to polarise both critics and fans. Earlier this year he did a short tour with Zoe Rahman (who played a gig with her brother in the early days of the Wexford Opera House) of ballads, old and new, deploying his bass clarinet as lead solo instrument, something you will not happen across every day.

For Abejazz, it was the flip side of the coin, a raucous crowd pleaser or an old fashioned knees up, but he caught the mood of his audience perfectly, with Pine favouring soprano saxophone as he reached into the 2012 release, House of Legends, more compatible for the seven piece line he brought to Fishguard, including two great guitarists, Cameron Pierre and Chris Cobbson. Certainly, House of Legends is symptomatic of why Pine is often adjudged as controversial in contemporary jazz. The BBC’s Martin Longley dissed it for its ‘new depths in novelty dredging’ and ‘parping synthesiser abuse’. Is it really that bad? No, but the purists detested what Longley dismissed as Pine’s ‘virtuoso contortions.’

‘Is Courtney Pine still a jazzman?’ snarled the BBC’s man.

I don’t have the answer for that, nor am I sure it is relevant, but Pine is certainly a showman, and his demonstratively popular Aberjazz gig, almost all two hours of it, was joyous and adventurous, acknowledging the calypso swing of his Jamaican roots, switching gears from Kingstonian Swing to the infectious Ma-Di-Ba, although the stand out number, in which Pine’s brilliance is undoubted, is his homage to the founder of the Notting Hill carnival, Claudia Jones. If Courtney Pine has not been feeling the love from critics, he got it by the truck load in Theatr Gwaun.


The Blue Egg Gallery

In December last I was ushered to the opening of an exhibition near Cork Street in London by Genieve Figgis, about whom I knew and still know little, except that she lived in Wicklow and received her degree in fine art from the Gorey School of Art.

What left an impression was less the totality of her work, than her allusion to dark narratives of history and how as an artist she inhabited the dissonance of the natural world. This was my interpretation, not hers’. There was undoubtedly, for those in attendance, an instant allure, but not for me.

Hours after the exhibition, huddled against the cold shimmying in from the rising Thames, I thought about my lack of connection with an artist from my own neck of the woods. And yet, stalking her exhibition quietly like a curious shark, I had sensed in the turbulent narrative an unspoken assimilation of a shared history

And why not: ours’ is a small island where, whether north, south, east or west, one is a slave to the same four seasons. Being islanders, though we rarely describe ourselves as thus, many in attendance at the opening of a show by Terry Dunne and Juliet Ball at The Blue Egg Gallery in Wexford in August, were born in a country at a time when Ireland gloried in its natural impregnability.

The impregnability, a legacy of political will, could also be suffocating for those with a creative and idiosyncratic bent, so when Joyce sought to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race, he went into exile, and there was a steady queue after him in the decades that followed

Recalling the Figgis exhibition,  experiencing abroad an Irish artist’s take on the locus of my childhood,  and whose studio I am told is surrounded by what  Seamus Heaney would have described as ‘the alders dripping’, I gradually sensed an osmosis between her work and myself.

It took time, but an awakening, like the firing of clay or threading and weaving, has its own rhythm. And so, a new exhibition of work by Juliet and Terry is always an initiation into another world, where there is no turning back. There seems to be, because we share the same small turf, an enjambement between the arts, whether it is painting, sculpture, pottery, weaving and literature.

An enjambement is associated primarily with poetry, where the last sentence of a stanza connects unhesitatingly with the first line of the next. But it can also mean to encroach upon. Music filters into poetry, poetry is distilled into song, and nature is woven through the prism of personal experience, as you can see in the earthenware and tapestries in The Blue Egg.

The artist absorbs.

The imagination is a sieve.

The impulse to create is a catalyst, and the gestation commences.

It is the undefinable mystery of that chain of events which segues the artist with the viewer, which is why openings matter. Each new work has the potential of being a portal, and if you look attentively and engage the spirit level of the eye honestly, you instigate an unconscious assimilation.

And what you choose to do with that experience after you leave the gallery, is what counts. Only don’t abdicate it. As Terry Dunne says, it is just a matter of making time to observe.

I referenced enjambement earlier; poets are obsessed with the technical virtuosity of both weaving and pottery, two skills which, because of their tactility and intricate deployment of colour, provide a crucible of metaphor and simile. Terry and Juliet harvest the bounty of nature.

Ted Hughes, reflecting on Arachne’s duel with Minerva, has the weaver “feeding the cloth with colours that glowed every gradation of tints in the rainbow and where the sun shines through a shower.” These sensations are mirrored in Terry’s Autumn Falling Into Snow and Earth Energy.

It is as if the hand at the loom, fired by the patterned webs of the imagination, need to be as deft and swift and as light, as the initial source of inspiration. Terry seeks his in the colours of plants and flowers, and if you take the time to observe, if you mimic the focus and industry of the bee, you too will experience the efflorescence of the tapestry artist.

Seamus Heaney collaborated with playwrights, musicians, artists, but I think he had a specific gra for potters. It is arguable that the development of a poem apes the long view taken by the potter. He studied Sonja Landweer, and from my casual encounter with Juliet Ball’s decorative stoneware and porcelain and smoke fired vases, I can appreciate the interweave of ceramic and poetic allusions.

Heaney imagines a bridge between the buried substance used by the potter and the volcanic heat of the kiln. His couplet helped me to embrace the essence of Juliet’s brilliance, demonstrable in the ash-glazed stoneware.

“If glazes, as you say, bring down the sun

Your potter’s wheel is bringing up the earth.

This exhibition by Terry and Juliet, the latest of many in The Blue Egg Gallery curated by Mary Gallagher, amplifies our better understanding of the ancient art of craft making. Housed in two rooms flooded by natural light, the juxtaposition of an object and its space is a metamorphosis brought about by hand guided by the eye.

Our time is transient, but engagement with tapestries made from traditional materials and work rooted in the traditions of functional pottery, can transcend the busy hourglass and leave a legacy of woven or fired beauty, undimmed in lasting radiance.

Sonja Landweer


One of the best, and least publicised, exhibitions at the 2016 Kilkenny Arts Festival, is Crossovers at the Rudolf Heltzel Gallery on Patrick Street, featuring eight artists, bookended in excellence by Kate Murtagh-Sheridan and Sonja Landweer, who is showing slate roof tiles on black wood block and three framed prints.

Liam O’Rourke



Liam O'Rourke's art. Pic: Jim Campbell


Liam O’Rourke’s studio is a relatively small shed where the garden of his family home in Killurin ends and a field which seems to rise inevitably toward the sky begins. I have seen it in most seasons, and naturally the view is subject to flux. There is a temptation to describe the field as exceptionally idyllic, but it isn’t. In fact, from Liam’s perspective looking out the window, there is nothing atypical about it. It does, however, have character: there is a vigorous verdancy to the swath of grass, whose purpose is to feed cows, and if it is breezy or a sudden shower falls like a shoal of silver fish, you can spot the unlimited variegation of the green striation at play. At sun up or sun down, I can imagine a field of fire.

And the sky. From Liam’s studio, it looks like a Montana sky, or a Suffolk sky. Whole. Big. I haven’t stood in his field at night, though I plan to: I can only imagine, with zero light pollution, the sensation of experiencing the immeasurable portal to another existence, absolutely beyond our ken, no matter how many probes NASA send to far off planets.

Liam’s field and Liam’s sky are fluctuating continuities in his life: they are embedded in both his memory and his imagination, an enmeshment of unseen tremors, an aquifer through which sensations go back and forth. What you see in Liam’s work is a distillation of what he encounters every day.

He is not shy in his deployment of paint, nor always restrained in his choice of canvas, but see the end product as an invitation to share his world, but anew. An engagement with a Liam O’Rourke painting, no matter how many times, is never quite the same, and so your experience is mimetic of Liam’s when the canvas is blank. Try picture Liam immersed in the tactility of his field, the tactility of the onset of autumn, the tactility of the wan light of a soft morning, the tactility of cold fingers on an unforgiving dawn transforming a brush into a wand, and releasing from the stationary custody of a day struggling from its caul, a bold and warm flowering.

The artist’s obsession with a patch of turf is not new: Monet’s garden at Giverney and Cezanne’s Mont St. Victoire were stimuli to a closer study of nature. Peter Lanyon’s landscapes from a glider over the Devon countryside allowed him to construct multiple viewpoints in parallel with layers of meaning. John Hoyland chose the circle as the defining form in nature. Closer to home, Mary Lohan’s studies of Ballyconnigar and Blackwater revisit what Elizabeth Bishop would have described as low light floating and gliding.

Liam is probably closer to the Colour Field school of painting, characterised by the deployment of solid colour, removed from an objective context, and becoming the subject itself. But who knows? He can use geometric patterns to reference nature, but when you characterise an artist, he or she will turn around and do something profoundly different. What is certain is that the studio of Liam O’Rourke is in a field in rural Co. Wexford, and that field tethers the artist. He continues to scrutinize that field with its quivering trees and their jesses of branches and the sky which rises from the field and segues what is grounded and what isn’t. Colour as subject? Why not? Look closely and you will find the complex expression of a simple thought, the impalpable dissolved by Liam’s harmony with bold colours, and rendered diaphanous. But always with vitality. The imagery, if not recognizable to you, is still recognizably there for the artist, for modern art as we know it has ceased to sustain the illusion of an illusionistic function, and the artist is liberated to negotiate on his own terms

Equus Caballus at the Tate Guerin Gallery

alison 5

The control of her subject matter might suggest the influence of Paddy Lennon, but Alison Tubritt, who grew up in an environment of farms and animals, is operating on a smaller scale.

In Equus Caballus, the labouring movement of Lennon’s horses is not repeated: instead, Tubritt is about suggestion, the delineation of form – the curvature of a back emerging from the black void like a half-moon – achieved painstakingly through the most precise of detail.

The core strength of the small pictures is the magnetic effect of the Durer-like control of the most delicate strokes: you are pulled in to marvel as the mechanics and aesthetics of Tubritt’s finesse.

She was first spotted by Guerin as a 17 year old novice exhibiting at a Christmas craft fair at Loftus Hall, and promised a solo show once she completed her BA Hons in Visual Art.

Perhaps what was spotted was the variety of realism, and it has evolved.

The trajectory of Tubritt has been well worth the wait, and the gallery space is ideal. Oceans of white walls for 17 pieces, white pencil on black paper and mounted on black foam board.

Tubritt’s eye is challenged by what she can’t see, but feels: the subcutaneous force from which the horse in all its majesty and silent appeal appears to metamorphose. The effect, for the keen eye, is mesmeric, and you forget that you are in a gallery, which ought to be the way of all good art.


My Real Life


My Real Life was conceived by Eoin Colfer originally as a short play for the WexFour series at Wexford Arts Centre two years ago: the idea sprung from a conversation in a pub, a guy in a chair, staring into the abyss, baring his soul.

At Wexford, in the company of plays by Billy Roche, John Banville and Colm Toibin, My Real Life adhered to the original brief from director Ben Barnes: eschew complex staging or technical requirements and keep the vignette to 20 minutes.

Colfer, whose writing for the stage began with a Wexford Festival one act for Wexford Drama Group in the Talbot Hotel, was initially stumped, but once he turned the tap there was no stopping the monologue from MS sufferer Noel. Of the four short works, My Real Life was leavened by Colfer’s natural humour and the astute decision to have Noel seemingly record his valediction on his iPhone.

Noel, however, is neither good with technology nor his choice of drugs: the original My Real Life concludes with Noel confronting the side effects of Viagra. ‘Oh Christ. I have a raging horn. Hard as a diamond. They could put me to work in Waterford Glass. What am I going to do with this?’

It would be a mistake to view the mature version of this play in the Theatre Royal (which faces Waterford Glass) as My Real Life revisited: Barnes and Colfer have stripped the engine and created something much longer, more powerful: a genuine theatrical tour-de-force.

It was a brave move, yet it works: the dialogue in the WexFour production is on occasion recycled – reminisces about ‘the Light Mime Society’, the producer in the taxi who hates opera, the confrontation with the yahoos on the Main Street – but the flow of witticisms doesn’t need to be as urgent in a two hour production.

And so Colfer the novelist steps in and does what he does best: he fleshes out Noel, adds a third dimension which time didn’t allow in the WexFour version, colours in his background from garsun to man, and instead of laughing with or at Noel as we did at the Arts Centre, we empathise, because he is seriously ill.

Brilliantly, Colfer and Barnes gradually spiral the narrative arc of Noel’s dialogue into a controlled descent, so that after the interval we are immediately in darker terrain, and those expecting the light denouement at Wexford are in for a surprise.

In conclusion, My Real Life is an original play of substance and emotional heft, a superb piece of writing on the page and direction on the stage which teases out what it means to confront the nadir of your existence.

The marrow is in the performance of Don Wycherley: the props and affects are limited to chiaroscuro, to a chair, a table, several bottles of pills, a glass of water and a tape recorder, but Wycherley needs only a movement of the hand, or a grimace, the shuffling of a foot, to segue Colfer’s exquisitely teased light and shade.

Colfer was in attendance when Wycherley brought his one man show After Sarah Miles to Wexford Arts Centre years before My Real Life, and would have known how Wycherley makes the connection between performer and audience seamless.

This transparency, allied to his stamina and his breathtaking depiction of Noel in the final 20 minutes, ensures that My Real Life is one of the finest new Irish plays in recent times, and a must-see during its current run.

Sainsbury heaven


A pleasant surprise during a casual visit to Norwich recently (for the first time) was the immensity of the permanent collection as the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts.

The presentation of art from across time and place continues to inspire and surprise and uniquely presents art as a universal global phenomenon. For example, on view in the Living Area Gallery, the collection includes major holdings of art from Oceania, Africa, the Americas, Asia, the ancient Mediterranean cultures of Egypt, Greece and Rome, Medieval Europe, and including a significant number of works acknowledged as seminal examples of European modern art, like  Picasso,  Degas,  Bacon,  Epstein,  Moore,  Giacometti and superb  Modigliani nudes.

Michael A. Tony Vaccaro



Tony Vaccaro, orphaned early, was shuffled between America and Italy, but in those early years he was determined  to capture beauty with his camera, and from the off his early contact sheets demonstrate impeccable balance, innovation and, rare for the age we live in, journalistic integrity. He didn’t stage it or make it up. His best decade was the 1950’s, his best stage was Europe emerging from the ruination of war, and his best subjects were formidable personalities like Picasso, Stirling Moss and Jackson Pollock, always using natural light. A retrospective is taking place in the Town Hall in Caen, France.

Brick Lane Bookshop


If you happen to be in London’s East End anytime soon, I’d highly recommend the quite wonderful Brick Lane Bookshop, one of the few independents left, so well worth supporting: it first appeared in Watney Market and, until a few years ago, was known as Eastside Books. Particularly strong on poetry, philosophy and politics. Best day to go? Probably Sunday, market day and an absolute hive of activity.






Books and Borris


Borris in Co. Carlow

Borris in Co. Carlow


The Festival of Writing & Ideas, spread over four venues on the grounds of Borris House, was bookended this summer by the sold out performances of two stellar actors.

Orson Welles biographer and star of A Room With a View and Four Weddings and a Funeral, Simon Callow, read from Seamus Heaney’s posthumous Aeneid Book VI, after he was introduced by the late poet’s daughter, Catherine.

And  Dominic West, better known for his gritty role in iconic television series The Wire, interviewed the writer of The Killing Fields and Whitnail and I, Bruce Robinson.

The Festival of Writing & Ideas came to the attention of the world’s media last year when regular attendee David Gilmour of Pink Floyd gave a preview of his forthcoming solo album.

What attracts luminaries like West, Gilmour, Callow, legendary war photographer Don McCullin, Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde, novelists Martin Amis and William Dalrymple from near and far to this discreet gathering of primarily journalists, novelists and thinkers, is the complete absence of pretension and intrusion. They sign books gracefully and mingle at ease with their readers.

Borris is exceptionally low key: the ambience of this small and beautiful Carlow village, encircled by the Blackstairs mountains, permeates a young festival whose readings take place in a ballroom, a former granary, a chapel, a marque and, for the first time, the village’s only hotel.

Borris also seems to bring out the best among its celebrated guests, of whom there were over 50 either reading or being interviewed: Don McCullin revealed to Mariella Frostrup that the soldier throwing the grenade and who was shot in his famous photograph of the Tet offensive, contacted him for the first time last week; Seamus Heaney’s response when Simon Callow requested him to read a poem at a memorial for the actor, Sir Paul Scofield, was “delira and excira”; Chrissie Hynde explained why guys prefer to work with women in the studio: “it’s one less male ego in the way.”; Bruce Robinson said the worst moment of his life was when his stepfather told his 13-year-old self that he was “just a loud mouthed little c***. ‘It shocked me to the marrow of my bone.’”

Booker prize winner John Banville, never short of a good quote when he turns up at Borris, opined “Life is incoherent, we don’t remember our births, we don’t experience our deaths and all we have is this mess in the middle.”

The performance of South London’s Kate Tempest was a first for the occasionally high brow Borris: Tempest has been a rapper since she was 15, and her performance of her poem Your Daddy Is A Soldier from heart resulted in the longest and loudest ovation of the three day event.

At the 5×15 session (five writers speaking for 15 mins each) Hyeonseo Lee gave a simple and heart-felt account of her decision to defect from North Korea and the challenges she faced along the way.