independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Mulcahy at 60: never say sorry

Barry Egan finds the hell-raising painter in mellow mood, consoled by the love of a good woman -- Vera Whelan, a stained-glass artist from Wexford -- and energised by a hatred of the banks that are driving people to suicide

SHOWMAN: Mick Mulcahy is a performance — Michael Mulcahy is the one that Vera

I meet him barefoot on the road just outside Dungarvan. He looks as if he has just come down from another galaxy. You wouldn't expect anything less from Ireland's answer to Salvador Dali, Mick Mulcahy.

He is holding a flower, his fingernails and toenails are painted a chipped blue and red. Around his neck are a succession of colourful fabric-y scarfs that blow in the wind rolling in off the sea as he stands there at the appointed time to be picked up. There is a smile that never leaves his face for the next four hours.

He is wearing yellow wristbands and purple bracelets; his wild hair looks as if it has been brushed by the Devil himself. He gets into the back of the car, says to drive on a few miles till we get to a shed on the bend in the road at the end of the hill in Helvick. "Give out to nobody but yourself," Mick sings in the car as we head at speed towards Helvick. "And then there won't be any problem."

"I love making love to ban garda with their suspender belts," he suddenly announces -- apropos of absolutely nothing -- in that theatrical sing-along voice he likes to put on when he is acting the goat. "I loves lesbians with tan legs."

It is his birthday. He was born in Dungarvan 60 years ago today. "Give us a birthday kiss," he says to the beautiful woman with me who's driving the car. "But not while you're driving around the corner." She suddenly changes the gears badly and the car judders. We don't end up in the sea, but she says sorry for the bump nonetheless.

"Never say sorry!" Mick implores like Orson Welles in Citizen Kane. "This is an idea that the British empire has imposed upon on us! Sorry for unchanging your gear! Why would you say that? I am not your driving instructor giving you the test."

As much as Michael Mulcahy is putting on a performance -- being Mad Mick, Mick The Prick, the bug-eyed libertine and iconoclast who has walked naked through the streets of Galway and brought plastic ducks for a walk through Stephen's Green -- there is a very real depth of sadness, and joy, to him too. He loves with all his heart and but he also feels pain with all his heart.

"Truth is the only thing worth having in the world," he says. "Love and truth are the only realities in the world."

As we pass a part of the road, he turns quiet. "My younger brother hanged himself in there. He hanged himself in that f***ing place," he says. I suddenly notice that the yellow wrist band Mick is wearing is a suicide prevention wristband of 1Life, with the number of the counselling helpline on it. Mick says he is very conscious now that the numbers of poor souls committing suicide in Ireland is on the rise because of the economy and the bankers, who he says should be "flogging themselves in public".

"Because of the banks," Mick continues, " I had to bury my brother. Not a nice f***ing job. Not a nice f***ing job. He is buried down there." He points out across to nearby An Rinn, where Frank Mulcahy is buried in the new cemetery. He looks as if he is going to cry.

Five minutes later, we're sharing Tayto crisps outside Mooney's pub in Helvick with Mick's lovely girlfriend, Vera Whelan, a stained-glass artist from Wexford whom he has been seeing for the past nine months.

"I believe in God and the angels," he says. "My guardian angels are working overtime and they're not even in the union."

"Very loving and very affectionate" is how his brown-haired guardian angel Vera describes him. "He has a great big generous heart. He could get hurt very easily. He needs generous people around him or he would be taken for granted. But he is very loving."

Mick told Victoria Mary Clarke in this paper in July 2002: "When I'm 56, I'll marry a woman 30 years younger and I'll be as randy as the biggest goat in Puck Fair." Mick is now 60, of course. A little bird has told me that the artist recently asked Vera to marry him. Asked whether marriage is on the cards, their eyes both light up. "Of course," says Mick, "once we have a little house in view of the sea, we can see ourselves getting married."

"We both have the same answer," she says.

Vera adds that, for all the projected image there can be of him being a bit of a ladies' man, she found him to be the perfect gentleman. Even though he's admitted that he was determined last October to go out with me, he was more than happy allowing me to get to know him as a friend first, and then work colleague. He dated me in the old-fashioned way, and those I told of this to, who know him well, all agree. There is a lovely, lovely gentleness to the true Michael behind the performing Mick."

The passionate determination with which Mick applied to pursuing and winning the heart of the 45-year-old Vera speaks volumes about him. After meeting Vera briefly at his exhibition in Wexford on the October bank holiday weekend last year, he moved within days from Helvick to Wexford to pursue this dream of going out with her. He found out where she went for coffee every morning -- O'Briens sandwich emporium on the main street -- and came in to see her. "He got to know me as a friend first and then it just went from there."

They are clearly smitten with each other. The only time he will shut up and behave is when she is speaking. Mick is a big child in this way. And in other ways, he is a big child constantly looking for attention. He doesn't seem content unless he is putting on a show and is the centre of attention. "He is performing all the time," Vera says. "All the time. His painting is expressionism and Mick is always performing and experiencing his inner feelings, too, even when he is not painting. He is very sensitive. Things impact on him deeply. His brother's death impacted on him deeply. The economy impacts on him deeply."

I ask her what's the difference between Mick Mulcahy and Michael Mulcahy.

"Michael is his real self," Vera says. "Mick is the man who loves tomfoolery. I see Mick 10pc of the time. The public would see him 90pc of the time. But 90pc of the time I see Michael. He is serious and very receptive to everything going on around him. He takes everything in. He is totally alert. He is totally here, totally with it. He hears every single word said on the radio. He misses nothing in conversation."

A showman as much as an artist -- who has been feted all over the world -- Michael is probably at his best when he is around people who love him. I see a lovely happy side to him when Ann Mooney, who owns Mooney's, joins us outside in the sunshine for a chat. It is like a scene from the time of de Valera. Dancing at the Helvick Crossroads.

When I compliment Mick on his energy, Vera begins to tell me that he starts the day with two mugs of garlic, ginger and honey, ginseng. vitamin C and B complex. Mick, mischievously, interrupts thus: "And then a little bit of giddy-up to put a step on my stride." He then smiles like a bold child knowing he has said something naughty.

"She hasn't lost any weight since she meet you, so stop the bluffing," says Ann. "There's not much giddy-up going on there!" We all laugh, but Mick laughs the loudest. You could probably hear his laugh out at sea. "I have known Michael for many years," she says. "I met him first when he was a child."

"Sure, didn't I buy sweets in your mother's shop?" he replies, beaming.

"You did. You came in for six sixpenny bars of chocolate," Ann says of Tessie's sweet shop down the road. "Michael's from Dungarvan."

"We were very posh," says Michael, putting on a mad Irish accent. "We had a summer house out in Helvick."

"He's taking off Michael D and he won't like that," Ann chides him.

Michael goes a bit sheepish for a second before recalling that Michael D was at his wedding on the sea in Helvick over 20 years ago. It was apparently a Brehon law ceremony, someone says. "No," corrects Mick, "I invented the ceremony and I told him it was Brehon law. Michael was a guest on the boat at sea. It was just out the back here."

Mick had another relationship and has one daughter, Fiona. Thirteen, she lives in Paris with her mother, Adrianna. Mick and Vera are just back from Paris.

"The trip was actually lovely," Vera says. "I have been in Paris several times before and done the tourist trek, but it was lovely being in Paris with someone who knew the people. His studio is only a five-minute walk from Notre Dame. He knows everyone in the cafes and everyone knows him." It would be no exaggeration to say that everywhere Mick Mulcahy goes, he makes his presence felt. He gives me a snatch of Don't Forget Your Shovel by Christy Moore.

"I love that song. When I was on the dry out in Monkstown up in Dublin, Christy came in to see me. I have the greatest admiration for him. Oh, the sound of the voice!"

Mick is giving up the drink on August 5. He says he's given up before -- for 12 years and seven years respectively. He is not exactly politically correct but his humour is on the edge of funny and scandalous.

He says he met Saddam Hussein when the late Iraq leader used to have international festivals of art. "I went out there for it to Baghdad and I was introduced to Saddam," Mick says and he is not making it up. "What Ireland needs is a leader who is not afraid to be executed and will execute indiscriminately. Well, a certain amount of discretion about the indiscrimination."

He is talking about his pet hate, the Irish bankers. "Mick talks a lot about what the banks have done to this country and how it has affected people psychologically," Vera says. "He thinks a lot about the increasing amount of suicides in Ireland because of the banks. It is on his mind now. Because this morning we got up at 7.30am and at 7.35am his neighbour goes by and Mick went out waving out at him singing Happy Birthday To Me, in great form. A friend rang Mick to say that a friend of his committed suicide last night. So that's why suicide is on his mind today. There is one thing I'll say about Michael: he's an open book. There is no hidden agenda. Straight as a die. What you see is what you get."

I ask him directly. What's the misconception people have about Mick Mulcahy? How do they see you? "They think I'm mad," he says. Don't you play it up a bit? Isn't it almost an intellectual exercise of playing with people's preconceived notions of you? I'm thinking dada, situationism. He looks at me like I'm mad.

"I get up in the morning without an idea in my head," he says eventually, "and the only idea that ever enters my head is to do what I like, when I like and how I like. And if they don't like it, I tells them to f. u. c. k. o. f. f. I never pronounce that word, but I spell it out for them. I hate to be rude." He says the same instinct applies to his work. "I never examine or rationalise with the English language or any language about what I do. I just do it. I am compelled to do it. But I don't know why I do it."

I don't believe him. And I don't think he believes it either. You don't need to be Freud to make the connection at some level to Mick's mother Ells McSweeney's early death -- of a brain haemorrhage when she was 40 and Mick, 12 -- and her famous son's painting. Was your life shattered when you were 12, Mick?

"Ah Jaysus, when your mother dies. And my father was an old man. A silent man. When we buried my mother ... " he says and -- strangely for him -- stops talking. "After my mother died the atmosphere changed," he continues.

His father, Bernard, brought his three sons -- Michael, Frank, and John -- on a trip to Paris. "I don't know why it happened, but he brought us to an exhibition in the Jardin de Tuileries, by Max Ernst." Mick was inspired by what he saw. His father then sent him and his two brothers to Clongowes Wood College as boarders. Mick says he felt "frightened" and "alone". Mick says that the Jesuits didn't give him a hard time because he wasn't academic. In fact, he says, they encouraged his artistic streak. One teacher in particular, Paul Funge, stimulated a love of painting and encouraged him to paint. "He gave me my first exhibition in Gorey. He was a draper's son, like me."

Mick recalls the late Louis le Brocquy -- "Lord have mercy on him, great man" -- helping him out when he was broke. "I was in the Beara Peninsula and Louis was there with people like Robin Walker. They gave me a studio down there. A big studio. I established myself because of their generosity. Then I betrayed myself. I went f***ing mad one day. Too much f***ing drink. But I always remember Louis bought paintings off me when I was struggling. "

I ask him what was the lowest point in his life. "Getting ECT. Electro-convulsive therapy. Strapped down to a bed. A metal f***ing bed. Given an injection. And then they put a rubber blanket on you. Because I was born a free man. I was 20. I was up on Grafton Street. Do you fish? Herrings? They introduced a quota. What annoyed me -- and this was before the European Community. I had a herring and I put it in between my pants and I had tight leather jeans on. I started rubbing it." Mick was arrested because they didn't understand his artistic statement about the herring quota. Put in a mental hospital, he soon passed all the psychiatric tests for sanity.

"ECT -- that is the worst fucking thing in the world. I mean, they talk about torture. That has damaged the centre of my gravity. Sometimes I'm grand. Sometimes ... "

We repair to his studio -- a big cow shed down a muddy lane way in a field. There are large black-and-white, unfinished canvases of the Apostles and Judas. He is planning to do an exhibition of them one day. There are also paintings with love hearts and lots of colour. Vera says that when she met Mick last October, she noticed that the colour was coming back into his work.

"Before getting to know Michael," Vera says, "when I initially met him at one of his exhibitions five years ago, he was at the beginning of the end of a long-term relationship Filled with loss, his work was devoid of all colours. Two years later, it was the same. So last October long weekend, when I saw the colour, life and energy back in his paintings, I just had to go up to him, compliment him and let him know that I thought it great to see him painting again."

"Does he look 60?" she asks.

What's the secret of your youth, Mick?

"Kissing women and licking them!"

You have to laugh.

That, the love of Vera, and thoughts of the bankers doing harm to themselves appears to keep him young. "Forget European debt."He laughs when I say he should run for political office. ( Michael D Higgins is a fan of his work. Mick has illustrated two of Higgins's poetry books. According to Mick, Higgins invited Mick to his inauguration as President at the Uras, but he couldn't go because he had two warrants out for his arrest: "I'd have pole-vaulted over the guards.") Mick says his main political policy would be: "Kiss women."

"I'd love a harem," he adds. "Sure -- ancient Ireland had the same."

I ask Vera if she would put up with him if he had a harem of nubile young wans.

"He is not speaking the truth," Vera smiles. "He is the most loyal man I know. Totally loyal. He flirts. I don't mind that. I'm not possessive. But he made all the women smile walking down the street in Dungarvan yesterday. I was sitting down having my coffee as Michael made some comment to a women passing by and she looked at me not knowing I was with him and she said: 'Ah, God, at least he'd make you smile'."

And Mick Mulcahy will never fail in doing that.

For further details on viewing Michael's work, please e-mail vewheel@eircom.net.

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