Emer O'Kelly on the son of Sean O'Casey who forged a career as an internationally recognised painter and sculptor
Published 05/06/2011 | 05:00
Breon O'Casey should have been Irish. He nearly was: he was born in London in 1928, shortly after his parents left Ireland, his father Sean finally despairing of an artistic future in his own country. The last straw had been Yeats's rejection of his ground-breaking play The Silver Tassie for the Abbey. A secondary consideration had been the evidence of independent Ireland's horizons becoming narrow and stifling as liberalism and creativity disappeared beneath the stifling blankets of censorship and right-wing Catholicism. (Sean O'Casey may have been a lifelong atheist, but he was baptised at birth as a member of the Church of Ireland. Interestingly, nobody has ever called the docks labourer Sean O'Casey "Anglo-Irish": that was reserved for middle-class Protestants, whose religion was denied recognition as a stream of Irishness in the Free State.)
His son Breon was to become established as both a painter and a sculptor, and despite becoming familiar with Ireland quite late in life, his work was strongly influenced by Celtic mythology and motifs. Recognition didn't come without struggle. Initially Breon worked as a jeweller, mostly in silver and gold, and his pieces achieved huge recognition and popularity internationally, influenced as they were by the iconic artifacts of Alexander Calder (whose work was on show recently at the Irish Museum of Modern Art). O'Casey was a supreme exponent of the cross fertilisation between art and craft, working for some years as a weaver of art rugs, with a pragmatic preference for seeing them on the floor rather than hung on walls.
But even the success of his craft wasn't enough for a living, and he worked for many years as a telephonist, abandoning it for full-time art only in his 40s.
He had moved to Cornwall in the Fifties, having come under the influence of the painters loosely known as the St Ives group, and he served what amounted to a sometimes agonised apprenticeship in the studio of Barbara Hepworth from 1959 to 1963, years when he was also vice- chairman of the Penwith Society, the influential localised art group. (He always denied the received wisdom of the Cornish light being the attraction. According to O'Casey, it was the sense of comradeship against an artistically hostile world which gave the group their inspiration ... a sentiment strongly reminiscent of something his truculent father might have said. (The late Tony O'Malley, also a member of the group in those years, was his close friend.)
His breakthrough as a painter came in a London show in the Sixties, when he showed with his friend and sometime mentor Denis Mitchell at the Signals Gallery, moving a couple of years later to have two enormously influential and successful solo shows at the Marjorie Parr Gallery.
O'Casey's early work had been somewhat dark, perhaps reflecting his struggle to become established, but it became lighter over the years while still maintaining a strong influence from nature, and when he abandoned jewellery-making about 15 years ago in favour of sculpture, that work too maintained a simplicity that reflected basic sources of inspiration.
In later years O'Casey exhibited with the Berkeley Square Gallery in London and with the Peppercanister Gallery in Dublin, maintain-ing a steady output despite increasingly frail health which severely restricted his movement.
Breon O'Casey was 83 when he died peacefully in Cornwall a couple of weeks ago.