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Mysterious and beautiful harmony of young love

Art: What lies beneath

Daniel O'Neill


Flora (oil on board)


‘Flora’, painted by Daniel O’Neill in the 1940s, depicts his wife Eileen as a goddess

‘Flora’, painted by Daniel O’Neill in the 1940s, depicts his wife Eileen as a goddess

‘Flora’, painted by Daniel O’Neill in the 1940s, depicts his wife Eileen as a goddess

Born 100 years ago, Daniel O'Neill, a working-class Catholic, was drawing and painting at 12; art books were his education.

When he left school, he trained as an electrician, qualified at 21, working night shifts and painting during the day.

A year on, he met Eileen, a Protestant, and they married in secret in February 1943 at a Belfast Registry Office. Their witnesses, the story goes, two random passers-by called in from the street. But when O'Neill's mother discovered her "Danny Boy", was married, she went on hunger strike and insisted on his marrying Eileen again, this time in a Catholic church.

A double-portrait shows the newly-, now twice-married couple outside St Paul's Church on the Falls Road. When their daughter was born, that December, a priest kept pressurising them to have her baptised. One morning, home from a night shift, O'Neill met the priest leaving their flat. O'Neill threw him down the stairs.

The family moved to Conlig, a small Protestant village, hoping to be accepted, but Eileen O'Neill wasn't Protestant-sounding enough and sectarian prejudice forced their return to Belfast. At 25, O'Neill gave up the night job to paint full-time.

The First Born, a tender, beautiful work, records a mother breastfeeding her baby and Flora [pictured] is of Eileen posing as the Roman goddess of Flowers.

Wartime shortages meant resourceful O'Neill painted on tablecloths, used tins, not tubes, of white paint and handled paint innovatively using brush handles, tissue paper, a confectioner's icing bag.

O'Neill, early on, had painted abstract oils, attended night classes at Belfast College of Art and, in 1940, he showed seven paintings in a group show. Not one sold. By 1946, at his first one-man show, 21 of 23 sold and by 1948 he was included in shows in London, New York, Boston, Chicago and Ottawa.

Flora, from the 1940s, is immediately recognisable as a Daniel O'Neill. His distinctive figures, with their large, dark eyes, captivating faces and exotic tones, intrigue the viewer, and, in Flora, Eileen O'Neill, more close-up than most O'Neill portraits, has been transformed from a young Belfast woman into a goddess.

Dating from the time when love was young and he and Eileen became parents, her stylised headdress frames a beautiful, wistful face and echoes Italian Renaissance painting. In Botticelli's Primavera, the Flora figure has a more open and sunlit expression. In this O'Neill, the blue tones in the elegant dress, the flowers, the background, even the use of blue for the shadowed face, create a mysterious, beautiful harmony.

But by the late 1940s, infidelities and absences meant the end of O'Neill's marriage. He spent six months in Paris in 1948, a winter in Donegal and moved to London in the 1950s. There were new partners but his life was dogged by heavy drinking and psychiatric problems.

O'Neill returned to Belfast, alone. There, at his final exhibition in 1970, 12 works sold within half an hour of the opening. Terrace Houses on Fire, Belfast after the Riots, A Battle Over Nothing are his response to the Troubles.

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In Horseman Pass By, a late self-portrait, O'Neill is on horseback. A grey female figure leads him on his white horse away from Belfast towards a dark wood.

The Yeatsian title and a skeleton among the trees suggest he is journeying towards his death - and he died, aged 54, in the back of a taxi in August 1974. Fans will enjoy Karen Reihill's exploration of O'Neill in a beautifully illustrated and authoritative new book, Daniel O'Neill: Romanticism & Friendship.


O'Neill's work is currently available to view online at Adam's; www.adams.ie

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