Tuesday 16 July 2019

What lies beneath: Moonlight, Lugnaquilla

Moonlight, Lugnaquilla by Seamus O’Byrne

Oil on canvas

Courtesy of the artist and RHA

Moonlight, Lugnaquilla by Seamus O’Byrne
Moonlight, Lugnaquilla by Seamus O’Byrne

Niall MacMonagle

Born and reared in Marino, Dublin, Seamus O'Byrne was given his first set of oils aged 10. Eldest of nine, "a happy, adventurous childhood" meant "rearing birds, a love of nature and an interest in falconry". O'Byrne, at 16, applied for an NCAD scholarship but was too young. He joined the ESB, as an apprentice electrician, became a draughtsman and 25 years ago a job transfer to Pollaphuca and Turlough Hill Generating station meant West Wicklow was on his doorstep. "Out in the wilderness was a revelation."

Since voluntary redundancy in 2007 he's been painting full-time and apart from some night classes at North Strand Tech and NCAD, O'Byrne is mainly self-taught. He won first prize in the CDL National Adult Art Competition when he was 23 with Fragile, a figurative work of an H-Block prisoner during the hunger strike. Early work featured solitary figures, large still lifes, political subject matter. This beautifully silent, eerie work Moonlight, Lugnaquilla was awarded The Hanley Energy Landscape Prize at this year's RHA Annual Exhibition.

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Lugnaquilla, Log na Coille, Hollow of the Wood, at 3,039ft, is the highest point in the Wicklow Mountains. A few years ago during heavy snow "I hiked up, got up close and personal, made some quick sketches, took photographs, painted the scene but was unable to finish it. Unfinished work I usually destroy but this stayed idle in my studio." Then earlier this year "One clear frosty evening I was out walking near Lugnaquilla, some snow fell as night came down and a full moon appeared. The light on the mountain was haunting. Later, we were in New Zealand, visiting our daughter, and witnessed moonlight on snow-capped Mount Cook".

Back home he tackled the painting "with gusto. Given the right conditions and confidence it flows and there is no happier place".

Artist, keen hillwalker, bird watcher, falconer, O'Byrne spends mornings in the studio, in the afternoon he flies his peregrine falcon. He works in silence but "if I'm stuck, blaring Van Morrison gets the creative juices flowing".

For decades, electricity played its part in Seamus O'Byrne's life but age-old moonlight lit up this painting. He loves oils, "the meatiness of it, its endless possibilities". He loves ultramarine blue, yellow, green, earthy colours. And the stillness, the quietness of snow, the bulk of the mountain, the deep shadow of the North Prison are captured here brilliantly and beautifully. Lugnaquilla. Well met by moonlight.

RHA Annual Exhibition to August 10. seamusobyrne.com

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