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The ghosts of 1916 inspire Kerry artist - but turn off his pub friends


Artist Liam O'Neill with his portraits of the 1916 Easter Rising patriots

Artist Liam O'Neill with his portraits of the 1916 Easter Rising patriots

Liam O'Neill with his painting of Countess Markievicz

Liam O'Neill with his painting of Countess Markievicz


Artist Liam O'Neill with his portraits of the 1916 Easter Rising patriots

He's painted the Boss twice, both Springsteen and Haughey, as well as farmers, fishermen, horse fairs and the lush landscapes of his native Kerry, but it wasn't until his house became haunted last year that artist Liam O'Neill turned his easel towards 1916.

He had no choice, he says. Having completed a series of paintings of great Irish writers, from Beckett, Shaw, Yeats and Joyce right up to Francis Stuart and Seamus Heaney, he was ready to take a break from portraits for a while. He intended going back to capturing the wild, rugged fields and mountains, harbours and seas of his birthplace Corca Dhuibhne, in the riot of colour and bold palette-knife strokes that he's made his own.

But for a man not normally given to fancy, he was surprised by a persistent and other-worldly insistence that he wasn't yet finished with the dead poets' society. Other late luminaries wanted face time with the artist, and if he wasn't going to listen to his heart, they'd have to make him sit up and take notice. They still do.

"The ghosts of the Easter Rising patriots are all around me," he says. "They're everywhere, hanging around the walls of every room, and if I try and get away from them in the evening, they follow me upstairs. They stand around my bed at night and when I sleep they haunt my dreams. They've taken over my life completely in the last year.

"It started as I was coming to the end of the writers project, the centenary was approaching and I couldn't stop thinking that the 1916 patriots were poets, playwrights and writers too . . . visionaries all. If Sean Mac Diarmada, Thomas MacDonagh and Thomas Ashe had lived, they'd have taken their place among the literary giants of this country.

"It made sense to combine their portraits with those of the writers, and so I started to paint. I see them clearly before me. I study their faces, their eyes, their hair . . . Tom Clarke is the only one with a receding hairline, and I'm the only one in the room with grey hair. They're full of colour."

His pals down at the local pub in Corca Dhuibhne are having none of it. When he starts on the subject, he says they'd rather leave their pint on the counter and call it a night than listen to his 'ghost stories'. But Liam knows how to deal with his ethereal friends, whose portraits now hang in the Oriel Gallery for his 'Visionaries of Ireland' exhibition, opening on Saturday.

"I know that if I ever hear them talking to me, I'm in trouble! I talk to them all the time, and so far they haven't answered me back. I left the hardest two till last. Dev and Collins are the most recognisable characters, but in the end, they flowed more easily than the others."

They also took shape a lot faster than his famous last portrait of Charlie Haughey, completed shortly before his death in June 2006. It was at the behest of a mutual friend who suggested to the former Fianna Fáil leader that Liam should paint his portrait that Haughey said: "Send him over." Liam likes to get to know his subjects before putting paint to canvas, but even he didn't anticipate how long this picture would take to begin.

"Every Thursday for two-and-a-half years, I called over to Kinsealy at 11am and walked around talking to Charlie, and it took me two years to start the portrait," he says. "We were like two neighbours from West Kerry. He'd ask, 'How's my friend Paidí Ó Sé?' And we'd be off again, chatting about people and places we knew, never politics. I'm not political and these were just friendly, private meetings. He was a changed man.

"Eventually, I realised I had to concentrate on the portrait. I painted him in a casual, open-necked shirt, a marine jacket, his hands are visible, and his eyes are looking downward, perhaps reflecting. His widow Maureen has the painting in her home."

Before he became a full-time artist, Liam was a special needs teacher at a school in Dublin and painted in his spare time. He was in no hurry to give up the day job.

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It wasn't until he had 20 exhibitions under his belt that he did so.

"I was reared safe!" he says. "As the 13th out of 14 children, you wouldn't be quick to relinquish a secure living. The truth is, though, I loved teaching kids with special needs. I still do."

It's this which brought him, in a roundabout way, to his exhibition being shown next month at the Irish Consulate in New York, an experience he says was the result of "a fantastic coincidence". When Jean Kennedy Smith, sister of the late Robert, Ted and John F Kennedy was US Ambassador to Ireland, she attended an art class given by Liam to his students with special needs. She was so impressed, she invited them to exhibit at the US Embassy, and so began a long friendship between the artist and the diplomat. Smith is founder of Very Special Arts, an international organisation to encourage people with disabilities to engage with the arts.

"This year, she invited me to do some workshops in New York in May, and that led to my 'Visionaries of Ireland' exhibition tying in with that," says Liam.

The show contains 25 portraits and one landscape depicting the West Kerry Volunteers crossing the Conor Pass on Easter Saturday 1916.

"They marched from Ballyferriter towards Tralee, joined by other Volunteers on the way, only to be told when they got there that the Rising wasn't going ahead, and they dispersed. I wanted to capture their passion as they made that arduous journey with the very best of intentions to fight for their country."

"The Easter Rising means more to me today than ever before. I've got to know the personalities involved. They were young, idealistic men and women who had a vision for Ireland, and they loved the Irish language, a passion I share with them today."

'Visionaries of Ireland' - Físithe na hÉireann - by Liam O'Neill launches this Saturday in the Oriel Gallery, Dublin, and this May in the Irish Consulate, New York

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