In June 1989, Bernie Mulcahy died in hospital of third-degree burns after a fall by the hearth of the fireplace at home in Helvic, Co Waterford. He was 96 years of age.
His son Michael, now 68, says he thought he'd "had enough of crucifixion by fire." An artist of some note internationally, Michael is talking metaphorically. Yet there is a very real pain at the heart of his words, spoken not at his home in Co Waterford but at a farmhouse in the wilds of the Wexford countryside.
On September 6 last year, Michael and his partner Vera Whelan could have been burned to death in a fire that engulfed their house in Helvic. "My father died because of a fire and I thought I was going to go the same way." Casting his mind back to that night, Michael says it is "a sense for me, as opposed to remembering clearly, as Vera does".
"A sense of an all-consuming, disempowering terror comes over me," he elaborates. "I can only recall snippets…"
At 6pm, Michael woke in his outdoor studio to the smell of smoke. He has "a flash of running into my home with water; another of being outside and seeing an explosion of fire. Then I'm holding Vera, reassuring her that it's okay, I'm alive."
Six months on, Michael is still in disbelief that it happened. "I've always been so extra-careful about the prevention of fire in my home. I've seen first-hand how fire destroys life in a most horrific way," he says. The only relief in all this hardship, he says, "is that Vera and I are alive. I take great solace in that."
Michael says he can't look at the charred remains in Helvic of his labour of love of over 20 years. And the loss of all his paintings, plus a lifetime of sketchbooks with notes written inside and his giant collection of art books.
"That felt like a shotgun blast through my heart," he says. "Fire is violent."
Does Michael have a belief in a presence greater than himself that got him through the last few months? His answer has four words: "The power of nature."
He pauses then says: "I start my days listening to the dawn chorus. I love the bird song. When troubled, I have a need to be beside the sea. I was fortunate my dad sailed on his own boat, and we had a separate home by the sea. So it's a return to the familiar for me." The farmhouse is not far from Curracloe beach.
"It's the power of nature that gives me energy. Every second the light changes on its surface. I love observing that." After the fire, Michael was "exhausted with shock".
He "needed" to go to the Skelligs with Vera and get onto Skellig Michael. "It's hard for me to put into words the presence on this island."
On the boat trip back to the mainland, he began drawing the island, even though he hadn't picked up even a pencil to work since the fire. Skellig Michael, he says, "has been the main source of inspiration for a great deal of my work". As has been the woman sitting beside Michael tonight.
"September 6, 2019 is a time in space," she says. "I was at Michael's home. I was just about to go for an evening nap upstairs, before going out that night. Michael's neighbour Jennifer, who had become one of my best friends, rang. She had left something in my car the day before and needed it. So I decided to drop it to her as it was a few minutes' drive over. It was the phone call by chance that I know now saved my life."
Vera had barely finished her cup of tea at Jennifer's when the fateful phone call came.
"There was a fire at Michael's place," the caller said.
Vera says she "nearly lost my life with the fright", because she knew Michael was sleeping in the mezzanine over his outdoor studio. "That powerful instinct before thoughts or words that's in a woman to care for her loved ones, moved me. I didn't hear another word said. I was already out the front door." Half-way to Michael's place, a neighbour signalled Vera to pull in off the road, which had to be kept clear as the Fire Brigade were on their way. Vera got out and ran up the road.
She heard calls behind her to stay put. She didn't stop running. Vera believes that "hope speeded up my steps". That said, she didn't know "if Michael was dead or alive". She felt an unstoppable force within her - "moving me, the like of which was so strong, I'd never felt before. I turned the last corner, clouds of black smoke filled the sky.
"A lightning-bolt shock went through me, my knees buckled. I fell to the ground. Fear consumed and taunted me, that he was gone. The fire was worse than I thought. I could hear the fire engines' sirens in the distance on the way."
Then Vera heard Jennifer say, "He's alive, Vera. Look! He's standing at the statue on the far side."
Vera caught sight of Michael and ran towards him, through the danger, "and fell into his embrace". She believes that the "life and the energy of it flowing through us is more important than anything. It was the catalyst to start a total transformation within me, of how I would go on to live my life.
"The shoots of it, I'm only beginning to feel the strength of within me now."
It's 8pm on a blustery, cold night in Wexford. Two dogs, Molly and Suzy, are running around the yard outside. Inside, in the living room, Michael and Vera are drinking mugs of tea and reflecting on their trauma. This is the farmhouse that Vera grew up in, with three sisters (Mary, Anne and Jenny) and two brothers (Ger and Anthony.) After the fire, she and Michael have moved here, temporarily. Running in the back door, Suzy, a springer spaniel, who has just had pups. Seven of them. You can hear the pups in the kitchen, scratching at the door to be let out. Life has a sweet mystery to it, Vera smiles. This is particularly apt for Vera and Michael. When she was about seven, Vera and her mother Mary were up in Dublin for the day. After they had done their business in town, Mary had Vera by the hand, rushing to get the train home.
"On Grafton Street we were making our way through a crowd gathered around a street performer," she recalls.
Vera, only being hip high to adults, caught a glimpse of these bare blue feet and legs dancing. "Naturally like all children, I was filled with curiosity." Letting go of her mother's hand, Vera "made my way through the clothed legs, to see more of the blue feet dancing."
"Then to the glorious wonder of a child's eyes, before the fog of criticism and judgment blinds, danced a whole blue man," Vera in her poetic way remembers. "He was naked except for a loincloth also in blue."
"However," she smiles, "I had to go, and I didn't meet him again for 30 years."
Three decades later, Vera and the blue man in the loincloth met again at Michael's exhibition in the Pig Yard Gallery in Wexford town; then two years on again at the same venue. "A year later at his exhibition for Wexford Opera Festival, we began getting to know each other. That was 2012. We're together ever since…"
What sustains and nourishes their love?
"We have similar depth," says Vera as Michael looks on smiling in near-beatific agreement. (Vera to Mick is, I suspect, like that Charles Bukowski line: "She's magic. There's no lie in her fire.")
"From deep inside we're both loving the same things. Like all before our eyes in nature, to behold in wonder, we both let the love of this fill us up. Love is not something to covet from another. Love we fill ourselves up with and then give out. So it's nature and the energy of nature, caring for us, that sustains our love." It is that love that has sustained Vera and Michael after the fire too. "It takes time to recover from such a huge blow," says Vera.
"We're doing well, though. The plans for the future are to triumph against the odds. We're living a quiet life really at the moment. Michael had our place so beautifully unique in Helvic, the local kids called it the magic house by the fairway grove."
Michael has a grown-up daughter, Fiona, from a previous relationship.
"My daughter's doing really well," he says. "She's 20 and in her third year of studying law in Paris. She's a lovely authentic young woman. I'm very proud of her."
Vera, who is an artist in stained glass and teaches yoga (she has being doing it for 26 years) and meditation (she's been practising for 34 years), is one of the most calming people to be around. When I got lost on the dark road near the farmhouse on the journey down from Dublin, she came out in her car - the one in which she will drive Michael to Frankfurt next month for his exhibition - and rescued me.
"Due to my work," she says, "of feeling the energy flow in people's bodies through my fingertips, I know artists have a faster-flowing energy stream running through them than others.
"This means that if they get bumped out of their creative flow, via a trauma, a sense of injustice going on, or even thinking of a past trauma - well it's a more extreme pain for them.
"Artist, writers, musicians have to stay focused in the here and now, for things not to go pear-shaped, more than any other profession. It's just the way it is.
"Keeping their faster creative energy stream, from fuelling anger, hurt or fear, is their challenge."
When Michael is totally present, listening to the birds singing, or the wind or the waves, as he paints, the speed at which he operates is fascinating to watch, Vera says, adding that Michael and his fellow students in the early 1970s in the National College of Art and Design "began a revolution in Irish art, from realistic to contemporary".
Michael, she says, paints moments from within his own mind. "I know that from a still mind, the light of a creative idea is received. This stirs emotions." After Michael's mother Elles died when he was 12, the Jesuits gave him, he says, "freedom from other subjects, to go to the art room to express all that I sense, via my passion, of painting." He adds, "They allowed me to sense my way through life."
In 2004, Michael's younger brother Frank took his own life in Helvic.
"It still cuts me to the bone. I'd done nothing wrong on Frank. Yet I've a propensity to turn everything in on myself," he says. "Some of us Irish have that conditioning. Other people have huge biases. They blame and judge the departed for being selfish. Blames, biases, judgments are of no value whatsoever. Only caring really genuinely for each other helps. Only valuing how fragile and precious life is helps.
"The reasons for suicide are so incredibly complex; sometimes we just have to be honest and say 'I don't know why'. Leave ourselves off the hook. Take away the shame perpetrated by biases and judgments. None of us know why someone kills themselves, really."
"Frank's death is still hard," he continues. "I hope he's in peace. I hope I find peace."
I ask Michael does he believe in God.
"In this culture there's Lord Jesus and Our Lady," he says. "I use the words Lord and Lady of the Universe when I'm calling for aid or thanking a presence for another day lived. I prefer this rather than the image of a crucifix."
Inspired by his travels in India over the years, Michael lights a candle every morning at a photo of "the Illuminate Buddha. It's the light that I like, as opposed to Buddha," he says. "The light represents peace, harmony and stillness. It's only from the stillness within that I find my creative ideas flow freely from. When the conditioned thought processes are still, there is a complete connection to what is in front of me as I paint, ideas that come in images in my mind... if images come fast, I paint with energetic brush strokes. Some paintings can have massive energy then. If images come slow, the paintings are more tranquil."
Whatever about the presence of higher beings helping Michael and Vera in their darkest hours, their friends were physically there for them too…
"We've had some great neighbours and friends, who have been so supportive," says Vera. "And some local artists have expressed their support by donating a painting each for auction at a dinner night out in Waterford in a few months.
"A friend in Dungarvan wants to rally solidarity from the good people there, who have expressed the desire to help us back to standing strong again."
"To the kind people who have helped and others wanting to stand in solidarity, we are truly grateful," says Michael.
I am curious about these two pleasingly eccentric people's daily lives in Wexford, not least after such a traumatic event. Michael is a very early riser, Vera says.
"He drinks vitamin juice, and herbal tea, as he listens to the birds' waking song."
Vera will hear Michael "gently talking" to the cat Kiddy and the dogs as she wakes. "I'm lucky to have him bring me tea in bed, then I meditate, then he brings me coffee in bed. Michael also makes great omelettes for breakfast. I know I'm fortunate to be with someone generous.
"Michael has a natural ability to uplift with humour. So in between the clouds of trauma passing through, we laugh a lot," Vera says, adding that the laughter is "always instigated by him", as Molly and Suzy and her seven puppies come racing into the living room.
"We haven't named the puppies yet!" laughs Vera.
There isn't a good enough name for two brave people like Michael Mulcahy and Vera Whelan.
Some of Michael's new paintings can be viewed in the Pig Yard Gallery in Wexford and Gourmet House in Dungarvan Instagram Michael_Mulcahy1952 email@example.com
"We would love it if it was as cut and dry that there was an answer as to what started the fire. But we don't know what it was..." says Vera.
"Four fire engines came. So much water was used to put the fire out that they couldn't determine what started it. There are no answers sometimes.
"Our home was a self-renovated labour of love by Michael over years. Then in the last few years, we renovated a library for art books, put a guest room over that, and self-built an extension, with help from very good friends. It was all a labour of love by everyone.
"ESB connection was next on the collecting for money list. After that insurance. With no insurance, our focus is on working now. There is a vision of building something again on the site - putting a roof on and renovating the stones of the cottage. There's no time-span.
"It'll be done when we've enough finance again. So the focus is on work."
Sunday Indo Living