Monday 22 January 2018

Bondings: The colour of our love

After 50 years of marriage, Brian and Denise Ferran paint a picture of wedded bliss in their golden years

YOU’VE BEEN FRAMED: Denise and Brian Ferran are both renowned artists from the North, but while she paints gentle landscapes, he’s a dramatic colourist. Pic: Tony Gavin
YOU’VE BEEN FRAMED: Denise and Brian Ferran are both renowned artists from the North, but while she paints gentle landscapes, he’s a dramatic colourist. Pic: Tony Gavin
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

When artists Denise and Brian Ferran first met at St Mary’s University in Belfast, it was obvious to classmates that they were brushing each other up the right way. “My friend said, Would the two of you ever stop running away from one another, as it’s very obvious that you are serious,’” says Denise, who admits that she thought Brian was “gorgeous and charming with big, brown, doe eyes.”

Brian loved Denise’s red hair and Suzie Wong dress, and thought she had a great figure. They got together at a college dance when she was 18 and he was 20, much to the chagrin of the other young men and women they had been dancing with all evening. They were married two years later.

“We were both athletic, and Brian said that while I was a fantastic sprinter, what was I like over long distances?” says Denise. “I said I was great, and haven’t I proven it, seeing as I’ve stuck the distance for over 50 years?”

Mind you, although her late father was mad about him, it took her mum a few years to warm to Brian. “Ach, he’s a nice wee fella,” she declared, tepidly, although he managed to wangle his way into her good books eventually, as he’s a fantastic chef. It was just as well really, as she lived to be 94. “If Brian was in town, my mother would cancel all other invitations as she said that he was the best cook,” says Denise.

Brian is the oldest of the late Susan and Barney Ferran’s seven children, and comes from Derry. His father, a fit athletic man who worked as a telephone engineer, died aged 46 of a heart attack, while his mother died at 63.

Brian worked at the Arts Council in Belfast for 33 years, ultimately becoming chief 
executive, and was painting all through that time. He won the Douglas Hyde gold medal for Irish historical painting on two occasions. and held his first exhibition in Dublin in 1967. He and Denise bought their holiday home in Donegal with the proceeds. “My exhibitions were nearly always held outside of Northern Ireland because of the potential conflict of interest,” he explains.

Brian’s latest show, The Moon’s Course and the Vikings, was opened this week at the Origin Gallery by Katheryn Winnick of the hit TV series, Vikings. The beautifully vibrant paintings show how vital the sun and moon were in guiding the long ships, and offer a bold, colourful and almost carnival aspect to those past invasions.

Denise says that while Brian is a colourist, she paints gentle landscapes. She grew up in Enniskillen, as the third of John and Kathleen Devine’s five children. Her mum was a teacher and her dad was a policeman. “It wasn’t easy having a dad who was a Catholic from Derry in the RUC,” she says. “Neither the Catholics nor the Protestants trusted me, although my dad was a great, kind man, who did a lot for the community.”

After they married, Brian and Denise had two children, Emer and Oisin. Denise taught at Mary McAleese’s alma mater, St. Dominic’s, the oldest Catholic girls’ school in Belfast. It was situated in an area of high drama and activity during The Troubles,’ and Denise was head of art there until 1989. She then became head of education at the Ulster Museum, and completed an MA in education and a PhD in art history. After she and Brian retired at 60, Denise got two Fulbright scholarships, so they spent a year each in Boston and Minnesota. She also writes for Irish Arts Review, and has curated many seminal exhibitions, including the inaugural opening exhibition for the FE McWilliam gallery in Banbridge.

After they retired, Brian and Denise moved from Belfast to Malin on the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal, and enjoy regular visits from their daughter Emer, who has two children, Niamh and Cormac. Emer lives in Kilkenny and works for the Crafts Council of Ireland.

Naturally, there have have been some difficult times for the lovely couple over 50 years. Brian was successfully treated for rectal cancer five years ago, after Denise nagged him to go to the doctor when he was getting up to go to the bathroom at night. After surgery and treatment, thankfully he has made a full recovery.

And saddest of all, their gorgeous’ son Oisin passed away aged 26 in 1993. “We were in Paris and it was the first time I had gone away thinking both of my kids were safe, as they weren’t near any trouble,” says Denise. “The place in Dublin Oisin was staying in was very damp and cold, but he was due to move out the following day. He placed his mattress beside the electric heater to dry it, and it started smouldering. He tried to put it out, but was overcome by fumes and passed away.”

Denise says that she and Brian were devastated, and while something like that could split some couples up, it kept them together because nobody understands their pain and grief like the other does.

“I didn’t understand before when people said their hearts were broken, but it’s like someone has taken your heart out while you’re still alive and you have to keep going,” she says. “Oisin was very like Brian, as he had a dark look with dashing brown eyes, and the girls loved him. He was gorgeous and six foot tall, and he just bounced into the room. We have created a garden with two big ponds and weeping willows at home, which is Oisin’s Garden.’ I believe he is there and not in a grave.”

Now in their 70s, from being mugged in Mexico to being shown kindness and hospitality all over the world, Brian and Denise have lived what they call a vibrant, rewarding life. “I’m not saying that I don’t answer Brian back at times, as l’m not one to sit in a corner, but we’ve been good for one another, and have had a very colourful, rich life,” says Denise.

“And for me, Denise is an educator, and on the basis of continuous assessment, she gets an A+ from me,” says Brian, a tad cheesily.

Brian Ferran’s show, The Moon’s Course and the Vikings,’ runs until July 9 at Origin Gallery, 37 Fitzwilliam Street Upper, Dublin 2. Tel: 01-662 9347

Sunday Independent

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