Friday 19 July 2019

Artist at home in the hills at Clara

Reporter David Medcalf drank tea with house-husband and painter Patrick Walshe, who derives inspiration from the woods and hills around him in his splendid Clara home - now open to visitors to stay in his converted shed

This interview was probably supposed to be about Patrick Walshe's award winning accommodation which has become popular on Airbnb - but there were just too many side-tracks. The immaculately converted farm building is a model of how to turn an unconsidered structure into a worthwhile tourism venture - small wonder that it attracted an award. Yet before he showed the visiting reporter around, first we had to discuss his background as a chef and as an entrepreneur, not to mention his career as a painter.

There was also the little matter of his family background, his love affair with Wicklow, his time in California, his fondness for travel. So by the time he opened the door of the accommodation, it was clear that Airbnb would be no more than a footnote in a piece with more trains (of thought) than Connolly Station.

Patrick Walshe was born in 1952 - 'so I get the pension this year!' - in Clare where the surname was most likely to be pronounced Welsh. His father was State Solicitor for the county, while his mother was an Englishwomen from Leeds in Yorkshire. The couple first met each other half way, in the Isle of Man. They brought up their family in well-to-do circumstances, though Patrick still resents the beatings administered by the Christian Brothers who dinned the Irish language into his unwilling head. Secondary education proved a more congenial experience, as a boarder at Glenstal Abbey, first step on the road away from his native county.

'I have cousins in Clare,' he declares vaguely, before confessing that Galway is the more likely destination whenever he travels west, the links with Ennis now tenuous. Having drawn from the day he could first hold a pencil, he found that Glenstal confirmed in his mind a desire to become an artist. He was one of a clique of students who derived inspiration from a charismatic ('mad' declares Patrick admiringly) art teacher.

However, there was no argument young Walshe could find to persuade the State Solicitor he should go to art college: 'Father could not get his head around it and I suppose he was right when he said you will not make a living out of art. Art meant dying in penury as a bitter alcoholic.' Patrick found himself instead attending the lecture halls of the business school at Trinity College in Dublin, a fate which he bore without any great resentment. Those were the hippie days in the university, so he just grew his hair and went with the flow.

Patrick found the summer vacations as beneficial as term time, since he needed to make money. One break was spent in Switzerland tending to wealthy patrons in a Zurich hotel. And then he found his niche on Cape Cod in Massachusetts cooking for the film crews who made movies and advertisements. He took the American spirit of free enterprise to heart, acquiring a van to set up his own mobile catering unit. And all the time, whether studying or cooking or partying, he continued to paint - it is simply what he does.

He had also discovered that he had a knack for cooking, adopting the mobile dining model for an Irish market. When the Rolling Stones played Slane in 1982, he was there to serve them lobster while the competition, maverick broadcaster George Hook, dished up dinner for others nearby. The business also fed the likes of Van Morrison and Walshe's grub so tickled the palate of guitarist Ry Cooder that Patrick was hired to provide the meals during a 10-day stint at the Hammersmith Odeon in London.

In 1983, after successfully showing paintings at an exhibition in Boston, he decided to move with his wife-to-be Ros back across to the USA, settling in New York. He laughs as he recalls the neighbourhood in Brooklyn where they found a place big enough to allow him paint. One night a body - recently deceased - was left outside the house and after dark it was normal to see junkies shooting up with their syringes in the street. From this shady base, Ros emerged by day to work with the likes of Gloria Vanderbilt or Calvin Klein in the fashion industry.

The pair married in 1984 and Patrick too found himself rubbing shoulders in the Big Apple with some influential high rollers. He sailed aboard the Water Club, an up-market floating restaurant with a reputation for cocaine-fuelled excess.

'That is where you really learnt to be chef,' he muses, looking back at his time as banqueting chef on the ship, 'learning on the go. That was a fantastic job at the height of the junk bond boom.'

The boom proved to be an unsustainable bubble and many of the Water Club diners were among those who were blown away by the inevitable crash.

In 1986, Ros was offered a significant promotion, head hunted with an offer to come to California, so it was time to say bye-bye to Brooklyn and hello Los Angeles. A studio was found on Skid Row for the painter to carry on at the easel but the pair resided in altogether more salubrious surroundings, first in Santa Monica, then in the Hollywood Hills. The people of LA had to eat, of course, so Patrick was recruited to take charge of the kitchen at Yawks a new restaurant where the menu offered 'regional American food' to its trendy customers.

He laughs as he confirms that this good old-fashioned US cuisine was concocted by a bunch of Guatemalan and Peruvian migrants under the direction of an Irish interloper. The craic was good and Ros was earning good money but, when the time came to have a family, they decided they did not want to bring up little Americans. It was time in 1991 to come home and bring up little Irishmen instead.

They returned slowly, taking a memorable 13-week road trip across the States, followed by a lingering look around India, Nepal, Thailand and all points east - a total of 18 months travelling.

In Indonesia they made useful contacts for the enterprise they went on to set up in Ireland, importing gifts and furniture, everything from candlesticks to tables from Bali. And as the business - styled Hemisphere - began to take off, they came to live in Clara, deep in the Wicklow Hills.

There they converted an old gate lodge and the adjoining barn to make the high ceilinged home where their two sons were brought up. From here, they also ran the Rosalind Walshe Collection, selling mugs which carried charming illustrations of buildings drawn by Ros's father.

'It was a very successful business,' Patrick still insists to this day, drinking his tea from a mug left over from the collection, decorated with famously dreaming spires of Oxford, 'but it was under-capitalised.' Customers in the US placed vast orders but the cost of freighting their mugs and candles and soaps across the Atlantic proved crippling - the more business in America, the bigger the losses. This time it was the Walshes who went belly up. Patrick pulled down the shutters in November of 2001 and said thank you to the 20 employees who had been on the payroll at the depot in Rathdrum.

Ros went full time into fashion design and now works with Avoca Handweavers. Patrick was left to take charge on the home front, primary carer for the two boys, then aged four and six.

'It was a fantastic experience and it is one that many fathers miss out,' he speaks positively of being a house-husband, in charge of laundry, homework and cleaning. With him in the kitchen, the family enjoyed the luxury of being fed by a man who once used to cook for Jewish wedding receptions in New York and for movie executives in California.

And Patrick brought the lads to rugby in Rathdrum where young Liam laid the foundations for a career which has recently landed him a job as strength and conditioning coach with the Worcester Warriors in England. Meanwhile, his brother Marcus is carving a niche for himself as a TV/film props specialist working on productions such as 'Vikings' and 'Badlands'.

'I have been painting all the time - it is a compulsion. I can't not do it,' stresses their father. 'But the art market at my level would make you very despondent.'

He has his own studio - his man cave - across the yard from his front door, where he can listen to jazz radio on the internet and turn out his distinctive landscapes rich with Wicklow trees and Wicklow views.

He has supporters, not least long standing acquaintances in the States, who are more than happy to invest in his work but carving a wider reputation remains problematic: 'Irish people are about words and music - they are not attuned to consciousness of the visual.'

So, though he continues to paint, he must also throw his considerable enthusiasm into the Airbnb - 'it's been a great experience' - proud of the five-star reviews from guests who have arrived from around the world to holiday in the hills between Rathdrum and Laragh.

He shares with them not only the outdoor pizza oven but also his relish for the area with its alluring light and magnificent mountains: 'I love Wicklow, always have - visually stunning and so interesting.'

Bray People