Sadly, for several years I have been hearing disheartening comments from a variety of people that, in all honesty, did not sit at all easy with me. Their comments were really a string of complaints suggesting that the ‘Arts’, within Ireland, do not have the same influence or support that they enjoy in England, Scotland, and Wales. The complaints centred around a belief that Ireland’s greatest artists do not possess the same influence and admiration in the world, because they have never had any official public support to encourage their efforts. In my opinion I cannot pick out any area within the arts that shows a degree of inferiority to other artists in the world.
In the long, colourful history of this small island there have been many reasons why Irish artists of the highest ability have not flourished as well as artists in other parts of the British Isles. In days long gone by, for example those families of quality who had the means to patronise local artistic talent were, more often than not, absent from their estates in Ireland, preferring to spend their Irish rental income on various foreign entertainment diversions in other lands. When these men of property did permit themselves to spend some of their time in Ireland their sole concern was always their land, religious differences, and their political and social advantages. The did not appear to have much time, interest, or money to spend on advancing an appreciation of Irish art or artists.
If we consider the undoubted beauty of Ireland in its mountains, valleys, and forests, we should ask ourselves why is it that there have been, by and large, ignored by landscape collectors, even in Ireland itself. Our high roads, low roads, country boreens, and coastal paths are overflowing with ancient and picturesque beauty that attracts so many foreign visitors to our shores. It is unfortunate that some of this nation’s better-known artists find such themes to be inconvenient to their progress within the global art market. Those lesser-known artists who put their heart and talent into recording the beauty spots often found that they had failed to gain the recognition due to them by proper financial reward for their work.
It could be said that there is not one of Ireland’s thirty-two counties that possess picturesque hills, rivers, and glens that are of the most exquisite beauty, that some artist or painter has not yet recorded. We who live in this beautiful country and travel widely through it are only too aware that there are many unique features that visitors can discover. Even in those more remote areas that stand far from roads and towns, lying in mountains and wild moorland are a great number of dells, little valleys, cascades, and expanses of verdant grass that have lain virtually untouched by humans or time. There are also many hidden places lying within hearing distance of the wild ocean seas that surround the island, where ancient pagan Celts and early Christian Irishmen have built altars and a range of other edifices on which were celebrated the mystical rites of past beliefs. Places, the names of which, originate from our earliest ancestral tales and myths which can still be read in the various poetical and prosaic writings that have been handed down to us over many centuries. In the soft breezes that whisper around tall grey towers and ivy clad abbey and castle walls, if you listen very carefully, you might hear the clash of arms and the cries of pain that still haunt our nation’s long and troubled history. They are often lonely, but picturesque, places where once the rich green grass was coloured red by the blood of those slaughtered men, women and children, and old withered oaks on whose branches the hanging bodies of the Irish people once swung in the breeze. Lying alongside such places exist sections of land that have been made holy with the corpses of many thousands of our forefathers, who have been interred there in mass graves after starving to death in a food rich land or froze to death at the roadside in the bitter snow and rain they were forced to face after being evicted from their homes by greedy and absentee foreign landlords.
Sketching, drawing, and painting are among my favourite hobbies, but I am far from being the accomplished artist I would like to be. Nonetheless, the natural beauty of my homeland continues to fill my heart and soul with joy and constantly encourages me to make an effort to record this beauty on paper or canvas. It was because of my hobby that, some years ago, I visited a particularly picturesque area that lies along the border between the Counties of Cork and Kerry. Looking back on this time I can still see the journey we made through the lovely ‘Vale of Glengariff’ on the road that winds its way through the mountains to the town of Kenmare, providing us with wonderful views of Bantry Bay, which gives one a feeling of being gently lifted up toward Heaven. In the evening, I can recall, the sun readying itself to sink behind the huge, purple, and blue coloured Kerry mountains standing rugged and beautiful in the west. Then we stopped at the side of the road, in a place that gave a unique view of clouds swirling gently over the mountain tops. We simply stood there, admiring the view in the stillness which was occasionally broken by the cry of an eagle soaring high above us. This wonderful bird of prey appeared suddenly from behind a tower-like creation of barren grey rocks in which such creatures built their eyries.
WE sat in the oasis of peace for a while, listening to the many sweet songs of the birds that filled the air as we took in the loveliness of the rugged scenery which surrounded us. The high-pitched call of the Eagles were heard several more times, as if drawing our attention to the stiffening breeze that was sweeping away the grey mists and allowing us to see the beautiful colours of the sky as the sun began to set. Another advantage was the revelation of the valley below the pass in which we were parked. The light that beamed down on the valley from the brightly setting sun providing an effect which I can never remember being seen before or after that evening. The shadows caused by the mountains to the west were such that they were as cool and dark as late evening, while the sun acted like a spotlight in other places, maintaining the heat of the day. The colours, smells, and sounds that we encountered could never be adequately described by ordinary men, but our hearts were lifted by the experience. It would take a very accomplished artist to capture the delicate tints in that scene and present as an accurate representation, for I have found it almost impossible to present the extravagant beauty of nature without making it look quite unnatural.
The scene that stretched below us from the lofty place where we were standing that we couldn’t take our eyes from it. Neither my companion, or myself, noticed the sudden appearance of a young boy sitting on a heather-covered bank, a little further up the slope, and on our left. It was only when the boy began to laugh loudly that I turned in his direction and caught sight of him. Admittedly there was nothing special about him at first sight, for in his appearance he looked just like other boys we had come across shepherding sheep among the mountain slopes. His clothes were made of rough material and did not fit him well, and his long hair protruded from under a tattered floppy hat which he used to shelter his head from the sun. Although I called out to him several times, it was not until the setting sun was covered by a small cloud and shaded his eyes from the glare that he finally noticed us. In fact, he may never have noticed our presence at all if it had not been for the sudden appearance of a second child.
This second child was a tangled-haired girl with big, bright joyful eyes. She gently took hold of the boy’s hand and silently pointed down to the place where we were sitting. Together, holding hands, the two children came closer to us and I asked, “Do you live nearby?”
The girl quickly pointed to her brother and then to her own ears and mouth to inform us that the boy was both deaf and dumb. “Aye, he’s deaf and dumb,” she confirmed to us in a sweet, quiet voice, as she brought him closer to us. The boy smiled at the girl with brotherly affection, patted her head gently, and bent down to give her a kiss on her little pale cheek.
In my hands I was holding a small, black, hard-covered sketch book that I always take with me on such trips. When the boy saw the open sketch book his eyes opened wide with wonder and he began to clap his hands together. When he began pointing furiously at my sketchbook it was obvious that he wanted to have a look through its pages, while the young girl trying very hard to calm him down. The boy, however, gently pushed her to one side as he began making his way closer toward me until he could, at last, reach out and touch my sketch book. There was an expression of joy on his face so that I gave into his wishes by handing my sketchbook so he could browse through it.
The young boy’s eyes were wide with delight as he began to turn over the pages, one after another, examining all the sketches and drawing that I had completed. From his facial expressions you could see immediately how much he appreciated the work that I had put into those drawings, and he appeared to understand what effect I was trying to achieve with each. When he came to my more recent drawings, he would quickly look up from the sketchbook to the mountains surrounding us. From his smiles and facial expressions, it was a little difficult to know whether he appreciated my artwork or not. He did, however, show a lot of interest in my sketch of ‘Glengariff’, pointing toward the location and making us aware by his signals that he knew the area well. As he skipped through the various sketches several times it became quite clear that his preference was the sketches completed in pencil of the ‘Ruins of Aghdoe’, Muckross Abbey, and the pass at the ‘Gap of Dunloe’, in which he took particular interest and spent a considerable time examining it. My coloured drawing were quickly passed over with the merest of glances before he quickly returned his attention back to the drawings that he seemed to regard as being more worthy.
While the boy was engaged in this activity, the little girl took her opportunity to bound like a sure-footed goat up the steep mountainside until she disappeared from our view. She soon returned to our sight, however, jumping from rock to rock, and holding on tightly to an already tattered apron in case she would fall and tear it some more. With great speed and agility, the girl came back to where we were sitting and retrieved a small book from inside her blouse. , from which she began to remove some pages. On these pages were sketches that had been created by her brother in a pale coloured ink, or with an even paler pencil. We did notice, however, that a couple of these sketches had been tinged with colour that appeared to have been derived from the multitude of flowering plants that grew upon the mountainside. While all six sketches had been crudely drawn there was evidence that this young boy had a rare, creative talent.
It was apparent that the boy had received no instruction in the artistic field, and the pages we had seen were, we would learn, torn from a school book that had belonged to his older brother. But on these pages the young boy had recorded his silent observation of nature’s magnificence. He may have been deaf and dumb, but nature had elevated and instructed this young man, nurturing within him a potentially great artistic ability.
All of this may have remained totally unknown to us except for the passing of an older boy sitting upon a pony. He told us that he was the older brother to the two young children who had been amusing us. “We all live a little higher up the mountain with our parents. I know that Matthew might not look to be too clever, I can tell you there’s no one better for looking after the sheep and goats that we send up here to graze.” From the manner in which he spoke about Matthew, and the way that he looked at the boy, you could see that he had a deep love for his little brother, despite his disabilities.
“Sure, he’s the great one for putting down on paper whatever he sees. We were advised to put such ideas out of him, years ago, but he was ‘Mammy’s Boy’ and that wasn’t allowed. She’s dead now these seven years, God rest her soul, and she looks down on us from her heavenly seat. Sure, there’s no sense in upsetting the wee man now, for God’s hand has been heavy enough on him already, and sure, he’s doing no harm at all. The older children sometimes spoil his drawings and cause him to become very angry, and he runs off in a huff to be on his own. Nevertheless, the Good Lord has his protecting hands over him, for he always returns home safely and at peace with himself.”
The young artist finally closed the sketch book with a heavy sigh and had not realised that his young sister had spread out his sketches on the heather that grew abundantly on the sides of these mountains. He now began to point to these pictures, which is a reaction common to us all when we think our work is being appreciated by others. The young boy bent over his drawings like a parent protecting a child. His joy, however, seemed to be only momentary as he became discontented with his efforts, after he had seen better works. There were tears forming in his eyes as he quickly gathered up his drawings.
Neither my companion nor I were convinced that the boy’s tears were caused by envy since he returned to our sketch books with the same delight as he had previously shown. But it appeared to me, that the joy on the boy’s face was more intense because of his inability to adequately express his feelings. The boy had to undoubtedly experienced the bitterness of feeling inferior throughout his young life, and it is only hope that can bring an end to his suffering. It is the hope that he can show the determination to ensure that he is as good, if not better, than that which had caused him such feeling of inferiority.
My companion and I decided that we should give the boy some quality art paper and pencils, along with a few sketches that we have already completed and considered surplus to our needs. As we clambered into our motor vehicle and prepared to leave, we bade the boy a fond farewell. The last sight that I had of the boy remains clear in my memory. He was standing at his little sister’s side and both of them were waving frantically as we quickly descended that mountain road into the valley below. The boy and his sister had made such a great impression upon me during our encounter that I still often wonder whatever happened to them, and I promise myself that someday I will find out.