‘Words and music are the thing here….’

In midsummer 1910 the artists Paul Henry and his wife Grace crossed the bridge into Achill Island, on the west coast of Co Mayo. They were both competent artists, but for Henry Achill was to be his great inspiration, leading to a style and an interpretation of the west of Ireland landscape that was to make him famous, and his work instantly recognisable.

After only a couple of days on Achill he took his return railway ticket out of his pocket, and, in his own words he: ‘tore it into small pieces and scattered the fragments into the sea’. Achill Island would be his inspiration, and his first step into brilliantly interpreting the western light, its people and landscape in ochres and blues. On that first visit the Henrys had planned to stay for two weeks but remained there until 1919. By that time Paul was an established artist and his paintings were selling well; Grace was to find success and happier times later.

Taking the early morning train from Dublin the Henrys travelled to Achill, noting how the look of the countryside slowly changed and, as Henry put it, ‘the dim misty blue shapes of mountains began to show on the horizon.’ Beyond Westport he ‘ran eagerly from one side of the now empty [he ignores Grace’s presence] carriage to the other as the strange new country spreads out towards the sea. I was as excited as a schoolboy,’ he commented, ‘and I had a strange feeling that this was a home coming and not merely an adventurous journey into a strange country.’

The rail journey ended at Achill Sound, and from there the Henrys took a ‘long car’ across the island to Dugort village. ‘I little knew that day that Achill was going to mean as much to me as Paris had meant in my younger days.’

Project a stillness

Paul Henry (1876 - 1958 ) came from Belfast and studied art in Paris where, at that time, the art scene blazed with talent. He studied with Constance Gore Booth (later Countess Markievicz ) and the West Cork artist Egerton Coghill. He met his wife Grace Mitchell, a Scottish artist, and both shared their admiration for the American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

But Henry became absorbed in the peasant and countryside paintings of Jean Francois Millet, which he studied in the Louvre and who greatly influenced his stylistic approach to painting people at work in the fields and on the shore, digging potatoes, cutting rye, fetching turf, harvesting seaweed, launching a curragh or checking lobster pots. Many of his landscapes project a stillness, softened by the early morning or evening light.

‘Touch the heart’

Henry’s paintings sell for over €150,000 today, and sold well in his life time, especially in New York. His marriage to Grace did not survive his preferred lifestyle in rural Ireland. She travelled in Europe and earned a modest income from her paintings.

Henry lived with artist Mable Young, and died at their home in Bray still uncertain that he had done justice to the landscapes and people that he met and painted.

‘I often think you cannot do justice to this great country - the west of Ireland - except in words and music. God knows I wish I had the gift of one or the other as the place is inspired and inspiring; paint does not seem to touch the heart of the stuff in the same way. I wonder if this is why there has never been a really big Irish painter? I certainly feel more at home with a lump of charcoal or a brush in my clumsy incompetent hands…. but words and music are the thing here.’

NOTES: I am grateful to Mary J Murphy for prompting me to look again at Paul Henry’s wonderful paintings of Achill and Connemara however much he might protest that they do not do the landscapes justice. Mary’s book, which is a personal ovation to the island she loves, Achill Painters - an Island History (on sale €20 ) lists more than 30 writers and artists who have drawn inspiration there.

I’m grateful to SB Kennedy for his magisterial Paul Henry published by Yale University Press 2000, for my quotations this week.


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