Augustus John was one of the great painters of the last century. He knew and painted many of the most famous people of his time, including prominent figures of the Irish Literary Revival such as Yeats, Seán O’Casey, and George Bernard Shaw.
He first came to Ireland in 1915 as a guest of Francis McNamara (known as ‘Fireball’ ) who lived in Doolin. They crossed to Galway in McNamara's hooker the Mary Anne from Ballyvaughan and they visited ‘Gas Tank’ Flaherty’s pub on the Docks, where the charming Kitty McGee presided. This bar was later known as Brennan’s.
John fell in love with Galway. With the start of World War I he had been wandering around trying to find the right conditions in which to work. He obviously felt that Galway was just the place as he spent some time looking for a house. He finally rented St Patrick’s House (which later became the Union Hall ) at the top of Prospect Hill from the Mercy Sisters. “I have found a house here,” he wrote to a friend, “with fine big rooms and windows which I’m taking ?— only £30 a year … I had a bad attack of the blues here, doing nothing, but the prospect of soon getting to work bucks me up.”
The nuns were concerned about his morals (or lack of them ) so they got Bishop O’Dea to negotiate with him and it was finally agreed that he could lease the building on condition that he would do no painting of nudes on the premises.
He went out on to the streets observing, studying, sketching, and then he would hurry back to Tuam Street (as he called it ) and do some drawings in pen and wash. He also did some paintings that we know of including one of O’Flaherty’s Bar, but his main plan was to execute a big dramatization of Galway bringing in everything representative of the place. “I’m thinking out a vast picture synthesizing all that’s fine and characteristic in Galway City — a grand marshalling of the elements. It will have to be enormous to contain troops of women and children, groups of fishermen, docks, wharves, the church, mills, constables, donkeys, men from Aran, widows, hookers etc, perhaps with a night sky and illuminated in the light of a dream. This will be worthwhile.”
He enjoyed painting the people: “Their drapery is often very pleasing — one generally sees one good thing a day at least — but the population is greatly spoilt now — 20 years ago it must have been astonishing.” His imagination was kindled but it soon began to fade, the spirit of the place seemed to be evaporating. He also began to worry that local people watching a bearded Englishman sketching around the docks in wartime would classify him as a spy, an undesirable, and so, having spent two months here, he returned to England.
He immediately started working on a large cartoon, covering 400 square feet in a single week. He was trying to set down his impressions and memories of the city and its people before they clouded over, thus building a composite picture of an ideal Galway, a visionary city locked in his imagination to which, all his life, he was searching to find the key. Our main photograph shows him working on the cartoon which would later be developed into a 40 feet long oil painting, a triptych entitled "Galway" which is in the Tate Gallery in London. Our other illustration is of a typical drawing of Claddagh women done by him.
John came back to the west again in the summer of 1930. He spent some time in Renvyle House Hotel painting a portrait of Yeats. When it was finished he came in to Galway, but this visit was brief and very boozy and his friends eventually dragged him back to Renvyle.
An exhibition of some of the works of John (including a reproduction of his Galway triptych ) in the Galway City Museum will form part of the wonderful Galway Cartoon Festival which starts tomorrow and runs until October 9. A history walk dedicated to his life and work will take place across the city. There will be a series of events in various bars, restaurants, and hotels, visiting cartoonists and caricaturists, an Irish language themed show called Tarraing é i nGaeilge which takes place in the Cornstore and in Áras Éanna on Inis Oirr. See the festival programme for details.
Listen to Tom Kenny and Ronnie O'Gorman elaborating on topics they have covered in this week's paper and much more in this week's Old Galway Diary Podcast.