Donal Casey Midlands artist making waves with political cartoons

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Donal Casey

Donal Casey

It shouldn’t be surprising that a visual artist is, well, visual. I can’t count the number of times cartoonist Donal Casey goes off to find a sketch or object, search the internet, or open a book to show me exactly what he means.

But being accurate, making sure the audience sees just what he wants them to see is central to his work ethic, and is the reason why his brilliant political cartoons have been seen all over the world.

He’s an easy and incredibly interesting conversationalist, widely read, thoughtful, and with a strong but not obtrusive core of social justice.

The son of an optician and a teacher - his mum taught French and English at the Bower, growing up in Athlone, at Cornnamagh was fun.

But that his Kilmainham home is full of history, art, politics and literary books might come as a surprise to most of his teachers.

“All through school, I was the guy who drew the cartoons,” he says showing me some of his teenage work. They show his clear talent and his liberal - he says it’s now cynical - left-leaning conscience.

He found the drawings 18 months ago at his family home after his beloved mother died. They deal with subjects as diverse as the US and Nicaragua, the Soviets, feminists, and the Church.

It’s easy to see now that he was bright, but bored in school and that his schooldays, while not unpleasant, were not the best days of his life.

“I was one of those people who never did particularly well in school. They had a placement [test] in those days for the Marist [secondary school] and I was down with the lowest of the low.”

That’s how he ended up with his cousins, boarding in Castleknock College, Dublin.

Boarding was “a weird experience”.

“You never got out. It was really old style, a very regimented existence - an interesting experience,” he concludes generously.

“But at 16/17 you begin to feel you’re missing out, then suddenly at 18 you’re released into the real world, and that’s a culture shock.“

“The Head said I was the only person he’d ever seen who got every single grade,” he says of his Inter Cert, listing the grades from NG in maths to A in art.

Real life started in Mountjoy Square, studying art but because he was busy getting to know himself and his newfound freedom, he failed his first year and for a while, art, the subject he had excelled at, was put on the back burner.

A degree in English and sociology at Maynooth followed, “my back-up plan” and then a long stint in Spain, where he taught English, “and lived the life, a second adolescence”, he describes it.

At 30ish, he returned to art and in Madrid began an intense three year degree in illustration at one of Europe’s most illustrious art colleges.

He speaks passionately about his cartoons, how they are made, what inspires them.

It’s no surprise he was relieved to get dozens of them back after they went missing before a terrific exhibition last year at Athlone Literary Festival. They had ended up in Kildare.

Is being a cartoonist fun?

Sort of. He loves the creative process of putting an idea together in his head. He carries a notebook everywhere, scribbling a note or sketch when the muse strikes him. He enjoys fine-tuning an image and punch-line in his head, creating the vision.

But the drawing itself is the real ‘work’. Getting that perfect likeness of Enda Kenny (“the good boy” ) or Angela Merkel (“the schoolmistress” ) is really important to him, and he doesn’t start a cartoon until he is sure he has got the likeness nailed down.

It can take a day or more to complete a cartoon, but the dedication pays off and it’s rewarding.

What gets him out of bed?

“Improving my craft,” he says without hesitation.

“To my dying day I’m just going to want to improve my craft. If you put the effort in you can see that happening.”

“When I look at work that I do now and work I did three years ago, I can see a huge improvement in technique. That keeps me going.”

But time management is a problem - he has a folder of projects that he would love the chance to work on.

His studio and his website, www.donalcasey.com, are a treasury of images that make you angry at the lack of logic in our world but at the same time, you can’t help but giggle at the cleverness of the caricature, the wittiness of the gag, how a picture can tell such a punchy story.

Like Michael Noonan (complete with comb-up rather than comb-over ) and Enda Kenny dressed as Jedward, with Jedward hair, singing “Oh oh, we’re heading for a bailout” to the tune of the 2011 Eurovision entry Lipstick.

Since he returned to Ireland he pays the bills – ironically – by lecturing, mostly at Dublin Business School.

“One of the reasons I like teaching so much is because I have great sympathy with how students feel,” he says, remembering the lack of tolerance some of his teachers had for students who weren’t “brilliant”.

But while he clearly enjoys teaching and finds it meaningful, it’s not really what gives his life meaning.

When he’s teaching he gets up early and prepares intensively, but when he’s working at cartoons, he gets up when he wakes, works until he conks out, and eats when he remembers to.

“I tend to be quite extreme in that regard, so there’s no such thing as a typical day,” he says.

“Food is food,” says the man who had a dinner for friends at his apartment but had to get his buddy to bring the food and cook it for him. He’s a bit wistful that he can’t whip up a great meal himself.

Finally, is he happy?

“Happiness is a byproduct of getting stuff done,” he says philosophically, and describes himself as “a great man for lists.”

But the things that make him happy are clearly the things that he speaks about with a lot of energy and quite a bit of love.

Inspiration, great books, his comfy studio, his apartment with no TV but the Camac river gurgling by, other cartoonists, great radio, Athlone, his adored family - especially nieces and nephews, and great, great friends.

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