Pictures from a life less ordinary

Wed, Jan 2, 2013, 00:00

An exhibition by Madoline O’Connell focuses on art, observation – and her dealings with the inventor of penicillin, writes MARY LELAND

Few people can claim to have lives that link Charles Stewart Parnell, the sinking of the Lusitania, the discovery of penicillin and equestrian events at the London Olympics. But all of these combine in 97-year-old artist Madoline O’Connell.

It seems a nice piece of symmetry that on a visit to an exhibition of her work at University College Cork’s Jennings Gallery, the corridors were lined with medical students awaiting end-of-term interviews. Her robust pastels shone from the walls like reminders of the need to catch the joy as it flies.

Illness experience

This was not a coincidence. The Experience of Illness symposium at UCC at the end of last year addressed aspects of art in medical education; the university’s College of Medicine and Health has introduced an innovative observation of art programme with an initial cohort of 360 students supported by the Jennings Gallery and aiming to highlight how art can help develop observational skills.

The inaugural exhibition, Passing the Torch, featured O’Connell as an artist and a doctor with a direct connection to Sir Alexander Fleming, himself a keen amateur painter.

Soon after graduating with her MB in 1939, the young Madoline Horgan went to find work in England and the laboratory at Harefield Hospital. There she was interviewed by Alexander Fleming: “The day I went to meet him he could hardly talk to me. I never saw him again until the day I went to tell him I was retiring – and again, he could hardly look at me.

“He was a little, shy man, and nobody at the time thought he was anything special. We didn’t have time, you just had to get on with it.”

Without dismissing the immense importance of Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, O’Connell is anxious not to overplay what she sees as a fleeting link: “I happened to be there, I happened to meet the man, it was no more than that.”

Heritage

Instead, getting on with it was what mattered, before her marriage to St John O’Connell, the arrival of her three children and the family’s return to Cork where her husband established the city’s first orthopaedic unit. That was an epic task in 1950, “a terrible time in Ireland”.

It is within the history of Cork, however, that all of O’Connell’s heritage comes together. Her paternal grandfather was Michael J Horgan, solicitor and election agent for Charles Stewart Parnell; her father was the solicitor, writer and coroner John J Horgan, who pronounced the verdict of murder against the kaiser at the inquest on the victims of the Lusitania, which was torpedoed off the Cork coast in 1915.

Madoline’s maternal grandfather was Sir Bertram Windle, first president of Queen’s College Cork (later UCC). Back in Cork, and well aware of the importance of getting experience abroad as a way of broadening cultural and professional attitudes, she and her husband rejoined the local cohort of WCMF (or “well-known Cork Medical Families”). Based first in Blackrock and later moving to Mallow, where St John developed his stud farm and his profile as a breeder of horses for flat racing, they shared what O’Connell recalls as “a fantastic life” which included her increased devotion to painting. After St John’s death in 1996, she returned to Cork city.

Although her daughter, Kate Horgan, remains near Mallow to continue her international role with the Irish Showjumping Association, which included stewarding equestrian competitions at the London Olympics, O’Connell has found a renewed life in Cork among old friends and colleagues in the world of art.

She still paints because she wants to, and because, although she believes that old age is hard to understand, art at least broadens the experience of life and of people.