A brush with the Troubles leaves a lasting legacy on McCann’s art

Paddy McCann’s Northern-themed works are eloquent visions of the long-term costs of violence


The news from Northern Ireland that makes its way into the headlines is usually dramatic and often disturbing. Much less so now, of course, than at the height of the Troubles. But variations of a stark narrative persist all the same: of murder or attempted murder, of viable explosive devices, of protests angry and violent, all evoking the rhetoric of tensions, antagonisms and conflict.

For more than 20 years the Armagh-born artist Paddy McCann has been attempting to do something interesting. He has been trying to deal, in the traditional medium of oil paint, with the reality of life in Northern Ireland well away from the headlines, from familiar media representations of atrocity and outrage. Rather, he is trying to describe what it is like to live in a place and a society subject to these turbulent historical currents, in which terrible things have happened and are happening.

Most importantly, he tries to describe this world as experienced from the inside out rather than from the outside looking in. “Some artists treat the Troubles as a story that must be told in strictly politically correct terms,” writes Slavka Sverakova of his work. “McCann focuses on how it feels to live in such conditions.”

He grew up in the middle of those conditions. Born in rural Cladai, Co Armagh in 1963, he came to love the local landscape and the rhythm of the natural world. He has remarked that forestry would be his next preferred occupation to art. There is an idyllic quality to his recollections of childhood. At the same time, as the Troubles erupted, he became increasingly aware that the physical and social fabric that was close to his heart was not immune to or in any sense apart from them.

When he went to Belfast to study art signs of conflict were, as he recalls, incredibly concrete and unmistakable, part of everyday life. Given his liking for tactful, indirect imagery, it seems almost appropriate that a decisive work for him, painted in 1991, no longer exists. ‘Leakage’ was a close-up, virtually life-sized view of two skips, one stacked within the other, expanses of rust erupting through their yellow paint. There’s no direct statement of intent, but it’s recognisably a sad, reflective allegory. We can read the skips as being Northern Ireland, its contained, worthless, unseen history of division leaking out corrosively through battered, armoured carapaces.

Back in rural Armagh, the Troubles were more subtly, intimately and on occasion shockingly apparent. When violence and death intruded, and they did, it was literally too close to home. Yet one expected what should be unexpected, as he put it. In such a surreal environment, you could become strangely used to football being interrupted by the arrival of an army helicopter, or a schoolgirl being shot in error, or a neighbour fatalistically heading for the sectarian ambush in which he was murdered. Such events went into the mix of more customary traumas such as accidents and illnesses. While, in the circumstances, terrible deeds were the norm, McCann’s work eloquently conveys the long-term costs. The pain of betrayal, the anguish of loss, scarred memories, sadness and incomprehension; all seem to infuse the richly tactile surfaces of the paintings. Far from being strident or angry, however, they are tenderly nuanced, even when they address clearly difficult and unsettling issues. They are coaxed into being.

His work is fundamentally representational, but he tends to shy away from representation in a photographic sense, preferring something less direct, more layered and, it’s fair to say, ambiguous. As he sees it, each finished piece emerges from an internal dialogue between pure painterly instinct and “preparatory drawings or pre-processed images”, such as reproductions of reportage photographs. He prefers a photocopy of an image as a reference, something distanced and a little vague. Painting is a process of “retrieval” rather than depiction for him. And there is his underlying conviction that: “Some things can’t be painted. Not directly, not yet. They have to be left open, so that we can go in feeling their call . . .”

His first solo show was with the Fenderesky in Belfast in 1993 and to coincide with his current, outstanding and substantial exhibition of recent paintings there, ‘Re-Stored’, the gallery has published an extensively illustrated book, Paddy McCann 1991-2013, with an illuminating contextual essay by Sverakova and an interview with the artist by Paddy Donnelly. In an edition of 400 copies, it’s extraordinarily good value at £10. In Dublin, McCann’s work can be seen at Hillsboro Fine Art.

Re-Stored by Paddy McCann is at the Fenderesky Gallery, Belfast until April 27th. fendereskygallery.com