Donal O’Sullivan, the Irish artist who killed himself in 1991
Video: A timely revival of the work of artist Donal O’Sullivan is on show in Ranelagh
Although art has the reputation of being timeless, it has fashions like everything else. While the best artists follow the driving impulses of their own creative brains, rather than the vagaries of taste, it can be a hard station for those whose work stands outside the prevailing currents.
Born in 1945 in Dublin, Donal O’Sullivan was one of those characters. He first studied architecture at DIT, but quickly moved to NCAD to take up sculpture. Looking at his life and work, it’s easy to see that he had a quiet determination to do the best he could by his talent, but found himself casting round, in the early stages, for the way to realise it.
Ultimately it wasn’t sculpture but drawing that became his outlet, particularly of people – his character sketches are brilliant moments of personality. Some subjects are famous, Sinead O’Connor for example, some are people whose faces and bodies caught something in the artist’s imagination.
According to his sister, Marie, also an artist, Charles Haughey had some of his work, perhaps acquired after he won the Taylor Prize in two consecutive years: 1967 and 1968; or maybe at one of his sell out shows at the Davis Gallery, or later at the Neptune and Lad Lane Galleries.
But the trappings of success weren’t for O’Sullivan. Marie tells of how at the openings he would be found in the nearest pub, not cosying up to clients and collectors at the gallery. It’s clear he couldn’t suffer fools: he was one of the leaders of the student protests, agitating for a better standard of education, which closed NCAD in the late 1960s. Ultimately he couldn’t suffer his own delicate mental health, and he took his own life in 1991.
After he died, Marie discovered a trove of sketches and drawings, alongside a collection of press cuttings from his protest days in his small flat. Leaning on influences from Old Master art, O’Sullivan’s timeless work did fall out of fashion, and he became largely forgotten, although not to fellow artists including Brian Maguire, and his Stoneybatter neighbour Robert Ballagh.
Now a selection of his work can be seen at the Ranelagh Arts Centre from July 28th to August 8th. It’s a timely revival. ranelagharts.org