Irish art leaves the city in its wake


The practice of contemporary art in Ireland can be enriched by artists challenging themselves to work outside their comfort zones, writes GEMMA TIPTON

IN THE MIDST of the outrage, approval and general bemusement that followed the appearance of Joe McNamara’s “Stonehenge” on Achill Island, an emerging theme has been the incongruity of the structure against the great natural beauty of Achill itself.

It is easy to nod your head and agree, even if you haven’t been to Achill, because the island’s image has already been defined in our minds by art. Paul Henry’s scenes of big skies, rain-washed landscapes, rugged lanes, dry stone walls and grey-blue mountains were used in the 1920s on government-sponsored posters and advertisements, creating an idea of the Irish countryside that still influences the way it is seen and imagined today.

Henry’s Achill paintings also characterise an idea of rural art as attractive, representational, concerned with the agricultural, and also as something made in the countryside, often by blow-ins (Henry was from Belfast). Rural art, or rather art depicting rural scenes, may present such a strong image of place that it can even take over from reality. So, there is Constable Country, the part of East Suffolk that John Constable declared “made me a painter”, and Vincent van Gogh’s Arles in the south of France. Go to either of these places and you find yourself ignoring those elements not made familiar by paintings, and seeing what is in front of you through the filter of an artist’s eye.

“Painting,” wrote Constable, “is but another word for feeling”, and in the hands of a good painter, the feeling can be very strong indeed. But is this the case for all art made in rural areas? Does place inevitably affect how art is made and seen? And is there a city/country divide in Ireland? While art may be made in rural areas, it is primarily consumed (shown, seen, sold, written about, collected) in cities. This divide was explored by artists in the Land Art movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Robert Smithson, Walter de Maria, Michael Heizer, Richard Long and their colleagues made vast art projects, including Smithson’s Spiral Jettyand de Maria’s Lightning Field,as political protests. They wanted to create work that would exist outside the market: to see if it was possible to make art that could not be bought or sold, as a protest against what they saw as the artificiality and commercialisation of art.

Land Art also ushered in the idea of the rural (or perhaps more properly the non-urban) as a place of protest, and rejection of urban, capitalist and market values. Many Irish projects based in rural areas (Commonage in Co Kilkenny, Ground Up in Co Clare, Gracelands in Co Leitrim and Welcome to the Neighbourhood in Co Limerick) use their distance from urban centres as a site for discussions about different ways of thinking about, making and looking at art and society.

Nevertheless, the art world is ultimately centred on urban hubs, or as artist James Merrigan (, based in Aughrim, Co Wicklow, puts it: “In the context of Ireland it is not a question of rural versus urban; it is a question of Dublin versus everywhere else.” He adds that “artists who live in rural areas feel like they are outside the influential/attention loop, while art practitioners in cities don’t notice what is happening outside the urban sprawl. In the context of art, other urban centres outside of Dublin are ‘downgraded’ to either rural cities, towns, or big villages.”

In fact, Ireland is small enough for such a divide to be relatively academic, in the sense that most people have both urban and rural experiences, either through their own lives or the lives of relatives. Artists from the country come to cities to study or escape what they see as small-town isolation, but there is a parallel movement of city dwellers seeking their own escape – but in the opposite direction.

Merrigan describes himself as “a case study of an artist who makes work in the environment in which I spent my formative years. So in my case ‘place’ has become the bedrock of my art practice because I realised after years of rural frustration and urban dreaming that place and identity are a good combination for making art.”

Sometimes, however, it can take an outsider to see a place anew. Paul Henry was one such, having been born in Belfast and, more recently, artists leaving Irish cities during the boom to find affordable space to live and work have created interesting projects aimed at exploring what rural life means, and sometimes, in the process, redefining it. Doing, in fact, what Paul Henry did, but not always through paint.

Based in Co Clare, Fiona Woods initiated the Ground Up project (, in 2003 to focus on “the complexity of cultural practices in rural contexts. It’s much less about that kind of urban/rural divide,” she says, “than it is about a completely different approach to cultural production and practice.” Woods believes that a great deal of what we consider “rural” art is much more radical and concerned with social change than that which embraces the urban art world. “Many of these [rural] practices are uninterested in that kind of competitive, hierarchical account of art practice, which divides it into the ‘Top 100’, and disregards everything else.”

Woods believes that the rural model also has a relevance for larger cities. “Right now opportunities are more limited everywhere, and artists respond to that by self-organising. This DIY approach is also an integral part of rural society and culture – people in rural places have always been inventive and self-organised because they have had to be.”

Michele Horrigan, curator of Askeaton Contemporary Arts ( in Co Limerick, agrees. “The opportunities and possibilities are, if anything, less limited away from urban centres: we always imagine anything is possible, unrestricted by the urban framework. Askeaton doesn’t have any ‘white cube’ gallery spaces, which is both challenging and exciting. Contemporary art is placed directly into the fabric of the town.”

Another example of where rural art succeeds by not attempting to replicate what is going on in our cities is Sculpture in the Parklands ( The project, sited on a former Bord Na Mona cutaway bog in Co Offaly, was initiated by Kevin O’Dwyer, and like the Ground Up and Askeaton projects, was born out of a lack.

“I moved, with my family, from Dublin to Durrow in Offaly,” explains O’Dwyer, “and realised that there weren’t so many opportunities for artists in the locality, so I set up a meeting to look at changing that.”

Sculpture in the Parklands began with an international sculpture symposium, held in 2002, and since then artists have been creating sculptures in this dramatically beautiful setting – all of which, as with Henry’s Achill paintings, make you look at the land in a new way.

Despite this activity, there remains the sense that Merrigan’s “Dublin vs everywhere else” divide not only thrives, but that “everywhere else” may also be seen as taking second place, an also-ran in terms of art world success. Attempts to rebalance this have been made, including with an ambitious capital programme that saw a great number of arts centres built across Ireland. The suspicion remains though, that a better use of resources would be to promote and support those places that don’t seek to replicate what works in urban areas (showing, selling, racking up those “Top 100” lists that Woods refers to), but which instead champions projects that embrace what the rural has to offer.

These include the Ballinglen Arts Foundation (, which offers international residencies in north Mayo, the Leitrim Sculpture Centre (, and studio projects such as the Good Hatchery in Co Offaly (

The Good Hatchery is run by artists Carl Giffney and Ruth Lyons, who “feel that the practice of contemporary art in Ireland can be enriched by artists challenging themselves to work outside their comfort zones”. Lyons doesn’t believe there are specifically “rural” issues, “but that issues of a global nature are often heightened in a rural setting, such as energy usage, transport”, adding that more potent and timeless issues can come to the fore, “such as the power of nature but also the power of the human to transform or affect it”. And, she adds, with the internet, it is possible to be connected to the art world wherever you are.

A Sense of Place: Five Irish artists with an eye on the land


Although he insists his works are not landscape paintings, Tyrrell’s canvases are monuments to the layered rock of the rugged Allihies environment where he makes his work.


Based in the West of Ireland, Dorothy Cross looks at nature in a way that reveals its strange otherness. In collaboration with her brother, Prof Tom Cross, a marine biologist, a series of work explores the landscapes and creatures under the sea.


Patsy Dan Rodgers and the Tory Island Painters paint an idea of island life that is a hard ongoing battle against the elements, but also infused with a sense of naive innocence.


Tony O’Malley divided the latter years of his life between Callan, Co Kilkenny and the Bahamas. The bright pinks, blues, greens and yellows of the Bahamas paintings are a telling contrast to the muted tones of his Kilkenny works. O’Malley’s former family home in Callan is now awarded to a different artist each year as a live/work residency.


On show at Cork’s Crawford Gallery until January 14th, Barrie Cooke’s paintings show aspects of the natural world, including the teeming unnatural life growing in our polluted lakes and bogs.