Michael Viney may have written one of the longest running newspaper columns in the world – which for 45 years was a favourite with Irish Times readers – but even after death he had a few surprises up his sleeve, including for those who knew him best.
At the launch of his final book, Natural World, in Letterfrack, Co Galway, on Sunday, his daughter, Michele Viney, revealed that she had recently discovered a few of his paintings including a self-portrait, which even her mother Ethna was unaware of.
Describing the book, published by Artisan House of Letterfrack as “a celebration of Dad’s life”, Ms Viney said it was a very special book as it highlighted his talent as an artist as well as his gift with words.
She believes that while many of her father’s admirers are very familiar with his sketches and his words, very few were aware of his talent as an artist. The cover of Natural World features his painting of Doolough Lake, “a magical place” according to Viney’s daughter. She explained that she now uses his desk which “faces towards Innisturk” and, when tidying up recently, she found an unfinished painting of a heron in flight, which is also included in the book.
Many people remarked how fitting it was that the final work of the nature writer, illustrator and journalist who died on May 30th, aged 90, should be launched in Letterfrack.
Deirdre Veldon, group managing director of the Irish Times and native of Letterfrack, who launched the book, said the place was a waymarker for the beginning and the end of Michael Viney’s adventures in the west of Ireland over 62 years. “It was through here he cycled in the wake of Hurricane Debbie in the October of 1961, disillusioned with the then new tabloid demands of Fleet Street,” she said. “The coup de grace may have come in the form of a cable from his magazine’s head office as he waited for President Nasser in Cairo: Forget politics. Want belly dancers.”
Letterfrack was also home to one of the many industrial schools that the campaigning journalist visited long before the country woke up to the cruelty inflicted on children incarcerated in such institutions. Viney once recalled that he visited the Letterfrack industrial school in 1966 – the same day as Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin was blown up – but unlike the city centre explosion, his report was met with universal indifference, generating just one letter to the editor.
Ms Veldon described the “ever humble” Viney as one of a long line of creative people – such as Paul Henry, JM Synge , Richard Murphy, Tim Robinson and his close friend Michael Longley – who came west to pursue their “art or their science and their romantic hearts”.
While he made no claim to be either an artist or a scientist, she said he was both and “his gift was to combine these effortlessly in his writing and his drawing, bringing the natural world alive in every sense, for readers of his column and his books”.
Michele Viney said the book was her father’s swan song and he was still working on it days before he died. “The request for editing revisions came on a Wednesday and he died the following Tuesday. He died with his boots on,” said Ms Viney who had to respond to the publisher’s final queries after her father passed away.
Ms Veldon visited Viney and his wife at their home in Thallabawn last February to thank them for their contribution to The Irish Times over many years.
“Both he and Ethna were sad to be finishing the column, but he said he was already writing ‘one last book’,” she recalled. “Then he added, a little sadly: ‘I’m just not sure I’ll get it finished’. I am so glad that he did.”
Further launches are planned for Belfast where Longley will do the honours, and at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin where Viney was a member. And a special launch for neighbours and close friends from Thallabawn is planned for Louisburg.