Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1950 – Island People, by Gerard Dillon

For the Belfast-born artist, the Connemara island of Inishlackan, where he lived for a year, was a space of social and political freedom

Detail from Island People: the artist’s bowed posture and dragging steps suggest a reluctance to leave Inishlackan. Photograph  courtesy of Crawford Art Gallery

Detail from Island People: the artist’s bowed posture and dragging steps suggest a reluctance to leave Inishlackan. Photograph courtesy of Crawford Art Gallery

 

Island People is one of a series of artworks that Gerard Dillon painted while living on the island of Inishlackan, off Connemara. Two islanders stand by a gable watching as an artist – probably Dillon – walks off, carrying a suitcase and a painting. The artist heads towards the shore, where two beached currachs represent the only way back to the mainland.

The painting is recognisable as a landscape in the childlike style that Dillon favoured for his images of the west. The artist’s bowed posture and dragging steps suggest a reluctance to leave the island.

In “Connemara is Ireland to me”, an article in Ireland of the Welcomes in 1964, Dillon wrote, “One could live here forever, but being neither a fisherman nor farmer but only a painter, I’m forced to come back to city life to sell work – and hope to save enough to come back to Connemara.”

Inspired by Seán Keating’s illustrations for The Playboy of the Western World, Dillon first visited Connemara in 1939. Paul Henry and others celebrated the landscape; Dillon focused on the people and their way of life.

Born in 1916, into a Catholic nationalist family in Belfast, Dillon left school at 14 and was apprenticed to a local firm of painters and decorators. At 18 he moved to London, seeking work. For the next three decades, like many of his generation, he lived between Ireland and England, working as a decorator or on building sites, to make enough to return to Connemara and paint.

Dillon’s year on Inishlackan between 1950 and 1951 was financed by the Dublin art dealer Victor Waddington, who encouraged him to paint the west. Several friends, including the Ulster artists George Campbell and James MacIntyre, came to stay. Dillon embraced island life, dressed as an islander, and got to know his neighbours.

In 1955 Dillon wrote, “Connemara is the place for a painter”; he went on to describe how the distinctive light changed the rocky landscape from blue-green to pink and violet. In Island People Dillon experiments with this palette and uses the stone walls and boulders to divide the image into sections that represent both the small fields wrested from the landscape and the division of space that he admired in medieval carving.

James White believed that Dillon’s discovery of Connemara was the most important event in his life and that the remoteness of Inishlackan provided him with a sense of freedom from the restrictions that he feared in Irish society. As White suggests, Dillon saw Connemara as a kind of rural idyll, free from both the political repressions of the North and the social constraints of Irish society in general. As an artist, a northern nationalist and a gay man, he had much to fear from the power of the Catholic Church, civil-rights abuses in the North, social conservatism throughout Ireland and State sanctions on homosexuality.

Defending his romanticised view of Connemara, Dillon pointed out that, having grown up in industrial Belfast, the west was “a great strange land of wonder to the visitor from the red brick city”. It was the imagined geography of Inishlackan, seen as a space of social and political freedom apart from the conservatism of Irish society, that attracted Dillon and enabled him to identify himself as one of the island people.

You can read more about Island People in the Royal Irish Academy’s Art and Architecture of Ireland; ria.ie

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.