‘You’ll find everything in a stick – character above all’

Seanie Barron grew up whittling sticks and selling them for the price of a pint, but his unique work is now to be exhibited at the Douglas Hyde Gallery

 

Seanie Barron makes walking sticks, a habit he acquired while herding cattle to market as a boy, when he would whittle down a stick to help him along. He now sells them at Puck Fair and the Listowel Races, although from this weekend his sticks will be on show in the Douglas Hyde Gallery as a solo exhibition.

“I’ve been at it for as long as I can remember, making sticks and selling them down the town,” says Barron. “You’d always get the old price of a pint. ’Tis very handy when things would be slack. I worked as a farm labourer when I was a gasún, and often a fellow would say, ‘Is there any ash sticks up above in those fields?’, and I just got into the habit then of making them.”

But an exhibition in a prestigious Dublin gallery is quite a leap. “I know. Who would have guessed?” says Barron. “Even you coming down here now is an awful thing. I’m only a country man. I suppose myself and herself will go up to Dublin, see the sights and all. Have the old craic. Sure you can only go with the flow. I’ll drink a pint of porter if I’m worried at all.”

Michele Horrigan of Askeaton Contemporary Arts is the cause of it all. Over the past decade she has brought over 50 leading artists from Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Mexico and Turkey to work and exhibit in the sleepy, bypassed west Limerick town of Askeaton.

“Seanie was always a larger-than-life character in the town, one of those in the bar who would sing a song for you if you asked him, or do a bit of seanchaí storytelling, but it was only five or six years ago I realised he’s a talented wood carver.”

Last year she mounted an exhibition of his sticks in the community centre in Askeaton and published a catalogue, with an essay by Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes, who saw resonances in his work with the Austrian zoomorphic driftwood pieces James Joyce used as an explanation for the fluid language of Finnegans Wake.

John Hutchinson of the Douglas Hyde Gallery saw the catalogue and immediately contacted Horrigan, saying he wanted to show the work. Horrigan replied that “Seanie doesn’t have a website, or email, or doesn’t even do text messages. If you want to meet him you’re going to have to come down here. So, one fine winter’s morning, John made the trip down. Seanie showed him his sticks and John offered him a show on the spot. Everyone in the town is really buzzing about it all.”

 

Honest, beautiful sticks

Standing in his woodshed, surrounded by sticks of hazel, fig, bramble, elm, ash, furze, blackthorn and holly, Barron appears bemused by the idea of his sticks being art.

“I don’t know is it art or not, only that I like doing it. I like to make honest, beautiful sticks. You can call it what you want. It is art maybe, I suppose. Or, I don’t know what it is. Each piece is different. See this snake stick of hazel wood, or the gorse one with the Torrey [pine cone] top, or here’s a fine blackthorn stick with a puck goat’s horn. See the shark’s head on it and his two eyes, there? Or, look at this antler cracked from where the old deer were fighting and it broke off the horn, see?”

Barron, like a most idiosyncratic art maven, diverts each question back to the work. “Here’s one with a handle like a fellow sitting down, his two legs splayed: that’s furze bush, the hardest timber you’ll ever find. There’s a bit of dirty antler a fellow gave me and after I wash it three times it comes up like this. Jesus Christ almighty, I might cut it there and put it on a thumb stick.

“You’ll find everything in a stick; character above all. Some nice trait, and a good solid staff. First, I stare at it and watch it and then the shape will come to me, and I see how I can work it into something. Like, see this: one of the first type of sticks ever made. A shepherd would have made these for to catch the little sheep by the hind legs. It was easy for him to poke at it with a bit of a knife.”

Barron rarely stops scouring for wood. “I’d always keep an eye out. Every place. Whenever I’m walking the roads I’d be watching, and when I’m out doing a bit of old hunting, you know, hunting mink, you’d finds things. I’m a hunting man, all my life. All on foot for us. We’d hunt down by the river and when you’ve finished and you’re sweating, you dive into the water and enjoy your swim inside in the river. That’s what’s done here. Only down here in Askeaton.”

 

Made for walking

Barron seems somewhat horrified by the notion that his sticks could end up hanging on a wall unused.

“Do you mean they’d leave them like that? Jesus, they wouldn’t, would they? An old stick needs to be walked. Sure every boy out climbing the mountain needs a stick. ’Tis all right going up, but coming down you’ve the full height of your body away from the mountain, and it’s there you are going to get caught out, for one slip then and you’re down 4ft. That’s what happens.”

Will they be for sale in the gallery? “Sure what else are we going up there for? I hope they will. Jesus, I haven’t a clue what’s happening, to tell you the truth. I know the date and that’s it; the rest is up to them people.”

How much are they? “Erra, I’d just throw an old price on them. I’ll say, ‘Give me 20 quid for that’, and sure you might only give me €15 and a pint. I’d be happy with that. I wouldn’t be putting big prices on them at all, it’s only these people telling me to do that now. Long ago someone would ask me ‘How much is that stick?’ and I’d say ‘Give me half a crown’, chancing my arm; next thing, all of a sudden, another fellow would ask and I’d answer the same again, two [shillings] and six [pence], and I always got it.”

A regular stream of farmers visit his 1950s terraced house in Askeaton looking for one of his special “tickler” sticks, which have a hook on the shaft to hold down electric fencing, or a whistle stick with a safety whistle notched into the handle. From now on these farmers will be joined by art collectors and curators.

Michele Horrigan has no worries about how he will cope with his immersion in the murky waters of the art world. “Seanie is 66. I think he knows a thing or two about dark, snide elements in general. What he has is life experience. He brings that in as a very rich thread in his work. It’s a new situation for him that now his work is on a national level, in this major gallery, the Douglas Hyde, that any visual artist in Ireland worth their salt would give their right arm for. There is something really charming that Seanie is going to show there now.”

  • Sticks by Seanie Barron is at Gallery 2, Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin, October 9th-December 2nd
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