Micheál Ó Nualláin: Painter, cartoonist and fabulous polymath

Obituary: brother of writer Brian O’Nolan believed in total power of the imagination

Micheál Ó Nualláin at his Monkstown home in 2013 –  Born: July 4th, 1928.Died: July 11th, 2016.  Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Micheál Ó Nualláin at his Monkstown home in 2013 – Born: July 4th, 1928.Died: July 11th, 2016. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


The word colourful does not begin to describe Micheál Ó Nualláin. He was a painter, cartoonist, a very unusual civil servant, a self-taught scientist, who relished living every day of his almost 90-year life in full spate.

He thrived on debate and was untroubled by consistency – quoting Oscar Wilde: “The well-bred contradict other people, the wise contradict themselves.”

He was the second youngest of 12 children of Micheál Ó Nualláin and Agnes Gormally from Co Tyrone. His father had been invited by Michael Collins to join the new Irish Revenue Commissioners and the family moved first to Tullamore, then Dublin. The young Micheál, aged three, astounded his family with a near flawless sketch of the nearby village of Blackrock. He won a scholarship to the National College of Art at the age of nine, with his place deferred until he finished school at Blackrock College. In 1952, the year he graduated, he won an award for art at the Helsinki Olympic games.

He worked and travelled as a painter for more than a decade. In Madrid in the 1950s, he daubed a moustache on his upper lip, leapt up on a bar counter and began to declaim fascist slogans in fluent Spanish. He was arrested and charged with impersonating General Franco.

While teaching art at a technical school in Tuam, Co Galway, he met Ann Hardiman, the daughter of a poker-playing friend, and they married. He was 40 and she was 22.

It was also in Tuam that Ó Nualláin won over a classroom of bored adolescents by asking them to name the most powerful force in the world? A tractor, said one; a nuclear bomb, said another. No, came the answer. Your imagination. And in that brief exchange, he captured their interest and stated his manifesto for taking on the world.

Agent for change

His superiors recognised that though Ó Nualláin did not spend as much time behind his desk as most, his work was first-class. There would be no grade-inflation on his watch; an honours grade in Leaving Certificate art was hard-won.

The mandarins in Marlborough Street also found that if a minister delivered a speech on an aspect of art education flawlessly drafted by Ó Nualláin, and the underlying policy was mercilessly filleted by a pseudonymous correspondent in a newspaper days later, it was better not to jump to conclusions.

His portrait commissions were many, including Micheál MacLiammóir, Siobhán McKenna Brendan Behan and Tom Murphy. He had a joint exhibition with Jack B Yeats in 1971 in Toronto. He turned out high quality poster art all his life.

He could not get his better-known brother the writer Brian O’Nolan, also known as Flann O’Brien and Myles na Gopaleen, to sit for him. But he painted him anyway – that image was issued as a commemorative postage stamp in 2011.

Signing himself Kilroy (“Kilroy was here” was a popular graffito of the day) he drew topical cartoons for Dublin Opinion, The Irish Times, the Sunday Tribune, and other outlets.

When Archbishop John Charles McQuaid opposed senator Mary Robinson’s 1971 family planning Bill, Kilroy depicted the austere cleric as a white-coated medic with a waiting room packed with heavily-pregnant women and toddlers running riot .

Fed by voracious reading, Ó Nualláin taught himself science, and registered many patents, including one for a machine to manufacture a rug in a day.

In latter years he championed a proposal to put weather stations in the Atlantic, for which a reasonable case can be made. The feasibility of his contention that they could – by means of a sonic boom – cause clouds to shed their rain before reaching the west of Ireland remains untested.

Against the Spire

At Swim Two Birds

But his life was more than that. It is more instructive to see him as a fabulous polymath who could have leapt fully-formed from the pages of the great Irish novel that his older brother never quite got around to producing.

In latter years he frequented the Confession Box public house in the shadow of Dublin’s pro cathedral, where he could get a room temperature pint of Guinness, chilled stout being an unspeakable abomination in his book.

Some feared that Ó Nualláin’s drinking would get the better of him. Not so. After 88 tumultuous years that epic contest ended in a draw. He is survived by his wife Ann, daughter Dara, and sons Brian, Oisín and Aonghus.