‘The day after the US election, I just sat down and sobbed’

In conversation: Helen O’Leary and Claire Walsh

What is your average breakfast?

Helen: A cup of coffee.
Claire: Eggs on toast.

When did you last cry?

Claire: When I was at EVA in Limerick about two weeks before the referendum, watching the Artists for the Repeal of the Eighth Amendment films they had installed there. Totally heartbreaking. I can't remember other times I've properly cried in an art gallery.
Helen: The day after the American election. I went to a coffee shop in Pennsylvania. Everybody just looked like they were Republicans. Everybody looked happy. I ordered a cup of coffee and then I lost it, just sat down and sobbed.

What was your favourite item of clothing as a teenager?

Helen: I had a blanket that I felt when I wore it nothing could touch me. It was like my magic blanket.
Claire: I was really into Converse.

Is there any artist you feel particularly connected to at the moment?

Claire: Helen O'Leary. I've realised there are lots of crossovers we're both interested in: the parallels between literature, art-making and painting, and the similar types of literature we seem to be interested in, particularly autobiographical fiction. Seeing your work, I felt an immediate connection to the physicality of the works. It really spoke to me.
Helen: That's great! I'm reading George Sanders right now. I love language. Anything that has a narrative that's layered from the personal to the political and back again.
Claire: The economy of language.
Helen: Yes, what you say when your hands are tied.

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The best thing about where I'm from is the knowledge people have of the land, the community, the support that's there

What is your favourite destination to visit?

Claire: Edinburgh. I just moved back to Ireland – I was in Edinburgh for six years. My head is still between two places. My partner lives there and I've lots of very good friends there.
Helen: Mine is Achill island. I love the rawness of it. I go there off season when it's raw and empty. All the houses look like paintings. There's a terseness to how people speak there that I like.

Is there any book you keep returning to?

Claire: The Third Policeman. It's been a really strong influence. I read it when I was studying in Limerick, and it just set off sparks in my mind; the humour of the writing, the way Brian O'Nolan [aka Flann O'Brien] made English seem like a foreign language, this overwrought use that felt so Irish. Surreal, irreverent, dark, comic, the circular structure of the narrative, I have referred back to that book a lot in my thinking.
Helen: Claire Keegan is someone I think about again and again for what she doesn't put in – all the stuff that has been carved away. I love the way she can write a short story with what she doesn't tell you.
Claire: I just read Transit by Rachel Cusk. The way she uses language is amazing.

Can you play a musical instrument?

Claire: I can probably play the Titanic theme tune on the recorder.
Helen: That's more than me. The thing I remember from trying to play the squeezebox was I Never Will Marry was the tune.
Claire: Tragic! We should start a band.

What is your favourite building?

Helen: Le Corbusier's house in Paris. I love the bathroom.
Claire: Imma? It's pretty amazing.

What was the last gift you bought?

Claire: I bought my boyfriend some paintbrushes and some old copies of Architectural Review magazine from the 1950s in the Secret Bookshop. The graphic design is unbelievable.
Helen: I went into Redfoxpress on Achill island, I was with my daughter, and they have a book there on the Amethyst Bar, so I gave it to her for her birthday.

What is the best thing about where you’re from?

Claire: I'm from rural Kilkenny. My parents are farmers. Going to art school and working in galleries, I thought I was doing something so separated from my upbringing. I've realised more recently that they're so connected. The best thing about where I'm from is the knowledge people have of the land, the community, the support that's there.
Helen: I grew up in Wexford on a farm. Resistance and survival, and a lot of laughter. It wasn't until I was sitting in a feminist class in Chicago that I realised I grew up in that too. There was stoicism in my youth.

  • Claire Walsh is an assistant curator at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma). Helen O'Leary is an artist whose work has recently been purchased by the Hennessy Art Fund for Imma Collection 2018, which is running until September 16th and is free to view. imma.ie