An Irishman's Diary

Jim Redington, who is a little on the senior side of 70, is a walking advertisement for an active retirement

Jim Redington, who is a little on the senior side of 70, is a walking advertisement for an active retirement. Despite being troubled by arthritis, he took up tennis in his late 60s, plays twice a week and is, he reckons, improving steadily, writes Liam McAuley

In recent years he has become something of a household face through his regular appearances in TV commercials for Smithwick's ale. And, having staged his first exhibition of wood sculptures last year, he is following up swiftly with a second one, which opens next Wednesday night at Dalkey Heritage Centre.

Jim's sculptures are the tokens of what he describes as "a lifelong love of wood". He likes to joke that his wife Dolores, who died four years ago, had more cause to worry about how he might eye up a piece of wood than about him running off with another woman. But his relationship with wood, while deep and passionate, has been something of an on-off affair, forced to compete with Jim's enthusiasm for Gaelic games and his career as a gifted masseur whose hands have stroked and pummelled the bodies attached to some of Ireland's best-known faces.

Jim was born in Galway of Galway parents, but grew up in Dublin from the age of four, spending his childhood in Ballymun in the days before tower blocks obliterated the farmland on that northern fringe of the city. After taking his Leaving Cert, he went to work in the depressed Dublin of the early 1950s. "Those were very rough years," he says. "I must have had 30 or 40 different jobs, mostly driving or door-to-door selling. At one time I sold vacuum cleaners door to door in Dun Laoghaire, cycling across from Ballymun with a cleaner on the back of the bike."


In 1956 an aunt in the US helped him to get a visa and within three days of his arrival in New York he was working in Altman's department store, across the street from the Empire State Building. But after six months in the States he was required to register as an alien - and was promptly drafted for two years' military service. Posted to Germany, he found himself training his fellow soldiers at boxing and soccer. "We were the only American army team that ever beat a Russian team at soccer," he says. "And we beat three of them."

While Jim enjoyed the sporting side of his military service, he didn't like the army, and says he was always in trouble. "I made private, first-class for one day - and lost it again for playing cards in the officers' quarters."

Back in civilian life in New York, he found a job delivering and selling Irish linen. He also played hurling with Irish-American teams, representing both Galway and Kilkenny.

In 1962 Jim returned to Dublin and settled in Stillorgan, where he has lived ever since. Together with his friend Liam Roe, a sculptor and also a keen hurler, he attended night classes in art and metalwork at the National College of Art in Kildare Street, where he gradually became engrossed in wood carving, even though there was no teacher specialising in the craft.

After showing some of his work to craft shops, he was soon able to make a living by turning out penal crosses and "Men of Aran" figurines for the souvenir market. "It was putting food on the table, but you lose your art through that kind of work," he says.

In the 1970s Jim's career took a new direction. In his days as a US army trainer he had discovered a knack for kneading athletes' aching muscles and had taken a course in massage. Now his sister Anne Weekes, a successful beauty therapist, encouraged him to use this skill professionally and sent him some clients for treatment. "Before I knew it they were flocking to me," he says. With the help of further studies, massage quickly became his main occupation throughout the next two decades. It also led to his TV sideline playing the philosophical old barfly in the Smithwick's commercials: the casting directors John and Ros Hubbard are among his many high-profile clients (others have included Tracey Piggott, Austin Darragh and U2's the Edge). Jim was also, at one stage, considered for the role in The Commitments eventually played by Johnny Murphy. "I'd love to have done that," he says, but with only a trace of wistfulness.

Meanwhile, wood sculpting had been pushed to the margins of his spare time by his dedication to training junior hurling teams at nearby Kilmacud Crokes. But after retirement, and the death of his wife, Jim's enthusiasm for sculpting returned in full flow and he began to think of putting together an exhibition comprising the pieces he had done down though the years along with new work.

"I kept mentioning the idea now and again. Then one day my son Oisin said, 'Dad, stop talking about that - you're never going to have an exhibition.'

" I think that's what really got me going."

The 29 pieces on display next week range in height from about 18 inches to over seven feet and employ a wide range of woods, including yew, bog oak, elm, walnut, sycamore and mahogany. They are all broadly figurative, many depicting animals and human figures. "Sometimes you know right away what you want to do with a piece of wood," Jim says, "but sometimes you have to start working and let the natural shape and the grain lead you. That's why I love working with wood - as a medium, it gives you much more than stone does."

The variety of styles on show is almost baffling. "I don't want to get stuck in a particular style," Jim remarks. "After all, I'm still developing."

"Emotion Recollected", an exhibition of wood sculptures by Jim Redington, is at Dalkey Heritage Centre, Dalkey, Co Dublin from Thursday, September 25th to Sunday, September 28th, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.