Abandoned village in the frame

Artist Padraic Reaney with Tom Kenny of the Kenny Art Gallery.
Artist Padraic Reaney with Tom Kenny of the Kenny Art Gallery.

Lifestyle – Ruined houses on a north Connemara island that was depopulated 58 years ago this  month, have been captured in a new exhibition, Inis Airc – the Inishark Project.  The work was captured over a 17-year period, artist Pádraic Reaney tells Judy Murphy.

A cluster of ruined houses on the south-eastern corner of the deserted Connemara island of Inishark have inspired the latest show from artist Pádraic Reaney.

Inis Airc, the Inishark Project, is an exhibition of paintings and graphics by the Carraroe artist, which opens at the Kenny Gallery in Galway City this Friday, October 12. It’s the culmination of an initiative which began in 2002, when Pádraic visited the abandoned island for the first time. He was with a Parks and Wildlife team from the Office of Public Works who were doing a bird survey of islands in the area.

That was in April 2002, when “I did some quick sketches on a notebook”, he recalls.

Inishark, which was once home to 300 people, was depopulated in October 1960 under a State initiative, when the last remaining six families – consisting of 23 people aged from 11 months to 73 years – were relocated to Claddaghduff on the nearby mainland.

In the years preceding their final exodus, the dwindling population of Inishark had endured much hardship, mostly because the island was inaccessible in any kind of inclement weather.  In 1958, a local man died of appendicitis because there was no phone or no way of informing the outside world about his plight. Drownings, too, had taken their toll and eventually, the few remaining islanders opted to leave. For the Government, it was easier and cheaper to relocate them in Claddaghduff, between Clifden and Cleggan, than to build a new pier that would have allowed them to remain on Inishark.

More than 40 years later, Pádraic made his first visit to the 615-acre island and was hooked. Over the course of 15 years, he returned when opportunity – and the tides – allowed. Landing on Inishark was always difficult and has become even harder as its old slipway has fallen into disrepair. But, when circumstances are right, the island is still accessible and the land – good land, he points out – is used to graze sheep, owned by farmers from the neighbouring island of Inishbofin.

These animals wander freely around the island, including among the islanders’ former homes, where Pádraic set about creating an artistic “record of what has been left”.

He has form in this regard, and, was awarded the Pádraic Mac Con Midhe Prize at the 1979 Oireachtas for a series of etchings which recorded the rapidly disappearing thatched houses in Ros an Mhíl.

Early on in the Inishark Project, Pádraic decided to focus on the exteriors of the houses, because “nothing that was on the inside interested me as much as the houses in the landscape did”, he says. “The only interesting features on the inside were the fireplaces and they were similar in all the houses.”

Islands, as well as ruins, have long intrigued him.

“I’ve been pulled to islands since I did work in Malta in the late 1980s,” he says, referring to a group of local artists including Jay Murphy, Brian Bourke, John Behan and Vicky Crowley, who visited Malta as part of the group Island Connection.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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