Art cements mother and daughter relationship

Date Published: {J}

When you’re in business 70 years it’s difficult to keep coming up with ideas that are fresh and will excite people, but you could never accuse the Kenny Art Gallery of shirking in the ideas’ department.

Their theme for the first show of their 70th anniversary is Generations: Ó Ghlúin go Glúin, featuring a series of shows from artists, who have been associated with the gallery through the years, and their children.

This kicks off this Saturday, January 23, and those taking part include mother and and daughter Margaret Irwin and Katharine West, both based in Connemara, Margaret outside Clifden and Katharine in Moycullen.

Margaret is a printmaker, Katharine is a ceramic artist, but, says Margaret, there is a relationship between their art in that there’s a tactile quality to what they produce, and in that they both draw inspiration from the landscape around them.

At 83, Margaret would shame many women half her age. Fit as a fiddle and with a love of life that keeps her young, she works from her studio at her Claddaghduff home, lifting and carrying all the printing plates for her etchings herself. The only concession she has made to old age is that the printing plates aren’t as big as they used to be.

Margaret, who began her artistic career as a painter, ended up as a print maker by accident. But the real wonder is that she became an artist at all, in the depressed social and economic climate of mid 20th century Ireland.

Born in India to a mother from Cork and a father from Roscommon, she returned home to Ireland at the age of nine. She knew from a young age that she wanted to study art, but it wasn’t the done thing in the 1940s when she was at school. Her father didn’t entertain the idea, instead telling her to go to Trinity and study ‘saleable subjects’. She did that, after getting a dispensation from the Catholic Church to attend the ‘Protestant college’, where she studied languages. The dispensation in an era where the Catholic Church dominated people’s lives, did not allow her to study medicine or philosophy.

After graduating from Trinity, she finally got a chance to fulfil her dream of becoming an artist, thanks to the local parish priest in Wickow, Fr Jack Hanlon.

Fr Hanlon, a renowned artist, suggested to Margaret’s parents that she should go to Paris to pursue her passion. They were inclined to accept the suggestion because it came from a priest, she laughs. However, he warned her not to tell them that he was sending her to a Cubist studio, her daughter reminds her with a laugh. Obviously this is a story that’s well known in the family.

Margaret studied with French cubist painter Andre L’Hote before returning to Ireland where she exhibited regularly in the major art shows of the time, such as Living Art and the Oireachtas exhibitions.

“Then I married a Scotsman and moved to England where we lived for about 11 years.”

She kept painting, while rearing her family and moving house – “we did that about five times” – but rarely exhibited her work.

Eventually the family moved back to Dublin, where Margaret began to flourish as an artist. From 1977 to 1991 she taught at the Dún Laoghaire School of Art and at the National College of Art and Design and that that’s when she began printmaking. She needed an extra craft in order to teach at third level, she explains. “ And I got hooked on it.”

She joined the Black Church Print Studio and showed in exhibitions throughout Dublin and further afield.

When she and her husband were due to retire “I ordered a printing press from Peter Knuttel [brother of the artist Graham] and we moved to Connemara. We always wanted to live there”.

Now widowed and living in Claddaghduff, her subjects include archaeological and prehistoric monuments and subjects that have a social and anthropological context.

“One piece I am showing is a huge etching of the chapel on High Island and it’s called Hope, because of the light shining in the window.”

Another is a reflection of light on the mill pond on High Island and again there’s a story to accompany it, about how the monks who lived on the island weren’t supposed to be distracted from their prayers by the beauty around them, but that the light on the lake maybe gave them a glimpse of the wonders of nature.

Another etching of the holy well on Omey Island is intriguing and evocative. In addition to the large etching of the well, Margaret has made separate small pieces representing the different offerings that people leave at the well. These individual images surround the main image to create a work which lets satisfies visually and imaginatively.


For more, read page 25 of this week’s Galway City Tribune.