Opening our eyes to glory of nature

Letterfrack’s Ellis Hall was packed on Sunday for the launch of the final work by nature writer and artist Michael Viney who died in May at the age of 90. For almost 50 years, Michael wrote a weekly nature column for the Irish Times until he retired last February. Needing a project, he contacted Letterfrack publishing company Artisan House with plans for one final book. JUDY MURPHY hears how the publication evolved in the place where his Irish adventures had begun back in 1961, in the wake of Hurricane Debbie.

Who knew that earwigs were good mothers?

Probably very few of us. But it was that discovery that allowed writer and artist Michael Viney to develop a new appreciation for an insect that he had previously disliked intensely. He still struggled, however, to overcome a fear of spiders that dated to childhood and was inadvertently caused by nuns.

These and other fascinating nuggets are contained in Michael Viney’s Natural World, his final book, which has just been published by Letterfrack based Artisan House. It contains a selection of his writings as well as 50 illustrations by a man whose artistic talent matched his ability to write about nature.

For 45 years, English-born Michael shared his insights into the natural world, mostly via a weekly column in the Irish Times, which only ended earlier last February when he retired, aged 90.

Back then, the Irish Times Group Managing Director Deirdre Veldon visited Michael and his wife, Ethna, at their home in Thallabawn, County Mayo, to thank them both for their invaluable work through the decades.

The sun shone in as Michael gestured to the large window in the living room, and informed Deirdre that on fine days they were able to keep a good eye on life in her home place of Letterfrack, despite the land and water that separated them.

Just a few months later, in late May, Michael died, aged 90 years.

Last Sunday, as Deirdre officially launched Michael Viney’s Natural World, at Ellis Hall in Letterfrack, she pointed out that the North Connemara village was a fitting location for its debut launch – publishers Artisan House are planning three more; in Louisburg, Dublin and Belfast.

Deirdre described Letterfrack and surrounding area as “a waymarker for the beginning of and the end of Michael Viney’s adventures in the West of Ireland over 62 years”.

As he explained in the new book, which he’d finished just before he died, Brighton-born Michael started out as a local journalist before moving to national papers. But it wasn’t long before he became disenchanted by Fleet Street and the increasingly tabloid approach of English media. One final straw broke his back.

Aged 28 and eager, he’d been in Egypt, waiting to interview President Nasser when a cable arrived from his editor. ‘Forget politics,’ it read, ‘want belly-dancers.’

Michael returned to England where he packed his bags and bike and left for Connemara, arriving in October 1961, in the wake of Hurricane Debbie.

By coincidence, he ended up staying in a cottage in the Renvyle Peninsula that had previously been occupied by artist Francis Bacon in 1929, when “it had perhaps been in better shape”, Michael observed wryly.

Pictured: The late artist, author and journalist Michael Viney at his home in Thallabawn, Louisburgh, County Mayo. PHOTO: MICHAEL McLAUGHLIN.


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