A decade ago, Omagh District Council decided to set up a writing festival to celebrate the work of Benedict Kiely, and the festival has gone from strength to strength in the comfy surroundings of the Strule Arts Centre.
Born in 1919, Kiely was raised and educated in Omagh. Although he moved to Dublin in the 1930s, he never lost touch with the market town, and many of his literary achievements, including fiction, short stories and memoirs, have Omagh deep within their roots.
After reading Kiely’s short story ‘Heroes in the Dark House’, curator and former History of Art lecturer, Terry Sweeney, was inspired to bring together some of Ireland’s greatest literary heroes, depicted by some of the country’s most talented visual artists.
‘What we wanted was not just a celebration of Benedict Kiely, but of writing generally. That helped to shape the whole programme that we developed,’ she explains.
‘I started working on this about 18 months ago, looking at how to put together an exhibition that would be interesting and varied, and that would have all of the great writers of Ireland represented, and particularly Northern Irish writers.’
The exhibition, also entitled Heroes in the Dark House, displays a wide variety of media by artists such as Basil Blackshaw, Brian Ballard, Estella Solomons and Norah McGuinness.
It includes images of writers with strong connections to Omagh – Brian Friel, John Montague, Alice Milligan and Benedict Kiely, but also includes portraits of Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce and John Millington Synge as well as more recent portraits of Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley.
Works have been gathered from a number of national and private collections including The Abbey Theatre in Dublin, The Arts Council / An Comhairle Ealaionn, The Crawford Art Gallery in Cork, The Dublin Writers Museum, The Model in Sligo and the Ulster Museum.
Sweeney explains that each piece in the exhibition has been chosen for very different reasons: ‘There are lots of images of writers but the whole thing about portraiture in art is that it can be made in so many different ways. It can be made in a moment, a very accurate, brilliantly studied piece that only took a moment.
‘On the other hand, though, you can get a painting that takes a long period of time and requires a number of sittings and a careful organisation of objects and various things within the composition. Some have also worked with sculpture, which is a very long drawn out process.’
While some of the pieces in the exhibition are very realistic, others are more abstract and expressive. ‘Some of the pieces tell you something about the nature of the individual or of the work that they do but then you can get a cartoon or a caricature trying to pick out the main points. There is a broad range of ways it can be done.’
The centrepoint of the exhibition is a portrait of Benedict Kiely by Harry Kernoff.
‘In past exhibitions we have shown portraits of Benedict Kiely by Edward McGuire and Stephen McKenna, where we saw Kiely in his later years. But in this year’s exhibition we are happy to have a portrait by Harry Kernoff, which shows a younger Benedict Kiely in the years when he was in his prime,’ says Sweeney.
She notes: ‘By the mid 1960s when this portrait was made, Kiely had a successful career in journalism, had produced several masterful short stories and novels and was lecturing widely in Ireland and in America. Kernoff’s pastel portrait captures the writer at a time when he was at his most prolific, the strong directional strokes convey a sense of intelligence, energy and strength with an underlying charm.’
In many cases the portraits are made by artists who know their subjects well, friends and in some instances, family.
‘I was trying to look at pictures that were formally commissioned where you would have a full-size portrait done but I was also very keen to get images where there was a very strong connection between the artist and the sitter,’ comments Sweeney.
‘My main focus was to find pieces where there was a good balance achieved between the method of the artist and the personality or the work of the writer. It’s not actually a very easy thing to do.’
A painting of Strabane-born writer Brian O’Nolan, who wrote under the names of Flann O'Brien and Myles Na gCopaleen, which was done by his brother – the artist – Michael O’Nolan is featured.
One of the most famous faces of Irish literature – Seamus Heaney – also forms part of the exhibition. Sweeney explains the background of the piece: ‘I was able to get a portrait of Seamus Heaney by his friend Barrie Cooke (pictured above). Seamus Heaney has written a great deal about his work Cooke so the two mean seem to have empathy and understanding of each others work. You really sense that Cooke understands Heaney’s link to the soil and the earth because he has built him into the landscape in the work.’
In another striking piece, poet Michael Longley is shown in a quiet, contemplative moment by his daughter Sarah Longley in softly worked charcoal. It is a very personal picture and shows a softer side to Longley – from the perspective of a daughter - than has been shown before.
Sweeney says the exhibition is a unique opportunity for both visual art and literature enthusiasts to come together: “The combination of differing styles, media and perspectives allow us to view these writers in a new way as our usual connection to them is through the written word.’
The Heroes in the Dark House exhibition will run at the Strule Arts Centre until 29 October. It was curated to celebrate the Benedict Kiely Literary Weekend, which ran from 9 – 11 September.