Jim Fitzpatrick at The Wicker Man

Belfast craft shop exhibits original artwork and prints by Ireland's foremost Celtic art specialist and creator of that iconic two-tone Che Guevara portrait

The roll call of Irish myths and legends is as long and colourful as the history of Ireland itself, including the plight of the Children of Lir, the magic spun by St Patrick, the heroic deeds of warriors Finn MaCool and Cú Chulainn – tales all embedded deep in the collective Irish psyche.

And whilst faeries, changelings and leprechauns might be easily dismissed today as romantic baloney, they are, nevertheless, like our deified historical-cum-mythological figures, somehow woven into the shifting fabric of Irish culture and identity in the 21st century: Ireland the tragic nation, land of warrior people, of saints and scholars, ancient island of mystery and magic.

It is all tremendous grist to the mill of internationally renowned artist, Jim Fitzpatrick – no painter has done more in the last 40 years to represent so beautifully these mythical figures of enduring fascination.

Undoubtedly, Fitzpatrick is best known internationally for his iconic 1968 pop-art picture of Che Guevara, the striking two-tone, blood-red and Bible-black image that immediately transcended art to become a potent symbol of revolution and ideological struggle.

Yet, since the early 1970s, Fitzpatrick’s enduring passion has been Celtic art inspired by Ireland’s many myths and legends. It’s an interest that was first awakened as a child by an aunt who, Fitzpatrick recalls, ‘was full of fairy tales'.

Jim Fitzpatrick, Che Guevara

School too played a signicant role in indoctrinating the young Fitzpatrick. ‘I learned it in Irish,’ says Fitzpatrick. ‘I remember my first teacher drilling into us a line that went, "Long ago in Ireland there was a king called Lir", and if you missed it you got a whack. You could say I grew up with all that sort of stuff.’

As with myths and legends everywhere, they can be used to quite different ends, according to Fitzpatrick. Women would breathe into children the folk tales of early Ireland. The men would do it in a more patriotic way, if you know what I mean. The women took a more realistic view and used them as they’re supposed to be used, for the entertainment of children.’

Mythology, suggests Fitzpatrick, is closely linked to history. When you get into mythology and legend you’re dealing with pseudo-history almost, because obviously huge amounts of it are based on facts, but it’s distorted. The women have become goddesses and the men have become deified.’

It wasn’t until much later, as a man about town, however, that Fitzpatrick’s artistic interest in Irish mythology blossomed, inspired by the literary and intellectual passions of a ‘beat group’ run by Eamon Carr (later of Horslips fame) and Peter Fallon, who now runs Gallery Press. ‘That’s when I got back into it in a really big way,’ Fitzpatrick recalls.

Forty years on, Fitzpatrick is as passionate as ever about his art, while interest in his paintings has never been greater. Though national forms of identity – be they revivals in music, language, history or visual arts – tend to come and go in waves, the current trend for Celtic mythology and iconography (think of all those Celtic tattoos), seems to be stronger than ever.

‘You can see from the success of films like The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit that there’s a huge appetite for folklore,’ Fitzpatrick observes. ‘It’s not just folklore as fantasy, it’s folklore with a deeper meaning. Everything in The Lord of the Rings is based on Celtic mythology and on Anglo-Saxon mythology, because Tolkien was an expert in both.

‘That scholarly kind of level of work means it’s amenable to film makers, which in turn makes it amenable to ordinary people, to cinema goers.’

Fitzpatrick admits that he would love to see a Celtic epic in the manner of Tolkien or Vikings, the spectacular TV series launched in 2013, which was filmed in Ireland based on the life of Ragnar Lothbrok, of which he’s an ardent fan.

‘This is all my childhood coming back to me. It’s wonderful seeing all this stuff,’ Fitzpatrick enthuses. ‘That was the sort of stuff I and all my friends was interested in. It was either that kind of mythology or science fiction. We weren’t terribly interested in realty.'

It is little wonder that the arts should have provided an appealing alternative to reality. Divisions were rife in Ireland in the decades following the brutal Civil War, and Fitzpatrick’s family was bitterly split: fervent Republicans on the one side and Empire loyalists on the other. Such divisions would echo across Ireland during the Second World War, and again during the dark days of the Troubles.

‘I think the mythology was kind of ennobling at that time in the 1970s, when not a single band would come to Ireland. It was a wilderness,’ recalls Fitzpatrick.

‘Even at the most brutal of times, when bombs were going off in Dublin, as they did, life continued. There was a scene going on in Dublin that inured us to that kind of horror and to what the people in the North were going through. I felt I should create something beautiful out of all that chaos. It was a reaction to the nastiness of violence.’

And create beauty Fitzpatrick certainly has. His colorful representations of St Columba of Iona, Nuada of the Silver Arm, Nessa the Hunter, Emer and Brian Boru – amongst many other signed originals currently on display at The Wicker Man crafts shop on Belfast's High Street – capture the mystery and thrill of the sweeping narratives behind the figures.

In the neat lines and bold colors of vibrant battle scenes, and exotic and erotic portrayals of legendary figures, however, lie influences further from Fitzpatrick’s native Irish shores than one might imagine.

‘There’s a fusion to Celtic monastic art. It didn’t just arrive out of nowhere. There’s a huge Coptic influence from the Middle East. Early Irish Christianity came from the Middle East via Tangier and Al Andalus.’

The Egyptian Coptics presence in Ireland has been accepted as fact since the sensational discovery of the Faddan More Psalter in a Tipperary peat bog in 2006. The clincher was that the cover of this 1,200-year-old Latin psalm book was lined with papyrus. So, in the Celtic art there is also a Middle Eastern element. ‘The influences are there in everything I do,’ recognises Fitzpatrick.

Another significant influence on Fitzpatrick’ style was Ivan Bilibin, an early 20th century Russian illustrator colourfully inspired by Slavic folklore. ‘Bilibin had a great impact on me later on’, Fitzpatrick acknowledges.

Fitzpatrick had been introduced to Bilibin by Roger Dean, whose artwork for prog-rock band Yes’s album covers provided an undoubted source of influence for the blockbuster Avatar, a film not short itself on mythological content.

Jim Fitzpatrick

Do all the blockbuster movies and TV series seeped in Celtic mythology mean that there is a modern-day revival in Celtic art and folklore? Fitzpatrick seems to think so. I think there definitely has been, but the powerhouse will be in Britain and France. That’s where it’s really beginning to happen. There’s a huge Celtic revival in France.’

Of late, Fitzpatrick has lent his instantly recognizable artwork to a Celtic mythology-inspired board game in that country. ‘I’m wildly excited about that because the trouble they go to is extraordinary, and the way they use my work is quite beautiful. The game industry is also where you get a huge expansion of fantasy, which is very healthy, though it can also be unhealthy.’

Over the years Fitzpatrick’s own art has been used for unhealthy political ends. The Ku Klux Klan and The Warriors of Christ The King – a 1970s fascist paramilitary group in Spain – are just two examples of extreme groups who have appropriated Fitzpatrick’s work to espouse their racist and right-wing doctrines.

‘There’s no accounting for taste,’ Fitzpatrick quips. ‘You have to ignore all that crap when you’re an artist. You can’t be worried that some fascist pig is going to turn around and massacre people because he saw a drawing of a warrior chopping somebody’s head off.’

In Ireland, Celtic art is perhaps more visible than it was several decades ago, but Fitzpatrick doesn’t see anything like a major revival here. It’s used widely but unfortunately it doesn’t hit where it should,' he claims.

'I see it on t-shirts occasionally. St. Patrick’s Day is when you should see that kind of work everywhere but you don’t. You see people in green hats and red beards. I used to blame Irish-Americans, with their image of Ireland as leprechauns, wolfhounds and round towers but now we’ve adopted that imagery ourselves. That’s popular culture. What I try to do is a little more subtle.’

Though Fitzpatrick puts his Celtic work above anything else he has ever done, he is still proud of his Che Guevara image, and justifiably so. In Martin Kemp’s book, Christ to Coke: How Images Become Icons (OUP, 2011), the Emeritus Professor in the History of Art at Oxford University ranks Fitzpatrick’s Guevara image as the sixth most iconic image in history.

‘It’s a hugely iconic image and it was deliberately designed to be so,’ explains Fitzpatrick. ‘People think it happened by accident but I was well aware of how to proliferate an image, as I worked in advertising at the time I did the Che image. I decided from a political point of view to proliferate that.’

There is more to Fitzpatrick than either Guevara or Celtic art, however. He has spent about five years translating the Táin Bó Cúailnge, an epic tale from early Irish literature, while 12 of his abstract paintings that commemorate the terrible events of 9/11 are currently touring the United States.

‘That’s what I do,’ Fitzpatrick concludes. ‘I go off on tangents and fulfill that inner need to express myself, then I leave it and move on to something else.’

Fitzpatrick's current exhibition runs at the Wicker Man, Belfast until March 31.

Help save Culture NI by telling the Arts Council of Northern Ireland why you love the website using this online form. An email will be automatically sent to the Arts Council and the Department of Culture, Arts & Leisure.