Laoch Na Laochra

Dara Vallely and Réamonn Ó Ciaráin tell the story of the warrior king Cú Chulainn at Ulster Museum

The story of Cú Chulainn dates back to medieval times but still dominants the mythological landscape of Ireland. Few tales have captured the Ulster imagination quite like it, nor for so long. Over the course of some 700 years, the tale has been handed down from generation to generation.

The mythological narrative plots Cú Chulainn’s origins from when he first slew a local king’s beloved hound in self defence – and agreed to be the king’s replacement guard dog by way of recompense – to his death at the tip of Lugaid's spear.

During his mythological lifetime, the warrior became known as the finest in Ulster. Some speculated that his unearthly power lay in his having seven fingers on each hand, seven toes on each of his feet and seven pupils in each of his eyes. Magic, romance, betrayal and violence mark every twist and turn in the narrative as Cú Chulainn fights unrequited love, sullen in-laws and entire armies on the battlefield.

The traditional tale was primarily passed on through the generations orally, rather than being written down, meaning that it was shared at firesides, community celebrations and clan meetings. Now the story is making the leap from ancient fireside to modern art via the walls of the Ulster Museum for an exciting new exhibition.

 

The Laoch Na Laochra exhibition is comprised of a series of paintings specially commissioned as part of the Belfast-based Irish language festival, Féile An Droichead. The exhibition at the Ulster Museum sees Armagh artist Dara Vallely capture Cú Chulainn’s cultural legacy in a series of vast paintings.

Reflecting its links to Féile An Droichead, the wall labels accompanying each piece are written in Gaelic outlining the events which inspired the specific scenes captured in each painting, expertly translated by Réamonn Ó Ciaráin. Ó Ciaráin’s translations tread the fine line between precision and nuance to give us descriptions that bring out some of the more subtle detail in the narrative.

Vallely's paintings present a refreshing mix of old and new. Each one pays tribute to traditional Irish art, referencing Celtic symbols and style. Yet they also pay tribute to the rebellious heart of the international modernist movement – thick splatters in some works appear to owe much to the enfant terrible of the 1940s, Jackson Pollock.

The fusion of the traditional and the modern brings the tales to life in a compelling visual narrative. The very surface of the canvasses appears to fizzle with the relentless energy of the tales. Stabs, splatters and slashes of paint portray the hero in all his frenzied intensity. Rather than fusty touchstones of time gone by, the ancient battle scenes appear very much alive and urgent within the exhibition room.

Amongst the15 or so paintings on display, two huge, sprawling canvasses stand out. Each one is easily the height of the average gallery visitor and looms with an arresting presence over each visitor to the Ulster Museum’s Belfast Room. In these larger pieces, Vallely has free reign to capture the chaotic vibrancy of the Cú Chulainn story.

Attempting to pin down such an elusive ancient character is no easy task, but in utilising both language and visuals, this exhibition succeeds in doing so. Vallely’s paintings and Ó Ciaráin’s text translations inject this time honored tale with modern passion and charm, making it a show not to be missed.

Laoch Na Laochra runs in the Ulster Museum, Belfast until August 31.