Honey Seems Bitter

Curator Terry Sweeney on the extensive Omagh exhibition

As in all great artworks, the themes and ideas in the novels of Benedict Kiely resonate well beyond the time of their initial production. 

In Kiely's 1954 novel Honey Seems Bitter the narrator, recovering from an unspecified mental illness, grows aware of evil in the world around him. In a struggle between free will and predetermination he eschews the bovine passivity of the observer and resolves to actively oppose the poisonous ideas and actions he encounters.

Honey Seems Bitter is the title for the eighth annual Benedict Kiely Literary Weekend, at the Strule Arts Centre in Omagh. Established in 2002, following the publication of Kiely's Collected Short Stories, the 2009 weekend welcomes writers such as David Park and Jennifer Johnston, featuring a keynote address from historian Peter Costello. 

'On the Balcony of the Nation', Dermot Seymour (b 1956), oil on canvas (1989)An exhibition, selected from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's permanent collection, also takes the title and runs alongside the programme of readings, workshops and tours. 

Beginning in 1943, the Arts Council collection brings together work from some of Northern Ireland's best established visual artists. Honey Seems Bitter features work from more than 20 artists including two paintings by Basil Blackshaw as well as work from Phyllis Mahon, Dermot Seymour and Clement McAleer. 

The exhibition shows Joseph McWilliams' 1988 oil and acrylic triptych May the Lord in his Mercy be Kind to Belfast, Rita Duffy's 1983 oil painting The Security Barrier, City Hall and Fergus Delargy's 1992 ink and pencil on paper piece Point in Space. 

'I've looked at territory,' says curator Terry Sweeney on the varied selection. 'I've looked at land, I've looked at emblems like poppies, lilies and flags, and I've looked at prejudices - more recent issues like racism. 

Panel 1 of triptych 'May the Lord in His Mercy be kind to Belfast', Joseph McWilliams (b 1938), oil and acrylic on board (1988)'I've looked into the past in order to seek methods that might help to build the shared future. Some of the people I have included may be people who have come [to NI] to work in the art college, but all have a clear view of the place and what they saw.'

Fergus Delargy's large paper piece Point in Space, created in New York, sketches a cosmic confluence of figures and shapes including Professor Steven Hawking at the foot of the hexagonal basalt columns of the Giant's Causeway. 

The image suggests the necessity of looking at the historical moment through the eye of eternity, the importance of zooming out from close-focus conflicts to illuminate their futility when set against the breadth of ever-passing time.

'It's a beautiful pen and ink drawing,' says Sweeney. 'It was created after Fergus had left art college, in New York. He was able to look back. It creates the notion that in the continuum of time we're just a fleeting moment and that we need to get our concepts of territory, division and boundaries into perspective.'

Kiran Acharya

Honey Seems Bitter is on display at the Strule Arts Centre, Omagh, until October 31. Click here for more details.