Tall Ships

Irish artist Deirdre McKenna's scenes from life on the high seas. Click Play Video for an online exhibition

Belfast is buzzing - the all-pervasive media frenzy has made sure of that. Inside the bar of the Waterfront Hall, which allows for panoramic views over the whole of the inner city, artist Deirdre McKenna is on tip toes peering across at the docks and the cause of all the fuss.

The first of the Tall Ships Atlantic Challenge fleet have arrived, their masts (temporarily bereft of sails) Sailingdecked out with the national flags of their crews.

As a keen amateur sailor, McKenna has seen it all before. But that doesn't stop her heart from skipping a beat. She points out the various nationalities - 'That's Peru, Argentina, Portugal' - and comes back down to earth with a sigh.

'Years ago a family friend asked me if I would like to come across the bay with him in his boat. I really enjoyed it, and I've been sailing ever since,' McKenna recalls, blushing ever so slightly at the memory. 'I went on many trips with him, and then I got the opportunity to sail on the tall ships. That was absolutely fantastic.

'The lovely thing about the tall ships is that you get a bunch of strangers thrown in together. You get those people who have a history in sailing, students taking a year out and those who want to experience the adventure of it all. So you get a nice mix of people and ages.

'You're living in very close quarters, so it's get on or be miserable. In my experience you might have a few odd words, but you have to get over it very quickly. There are things that require a gang of people to do, like hawling up the yards. You have to literally pull together. It's gruelling, but very satisfying as well.'

Sailing on Irish tall ships like the Asgard II and the Jeannie Johnston provided McKenna with the opportunity to paint maritime scenes from close range. Her resulting Tall Ships exhibition in the Waterfront Hall (produced over a two year period) is a series of 12 oil paintings that pulsate with all of the drama, depth and movement that she herself experienced on the high seas.

The Asgard IIThe Jeannie Johnston was a cross-border intitiative that brought together master craftsmen and students from north and south of the border with a 'mission to navigate and educate,' remarks McKenna, 'teaching young people the joys of sailing and the importance of teamwork'; whilst the Asgard II was Ireland's official sail training vessel up until September 11, 2008, when she sank off the coast of France.

'For Ireland, an island nation, the sea has played a crucial role in our history and culture,' comments McKenna, who hails from the Dingle area of County Kerry.

'Lying at the edge of the Atlantic we have always been geographically and historically at a crossroads on the western seaways of Europe, so it's not strange that there is also a cultural and artistic maritime influence in Ireland.'

Although she's been there, stowed the sail and steered the ship, McKenna is only too happy to be in Belfast for the duration of the tall ships celebrations. Her colourful, vibrant and skillfully executed Tall Ships exhibition is a welcome and worthy addition to the show.

Lee Henry

Tall Ships runs in the Waterfront Hall gallery space until August 28.