Interesting collaborative arts project following in the footsteps of Paul Henry in Achill and Connemara.
They say it is now ‘the largest off-road walking and cycling trail in Ireland’. The 42km Great Western Greenway stretching from Westport through Newport and Mulranny to Achill Island is proving to be a wonderful draw for walkers and cyclists alike.
The trail follows the path of the disused line of the Midland Great Western Railway, a line that was extended to Achill in 1894/1895 and from where the last train departed in 1937. Strangely, these dates marked poignant island tragedies, when trains carried home the bodies of the island dead. In June 1894, thirty young people were drowned in Clew Bay when a boat capsized as they made their way to Westport to catch a steamer for Scotland where they would work as migrant harvesters.In 1937, one of the last trains to Achill before the railway was closed, carried home the bodies of ten young boys – again migrant harvesters – who died in a fire at Kirkintillloch, southwest Scotland.
If the railway line carried migrant and emigrant away from Achill, it also opened up the island to artists, writers, and visitors, such as Paul and Grace Henry who came in 1910 and stayed on and off for almost a decade, while the summer school Scoil Acla attracted artists, writers and intellectuals keen to immerse themselves in the Irish language and culture at the start of the twentieth century.
The Great Western Greenway is a place to immerse oneself not only in its dramatic scenery but also in the history of those bygone travellers who took the train to and from Achill Island.
You can walk in the footsteps of the artist Paul Henry, following the shoreline from Dooagh to Keel, as part of the May bank-holiday Achill Walks Festival. There are a half-dozen walks, some on the island, some on the north-west Mayo mainland in Ballycroy National Park and the Nephin mountain range.
A century ago Paul Henry and his wife Grace first came to Achill on a Midland Great Western Railway train and stayed on and off for a decade. The area between Kell and Dooagh, taking in Pollagh and Gubelennaun, was the focal point for much of Henry’s painting. The Achill walk will include the bog road made famous by Henry in one of his Achill landscapes.
I was back In Achill recently when the wind roared and the Atlantic churned and the mist hid the outlines of Slievemore.
I did a quick car tour of some literary haunts. Between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries writers and visual artists flocked to Achill, helped by the extension of the railway line to the island by the Midland Great Western Railway company in 1895.
First stop The Deserted Village at the foot of Slievemore in the north of the island. A short distance away is the Heinrich Böll Cottage – now an artist’s residence – where the German Nobel prize-winning author came with his family in the 1950s. He stumbled one day on the Deserted Village ruins, spent five hours there and later wrote the piece ‘Skeleton of a Human Habitation’ in his Irish Journal.
In Dugort, just down the hill from the Heinrich Böll cottage, is Gray’s Guest House that was run by the late and legendary Vi McDowell at the place which was once The Colony – the centre of the Achill Mission on the island from the 1830s. Victorian travellers and writers flocked here in the mid-nineteenth century, including Mrs S C Hall and Harriet Martineau. Gray’s Memorial Hall and St Thomas’ Church, a short distance away, are now the venues for the annual Heinrich Böll Memorial Weekend.
The Valley House is in the north-east corner of the island. It was the scene of a vicious crime in October 1894, when the owner Agnes McDonnell was attacked by James Lychehaun who became a notorious fugitive from the law. He was one of the influences on J M Synge in writing The Playboy of the Western World.
On the main spine road through the island are the ruins of Bunnacurry Monastery where a Franciscan monk , Brother Paul Carney, was based for a quarter of a century. His hand-written Lynchehaun Narrative was the basis for James Carney’s book The Playboy & the Yellow Lady, and of the film Love & Rage.
Keel, and the island areas of Pollagh and Gubalennaun, were the places where the painters Paul and Grace Henry spent almost a decade in Achill in the early twentieth-century. Paul had a fascination with writing and much of his autobiography An Irish Portrait (1951) dealt with his time on the island.
Graham Greene and his mistress, Catherine Walston, shared a holiday house in Dooagh in the late 1940s. I understand the 2011 Heinrich Boll Memorial Weekend will focus on Graham Greene’s connections with Achill.
When I drove away across Michael Davitt Bridge on to the mainland it seemed that the mist lifted from the island behind me. I will be back.
(Some great Achill photos on Lucy’s blog here.)
(Trailer for film Love and Rage, which was filmed on location in Achill and is based on the story of James Lynchehaun and the Valley House attack of 1894)
It covered modernity in Ireland from the 1900s to the 1970s through the visual arts mainly, but with photographers, film-makers, composers, architects, designers – and writers – all featured in a major interdisciplinary collection.
I was interested in the smattering of exhibits connected to Irish writers and showing the crossover of the literary and the visual arts. These were some of my highlights:
Samuel Beckett’s ‘Film’, written in 1962 and filmed in New York in 1963. It can be viewed here on YouTube.
John Millington Synge’s Photos from Aran, Connemara, Wicklow and Kerry. Synge bought his first camera from a fellow visitor to Aran in 1898 and it became a constant on his travels along with his bicycle.
Jack Yeats’ Book Illustrations. He and Synge spent a month together in 1905 on a tour of the Congested Districts in the west, Synge writing his series of articles for the Manchester Guardian and Yeats providing the illustrations.
Robert Flaherty’s film documentary Man of Aran (1934) The work was inspired by Synge and the wheel has come full circle with Martin McDonagh’s drama The Cripple of Inishmaan – currently on tour with Druid Theatre – set against the backdrop of Flaherty’s film.
Paul and Grace Henry Paintings of the West. The couple stayed in Achill for close to a decade and most of Paul’s autobiography An Irish Portrait (1951) centred on the island.
Elinor Wiltshire’s Photo of Patrick Kavanagh picking potatoes in Inishkeen in 1963.
Pity the exhibition is over. Another visit, I feel, would have revealed many more gems. And I loved this TV commercial for the exhibition:-
Jo Slade’s biography poem The Artist’s Room traces the artist Gwen John (1876-1939) through Paris at the start of the twentieth-century: ‘I looked for her in Paris…/ walked from place to place, lived the smells, the sounds, / followed a plan I’d drawn.’
A painter-poet, Jo Slade uses her artist’s eye to distill the essence of Gwen John’s biography in a precise poetic structure where the artist’s decade-long relationship with Auguste Rodin is central. ‘Look, she’s holding out a hand to him / something like torture has begun.’
I envy those who, like Jo Slade, can write with a painter’s eye and express themselves with tone and precision in paint or ink: ‘Learning the habit of colour / raw umber, yellow ochre, burnt sienna.’
Sean O’Faolain provocatively wrote in an Introduction to Paul Henry‘s autobiography An Irish Portrait (1951): ‘Very few painters have written books and few of these are satisfying.’ Henry himself had a fascination with writing and finding the exact word to convey his emotions.
Jo Slade’s slim volume portraying Gwen John’s ‘passionate melancholy’ contrasts with the efforts of Mary Taubman – another writer and painter – whose work on the life of Gwen John became a life commitment. When she did publish a book in 1985 it was not the expected comprehensive biography but a succinct monograph covering the events of Gwen John’s life.
Jo Slade says of Gwen John’s artistic impulse: ‘She felt changes of colour, subtleties of tone / each of the other everything seeping together / making the world seamless, complete.’