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How a painter from a Baptist family in Belfast put the west coast of Ireland on the map

Exquisite beauty: a painting by Paul Henry
Exquisite beauty: a painting by Paul Henry

By Mary Kenny

Who put the west coast of Ireland on the global map, visually? The honour almost certainly goes to Paul Henry, a Belfast painter whose many exquisite paintings of Connemara, Achill, Kinsale and Kerry virtually invented the genre of the romantic Irish landscape of seascape, lough, mountain, wide sky, and thatched cottage - sometimes featuring a woman in the scarlet petticoat he considered so beguiling.

Some people now consider Paul Henry's vision - he believed he was capturing "the very soul of Ireland" - an over-romantic cliche which ignored the hardships, poverty and struggles with nature's harsh conditions along the western coast. But his autobiography shows he was fully aware of these hardships. He wrote compassionately about the lives of women in Achill who had "no time for anything but work", soaked to the skin collecting seaweed all day, then cooking, washing, weeding potatoes. Yet "they never complained... laughing as they worked". They had a "cheerful acceptance of life", even when "bent, haggard, worn out with work and childbearing".

Paul Henry might have been a full-time portraitist (he did some portraits, including a study of WT Cosgrave). He studied under Whistler in Paris and when he got to Achill in 1910 he hoped to paint the people's faces. But they were too shy and ran away from him. They also had the belief at that time that "the sketcher" who reproduced your image might take away something of your personality. And so, he turned to landscape, which he loved in any case (He had also been influenced by the rustic French painter Jean-François Millet, whose painting of peasants halting to pray in The Angelus hung on many an Irish country wall).

He was one of four sons of a Belfast Baptist minister and his wife, also the daughter of a clergyman. Paul was raised in strict religious circumstances, which he came to loathe. They were never allowed to mingle with girls. When his mother caught him exchanging smiles with a young girl at church, she sat him down and gave him a thorough tirade. "Do you want to ruin your young life for the pleasure of a moment?" she asked. She hated any form of "looseness", but her strictures sent her son fleeing to Paris in search of liberty and the study of art at the renowned Julian school in the Rue du Dragon.

Paul did well in his studies and loved the work, but he was desperately poor. One day he encountered a fellow who scratched a pittance picking up cigarette butts in the boulevards: the down-and-out was a failed artist, of whom there were hundreds. This drove Paul to London to try his luck in a more commercial medium - sketching for the popular press - and though he had many rejections at first, he began to make a modest living.

He also married Grace Mitchell, his first wife - also a painter - although he never mentions her in his autobiographical writings, possibly because the marriage subsequently fell apart.

Then his friend and fellow Ulsterman, the essayist Robert Lynd, told him all about the beauty and magic of Ireland's west coast. And so Paul Henry took himself to Westport and on to Achill, where he was completely smitten by the stunning contours of the coastal landscape. "Achill spoke to me," he wrote.

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He had difficulty finding lodgings and still struggled to make a living, but "the intensity of emotion I got from a purely Irish landscape" captured him and also sometimes disturbed him. "The chord of the inner music sounded a more resonant note in the west of Ireland than in any other part of the country."

Closely, he observed the lives of fishermen - and they were all men at that time. Women were considered "unlucky" in fishing boats and would sometimes even avert their eyes from a fisherman putting out to sea.

He painted and painted - Leenane, Killary Harbour and Bay, all around Connemara and Lough Corrib, all around Belmullet and Blacksod Bay and later at Dingle and Kinsale, too. He didn't get his first exhibition until 1922, when he was 46 - ironically, in Belfast, which he had quit in a mood of such fury.

Paul Henry certainly did the Irish State some service in depicting the tranquil serenity of the Irish countryside in his railway posters for the London, Midland and Scottish railways. These images re-established Ireland as a haven of quiet beauty after the disturbances and, indeed, destruction following insurrection, the Black and Tans and then civil war. A painter of brutal realism might have presented a much darker country, but Henry sincerely saw enchantment.

Sadly, he went blind in later life and turned to writing and stories. He settled in Bray with Mabel Young, who worked at the Shelbourne Hotel and became his second wife, though only after Grace died. His paintings regularly come up for auction and often fetch prices of up to £350,000.

Most of all, Henry left his imprint on an image of Ireland: maybe an idealised one, but an imperishably recognisable one.

The fantastic success of the coastal Wild Atlantic Way is in no small measure a legacy of the Paul Henry vision.

Paul Henry
Paul Henry

Belfast Telegraph


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