Belfast Telegraph

Painter of Northern Ireland's own 'Sistine Chapel' visits his inspired artwork eight decades later

Joseph Woods
Joseph Woods
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

A Moneymore man responsible for the elaborate hand-painting of a church ceiling in the early 1940s has made an emotional return visit to see his work for the first time in nearly 80 years.

Joseph Woods, now 95, was an 18-year-old apprentice signwriter when he took on the work at old Ballyeglish Church, which stands between the villages of Moneymore and Loup in Co Londonderry.

And he revealed how he was inspired by the method Renaissance artist Michelangelo used in painting the famous Sistine Chapel in Rome to create his work of art.

Now living in a residential care home in Cookstown, Joe said he remembered taking on the challenge of painting the ceiling "because no one else could do it".

Eight decades after completing the job, which he says involved him balancing on ladders and planks of wood, he was finally welcomed back through the doors of the church by Rev Dr Adrian Stringer last weekend.

It was a chance to cast his eyes over the decorative church dome again, the pale blue-and-gold design still creating a wonderful image for parishioners and visitors at the 150-year-old church.

Despite his failing eyesight, Joe suffers from macular degeneration which has left him with blurred vision, he said he could see enough to know his work had stood the test of time.

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Joe's daughter Emma McCann helped to arrange her father's return visit.

"It was amazing to see what he did when he was just a young lad," she said.

"Daddy painted all the stars in gold leaf freehand when he was an apprentice in the early 1940s.

Joseph Woods (95) with daughter Emma McCann
Joseph Woods (95) with daughter Emma McCann

"He also painted the scripture wording along the front of the dome.

"We didn't believe him when he told us how he'd managed to do it, walking on wooden planks across the ceiling, just like the way Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel.

"All the stars you can see were painted freehand so he must have been steady on his feet and had a very steady hand as well!

"Up close you can see just how intricate they are, with four different patterns and they're all exactly the same distance apart.

"Before we went to see the ceiling he told me that he added some words of scripture on the wall around the dome and it's still there, too, looking as great as it ever did.

"He can't remember exactly how long it took him to paint it all, but it did take a whole day to get the scaffolding and planks in place and another day to take it all down again!"

Joseph Woods with Rev Dr Adrian Stringer at Ballyeglish Church near Moneymore, Co Londonderry
Joseph Woods with Rev Dr Adrian Stringer at Ballyeglish Church near Moneymore, Co Londonderry

Rev Adrian Stringer of Desertlyn and Ballyeglish Parish said he was thrilled to meet the craftsman behind the unique artwork.

"We've had parishioners asking if we knew who had painted the ceiling and until now we haven't been able to tell them," he said.

"It was lovely to welcome Joe back and I'm thrilled he got to see his work is still looking great after all these years.

"There were plenty of people asking about it when we celebrated our 150th anniversary last year."

Rev Stringer said they will look to improve it some time in the future, but need to find a craftsman to do the work.

He added: "There aren't too many like Joe about these days.

"We were actually amazed to hear how he's managed to do it and I don't think too many would have the nerve or the ability to produce such an intricate piece of artwork in such a location.

"It really is a beautiful piece of work and we're very proud to have it as a feature in our church.

"It's always been a real talking point when people see it for the first time and it was a privilege to finally meet the man responsible."

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