Huey O’Donoghue is an artist known for the breadth of his subject matter and the epic scale of his paintings. Born in Manchester to Irish parents, he settled in Kilkenny in the 1980s, producing series of works on subjects as varied as the Crucifixion, bog bodies and his father’s experiences in the British Army during World War II.
More recently, he split his time between homes in London and north Mayo, where he holidayed every year growing up with his mother’s family.
O’Donoghue’s sense of dual identity as an artist who is both Irish and English partly inspired the six large artworks in Original Sins, his current exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. Combining painting with photography, they take as their subject six historical or mythological figures; three are Irish, the rest English, and in each case he has combined a female character with a male one.
Thus, the sixth-century Irish saint Deirbail is paired with the Anglo-Saxon king Woofa, the Irish princess Aoife MacMurray with the Norman king William the Conqueror, and the Irish revolutionary Michael Collins with Emily Davison, the English suffragette killed by King George V’s horse when they collided on the track in the 1913 Derby.
The O’Donoghue show is set in the Show Room, where Daniel McLees’s 1854 painting The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife hangs. MacLease’s masterpiece describes the union between Aoife, daughter of Dermot MacMurray, King of Leinster, and Richard ‘Strongbow’ de Clare in 1170, an event that cemented the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland. When O’Donoghue was invited to create a new set of works for the room as part of the National Gallery’s Decade Programme, he was told that the almost 17ft wide painting could not be moved.
“At first I thought Strongbow and Aoife’s marriage might be a hurdle,” he says. “But then I realized that all I could do was create a body of work that responded to that, recognizing that the story is not simple, but complex. What I was trying to do was illuminate McLees’ picture, which I hadn’t done before, so I found it fascinating.’
Choosing characters for his artwork was a long process, he says, and required a lot of research. “I tried to set the brackets as wide as possible,” he says. “What I came up with is the 20th century on one side and the Dark Ages or mythology on the other.”
O’Donoghue saw Aoife as a point of connection with McLease’s painting. “And the obvious thing to do would be to pair her with Strongbow. But I thought that William the Conqueror was a far more significant figure. He was a raider, and a very clever one at that; he came with papal authority. He did not claim the throne of England, but he still deprived the English.”
He decided to include St Deirbhile ‘because it is on my doorstep in north Mayo. We live close to her church and shrine in Belmul, where people still go because they believe in the healing power of the water. And I decided to pair her with Wufa because his story is similar to hers, but also different. Woofa was probably the first English king of East Anglia; he sought power, authority and dominance, while Deirbhail was part of the Irish monastic tradition and her life was much more modest. So Deirbhile and Wuffa are opposites, which is very much in the Irish tradition.”
The most recognizable character in the paintings is Michael Collins, the centenary of whose death falls on August 22. “Collins was a very charismatic Irish character and a revolutionary, and I decided to pair him with Emily Davison rather than, say, Winston Churchill. , because she was the ultimate English revolutionary and a woman. I also used the image of the horse that knocked her down on Derby Day in 1913, just before the First World War, because the Irish are associated with horses and the horse is also a tragic figure.’
All of O’Donoghue’s models for the project are members of his immediate family. “My wife, my daughter, my son, my daughter-in-law and our dog… and everything, really. I thought of them as a group of role-playing actors. My son Vincent posed for all three male characters; Collins, William the Conqueror and Woof. He is the image of Collins, especially when he wears clothes similar to those worn by Collins when he went to London to negotiate the Treaty.’
O’Donoghue chose to work on sheets of industrial tarp rather than canvas. “A tarp is not really meant to make art,” he says. “The leaves are huge, 12 feet tall and 9 feet wide. They had to be degreased, primed for painting. But the Showroom, with its Corinthian columns, huge marble busts and 18th-century portrait, commands authority, while the tarpaulin sheets, by contrast, look like the work of a common man.’
O’Donoghue applied paint to the tarp, then added photographs of his models printed on transparent Japanese paper, before finishing the work with subsequent layers of paint. “At the end of the day, tarp sheets have a tapestry feel, but they’re also industrial.”
He’s not sure what will happen to the pieces when the exhibit ends in June. “I am honored to be given three months at the National Gallery of Ireland to show this work, and as an artist it is a pleasure to be given this platform. But I did not make paintings with a different direction. I would like to keep them together and when they eventually come back to me I will keep them in my collection.’
O’Donoghue is fortunate, he says, to have many devoted collectors who buy his work, allowing him the freedom to work on projects like Original Sins. “There are a lot of artists, it’s very competitive and that’s just the nature of it. [Irish-born conceptual artist] Michael Craig Martin was once asked what advice he would give to a young artist. His answer was brilliant; he said, “If there’s anything else you can do, do it. Anything.” I wouldn’t recommend doing art for a living either.’
For O’Donoghue, however, painting has always been his calling. “I guess my work is like a process of trying to make sense of the world,” he says. “My subject is quite serious because my work as an artist is trying to find some meaning. When I get into a topic, I dig into it.
“It’s not about how smart I can be, it’s about finding something that drives me, that I can relate to. I look for subjects consciously, I try to expand my repertoire. Art approaches philosophy and religion, I think, because you’re making a statement about the world as you see it.’