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Paul Henry – Portráid Éireannach

     

Antaine Ó Donnaile explores how Paul Henry, a Baptist from Belfast,
created the iconic images of the west of Ireland.

Paul Henry – Portráid Éireannach

In this new documentary for TG4, Antaine Ó Donnaile investigates how a Belfast Baptist came to create the quintessential image of the west of Ireland.
Exactly 100 years after Paul Henry’s departure from Achill Island, this is the perfect time to tell his story. Travelling from Dublin to Belfast, Paris, London and then to Achill, Antaine Ó Donnaile retraces the life journey made by Paul Henry. He discovers how that journey shaped Henry and his work and how Achill helped him become one of the most important Irish artists in the modern era.
This documentary by Macha Media combines stunning landscape photography and paintings by Paul Henry. Passages from the artist’s autobiography, photographic images from the period and interviews with local people and art experts are woven together to give a rich insight into his life and his view of the west of Ireland in the early years of the 20th Century.
Paul Henry was born in Belfast in 1876, the son of a strict Baptist Minister and an austere, religious mother. He managed to “escape” Belfast when he got the opportunity to study painting in Paris. Henry spent two years in Paris, studying under some of the the great artists of the age and falling uder the spell of Millet, Monet, Cézanne and Van Gogh. Henry’s time in Paris was followed by ten years in London where he got married and enjoyed a wide circle of friends. But something in London was not quite right. Henry was lost, adrift, lacking in focus. A friend just back from honeymoon advised him to get away from it all with a holiday in the west of Ireland.
In Achill Paul Henry found “an air of romance impossible to describe or to resist. Intangible, alluring and tender.” He was enchanted by the people of Achill and they were intrigued by the exotic figure who had come amongst them. On one occasion, he was asked for paints by Johnny Tom Eoghain Mac Conmara, who he met walking along the road. Johnny Tom Eoghain wanted the paints for his son, Antain, who enjoyed painting the local landscapes. While Antain had few materials and no training, Henry thought he was as talented as Van Gogh! Although the boy eventually gave up painting, Henry forged a deep friendship with him and his family. Antain’s son, John “Twin” Mac Con Mara is a key contributer to the programme.
Drawing inspiration from the community and their way of life, Paul Henry forged an art form comparable to that which the dramatist J.M. Synge had created from his experiences of the Aran Islands. Gone was the romantiscm of much of late 19th century Irish art and gone too was the “stage Irishness” so prominent in the period. In place of these we have a post impressionist inspired simplicity of concept and execution.
In many of Henry’s pictures, there is a feeling that we are observing a way of life fast coming to an end, yet Henry’s representations of rural life would soon offer the ideal image for a newly-independent Irish State as it forged its identity during a literary, cultural and linguistic revival. Henry’s work would also bring countless tourists to the west of Ireland.
The Irish Times commented in 1925 “If thousands of people in Great Britain and America have been led this summer to think over the claims of Ireland as holiday ground, it is largely through the lure of Mr Paul Henry’s glowing landscapes…”
Paul Henry’s paintings have lost none of their allure. They change hands for large sums of money and reproductions adorn walls all over the world. Do those images of the west endure amongst the local population, or even in the minds of tourists who still flock there today?

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