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A Journey Exhibition

In May 2004, ten years after I purchased Bective Church, I celebrated the official opening with ‘A Journey’. The exhibition included 52 paintings with an anecdote and drawing for each. As with my first exhibition in Andrew’s Lane, A Journey was a sell-out exhibition.


From as early as I can remember drawing played a large part in my life helping me to answer the many questions the world put in front of me, forging me. The following stories and anecdotes correspond to the paintings, one for each year and are memories of events that helped shape my life into the person and artist I now am.  ‘A Journey’ begins as a young child in bed drawing on the wallpaper and ends with my life in Bective today.


  I’m sideways in my bed, face to the wall, pencil point sharp, one inch from my eyes as I draw myself, a microscopic stick cowboy on my microscopic stick horse.  My buff paper world is vast and flat like a desert, so vast my eyes go out of focus straining to see the limit of it.  My adventure begins.


It’s Christmas. Santa’s brought toys but more importantly crayons and colouring book.  I go into silence and be.

He poses upright, unwavering limbs, his still presence detached from his observers. They are only interested in the mass, the muscle tone, the twisted torso, the angled head, not the thought of his present anxiety inside that same angled head, flowing through those limbs, those same tense muscles that give him that twist in the torso.   We want to see the shade, the tone of his skin not what makes it crawl.

I’m standing at the blackboard.   She puts the fat chalk stick into my little hand and tells me to draw.   I’ve never drawn before with white on black, it was always small with black on white.   I draw the donkey, my hand guided by some other power.   It looks the same as my small donkey on my small page.   I’m mad thrilled.


The rough-hewn Kerry landscape is home to the pony whose coat camouflages him into the background of rock and gorse like a chameleon.

I have the biggest problem so I bring it to my biggest brother Timmy and he cures me drawing a perfect image of St Patrick with wonderful flowing movement, ease and grace.   I’m delighted, relieved and thankful.  But then horror strikes.   He is in the mood for change and proceeds to experiment with the image squaring it off Picasso like, bringing it to abstraction in front of my disbelieving eyes, reducing me to panic, thrusting me back to the place I started.

A rugged mountain juts up from behind the buildings that make up Glenbeigh, the painted, manicured elevations, new in relative terms to their environment.   Groups of shops, houses, pubs and church are an outward reflection of the people and their lives – a tourist snare on the Kerry Ring.

He weaves his magic, the yo-yo man.   He can do it all, walking the dog, the Frankfort sausage, the windmill.   We watch agog as the master casts his spell over us.   It seems to last an hour.   Then he opens a case of yo-yos and tells us we can be as good as him.   ‘Yes’, we say, ‘Yes’.   Then he takes the magic away.   Yo-yos cost money and we don’t have any.   He packs up his little case and moves on to his next lot of victims.  We all go home broken hearted.


He controls the ring, the sequence of events in the world of entertainment, his timely entrance between each act, the centre of attention, the master of ceremony, his ability to hold an audience in suspense, to change direction in an emergency, his overseeing eye, the calm centre, the binder that is the ringmaster.

Frail women wear their overcoats like large tents on small hangers.   They remind me of my mother who died last Summer – that lovely woman who reared me.

Square men with young minds and stiff joints.


There was blackness.   He had put his large hands over my eyes covering my full face and unspeaking, guided me through a low narrow door with a high step.   I was in his garage, I realized.   His body jerked as he flicked the small door closed with his hip.   I was a prisoner.   He faced me inwards taking his seed smelling hands slowly away from my eyes.

All around me is a magical world of flying colour.   All sorts of tropical birds flirt and chirp in a wide, long, low space covering the whole of the garden at the rear of his Arbutus Avenue house.   Red, bloodier than blood, blues more electric than the sky, yellows more magnificent than buttercups, greens more vibrant than grass, white whiter than my dad’s cleanest shirts (and they were clean), gold richer than my mother’s wedding ring and all together.   My vision opened.   I received.

Midway through her circular journey she slides off the yellow rabbit eyes focused on the spotted giraffe as she wobbles her way on unsure legs falling then, scrambling up, zig-zagging across the moving platform.   Mounting the animal and smiling to herself at her success she turns to wave to her mother – who has fainted.

Mime artist Rowan Tolley a silent, observing being, quizzical, balanced, grounded, measured, sits for his portrait with the stillness and reserve of a heron, an innate performer who enjoys the limelight. The ultimate observer observed.


Busy as a traffic jam each individual, travelling on his own journey, is temporarily suspended in an enclosed space, a capsule within a capsule.   Central is the figure with the red book, the Rolls Royce of clowns.


In the shade of the stifling heat a respite barman surveys the scene.   Californian women tell Californian tales to Californian men.   It can only happen in the bubble that is California.   It always happens at the World Cafe.


We crossed the threshold between the tall clowns stripy legs into a wonderland of performing animals and colourful clowns, looping dogs, elegant and plumed white horses, ferocious tigers, dancing elephants, live cannon ball, trapeze and tight-rope walkers and slap-stick gaudy clowns.   We screeched till our shrill nearly exploded all adult eardrums and when we were filled with candyfloss and ice cream we went home to sleep a sound sleep.


Trim, all other treasures dwarfed in the shadow of King John’s Castle, that Norman invention of European proportions.   But the real soul and heart of this little town lives in its people and their undeniable presence in this historic place.

It stands dejected. Bare bones exposed to the unrelenting weather, a testament to its neglect.   Here between these four walls once lived a family with a husband, a wife and twelve children, the parents dead, the children scattered like buckshot none to return, none to remember what happened between these two gables.

Big fat cacti with pin thin spikes and small ones in little tubs at eye level, delicate but you wouldn’t touch them.   They’d lance your finger to the bone with their sharp needles, like the short, plump doctor did into my arm.   I rub my skinny arm in the place that still holds the pain and crash through the glass panelled door skipping over to the palm house.


He pulls along his broken body each ache reminding him of the past, his former owner, the blows, the starving, the loneliness, the incomprehensible torture.   But, now he’s fed every day.   He has companions, not of his race, but of his pain.   They understand, they’ve been through the same.   He’s safe now.

A collective roar, wild and spontaneous fills the Cusack Stand.  Christy Ring appears in the six yard box.   His powerful presence has breached the strongest defense.  He swings his ‘ash’ with all his might brought to bear on the suspended ‘sliotar’ connecting centre boss and fires a bullet with his exacting, unique precision toward the top right hand corner of the net.

Poised like a panther, ready to leap Olly Walsh, guardian of the posts is disadvantaged by his presence at the opposite upright. A sure goal in normal circumstances but these are not normal circumstances.   Miraculously, he flings his elastic body across the face of the gaping goal as a white clad umpire reaches for the green flag, red flags and another deafening roar already in the air positive of the result. All this takes a fraction of a second.

Now deathly silence, the only sound is the clear rasping of the hard frantic pea inside the referee’s whistle.  A disbelieving Ring stands in admiration, glued to the ground, feet sprawled, mouth dropped, eyelids full apart, hurley dangling by his side. Then, he collects himself and without ceremony of procrastination turns on his heels to face the seventy yard line, all part of the game of hurling.

Early mist envelopes, shrouding the upstanding cabins and boats, clamming down their bulky hulls, softening their outline, smothering their fishy stench, silencing the lapping sea , calm as a sleeping bear in a winter cave.


A place where people go to talk to God smack, bang in the middle of a God filled landscape.

The Grand Canal under Sally’s Bridge, the place where Christie Brown’s contemporaries discovered he couldn’t swim, was the place I fished out a grey frame, a fork and handle bars. The wheels and saddle I got under Harold’s Cross Bridge and the rest of the bicycle I made up from spurious bits and pieces I scavenged around.   I had transport and used it to travel to far off places from the sandy beaches at Seapoint and Killiney to the fishing boats at Howth.  Every time I see a fishing boat I’m reminded of that grey framed concoction.

As a low barge enters the lough large gates like prison doors are firmly closed behind. Pressured water squirts through the sluice gates like giant leaking arteries filling the deep enclosure, a rectangular cut stone fish tank, its contents bobbing like a cork until the waters level out at the top. Long, heavy arms like aeroplane wings are swing on a pivot opening the tall, wide gates, exposing the captive to freedom.  Once more chugging, she sluggishly continues on her watery journey.


A lone dwelling stands in the shade of a large sprawling tree.  The house and the tree, the tree and the house, both independent species but together an unlikely pair of twins.

In the distance, reaching up majestically above the chimneys of Georgian architecture, its green oval shape sits comfortably in the Dublin skyline. I breath a sigh of relief at the sight. I am close to home. Soon, I hear the rush of water as it cascades over the lough at Portobello.  A leisurely stroll along the canal takes me across the bridge at Harold’s Cross and straight ahead  to where the tow path takes up again, then over the road to 41, home again.

Under the Kerry clouds one side of Caherciveen’s main street is bathed in sunshine hot and sweating. Strong shadows absorb the houses opposite cooling their long faces till evening when they switch temperatures.


The sound of loud bells resonates over a lazy city as experienced campanologers swing their heavy loads in synchronized succession. A melody of continuous and repeated ever decreasing song peels through the air announcing the arrival of a Dublin Sunday.


A market town flanked by the meeting of two main arteries. It’s racing, busy, fighting heart a hub, testimony to its expanding outskirts receives constant but inadequate surgery. Like an overfed sprawling bulk with a tight restrained centre, one waits for the heart attack.

She bounces up the stairs to the balcony.   ‘Gran, see this, look at me up here looking down’.   She climbs another flight to my studio.   ‘Look again Gran, listen to this’ as she plays the keyboard, a child’s melody, full of confidence, full of guff, full of inquisitiveness and full of the innocence of a five year old visiting with her Gran.


I remember the time I used to work here, learning my trade, toiling over a propped up drawing board with a view of the distant sea between gable ends. It seems like someone else’s life in some other time on some other planet.  Yet, it all looks the same as before.  Nothing has changed but me.

We present our external selves to the universe from behind designer clothes, jewelry, makeup, gestures, language, emotions, masking the fears within just like clowns.

Not the king of the yard, there are others larger than he.   So, he spends his time avoiding trouble, the sort of trouble there seems to be a lot of.   He has become watchful, shrewd and cunning but he always gets what he wants.


My daughter is born. I’m the first to hold her, to feel her presence and introduce her into her new world.  She’s tiny, a perfect flower, beautiful, the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, a complete joy to be with, to nurture, to protect, to play with, to love, to teach, to sing and dance with, to enjoy.   She’s a lifelong treasure from Heaven.

They jostle for position each with her own personality, each with her streak of vanity, showing a left profile, then a right, looking around behind my arm to see the result, licking the paper as I sketch their fleshy features.   They are the most curious of animals, a shower of posers.

Small groups of people collect in bunches around the church yard.   Neighbours greet one another exchanging the gossip of the week.   Children with scrubbed little faces and washed ears, dressed in their stiff Sunday finery stand behind their mother’s legs.   The banter of Sunday in Navan.


Walking up the hill to ‘Alley Palley’ amongst the ancient trees we halt at the low wooden fence that’s above her head.  We take out our paints and brushes and paint a picture each in our own individual way.  She masters the great branches with great ease  and produces a lovely piece of work.  It’s on my bedroom wall today.

When someone oversteps the boundaries he is quickly brought to heel.   Even amongst simple farmyard folk there is a pecking order.

She’s ten today and has spent half the day paddling in the fountain by the pyramid over the Louvre. We look upwards. The frame of the Eiffel Tower takes up the whole view. We climb over a three foot fence into an uninhabited grassy park far away from the crowds that are milling around to have quiet and peace and begin to paint the view in front of us.   It’s a complicated structure and she has less trouble than I transferring it onto her surface. At last after much intensity and concentration we both finish and get up to go.  A dozen or so French art lovers sit silently in a crescent behind us watching our every move.  We pack up and climb back over the little fence.  They do likewise.

Painted horses rotate a predestined, circular, undulating journey.   Their grotesque features, unobserved betray their intention as they transport their charges on a merry dance where the end is the beginning and the beginning is the end.


I stand at the frozen water’s edge.   Cattails jut their scrawny lifeless heads motionless through the Massachusetts Winter.   I have been here every morning for the last two weeks just watching and waiting but today is the first day I feel like performing.   I lay down a grey wash and suddenly, without warning large drops of rain begin to plop onto the sheet.   Frantically, I work with my palette knife slashing the uprights between the drops.   Within a minute my work is complete.   Then I watch for the right time to pull it and turn over the page and cover the work with my body till I get indoors.   Yes, I know today I can be an artist.

(St Patrick’s Cathedral) Quiet as a tomb, a haven of stillness, it’s historic reverent features and vaulted void fill with the shrill sound of a boy soprano. Outside, the busy trafficate its towering gigantic standing stone.

On Conor Pass as the low clouds gallop across the deep valley like racing greyhounds sheep lie still on the dewy slopes buried deep in their nocturnal poses their responses drugged by sleep.   An intruder like me is given greater latitude than at midday when the periscopes are up.



A group of men lounge around, relaxed in their own skins in everyday conversation, their confident nakedness removing all barriers between them, the centre of attention a red ball.

I’m in the rehearsal room of the Abbey Theatre on the top floor.   Rain is streaking the glass, clinging to the windows that stretch the full width of the large room.   The stage is marked out on the floor and actors are all in position.   Soon they will have the dress rehearsal.   Stage manager busies himself with props.   Costume designer comes in intermittently to check details.   Set designer darts his busy energy about.

Silence is drawn over the room like a white silk mist as emotions come to a climax.   The director watches, listening intensely for the slighest intonation.   The author jabs his mouth with a ball point in deep concentration.   I am in the background still and soundless the only movement from my pastel stick as I sketch the actor in front of me.

Crash, bang!   Everybody jumps clearing their seats together like travellers on a fast moving bus going over a hump-backed bridge.   Somebody shrieks.   My eyes open wide in disbelief and I freeze to my chair.   It’s me, my paintbox has just crashed to the floor spilling its contents with a loud bang.   I look up suddenly straight into a dark McCann eye that gives a dark McCann wink.   There’s laughter in the other eye.

She undresses, moves to her position and looks challengingly at her observers. She banishes the little circular group with a throwaway gesture and brings her consciousness inward exposing her outer parcels to the world.  All around her pencils, charcoal and brushes massage the image of her being onto paper with mixed results that she never sees nor wishes to. She is not the artist, she’s the model.


Beyond the Cryer’s solemn face in the land of ‘Barristers Only’ a humming drone of activity fills the confines of that which is the Law Library. Like black bees around a honey pot, each with his own individual case, they form a collective mass of busy Dickensian buzziness.

I walk past the building and recognise it as the place in which I had my first exhibition nearly twenty years before and didn’t sell anything.  It was a restaurant then, now they rent property from the same basement.   Across the road the Mansion House where the Lord Mayor resides and I attended some great happenings and functions.   Down the street past St Anne’s Church of which I did a watercolour long before I realised the strong connection between it and my present home.  I stop to look in the window display before reaching up for the door handle.  I push through to the inside.  ‘Hi John’ says a cheery voice. It’s Julian. ‘Hugh, it’s John Ryan’. It warms my heart, like coming home. I’m standing inside the Apollo Gallery in Dawson Street as the shepard descends to greet one of his flock.

Self in 2004

When I look in the mirror I see the same face I’ve seen for over fifty years but of course it’s not the same face, I just haven’t noticed the gradual transformation.  I don’t really notice that because I’m looking at the eyes.   They’re the same aul fella’s eyes I had years ago when I was young.

I walk the grass at Clady, the place I call home. I never felt at home anywhere else. I breath deeply the rich Bective air into my lings for I belong to this place. My heart is in the dark, rich soil. My thoughts play in the knowing trees. My soul runs free with the ancient Boyne. The search is over, ‘A Journey’ is complete.