Men behind wonder walls of Macroom

COLETTE SHERIDAN meets artist Denis O’Reardon who, along with Cormac Shiel, has produced eye-catching historical murals in his home town
Men behind wonder walls of Macroom
Denis O'Reardon's artwork. Macroom Castle, Late 19th Century.

TALENTED artist Denis O’Reardon says people are coming up to him with tears in their eyes as he paints murals of historical — and sentimental — interest on the walls of Macroom.

One of the murals, on Cork Street, depicts the last train to leave Macroom in 1953.

Denis and his friend and colleague, Cormac Sheil, painted from photographs in the Echo and Examiner archives for this project.

There is also a mural of Macroom Castle in its heyday in the late nineteenth century, painted onto a wall in New Street.

The photograph that Denis and Cormac based it on is from the Lawrence Collection at the National Library, which consists of 40,000 negatives taken between 1870-1914.

“At the time, photographers were sent out to photograph the whole country,” explains Denis. “The main photographer was Robert French. When we painted Macroom Castle, we painted a gilded frame around it and ornate wallpaper.

He adds that there is one mural that he would really like to paint.

“It came about as a result of research into the castle. We discovered that there is a photo of the castle when it was burned in the War of Independence. It shows the castle in flames with the townsfolk gathered in front of it. It’s a very dramatic picture even though it’s a bit grainy. It would be nice to have it as a counterpoint to the one of the castle that we’ve just done. That one shows it in all its glory. The castle is a huge part of Macroom’s history as well as the burning of it.”

Another mural is of a woman in a hooded cloak — a sartorial tradition that continued up until the 1960s in Macroom.

“My grandmother had one,” says Denis. “Someone stopped me on the street the other day and told me about a woman who wore the long cloak and went into a shop one day to heat herself. She stood in front of the heater and you could hear the bottles clinking under the cloak.”

Denis O'Reardon artwork. Last Train At Macroom. Mural.
Denis O'Reardon artwork. Last Train At Macroom. Mural.

The mural project is funded by the Creative Community scheme at Cork County Council. “That fund rolls out once a year so we’ll apply for it again in a few months,” says Denis.

“It’s a project that a lot of people are interested in because it’s probably going to become a tourist attraction. It ties in with the local effort to create a heritage trail.

“The town is about to be bypassed finally. The murals are our idea. It was just supposed to be a mural of the train on the wall near where the old train station was. But it fell through because the guy who has the wall couldn’t guarantee that he wouldn’t be building in front of it. As a result, we looked for a different wall. We ended up finding a lot of walls and the project expanded.”

It never struck Denis, a native of Macroom, to go to art college. “I didn’t study art,” he explains. “My talent is inherited from my father who was a teacher and did a lot of art in his spare time.”

Denis went to UCC where he graduated with a degree in archaeology and psychology. “I was determined not to put my degree to any use so I got into sign writing. That was in the days when most signs were hand-painted. Stuff wasn’t being printed the way it is now.

“It was good to be doing it for a while until I got bored with it. I decided I was just going to paint for myself. I paint all the time and I also write plays.”

Denis’s second home is India where he has spent “a good chunk of the last twenty years”. He adds: “I lived all over India and painted there. I wasn’t there permanently but it’s a place I kept going back to. It’s the strangest place I’ve ever been. It is so different to here. There is constant drama there. It gets a bit much and can be overwhelming.

“You get out of it and come back to Ireland where everything is nice and ordered. But you miss the drama.”

While in India, Denis lived on the proceeds of his paintings.

“At the time, I had someone in England selling paintings for me and I was in a gallery on French Church Street owned by John Quinlan.

“That was during the boom time when people were buying art. You don’t need to sell a lot of paintings to live in India.”

The poverty that Denis witnessed there puts into perspective, “the problems we have that aren’t really problems a lot of the time.”

When painting in India, Denis worked from photographs. “I often painted in a little room with small windows that had bars in them. A lot of the stuff I was doing wasn’t particular to India. I’d paint things like plastic bags and barbed wire, stuff I could have done anywhere.”

Denis O'Reardon's artwork. 
Denis O'Reardon's artwork. 

Denis returned to Macroom last September when his mother became ill. He helped to nurse her. She died and Denis reckons he’s back home probably for good. He adds: “I don’t think I’m going to India in the near future.”

Macroom has changed since Denis grew up there. “There is now quite a big foreign population here, mainly Eastern Europeans. Now I don’t know a lot of people whereas when I was a kid, I knew everyone.”

When Denis isn’t painting, he is writing. He has sent out some of his plays to theatre companies and venues “but nothing has been produced as yet”.

I kind of feel I should do it myself rather than give it to somebody,” he adds. “I’ve just been writing and then stashing the plays away.

“The last play I wrote was about suicide. The one before that is kind of based on the living goddess in Nepal. She is chosen as a manifestation of some deity and lives in a house in the centre of Kathmandu.

“I was spending a lot of time in Kathmandu and I became fascinated by the living goddess. I went to see her but you can’t talk to her. She just appears on a balcony from time to time and gets carried around. Her feet can’t touch the ground. She is chosen when she’s quite young and has to pass a lot of tests. She comes from a particular caste. Once she starts to menstruate, she stops being divine. Or if she has an accident and loses a lot of blood, that also would finish her.

“My play on her is my own take on it. It might be considered a bit irreverent,” says Denis, a singular artist who has always ploughed his own furrow.A

A NEW arts project and exhibition is coming to West Cork this month.

The project, entitled Tombolo, comprises of a two week residency where six artists develop and create artworks that respond directly to the landscape, history and heritage of the area.

The artists are given the chance to create in an environment free from traditional expectations, and are welcomed and encouraged to work within nature using the wild landscape as their narrative.

Coupled with the immersive and collaborative aspect of the process, a greater openness and freedom of experimentation is explored, which ultimately produces innovative and informed sculptural works of art.

The residency will culminate in a four day exhibition which will be open to the public from May 16-19 on Brow Head, Mizen Peninsula, West Cork.

The Tombolo exhibition trail encourages an open and relaxed discussion between the artists and the audience.

With the exhibition trail led by local historians and the artists themselves, further opportunities for the audience to delve into the history, concept and artistic process is possible.

It is a wonderful way for everyone and anyone to immerse themselves in nature, experience community, creativity and engagement. Admission is donation based.

A number of activities will also be programmed into the exhibition weekend including a series of creative workshops.

The art project has been curated and created by Lay of the Land, a visual arts organisation creating and curating site-responsive art projects. They produce powerful, imaginative and considered projects that encourage artists and their practice to engage with the landscape, including immersive short and long-term residencies and outdoor exhibitions in an ever growing number of rural locations throughout Ireland.

They support artists whose practices focus on the landscape, and where themes of environment, community, heritage and collaboration are intrinsic to, and reflected in their work.

Visit to find out more about them.

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