Artistic family set up creative hub in West Cork

An artistic family who spent years living on the Blasket Islands have set up a creative hub in West Cork, reveals AISLING MEATH
Artistic family set up creative hub in West Cork

The team at WAS artistic studios in Ballydehob, Paul Ó Colmáin, Marie Cullen, their son Dubhaltach, and his partner Selene D’Alessandro

SINCE the 1960s, the little village of Ballydehob in West Cork has been a mecca for artists.

In 2019, the heart of the bohemian village became the perfect home for the creative hub ‘Working Artists Studios’, known as ‘ WAS’.

Since opening, the studios have further enriched the vibrant local arts scene, showcasing imaginative expression in many forms.

WAS is a welcome addition to the creative local community, to whom they offer a myriad selection of workshops, arts events and classes and host exhibitions and poetry readings.

All of this is spearheaded by one very creative family.

Paul Ó Colmáin is an artist, poet and musician with a deep interest in the Irish language. His recent publication, The Silence Unravelling, is a book of poetry, and he has also written Behind Every Hero, a children’s book illustrated by his son Dubhaltach, and also released an album of original music entitled ‘’... agus Suantraí, ‘’

Paul, along with artist Marie Cullen, their son sculptor Dubhaltach, and his partner Selene D’Alessandro project manager, bring their collective creative energy to the studios.

CJ Keohane, who makes puppets, really enjoyed his time as artist-in-residence at the Working Artist Studios (WAS) in Ballydehob
CJ Keohane, who makes puppets, really enjoyed his time as artist-in-residence at the Working Artist Studios (WAS) in Ballydehob

Paul and Marie have been stalwarts of the West Cork cultural scene for many years, and since 2000 have ran a cultural space also called WAS, in North Street, Skibbereen, where many a poem was recited, song was sung, and artwork exhibited.

But it was Skibbereen’s loss and Ballydehob’s gain when they had to relocate due to their premises being sold.

The newly-reopened WAS is in a three-story building comprising of two galleries, five studios, and an event space, and they are in the process of setting up a print room which will be a huge advantage to local artists, who previously had to travel to Cork city for their printing needs.

Paul, Marie and Dubhaltach have their own studios there, and also offer studio space to others. They are particularly keen to accommodate artists who are starting off their careers.

“The response to our first call out for residencies was incredible. said Paul, “we had enquiries from the UK, USA, Switzerland, Turkey, Mexico, France and Italy, as well as Ireland.

“We are very interested in supporting emerging artists who may find themselves having finished college, and unsure of their next move.”

CJ Keohane, who makes puppets really, enjoyed his time there. “ I learned a lot during my residency at WAS and being surrounded by like-minded people helped fuel my motivation and creativity.” he said.

Paul and Marie both hail from Co. Louth and met when they were just 17.

“We met at a Horslips gig,” recalls Paul. “By coincidence we both had younger sisters named Oonagh, who were both longing to go to the gig too, but were too young to go by themselves. My parents said that Oonagh could go with me, and it was the same story with Marie and her sister.”

Cupid’s arrows were active at that fateful Horslips gig and being struck by love with an incredible soundtrack in the background was only the start of their adventures.

Both went to Dublin to study art, but it was when they headed to the Blasket islands that their lives became very adventurous indeed.

“We stayed there for ten years,” recalled Marie, “we first moved in 1985 and stayed for two whole years without coming off. We ran the hostel and a guesthouse, and for the next eight years we stayed from around March till October.”

A Brendan Voyage artwork by Dubhaltach at the WAS artistic studios in Ballydehob.
A Brendan Voyage artwork by Dubhaltach at the WAS artistic studios in Ballydehob.

Living on an uninhabited island in itself would be challenging to most, but given that the couple also had their baby son Dubhaltach in tow at the time, it seems extraordinary.

Imagine the little family completely alone on the island in the days before mobile phones, without electricity, and sometimes being trapped for weeks by heavy swelling seas and the thickest of fogs.

“We had walkie talkies if we needed to contact the lifeboat,” explained Paul.

“Dubhaltach was around 12 before he lived in a house with electricity. I remember when he was around six showing the film director Neil Jordan how to gut a fish.”

As well as gaining survival skills and growing up without TV, relying on his imagination helped in no small way to nurture the wonderful talents of this young boy. He is now an accomplished artist and sculptor. His sculpture Aengus Óg was recently exhibited in The National Botanic Gardens.

“I still carry that special feeling from my childhood growing up on the island,” muses Dubhaltach. 

“It was very powerful being so close to the elements. I spent my time living through my imagination.”

Happy as a sand boy indeed when, one day, nine-year-old Dubhaltach decided to cover the entire beach in sandcastles. He managed around a hundred yards and his watchful parents looking down on him from the cliffs above saw that he had constructed a map with boundaries and walls.

Resourcefulness and relying on what you have around you became his way of life and he carries this through his artwork.

“ I love a good scrap heap,” he said. "Farmers around here are great. I ask them for old bits of metal - no matter how rusty it looks.

“They are sometimes surprised when they see me about to dig up an old rusty chain that has been buried for over a 100 years and ask – ‘What would you be wanting with all that old stuff’ - but no matter how bad the metal is, nature has worn it away in such a delicate fashion.

“I love taking junk and turning it into art.”

Dubhaltach is currently working on a collection of pieces inspired by The Brendan Voyage.

WAS constantly update their activities to make them as sustainable as possible. They share this knowledge at their art workshops for kids.

“ We love running workshops with the 7-11 year olds,” said Marie, When I was in primary school in Kilcurry, the principal there, Paddy Lambe, was a passionate artist. He really encouraged me and from a very early age I knew that art was all I ever wanted to do, it was my world.

“My work is inspired by the Will Durant quote - ‘Civilization exists by geological consent subject to change without notice’. When you look at majestic, sacred mountains they are signals of the fragility of the planet.”

Marie’s work inspires one to ponder these incredible truths, like the fact that The Alps mountains are still growing because of Africa crashing into Europe.

WAS is a place to inspire and connect, and many poets have shared their words there such as Theo Dorgan, Doireann Ní Ghriofa, Clara Rose Thornton, Koobsi Moolman to name a few, with plenty more to look forward to.

“We are grateful to Cork County Council for supporting our projects, and thrilled to have been awarded a grant by the Arts council which will offer us more opportunities for our artist development.” said Selene.

For more information on WAS and work by Paul, Marie and Dubhtaltach, see the Facebook page on Working Artists Studios/ / Phone: 086-1628471

WAS is located at P81 H771.

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