‘For many years Ireland had amnesia about WW1’

Hughie O'Donoghue Somme Paintings
Hughie O’Donoghue: Somme Paintings

Artist Hughie O’Donoghue remembers the Somme in paintings


Manchester Irish artist Hughie O’Donoghue – who spent many of his childhood summers in his mother’s home county Mayo and at one point as an adult moved his family to Kilkenny in the 1990s – has an exhibition of abstract paintings commemorating The Battle of the Somme.

The paintings, Seven Halts On The Somme, are the fruit of his recent tenure as artist in residence at Eton College where he was given free rein of the college archives and saw the disproportionate extent to which its past pupils died in the First World War.

To coincide with the centenary they are shortly to on exhibition at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s Leighton House in Holland Park, the lavish former home of Victorian artist and President of the Royal Academy Frederic Lord Leighton (1830-1896).

Hughie O'Donoghue Somme Paintings
Hughie O’Donoghue Somme Paintings: GUILEMONT TO GINCY, 2014

It has been an opportunity for O’Donoghue, whose father was conscripted to fight in the Second World War in Italy and whose maternal uncle died in the First World War, to reflect on Ireland’s cognitive dissonance about both wars. The paintings themselves, he stresses, are about the act of remembering rather than recreations of the events or scenes.

“They looked after me very well at Eton, I have to say. They asked me to go to Eton initially to look at their archive knowing I’d done a lot of work in connection with the idea of how we remember, I was interested to look at the Library which was given to them back in 1937, I couldn’t really just go there, well couldn’t afford the luxury of just going there and studying the archives so I went there to work while I was doing that but it did focus my thinking very much on the Somme.

“If you’ve ever been to Eton one of the things you can’t fail to respond to in a sense is the way the history of the institution is written into the walls itself, all the names of these young men who were killed are inscribed in to the wall and it’s a very, very long list.

“I think there was a sense that they wanted to be imaginative about how they remembered this – obviously people from all over the country were lost in the war – but I think as a school Eton’s losses were almost double any other probably because they became young officers which was the highest casualty group on the Western Front, really, junior officers.”

For details of Hughie’s exhibition visit the Leighton House website: www.rbkc.gov.uk

Referring to what was until relatively recently Ireland’s own ambivalence or selective amnesia about the roles played by Irish men and women in both wars, he suggests: “I think history is always partial, that’s a theme that runs through my work, history is always self-serving, you view history from the perspective you want to view it so in the anniversary of 1916 there’s a predominant focus on the events of the Easter Rising and obviously that’s not the same focus in Britain.

“My own history having lived in both countries and having grown up in the UK, I have a very strong cultural identity that is Irish, I am interested in the poetic truth behind the story, members of my family have been involved on all sides at one point or another. That’s really what interested me and the paintings, The Seven Halts on the Somme, they’re all about places, places where the Army was stopped, places where peoples’ lives were stopped and places where I’ve stopped.

Hughie O'Donoghue Somme Paintings
Hughie O’Donoghue Somme Paintings: WARLENCOURT RIDGE, 2014

“I wanted to connect those places to individual people as well as former members of elite choristers, one particular individual, Paddy McCabe who was a member of the Tyneside Irish Division who was killed on the first day of the Somme in the assault of the Tyneside Irish Division and I went into the story to explain those individual lives, find out a little bit about him so talking about the amnesia there’s an interesting story after the war.

“The Tyneside Irish Division was one of Kitchener’s Divisions, it was raised and it was a body of men who had a strong cultural identity and at the end of the war Ireland was in the throes of the War of Independence and there was a story in the Regimental History of the Tyneside Irish Division about Patrick McCabe’s mother dyeing a sheet green and hanging it out the window and being raided for doing this and her pointing out in no uncertain terms that a lot of Irish boys had died in the First World War so that history, that aspect is something that greatly interested me.

“They’re all about places, places where the Army was stopped, where lives were stopped, where I’ve stopped.”

“In the course of doing work I actually discovered that an uncle of my mother’s whom I didn’t even know existed also fought on the Somme. He survived the Somme but he was killed in 1918 and he’d kind of been – a victim of this amnesia, he was not remembered. By the time they’d had, he was on the wrong side in the 1920s so he was forgotten. I found his story particularly interesting and I couldn’t believe he’s turned up in a Highland Division.

Hughie O'Donoghue Somme Paintings
Hughie O’Donoghue Somme Paintings: TRONES WOOD, 2014

“What the hell was he doing in a Highland Division? Well he went over to pick potatoes is the reason and he was probably signed up in 1915 and ended up a Sergeant so there was a huge, huge involvement of Irish in the First World War and it needs to be remembered, it’s a very, very significant war and I think as time rolls on it will increasingly be viewed with the Second World War as part of the same conflict.

“There’s a lot of selective memory and whilst the Germans have been very interesting in the way they’ve explored the legacy of the Second World War, the First they don’t really visit.

“Todays problems in the Middle East a legacy of it and we’ll all be voting on Brexit in due course which is a legacy of it.

“It’s highly relevant and I feel it was a seismic moment for historical forces but also for art – art changed in 1916, there was a revolution in art and that revolution is absolutely connected to what was going on on the Western Front, there was a breakdown in our belief systems right across the world but particularly in Europe and we’re still very firmly in that legacy.

Hughie O'Donoghue Somme Paintings
Hughie O’Donoghue Somme Paintings: THE SUCRERIE LONGUEVAL, 2014

“It fascinates me for all sorts of reasons and that’s why as an ambitious artist you’re always on the lookout for some serious subject matter and I suppose being presented with the opportunity. There was nothing required of me other than to just go an take a look, things were done on my own terms which is what you need as an artist, really the freedom to respond in your own way. A lot of artists always feel they’ve never quite captured what they had n mind, do you think you nailed it?

“I think I’m in the former category, actually. The best painting ever does is always the one they’re doing at the moment because the kind of motivation you need to make a work of art is rooted in improving, being more succinct, more powerful, just being better but what I would say about the seven paintings is they did open quite considerably new areas of an idea that developed quite slowly. For a long time I didn’t quite know how I was going to do it and I suppose I’m primarily known as a painter of human figure or the human presence and one of the things that merged out of these is the human absence, really and that was new. The idea of connecting people to places is a profound one…something as enormous as the Battle of the Somme if you do any reading about it it’s enormously complex and labyrinthine, following the various divisions and whatever and you almost shut off it’s so complex so in a sense what I did with the paintings, the idea or key to understanding was through the individual person, what happened to Paddy McCabe or what happened to Joseph Patridge. When I went into Trônes Wood there’s a kind of pleasant looking wood now but no trees were left there after the Battle of the Somme.

“I’m certainly happy with the paintings, I’m doing other things at the moment but working with similar themes.”

“There’s still a lot of ordnance you still have to tread very carefully but in the forest in the wood I came across a private memorial nailed to a tree for this young man, Joseph Partridge. It was a photograph of him as a child at a wedding and it was in a plastic bag nailed to a tree and it was just his effort, his memorial and I suppose that was where I got the idea of how you give human face to something that’s a hundred years ago, how you bring it close and that’s what art should do or hat it tries to do is make you feel something so I hope that in the paintings something of that comes through.

“So I’m certainly happy with the paintings, I’m doing other things at the moment but working with similar themes. I wanted to engage people but I wanted to avoid the more obvious because I clearly wasn’t there. The paintings are about the act of trying to remember rather than illustrating The Battle of the Somme.”

How do they relate to his more recent work featuring rural isolation in his maternal homeland of Mayo?

Hughie O'Donoghue Somme Paintings
Hughie O’Donoghue Somme Paintings: POIZIERES, THE MOULIN

“Those paintings of cows in fields follow on and became a sort of motif after that. I suppose as an artist I work on bodies of work they’re quite a distinct body of work that came after the Somme paintings. I suppose there’s a change of pace it was about where I spend a lot of my time in Mayo in North Erris but it was about, it is a solitary place and anybody who’s been to Erris knows it is a solitary place.”

When told that elsewhere in this week’s paper the pop star Kevin Rowland of Dexys told us about his Mayo roots and the duality of having an Irish family identity growing up in this country but with a toehold in Ireland he concurs: “I suppose I experienced it most vividly when we moved to Ireland in the mid-90s, going over the years I’d either been viewed as visitor or visiting family but when you lived in Ireland I suppose my kids went to school in Ireland and they were viewed as English so it made the point quite strongly to me then because I’d always felt quite comfortable in both places and I do feel comfortable in both places but it was something that affected my father as well.

“He was born in Manchester but he was sent back to Co. Kerry to live with his aunt when he was 2 or 3 years old and that would have been 1921 and he grew up there and then came back to Manchester and I think it had a really strong effect on him, he was always, later on her served in the British Army and he had this strong sense of anti-sectarianism and that was communicated very powerfully to me even to the extent of insisting that if we were going to Manchester United we had to go to Manchester City…and support them which is taking it a bit far.

“There is a sort of conflicted identity and my view is that really nationalism in any form is a pretty negative force. It’s easy to see it when you look at National Socialism in Germany or Serbian Nationalism and see it, it’s usually about drawing lines around things and saying don’t cross this line but what I’m interested in is cultural identity, culture is different because it’s about sharing things and I have a mixed cultural heritage in both England and Ireland and feel at home in both places and know the history of both places or I know some of the history of both places and my identity is that I am a painter who grew up in Manchester with strong Irish connections.

“There’s a sense in my own kids that one of them would clearly see himself as English, one would clearly see himself as Irish and the one in the middle is slightly in the middle and not quite sure who they are.

Hughie O'Donoghue Somme Paintings
Hughie O’Donoghue Somme Paintings: FLATIRON COPSE, 2014

“In a modern world where people move increasingly around the world that’s going to be the condition of most people, they’ll have roots and heritage, a hybrid. “It’s very unusual to have a very settled place. When I go back to Mayo they can place me in Mayo in a way that they could never place me when I lived in Kilkenny, because my neighbour there he remembers my uncle and my aunt and knows exactly who I am in locating me through my family.

“The point that’s probably at the heart of the thing is the idea that this was really the first global conflict and the reverberations of it are still being felt but also these are paintings not illustrations, they’re a kind of meditation on the act of remembering hoe in fact all the time we forget and lose connections with things and that is the point of the paintings are and in a way they’re not all doom and gloom, the colours are quite intense and they’re a bit like archaeology in a way the paintings feel like that when you see them in the flesh they don’t come over as they do in the photographs which flatten them and you can see the process by which the paintings have been made, the various layers and the build-up and the decision making process which is a bit like memory itself I suppose that you try to reform, remember, like putting limbs back on a body to reform it.

“I hope that it’s an uplifting experience even though it’s about fairly terrible events in history.

“My generation hasn’t had to fight in a European war and my kids haven’t, that wasn’t the case with my father’s generation.

“He was born in November 1918 which was the month that the First World War ended and he was conscripted in 1939 and he went right through the Second World War and like a lot of other soldiers he got married in 1943 and left for the Italian campaign and when he got home in 1946 his daughter was 18 months old, he’d never seen her and that was not uncommon. He paid the price of the fudged peace at Versailles so the lessons of history are kind of something that interest me greatly, learn the lessons of history or be forced to keep repeating them.

Hughie O'Donoghue Somme Paintings
Hughie O’Donoghue Somme Paintings: SAUSAGE VALLEY, THE GRAND MINE

“He wasn’t the easiest man in the world we always had a slightly difficult relationship but he absolutely did take me to the art gallery in Manchester as well as to the football. He was a very, largely self-taught, well-read man who was when I came home to the house in Manchester it was full of books. I thought it was normal that all the walls would be covered in books it was only later that I learned it was slightly abnormal but it left a legacy, left me curious about the world.

“He was born in 1918, I was born in 1953, he was 35, I was the youngest in the family he was 26 when he got back from the war, 27, I’m not sure, offhand so his youth, it’s hard to imagine that. I’ve looked closely at images of him during the Second World War and he starts out as a gauche young men in 1939 and when he comes out of it you can see it written in his face really. Of course, I knew him very well, as you do, but it was only after he died that I studied his experiences during the war.” Has it become any easier to acknowledge this to other branches of his family in Ireland?

“My father was conscripted into the British Army he didn’t have a choice but the family as such would have been very well-known Republicans in Manchester in the 1920s and I mean very well-known so it was a complex thing. He retired to Ireland and I don’t think many people would have known he’d been in the British Army I don’t think he would have advertised that fact because people would have taken a very one dimensional view of things. He was a moral man and he believed he was fighting for freedom and I think he was actually. I think the Second World War was an unavoidable war.

“I was quite amazed at the some of the levels of ignorance in Ireland about some of the events of the Second and First World Wars and I feel that, in some ways, it’s understandable.”

“Personally, I’ve just been curious about the truth and when we started talking you mentioned that amnesia about the First World War. (Former President) McAleese did a lot going back to 1999 when she opened that memorial at Messines.

“I was quite amazed at the some of the levels of ignorance in Ireland about some of the events of the Second and First World Wars and I feel that in some ways it’s understandable, if a bit navel gazing, Ireland got it’s independence and it kind of isolated itself off from the rest of the world so it’s understandable in one sense but to pretend that Irish people weren’t involved and didn’t contribute to the eventual victory in 1945…if Hitler had overrun Europe I don’t think he’d have left Ireland as a freedom-loving country on the fringes of Europe, that’s the whole point of 20th century history.”

So did your dad give you a healthy scepticism of jingoism, nationalism and flag waving?

“Absolutely, yes, that was a lesson that he reiterated and we were always taught to be fair, yes absolutely, jingoism is a word he would use. It would be fair to say that.

“He worked in the railroad like his father and we had something called a privilege ticket which enabled us to follow the football we could go to the way games very economically and he encouraged us to do that and broaden the mind by seeing different places but he also said he thought it was good we enjoyed football and that we weren’t just partisan about it and we experienced the beauty of the game. If we couldn’t go to United we should support City. The way the clubs are set up in England they often had this sectarian dimension to them it’s not just Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow.”

So, given the week that’s in it, it’s once again appropriate, perhaps, to round things off with Mayo: “I live in Mayo and Greenwich we enjoy the fact we have two very different places. I grew up in a city I think if I was n Mayo all the time I’d go crazy but when I am there I really enjoy being there and a lot of my ideas are generated in Mayo, a lot of the visual imagery that is nurtured by that landscape which really hasn’t changed in thousands of years, it’s a kind of primal place and I suppose some of the stimulus in my work is the two things working together, the very, very natural world as you can experience in the far west of Ireland and the urban grittiness of the city where you are anonymous.

“I’m totally anonymous here in London and in Mayo everybody knows exactly who you are s the two things play off each other.”


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