The 'Ever-Living Ones' was opened at Birr Library by Dr. John Feehan,
who recently retired from University College Dublin where he was a
senior lecturer in the School of Biology and Environmental Science.
Dr. Feehan is a man whose erudition I greatly respect and his book
'The Landscape of the Slieve Bloom' inspired in me an understanding and appreciation of the landscape around me as well as a fascination with geology and Irish peat bogs.
He kindly agreed to open the exhibition on 11 July and gave a wonderful
speech which I have included below.
My thanks go to John Feehan, the staff at Birr Library and our visitors
for making it so memorable.
"There are two things I have learned over the years at the opening of art exhibitions. One is that it is unlikely anyone will remember what you say and the longer you go on the less likely it becomes. For that reason I will keep this short.
The second is that what is on show does not often inspire me because when I am looking at new works of art I am asking myself two things: first of all
does it reach far enough and deep enough to touch the banished soul of the world:
and secondly, do I find in it an integrity that does not jar with my sensitivity as a scientist (and more particularly as a geologist).
Seamus Heaney wonderfully described geology and poetry in a lecture a few years ago as 'kindred ways of responding to the mystery and making of the planet.'
I think that is even more true of geology and painting.
I should say at the outset how wonderfully these paintings meet these criteria for me!
You see the way the upper half of each painting depicts the person of the God or Goddess while the lower half depicts the elements of landscape with which he or she is associated: along with representations of our human attempts to represent or celebrate them in landscape, ritual and craft.
And notice the way a receptacle - boat, bowl or cauldron, or cupped hands - is used as it were to transmit a distilled essence of the particular power or gift of land and
landscape that is being celebrated: the power that takes human form in the mythical
figure of the God or Goddess we conjure up to relate to it and to think about the influence of that power or gift they represent in our lives.
Each picture begins at the bottom.
It is through our experience of what we see in the lower part of each picture that the imagery born of that experience comes into focus, takes on a human face as we attempt to relate it to us in a way that turns it in on itself using our eyes as it were, requiring that we direct our everyday gaze with new attentiveness, awareness, appreciation of the natural world and all its gifts and wonders.
The particular precious resources these figures represent - the figures in human form our imagination has framed to represent them: Mannanán mac Lír, Anu, Brighid, An Cailleach, An Mór Ríogháin, Eriú, Banba and Fótla, Aengus Óg, Boann,
Dian Cécht, Goibnui, Donn, An Dagdha, Lugh - the particular precious resources these figures represent are those earth resources that sustain our life and all life; which are degraded and misused in a culture that knows no tutelary spirits such as these, but thinks the human soul can be nourished by the digital imagery of a computer screen: and has become so, so alienated from the reality of place and landscape, when our very future survival depends on the continuing nurturing of such relationship.
And there is the relevance for our own day.
No element of landscape perhaps shows the need more I think than the water that appears in nearly all of the pictures, and which in a time when these personifications of the powers and virtues of the natural world would have been as familiar as movie stars in ours, found a ritual focus in the springs and wells that carried it from the deep of the purifying earth into our lives.
The quality of that water in our day has deteriorated to such an extent that in nearly every case it is now undrinkable, and the natural landscape context that once framed these special wells and springs, and carried the thread of connection between landscape and the human mind, has - again in nearly every case - been anaesthetised by our attempts to impose ourselves upon it with superfluous infrastructure devoid of any aesthetic sensitivity that might act as a conduit for that thread of connection.
An all-encompassing agenda for environmental action to confront these issues might be built on an appreciation of these paintings; because they invite similar reflections on air quality, soil, and the richness and diversity of life on earth.
Apart from the power to inspire each painting has in itself, each could be - should be perhaps - the subject of a chapter in a book that treats of the cultural environmental legacy of the past (if I can call it that) in order to kindle the flame of awareness and concern in our present in the way that is absolutely necessary if we are to remain on as responsible custodians of the earth.
I hate to think this pantheon will be scattered…. "
For more pictures from Birr please visit: