By Joseph Kearney
A neighbour of ours played the mouthorgan. He was a quiet man with a full beard and indi-go eyes. But shy, you’d have to coax him to pull the harmonica from his top pocket and play.
Although he was born into our community, he was still regarded as a newcomer, a blow-in. Perhaps this was because he had chosen to reside elsewhere for many decades before coming home and living amongst us. He liked to ramble the lanes and fields of our locality. His name was Tony and his wife’s name Jane. He bought and renovated a small cottage in the town’s land of Physcianstown a few miles outside Callan in Co Kilkenny. The house was on a byroad off a byroad beside a bridge that separated two counties, Tipperary and Kilkenny. Here at the bridge you could see where the tar-and-chip from both counties butted against each other creating a variation of both texture and hue. Tony was a man who observed a small thing like this. Ours is a flat inland place. When we raise our eyes to the horizon we see only fields, tillage, hedges and ditches. Our world is small but big enough to accommodate whatever it is that we need. Tony was different to us in this respect. He had lived in places we might only dream about. We were vaguely aware of this. He didn’t speak of living in a bohemian community in St Ives, Cornwall, or the Bahamas, or St Lucia, or Lanzarote or even the Scilly Isles. Perhaps he believed that if we were aware we might not have been interested anyway.
Growing up in that district I often thought it a place maybe overlooked by cartogra-phers. Somewhere lost forever along the worn crease of a map.
Tony and Jane liked to stroll in the evenings and often dropped by to see us, to have a cup of tea and play a few tunes. The seasons cycled along here as they do any-where else and we gradually became used to the quietly spoken man with the mouthorgan.
It was something of a surprise then when we discovered that Tony O’Malley was famous. Not just famous but world famous as an artist. His work was prized and collected. Wherever Irish art was exhibited his was there at the core. We hardly knew any of this because he just never said.
We also learned that Tony was self-taught and that he was a keen observer. His blue eyes missed little during his sojourns around our district. What to us was the work—a-day ordinary, to him was a thing pregnant with possibility.
I sometimes think of him around this time of year. Since the sixties Tony O’Malley made a new painting in or about each Good Friday. His Good Friday pictures are an im-portant part of his oeuvre. Many of them created with blackened wood, nails and slate, they capture delineations of suffering and redemption. They reference the rituals of West-ern Christianity while still offering us nuances of older religion and beliefs. Tortured shapes reflecting the pain of crucification and sacrificial death.
We may be a community preoccupied with the everyday but Tony walked amongst us observing all, serene and quiet. A twisted crown of barbed wire atop a fencepost, a knotted rope of baling twine supporting a sagging collapse of farm gate, even that weathered board lopsidedly fastened with a crooked nail, all of these were symbolic images that fed into his artistic imagination.
He is recorded as once saying “Painting is a mystery like poetry. Silence is im-portant. You have to listen. It’s available to you, as long as you don’t presume. You arrive at the work. Don’t confront the painting, asking what it means. Like the Chinese proverb – allow it to just be there on the wall, ticking like a clock…”
One year a retrospective exhibition of Tony’s work was shown in Kilkenny city. As neighbours we received invitations to attend the showing. We stood there in the gallery with our hands in our pocket looking up at the ticking clocks.
And if we quieted our minds and remained silent we might catch the flash of a trout’s belly in slow water under that old bridge, the shape of a crow’s wing against an evening sky, the contrasting shades of a half-ploughed field, a falling star or a reflection of clouds in an ice-rimed puddle. He had caught our small world using canvas, paint and col-lage and made us wonder.
Sadly Tony O’Malley passed away in 2003. He was 89. There was a great turnout for his funeral. And afterwards, the mourning neighbours were agreed on one thing…he was great man on the mouthorgan.
NOTE: A wing has been devoted at The Butler Gallery, to the work of the Callan artist Tony O’Malley and his wife Jane.
The following link on The Butler Gallery website tells you all about The O’Malley Collection: