BY JOHN FITZGERALD
On June 3rd Ireland lost an outstanding artist. Jane O’ Malley-nee Harris, wife of the internationally acclaimed Tony O’ Malley, was hugely talented and bequeathed a rich legacy to the nation.
The people of Physicianstown, outside Callan, where she lived, were stunned and saddened to hear of her death. To them she was a genial and kindly neighbour.
Born in Montreal in 1944, Jane loved to draw and paint from an early age, developing her skills and artistic sensitivity as she grew into her teens.
At age 19, she left Canada, preferring the European way of life and cultural milieu to that of North America. She worked as an au pair in Switzerland for a few years and then switched to London. Though earning a living in various ways the notion of being an artist refused to go away.
She was on the verge of returning to Canada when she rang her father and asked his advice. His answer changed her life. He mentioned the St. Ives School of Painting in Cornwall, to which many an established and aspiring artist had reverted. This was a “light bulb” moment for her.
She moved to St. Ives in 1969. The new setting, removed from the noise and distraction of modernity, was just what she needed to facilitate a dearly longed-for career change. .
It was in St. Ives that she met Tony O’ Malley, who had left Ireland a decade earlier. The bleak 1950s weren’t too favorable to the arts in his native land…or to artists either, and Tony had, like Jane, felt the urge to venture abroad in pursuit of his dreams.
She’d heard of Tony years before, and had once viewed a painting of his in a gallery. It captivated her, and the memory of it stayed with her for months afterwards. She wondered about the mind behind that soulful art. She felt as if it called out to her across time and space. She did some research. The story of Tony O’ Malley and his unique creative vision enthralled her.
Meeting Tony, who was thirty years her senior, proved a turning point for Jane. The two became friends initially. Then romance blossomed. They hit it off from day one- they were like “soul mates”, a friend recalled- and they married in 1973.
They worked together, departing the artists’ colony at regular intervals to broaden their artistic horizons by visiting exotic locations like the Bahamas, the Canary Islands, and the Isle of Scilly.
Then, after twenty years in St. Ives, they opted to relocate to Ireland, eventually acquiring an old labourer’s cottage at Physicianstown. They bought the house after seeing a faded photo of it in a brochure on a bleak winter’s day. It required extensive renovation, they found, but following a tasteful touch-up and the addition of a studio it proved a wonderful home for the couple.
They moved into the house in 1990 and Jane’s gardening skills proved a godsend. She transformed the half- acre that came with the house into a tranquil oasis. They interacted well with locals, always having a friendly word for the people they met on their almost daily walks along Carrabine Bridge or through Bower’s Wood.
Jane found inspiration on her walks, and in the capacious garden. A flower, a stone, fruits that grew there: Nature always provided, as did artifacts or utensils she spotted on her journeys. A hand-carved ladle or discarded fragment of pottery would have her reaching for the sketchpad she took everywhere with her. And the startlingly bright colours of the Bahamans and other locales added fresh dimensions and insights to her art, as it had in St. Ives.
Her paintings were graceful and stylish, and her pastels always pleasing to the eye. She had a way of capturing the essence of any subject with just the barest few squiggles of ink, pencil, pastel or crayon.
Her vast collection of sketchbooks and travel diaries, when she displayed them in later years, revealed a breathtaking range of themes, places, and inspirational sources. Many of her drawings served as foundations for her celebrated oil paintings.
In the studio at Physicianstown she created her now famed still-lifes, landscapes, and animal studies…many of the latter prompted by the comings and goings of her beloved cats in the garden.
So devoted was she to her calling in life that she recalibrated the cottage interior to resemble a vibrant artwork, positioning flowers, vases, and a variety of household paraphernalia to chime with an inner abstract vision.
In 2000, I had the privilege of seeing the house and the garden when I interviewed Tony O’ Malley for a local newspaper. I saw firsthand the otherworldly space in which they plied their craft. The cottage had been extended on three sides and the garden was a lush wonderland, with a fountain, and a laburnum walkway flanked by dozens of trees.
I stood beside a pond populated by carp fish. I perceived a snow-white dovecote and what Jane informed me was an Aeolian harp. Named after the Roman god of wind, it sighed or wailed like a banshee with every breeze that passed through it.
Entering the cottage I was greeted by an enormous tabby cat, and Jane showed me into the Zen Room, a haven of peace bathed in creamy white light. It overlooked a sparkling fountain. Slievenamon loomed in the distance, a cloud-shrouded colossus.
The couple painted and drew side by side at their little cottage until the day in 2003 that Tony exited a world he had enriched by his prolific, multi-awarding winning work. Much of it had been accomplished against a background of chronic ill-health during which Jane cared for him and greatly enhanced his quality of life.
In the years that followed. Jane devoted herself to the painstaking task of cataloging Tony’s vast repertoire and in 2021 she relished the advent of the Tony O’ Malley Wing at the new Butler Gallery in Kilkenny, where his work is permanently exhibited.
In addition to preserving Tony’s legacy Jane continued on her own creative trajectory. She had numerous solo exhibitions and scores of her works are held in private collections worldwide. They can also be seen at various Irish public buildings and commercial institutions. In 2005 the Irish Museum of Modern Art hosted a major retrospective exhibition.
I viewed a display of Jane’s drawings in Kilkenny five years ago in which she touched upon themes associated with her travels to Cornwall, the exotic Bahamas, and Clare Island in County Mayo, places she and Tony were drawn to irresistibly.
Though monochromatic, the sketches of spectacular tropical beaches and seascapes allowed the mind to fill in the luscious tints and tones.
The Clare island drawings captured the haunting rugged beauty of the West of Ireland from which Tony’s father hailed. And Callan folk loved her sketches of home life at Physicianstown,
The mortal phase of the great O’ Malley story has come to an end, but Tony and Jane will long be remembered and revered. Their contribution to Irish and global culture is immeasurable.
Theirs was a romance made in Heaven, and I suspect that, somewhere on the Other Side, they have access to palettes, themes, and vistas undreamt of in this world.
True love never dies.
(Jane is survived by her brother Chris, sister-in-law Rita, nieces, relatives, neighbours, and friends.)