Thanking Brian

By Máirtín Ó Muilleoir

THE pre-eminent Irish American artist Brian O’Doherty – AKA the late Patrick Ireland – came along to the New York-New Belfast conference last week to cheer on his old pal Robert Ballagh, who made a powerful call for votes for the diaspora.

Following the slaughter on Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972, Brian O’Doherty started to sign all his artwork with the name Patrick Ireland. His artistic protest drew the attention –  and sympathy – of the American art world to the  plight of Northern nationalists, but also ensured the New York painter got the cold shoulder from official Ireland. Nevertheless, his principled stance against the horror of war was vindicated by the peace process and in 2008, deciding the time was now ripe to lay his alter ego to rest, Brian buried Patrick Ireland at a huge funeral ceremony in the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. If you go along to Kilmainham, you can see the tombstone with the legend ‘Patrick Ireland 1972-2008’.

Of late, Brian’s career has been on an upward trajectory. His Aisling an Phobail artwork on the Falls Road is just one of several prestigious commissions from across the world and as I write he has major exhibitions running concurrently in Berlin, Germany, and Basle.

Which is one way of saying that the octogenarian has his hands full. Still, there is one project he wishes to see driven to a successful conclusion – and a project which could unite Ireland and Italy in a way in which, unlike this week in Poznan, both sides emerge winners.

For the best part of three decades, Brian has been painting murals and words in ancient Ogham script – the alphabet of lines used by the Irish before the Roman script arrived – in a small holiday bolthole in Todi, a village 90 miles north of Rome. The locals call it the Painted House and view it, in a country peppered with stunning monuments, as a national treasure. A tourist attraction, it stands as a unique symbol of the bonds between the global Irish and Italy as well as a tribute to the painting genius of Patrick Ireland.

And while the house remains a second home for Brian and Barbara, its future surely lies as an asset of the Irish state: a gift, as it were, to the Italian people and the art-lovers of Europe.

It’s not that the Irish people don’t owe Brian and Barbara. In 2009, the couple donated their lifetime collection of art, including many priceless pieces, to the Irish nation. Recently the Irish Government shuttered its Embassy at the Vatican, a move one suspects, informed by political as much as monetary considerations. For a hell of a lot less than it would cost to maintain a consular presence in Vatican City, the Irish Government could have a potent artistic presence in the heart of Italy in the form of the Painted House.

For, having gone against the grain to stand with the powerless in 1972, Brian O’Doherty is  also owed a debt of gratitude by nationalists, so perhaps the powers-that-be North of the Border could make this happen in 2013, the year Derry celebrates its City of Culture status.

THERE was much work, plenty of gabbing and even a little fun at the New York-New Belfast conference last week. Business leaders were clearly impressed by the address of Finance Minister Sammy Wilson, while I’m impressed by the fact that he travelled economy to the Big Apple summit. I’m on the red-eye a lot, but that’s the first time I’ve seen a minister in steerage with the rest of us. And in my book that means a lot.

FINALLY, the Belfast Media Group is over the moon to have won the Employer of the Year accolade at the Workforce annual celebration. It was a treat to see over 350 of tomorrow’s leaders gathered in the room for the presentations. I have no doubt that the future is secure in the hands of these talented youngsters – provided we can find them employment.

Gerry McGrath and the Workforce team are doing their bit to get the youngsters trained up, now it’s up to the rest of us to get them work.

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