Belfast-born artist Paul Henry (1876-1958) lived and worked on Achill Island for a decade, from 1910-1919, and continued to produce Achill landscapes in later life. His works, particularly the landscapes of Achill Island and Connemara, came to typify a vision of Ireland that was prevalent in the early years of the new Irish Free State.
Paul Henry was one of four boys born to a Belfast Protestant preacher, the Rev Robert Mitchell Henry. Paul came from a long line of Protestant preachers, and his maternal grandfather - Rev Thomas Berry - actually preached the Gospel on Achill Island in the mid-1830s. It is likely that Rev Berry was part of the Protestant Mission established on Achill Island in the 1830s by the Rev Edward Nangle. Despite the family's religious tradition and the political upheavals that took place in Ireland during his lifetime, Paul Henry was noticeably unpolitical. His eldest brother, Robert Mitchell (Bob) Henry, was a distinguished classical scholar at Queen's University Belfast, St Andrews, and Trinity College, Dublin. Politically Bob was a nationalist and a supporter of the Home Rule movement. He was the author of 'The Evolution of Sinn Fein', published in 1920. Paul Henry himself did flirt with nationalism in his youth, attending marches on the Falls Road in Belfast to mark the centenary of the 1798 uprising. However, shortly after this he left Belfast for Paris.
Paris at the turn of the 20th century was the centre of the artistic avant-garde, home to artists such as Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec as well as some notable Irish writers, including W.B. Yeats and the unpuplished J.M. Synge in the late 1890s, Oscar Wilde and, between 1902 and 1903, James Joyce. Paul Henry, who had studied as an artist in Belfast, enrolled in a studio run by the painter James McNeill Whistler. According to S.B. Kennedy's excellent book on Paul Henry ('Paul Henry'), the young artist was impressed by Millet and his focus on ordinary people in the countryside going about their everyday lives. Later Paul Henry turned to the avant-garde artists such as Cezanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin for their vitality, colour and energy. As Kennedy describes it:
"...In the silence and solitude of Arles and the Midi, Cezanne and Van Gogh were feverishly painting ... They were painting with an inner vision. They took visible nature, and by an alchemy distilled by themselves, turned it into something entirely different. An inspired alchemy, an inspired transmutation. Cezanne and Van Gogh saw clearly because they had cast aside all the theories and prejudices of the Schools and were looking at nature as if for the first time, and above all seeing it with emotion."
(S.B. Kennedy, p24)
Paul Gauguin, famously, travelled to Tahiti to find a pre-modern Arcadia in which to refine his post-Impressionist art. Parallels have been drawn between this and Paul Henry's retreat to Achill Island, and also with the Irish writer J.M. Synge's journey to the Aran Islands. In fact it was in Paris that W.B. Yeats, the 'grand strategist' of the Celtic revival, uttered his famous instruction to J.M. Synge: "Give up Paris, you will never create anything by reading Racine [...]. Go to the Arran Islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression'. Where the writer J.M. Synge led in the late 1890s, the artist Paul Henry was to follow some ten years later, choosing another island off the west coast of Ireland, Achill, as his base to 'express a life that had never found expression'.