Irish artist Paul Henry (1876-1958) spent almost a decade on Achill Island between 1910 and 1919. Paul Henry and his wife Grace Henry painted Achill landscapes and portraits of Achill people, and Paul Henry's paintings came to typify an image of the west of Ireland in the early years of the Irish Free State.

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Paul Henry & Achill Island (continued)

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In 1919 Paul and Grace Henry left Achill for what turned out to be the last time. Their marriage had become increasingly strained, with Grace apparently prefering the urban lifestyle of London and Dublin to life on Achill Island. They moved to Dublin where the continuing political emancipation (the Civil War of 1922-23 was still to come) was accompanied by a flowering of 'Irish' art and culture. In the political domain the campaign for a separate identity for Ireland was well underway, and the need now was to define and articulate a separate cultural identity for Ireland. This cultural flowering, which built on the achievements of the Literary Revival that started in the 1880s, was led by the likes of Sean O'Casey, Liam O'Flaherty, Frank O'Connor and Sean O'Faolain. In later years the project would be joined by Ernie O'Malley, the Castlebar-born rebel leader, acclaimed writer and champion of Irish arts.

It was no coincidence that Paul (and Grace) Henry's association with Achill Island and the west of Ireland propelled him to the heart of the drive to identify an authentic 'Irish' art and culture. Towards the end of the 19th Century, in tandem with the Literary Revival, Irish nationalists came to identify the west of Ireland as the country's uncorrupted heart, the repository of its ancient language, culture and spiritual values. This identification of the west as home of the true Irish people was partly derived from history, from Oliver Cromwell's 17th Century policy of 'to hell or Connaught'. Cromwell's clearances of the native Irish from their land and, for the survivors, transportation to the country's poorest province, Connaught, saw a massive displacement of the native Irish into the west. One third of the native Irish population was either killed or transported to Connaught by Cromwell's forces between 1641 and 1652 (from Peter Berresford Ellis, 'Hell or Connaught!', pub. 1988, p9).

Paul Henry's lifelong friend James Winder Good wrote an (unpublished) article titled 'Two Irish Artists' in the early 1920s which explored the issue of whether there could be said to exist a distinct Irish school of painting. The article was about Paul and Grace Henry, and in it Good said it was significant that the Henry's, 'like all the reformers who have established a new intellectual and artistic tradition in Ireland', should have found their inspiration in the west of Ireland. 'Connaught', he wrote, 'the despair of the economists and the politicians, has inside the last generation proved the strongest formative influence in the making of modern Ireland ... there flows the breath of a new life which ... Ireland rightly regards as her most precious heritage'. (quoted in S.B. Kennedy, pp80-81)

When the Henrys arrived in Dublin they found the existing art societies such as the Royal Hibernian Academy to be particularly conservative. With the benefit of his experience of the Fitzroy Street Group in London, Paul Henry and his wife founded a new group, the Society of Dublin Painters, and rented studios and exhibition space for the group. Among early members of the Society were Clare Marsh, Jack B. Yeats, Mary Swanzy, Harry Clarke, Mainie Jellett and Charles Lamb. Many of these artists, particularly Jack B. Yeats, would later be collected and championed by Burrishoole-based Ernie O'Malley and his rich American wife, Helen Hooker O'Malley. It is interesting to note too, in a Mayo context, that Harry Clarke created the famous stained glass windows at St. Patrick's Church in Newport as well as the windows featured in the church near Cong in which John Wayne's character married Maureen O'Hara's in John Ford's classic Irish film, 'The Quiet Man'.

The reception given to the first exhibition of the Society of Dublin Painters, in 1920, was enthusiastic and reflected both the optimism of the age and the emphasis on the west as the spiritual heart of Ireland. The newspaper The Freeman's Journal said this of Paul Henry's painting 'A Western Village':

"... There are not a few artists who would depair of redeeming from sordidness a string of unkempt cabins, with turfstacks heaped against the white-washed gables, and rain-water standing in pools on the broken roadway. But in Mr Henry's hands this becomes not merely dignified but epical, a symbol of the spirit of the West'.
(quoted in S.B. Kennedy, p80)

This identification of Paul Henry's paintings of a rural Arcadia as a symbol of the spirit of the West (and therefore of the true, authentic Ireland) achieved an international recognition in 1925. The London, Midland and Scottish (LMS) Railway Company published a poster featuring a reproduction of Paul Henry's painting 'In Connemara'. The poster was distributed widely to tourist bodies in Europe and the U.S. and proved to be hugely popular with the public (LMS sold almost 1,000 copies of the poster to members of the public between 1925 and 1926, and commissioned two further posters using Paul Henry reproductions). As a result of the LMS poster the Connemara picture became something of an icon. The Irish Times wrote in 1925: 'If thousands of people in Great Britain and America have been led this summer to think over the claims of Ireland as holiday ground, it is largely through the lure of Mr Paul Henry's glowing landscape of a Connemara scene'. (quoted in S.B. Kennedy, p95)

In the summer of 1939 Paul Henry accompanied his friend Sean O'Faolain on a number of journeys around Ireland as O'Faolain gathered information for a forthcoming travel book, 'An Irish Journey' (pub. 1940). Paul Henry provided the illustrations for the book, just as he had done for his old friend Robert Lynd's 1912 book 'Rambles in Ireland'. Sean O'Faolain would later establish the Irish cultural journal The Bell, for which Burrishoole-based writer Ernie O'Malley would edit the books section.

It is perhaps somewhat ironic that Paul Henry, who was so distressed by the impact of the tourism industry on the village of Dugort when he arrived on Achill in 1910 that he immediately moved to a more remote part of the island, should have contributed so much to tourism in Connemara and the west of Ireland. Paul Henry's paintings continue to be enjoyed to this day, and for many people still reflect a vision of Ireland that they like to see as 'true' and authentic. Paul Henry died in 1958.

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The Roadside Cottages by Paul Henry
Roadside Cottages
by Paul Henry

Paul Henry gallery
Click the title above for a gallery of Paul Henry paintings

Further Reading

Buy books on Achill Island from Amazon

Paul Henry
by S.B. Kennedy

Robert Henri & His Circle
by W. Homer

My People: The Portraits of Robert Henri
By Valerie Ann Leeds

Robert Henri: His Life and Art
by Bennard Perlman