Interview with Irish artist Paul MacCormaic

Interview with Irish artist Paul MacCormaic

July 2, 2022 0 By Conor Walton

A few weeks ago, I visited artist Paul MacCormaic’s exhibition, ICONS II at the Courthouse Art Centre in Tinahely and I talked to him about his work. Paul is a leading Irish representational painter whose portrait of Catherine Corless has recently been acquired by the National Gallery of Ireland. I hope you’ll take a little time to enjoy his paintings, our conversation, and maybe gain a little understanding and appreciation of this observant, funny and very talented painter!

The interview was captured on video and is available here:

CW
Paul, in these pictures you’re taking an essentially medieval aesthetic and updating it. You know, they very strongly have the look of the medieval icon. But you’re updating it and using the old idea, the memory of the old picture, to comment on the new reality.

PM
Yes, indeed. Now, though, I was raised as a Catholic and even though I’m a devout atheist, I’ve been, I know, I actually, as a child, I actually never really felt that there was a God or an angel looking after me. But then when I was there, 15 we start reading books on existentialism, and stuff like that, then I really be declared myself. Yeah, I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe there is such a God. But when you’re brought to Catholic churches, I used to be brought by my granny and all that you’d load a penny candle. And when you’re brought up on that sort of aesthetic, it never really leaves you, it’s like, heavy metals in your blood. You know, you never really get rid of the mercury on the lead if you’ve absorbed it as a child, you know?

‘The Republican’ by Paul MacCormaic

CW
Tell me about ‘The Republican’

PM
Okay, well, this one has a much longer subtitle; it’s called ‘Even as a child I always hated that story, The Princess and the Pea’. And as you can see, it’s a self-portrait and it’s putting my feelings about the kind of ideal political setup I’d like, which is a republic, and we do live in a Republic (although it’s far from perfect) but what it’s about is, as a child, I grew up reading those her Ladybird Books, I absolutely loved them! Do you remember yourself, Conor? There was an illustration on one side and the text on the other. I loved them all! And there was the ‘Three Little Pigs’ and ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’ is one of my all-time favorites, and I actually feel like the shoemaker sometimes, going into my studio in the morning just wishing some elves had finished off one of me paintings.

The Princess and the Pea

But anyway, this one, ‘The Princess and the Pea’, I absolutely hated it at the time. And I just think that even though my father’s politics was secret, and my mother’s politics was even more secret, I was viscerally, I just felt it instinctively that I did not like an entitled privilege class going around expecting to be treated extra-special. And in case you don’t know the story, what happens is this beautiful young woman appears to a sort of peasant couple, but she says she’s a princess, she’s after getting lost or whatever. And they don’t believe her. So they put her to a test, and they get her to sleep on a bed, on a dozen mattresses, and they put a pea at the very bottom of the mattresses, and she wakes up in the morning complaining that she didn’t sleep well, because she felt the pea through the mattress. And of course, the couple say, “Oh, she must be a princess”, you know.

So that really gets to me, and I didn’t know the 70th jubilee of the Queen of England was coming up. But I really feel it’s all the more poignant now that we have this privilege class by birth, who are basically descended from people who just took the land by force, and then all the cost that goes with it. So that’s me, the Republican. I’ve used the harp as the symbol of Irish republicanism. And it’s really the original sort of 1798 Rebellion type thing with Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmett and all those and the traditional color for the background of the Irish republican flag was actually blue. And somehow it’s become green. And we’re associated with this green and verdant land of ours, but the traditional color was blue and blue looks much better against the gold anyway. So I got myself a Barbie doll as a sort of symbol of the Princess these days. And again, we talked about social media, we still getting a lot of these princesses so that the new royalty, you know, the Kardashians and all that. So I got myself a doll. A sister of mine has a collection of them. That one was the best, with the pink, and then [I put] a little pea in there. And again, even the use of pink: if you find a bag on the road today, and it’s pink, you know a girl is after losing this, and I just wonder what happened to feminism, where, you know have girls almost exclusively associated with pink and wanting to be associated with pink, buying pink everything: pink runners, jumpers, everything like that. It’s almost as though some of the, the advances of feminism have been just cast aside.

CW
You know, the origin of the pink and the blue for boys, blue is the sky. And pink is a watered down version of red. So it stands for the earth and sky. It goes back to Uranus and Gaia.

PM
Well, that’s new to me, and thanks for the information, but I don’t know where it came from, you’re just after telling me! But my grandparents told me that in in the 30s and 40s it was the other way round: boys were dressed in pink and girls in blue!

CW
Okay, tell me about this picture.

‘The Half-Brothers’ by Paul MacCormaic

PM
Okay, this is a picture called ‘The Half-Brothers’. And the structure of it is based on a little diptych like the Wilton Diptych – it just folds over – or a family album that you can just open up, but at the basis of it is two people who are basically half brothers, okay. And the reason I’m mentioning that; a number of the paintings in the show are about what I’m finding as the new family structure. I mean, I’m 61 years of age, I grew up in a time when people got married, had children, stayed together, even if they hated each other’s guts, and raised a family. Now, fantastic, a girl can become pregnant outside of marriage, raise her kids, no fuss, keep her kids, no bother, but what’s happening in society is, you’re now getting people who may have had a relationship earlier on and have children by one man, and there’s always a possibility that they will have children by another man. And then you have half siblings, boys, brothers and sisters, and half brothers and half sisters. Now I worked in a lot of schools and there’s a lot of that. There’s a lot of families that have for one reason or another children by different fathers. And the interesting thing is when they be getting on well, there was one brother sister I remember in particular, when they were getting on well, they’d say “ah here’s me sister, Joan”, or whatever her name is, but when they were arguing, they’d always say “this is my half-sister Joan.” And the thing is they were putting in a bit of distance between themselves, but it’s had other effects on society as well. There is anecdotal evidence and no one story in particular, of families just getting separated so one boy is reared somewhere else and the half-sister is reared somewhere else. And they have actually got together: they met at a disco or they met online or something like that. And they didn’t really check into the background and they started dating. So you’ve got a half brother and sister dating. And in some cases the parents found out about it or somebody eventually alerted to them: “Hay! you’re half brother and sister, this’ll have to end.” So that’s the sort of a comment. A lot of the ones here have that commentary on the Modern Family and the shape it’s taken. And if you recall back to the Byzantine and the Renaissance, they were all about the ideal family as well. There was the, you know, the virgin mother, Joseph all together and a woman’s role as a mother, the woman would only be virtuous if she was a mother. There was no such thing as a career or anything like that.

CW
And these two are they actually brothers?

PM
No, they’re actually cousins. This is my nephew, Jamie McCormack, and this is my nephew… Janey Mack! I’m forgetting his name… Alessandro Persecchini, right. So they’re not as related as half brothers: cousins are half as closely related as half brothers. But they do have a slight, you know, the good difference in appearance, you know, he does have the Italian hooked nose, and he looks a lot paler, he has a lot more Irish in him. And so there was enough difference in them to show they’re from different fighters, in fact, from different mothers as well. But yeah, that’s why I chose them. And I just liked the small scale of it as well, the Wilton Diptych is quite small, and any little family album is quite small as well. So that’s what I was trying to mimic.

CW
What can you tell me about these two pictures?

‘The Poverty Line Setter’ by Paul MacCormaic

PM
Okay, these two pictures are actually associated conceptually with each other. In some ways this one is the epitome of the show, as regards the secular icons and the secular way in which we conduct our lives. It’s called ‘The Poverty Line Setter’. And in many ways, it’s an illustration or an allegory of – you’ll be familiar with allegories, Conor – it’s a concept that you can’t really, you never really see, it’s not something concrete, but we use it all the time. So we talk about whenever the government sets a budget, say, they’ll talk about the poverty line; they set the poverty line somewhere, for instance, they might just say, how much you have to earn before you can get a Susie grant, or how much you have to earn before you can go on the Dole or the cut the Dole, or the age at which you become entitled to the bus pass. All of these have enormous effects on people. And it is civil servants, with the government in power, but it is largely civil servants behind the scenes who set it. So a good friend of mine, John Murphy is a retired barrister. And he really looks the part doesn’t he? So he, I got him to pose for me in his suit and tie. And he’s just taking a marker, and he’s drawing, setting the poverty line somewhere, just arbitrarily. Above it, you don’t get it; below it, you do. That’s, that. So you can imagine that’s the budgets and all that. And so here we go on the other side is sort of; that’s the cause and this is the effect. When government sets budget there’s another expression called “they pick the low hanging fruit”, okay? When they have a budget, you go for cigarettes and booze, maybe five cent on petrol and diesel, right. And we’ve seen the effect of diesel and petrol recently. So that’s what it is. It is literally an illustration of the whole idea of the picker of low hanging fruit. But interestingly, I love the way, did you ever see the way they simplified trees and the motif: the trees are almost as a motif of a tree. So I did it; it’s not any particular species of tree, it’s just one of these trees that you see in a lot of medieval art. And again, nicely balanced: there’s the same distance between here, there and everywhere. And of course, myself as a self portrait picking, picking away.

‘The Picker of Low-Hanging Fruit’ by Paul MacCormaic

CW
Is it based on the figure of Adam or Eve?

PM
No, no, nothing like that. I can see the connection now that you mention it. But no, it’s simply and this is why for me, the titles are so important. It’s just the easy the easy target, you know: in the budgets they won’t go after the super rich, they will always go for the PAYE [Pay As You Earn] worker, you know, that’s the sort of thing.

CW
Tell me about the frames you make the frames yourself?

PM
I do, yeah, the frames are made from very simple and available material. These are actually bannister’s in a house that I had. I took the banisters out of a house. So I worked in a school where there was a woodwork class and I just got the woodwork teacher to run it along a bandsaw and split them. So I have loads in them. I was gonna say the 20 from the banisters, and I just split them and then I just put them at the at the right point because they do want them to look like classical columns with it with the capital and all that, and they do taper, classical columns do taper at a certain angle and they don’t look right if you have them straight and don’t look right if they taper too quickly, didn’t look right. So that’s where I got them and these are made from, you can go into any hardware shop and buy these simple moldings, an eight foot length is about four euros, and I use them, and then the back is MDF, it’s about 10 millimeter MDF. And I don’t paint directly on MDF, because it’s not acid free. And so what I do is, I glue either acid free paper to it or a canvas to it. A thin canvas, not the normal canvas I use [which] is too thick but you can get thin canvas, ideal for glueing to it and that sort of that’ll guarantee that the thing isn’t gonna fall apart in a couple 100 years time, you know?

CW
Yeah. But it has to stay dry. That’s the only thing with the MDF. Because you can’t have…

PM
Ah, it’s terrible stuff for absorbing the moisture. Yeah, I sold one to Louth County Council and I had the conservator onto me, and basically saying, “Oh, no, what’d you do? Did you seal the back of it? Did you seal the back of the MDF?” I said, no, I didn’t know. “Oh, you got to seal it. They’re terrible for absorbing moisture.”

CW
You better watch out for flooding. You know, when when Florence was flooded? A lot of the old, you know, the old panels survived, you know, they floated down the river, you know, like Cimabue’s crucifix and that sort of thing were left floating in the water. But they were oak panels. So they survived sort of, you know?

PM
Yeah, mine wouldn’t. But look, we’ll keep them upstairs.

‘The Loaves and Fishes Diptych’ by Paul MacCormaic


Okay, well, this one is simply called ‘The Loaves and Fishes Diptych’. But it has, like some of my other work, has a very long subtitle. And goes like this, it says, ‘just how does the story go, was it two loaves and fishes or five loaves and two fishes?’ And the reason I did it is because I’ve noticed that, again, as a teacher and a teacher of history of art, I’d be telling my students the subject matter of a particular painting. They don’t know the stories. And I think there’s a whole wealth of stories along with Aesop’s Fables, along with the Greek tragedies; they’re just great stories, and a lot of them have moral implications. And a lot of expressions like “the last straw”, like “that’s the last straw”, that comes from, is it Aesop’s Fables? I think it is, isn’t it? And so, you know, people will say, “Oh, that’s the last straw. I’m out of here!” But they don’t really know the roots of the story. So again, I just thought, I sometimes get confused: was it five loaves and two fishes? But now I know you got your starchy food and you’ve got your protein. So there would have been more starch at the time. It’s also a parable that I actually don’t understand. I mean, a lot of the parables in the Bible, especially in the New Testament, I do understand you know, sowing the seed and on rocky ground and stuff like that. But I actually don’t understand the feeding of the 5000. But that’s me: I’m into fishing. That’s from a different scene. It’s one of the earliest ones I did. It’s about 2008, this one is. So I was fishing, it’s actually from a pond in the Phoenix Park, believe it or not, two nice perch, and a couple of mackerel I was fishing there. So I just placed it, I don’t have a body like that, by the way, that is actually, believe it or not, that it’s Tom Jones’s body and my head plopped on top of it! Yeah.

CW
Why did you put that body in?

PM
Ah, I just … I was a bit embarrassed I wouldn’t put, I wouldn’t, it just looks so better if you have a nice triangular body, you know? If I had … I mean there I am with my gut sticking out and oh…

CW
Let’s talk about this one.

‘Before and After’ by Paul MacCormaic

PM
God, right. All right. Well, here I am, the way I look. today. I’m in a sorry state. This is called ‘Before and After’. And again, it’s a hinge diptych, it opens up. This time, just from a formal point of view, skin tones and gold do not go well together. So wherever I have a diptych or an icon that has a lot of flesh in it, I can’t use gold. So I was looking at some of the old icons, and some of them have patterns like this in the background, so I did this simplistic blue one. Anyway, this is me. And these two photographs are taken at the same moment. This is me letting it all hang out. And this is me, pretending I’ve lost loads of weight, just keep my belly in. And what it’s about is, is body image. Again, a lot of the icons are about the image of the Virgin the image of the idea of family and all that. And then the modern version of that is the enormous pressure on people to be in shape. And if you ever see that magazine, Men’s Health, just look at it, you don’t have the buy it, look at it on the shelves in the magazine shop, nine times out of 10 the cover story is how to get great abs in 15 minutes, or how to get great abs, you know, in six weeks on 200 calories a day, or whatever crazy stuff. So it’s all about that. And I thought if I’m going to point the finger at people who are out of shape and you know, the subject of body image, why not myself? So that’s it. That’s, where this one came from. Because as you can see, I was definitely it that wouldn’t look so good in the five loaves and two fishes, your belly hanging out over the over the top of your trousers, you know.

CW
So that leads us to this picture. Can you tell us about this one?

‘One Size Fits All’ by Paul MacCormaic

PM
OK, well, this one is in the same theme, body shape again, this time, it’s looking at the female side. So now women come under even more pressure than men to have this ideal shape and feel ashamed almost of being fat or whatever, or too thin even, as well. Then you had that terrible size zero thing, which thankfully, that trend has gone, where women were skeletal and that was considered, you know, the way to look, you know, people getting praised for oh, I can see ribs and that sort of thing. So anyway, this is this image is actually lifted from an ad for a slimming product and you see the woman and she’s trying to close her jeans. And there are types of jeans that are marketed as one size fits all because they’re kind of stretchy. And that’s nearly the kind of jeans I’m wearing these days! But the title is actually taken from a Homer Simpson quote where, you may remember, he deliberately went over 300 pounds to avail of certain work conditions and a disability allowance. But as he went to put on his trousers, he just goes – they wouldn’t fit – so he just goes, “One size fits all my ass!”

CW
This one is a Madonna and Child?

‘Madonna of the Smartphone’ by Paul MacCormaic

PM
No, this is ‘Madonna of the Smartphone’. Now I know it can be confusing because it could easily be called ‘Madonna and Child’ but basically, the very first icon I did not long after I graduated from UCD was called ‘Madonna of the Cordless Phone’ and it’s sold so I don’t have it anymore. It’s illustrated in the catalog. And at the time the cordless phone was the thing to have because mobile phones still hadn’t really taken off and there was no such thing as a smartphone. And in it you see a woman and she’s a very attractive woman with a child and the child has a wooden spoon and she’s trying to multitask and talk into a cordless phone. Now these days nobody has landlines so the cordless phone, they’ve all been scrapped, but I just updated it to the to the smartphone. So it’s the same thing, it’s the multitasking woman trying to do everything and huge expectations of women. Women are expected so much to get your figure back after having a baby and then a lot of the time it’s the woman has to deliver the baby to the childminder, women left doing most of the work, washing the nappies and stuff like that. So it’s it’s just a modern take on it and of the expected multitasking, modern mother, really

CW
Tell me about what you’ve used in the background of this one.

PM
I’ve used cigarette foil, and the reason I did that is; when I set out making them originally, I could have got gold foil real, gold leaf. It’s not that expensive. It’s a little bit tricky to paint on. But the main thing was I didn’t want my icons to look too reverent. I wanted them to be a big two fingers to the Church. So I wanted something common and like cigarette foil replacing them like that. So that’s why I picked cigarette foil and I did test them for durability with the sunlight. I put I put one in a book sticking out and I put it in my window for a year and there was no fading They could fade. I don’t know, they may have to be looked after. But they don’t fade rapidly, anyway, the way some colours do that are fugitive, so no, that’s what it is, it’s cigarette foil and…

CW
I did wonder why you didn’t use gold leaf I suppose I have an interesting story myself in that I went to Bulgaria back in ’99 I think it was, to see the total eclipse. And as part of the trip we traveled around and visited these Orthodox churches, and you know, you had the icons and you had the monasteries. And then we visited this place where they were making the icons. But I was a bit shocked because the monks were using sweet wrappers instead of gold!

PM
Wow!

CW
And I was aghast, you know, because I thought, Jesus Christ! you know, this sort of situation. But they were using chocolate wrappers…

PM
which I have used! Yeah! There’s Ferrero Roche in there somewhere.

CW
… and acrylic paint. And, and, and I sort of thought, God, this is dreadful! But at the same time, you sort of think, Okay, well, if these are basically now there for the tourist industry, they’re trinkets. So you could make a postmodern justification for exactly what they were doing. So really, I think that the question about, you know, authenticity today is, what is the best material for your purpose, being authentic to your aim? By not using the gold leaf, but you’ve obviously thought it through, using the acrylic gold on the frame…

PM
Yeah.

CW
… and stuff like that is the best way to go?

PM
Yeah, it seems to be. Now, I’m a bit lazy. When I do the acrylic ones by hand, I use two forms of gold. You can get loads of different types of gold: a sort of a reddish gold, pale gold, antique gold and Renaissance gold, but I got the ones that are contrasting so you get this sort of shimmering, sort of checkered flag look which a like, but I do it by hand. I don’t measure it. So I wanted to have that handmade look where it’s slightly off.

‘Mary Mashing Potatoes’ by Paul MacCormaic

Yeah, this is actually my late mother mashing potatoes as part of the sub-series, domestic goddesses. So just cooking potatoes, just a normal chore and potatoes so very Irish a thing. But the background is done in two types of acrylic, gold paint and I underpaint them with what’s known as Indian red or red oxide of iron. That’s something I learned when I was in UCD, that the glue that they use to glue the the original gold to the icons is called bole, and it’s an ox blood red and it actually sets off, you might think that the the best undercoat for gold will be yellow or yellow ochre or something like that. No really, a red really sets it off. And you can just about see here where it’s semi-transparent, little bits of the red show through. It really lifts the color of the gold far more than if you put it on yellow, it just saps saps the gold out of it. But it’s much quicker to do it that way. There’s a lot of work in cutting out cigarette foil, I can tell you if you’re going around cigarette foil with a scalpel and trying to get it in and out through there and in there and all that, it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot easier to do it that way.

CW
Okay, Paul, tell me about this one.

‘Cleanliness is Next to Godliness’ by Paul MacCormaic

PM
Okay, this is a triptych that was inspired by the visit to a museum in Crete that specializes in icons and had all sorts of variations on the icon, different shapes, different materials, but one really caught my eye. And it was this triptych that was done in this way. This one here folds in there like that. And this one folds in here like that. So it can be closed up and transported and taken away. So I really liked it. So I had a door at home that the very bottom part of it was rotten and had to be replaced. But at the upper panels, it was one of these Georgian style doors, it’s solid mahogany, and I kept all the panels. This is not on MDF, this is on mahogany, and I did the carpentry and then I decided the contents will be part of the sub series on domestic goddesses and is women’s role in cleaning. There’s a whole load of subtext to women doing the cleaning. A lot of the cleaning around the house falls to women. Men will get stuck in every now and again. But it’s really expected of a woman to be clean. You know? A man can kind of get away with a house that’s a bit untidy or a bachelors house may not look well. But if a woman lets the standard down seem like it’s almost she’s not virtuous in anyway. So I just, three of my friends, that’s two of my sisters and a friend of mine, I just got them to pose for the thing, I had to get them to wear a blue or black to just stand out with the gold. And a triptych, in my opinion, all the triptychs I’ve seen, including the greats, of Hieronymus Bosch and all that, they always have something formal binding them together. And it’s usually the horizon line. And in this case, I put the floors all at the same level. So different tiles, you know, wooden floor, tiles and tiles, and then just dusting, sweeping and mopping. So it’s just very simple. There’s not more to it than that, but I do love, I just love the fact that you can kind of play with it, you know, and put it away and opening it up and all that.

CW
Well tell me about ‘The Last Man in Ireland to Darn his Socks’?

‘The Last Man in Ireland to Darn his Socks’ by Paul MacCormaic

PM
Well, it’s really a self-portrait, but it’s about again, remember, the underlying thing is ethics. And one of the ethical things we’re supposed to be doing these days is recycling, reusing, repurposing everything. I say there’s, I think it’s the five R’s. Everybody goes, reduce, reuse, recycle, but I’ve a fourth one: repair. And so few people repair things these days! Where I live, if as if a kid’s bike gets a puncture, this is much likelihood that the bike will just be dumped on some waste ground and all that’s wrong with it is a puncture. Loads, kids can’t even fix a puncture! So when I was growing up, we had woolen socks and woolen socks are notorious for, for wearing out quickly, especially at the heel. So it was the thing you learned when I was a kid was how to darn. So even though socks these days are really cheap, if the heel goes on mine, I still darn them, I won’t chuck them out. And just people think it’s comical, but I won’t chuck them out. And I just think that, you know, we need to just keep repairing things.

CW
Yeah, it’s struck me that it’s quite a poignant image, you know. I suppose one of the things about the icon, like the traditional icon points to a time that’s passed essentially, that it’s historical, you know, that essentially you’re sort of locating yourself historically through making the icon of yourself.

PM
Yeah, well, it’s, it’s just something I still do, which is almost an anachronism is darning a 50 cent sock, you know, and just trying to get a few more weeks out of it, rather than chuck it in the bin.

CW
Can you tell me about ‘The Ambassadors’?

‘The Ambassadors’ by Paul McCormaic

PM
Oh, ‘The Ambassadors’ is the short name for the double, the twin portrait of Katie Taylor and Alanna Audley-Murphy. Now there’s quite a story to this. So what happened was many years ago, in 2001, I was working in a place on the south side of Dublin and I’m from the north side. So I was late for work and got stuck in traffic. I was on my way, and I was listening to the radio. And at the time, the Marion Finnucane Show was a nine o’clock show in the morning. So I was supposed to work at nine o’clock, so I was late. And who did she have on around half nine in the morning? It was Halloween 2001 which is the 31st of October. She had these two girls on, 15 years of age, and they were about to make history by being the first two girls to box under the auspices of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association that night in the National Stadium. So my ears piqued I’m interested in women and girls getting into traditional roles that were dominated by men. Now we all know the story now: Katie Taylor went on to be undisputed world champion. Just recently she fought a really, really tough battle and won. Alanna Audley-Murphy, her career, she went into the British Army where she became a physical training instructor and a boxing instructor there. So she had a bit of a career, so, but not nearly as starstruck as Katy Taylor’s. But so that’s what it was. When I heard that two of them were going to do that, and they’re so brave, I mean, I really admire boxers. Think about it: as a sport you’re going in, you’re on your own. It’s not a team sport. There’s only you, your opponent and they’re gonna box the head off each other. It’s an ancient sort of way of showing your fitness and your agility. It’s also training for self-defense tactics, and all that. So I’m not one of these people want to see an end to boxing. I’d like to see boxing remains safe. Basically, I thought of the idea of them in the form of the Holbein’s ‘Ambassadors’. So the two of them would be either side of a double desk, similar to the one used in ‘The Ambassadors’ with items pertaining to the two of them: the favorite things like, at the time there was a VHS recording of ‘Friends’ that belonged to Katie Taylor. I mixed them around so that you couldn’t tell whose was which because I wanted them just to be considered as sports people, but also there was a sort of political and even sectarian dimension to it. Alana Oddly Murphy is very much down the line, you know, Unionist, Loyalist, and all that The uniforms she wears is red, white and blue and she too played football, but it was for there’s a, I don’t really know much about sport, but there’s a Northern Ireland league that is principally supported by Protestants and all that. So they were very much, you know, different sides of the the political divide around here. So I mixed the paraphernalia from them around slightly, not to say “this is one’s and this is the other’s” and maybe make it a bit of a guessing game. But that was it. I just wanted to mark the occasion. Little did I know! I mean, Katie Taylor could have given up boxing six months later, but little did I know, I mean, she was only 15 then and she went on to be the superstar that she is.

CW
Tell me about your portrait of Catherine Corless?

Catherine Corless by Paul MacCormaic

PM
Well, that portrait of Catherine Corless is actually the pivotal piece of work in my career as an artist. And it’s really down to a lot of luck. The portrait itself was shortlisted for the Zurich Portrait Prize; it got me a lot of attention. And then the National Gallery of Ireland bought it. So that is one of the, you know, it’s the pinnacle of the achievement, as far as I can see, in my art career. So it was, it was great. It’s been really great for me. But it really is down to a lot of luck. What happened was, I set about doing this, it’s actually based on the women’s work that I was doing in the icons. But I set about doing a series called ‘The Vanquished Writing History’. Because as well as reading History of Art in UCD, I read History. And one of the things I realized again, it was a bit visceral, was that history is generally written by the victorious: they win a war, for instance, World War Two, they win a war, and they put the Nazis on trial at Nuremberg, and hang them all, etc. And I remember a man called McNamara who was the Defense Secretary of the time, and he was being interviewed – Defense Secretary of America – and he says, if we lost a war, it would have been us on trial for bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Dresden. So it’s the Victorious who write history. And as a poor working… I’m doing well now, but I came from a poor working class family of 10 in Finglas and I was really, really aware that, you know, the ordinary person’s story is not told. So I set about doing this story, this series called ‘The Vanquished Writing History’, and it was during COVID that I conceived it. And I wrote letters to lots of people who qualify, and basically to qualify for it, you have to either advocate on the part of somebody who was the victims of something, or you advocated yourself, for instance, you told your own story, it wasn’t believed. You know, originally, a lot of the survivors of abuse, the golden bridge, they weren’t believed at first, they were laughed off the stage. Ah yeah, yeah. You know, it’s come to be the accepted thing that enormous amounts of abuse took place in the state institutions. So I wrote to Catherine Corless, very simple address: I didn’t know her address, I just said “Catherine Corless, Tuam, County Galway” and it got to her. And lo and behold, she lifted the phone to me and says “I’ll do it.” So as soon as the restrictions were lifted, I shot across the country with my camera, and I photographed her in her kitchen. Before I did so we had a chat about the composition and what I wanted in it. She knows a bit about photography herself and composition. So when I got there, her kitchen was already laid out with all the stuff that you see in the portrait, the maps and birth certs and death certs and…

CW
Can you tell me just for a second what she did, just to explain who she is?

PM
Oh, yeah. Catherine Corless is, I hate to use the term, but what’s known as a local historian. Now that is a pejorative term for somebody who hasn’t studied history like me or gone on to be a historian and write books and all that. And maybe have a PhD in history, right. So a local historian. It’s generally thought that they have limited scope, they’re only interested in, say, here in Tinahely, local Wicklow history and that’s it. But she had done a course in Maynooth, about how to, you know, how to research documents, how to dig deep, where to look in archives, and all that. And she had an interest in a local Mother and Baby home that had since closed, and she suspected that all was not well in it, and the more she dug deep… I actually get quite emotional when I talk about this. The deeper she dug, the more she found out. 796 children died there, and were unaccounted for. There was no burial place for them. Now that death rate is something like 10 times the death rate of children outside in the outside world and nobody, nobody asked any questions. And then she dug deeper and deeper and deeper and we all know now that they were found in what was a septic tank, they were unceremoniously dumped in a big concrete septic tank. At first, the Sisters of Mercy denied it, that they even owned the septic tank, but Catherine Corless, excuse me again, dug deeper and deeper. And she found from the 1800s, she found the purchase the deeds of buying the septic tank, and it’s featured, the deeds are featured in my picture there, the folder down the table, they are kind of old and stained. And she found the deeds and she knew that she was able to prove that that was a septic tank belonging to them. And then it’s, you know, it’s now become a possibly the greatest single scandal of our state. Sorry again, just so many children went that way and the story is repeated elsewhere around the country, that just happens to be the biggest numbers. I mean, it’s just, it’s just a terrible thing that this state, the shame of this state, sorry. But that’s Catherine Corless, a fantastic woman. She’s got recognition for it now. And she she’s just an ordinary person. She wants to go back to life as it was beforehand, and they have got recognition and apologies for it. And they’ll be investigations into other Mother and Baby homes and she feels she can finally, you know, hang up her boots and go back to normal life as a farmer’s wife, you know?

CW
people tell me about the portrait of Cathy Henderson.

Cathy Henderson by Paul MacCormaic

PM
Okay, well, Cathy Henderson was my girlfriend for about three and a half years. I met her at a little conference about the artists in prison scheme. She had done a two week workshop there and so had I. So we met there and sort of hit it off immediately. But around November 2012, she had a cough, a thickly cough that she couldn’t get rid of. And she went, she wasn’t responding to antibiotics so her doctor sent her for a chest X ray. And they discovered that she had stage four lung cancer and she didn’t have long to live. So they said we can treat it but we can’t cure it. So she had a death sentence from then. So one of the things I like to do with my girlfriends is paint are portrait. Now, Cathy was a little reluctant to have it done. But I did it but she she immediately started chemotherapy and radiotherapy and all that. So she lost her hair. So she was actually wearing a wig when I did the photograph. So when I do a portrait, I like to give information about the sitter. I don’t like a head and shoulders or anything like that. To look at that portrait, you know she’s an artist. So I just had a full length portrait of her in our studio, which was in a Newtown Mount Kennedy and it was a typical cluttered studio, we can see it’s all sorts of things, reference books on the shelves. Oh, another thing about Cathy as she had lost, the lower half of her right leg, it was amputated just above the knee. And she wears a prosthetic leg and people often ask of me “what’s that? What’s funny?” The right leg looks a bit odd: it’s like as though I wasn’t able to paint it properly. But no, she actually wore a prosthetic and the jeans, you know, it’s only a shaft of titanium. So it doesn’t fully feel the jeans. So she had a specially constructed easel in our studio. The standard is that most artists have will have a few legs sticking out at the bottom, but they would get in the way of her. So she actually had one that was a bit like a periscope coming down from the ceiling. And the canvases were mounted on this periscope coming out from the ceiling in the middle of her studio. So I painted the picture and it was completed before she died. And it was submitted to the RHA and rejected which I was quite bitter about, I can tell you, because they knew her, you know, they knew she was dying. But it was eventually shown in the Royal Ulster Academy up in Belfast. And I was very happy with that because Kathy, although she was English, she had her formative years in Belfast, her father was a lecturer in Queen’s University. And she met her husband there as well. Her husband and I are friends and we sometimes talk about Cathy and reminisce, especially on her birthday and her death day. So that’s that.

CW
So Paul, can you tell me about your food fight paintings, and particularly, I suppose the first one, ‘How to Pronounce Quinoa’?

‘How to Pronounce Quinoa and other First-World Problems’ by Paul MacCormaic

PM
You’ve even mispronounced it! I was pronouncing it when when I was there, but it’s a Spanish word. It’s “keen-wah”, basically. But it’s okay. First, I’ll answer the first part of your question, which is I had an exhibition last year, which again, was the combination of years and years of research and work called ‘Food Fight’. And it’s all about food sustainability, and food security, and anxiety around food and all that. And it’s partly about the gentrification of the population of Ireland. I mean, I grew up in a poor working class family, 10 kids, you’d be boiled potatoes with Oxo gravy, beans, and maybe you’d be lucky to get a bit of meat. And now we are growing up with all these fancy foods from abroad, and we’re all expected to have a beef stew and wine now or maybe a Guinness beef stew, you know, not good enough just to boil it in Oxo anymore. So that’s what it’s all about. It’s all about anxieties and new foods and new trends and what’s in and what’s out. The whole coffee thing is all part of it as well. I mean, when I was a kid, coffee was a luxury. Everybody’s just drank tea. And then the coffee thing came aboard, it was all instant coffee and was even that dreadful, cheap stuff made from chicory’ cause coffee was pricey. It was always much more pricier than tea. And now we just have all this, you know, Sumatra, you know, organic coffee from Sumatra and all that; you can get all sorts of stuff. But basically, it’s around the anxiety of all these new foreign foods that we’re getting and how to pronounce them properly. Again, quinoa is grown inside of Central America, it’s a native of Mexico and around there. It’s a seed as opposed to a grain, it’s high in protein. And it’s s one of the cheap sources of protein for a lot of people who are poor, and who basically have a vegetarian diet, not by choice, by the way, not something a style choice, simply because they cannot afford meat. Meat is too expensive. If they have chickens, they keep them for eggs. If they have goats, they keep them for milk. And if they have cattle, they keep them for milk as well until they stop producing and then they kill them for meat. What happened was when quinoa became popular, because of the other the trendy diets that are high protein to try and lose weight, like the Atkins diet is a high protein, high fat diet, low carbs. With all these low carb diets, quinoa began to replace a number of grains in other foods such as rice and stuff like that which are starchy. But what happened was when quinoa became popular, the price went up and and it became scarce in places like Mexico. So people poor people, campacinos, indigenous people of Mexico and Central America who depended on quinoa for their protein all of a sudden found that they’d have to pay premium prices for or do without it. So there you go. Simple thing like quinoa becoming trendy has ripples that are much much further beyond Ireland.

CW
Okay, and ‘Croissants to Die For’?

‘Croissants to Die For’ by Paul MacCormaic

PM
AH, that’s one of my favorites! It’s the only one that sold in the show. But you know that expression “croissants to die for!” Go here: coffee to die for! A flat white to die for! They’ve got it! You’ve got to taste it! So I just love that expression, “to die for”, because, you know, when you think we were celebrating the centenary of the Free State and all that (and I was just in a Republican plot the other day). And what would people really die for these days? You know, people have done it, people have given their lives up for a cause, and taken a lot of lives for a cause, but really we live in it in a time when the only thing that you’d use the expression TO DIE FOR is a fancy food.

END

Conor Walton
You can find many more of Paul MacCormaic’s amazing paintings on his website and Paul is also on Instagram , Facebook and Twitter.

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