Geraldine O'Reilly

O'Reilly has researched the history of past traditional musicians from Westmeath. The finished artwork will be exhibited during the week of the 'All Ireland Fleadh Cheoil 2022', to be held in Mullingar, Co Westmeath. The project is funded by Creative Ireland. 

O'Reilly is presently showing a suite of  6 paintings in the exhibition  based on the  W.B.Yeats poem Lapis Lazuli, at the Hamilton Gallery, Sligo. May/June 2022. 

Article written by Angela Griffith, Trinity College about the project 'Unlegendary Heroes' - a box set of limited edition  of screen prints for the American  magazine New Hibernian Review which is published this month. The article is based on my illustration for the poem Heron and the Women.

The heron’s pre-historic pterosauresque form is suspended against the whiteness of the page. Skilfully rendered hand-painted marks capture the creature’s physicality, grace and power. However, while the artist has carefully observed its anatomical details, its genus undisputed, the bird is decontextualised from its natural surroundings, removed from familiar environments. In its isolation it takes on a symbolic power in the viewer’s imagination. All at once, it is beautiful and majestic in its form, while its decontextualised state is unexpected; its presence uncanny and disquieting.  The heron’s removal from nature allows the viewer to project their own meaning, emotions and memories onto its form. They are free to imagine, or remember, other environments and events. 

However, despite its lack of pictorial context, the heron is not alone on the page. Presented on a landscape orientated sheet, on the left of the image are the letterpressed words of the poet Mary O’Donnell. The printed poem entitled ‘Heron and the Women’ was the inspiration for the artist, Geraldine O’Reilly.  The artist and poet have known each other for years. Encouraged by another poet Dermot Healy, O’Reilly creates work that draws on what she knows. She admires the same trait in O’Donnell’s writing, in particular what she describes as the poet’s ability to get to the heart of the matter, and the use of direct, unambiguous language when doing so. Much of O’Donnell’s oeuvre focuses on the lives of women, past and present, restoring their voices, and recognising the personal agency of generations of women previously ignored, neglected, or exploited. 

Geraldine O’Reilly is one of Ireland’s most prolific and respected artists. She has been a visual arts member of Aosdána since 2004, a peer-elected association of Irish artists, writers and musicians. O’Donnell is a fellow member for literature.  

Over two years ago, O’Reilly invited O’Donnell to collaborate on an art project, were the poet’s words and the artist’s responding images would be presented side by side. This resulted in the production of a limited-edition solander-boxed set of ten single sheet screen prints with letterpressed poems entitled Unlegendary Heroes. Over the course of the project, O’Reilly partnered with other leading women in their field, the poetry was hand-set and handprinted by Mary Plunkett of Belgrave Press, and the presentation boxes were made by hand by book binder Éilís Murphy of Folded Leaf. The series was printed at Graphic Studio Dublin, the longest established print workshop in Ireland. The paper is Fabriano Rosapina Bianca, a mould-made 60% cotton paper, smooth to the touch.

Unlegendary Heroes comes from the title of a celebrated poem by O’Donnell which is also included in the collection. The poem is an elegy to the lives of rural Irish women, women that were often consigned homogenously to the roles of ‘wife of’, ‘daughter of’, or ‘servant of the parish’. While the poem comprises a list of fictious names and domestic achievements, the narratives are grounded in reality, representing women encountered and recollected by O’Donnell. The poem would resonate with older generations, mirroring female lives remembered by many, including O’Reilly.

The theme of women’s lives and experiences, contemporary and historical, continues throughout this new series. O’Reilly selected ten poems from three different collections by O’Donnell, Unlegendary Heroes (1998), Those April Fevers (2015),and the most recently published, Massacre of the Birds (2021). The artist produced a watercolour illustration in response to each, a medium notable for its delicacy and nuance. It is also a technique that showcases the artist’s consummate draughtswomanship. She transferred her images photographically to silk screen, a process that preserved O’Reilly’s mediative hand-made marks. As an artist, who is renowned for her work as a printmaker, she is fascinated by the visual qualities of the printed word. The poems were letterpressed onto the page firstly, and once the words were in place, the image was judiciously positioned. O’Reilly’s deliberated spacings between the text and image allows each element to claim its place. The surrounding negative areas both create boundaries between the crafted poetry and painted mark, whilst also providing connecting pathways across the page. The text is positioned on the left, the illustration on the right, with the heron’s beak pointing back to the text. The projection and recession of the text’s rhythmical lines echo the rounded and extended forms of the bird in flight. The interrelation of poetry and imagery is further compositionally resolved across the smooth paper through parity of scale.

‘Heron and the Women’ is written from the perspective of the animal, the poet describing how the creature’s peace is abruptly broken by the irrepressible energy of chattering women walking their dogs along the canal bank. The women are unaware of the bird until he raises himself, water falling from his previously submerged pointed toes. The heron only settles again

‘…when dogs / are restrained, /and the canal is vellum.’

A sense of disturbance and tension in the depicted bird is subtle. While its airborne extended wings and legs are elegantly agile, the tautness of its neck and the sharpness of it black eye reveal its anxiety. O’Donnell comparing the stilled canal water to vellum, reaches across time and deftly links both the contemporary writer and the illustrator to Ireland’s ancient literary and visual culture, namely the scribes and artists of illuminated insular manuscripts.      

The materiality of this Unlegendary Heroes collection lends itself to how readers interpret its content. O’Donnell’s precise and arduously constructed poetic language was physically impressed into the handmade paper, and is traceable by sight and by touch. The inked letters are an enduring testament to the writer’s creative journey and resolution.  In contrast, the image of the heron was silkscreened which is not a relief process, therefore, the evidence of its making is almost imperceptible. The image’s ink lies gently and uniformly on the surface of the paper. While the rhythmic embossed presence of the text is emphatic, the artist’s response is less physically forceful, a more suggestive presence. O’Reilly’s response is not, and cannot be, the poem in another form. The artist has subjectively selected an aspect to visualise. The image draws the reader’s attention, then directs them back to the poem. While the illustration offers the reader an interpretative visual lens, it also allows them (and encourages them) to develop their own reading and response. In turn, once read, the poem offers a richer interpretation of the image. Each element of designing, manufacturing and presentation of this creative partnership encourages multiple responses and is symbolic of the symbiotic journey towards meaning between the poet, artist, reader and art object.