Renewed interest in West Limerick folk artist Seán Ó Séadhacháin

Norma Prendiville


Norma Prendiville

HE was never taught to paint. But the West Limerick man who took up painting late in life and who drew on his early years growing up in Ashford for his inspiration has clocked up a singular achievement.

HE was never taught to paint. But the West Limerick man who took up painting late in life and who drew on his early years growing up in Ashford for his inspiration has clocked up a singular achievement.

His paintings of rural life in the early 1900s went on display at the National Museum of Country Life in Castlebar last month and the exhibition will continue until the end of the year.

Sadly, John Sheahan or Seán Ó Séadhacháin as he preferred to be known, was not there to enjoy it. He died in 1991 but his only surviving child, Maureen Crowley, is convinced he would have been delighted and honoured by the exhibition of his work, particularly given his enthusiasm for all aspects of Irish culture and heritage

“I can’t tell you how pleased I am,” Maureen said from her home in Leap, Co Cork where her father spent the last years of his life. “I am just thrilled. I’m absolutely charmed.”

The exhibition is entitled Return to the Land of Youth and contains 23 paintings of rural scenes in Seán’s very distinctive “naïve” style.

“The unique quality of the style is the capturing of iconic people and scenes from the Irish countryside,” explains Dr. Séamas Mac Philib who curated the exhibition.

Turf-cutting, saving the hay – the whole collection is a virtual folk art representation of the great ‘canons’ of Irish folklife, Dr Mac Philib, this gives them a certain dramatic, stage-set quality.

The paintings came into the possession of the National Museum of Ireland in a roundabout way. When her father died, Maureen Crowley explains, he left a big collection of paintings and of papers. Among his papers was the extensive botanical dictionary in Irish and English which Sean had created, but never published. Maureen also found her father’s memoirs – the first, begun in 1937, and called “Passing Shadows from the fertile plains of Limerick.”

This, more so than a later memoir, is a telling document: an account of a way of life now gone, the story of a young and idealistic man; a tale from a stormy but definitive period in Irish history.

“He was quite a good writer. I found the memoir quite enjoyable,” comments Dr Mac Philib, who will be giving a lecture on Seán Ó Séadhacháin at the end of this month in Castlebar.

Hoping to get a home for these papers, Seán’s daughter Maureen contacted Dr Patricia Lysaght and the National Folklore Archive. “She took everything,” Maureen recalls. And Dr Lysaght in turn contacted Dr Pat Wallace, also a Limerickman and the former director of the National Museum about the paintings.

It was at that stage that the importance of the paintings as an insight into Irish life post-famine was recognised and the National Museum eventually acquired them last year for the Museum of Country Life which is located in Turlough, just outside Castlebar, Co Mayo.

They give a special insight into many of the farm and country life practices that are on exhibition in the Museum, Dr Mac Philib points out. And he describes the collection of paintings as a good example of folk art.

“Folk art is accessible art by its very nature. Free from the traditions and conventions of the art class it can give great scope for personal and communal expression. Under various names such as ‘folk art’, ‘outsider art’ or even ‘naïve art’, it has gained a respected place in galleries of modern art,” he explains.

Seán Ó Séadhacháin, his daughter explains, had an eventful life. He was born at Cloncon, Ashford in the parish of Killeedy in January, 1901 and went working on the family farm when he left school in 1915. In 1921. as the War of Independence was entering its final, definitive stages, he joined the Irish Republican Army, defying his family to do so.

Fortunately for him, he never saw active service as the truce was signed just weeks later, and Seán took no part in the Civil War which followed the signing of the treaty. Instead, he devoted himself to becoming fluent in Irish, leaving home to work as a labourer in the Kerry Gaeltacht to do so before returning to Musgrave’s Boys School in Newcastle West as both pupil and Irish tutor. When he failed to secure a scholarship for teacher training, he took up pharmacy, working out his apprenticeship in Dore’s Apothecary and Woulfe’s Pharmacy in Abbeyfeale.

But in 1927, he emigrated to the US, settling in Washington DC where he secured his American pharmacy exams. But as a natural scholar, Seán went on to graduate as a BA from the George Washington University in 1934 and in 1938 was conferred with a PhD for his comparative study on Indo-European philology, in which the Irish language is rooted.

“He founded the Douglas Hyde Society in Washington and was so involved in anything Irish. He spoke Irish to us as children,” Maureen explains.

Seán married Mary Whooley from Leap in 1939 and there were two daughters from the marriage, Maureen and Peggy, now deceased. A niece, Mary Lee, was also an integral part of the family for many years.

After an unsuccessful attempt to move back to Ireland in 1950, Seán finally returned home in 1966, living first in Glenageary, and then in Cork city, where he continued to paint and to write.

“He was a great recorder,” his daughter recalls. But there were only two public exhibitions of her father’s art in his lifetime. His paintings, which are now displayed in a non-conserved state, at the Museum will appeal to anyone interested in Irish history and in folk or ‘outsider’ art, Dr Mac Philib explains.

“The paintings give a fine insight into art as a means of personal expression,” he explains. And he will give an illustrated talk on them and on Sean’s life on August 24.

The exhibition can be visited during museum opening hours from 10.00am to 5.00pm, Tuesdays to Saturdays and on Sunday afternoons, and will run until the end of December.