Karen Reihill the author of Daniel O’Neill, Romanticism and Friendships shares her insights on this Irish artist who formed part of an artistic group known as the “Belfast Boys” …
Tell us a little about Daniel O’Neill’s life and artistic journey.
Daniel O’Neill and his two older sisters grew up in the post-Treaty era following the island’s fractured partition in the 1920s. His family belonged to the minority working-class Catholic population in west Belfast under a Unionist-led government. Working as an electrician, O’Neill got his big break in 1945 when the influential Dublin dealer, Victor Waddington encouraged him to give up his job and become a full time painter. Waddington included O’Neill’s paintings in group shows with Jack B Yeats who at that time represented modern Ireland. The public responded to O’Neill’s depictions of women expressing tenderness and vulnerability which also fitted comfortably within the prevailing Church and State image of motherhood. In the late 1940s emerging young artists recall his bohemian appearance after a visit to Paris. In Belfast, O’Neill cut a dramatic figure walking through streets wearing a cloak and a wide fedora hat. When dealer and artist both moved to London in the late 1950s, Waddington continued to represent him by sending his works to Dublin and Montreal, Canada. Details of O’Neill’s life are elusive for the next twelve years and rumours suggest his life was troubled. In 1969, the eruption of violence on the streets of Belfast led him to return home. A year later, he held his first one-man show in his native city after a gap of 18 years. His life looked promising but following a series of traumatic events, he died on March 9, 1974 aged only 54.
Did Daniel have any muses or were his Romantic paintings an amalgamation of characters?
His wife, Eileen and partners, Sheilagh Deacon and Maureen Boyce were among his muses. His wife features in his 1940s romantic paintings while Sheilagh Deacon is represented in his polished 1950s harvest and beach scenes at Tyrella in Co Down. In the 1960s, interiors reflect his new urban life in London with Maureen Boyce.
What sparked your interest in Daniel O’Neill to begin with – I believe he was part of a group called the Belfast Boys you were researching?
My grandfather was from Northern Ireland so when my interest in Irish art increased in my teenage years, I studied painters from Ulster. Years later, I came across the Belfast Boys after two attempts at writing novels and was enthralled by their story of friendship. Descriptions of them varied; George Campbell was a cocky little man, Gerard Dillon was shy and humorous while Daniel O’Neill was a tall, handsome flamboyant figure with an air of aloofness. I felt their story had the makings of a novel, or even a film. Their struggles, personal lives and career success, as well as the differences in political culture and historical circumstances prevailing in the North, sparked my interest. I wrote two books to coincide with exhibitions focused on Gerard Dillon and George Campbell in 2013 and 2015, and my recently published book on Daniel O’Neill is the completion of the trilogy. As a result of these exhibitions, the public came forward with new archival material which helped me put the final pieces of Daniel O’Neill’s life together.
Do you have any favourite artworks, if so which and why?
There are too many to list here, but a few come to mind. Girl With Dove, and Girl With Doll represent O’Neill’s wife, Eileen and daughter, Patricia at a time when his family life was ruptured and he was anxious to keep his family together. I also adore the mysterious, Self on Western Shore and Girl From The North. From the 1960s, I would choose Girl on a Rug. From his later paintings, I think Twins stands out. The colours are magical. O’Neill has moved away from romantic and polished paintings to show a timeless imagined world of his sisters day dreaming in a cornfield under a hot sun. Throughout his life O’Neill re-visited the subject of his sisters. Sometimes they appear beautiful, dark and mysterious dressed in costumes alluding to an unattainable fantasy or are imbued with melancholy. O’Neill invites us into this peaceful countryside teetering on the surreal where our imagination can go to escape reality.
Need to Know: There are 370 illustrations in Reihill’s book, Daniel O’Neill, Romanticism and Friendships of which the majority are by the artist. Reihill curated a retrospective exhibition of this work which was to open at OPW’s Farmleigh gallery in May last year but due to COVID-19 restrictions the exhibition was cancelled then and again in November. It is hoped this exhibition will now go ahead sometime in 2022.
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