The artist’s latest exhibition narrates the story of her maternal grandfather, Walter Leonard Cole, TD and Alderman, who lived in Mountjoy Square, Dublin during the early 1920s …
The subject of your new exhibition is your maternal grandfather, Walter Leonard Cole, who was a very interesting character – could you tell us a little about him?
Walter Leonard Cole was a businessman and politician. He moved to Dublin in 1890 and established himself as a fruit wholesaler, and later an auctioneer, in the Dublin markets. Friendly with Arthur Griffith and William Rooney, he became a member of the Gaelic League in 1894 and helped found the Celtic Literary Society in 1899. He was honorary secretary of the Sinn Féin executive from 1905 to 1917. Considered to be particularly moderate in his views, he was elected an alderman of Dublin corporation in 1904 and re-elected in 1905 in Sinn Féin’s first electoral outing. Arrested for having his name written in Irish on his fruit carts c1905, he was interned for a month from mid-June 1916 in Frongoch south camp, though as a pacifist he had taken no part in the Easter rising. In Frongoch he was on the education sub-committee of the “general council of the Irish Republic”; he was then transferred to Reading jail until his release on Christmas Eve 1916.
In his house, at 3 Mountjoy Square, Dublin, he sheltered Sinn Féin leaders on the run and hosted sessions of the dáil after its suppression on 10 September 1919. In all he was arrested six times during the Anglo–Irish war, and the Black and Tans shot his brother Vincent, to whom he bore a close resemblance. He was elected under the coalition pact in June 1922 to represent Cavan in the dáil. In 1921, he took in a widow of the Easter Rising, Christina Connolly, neé Swanzy, with her three young children and her sister to live in his house, where they stayed for several years. He sheltered Jewish refugees from Germany on their way to the USA during the 1930s. A man of refined tastes, he was an amateur painter and a collector of antique furniture. He died on April 26, 1943 at his home, survived by his second wife Moira, my grandmother, and two daughters Dorothy and Pauline. Dorothy was my mother.
The exhibition is a “through the keyhole” glimpse of his home on Mountjoy Square. What are some of your recollections of this place?
My grandfather was 40 years older than my grandmother, he died when my mother was fourteen years old. I was never in the house in Mountjoy Square until recent times when it was changed utterly from when my mother’s family grew up there. I was always interested in the house as my mother spoke often of her recollections of Mountjoy Square. When I visited with my aunt Pauline who hadn’t crossed the threshold since they left (a couple of years after my grandfather died), she showed me her bedroom and the room which was always kept for Arthur Griffith. He was such a close friend and colleague of Walter that he would often stay overnight.
Through your artworks you have woven personal memories with different people, particularly women portrayed – who are some of the other protagonists?
My mother spoke of a woman who lived in the house for several years after my grandfather’s first wife died, she was American. My mother never mentioned this woman’s name and there was always an air of mystery about her. My grandmother never mentioned her, even though I was great friends with my grandmother, the topic never came up. There was a sense of intrigue about this woman and her sister. We knew that her husband had been shot and killed in the Easter Rising. After some research I came across her family and discovered who she was. Among the other characters included in the series of paintings are Christina’s sister Breege, my grandmother Moira, my aunt Pauline and my mother Dorothy.
Was it a deliberate move to make the artworks small and intimate in size?
It was unconscious but perhaps unconsciously deliberate. The scale seemed to fit. There are many more paintings than those that are hanging in the exhibition. I did a series of work on paper, also on quite an intimate scale. All of the paintings are included in the book which accompanies the exhibition.
Where and how do you work – you have your own gallery in West Cork too, so juggle many roles …
Yes, I work in my studio in Castletownbere, on the Beara Peninsula in West Cork. I have a beautiful old stone carriage house standing in the sea at the pier in Castletownbere. It is a long building with plenty of room for a studio and ample exhibition space for the gallery.
Need to Know: Sarah Walker’s exhibition “Walter Leonard Cole, 3 Mountjoy Square” is on at Oliver Sears Gallery, 33 Fitzwilliam Street Upper, Dublin 2; www.oliversearsgallery.com.
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