We have seen them before, men of a bygone era who have populated Liam O Neill’s imagination for years; the man in the bog, resolute with the sleán; the swaying scythe of the man full of rhythm, swinging sweet and low in the meadow; the ploughman; the thatcher; archetypal characters, constant as if they inhabited myth or legend. This is what artists do, they become chroniclers, chroniclers of a previous generation. Brendan Kennelly did it; My people / Plucked the sea / Worked the fields / Created their own angels. Seamus Heaney did it; My grandfather cut more turf in a day / Than any other man on Toner’s bog. And this braggadocio implicit in Heaney’s description of his grandfather, has always been present in O Neill’s portrayals of his predecessors. It was plain to see, you knew by the cut of them; his bog man always had the sharpest sleán, the man with the scythe could trim a meadow to leave a golden field of stubble two exact inches high. Those men were links in a long chain of tradition, a tradition where craft and tenacity were the twin commandments.
However, in this exhibition, there is a very discernable change. The dramatis personae are still the same. They are still ploughing the land, cutting turf, saving hay. But they and their timeless labours now have a different function; they and their activities are no longer the main focus, they are merely players in Liam’s new theme ... celebration. Here, in canvas after canvas, it is as if he had shuffled free of the chrysalis and sprouted the wings of a butterfly. It is as if he has suddenly, after so many years, discovered a new response to colour and these pictures proclaim his exultation. Viewing them, a verse from Yeats comes to mind; Grant me an old man’s frenzy / Myself I must remake / Till I am Tymon and Lear / Or that Willaim Blake / Who beat upon the wall / Till Truth obeyed his call.
Look at the pictures, look at those three men at the face of the bog, or the three shimmering men marching into the dawn, or the dancing man with the prancing horse and, to paraphrase Yeats, see how, at this juncture of Liam’s oeuvre, colour has without a shadow of doubt, obeyed his call.
Text by Cyril Kelly