I didn’t go to Ireland looking for folk art. It was for a family reunion, although as you can probably tell from my surname, it was not my side of the family. My father-in-law planned the large gathering as a way for all of the next generation of cousins on both sides of the Atlantic to get to know one another. I had heard a lot of stories about my wife’s Irish cousins, and the unique features of the island’s landscape and culture, but had no great desire to see any of first hand.
The trip was a big surprise, and a pleasant one. We stayed in an old fashioned thatched roof Irish cottage (seen above) in the western part of the country, near Limerick, and spent several days traveling around. It was amazing, and the people were lovely. My only complaint was not being able to get a good cup of coffee in the morning. We saw castles, ruins, Druid stone circles, and the 700-foot Cliffs of Moher, where I dutifully hung my head o’er.
But it was one accidental incident that stays with me as a truly authentic Irish experience. It happened, of course, in a pub. The pub in the small village (Kilfinane, seen at the top) where we held the reunion. In the course of that raucous and happy event, which was accompanied by the requisite quantities of beer, I excused myself to make my way to the men’s room in the back of the building. Turning a corner, I came face to face with a large painting unlike anything I had seen in the country.
It was a folk painting of an Irish country scene, with two buildings (one with a thatched roof like our cottage), stone walls, and a horse and carriage. The folk style struck me immediately. It was, to me, an authentic expression of the rural culture that surrounded us in that small village. I noticed that it was titled “The Old Thatched Pub” and signed by one Patrick Casey.The date, 1976, was 23 years earlier.
Emboldened more by my fascination with folk art than the beer, I asked the bartender if he knew Casey, figuring he would be long gone by now. “Oh yes,” he said, “the dairy farmer. I can get him on the phone if you want.” Not knowing if he was joking, I said sure. Next thing I know, I’m talking to Pat Casey, who had never had anyone express interest in his paintings before. And he was on his way down to the pub to meet me.
He showed up in about ten minutes, and turned out to be a very nice man, younger than I expected, but just as grounded in the local culture as his painting suggested. He told me that he used to paint quite a bit, but the dairy farm had become too demanding and he had to put the canvas and brush aside in recent years. He was astonished that I saw any merit in his paintings. Even the bartender ribbed him: “Ah, Pat, so the Yank likes your pictures.” As he left, Pat gave me his address and said that if he ever found the time again, he would paint me a picture and send it to the States.
We kept up a modest correspondence for awhile after my return to the U.S., but, alas, Pat never got to go back to his art. Farm work waits for no one. The encounter has stayed with me, however, as a constant reminder that folk art is often rooted in working lives, and often set aside for the work to be done. When one does encounter that rare piece of local art, and has the privilege of actually meeting its creator, one can truly claim to have experienced a place and its people.