The West's Awake by Cormac MacConnell
Seeking the boy in the petticoat from 101-year-old Derek Clarke’s painting
Posted on Saturday, April 06, 2013 at 08:18 AM
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- A lovely tale of island life in the paradise of West Clare
- The Boarding Out orphan was a wonderful pick
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Oh lads and lassies, this is a long shot across many decades but if it succeeds I will be deliriously joyous for the entire rest of the year, and so will Caty and Debbie. And you too.
In fact everybody will celebrate, except maybe the Connemara boy with the spiky forelock who wore a petticoat all those long years ago when he was barefoot and beautiful in front of the family hearth in Carraroe, and his mother behind him was baking a loaf of brown bread in the iron pot.
The story is special in my view, and it took a modern twist in Dublin just before Easter when an art auction of special paintings was held in the Adams Auction Gallery.
One work was more special than all the others because, believe it or not, it was the work of the oldest living artist in the British Isles. His name is Derek Clarke, he is now a venerable 101 years old, lives in Scotland, last visited Dublin seven or eight years ago, but has a lifelong connection with the west of Ireland, which he first visited as long ago as 1937.
The war was rapidly approaching during those weeks the young Derek spent painting the loveliness of the Rossaveal coastal area overlooking Galway Bay. His artistic career was interrupted by the war's outbreak, and he spent those combat years in the ranks of the Durham Light Infantry, far from the Connemara peace.
Derek was seriously injured during the campaign in Tunisia, being shot in the spine. Having been granted a year's sick leave, he returned to Connemara to recuperate.
Derek rented a cottage in Carraroe and began painting landscapes and people again in a world where all the guns were far away.
Bear with me please because I'm coming towards the young lad in the petticoat in my own way and in my own time.
You see, Derek was painting away in his cottage one hot Sunday afternoon in 1946,using watercolors, when he ran out of water and went into the house next door to borrow some. And it was from that borrowing incident that his special painting now entitled “Connemara Family” emerged.
The auction literature recounted the artist's recollection of the occasion in his own words that I repeat with pleasure.
"The whole family stood around the fireplace, staring at me exactly as for the desired painting; the composition was already completely determined for the painting ‘Connemara Family.’
“Father was at home dandling the baby. Mother was baking the daily loaf of soda bread in the pot oven...the oldest girl...worked in a knitting factory, which employed a few girls learning to knit jerseys in imitation of the ingenious Aran Islands patterns. Her sister wears a dress sent by her cousin in America.
“The little boy in the foreground wears the petticoat. Those worn by the two sisters in the center had been improved by their mother, who added collars and dyed them blue.
"The elder of the two had the reddest hair that I have ever seen, yet as dark as the sooty fireplace behind her. The image of the Sacred Heart above the mantelpiece, which was a feature of every home, was the apex of the composition.
“Thanks to their cooperation I was able to complete this painting in circumstances which I doubt if any other artist has experienced."
And that was the painting which went for auction in Dublin in the spring of 2013 with a reserve of €10,000 to €15,000. And the star of the family for sure is the little lad in the petticoat.
I am indebted to Michael Parsons of The Irish Times for the priceless additional information about the family which he gleaned from David Britton of Adams auction staff.
David revealed that the family involved in the painting was a McDonagh family from Carraroe. That would be no help at all because this is the heart of the clanland of the McDonaghs, but dammit David also had the family Christian names to hand, and that's vital in my search for the lad in the petticoat.
David believed the most of the children, like so many of their generation then and now, emigrated to America when they grew up.
And that is where ye come into the story. The children were the family of Mairtin and Maggie McDonagh, the baby in the father's arms in the painting was Sarah. Her sisters were Brid, Barbara and Peggy.
The boys were Michael, Padraic and Mairtin Og, (young Mairtin), and my bet is that he is the lovely child in the petticoat. Wouldn’t I love to be proved right!
This was back in 1946 I know, and if alive he is now a man in his sixties, and I hope hale and hearty.
David Britton says that the present whereabouts of the siblings are unknown, but there is a strong tradition of emigration, especially to Boston and New York, in this region, and there is the live possibility that some of you over there can identify some of the names and hopefully the survivors around that Connemara hearth as the mother baked soda bread on the hearth and the Sacred Heart looked down on them all.
If anyone has any clues I would love to hear them, and I promise to buy a glass of the best brandy for the lad wearing the petticoat when he comes back to Ireland and Connemara for some event of The Gathering.
I note that Derek Clarke's painting of the family was exhibited in London shortly after being completed, but the English taste at the time did not include barefoot Irish peasants. The Bond Street galleries, says Michael Parsons, were then flooded with a new vogue for surrealism and abstraction. So Mairtin Og and his sisters did not become the talk of the town.
My greetings and best wishes to him especially and to the rest of the family. If you are acquainted with any of them please tell them I was asking for them warmly, and let all of us here know that the message got through in the end.
And it would be remiss of me not to compliment the 101-year old artist Derek Clarke on the quality of his work away back then on a hot Sunday afternoon in a different world. See more: Irish Roots