Cork gallery restores Brian O'Doherty murals hidden for 20 years

For 20 years, Brian O’Doherty’s murals have been hidden away at Sirius in Cobh. A new project is now under way to restore them in time for the artist’s 90th birthday, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

In the Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh, Co Cork, a slow unveiling is taking place: a work of art hidden for over 20 years is being revealed.

Don Knox, restoration and conservator. Pic: Larry Cummins

Scaffolds are in place in the bright Gallery Room overlooking the harbour, and artist Brian O’Doherty’s highly coloured, Ogham-inspired abstract mural, One Here Now, is being restored to its former glory, with the aid of a family firm of specialist restorers, Knox and Knox.

There are challenges.

“I guess Brian O’Doherty wasn’t a painter-decorator,” restoration expert Don Knox says, smiling to himself. “Some of the walls hadn’t been primed properly, so there were a couple of places where the paint started to come away when we were taking the paper off.”

O’Doherty, formerly known as Patrick Ireland, is something of a polymath, as well-known for his novels, art criticism and central role in New York’s conceptual arts scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s as for his own visual art.

He was born in Ballaghadereen in Co Roscommon and educated in Dublin, before emigrating to the US in the 1950s. 

Now nearing his 90th birthday, O’Doherty is the author of the influential book Inside the White Cube: Ideologies of the Gallery Space, and famously changed his name to Patrick Ireland in protest over the Bloody Sunday killings; later, following the Good Friday agreement, he would stage a ceremonial burial for the name Patrick Ireland and revert back to his birth name.

Originally installed in 1995-1996, under the curatorship of one of Sirius Arts’ founders Peter Murray, O’Doherty’s nine-panel mural has been languishing under two layers of liner paper and countless layers of white paint for over two decades.

Murray says the mural was part of a programme that highlighted “connections and contexts relating to emigration” at the then-young arts centre, in a town notorious for its history as the departure point of the coffin ships of the Irish famine.

“The Sirius was never well-funded enough to commission such a piece,” says Murray. “Brian invested a good deal of his time, his life in this piece. The mural encapsulated a sense of longing and enabled him to anchor his artistic identity more firmly in Ireland.”

Now, to celebrate both Sirius’s 30-year anniversary and the artist’s 90th birthday, the Cobh venue’s most ambitious project to date will see O’Doherty’s mural restored and a selection of artists produce work in response to One Here Now.

The mural will be officially unveiled in front of project patron President Michael D Higgins and the artist himself, as well as his art historian wife Barbara Novak, on April 20.

But first, Don Knox and his associate, artist Nessa Ó Brolcháin, must finish their painstaking work. Knox and Knox, founded by Don and his son, Robin, have worked on some of Ireland’s most important buildings including Dublin Castle, Farmleigh House, and Muckross house. But they’re rarely worked on such a contemporary work of art.

When the mural was first covered up to free up the space for other artists, curator Murray went to some lengths to make sure the piece could remain intact under its layers of paper: a picture-rail was installed so that paintings could be hung instead of needing to be drilled into the walls, but in the intervening years, this plan didn’t always work out.

“The walls were riddled with rawl plugs and filled holes and all that,” Don Knox says. “First, we steamed off the paper, which was put in place with wallpaper paste.”

Now, the duo are carefully filling holes, re-plastering patches and re-applying coats of paint to the areas worst affected. Their job is made slightly simpler by the fact that the original mural project was supported by Colourtrend paints, and O’Doherty used domestic emulsion wall paint direct from the can.

While Ó Brolcháin and Knox do still have to blend and the new paints that Colourtrend have provided, they don’t have to go to the lengths that restorers working on centuries-old paintings go to in order to achieve authenticity.

Also, as O’Doherty’s mural is non-figurative, most of the restorers’ work is in ensuring that they achieve all the same straight lines that O’Doherty originally produced with the aid of string.

Brian O'Doherty (formerly Patrick Ireland) hopes to visit the Sirius soon. Pic: Julien Behal/PA

But remaining true to O’Doherty’s unique style and execution is still at the core of their work. “The background was rolled on; you can see the texture here,” Knox says, examining a panel in minute detail. 

“This red was all brushed on and it’s quite a thin paint, so you can see the brush-strokes. Picasso always did reds on a white background, because it emits a better glow, so the red is a big challenge to us here. We’re working on the green this morning, and I think we’ve nailed it.”

Knox sees this project as one of the highlights of his 33-year career in restoration . “I have been talking about retiring for a few years, but I couldn’t resist this project,” he says. 

“I really chased this one, and it’s very exciting to be involved. I was over in New York in October, so I even went to have tea with Brian and his wife, so he could give me the once over.”

In an adjoining room, curator Miranda Driscoll is sitting in a room almost overlooking the famous Titanic pier, the historic departure point for emigres and the site of a recent controversy: how best to honour and preserve the spot that became known as “Heartbreak Pier” to generations of Irish people variously fleeing famine, poverty or unemployment.

“As a conceptual artist, Brian was thinking about Cobh as a point of departure when he made the mural,” Driscoll says. “He himself emigrated from this pier, many years ago, on a boat.”

A mural is necessarily ephemeral: with its limited space, a gallery like Sirius can’t commit to the indefinite display of O’Doherty’s work, and so this second unveiling is also going to take place for one year. 

Driscoll says it makes O’Doherty’s theme and title all the more relevant. It’s one, here, now: a specific point in time.

“This mural was a very significant moment for Irish art,” she says. “I thought it would be wonderful to restore and reveal them again, but to do it in a very contemporary way and build a whole programme of events around it.”

One Here Now: The Brian O’Doherty / Patrick Ireland Project at Sirius Arts Centre, Cobh, opens on April 20.

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