In the interim, most of their compatriots returned to Ireland and moved on elsewhere after the boom ended. The Cleary-Connollys, however, settled in Montmartre, where they live with their family. They have diversified into broader artistic expression and return regularly to Ireland to orchestrate artistic workshops in schools and public organisations.
At the moment, they’re in Bantry for a special project in which they join forces with another Irish artist of major significance, also voluntarily exiled in Paris — Irish-language poet Derry O’Sullivan.
O’Sullivan has been teaching in France for several decades, where he lives with his wife Jean. In 2012, he became the first living poet to receive the coveted Times Stephen Spender poetry award for an outstanding piece of poetry translated into English.
At their temporary base at the Maritime Hotel in Bantry, all four expatriate Irish appear to be infected with the childlike enthusiasm that their unique project has engendered.
“There was a call put out for the Gaelscoil in Bantry and we thought that it would be nice to do something with the Irish language,” explains Denis Connolly. “Immediately we thought of Derry.”
They had met at a fundraising event in Paris where some members of Ireland’s French diaspora had gathered. After a short email, Derry sent back a poem he had written on space travel entitled ‘Blip’.
“It was perfect and what was extraordinary was that you always expected an Irish poem from school Irish to be something pastoral or about a little black donkey.”
They all laugh at the reference to Pádraic Ó Conaire’s ‘M’asal Beag Dubh’ — a staple of the secondary school curriculum for most of their generation and beyond, and one which is referenced in ‘Blip’.
The notion of space travel and weightlessness gave them the visual key.
“In this case, we do a participative phase with the kids where they talk about the poem and then we come up with a way in which they can participate in it,” says Connolly.
“Derry read the poem in both English and Irish,” says Cleary. “We went through it and discussed every section of it with the children — interpreting data, space travel, the space race, weightlessness and the whole notion of what happens when you’re up in space.”
Working through the three phases of participation, photography and print, the result ends up being a very thoughtful interpretation of a piece of poetry, using the imagination and energy of the students to create their own piece of permanent art in the school: a series of images and words are transferred onto the huge glass surfaces of the new school building.
All were impressed by the level of enthusiasm from the children, especially as they participated while on mid-term break. It just goes to show: if education becomes fun, the thirst for knowledge and artistic expression has no bounds.