Back to where it all began

Sean Scully started his life in poverty in Inchicore. He returns to the Dublin suburb as one of the world’s most acclaimed living artists, writes Richard Purden.

Back to where it all began

Sean Scully started his life in poverty in Inchicore. He returns to the Dublin suburb as one of the world’s most acclaimed living artists, writes Richard Purden.

Inchicore is where internationally lauded artist Sean Scully began his life in lamentable poverty. This week he will return to the Dublin suburb in very different circumstances.

After being honoured with a plaque at his childhood home he will tell of his extraordinary life story for the area’s youth. “I’m a figurehead and the example of what’s possible,” he suggests.

“I’m coming to a very emotional place,” he says of his visit to Richmond Barracks while nodding to the transformative power of people and place “these can become places for children to excel tremendously”.

On the phone from his studio on a farm in Bavaria, Scully points to the Haus der Kunst museum in Munich as an example.

“It was designed by Troost (Nazi architect) and was the centre of Nazi power, things change and now a black artist is showing there. Hitler would be rolling in his grave, and a good thing.”

Irish-born with American citizenship, Scully moved to New York in 1975 and retains a base there. His chagrin for America’s gun culture for a time diverted him from a calling to “humanise abstraction” in his pulsating art.

A series of paintings entitled ‘Ghost’ was a response to gun violence. While he recently described himself as a “left-wing Donald Trump” to indicate his unsettling presence for elements of the art world, he makes clear his feelings about the American president who he suggests is “a fascist pig motherf**er”.

“If he was not in a tightly organised, resistant democracy he would be knocking down the rights of people on a daily basis. Fascism is like a dirty slug that hides in the corner, waiting to be encouraged for the right time and the right circumstances when people’s love and tolerance is waning.”

Perhaps a better comparison would have been to his close friend Bono, rather than Trump. Scully says “we have a lot fun together”.

The artist admits his Catholic childhood continues to have a profound impact.

“The Mass was very sensual, red, the colour of blood and the cream colour of the biscuits (Communion bread). It affected me, it gave me a kind of religious or spiritual emotional backdrop.

"It’s similar to Van Gough as a preacher; that’s where ‘The Potato Eaters’ came from, they were Dutch but it could have been Ireland. It came from a desire to put something spiritual and powerful into the world and my ambition is the same.

“I could never have been a pop artist, you need to be too detached. I’ve always been interested in profound emotion; something that touches and moves people.

"There’s a certain moral rigour in my work. Religion at its best is based on love. I think it’s easy to throw stones at religion, it has made a lot of mistakes because it’s carried out by humans.”

It’s this identification as a religious or transformative artist that has discouraged him from settling in England.

“One of the reasons it’s difficult is because it’s an iconoclastic, sceptical country that does not trust feeling. I am very fond of London and have lots of friends there but we’ve failed to go back, we can’t really go back there. In Germany people are obviously looking for redemption; they trust deep emotion in art.”

He once said Charles Saatchi, whose buying and selling of paintings derailed some careers but not Scully’s, ‘loves art like the wolf loves the lamb’.

That was a PR disaster that for him, it got quoted exponentially. He just wanted to kind of ruin people, he was wanton, it’s all about him, he doesn’t love culture. He’s a nobody now; a nothing.

Scully’s singular approach and abundant sense of self is often misunderstood. The act of will that is his life has been essential in making him one of the most dominant artists of his generation.

“It came in part from my grandmother who I absolutely worshipped, she worked eighteen hours a day, seven days a week. That determination and heroism impressed me greatly, also her humility, her drunkenness and singing in the pub. She was quite colourful and I’m not entirely dissimilar; my will is almost unbreakable.

“My self-regard is also often commented upon but my question would be; how would do you come from a couple of square metres on a field in Clonmel to where I am now without having an exaggerated sense of self-regard — c’mon, it would be impossible.”

He adds: “I’m extremely physical and have an extraordinary physiognomy, my health is tremendous and all that in combination has assisted me.”

Scully pauses momentarily to get his young son Oisín an ice cream, he suggests the difference in his ambition now and when he began painting is tempered with “certain wisdom”.

In terms of fame and notoriety, his gauge was Matisse.

“I wondered what people would expect a young artist to be as famous as; that’s not saying that you will be, but it’s saying that is your ambition. I was measuring myself against my family of great artists who I feel very connected to.

"Now it’s quite different because I have my son who is super important to me and my family. My body of work is already achieving part of what I would like it to do.”

As Scully suggests he came from a family of “gypsies and coalminers and that has given me what I call impeccable credentials in the lower end of society.”

Moving around Ireland as a child, growing in up London and emigrating to New York he considers his sense of Irishness. “It hurt me privately and helped me professionally.

It gave me an option that there could only be one outcome, there was an inevitability it would go the way it went.

The Irish in America are,generally speaking quite vulgar, the Irish in England are integrated and there’s a nice middle ground achieved.

"Most of the great people that have come out of Ireland; Yeats, Beckett and so forth tend to be Anglo-Irish and that is interesting because you have fire and ice in the same person.”

He adds: “In Ireland, there is a generosity of spirit that is almost inexplicable, the kindness of people is quite extraordinary.”

Scully laughs out loud when discussing the recent engrossing BBC documentary Unstoppable: Sean Scully And The Art Of Everything.

“It was hilarious because I’ll go anywhere. I was walking around Inchicore which is not a middle-class area and the cameraman and (filmmaker) Nick (Willing) said at one point he was so terrified he didn’t know whether to go backwards and escape or follow me.

"Either way, it was high risk but in the end he decided to follow me. There were some guys we met at the church, when I told them I was baptised there it was cool.

"I’m fearless, I’ll talk to anyone, it’s that very Irish thing, I don’t make a distinction.”

A Community Celebration of Sean Scully will take place in Inchicore, Dublin on Thursday. It will be hosted by the Cuala Foundation, For more information see

More in this section

In the Kitchen with

ieFoodLogo   Video Series

Join Darina Allen for Stir It Up Sunday and cook along with her as she makes her mother’s plum pudding recipe. She also makes Mrs Hanrahan’s sauce - a recipe that is so delicious that Darina says people ask for more plum pudding just so they can have more sauce!

Join Darina Allen as she makes her mother's plum pudding with Mrs Hanrahan's sauce.

Watch Here
Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

Visit our brain gym where you will find simple and cryptic crosswords, sudoku puzzles and much more. Updated at midnight every day. PS ... We would love to hear your feedback on the section right HERE.


The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up