Turning domestic banality into art in West Cork

Mary Sullivan’s art has been heavily influenced by her life in West Cork, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

Turning domestic banality into art in West Cork

Mary Sullivan’s art has been heavily influenced by her life in West Cork, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

THIRTY years after first having settled on Bere Island, the artist Mary Sullivan still jokingly refers to herself as a “blow-in”.

Born and raised in Bantry, Sullivan met and married a Bere Islander, Mike Sullivan. And although she may still count herself as a blow-in, she says she’s now islander through and through.

“It’s very important to my identity,” she says. “I love everything about the island; the people, the way of life, the water, the boats. You can’t describe it unless you come down and live here for a while.”

Sullivan says people sometimes have the wrong perception of island life. “It’s not all tough. At times you might get caught and not be able to get to the mainland but it’s very rare for us, because we have our own boat so we can get over any time we want.

“The real difference is there’s never a boom or a bust. Nothing changes, everyone stays the same and there’s a lovely stability to it. We’re very lucky because if anything were to go wrong in the morning, everybody is here for everybody else. It’s a really unique way to live.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Sullivan got her arts education on another island; she’s a graduate of DIT School of Creative Arts on Sherkin Island. The 52-year-old graduated with particularly impressive flying colours last year, picking up the RDS Taylor Art prize for her final year installation and video sculpture At Home, At War and being listed as “one to watch in 2019” by RTÉ.

“The beauty of winning the RDS was not for me, it was for the people of Sherkin and Bere,” Sullivan says. “The community on Sherkin do amazing things for the arts; they give up bits of their land for artists to exhibit their work, they’re involved in so many ways. So for me, recognition for Sherkin and for Bere Island is huge, and what was lovely was that everyone was so proud.”


Having spent decades raising her family — her eldest is 23, and newly graduated in Marine Engineering, while her youngest is 14 —and running businesses including a restaurant and a shrimp-fishing boat alongside her husband, Sullivan has found a breathing space, the “outlet” that her art has become.

Heavily influenced by US artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who wrote the 1969 Maintenance Art Manifesto following the birth of her first baby, and who made the domestic chores of her life as wife and mother — so-called “maintenance work” — into her art, Sullivan delves into domesticity in her own work, which combines elements of performance, video installation and photography as well as sculpture.

In ‘At Home, At War’, Sullivan drew parallels between life as a home-maker and the life of people in the military, drawing on Bere Island’s history as a British military base, strewn to this day with fortifications and towers. Sullivan performed and filmed a series of repetitive domestic chores in abandoned military sites; one sequence shows her methodically washing plates, before calmly dropping each one to smash on the floor.

“I got great satisfaction out of doing that,” she says with a chuckle.

Is there a certain very female anger, then, in this work? Sullivan is reticent: “Well, when you become a mother and you’re at home, you love what you’re doing, because you’re looking after your kids. But at the same time, you don’t have time for yourself or to develop the things you’re interested in.”

What does it feel like to have come into her own as an artist at this stage of her life?

“I’m very happy to be where I am. Even from the point of view of putting an exhibition together, I’ve developed all these practical skills through the various different things I’ve done. If I want to build something in the morning, I have skills from working from ourselves for so many years. It’s amazing how everything in life becomes relevant and how you’re always learning.”


Sullivan’s first solo show was commissioned for her native Bere Island; ‘Breathe’, on display as part of Beara Arts Festival, will take visitors into the atmospheric surroundings of the tunnels of Lonehort Battery, where Sullivan has continued to explore similar themes to those she worked with last year.

During a residency at the Uillinn West Cork Arts Centre at the start of this year, she began experimenting with Morse code; her new work revolves around various different dot-and-dash representations of the word “breathe,” a reminder, she says, both of the drowning feelings that relentless domestic drudgery can engender, and the rat race in general.

We forget to breathe. Not only in the home now, but also just generally in modern life; we’re all running around like headless chickens.

Openly ambitious, Sullivan says representing Ireland at the famed Venice Biennale art show is her current goal.

But in the meantime, after her Bere Island installation, she says, “I’ve been invited to a group show, the RHA Futures exhibition in Dublin, I’ve been selected for a gallery in London at the end of August, and there’s something else I can’t remember right now…”

She may have to take her own advice and remember to breathe.

- Breathe by Mary Sullivan will be open to the public at Lonehort Battery, Bere Island, from 11am to 4.30pm daily from August 4th to 11. bearaartsfestival.com

Eagle of Eyeries: An artist who soared

Photographer and painter John Eagle, who lived close to Eyeries for over 25 years, learned he had terminal cancer in October of 2018, and asked that an exhibition of his work be held at the following year’s Beara Arts Festival, although he knew he wouldn’t live to see it. He passed away in just two months later, in December 2018, at the age of 64.

Eagle grew up in Oxford, but his love affair with West Cork began in childhood, when his mother Dorothy, the editor of the Oxford Illustrated Dictionary, began taking her family on holidays on the Beara Peninsula.

Eagle bought a house in the area in 1991, and established himself as a freelance photographer, becoming the first person to photograph all the lighthouses of Ireland and publishing two books on the subject. He took up painting with the encouragement of friends including artists Tim Goulding and the late Maurice Henderson. He held solo shows and took part ingroup exhibitions including the annual Artists in Beara exhibitions in Castletownbere.

His oil paintings capture the uniquely magical aspects of the rugged Beara landscape, a land where, seen through the artists’ eyes, valleys are safe havens amidst mist-clad mountains and human elements like houses are dwarfed by their wild surroundings.

- Landscapes of a Life: The Paintings of John Eagle is at the Beara Coast Hotel, Castletownbere from Aug 3-11.

- Artist’s Talk: John Eagle: A Personal and Artistic Appreciation by Tim Goulding, Beara Coast Hotel, Saturday Aug 10, noon, free

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