From Che Guevara to Thin Lizzy: Jim FitzPatrick's 10 greatest hits

From Che Guevara and Thin Lizzy, to Sinead O'Connor and an imprisoned Palestinian teenager, the veteran artist tells the story behind some of his best pieces through the decades


Richard Fitzpatrick

COVER IMAGE : Jim FitzPatrick at home in Dublin. Photograph Moya Nolan

Jim FitzPatrick, 77, is one of Ireland’s foremost artists. Art is in his veins. His grandfather, the Cork-born political cartoonist Thomas FitzPatrick, was one of the most famous illustrators of the Victorian Age, with his work prominent in Punch magazine, for example. 

Growing up on the northside of Dublin in the 1950s, FitzPatrick used to feast on British and American comics, including the work of Tarzan illustrator Burne Hogarth, cut out from copies of the Chicago Herald Tribune, which a relative in America used to post to him. 

At school, history was FitzPatrick’s favourite subject. It awakened in him a lifelong love and association with Irish myths and legends, later inspiring his landmark 1978 publication, The Book of Conquests, and several of his iconic Celtic images. 

Perhaps FitzPatrick is most famous, though, for his image of Che Guevara, which is based on Alberto Korda’s 1960 photograph. The bold, striking colours of FitzPatrick’s image – as well as the humour in his work – undoubtedly owe something to his years working in the advertising industry as a young man. 

In the 1970s, FitzPatrick went on to create legendary album covers for artists like Thin Lizzy; Phil Lynott was a lifelong friend. FitzPatrick, a self-confessed lefty, has continued to be known for his activism and interest in social issues. 

1. Che


Watch: Jim Fitzpatrick gives an account on meeting and creating the famous Che Guevara painting which was eventually made into an Irish stamp. Video: Moya Nolan


on a beautiful sunny morning in the summer of 1961, I was working in the Marine Hotel bar in Kilkee, Co Clare on my own. I was only a teenager. I travelled down to the seaside village to work in the hotel while on school holidays from Gormanstown College, Co Meath.

There was a guy in the bar called Sam, who locals would remember well because he was in there every day, a lovely man. I was chatting away to him. There were two other people in the bar, regulars who were talking to themselves. In walked these three, very interesting-looking men. All that was needed was Clint Eastwood-style saloon doors, because they came into the bar through swing doors at the side entrance to the hotel.

They had green-coloured, London Fog raincoats with epaulets – the thing on your shoulders that you put a backpack through. I recognised Che immediately. Who the other two guys were was a mystery. One guy was very curly-haired.

I said something like, 'What brings you here?'. He laughed. I said, 'I recognise you. I follow the Cuban revolution.'

I was a political animal when I was at school. The Cuban revolution was probably the most exciting thing that ever happened. For me, he was a world figure. We watched Pathé News and all the revolutionaries coming into Havana, sitting on top of tanks with their long hair and beards. People of my age idolised him.

We talked for a few minutes once he realised I knew who he was. His English was faltering, but he could make himself understood. The first thing he said was, 'You know I’m Irish. My father was Guevara Lynch [a descendant of Patrick Lynch, who left Galway for Argentina in the 18th century].' I was taken aback  because I didn’t know that at all.


Guevara asked me for a suggestion as to what to drink. Obviously in Cuba, they drink rum, and I suggested rum. But he said no, he wanted an Irish drink. I recommended a whiskey. I said, 'If you’re not used to it, I wouldn’t drink that quick. You need to put a mixer in it.' He asked me what mixer and I said, 'Ginger ale or water.' And he took a glass of water, a glass of Power’s whiskey and he sipped it. 

I asked him what he was doing. He was on a flight from Aeroflot – from Moscow to Havana or Havana to Moscow – that got fogbound in Shannon. They wanted to see the coast. They hired a driver, and it was one of those old Ford Prefects – it wasn’t a flash car. They parked it outside. He said he was proud of his Irish ancestors; that the Irish brought down the British Empire. He sat down in a corner, chatting with his friends. They just had minerals to drink. 

Just after his death in October 1967, I was invited to contribute work for an exhibition in London called Viva Che. I thought I’d do something special for it. I sat down and did what I thought would be the most dramatic Che ever published, a red-and-black one. I had done two other ones before – a black-and-white one and a psychedelic one – and other artists were doing really good versions of him, too, at the same time, but they’ve been forgotten. My one grabbed the public’s imagination. 

In my youthful arrogance and ignorance, I declared it was 'copyright free for the masses'. The Evening Press allowed me to publicise it and spread the word. It was a reaction to the fact that it already at that point had been stolen from me – it had been run off in England and spread from there. I decided if they want to make it, what in these days would be called 'viral', I’ll make it proliferate so I announced it was copyright free, stuck to it and never took a cent from any licensing deal.”

2. Morfís the Druid


ive always been interested in early Irish legends and invasions. Morfís the Druid is this strange figure, a bit like Merlin. He was a magical figure for me when I was younger. My painting of Morfís the Druid is slightly erotic.

It’s very personal, which is why – beyond publishing it in 1984 – it’s not on my website, but it’s certainly my best work. I hit a peak with it. I could do better with lots of other pieces of work, but not that one. It took so long to do it. I was putting myself mentally up against my hero, Harry Clarke, so you’ll see a lot of his influence in it.

3. Black Rose


Black Rose isn’t my greatest album cover - Johnny the Fox is - but it’s the most iconic album cover that I did for Thin Lizzy. Everybody knows that image. So many people have it tattooed on themselves – everybody from Axl Rose to Johnny Depp. It’s like the Che image. Diego Maradona went to the grave with the Che image tattooed on his arm. I’ve always been very proud of that. 

Philip [Lynott] decided he would do an album based on Dark Rosaleen, the poem by James Clarence Mangan. Dark Rosaleen became Black Rose. The allegory to it referred to Ireland being liberated from English rule. Philip said to me: 'I need an image and that goes with this song.' 

So my job was to paint a black rose, but it was missing something. I remember I was talking on the phone to Philip and it came to me. I remembered that image by Joseph Mary Plunkett, the 1916 leader, in his poem, 'I See His Blood Upon the Rose'. The minute I said that to Philip, he said: 'I fucking love the idea.' So that’s where the blood on the rose came from. The Irish race – the bleeding rose – was being bled for hundreds of years. 

My abiding memory of Philip is just hanging out in The Bailey and Neary’s pubs in Dublin, having a laugh. He had a great sense of humour. He was a very funny character, witty, charismatic, but it all went wrong in the end with the hard drugs.

4.  Faith and Courage


Sinead O'Connor is an Irish icon. Like all great creative geniuses, she was a deeply troubled one – no different from Philip Lynott or anybody else I’ve known – who goes through all this creative excess. It stops for a while. Everything changes. She tries to get back to it, and it’s a battle. She has fought so many battles, very publicly, we all know about. 

I knew Sinead. I’d photographed her for a single in America. Faith and Courage was a beautiful album, which she asked me to do the cover for. I was really honoured. I did the most beautiful portrait I’ve done for the back cover. I did a very emotive one for the front cover, these kind of angelic shapes – that I got from my own prayer book, my missal – giving enlightenment to her, with the head bowed. She has the face of an angel.

5. Frederick Douglass


This one was a recent commission by his family – to commemorate his bicentennial in 2018 – so it was a huge honour for me. Of course, I knew all about the man. He’s one of my heroes. I admired him. I knew his story. I knew he’d been to Ireland. When I got the commission, I was going, like, 'Wow.' It's being used for education – for the Black Lives Matter movement.

It was one of the most difficult ones I did. They gave me a book of photographs, hundreds of them. He was probably the most photographed man in America for his time. I was lucky because his descendants told me all kinds of stuff, too, about him like his skin colour and the colour of his eyes, a dark brown. He had this steely gaze he gave photographers, a defiant look, reminding people what he’d been through.

6. Tailltu Queen of the Fir Bolg


Tailltu is a painting of a flame-haired warrior queen. It's totally daft. It looks like she’s sucking a vacuum, with her hair standing up, but it's always worked for me as a painting. It’s kind of iconic. When the Yes campaign for marriage equality was going on, I did a version with a big 'Yes' across it. I politicised it, but really it's just a painting of a beautiful goddess. 

The face I used for it was my girlfriend at the time. It’s usually someone I know involved as the model for these epics. There’s always something personal about the works.

7.  Bríd the Healer 


idid an image for [feminist art project] Herstory called Bríd the Healer. I'm very proud of that because it ended up being projected on the GPO in Dublin for the last couple of years. It’s kind of inspirational because we're lobbying for Saint Bridget’s Day for women to become an official holiday. 

Bríd to me is a mystical creature. The first Bríds in our history were goddesses. When Christianity came, they became nuns and continued the tradition of Bríd, which was about healing, people who looked after the sick in pre-Christian times. What I tried to get across in the painting is the duality of the goddess and the Christian healer.

8.  Nuada the High King


for the cover of my book, The Book of Conquests, I was channelling an artist called Frank Frazetta, a wonderful fantasy artist. The image is of Nuada the High King standing on this rock with a sword raised up into the air and all these enemies surrounding him. I did it deliberately heroic. 

The Book of Conquests reminds me of Charlie Haughey. He was inspired to bring sea eagles back to Inishvickillaun by the book. He told me that personally. The story is narrated by a sea eagle who was re-incarnated from a man called Tuan. Sometimes you think you’re doing a work to just enjoy yourself when somebody spins off and sees something else in it. What happened was that I got a phone call one day in 1989.  'It's Charlie.'

Philip Lynott had a friend called Charlie, the security guy. I was thinking what’s he ringing me for?

But, no, he said: 'It’s Charlie Haughey.'

I was thinking it might be a wind-up, but I knew from the voice it was him. So I ended up in Kinsealy. 

He said, 'I’ve a commission for you. It’s for a mott.' ['Mott' is Dublin slang for a girl/woman]

I said, 'Oh, yeah, interesting', and just kept my mouth shut. It wasn’t my business. It turned out 'the mott' was Terry Keane, who I knew well, but on the painting he asked me to put two initials on the bottom: 'CJH' and 'TOD'. That put me off the scent. Everybody had a good idea that Terry Keane and himself were having an affair. 'TOD' was Terry O'Donnell, which was her maiden name, but I never made the connection until after she died. 

I went away and did the painting and returned with it. He gave me a verse to put on it [about a dispute involving the O’Donnell clan in the 15th century]: 'No hawk nor hound/No steer nor steed/O’Neill gets from me…'

I did a painting of a Celtic warrior with a scar across his face. It looks like he’s been battered to death. He doesn’t look like my regular grandiose Celtic warriors. He looks a bit under the weather. It was Charlie in disguise. If he recognized himself in it, he never mentioned it. He liked the painting immensely. My politics are to the far left, but I took a shine to him.

9.  Rory Gallagher


The origin of the Rory Gallagher image is a strange one. About 18 years ago, an American fanatic for all things Rory commissioned me – for a very small fee, I’ll be honest, but I was delighted to get a few bob for drawing Rory Gallagher. 

I went to great lengths to do justice to him because I wanted that feeling of his music and lyrics as well, which people don't really pay enough attention to; he was a very fine writer. I wanted to capture him the way I remembered him personally. To me, he was a God-like figure. It sounds crazy because he was such a humble man. Totally unassuming. 

I met him first with Philip Lynott at a recording studio in London. The two of them were just jamming together while they were waiting for Thin Lizzy to assemble for rehearsal. The three of us were talking away. I’d be well used to meeting people of immense stature in the music business, but I remember thinking: this is like sitting between Brendan Behan and Paddy Kavanagh. 

I met Rory a couple of times afterwards, such a lovely guy. He was so shy. He was very troubled. It felt like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. You’d nearly want to wrap your arm around him and say, 'Rory, you’re a genius'.

The last time I met him was so disturbing. It was in a pub after playing football in Herbert Park in Dublin. I went over to chat to him. He had piled on the pounds.

10. Ahed Tamimi


i follow events in Palestine. My daughter in particular follows their plight closely and is an activist. I was paying attention to Ahed Tamimi, a 16-year-old Palestinian girl who was imprisoned in 2018 [for confronting two Israeli soldiers in the driveway of her home in the Occupied West Bank]. 

I read a blog by an Israeli ex-soldier who wrote: 'Wait until the world forgets about this girl. Then we’ll come in the night for her.' His words left me with a chill. Somebody had to stand up for this young girl who was standing up for what she believed in. I was lucky – I had a very good photo by a Jewish photographer, who took the iconic photograph of her holding a Palestinian flag, that I turned into an image. 

When I uploaded it, it went viral. I sent a print to her in prison. I pushed it out on social media and elsewhere. I remember I had two guys from Russian TV come out to my house to interview me here in Dublin. The old Talmud saying, “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire' was what was going on in my head. The idea that these people could behave like that towards a young girl I found astonishing.

I think what made the image was a detail: I was playing a trick on a friend of mine, Liam Sharp – who did the artwork for Wonder Woman on DC Comics – by putting the Wonder Woman logo and comment 'There is a real Wonder Woman' in the corner. I gave copyright to DC Comics, of course. 

Also, Gal Gadot, the actress who plays Wonder Woman, did military service in the Israeli Army. So I was killing a couple of birds with the one stone. 

When she was released from prison, the people who admire my work in Palestine organised for a huge billboard to be printed with the image on it for her homecoming.


Jim Fitzpatrick at home in Dublin. Photograph: Moya Nolan

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