Cork In 50 Artworks, No 25: Eileen Healy’s portrait of Cónal Creedon

The painting which now hangs in the Crawford Art Gallery began a sequence of events which led to the writer's plays being performed in New York and China 
Cork In 50 Artworks, No 25: Eileen Healy’s portrait of Cónal Creedon

Conal Creedon with the portrait that also features on the cover of his book, Second City Trilogy. Picture; Eddie O'Hare

Healy’s portrait of Cónal Creedon was acquired by the Crawford Art Gallery in 2007, and now forms part of its permanent collection.

Healy, a native of Youghal who has long been a stalwart of the art scene in Cork city, was asked to produce a painting for the gallery’s Portraits of Irish Writers series, and chose Creedon for the best of reasons. “I knew him, I admired his work and I loved his cool sense of style. Plus, he has a wicked sense of humour.”

 Healy always carries a sketchbook, and habitually does drawings of “people sleeping or awake, on trains, on their phones, in cafés or the park.” 

But the Crawford commission allowed her more time to spend on her portrait of Creedon. “It’s a great luxury to have someone sit for an hour or two and really observe them,” she says, “and then try to describe the tonal values, hues and architecture of their face in natural light, while at the same time dealing with the challenge of capturing their character and personality.” 

 The first time they arranged a sitting at Healy’s studio, Creedon was late, as he had been watching The High Chaparral on TV. 

“Everything in those westerns happens in the last five minutes,” he says. “I’d watched the rest of it, and couldn’t miss the ending.”

 Healy forgave him, so much so that she obliged when Creedon asked her to play down his double chin. “Call it vanity,” he says. “But I’m not like Cromwell, asking to be painted warts and all. Eileen worked on the painting on her knees on the floor, so that’s why the perspective is as it is, looking up.” 

Eileen Healy with her portrait of Cónal Creedon at the Crawford Art Gallery.
Eileen Healy with her portrait of Cónal Creedon at the Crawford Art Gallery.

Healy, for her part, remembers deciding to produce a full-figure study of Creedon because “one of my favourite things to draw are shoes, and I was determined to include Conal’s iconic Doc Martens.”

 Creedon declares himself perfectly satisfied with the result, which features him seated in a chair with a sheriff’s badge - in reference to The High Chaparral - affixed to the lapel of his coat. “People don’t realise how good a portraitist Eileen actually is,” he says. “She’s the best we have.”

 Healy completed a second portrait of Creedon shortly afterwards. “After doing the first one, I felt I needed to have another stab at it,” she says. “I asked Cónal to call in again, and bring something he had an attachment to that I could include in the painting. So he brought a blue flowery ceramic rabbit, and this time I did a profile with the rabbit on his lap. I don’t remember the significance of the rabbit.”

 Creedon laughs at mention of the ceramic rabbit. “I had that for years at the time,” he says, “and I still have it. I don’t have a particular thing for rabbits, but people saw that painting and assumed I did. So everyone started giving me presents of rabbit ornaments; I have a whole shelf full of them now.” 

The portrait Healy gave to the Crawford was the first one she painted. “I’m not sure why I chose that one over the other,” she says. “Possibly because I prefer the composition, and it’s a more direct view.”

 The same portrait ended up as the cover image of Creedon’s compendium of plays, the Second City Trilogy. As a consequence, Creedon was invited to launch the Trilogy at the Crawford Art Gallery, which led to an unlikely, if welcome, breakthrough in his career.

 “A guy named Michael Mellamphy from Ballincollig was at the book launch, and he sent on a copy to his son who was working as a barman in New York. And he in turn decided to put on one of the plays in a tiny venue over the bar where he worked, Ryan’s Daughter in Manhattan.

“When I say it was tiny, there were maybe forty seats. But the New York Times theatre critic happened to be there, and he gave it a great review. And the next thing I knew, the plays were being performed in China on the strength of that.”

 Creedon is delighted by the positive reaction there has been to Healy’s portrait. “We used to go into the Crawford as kids just to get chased out of it by the caretaker,” he says. “So it’s unbelievable now that so many people have sent me pictures of themselves standing in front of my portrait in the same institution.”

 Healy and Creedon have both announced new projects this month. Creedon’s latest collection of stories, Pancho and Lefty Ride Again, will be launched at Waterstone’s Cork on 12th October, as part of Munster Literature Centre’s International Short Story Festival, while Healy has an exhibition of new work at the Quay Co-op that runs until January 2022.

 She is also organising a studio sale of work she has produced at Backwater Studios over the past twenty years, which will, she confirms, include her portrait of Creedon clutching his ceramic rabbit.

“If I can find it!” she adds.

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