The Yellow River is not a nostalgic memoir for Seán McSweeney and Gerard Smyth

Artist Seán McSweeney and poet Gerard Smyth: exhibition at Triskel. Picture: Barry Cronin

IT’S not nostalgia. The Yellow River, a collaborative project between poet Gerard Smyth and painter Seán McSweeney, delves deep into the pair’s memories of Co Meath, but Smyth, selecting words with the care to be expected of a poet, balks slightly at “nostalgic”.

“I would think of it more as a reclamation,” he says. “When Sean and I got into our stride, we knew it would be a project about memory. We went into our memory hoard to produce both the poems and the paintings, but we also did a lot of revisiting to the various sites from that memory hoard.”

The resulting exhibition’s titular Yellow River joins the Boyne at Navan, Co Meath, and is also a geographical feature which could be said to unite the personal histories of Smyth and McSweeney, both of whom spent time in their childhood in the Royal County. Smyth spent his summers in Knightstown with his grandmother, while McSweeney’s family lived in nearby Clongill until the death of his father. With 16 years separating them, their paths didn’t cross until decades later, when the connection was discovered.

The Yellow River combines the work of two heavyweights in their respective crafts; Smyth, the author of 14 poetry collections and a lifelong arts journalist, will need no introduction for lovers of Irish poetry; while the self-taught McSweeney is regarded as one of Ireland’s finest landscape painters.

Smyth began revisiting the sites of his childhood memories in earnest two years ago, when he was invited by Navan’s Solstice Arts Centre to produce poetry for a site-specific collaboration.

“I had opened an exhibition for Sean MacSweeney there, ten years ago, and I think the seeds for this project might have been sown then,” he says. “I was asked if I wanted to work with a composer or a photographer and I had no hesitation; I wanted to work with Seán. I had known him for quite some time and had been a huge admirer of his work.”

Returning to the scenes of his childhood led to observations of the societal changes that have affected rural Ireland in the decades since his memories were formed; works like The Salted Roads and Sunday in Cattle Country reflect with quiet melancholy on changes to the roads in what is now virtually Dublin’s commuter belt, and on the loss of Sunday’s ritualistic silence back when it was still ‘the day of rest’.

“As a young fella going there it seemed to be a very remote place, miles from anywhere. It’s not like that now. It’s seven miles beyond Navan, and Navan is an hour from Dublin.”

Both poets and painters think in images, Smyth says. McSweeney’s watercolour, ink, and tempera paintings, produced in response to the poems, are almost abstract in their innocent simplicity: a moon, a field in August, a river meandering through flat farmland.

“I was very moved by how he responded to particular elements of the work,” Smyth says.

“We had an ongoing dialogue that involved reaching into memory; Seán had left the area when he was quite young for his own personal and quite tragic reasons after the death of his father. I had completely forgotten about the landmark that became a central part of the work, the Yellow River, until he mentioned it to me one night, and that sparked another tranche of memory.”

Commissioned for Solstice Arts Centre, the exhibition of poems and paintings is now travelling to Cork’s Triskel Arts Centre. How does Smyth feel thatit will work with its move from Royal to Rebel?

“Whether that’s in Munster, Leinster or the west of Ireland, there are commonalities to it. Because it’s about memory, about finding those touchstones that at some stage we probably all reconnect with.”

The Yellow River is at Triskel Arts Centre, Cork, from tomorrow to Oct 28


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