This much I know: Robert Ballagh

Growing up, I wanted to be an artist alright. A rock and roll artist.

Music was my real passion as a kid, ever since my father took me to see Rock Around the Clock in the Carlton cinema in 1956. That was an epiphany for me. I was blown away by this new music and determined to become part of it. I got a guitar, taught myself to play and got into the music business while I was still in school.

My mother was clear my parents would be happy to support me in any career, as long as it wasn’t art. The main subject in our house was sport. My mother played hockey for Ireland and my father played cricket and tennis for Ireland. I was madly keen on sport but I was tiny and short-sighted, not useful things in a rugby playing school like the one I attended, Blackrock College. I packed it in by 13.

I studied architecture for three years at Bolton Street before playing in showbands. Let’s just say my tutors were not unhappy to see me go. Ironically, DIT, as it is now called, recently gave me an honorary doctorate. I was an only child. I wasn’t particularly studious but I had a capacity for passing exams.

I grew up with a Presbyterian father and a Catholic mother, in Ballsbridge, which people now think is very grand. But when I lived there, all the big Edwardian houses were in flats. We grew up in one of those houses with a family on every floor. I was never short of company or friends. Doors were always open and there were no divisions on class or religious grounds. I mixed with working class, middle class, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish neighbours.

I believe in going with the flow. I never planned anything, but the most amazing things have happened to me.

I do not like country and western music, or country and Irish, which became popular around the time I was gigging. One night, after having played a set that didn’t contain a single song that I liked, I just decided to pack it in. I became a retired showband musician at 24. Shortly afterwards, I met the artist Michael Farrell. He was looking for an assistant to work on a big project and asked ‘can you draw a straight line?’ I was pretty confident I could. He said ‘right so, the pay is a fiver a week and all the drink you can take’. So I began working on abstract pictures.

I have no computer or mobile phone. I have a website, but somebody else looks after all that for me. I am very suspicious of this online world that is being created. I’m not comfortable with it. Besides, I am still learning the 500-year-old craft of oil painting and don’t have time to bother with new digital skills.

I often feel frustrated with politicians. There have been so many rumours about me running for political office, especially in the run up to the last presidential election, but that is all they are: rumours.

Irish people are interested in, concerned about, enjoy and appreciate art, but we are not well served by our politicians in this regard. Ireland came last in an EU survey on state funding for the arts. Our leadership is short sighted and mean spirited, not just when it comes to the arts, but in so many other areas — look at health, And homelessness. And the greatest crime of all — the fact so many bright young people had to leave during the last recession.

I have what is known as a Protestant work ethic. I like to have achieved something by the end of every day, otherwise I can become hopelessly frustrated. I live near my studio and get there by 9am. I knock off around 6pm, even on Saturday.

I have a rather old-fashioned way of thinking about how the arts, particularly the visual arts, are taught. ‘The idea’ is often considered to be the most important thing nowadays, but I believe that craft and skill are still very important.

Until recently, the only time I was inside a hospital was visiting my wife for the birth of our children. Then five years ago I was diagnosed with leukaemia. Luckily it was caught early on and responded well. So I know the importance of keeping a check on one’s health and fitness.

I’m an optimist but I recognise nobody can go on forever. In the words of Jim Morrison ‘no one here gets out alive’. So far life has taught me to be kind to people. * Robert Ballagh is an ambassador for Culture Night which takes place around the country on September 18. 


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