The art and craft of living by the pencil and the pen

Brian Lalor has survived by pursuing his interests as a printmaker, illustrator and author, says Colette Sheridan

West Cork-based writer and artist, Brian Lalor, will be honoured at the Cork World Book Fest, which runs from April 19-23.

Lalor will read from his memoir, Rosenheim & Windermere, and will be in conversation with writer, Alannah Hopkin. A graduate of the Crawford College of Art and Design, Lalor is a polymath. After a brief career in archaeology in London, he devoted himself to writing and art. His work includes an illustrated edition of Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and The Irish Round Tower. He was general editor of the award-winning The Encyclopaedia of Ireland and won the International Swift Society Award for Juvenalian Satire in 2004. His Ink-Stained Hands is a study of fine art printmaking in Ireland.

Lalor, born in Cork in 1941, was influenced by his maternal grandfather, Michael MacNamara, despite never knowing him. “My grandfather, who died before I was born, was one of the earlier members of the arts-and-crafts movement in Ireland. He was a sculptor and teacher at the Crawford College of Art. He taught the sculptors, Joseph Higgins and Séamus Murphy. There was a lot of talk at home about these two men because they were leading lights in the arts world.”

MacNamara studied art in Paris and was influenced by Rodin. “You can see how that influence was transferred to Séamus Murphy and Joseph Higgins,” he says. Lalor bemoans the “absolute tragedy” that his grandfather’s papers were burned his late aunt, Maureen MacNamara. This is recounted in Lalor’s memoir. “My grandfather was an inspirational figure who did public commissions. Burning his papers was the annihilation of his life. I’ve written a couple of research articles in the Irish Arts Review on Michael MacNamara. It has been a long struggle to piece together information from public records. My aunt was an angry person. She was a feminist before her time. In her family, the eldest child was a boy and I suspect she felt she wasn’t given her due rewards and resented this. The strange thing is that she taught English literature for most of her life and was herself quite an inspirational teacher.”

Lalor’s memoir is written from the perspective of ages four to nine. It’s a recollection of the two homes in which he spent his formative years: Rosenheim, on Magazine Road, was his bedridden grandmother’s home; nearby Windermere, on Glasheen Road, was his family home.

Lalor had polio, which kept him out of school for a couple of years. “I was in my grandmother’s house a lot of the time. There was some kind of tacit idea that I was representing my family, supervising my grandmother. But, of course, that was ridiculous given my age. Although it was a very bookish house, I was slow to read,” he says.

Lalor’s ambition to be an archaeologist worried his parents. “In 1950s Ireland, archaeology was one of the poor relations. There were very few jobs in it. So my parents were quite pleased when I decided to go to the Crawford. It was familiar to them. As a child, my mother had spent time at the college, where her father worked. My father, while working as a young officer in Collins’s Barracks, studied at the Crawford.”

Of his work, Lalor says: “I’ve had more careers than is decent. My life has been like that of a 19th century dilettante. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve done fascinating work in a lot of fields and have had a degree of success. Whatever I happen to be doing, at any given moment, is my main career. I settled into a routine of art and books.

“I draw in sketch pads and the art form I pursue is print-making, doing woodcuts and etchings. I feel I’ve led a privileged life, because I have always done what I wanted to do. But I’ve never made any money, just enough to get by. My wife and I have four children, all of whom went to college. So that’s a success of sorts.”

Lalor says his work has had mixed success. “I’ve had exhibitions that were complete duds. I’ve had books that sold and books that haven’t sold. It’s a life I’d recommend if you want to enjoy what you’re doing. There is the freedom to do that in the arts. But there is a price to pay and that is very small earnings.” Lalor is working on a second memoir and an illustrated edition of Coleridge’s The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.


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