An gorta mór

Michael Rice Small

Below is a copy of a post that a dear former colleague, Kieran O’Leary wrote in his blog “KAYO KID” back in December of 2007.  I paint under the pseudonym “Billy Splatts!” (long story).  I had painted a diptych to honor the An gorta mór and…well…Kieran tells it best…

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An gorta mór

rice_1rice_2If Billy Splatts! had shown me his latest painting a couple of years ago, I might have thought it was poignant, but I wouldn’t have had more than a profound interest in it. Titled “His Final Christmas,” the painting is a 9″ x 12″ by 9″ x 12″ diptych in acrylic, paper, and ink on canvas. Its theme was inspired by The Great Hunger (An Gorta Mór) Monumentin Ennistymon, County Clare, Ireland, near the Cliffs of Moher. Sadly, I didn’t see the monument even though I distinctly remember driving along the Ennistymon-Lahinch road. We probably missed the memorial because my mother was in the back seat complaining of her own great hunger.

In his work, Billy distilled the haunting image of a 4-year-old orphan, Michael Rice of Lahinch, awaiting admittance at the workhouse gate. His fate is not known. Do the bright white doors signify his eventual entrance to the workhouse or to a life beyond?

Although I somehow missed the memorial, I will never forget the overwhelming sadness I felt two summers ago while driving through County Clare, not far from the small town of Tarmon where my grandfather was born. In the US, the past is often paved over and replaced by Starbucks. But in Ireland the past is worn like a badge of honor. Even some 150 years after the mass starvation and emigration of millions that reduced Ireland’s population by up to 25 percent, desolate mounds of earth marking mass, coffinless graves and stone ruins of once modest cottages staunchly remain intact across vast stretches of verdant land, just as their last occupants left them, solemn reminders of Ireland’s grim past.

I’d always heard about the famine, but the enormity of it never resonated with me until I saw western Ireland in person and read Cecil Woodham-Smith’s stark tome “The Great Hunger.” And so, when Billy Splatts!, a fellow Irishman, asked me what I thought of his painting, I had a visceral reaction to his work that seldom happens. The fact that he painted it in time for the Christmas season is no accident. In Billy’s words:

Mom and Dad instilled in me to think of others and how to help those who need help–especially during this time of the season. I suspect Christmas in my house was always a little more solemn than merry compared to the neighbors. But I mean that in a good way.”

Well, those thoughts creep into my paintings. No matter how many reindeer and candy canes I want to paint the end result is usually a little more somber.

This diptych is no exception.

The other day Billy forwarded me an e-mail he received from Alan Ryan Hall, the sculptor of the An Gorta Mór monument. Billy had sent Mr. Hall a scan of his painting, and the sculptor replied that Billy had wonderfully captured the spirit of the memorial in it.

I couldn’t agree more. I am now the proud owner of my first Billy Splatts! work. It’s my Christmas present to myself, in honor of the Michael Rices of the world.