And that comes through in Emma Byrne’s pictures; the Norsemen were here before the Normans. And somehow in her painting ‘The Long Walk,’ the shadows on that old wall tell the story of yet another set of invaders climbing the long walk either to victory or to their doom. It’s a powerful picture. “The Barracks” too evokes that same feeling of standing at the pinnacle of the town, waiting to repel invaders, an essential defensiveness which is northern and unbending, rather than southern and open in its spirit.
‘Long After the Market’ which is, I think, my favourite of all the pictures has that sense of echo that you always get in places which used to have bustle. You get it in the square at Kilmainham Royal Hospital, or in Collins Barracks or in Kilmanham Jail or in empty theatres or tv studios. The same is true of the ‘Staff of life’ picture. Indeed, we had a bakery at home, a place full of the clash of tins and trays and trollies and the whine of mixing machines. When my father and mother became ill and it closed, it always seemed to be a place in waiting. And it never woke up again until many years later when my sister, who was a potter, started to use it again to knead and fashion things, and to ice them and to bake them in the oven. Suddenly it was full again, full of purpose.
I’m told the old market house in Emma’s picture is the only one left of a number of interesting buildings in its street. Buildings keep our memories. Once their footprint goes, ours does too. Emma’s words, written across these paintings, are a sort of graffiti representing all the people who passed through these places over the years, a palimpsest of experience, of all the layers laid on over time, of all the ghosts.
There are the new comings as well. She has painted Mary Street where the church is facing a changing scene with the building of the new Theatre Royal.
But more than anything else this exhibition is about Menapia, the place of the mud flats, about Wexford itself, the layer upon layer of experience which made it and the dark rich spirit which drives it.
Liam Cosgrave was a plain man with a plain man’s Dublin drawl. Not a man for the fancy stuff. There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, that as Taoiseach, he had to open an exhibition of Paul Henry’s paintings.
He spoke a bit hesitantly. He said they were nice paintings..very nice paintings… and that there were a lot of them. And it looked like he’d run out of anything else to say. Then his face lit up as though inspired by a great truth. ‘You know’ he said confidentially ‘It’s a funny thing but they always remind me a little bit of the west of ireland.’
So Emma, a great truth has struck me -which is that your pictures remind me just a little bit ... of Wexford!
I know Emma in another life. She is, as you know, a designer for O’Brien Press and I am the author from hell. Twice she came up with perfectly good suggested covers for my little books with O’Brien Press and twice I said no; and twice again she went to endless trouble to get me what I wanted and, God bless her, the covers, and Emma’s layout, sold the book.
Emma, as you know, has done wonderful work in the publishing area. My favourites are her cover for ‘Brown Morning’ for which she won the Irish Designer Institute Promotional Literature award and her design for the stunning book of children’s poems - ‘Something Beginning With P’ - for which she won a Bisto award. That’s a book to treasure, a real pleasure to handle and to read.
She has exhibited in London and Dublin. but in this new exhibition in the Art Upstairs gallery, she’s caught something which is very true about Wexford. I’m from the south-east and Wexford to me is the sunny county with French connections, a place of family holidays and long days on the beach at Pettits Bay or Kilmore Quay. But there’s a darkness about this county too, and particularly about this town. It has had a bloody history and as a child I always remember it as a pointy narrow-streeted place with, not a southern, but a northern feel about it, a norse feel about it.