Flor McCarthy meets Skibbereen woman Eileen Twomey, who has discovered a lucrative new painting career, in her 80s
A SOLO exhibition of your work is a daunting prospect for any artist.
But when it’s your debut show, your family and friends are flying in from around the world, and the media spotlight is about to focus on you, then it’s enough to make you run for cover.
Not so for Eileen Twomey (85). She’s as cool as the breeze off her beloved, and oft-painted, Fastnet lighthouse.
The Skibbereen native who moved to Dublin in her early twenties maintains strong family links to the area and is a frequent visitor.
She says it was while on holidays in Schull last summer that she sold a painting for the first time – persuaded to part with it, by a friend of a friend, for €100.
‘I got such a kick out of that,’ she says, ‘especially when I visited their home and there it was hanging over the mantlepiece.’
While in Schull, Eileen had several other paintings framed locally and so, when the idea of an exhibition was floated, she had some works ready to go.
‘I decided to hold a charity exhibition, and donate the proceeds to ARC Cancer Support Services. They’d been a great help to me when I had breast cancer in 2002. I wanted to help raise funds, but I couldn’t think how. Then I realised – here was something I could do, paint.’
Work began in earnest, last winter, at her ‘kitchen studio’ in Dublin.
Out came the easels, acrylics and brushes and she worked from photographs of some of her favourite places – Tragumna, Baltimore, The Fastnet Rock.
‘I’d get up at 5am and start work, often losing track of the time and just get engrossed in the painting. I loved having a tea-break at the kitchen table surrounded by tubes of paint, pots of brushes and mess. I felt I was getting very bohemian!”
For the exhibition 50 paintings were hung in her home in Donnybrook. ‘They were in the livingroom, the kitchen, up along the stairs.’
About half were in homage to the artist Paul Henry who’s work she had studied at painting classes. But most of the paintings depict land and seascapes from her native West Cork. ‘I love everything about West Cork,’ she says, ‘it’s home.’
Born into two legendary seafaring families, Eileen’s father was Captain James Nolan from Sherkin Island, and her mother Nan (neé Shipsey) was from Baltimore. They married and set up home in No 9 North St, Skibbereen, and had seven children, of whom Eileen was the second youngest.
Capt Nolan was skipper of his own schooner, the renowned Lough Ryan which was attacked by a Luftwaffe bombardment in the Irish Sea, in August 1940.
A framed photograph of the Skibbereen-registered schooner still hangs in Bushe’s Bar in Baltimore.
Eileen had grown up with these stories: her mother had survived a shipwreck on her 13th birthday, when a 60ft lugger, the Thomas Joseph, struck the Catalogue rocks, off Sherkin, in October 1918.
Nan and her sister Lily (15) were told to jump into the dark, rough seas.
Nan did so and clung to a rock for hours in her summer dress. Lily and five others went down with the vessel.