Tony O’Malley and his ‘green universe’

aTony O’Malley (1913-2003) – Irish painter. Self-taught. Bank clerk for 24 years he starts to paint being in his 40s, he retires from his original profession due to poor health. In 1960 he leaves “suffocating” (in his own words) Ireland for Cornwall, St.Ives and remains an artist ‘in exile’ for the next 30 years. Being in his 60s he marries a picturesque lady – a Canadian artist, and starts to enjoy the first, though still shy signs of the deserved recognition. He develops a habit of revisiting Ireland (especially his father’s birthplace – Clare Island, off the shore of Co. Mayo) and exotic Bahamas (with the wife – Jane Harris). He returns to Ireland in 1990 to become a quiet resident of a cottage in a place he would call the ‘place of the fairies’ – Physicianstown, near his birthplace in Callan, Co. Kilkenny. By this time dealers and art critics would queue to hear his story becoming more or less aware that in this private, modest ‘newcomer’, stmill quite unknown, one could recognize an artist of, at least, all-national importance. Prestigious awards and shows follow one after another, so within the last years of his long life Tony O’ Malley enjoys the reputation of the most beloved, fauvorite painter of Irish people. And it seems to be as well-established, if not stronger now, a bit over five years after his death.

This story of an artistic Cinderella and a Prodigal Son at the same time captures one’s attention apart from his art, but-on the other hand – having just a glimpse of O’Malley’s work one is anxious to know, who stands behind it. There is something about a natural symbiosis between this artist’s existence, various periods of his life and his work. We all know painters whose work doesn’t necessary reflect their private, ‘civil’ life; vbut Tony O’Malley allows his work to be, in a sense, an autobiographical, visual diary. So, one can sense his difficult beginnings in his early ‘darker’ period when he had to fight for a right to be the way, he chose to be. Committed to a dull occupation, after life-threatening operations and with no shadow of understanding of his artistic ambitions on the Irish province of the 50s. Then comes a period of an identity struggle when, being accepted by the community of some talented English painters (Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon) he’s got a transitional stage of finding his true voice. The marriage in 1973 seemed to commence a ‘golden period’, again – to the same level in his life and in his work. He virtually explodes with creativity, vitality and shine and so do the dozens of gorgeous paintings of the last decades of his life. He calls them ‘paradises’, ‘dreams’, ‘songs’, they adopt startling exotic palette (this due to the Bahamas visits) and dancing, wonderfully fluid and free compositions made out of imaginative and abstracted elements.

He is the painter of flowers, fields and birds – ‘epitomes of nature”, an owl – ‘the guardian spirit’ is his favourite one. The painter of his own intimate, extremely deep – almost mystical relationship with the Earth and its energies.

Yet, at the same time he does walk the ground with the wide-opened eyes and a clear, wise, thoroughly modern mind; he would draw hundreds of quick sketches from life each day, even each hour (according to eye-witnesses) capturing light, shape, movement. His talent as a colourist is especially admirable, no matter how low-key, chromatically speaking, scheme he applies, how textured his boards and canvases, oils, acrylics are – the colour glows invariably as from the depths of its pigment and not merely from the surface.

The composition is as flawless as compelling, and – difficult to believe – it has never been planned in an advance, the painter himself said once that he would feel like “in a cage” having been ‘prepared’ his work beforehand in any way. He used to be, as one of his critics noted, “this kind of a hiker who never takes a map” – an innately intuitive, spontaneous creator, responding to an impulse like a child responds to hers instincts to play, laugh, cry…

And, when writing all this I keep smiling having one photo on my mind – Tony O’Malley in his 60s and his beautiful wife, wearing sand-coloured sun hats, tanned, sitting on grass and grinning to a camera – he looks like a young man and holds a bottle of wine in his hand, her platinum blond hair flows down delightfully, they are immersed in their ‘green universe’ – their love and Tony’s limitless imaginative world – the one able to enrich and impress beyond the span of our lives. They look so natural yet so out-of-this-world and so does O’Malley’s art – just by keeping us smiling it enters a new, spiritual dimension – that of guardian spirits and places of the fairies … In one of those magical lands this painter soul smiles back at us…


Tony O’Malley
Bone Birds at Green Lake, Birdlake III – Old Residents, Paradise Island, Bahamas, 1986-7, oil on canvas


Tony O’Malley; In Memory of Peter Lanyon , 1964, oil on board


Tony O’Malley; The Bird Lake, Paradise Island, Bahamas, 1986, acrylic on canvas

Those reproductions are of a rather average quality (and there is a great shortage of the images on the net), to really appreciate O’Malley’s work try to find a proper book, catalogue. Enjoy.


About kasia

Born in Poland. Lives in Ireland, Cork. Visual artist. View all posts by kasia

One response to “Tony O’Malley and his ‘green universe’

  • Mark Reid

    A truly remarkable great Irish painter. I did not know about his ‘place of fairies’ and ‘guardian spirit’ references – they explain quite a lot to me now about his paintings. I never met Tony O’Malley (my mother a native of Callan knew him) but you can see in photos of him, including the one on this site, a warmth of soul – he looks incredibly kind. His paintings exhibit a very in- tune imagination of the spiritual world which is demonstrated in his use of colour and form. I don’t want/can’t say more – just enjoy his wonderful paintings.

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