London-Irish artist Brian Whelan told David Hennessy why he felt compelled to tell the story of Danny Carmody, a fellow artist who sadly took his own life, in his new book.
In his new book A Tragic Carmody artist Brian Whelan tells the story of his collaboration with Galway artist Danny Carmody as they attempted to stage an exhibition of London Irish art.
Unfortunately, Danny committed suicide before the show. Despite his talent as an artist, Danny was also troubled having seen two members of his family take their own lives and struggled with alcoholism for a long time. Tragically, it seemed like he was getting a grip on his problem with alcohol when he took his own life.
Brian then went on and write a play produced by Green Curtain London Irish Theatre company in 2018. It is this play that forms the basis of the new novel.
Although also a builder who came to London from Galway at the age of seventeen, Danny Carmody was a self-taught artist.
Brian told The Irish World why he feels compelled to tell the story of Danny who tragically never got the recognition he craved as an artist during his lifetime.
“His story is a very interesting one. Also a tragic one.
“Danny, who was trained as a brick layer, was included in an international exhibition of London Irish painting back in 2009 and 2010. Incidentally The Irish World funded our catalogue for the tour.
“Danny and I were part of the five artists who were called The Quiet Men. It was the very first exhibition of contemporary London Irish art.
“He died in 2004 and we were working towards an exhibition and then he did that. It came out of the blue and it was very mysterious in a sense but I wasn’t sure how that happened because the last time I saw him he seemed quite positive.
“The show went from the London PM Gallery, to Spain and on to Philadelphia. In all of these venues visitors wanted to know about Danny Carmody and his work, because his work was so extraordinary.
“There were people at this exhibition and they had no idea that Danny had committed suicide and they knew him. People used to come and ask me, ‘What happened?’
“I didn’t know what to say to them because – you know what it is like when someone commits suicide – there is irrational guilt spread around. Why did he do this? Could I have done more to help him?
“People asked about him and what his background was and I had no answers to these questions.
“It kind of haunted me.
“There’s an instinct to want to make something positive out of something tragic so at the end of a tour of the exhibition, I just started writing everything I remembered about him. That was the conversations we had when he was explaining a little bit at a time about what had motivated him to paint, how he had maintained his passion for wanting to paint. He had an extraordinary amount of work but the thing was he was pretty much untrained. He was a builder and he fixed things in houses.”
The play was put on by Green Curtain theatre company and Brian was overwhelmed to see his friend brought back to life onstage and also by the reaction.
“It was so emotional. I went home that night to a hotel and I was so emotionally rollercoastered, I was catatonic. I couldn’t get up off the bed. Emotionally, spiritually, physically, everything- It just completely emptied me. It was an incredible experience. One of the best I’ve ever had in my life.
“I’m hoping that somebody might turn it into a film even or revisit it as a play.”
Danny left Ireland after his mother had taken her own life and Danny himself took his own life two years after his brother had done the same.
“He was a big guy. He was a powerful man. He painted it on something that was so fragile. He was a fragile character as well because his mother had committed suicide, his brother had committed suicide and that was obviously staring him in the face. He was an alcoholic and I think when he realised he had spent so many years painting these pictures that were incredibly difficult to exhibit without lots of money.
“That’s part of why I had to do the show, why I had to make the book and the play. Because I was carrying a bit of guilt about that. I loved his work, was encouraging him and I don’t know whether I pushed it too far but I only knew a small Danny. He was very cagey about telling me about his own personal life.
“I don’t really know the full picture but I did carry some of that guilt that a lot of people who know somebody who commits suicide have. You just think, ‘Maybe there’s something I could have done that would have helped him’.”
Danny produced very large but very fragile work. Another tragedy is that much of his work has not survived.
“He produced very large paintings and they were on flimsy paper. You know those rolls of card you get to put down on the floor to protect the wood of the floors? A lot of his work was on stuff like that and it’s not good quality paper.
“He spent hours painting these pictures and then he would roll them up and then it’s hard to unroll them. They would get mashed and knocked and they were so big it was impossible to put them behind glass and he got to a stage where he said one night, ‘I’ve done it all wrong. I wish I had known. I got it all wrong’.
“There’s very little of his work left.”
While he may not have looked overly sensitive to look at him, Danny was perhaps too sensitive for the art world.
Danny took rejection by London’s galleries and the London Irish community very hard. While his work reflected London-Irish life as he knew it, some refused to accept it as that.
“Rós Scanlon, who was the Hammersmith Irish Club Arts Director at the time, gave Danny one of his first shows. It was not well received by the critics and by the Irish community. Danny was hurt. What he had done was capture an aspect of Irish society many in the community rejected or wanted to ignore. I felt those issues contained in his work and the character of Danny had something to say about London Irish society and Irish culture as a whole.
“He took every failure really hard and really personally.
“You’ve got to be standing in front of those paintings to get a sense of the struggle and the sheer hard work that went into making them. It’s inextricably linked with who Danny was and his fragility. His work expresses him so completely and it’s hard to see both of them.
“Each person will look at it and have a different perspective. They see something different.
“I look at it as one part of Irish visual arts but there was one woman who was disgusted by it. She said, ‘This isn’t Ireland. It’s disgusting. I don’t want it. I don’t like it’.
“Each person comes to it with a different idea.
“Danny’s subject matter was pubs, nightclubs, discos, the building site was very important.
“I’ve shown his work to critics and historians and even though they admitted there was a power in his work they were worried about the relationship between his subject matter and Danny himself. They only saw tragedy in this but I didn’t because I was probably so determined to make an exhibition, I probably ignored that part of it.
“Why didn’t I leave off? What does it matter if he has an exhibition? He was desperate to be recognised but he wasn’t strong enough. Despite being a builder, a tough guy, he didn’t have a thick enough skin to accept the failures.”
Danny had been an alcoholic for many years but Brian says he saw painting help him out of it making his suicide when it came all the more tragic.
“I was surprised to hear he had committed suicide because the last time I saw him he looked good and seemed optimistic and in control. He was an alcoholic and that last time I saw him he told me he had given up the booze. He bought an expensive camera and was documenting his work ready for the big show coming up.
“When Danny did open up, it was quite moving. He said how painting was improving his life. It was helping him off the drink in many ways. Because you can’t really drink and paint at the same time. It’s one thing or the other. You’re not going to do anything of any use if you’re pissed.
“He was a man with all sorts of skills and talents and he committed suicide, in a sense, because the community didn’t support him in the way we should have.
“He was alone in the end and all his paintings shouted distress.
“There is one painting which is very poignant. It’s of one man sitting at a bar with one barman behind it and you think, ‘What’s going on here?’
“It’s an alcoholic. It’s probably eleven o’clock in the morning and he won’t leave until they close.
“There’s the big sadness of why didn’t we scratch our heads and help this guy? Why didn’t we see it?
“This book is the last vehicle of Danny’s life. I’ve taken up the fight to get him the recognition.”
A Tragic Carmody by Brian Whelan is out now and available from Amazon.
For more information on Brian Whelan, click here.