We’re sitting in Philip Flanagan’s studio, overlooking the eerily still Lough Erne in Northern Ireland’s County Fermanagh, when he hands me a small, smooth black pebble. It has a sheen that doesn’t quite seem natural. It’s also framed. I get the distinct impression that for Flanagan, the pebble is less a pebble and more a sacred relic.
“I found this when we moved here, down there on the shore,” says Flanagan, casting his curly hair in the direction of the water. “It reminds me of the boulders that were everywhere in Belfast during the Troubles. Boulders outside buildings to stop people detonating bombs, rocks and stones like this one that were thrown in riots.”
Flanagan pauses, and gazes across the lead-grey water to the island of Inishmacsaint. An ancient high cross is just visible through the trees. “There was always a sense of after energy in Belfast, an amazing feeling of tension after a battle or fight. And here in Fermanagh, it’s the same, it’s as if something has happened in the landscape. I try and get across that feeling in my work.”
Flanagan’s work as a sculptor has led to international acclaim, with one of his subjects, Dr Ian Paisley, describing him as “the one man who has got all Ireland talking.” Now, though, he has transferred his skills to abstract painting, with a remarkable debut collection called ‘Bullersten.’ The word is Scandinavian for “a large stone that makes a noise when it is moved.” There is every chance that Flanagan’s new oeuvre will make as loud a noise in the art world as his sculptures have already done.
The paintings have a breathtaking serenity and, often, an underlying sculptural feel from both their composition and the layers of colour Flanagan uses to build up a picture. He seeks to capture the landscape around Lough Erne, deep in Fermanagh near the border with the Republic of Ireland. The area is lush and green, and prone to constantly changing light as unpredictable weather sweeps in from the Atlantic. It is an area also well-known for its prehistoric and Christian legacy, with many stone circles, cairns and monasteries. This sense of the spiritual informs Flanagan’s work, though he is adamantly non-partisan when it comes to Irish politics. “Politics doesn’t interest me,” he says. “My focus is entirely on my work.”
The more time I spent with him, the more Flanagan’s focus became apparent. A tall, courteous man, he gives the impression of being laid-back, as tranquil as his paintings, perhaps even something of a 1960s hippie with his corduroy jacket and shock of black curly hair. But the unruffled exterior hides an obsessive drive. He has lived in a remote house on Lough Erne for the past five years, with his partner, Maria, an educational psychologist. He works from dawn to dusk, seven days a week, and is so absorbed in his art that my visit prompted what was his first trip to one of nearby Donegal Bay’s beautiful, deserted beaches. Most people would have been there within a week of moving to the area, but not this man.
Philip Flanagan was born in Belfast in 1960, the son of one of Ireland’s foremost painters, T.P. Flanagan. His father is a native of Fermanagh, and, like father, like son, its landscape was the inspiration for much of Flanagan senior’s work. The two men have “an excellent relationship,” says Philip, whose abstracts jostle for space inside his house with the more traditional paintings of his father. It is a curious mix, with the sombre, more restrained tones of T.P. Flanagan’s work setting off the younger man’s brighter, more vibrant canvasses.
For the bulk of his career, though, there was little evidence that Flanagan would one day create such stunning abstracts. From an early age he was drawn to the arts, forever building models and making designs of houses, harbouring an ambition to be an architect. At 18, Flanagan decided to become a sculptor. He took a year off to work in a bronze-casting foundry in Dublin, before enrolling at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts in London to study art. His reputation as a portrait sculptor grew steadily following his return to Northern Ireland, with one of his most important commissions being a 1991 memorial to the victims of the Enniskillen bombing. Eleven people died in 1987, in one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles, in a bomb blast that would have been heard on Lough Erne.
Flanagan’s repute as a sculptor grew further in 1996 with Bronze Voices, an ongoing exhibition at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in which portraits were combined with the voices of the people represented. Among those who sat for Flanagan were the poet Seamus Heaney, boxer Dave ‘Boy’ McAuley, former Taioseach Charles Haughey, politician John Hume and a man who needs no introduction, Dr Ian Paisley.
What was it like sculpting Paisley? Flanagan rejects any suggestion that it might have been difficult, given their respective backgrounds (Flanagan himself is a non-practising Catholic). “Not at all. I liked him. It’s important that I stand in the middle, that I can do commissions of Ian Paisley on the one hand and John Hume on the other.” He laughs as he recalls an incident when Paisley was sitting for him. “An unofficial biography of Paisley had just been published, and I asked him to sign it. He refused, saying: ‘That book is full of muck and lies.’ I thought that was that and carried on working on his head, with the book next to us. A bit later I happened to pick the book up, and out fell a lump of clay. Paisley took the book from me, ringed the text smudged by the clay, and wrote: ‘This book is full of muck and lies.’ Then he signed it.”
Flanagan’s political neutrality is steadfast, despite his own experience of the Troubles. When he was 17, a contemporary from his school was shot dead as he left a church on the Malone Road. His crime? Being a Roman Catholic. Flanagan has a host of similarly spine-shivering anecdotes about life in Belfast, a past with which he seems at ease, despite everything. As he says: “The conflict never interested me and I don’t think it interested the majority of people in Northern Ireland. People just want to live their lives.”
Flanagan’s life is now very much painting, with his creative energy appearing to have been diverted completely away from sculpture. He does have other commissions to complete, but you get the feeling that he would much rather be painting. The abstracts owe an obvious debt to the Fermanagh landscape, an area where his family has its ancestry, with the O’Flanagan clan being one of the county’s oldest noble families. As he says, looking across Lough Erne to the island of Inishmacsaint, where there is a Flanagan grave: “These islands fascinate me. They’re full of ghosts. I’m happy here and feel secure. It’s amazing, really, before I moved here I hardly did any drawing. Now my output can be as much as 30 drawings a day.”
The theme of returning to his roots and tapping into the frequency of Fermanagh is clear in White Island, a circle of magenta on a square, white canvas. “The magenta is a celebration, it’s saying I’ve arrived here, and I’m happy” says Flanagan. “The white space resonates with the stone circles found everywhere in Ireland.” Similarly, River: “I’m interested in the energy of the place and wanted to get across a feeling of calm, of solitude and stillness. I just feel, looking out over the fields, that there’s something more to the whole thing than is first visible. I can sense people walking along the shoreline, and can feel that it’s a happy place. The oils for this painting were very carefully mixed so that you can see the brush strokes, because I wanted to create a carapace of light and texture that vibrates, that gets across the spirituality of the Fermanagh landscape.”
Listening to Flanagan’s calm, unhurried sentences and looking at the remarkable serenity of his paintings, an obvious question occurs. Is it possible that the paintings are a response to the Troubles, a way of finding order amidst the chaos? Are they a way of reclaiming the Irish landscape, of establishing a kind of universal spirituality, free of conflict?
“The Troubles have had an effect, sure,” says Flanagan, in his soft, clear Irish accent. He showed me a sketch for Large Boulder, one of the paintings in Bullersten, and returned to the theme of boulders in Belfast. “I can remember being fascinated by boulders as child. In Belfast, depending on where you lived, they would be painted red, white and blue, or green, white and orange, and placed a short distance away from buildings to stop car bombers detonating bombs. A common sight then and now would be rubble after a riot.” Again, he mentioned the feeling of tension in the air, what he calls the after-energy that follows violence. It was then that he handed me the small, smooth black stone. “When we moved here I was walking by the Lough and found this. As a child I would always equate a stone to something to be thrown at people. In total contrast, this stone I found calming and restful, and I sought to express that in Large Boulder.”
In Large Boulder, almost the whole canvass is taken up by a single form. “I’m trying to express the reality of the big stones you find lying on the lough shore,” says Flanagan. “You look at them – big, heavy, brown-black – like incredibly solid pieces of peat. I’m trying to convey the hardness of the thing, the beauty of it in terms of its form and colour.” And yet at the same time, there is what Flanagan says about boulders, stones and Belfast. If his work is not obviously a product of the Troubles, it’s nevertheless tempting to wonder whether Large Boulder represents more than Flanagan allows for it, so that perhaps it is a kind of sculptural barrier, an unconscious effort to repossess the landscape of Fermanagh, and of Ireland, free of the scars of the past.
As we drove back to Belfast City airport, through occasional Loyalist villages and past the Maze prison, I remembered Flanagan’s words on boxer Dave ‘Boy’ McAuley: “He was like a Hellenistic bronze of a boxer. I could really feel the bruised flesh of his battered, scarred face. His head had taken a hammering but was like an unexploded grenade. You could feel the tension and controlled aggression. But he was a kind man. I liked him. And I loved his determination to do the thing, to win, no matter what.”
Philip Flanagan and Dave ‘Boy’ McAuley have more in common than you might think.