Saturday, March 14, 2015

Memoir of a classic red

On the weekend of Mothers Day, I'm reminded of something that I originally wrote 20 years ago, and updated in 2005, writes Brian Byrne. There are probably still people in Kilcullen and further afield who will remember the portrait of my mother Monica which hung for many years in the Grill restaurant of The Hideout. It was painted by the renowned artist Sean O'Sullivan, as a present to her from our Dad. Today it hangs in my brother Fergus's home in England, but it will always be one of the strongest of the images by which I remember her. So this piece, again, is for Mum.

We store things partly so we can forget them, put them away from our daily living, but sometimes things aren't ready to be put away and your painted image is still stuck in my head, an image captured once and therefore ageless, defying the inexorable reality of time.

I can see how they loved you, why Dad, as he often told people, made that bet in the Lisdoonvarna Post Office that he'd take you home that day. And why he took you all the way home in three months, a short time, but long enough when petrol was only for Government business or funerals and even train journeys were rationed. Courtships over a distance tended to be short in wartime.

A classic red, the artist Sean O'Sullivan said later, and a classic red he painted, and there was a lot of truth in Dad's joke that he only painted Presidents afterwards. The Presidents then were always men and he wouldn't have to deal with comparisons with as close to perfection as he was going to get. He was never going to get so close again and he probably knew it.

I knew the other bits in the picture for a long time, the chair was in the hall all the time I was growing up and later relegated to the nursery when that was made into a guest room; the fox stole thrown carelessly over its corner eventually made meals for moth; the brooch you used to wear again in your latter days, as what was fashionable once for the young often graces the old after a long time when it suited nobody.

He knew the house, of course. He came to you rather than you going to his studio; it was still somewhat difficult to travel to Dublin, even though the war was over. By coming down to Kilcullen he could stay as a guest in the house on and off until the commission was completed and he could also more accurately size the painting to the room where it was to hang, when it was the room where you and he and Dad would relax with other friends in many an evening.

There was always a serenity in that room after the painting was finally hung, that's how I remember it growing up. You were so beautiful in that instant he took months to capture, not mother-like, more elegant than motherhood actually allows, particularly when motherhood repeats itself every couple of years for a while, and somewhere in the formal pose there was a sense of absolute contentment that we all basked in for a long time. Even when we had made homes of our own, we would come back and sit in the ease of the beginnings of your gentle smile which, like the Mona Lisa, hasn't quite reached your mouth. But its beginnings are in your eyes.

Then that young relation with pretensions to interior design made over the house and dismissed the O'Sullivan to entertain the customers in the restaurant. The room at home was never the same for anybody, nobody could seem to sit quietly in it for long, and the matched pair of chalks portraits of you and Dad which the relation had commissioned from his friend, the coming artist, both glowered at anyone who dared to try to be comfortable.

Funny thing, though: the restaurant business was never as good before or since the period when you gazed from its wall. You're not there any more, and you're not back at home either. For many years after the picture left the restaurant, it was carefully wrapped and stored. The National Gallery would have liked it for its O'Sullivan collection, but they didn't have room to hang it and wouldn't have for the foreseeable future. Which was just as well, as it turned out, because the painting now graces a room in my brother's home abroad. And though it is a lively home, that particular room is restful.

Dad's gone now, some twenty years?* And so are you, much more recently. You'd stayed with him through the normal ups and downs of your matrimony, and you always loved him, and he you, I know. But possibly never more than in some moment that the artist managed to capture. Dad must have been standing at O'Sullivan's shoulder just then, and I've often wondered what he said that was to cause you to begin to smile and so inadvertently give to so many people a sense of serenity for all those years afterwards.

*Dad died in the mid-80s, at the age of 68.