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Of Life and light

Dublin artist Patrick Cahill reflects on a career spanning more than four decades capturing the quintessential character of his native city.

Just a few weeks into Ireland’s most stringent Covid-19 lockdown, Patrick Cahill decided to venture into Dublin City to see what a lifeless capital looked like. While they were scenes of a ghost town scarcely witnessed, they offered little inspiration to the artist who spent more than 40 years capturing the essence of his hometown in oil and watercolour paintings.

“I brought my camera to take photographs of some key landmarks without people in them,” he says. “While it was both eerie and fascinating on one level, it didn’t inspire anything work-related. For me, I’m always looking for a focal point of an interesting piece of architecture with just the right light, but with plenty of life around it.”

Patrick pictured in his Leixlip studio

Urban energy runs deep in Cahill’s body of work. Whether it’s the colourful characters wheeling and dealing at the Smithfield Horse Fair, the bustling crowds passing the Nubian princess statues at the Shelbourne Hotel, or the umbrella-wielding pedestrians walking by the Olympia Theatre’s portico, his work evokes a feeling of life in motion.

Well-known painter, gallery owner and Joycean scholar Gerald Davis recognised this theme in Cahill’s work when he offered Cahill an opportunity to exhibit for the first time at his gallery on Capel Street. It was the early ‘80s, and Cahill worked at a screen printing company while honing his painting skills and attending art college part-time. Many artists passed through the doors getting prints of their work, such as painters Robert Ballagh, Cecil King, and sculptor Danny Osborne. It was a who’s who of the Dublin art world.

“At that stage, Gerald was coming in a lot for monoprinting. He was almost part of the staff,” says Cahill. “He’d seen some of my work and offered to put on an exhibition. I’d provide the paintings, and he’d do all the promotion, like printing invitation cards. So, I gave him the pictures, and he came up with the exhibition title, Of Life and Light. I would have struggled to put a name on it myself, so I said, ‘that’s great, let’s go with it’.”

It was one of two breaks that set Cahill on a path to turning a passion into a profession. The other was having his painting Rainbow Falls, which captured a section of the Royal Canal overflowing in Leixlip, selected into the Royal Hibernian Academy, a key institution for Irish artists.

“Getting into the RHA was a big thing back then because once you did, galleries would take notice,” says Cahill. “I was getting contacted out of the blue by gallery owners looking for paintings. It was a real turning point for me.”

From there, Cahill worked feverishly from his Leixlip studio, establishing himself as an artist known for soft and moody scenes of Dublin using his distinct alla prima style. His art featured permanently at prominent exhibitions such as Kilcock Gallery in spring and the Wexford Opera Festival in winter.

It was in the mid-1980s that Cahill stumbled upon Dublin’s infamous Smithfield Horse Fair, where buyers and sellers met to trade horses on the first Saturday of every month. The jarveys at St. Stephen’s Green, whom he sometimes sketched, recommended he go take a look.

Cahill was immediately taken by the vibrancy of the market scenes and would spend the best part of 30 years encapsulating its spirit in his work right up until the fair ceased operating in 2011. “That's what was so great about the Smithfield Fair – it was horses in an urban environment,” he says. “It was very picturesque, with people, horses and a whole milieu of things going on.”

In the same way artist John Butler Yeats documented the Dublin Sunday Bird Market, Cahill believes there is real value in preserving these unique events through art. In paintings such as Horse Dealer, Having a Chat and Boy Leading a Pony, Cahill expertly recreates the energy and ambience of what was once the only horse market in a European capital.

In recent years, Cahill has found inspiration in places further afield. He shifted some of his attention away from the moody urbanscapes of Dublin to the sunny streets of San Francisco and the rickety trams of Lisbon, along with city scenes from Budapest, Venice, Paris and Prague.

Prague in the rain by Patrick Cahill

“I get excited by the challenges of drawing, and I find lots of those challenges in these cities, trying to encapsulate the feel of the architecture, the traffic,” says Cahill. “One thing that has been increasingly fun for me is finding those challenges in fresh places, in cities that are new to me.”

Mixing up his subject matter, being inspired by the new, and keeping things fresh is integral to Cahill’s creative process. “I want to keep it interesting. I don’t like the feeling of being stuck doing the same thing over and over.”

After over 40 years of his work exhibited in galleries at home and abroad and collected in institutions like the Oireachtas, An Garda Síochána Headquarters, Limerick University, and more, Cahill is focused on developing a stronger online presence and has recently launched a new website. He says not only does it open up his work to a new global audience, but it gives people who are less inclined to visit galleries an opportunity to browse art at their convenience.

“I’ve exhibited in galleries all my career, it’s what I know,” he says. “These galleries play a hugely significant role in the community, the industry, and how we rethink our towns and cities. However, Covid taught us a lesson or two about the importance of having that online presence too, so it’s something I need to be part of.”

Cahill is indeed looking forward, but not without some quiet reflection on the past. So, knowing what he knows now, what advice would he give a young artist trying to get a break or considering the feasibility of a career in art?

“If you have a passion, don't lose the passion. Keep it alive, it’s a gift,” he says. “How do you make your way in life with that passion? There is an industry out there, a commercial art industry, an academic art industry. Maybe choose the one that suits you best, follow those channels, and learn what you can. But if you have a passion, it’s a blessing. Nurture it and keep it alive because it is only later on you’ll see the benefits of it.”

And with that advice, the interview concludes, much to Cahill’s relief. As a humble artist and reluctant interviewee, he much prefers to let his work do the talking.

Whether that piece of work is a painting of an atmospheric scene in Dublin, a deal done at the Smithfield Horse Fair, or a gondola ride in Venice, Cahill’s art speaks volumes. And it will undoubtedly continue to do so with art lovers for many years to come.

This article first appeared in Better Business Magazine, Winter 2022.


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