great piece by artist Eoin Mac Lochlainn on drawing etc with charcoal and ancient charcoal cave drawings
History, song, revolutionary politics, creative writing
great piece by artist Eoin Mac Lochlainn on drawing etc with charcoal and ancient charcoal cave drawings
Few people know the pain of being dispossessed of their land better than the Irish, but tragically in the 1870s, thousands of impoverished Irish immigrants ended up enlisting in American armies that were fighting to push Native Americans off their land.
Irishmen fought and died in the most iconic conflict between Native Americans and the United States Army at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana. The defeat of the General Custer’s 7th Cavalry by Native Americans on June 25, 1876 has become legendary. Many people know the story of Custer’s defeat, but few are aware of the role the Irish played in fighting the battle, and in creating the most famous painting of it.
One hundred and three Irish soldiers perished on that fateful day, and yet another Irishman, John Mulvany, realizing the popularity a canvas of the battle would create, painted his iconic “Custer’s Last Rally,” which remains today one of the most celebrated paintings of the American West.
In the 1870s, the hard and dangerous life of an American cavalry trooper was still the best option for many poor, newly arrived Irish immigrants. In 1875, Custer’s 7th Cavalry was full of Irish-born recruits when gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the sacred ground to the Lakota. These soldiers must have known the danger they faced when the United States claimed the land and invaded it, despite treaties the American government had signed with the Lakota, guaranteeing them its ownership. The military’s armed incursion into the area led many Sioux and Cheyenne tribesmen to leave their reservations, joining the rebel leaders, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, in Montana. By the spring of 1876, more than 10,000 Native Americans were camped along the Little Bighorn River – defying a War Department order to return to their reservations and setting the stage for the famous battle.
The charismatic General George Armstrong Custer and almost 600 troops of the 7th Cavalry rode into the Little Bighorn Valley, determined to attack the native encampments. Riding with Custer were over 100 Irishmen, ranging in rank from newly recruited troopers, many of whom could barely control their mounts, to Captain Myles Keogh, a heroic veteran of the Civil War from County Carlow. There were 15 Irish sergeants and three Irish corporals in Custer’s command, the backbone of his noncommissioned officers.
Today, we imagine Custer wearing his trademark buckskin jacket – it was sewn by an Irishman, Sergeant Jeremiah Finley from Tipperary, the regiment’s tailor. The song of the 7th Cavalry was another Irish influence. Just prior to Custer’s arrival in Fort Riley, Kansas, where he took command of the 7th Cavalry, Custer ran into an Irish trooper who, “under the influence of spirits,” was singing “Garryowen,” an Irish song. Custer loved the melody and began to hum the catchy tune to himself. Custer made it the official song of the 7th Cavalry and it was the last song played before Custer and his men separated from General Terry’s column at the Powder River and rode off into history.
John Mulvany, who is known for his paintings of the American West and in particular “Custer’s Last Rally,” also painted “The Battle of Aughrim,” in 1885, which was exhibited in Dublin in 2010.
The battle, fought between the Jacobite and the Williamites forces in Aughrim, County Galway on July 12, 1699, it was one of the bloodiest battles in Ireland’s history, over 7,000 killed.
The battle marked the end of Jacobitism in Ireland, a movement that aimed to restore the Roman Catholic Stuart King James II of England and Ireland (as James VII in Scotland) to the throne
Before the battle, the legendary Lakota chief Sitting Bull had a vision in which he saw many soldiers, “as thick as grasshoppers,” falling upside down into the Lakota camp, which his people saw as a foreshadowing of a major victory in which a large number of soldiers would be killed. Custer, however, blinded by ego and visions of glory, made a reckless decision to attack the huge gathering of Native Americans head on, saying, ironically, “Boys, hold your horses, there are plenty down there for us all.”
Foolishly splitting his command into three units, Custer tried in vain to attack and envelop the largest concentration of Native American fighters ever to face the American Army. The first assault against the Native American encampment was launched shortly after noon by three companies – 140 officers and men – led by Major Marcus Reno, whose men attacked along the valley floor towards the far end of the camp. Thrown back with many casualties, the survivors scrambled meekly for their lives to the top of a hill. Custer, with five companies totaling more than 200 men, advanced along the ridgeline, commanding the river valley on its eastern side. He further divided this force into two groups, one of them led by Captain Keogh.
There is debate about what occurred when Custer engaged the Native American forces just after 3 p.m. because the General and all his men were killed, so no one from Custer’s command could tell their tragic tale. Archaeological evidence suggests that Keogh and his men fought bravely, being killed while trying to reach Custer’s final position after the right wing collapsed.
On June 27, 1876, members of Gen. Terry’s column reached the Little Bighorn battlefield and began identifying bodies. Keogh was found with a small group of his men and his was one of the few bodies that had not been mutilated, apparently owing to a papal or religious medal that he wore about his neck (Keogh had once served in the in the Battalion of St. Patrick, Papal Army). Although Captain Keogh did not survive the battle, his horse, Comanche, did. The horse, spared by the Native American fighters for its heroism, recovered from its serious wounds and was falsely honored as the lone survivor of the battle (many other U.S. Army horses also survived). Comanche was retired with honors by the United States Army and lived on another 15 years. When Comanche died he was stuffed, and to this day remains in a glass case at the University of Kansas.
White Americans, shocked and angered by the defeat of Custer and his men, demanded retaliation. And they got it. Soon after, over 1,000 U.S. troops under the leadership of General Ranald Mackenzie opened fire on a sleeping village of Cheyenne, killing many in the first few minutes. They burned all the Cheyenne’s winter food and slit the throats of their horses. The survivors, half naked, faced an 11-day walk north to Crazy Horse’s camp of Oglalas.
The victory at Little Big Horn marked the beginning of the end of the Native Americans’ ability to resist the U.S. government, but 37-year-old John Mulvany from County Meath saw opportunity in the tragedy.
12 YEARS OLD IN THE USA
Mulvany arrived in America as a 12-year-old. He went to art school in New York City and became an assistant of famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady. He later covered the Civil War as a sketch artist for a Chicago newspaper, developing an amazing ability to capture battlefields on canvas.
Mulvany knew that a painting of the fight would be a sensation. He visited the battlefield twice and also found Sitting Bull in Canada so that his painting could capture even minute details of the battle and its combatants. Mulvany finished the epic 11 ft. x 20 ft. canvas in 1881, which was hailed as a masterpiece, and began a 17-year tour of the United States. The canvas made Mulvany the toast of Chicago, but his good fortune would not last.
Mulvany eventually sold his painting and ended up destitute in Brooklyn, where he drowned in the East River in 1909 in what many labeled a suicide. Mulvany quickly became forgotten, but not the fame of his great canvas, which recently sold for $25 million. Mulvany painted many great works, but they are lost and there is a concerted effort to find these missing canvases. Perhaps we will soon find more works of this great, tragic Irish painter.
It is of course the installation that first catches the eye, mainly due to its size, secondarily its colours and viewing it one must, I think, come to the conclusion that the space is too small for it. Artists I suppose must use whatever exhibition spaces are available to them. Standing back as far as one can, the installation still does not reveal its full potential. But photographing in the gaps between the hanging pieces in the first row, one sees tree-trunks, dappled with slanting autumnal light through dying leaves, moss and lichen pattern on trunks and the autumn leaves themselves.
The installation is composed of 64 painted lengths of rice paper and is lit from behind with accompanying recorded bird song which adds to the ambience. In the leaflet accompanying the exhibition, the artist wrote:
This is a traditional paper which originated in ancient China and has been used for centuries for calligraphy, artwork and architecture. It is as white as alabaster, known for its strength and smooth surface, very delicate when wet but said to last for a thousand years – an enchanting medium with which to work.
Around the wall are a number of watercolour paintings, mostly 15×19, some 12×12 and a few 20×20 and one, very different in style and composition, of 45×33. The latter looks older and by another painter and appropriately so, perhaps, since it is an interpretation of a painting by the German Romantic landscape painter Friedrich (1774-1840), “Solitary Tree”, painted probably (according to Google) in 1822, nearly two centuries ago.
The subject seems to be an oak, its upper trunk dead but with leaves on branches spreading further down. It seems to have weathered many storms and perhaps a lightning strike years ago …. but it yet remains, stubbornly alive.
I do not know what motivated either Friedrich or Mac Lochlainn to take this image as their subject but in the leaflet, the latter has written:
Trees are a link between the past, the present and the future. The majestic stature, the long lifespan and the familiarity give them a monument-like quality but they also have a special aura that is difficult to define. Research has shown that within minutes of being surrounded by trees, our blood pressure drops, our heart rate slows and stress levels begin to reduce.
Less calming no doubt are the images of the watercolours which he titles Dóite (‘burned’ but also: ‘wasted, laid bare, destroyed’). The images are bleak, disturbing, of dead tree-trunks in a wasteland. In the accompanying leaflet, the artist notes:
I have been developing a body of work which explores the effects of climate change and in particular, reflects on the significance of trees.
These images could also reflect the negative effects of acid rain, nuclear or chemical contamination or timber monoculture and the exposure of trees thereby to increased likelihood and intensity of infestation by invertebrates and fungi (as for example the latter is attacking pine plantations in the Basque Country).
The watercolour series titled Cosán Coille and Siúlóid Sléibhe are exquisite colour and tone in a way of which I think only watercolours can be. It is surprising then to learn that Mac Lochlainn’s previous work has been in oils and that he found the change exacting:
In recent years, I switched from oils to watercolours in order to have less of an impact on the environment.
The switch has been both challenging and rewarding – challenging to master the idiosyncrasies of the medium but very rewarding in discovering new possibilities and avenues of enquiry for my practice.
The smaller size of the paintings restrains one from being pulled into them, the way a larger painting might do but that does not prevent them from being beautiful, sometimes in an almost painful way.
Trees have been called “the lungs of the world” and were considered of great importance to the Celts; the Gaels peppered our place-names with references to them: abhall (apple), áirn (sloe, fruit of the blackthorn), beith (birch), caorthainn (rowan), coll (hazel), cuileann (holly), dair (oak), draighneán (blackthorn), fearnóg (alder), fuinnseog (ash), giúis (fir, pine, deal), iúr (yew), sail or saileach (willow),sceach (whitethorn, normally).1 They appear also in many of our folk-songs.
Prices of paintings range from 380 Euro to 1,200 and the gallery offers a service of payment by installment. The artist, Eoin Ó Lochlainn, who happens to be closely related to Patrick Pearse, has had numerous exhibitions in each year going back to 2013 and has won a number of awards. Collections of his artwork are held in AIB, Bank of Ireland, OPW, Revenue Commissioners, AXA Insurance, Foras na Gaeilge, Gael Linn, the Boyle Civic Collection, Wesley College, University of Limerick, Donegal County, Cló Ceardlann na gCnoc.
Fuller CV of artist: http://www.oliviercornetgallery.com/#/eoin-mac-lochlainn-artist-cv/4585927092
Artist’s Blog: https://emacl.wordpress.com/
Artist’s FB page: https://www.facebook.com/EoinMacL
Olivier Cornet Gallery: 087288261 or email@example.com
Tree Council of Ireland: https://treecouncil.ie/
Place-name database, Irish and English: https://www.logainm.ie/en/
1Place-name examples: Abhallort (Oulart), Co. Wexford); Beith an Ghalláin (Behagulane, Carberry, Col Cork); Cill Áirne (Killarney); Doire (many, including Derry City and County; Áth na bhFuinnseog (Ashford, Co. Wicklow); Giúiseanna Boróimhe (Boroimhe Pines, Fingal); Iúir Chinn Trá (Newry, Cos. Armagh & Down); An Baile Sceathach (Ballyskeagh, Co. Galway); Saillí (Scilly, Kinsale, Co. Cork)