This story is dedicated to the memory
of a Legend and a dear friend,
Playwright and Poet
Playwright and Poet
I am not attempting to write a biography in this story though there are some biographical facts, but just my memories of
James McKenna, the Artist.
James had it hard as an Artist by all means but if he had it all over again would he change any of it ... yes, I think he would, but it was his life that made him the Artist that he was and though not all of the time, for James, the temperamental man he became and the bitterness that came in old age from a man who knew he was running out of time for his work. As for me I saw a different side to him and for that I am happy that our paths crossed, late as it was in both of our lives. He had a very small circle of friends and I was lucky that he included me in that circle, he had no living family that I knew off. He regarded his closest friends, you could count them on one hand, as a kind of 'surrogate family.' [My words, not his]
It was the first time for me that I was sitting in James's living room. We had met on and off at exhibitions and we took a liking towards each other as we both had the same, more or less, view points on Art and being the Artist, though I have to say I learned more from him, he was the master of his 'craft'. It was a small cottage that he rented out in the country not too far from the nearest town that he could cycle in and out for his few groceries. He was in his early sixties when he would still get up on his bike for the half hour peddle into the town and if he was not on the bike he would walk. It was not his way to look for a lift from a passing motorist but it was not beyond him to travel by public bus either, nor was he the type that would sit in the pub on his own when he got to the town but would within the company of those he could trust and relax with. Even though James spoke his mind and had views on just about everything he liked the attention he got, some was good and some, well, not so good. He could not tolerate people been 'downtrodden' by those in politics or any power of authority. He was always looking for justice for the 'common man.' He has been known to stage in public his one-man demonstrations for the 'rights' of the people and for support for the Arts from the government. He believed strongly that the Arts should be accessible to everybody and not for the 'chosen' few or the elitist of society. ''Art for the people'' is what he preached. James studied at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin Ireland and graduating with a diploma in sculpture in 1955 and a six months scholarship for Florence Italy. On his return to Ireland he stayed in London for a time to earn some money doing, what most Irish men did at the time, labouring jobs, but in time he made his way back to Ireland and started showing his sculptures in the few exhibitions that were taking place in Dublin, maybe around the late 50's and early 60's. It was not easy for an Artist to make a living from his work in these times, and most went abroad to pursue their Art, but James stayed in Ireland because I feel he had a love-hate thing going with the country and genuinely wanted to improve the situation for the Arts and the 'Working Artist', ironically, as for James he did not receive his first commission for sculpture until 1977.
Books were stacked on the floor by the chairs or along the wall with out-of-date newspapers, and maybe by year too. There was a table in the corner but you could not see the top, it was covered with sketch pads, empty cups with the drags of mouldy tea creating their own laboratory for fungus to grow even in this cold room, pen drawings with some colour and sheets of music scattered all over even onto the four chairs around the table. I think at the time of my visit he was writing some music score down that was going around in his head along with all the other stuff that was in there. I believed he played the piano but I have never heard him play. His interest in theatre developed in tandem with his sculpture. In 1959 he wrote his first and most successful play, 'The Scatterin', about emigration in the 'teddy-boy' era of London and Dublin. This play was one of the hits of the 1960 Dublin Theatre Festival and was later staged in the West End of London where it ran for five weeks. He also wrote poetry too. James was the all-round Renaissance man and never stopped his search in seeking knowledge. He had a fondness for the Irish history and I believe he was writing a book as his own contribution .. it would have made an interesting read coming from James for I also believe he would have wrote it as it should be.
There was a small fire-grate in the room but it was so clogged up with ash from god knows how many fires that you had more hope in lighting a fire in heavy rain and wind than you would have in that fire-grate. There were two doors in the room, one coming from the kitchen, aaa-the kitchen, if a health inspector came into the house he would close it down and have James quarantined for observation, top and bottom .... and the other door was leading out into a hall way, with standing life-size figures in bronze and plaster, with rooms running off as bedrooms and a bathroom, which I could assume had more sculptures, finished or work-in-progress. Sitting in that 'living room' was like sitting on top of a mountain, what with the wind passing through it singing it's tune in a high pitch whistle coming from the kitchen and out into the hall, I would think I would be warmer on the mountain top. There was no T.V. and I am trying to remember if there was a radio, if there was I did not see it. I could safely say his entertainment was his work and his books and I would feel he was an early-to-bed person, a habit from childhood and a means of keeping himself warm. There was no woman in his life and I never heard of one. For a woman to 'love' James she would want to be a very special woman, for James to let her even close to him she would want to be very special.
His relationship with the female sex might have been kept at a distance due to the fact of his dedication to his Art and that James was brought to a Mother and Baby Home run by catholic nuns or brothers, when he was a few days old. His mother stayed with him for a couple of days, [she did not 'go and leave' him on the same day] before they both went their separate ways, she went to 'service' in one of the big houses and James to live with a farming family in County Wicklow, as a 'boarded-out child', which means to me that he was hired-out as labour by the orphanage to the farming family.
I would feel it was quite heart breaking, if not a desperate situation for James's mother to give up her son and that maybe he was born out of marriage, [ this is my own assumption on it ] .... and if I am right, the shame of it would be too much to bear for her in Catholic Ireland of the 1930's. To give James some hope in this life in having a better chance than what she might have felt she could ever have provided for him ... this was the only way open to her if her son was to be kept alive. This was the 1930's on a small island at the butt end of Europe. This was the mentality of an island people dominated by a church and brain-washed into fear of the afterlife and 'sin in this life'. Non-stop it was preached to them every Sunday from a church pulpit and even within the casual meeting in a home or on the street. In these times the church ruled by fear and had a stronger 'say' with the people than the government at the time, in so much as the government also feared the church with it's hold on the people. James's mother went from the orphanage to 'service into the big houses' ... I think James never had contact with her again. This was something he did not speak about very often but it was from others who knew of James and himself talking briefly about it that story took form in my own mind.
Sitting in his living-room, tea in hand, I remember it to be an afternoon of gray light and a bitter cold day, raining non-stop, and the light already fading, I think it was raining all that week. The cold rain never seems to stop, it's what I can remember most of back then, the rain and the cold but for James he had not noticed the rain and if he did he passed no comment on it, small talk was not his way and the weather was not going to stand in his way of him working. James was not a very tall man, I would think about five foot six in height. Physically strong for a man of his age, big chest and hands like shovels, carving stone is what made him like this or either he was 'built' to make sculpture. Another thing I will always remember about James .. he had no gray hair but a full head of light brown hair that was side parted from his left and had the habit of running his hand through it, I would think more as a 'comfort thing' than keeping it in check for appearances sake.
I was sitting in a light brown chair that had taken on a new colour of brown in it's life time that if anybody else had owned it it was long gone to the council dump but I doubted if James even noticed that too, maybe that's not fair to say ... let me put it this way then, if he did pay any attention to the chair and it's condition it did not bother him, it would be only for sitting in, to support his tired body after long hours of working the stone or wood for his 'horses'. He was not the man who needed the material things of life for he was simple in his way of life. As I say ... we were drinking hot, strong tea, tea was always on the 'go' with James and eating his home-made cake also made from tea. I knew he would live on tea and cake or bread and jam for days without cooking a proper meal for himself but to be truthful money was scarce for James and I would also feel he would not take hand-outs from people but would have preferred to sell his sculptures. I don't think that he was not bothered about cooking for himself but due to the fact he had little money and what money he had he put it back into his Art, but after spending the whole day in carving stone or wood he would be too tired to cook. I have been there myself.
From where I was sitting I had a view out of the window to his driveway and could see someone walking towards the front door of the cottage in the rain. I recognized the familiar markings of the Electricity Supply Board van parked at the locked gate to his driveway ...
I said to James ...
''Looks like you have another visitor coming'',
with that, James jumped out of his chair ran to the window opened it and shouted ...
''I am busy now, go away.''
and closed the window, sat back into his chair and drank tea. I could see from my own chair that the 'visitor' stood there for a while and then turned and walked back to his van, head down ... maybe cursing the 'grumpy-old-bastard' at the window.
I remember saying to James ..
''I think he only wanted to read the meter James.''
''So .. he can come back another day, you I don't see often enough and I don't use much of the stuff for them to be worried about.''
It was of no use in me explaining to James that they read the mater weather it's used or not.
We spent the rest of the afternoon talking about sculpture, mine and his. What he was working on and what I was working on. For the 'legend' sitting opposite me and he was a 'legend' in his own time for he was the living Artist's 'Artist', James sat there encouraging me to follow my Destiny as the Artist. James was not a selfish man when it came to parting information about some technique in carving or the making of tools in the forge, but I never visited him for information, just to be in his presence was enough for me. As a sculptor James McKenna shied away from the use of power tools, preferring manual techniques in carving stone or wood, which meant that the making of his sculptures, he liked to make monumental horses and one such sculpture comes to mind. It was 16feet high and 20feet long and took up to five years to make and his human figures were also life-size. The work was hugely labour intensive and uneconomic in this day and age. There is no question about it but James was a natural carver, that is, using hand tools only and tools he would make himself in his forge, using car springs or other steel he would come across or given to him. His sculptures when finely finished had a rough-hewn finish to them, he did not polish his stone but preferred to leave it in it's natural colour and a rugged quality which showed the working of his 'punch' or 'claw' chisels. They had a gracefulness and a presence hard to ignore, in spite of their monumental size. Horses remained one of his favourite subjects through out his artistic life. His enormous composite horses, ingeniously constructed from several blocks of stone or wood, were dowelled together in the same material. His work was 'labour intensive' to the non-artist but for James and speaking as a sculptor myself, it was a dedication to his Art and the 'strong will' to create.
I will always remember that day with James and will bring it to my own grave because for some reason it struck me as I was sitting drinking strong tea looking around me that all of his drawings and sculptures were of a family theme. Family groups as in a mother, a father and children some life-size in bronze others in plaster and others as working models for working up to a larger scale in stone at some later date. He did not take to abstract art and all of his work was in the classical nature.
I remember when I started to work on a 12ton block of limestone for my own horse to see if I could carve the horse but using one block of stone. I carved 'my horse' over a period of three years and now in a private collection but sited in public view.
A comment was said to me by another Artist that I needed to get Mckenna's 'permission' to do the horse that he had the 'franchise' on all 'horses'. At the time I did not take it as a joke as I was quite sensitive to the fact that I could be working in the 'shadow' of James and his 'horses' but I tried to make 'my horse' my own, in my own style, and also at that time I was trying to make my own 'stamp' into the Arts in Ireland, but it was true that James made the 'horse' his own and for another sculptor to make the 'horse' he had to make it his own and not in the 'McKenna style.' He made them in wood and stone, assembled and carved and he made them big, two and three times life-size and some with mounted riders. I remember another horse and rider that he made, that I could walk under it's belly and my head was still at least one foot from the under belly of the horse. This was the man who went to a wood symposium in a forest in the north west of the country and stayed for maybe a year after the symposium event had finished to work on his sculpture of horses and a chariot, making it bigger and making it his own. You could imagine what the local people thought of the 'mad artist' working in the forest on his 'horses'. The huge sculpture has now rotted back into the ground because it was not looked after after he had finished the work. It's the people's loss of not having this work today but McKenna's gain for creating the work.
We lost contact for a while, due mainly to my own work, but he was never out of my mind for very long and would 'pop-in' now and again when I myself was working the stone ... and then I heard he died. Found dead in his bedroom lying behind the door. He had some 'Learn Greek' books on his bed-side table and books on Irish history. He lived his life on his own and on his own terms. Devoted his life to be the Artist and he died on his own because of that way he chose to follow 'his' Destiny as the Artist. I have wondered at times that if James was not the Artist and had a different life style or profession and with his applied dedication to all things he undertook I don't think he would have not died in poverty and alone, and if he had a family ... well who knows how it could have turned out for James.
James was not 'claiming fame' for himself in his work but I think he would be more in searching for the comfort of his fellow human beings in his Art and making his Art in the 'Mystic and Joy' of being that Human Being.
James died of cancer in October in the year 2000 at the age of 67 and I would like to think he might have had some say in that too, in that in the time he lived in, he did more than just make his contribution to the Arts in Ireland, for his time was right ... how much more of himself could he give, for he gave it all .... unconditionally.
''Life makes the Artist'' and life made James McKenna to be that dedicated Artist he was. I am happy to have crossed paths with him and drink strong tea. He was a 'Hero' to me to my own cause.
Till we meet again James .....
''Have the kettle on.''
''Have the kettle on.''
For more information on James McKenna visit
The Gerard Manley Hopkins web site.