Acclaimed artist captures canvas of rural life

One of Ireland’s most successful artists, Mark O’Neill, takes much of his inspiration from farming and rural life. O’Neill – who lives in a converted mill house on the banks of the River Slaney, outside the village of Clonegal – regularly features: cattle; sheep; hens; dogs; and cattle marts in his sought-after oil paintings.

Born in the UK to Irish emigrants – his mother was a nurse from Offaly –  he saw quite a bit of the world in his youth as his father’s job involved stints in Peru, Nigeria, South Africa, Mauritius and Malta. His teenage years involved a period in Bellewstown, Co. Meath. In the late ’80s, he lived in Killeigh, Co. Offaly.

O'NeillO’Neill, who has painted since he was four years of age, graduated from the UK’s Kingston College of Art with a first class honours degree in fine art. He has recently started to work from photographs from his iPhone as a means to deliver his reference for paintings of animals. “They don’t tend to stay still for long,” he said.

Livestock marts provide a rich source of imagery. “I’ve just received the Adams’ [fine art auctioneers] auction catalogue for Christmas and it includes a painting of mine from Tullow Mart. I introduced myself to the manager, and got the go-ahead to take photographs, so I went in and clicked away.”

He rents 40ac of land to a local farmer and feels very much part of the community. “The setting is just stunning – everyone who visits is just wowed by it. As I walk the dog, I appreciate being surrounded by farmland, agriculture and nature. Every day here brings a different atmosphere along the river.

“I keep poultry but am only getting two eggs from 60 hens at the moment, so have to buy eggs in the shops,” he said. Three years ago he based almost an entire exhibition for a Dublin gallery on hens.

His work – which includes a lot of still life – is coveted by many art lovers, and those who buy his paintings come from a mix of urban and rural backgrounds. “A lot of the local farmers call in to see my work in progress. Two years ago I did an exhibition of portraiture of male and female farmers locally and quite a few bought their own portrait.

“Five years ago I had an exhibition in Adams’ on St Stephen’s Green, and it included a painting of an auction at a cattle mart,” O’Neill explained.

A family from Wexford happened to be up in Dublin and saw the painting on display as they were passing by. One of them suddenly shouted: ‘Jesus, that’s daddy in the painting’ and it turned out that was indeed daddy Paddy. Then they discovered their neighbour was also in the painting, so there was a bit of a bidding battle.

With cows in particular featuring in many artists’ work, what exactly sets his paintings apart? “I’m not into abstract art, and what I think rural people and farmers appreciate about my paintings is that I really concentrate on the drawing. I pride myself on getting the musculature and the limbs right.

“When I’m not quite sure of the title of a painting, I would consult with the farmer whose animals I have painted, to be sure I’ve got the breed correct. Sometimes they come up with a creative title.”

O'Neill

O’Neill sees a parallel between the life of an artist and that of a farmer. “Farming can be quite a lonely profession, similar to art. The farmers around me keep an eye on me. They will say things like: “I see you were up early this morning’ and will frequently call in.”

New arrivals at the mill house include: five peacocks and hens; Chinese geese and Indian runner ducks as well as a surprise delivery from his partner of three alpacas. “Who knows what animals will feature in future paintings,” said O’Neill.

The price range of his paintings currently is from €900 to €15,000. His works can be seen at the fair in the South Court Hotel, Limerick, this Saturday and Sunday, November 11 and 12. The galleries that stock his work are: Trinity and Zozimus galleries, Dublin; Treasures Gallery, Athlone; and Killarney Art Gallery.

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