Stories | 25 March 2021

Culture Near You: Brian McCarthy

The Arklow Sand at Dublin Port Graving Docks

The Arklow Sand at Dublin Port Graving Docks

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Culture Near You is an online map of culture in Dublin.

From arts and heritage, to sports, nature, food, hobbies, community involvement and more - the map helps you find the places where culture happens and the people who make it happen.

We’re constantly adding to this cultural map so we get to meet lots of the great people featured, and we thought you might like to meet them too!

We’re meeting the makers, the movers and shakers, the partakers, and the doers of the map - to find out more about what they do in the city.

You can find out more about Culture Near You and how to get involved here.

Meet Brian McCarthy

First up, we’re meeting visual artist Brian McCarthy, who is based in Clontarf.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself, and what made you decide to become an artist?

Although I was seriously tempted to go into film when studying at art college, I’ve been obsessed with painting since I was a child. Even as a teenager, and supposedly studying for exams, I stayed up most nights until the early hours painting instead. During the early 1980s, I briefly worked as a commercial illustrator while also selling and exhibiting. My big break came in 1981 when a painting sold at the Douglas Hyde Gallery’s Living Art Exhibition and I haven’t looked back since.

Your portrait of Joe Duffy was shortlisted for the Zurich Portrait Prize 2019, and feels like an iconic Dublin image with such a well-known broadcaster and the Poolbeg chimneys both featured. Can you tell us what inspired that portrait?

As it happens, Joe has been an art student of mine and good friend for the past 15 years. He’s forever saying he has a great face for radio and one day I was in between paintings and decided to prove him wrong. The end result was as much down to Joe as myself though. It was his idea to wear the hand painted cufflinks and distinctive tie with pin. Aside from being a joy to paint, it’s these kinds of gleaming details that can make all the difference to a portrait.

Do you have any standout or memorable moments from your career as an artist so far?

Naturally, Joe’s portrait getting shortlisted for the 2019 Zurich Portrait Prize and hung in the National Gallery of Ireland was a huge thrill for me. It was also due to be shown at the Crawford Gallery in Cork, but as it arrived just as Covid hit, that didn’t happen. Still, it gave me a laugh to think of Joe cooped-up in a locked down gallery for months on end with no one to talk to.

The other standout moment is my Boomtown exhibition at the Keeling Gallery back in 2010 during the banking crisis. Due to its satirical recession themed paintings depicting Dublin as a shanty town on the brink of revolution, and people fleeing in small crafts on treacherous seas, it received a lot of media attention. This resulted in the biggest sales I’ve ever had for a solo show. However, that was ten years ago and I haven’t had a solo show since. But sure that’s how it goes in the art world - feast or famine.

Your work often depicts scenes of Dublin and city life, what draws you to that subject matter?

For many years my paintings didn’t need to be interpreted beyond their obvious meaning and were purely decorative. During the 1990s, I was fascinated with painting and collecting antique Venetian carnival masks. They’re remarkably beautifully crafted objects and ones I still love to paint. However, as Boomtown got such a great reaction I decided to continue poking fun at establishment Ireland.

While I love Dublin and never wanted to live anywhere else, I was growing increasingly disillusioned with how Ireland was being governed, particularly in the lead up to the 1916 centenary celebrations. It was this that prompted me to paint the GPO engulfed with smoke and the River Liffey as it might have been back then. At the same time, headshops were getting a lot of attention and it seemed to me there was far more madness outside the headshops, than in them. This evolved into a series of paintings reflecting on the Catholic Church scandals, water charges, and world cup football mania, as can be seen in my more recent paintings Oblivion and The Hat Trick Pub.

If you had a dream art project or event you’d either like to create, or see take place in the city, what would it be?

My dream project would be to exhibit my series of Dublin Port themed paintings, and in particular the graving dock on Alexandra Road. Built in circa 1910, and measuring a whopping 630 by 80 feet, this facility was the largest and last remaining working dry dock in the State. During my visits there, I was gob-smacked by the contrast between men repairing huge ships like The Arklow Sand and the massive structures surrounding them. Sadly, it was closed shortly after I painted it, bringing to an end this era of our maritime heritage.

What advice would you have for someone who might like to know more about visual art but isn’t sure where to start?

When I attended art college in the 1970s, I found the avant garde ethos and lack of technical discipline disappointing and to be honest, I don’t think much has changed since. Like many artists, I learned my craft from what I consider to be the best sources - the great artists of the past. I’d read everything I could about them, and visited museums and galleries whenever possible. Over time I developed my own style but that’s where I started, and am continually learning from, and I’d advise anyone interested in the visual arts to do the same.

When it comes to creating art, I set out to paint the kinds of paintings I’d like to hang on my own four walls. Barring a few notable exceptions, such as Surrealism, I’ve little interest in modernist conceptions. For me, inspiration comes from artists such as Turner and Salvador Dali. But that’s me. All art is subjective, so my second piece of advice is to select artists you like and study them.

What’s your favourite thing to do in Dublin? (This can be anything from a place to visit, or an activity - from nature, sport, food, cultural activities - anything goes!)

Ordinarily my favourite thing to do in Dublin is to socialise with friends at weekends and try out new restaurants and pubs together, as well as visit old haunts. But these are not ordinary times and it seems a lifetime ago since we’ve done that. Meantime, lockdown has allowed me time to indulge my other passion - photography. The eeriness of Dublin’s empty streets at night is both surreal and magical, and I’m thoroughly enjoying wandering around the city trying to capture this on camera.

Although things are challenging at the moment as we continue to adapt to living with Covid-19, what are you most looking forward to in the coming weeks and months?

With exhibitions on hold until mid-2021 at the earliest, I’m looking forward to turning my photographs of lockdown Dublin at night into a series of paintings chronicling this period and accumulating enough to have another solo show when we’re back in the free world.

While being forced to close my art school overnight due to Covid-19 restrictions came as a real shock to the system, to say nothing of my finances, I have to say I’m loving the freedom of being able to focus exclusively on painting and photography for the first time in 35 years. One of things that has always worked against me was the necessity to sell straight off the easel to private collectors. As a result, much of my best work has never been seen publicly.

Meantime, I’m very excited with the reaction my online shop selling prints and products featuring my paintings is getting. I only started this as a way to fill time at the beginning of lockdown and have been wowed by the reaction ever since. The jigsaw puzzles are proving especially popular but I reckon that’s as much down Netflix fatigue as anything else.

Lastly, what is your favourite cultural location that can be found on the Culture Near You map?

The Chester Beatty Library is without doubt my favourite cultural venue in Dublin. Not just for its stunning collection of Islamic and Far Eastern artefacts, but lunching at the Silk Road Café and strolling around the grounds of Dublin Castle afterwards.



Brian McCarthy (b.1960) is an Irish artist based in Dublin. Working exclusively in oils, magical realism fused with political satire, is a central theme of his work. Fine art auctioneers, such as Christie's in London and Adam’s and Whyte's in Dublin, regularly feature Brian's work and his paintings can be found in numerous Irish and international private and corporate collections.His paintings have been included in many group shows at commercial galleries in Ireland and the UK, as well as being exhibited in Dublin’s Douglas Hyde Gallery and the Royal Hibernian Academy Annual Exhibition, where in 2019 his portrait of RTE broadcaster Joe Duffy was exhibited. This portrait was shortlisted for the 2019 Zurich Portrait Prize which was hosted by the National Gallery of Ireland.