Irish Gothic, the retrospective of Patricia Hurl, currently on in IMMA is arguably the most important one of a largely unheralded Irish artist this century. Like many others, we were utterly bowled over by her body of work which is as urgent and meaningful as when it was first created. Besides discovering her, we found out that her son is one of the duo behind Assassination Custard, which parallels Hurl in being a sort of best kept secret in the food game. We brought them together to hear their story.
“Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever;
Do noble things, not dream them, all day long:
And so make life, death, and that vast for-ever”
– Charles Kingsley, A Farewell
This is the inscription which Patricia Hurl’s dad Patrick wrote on her autograph book when she was a little girl. “It’s beautiful but not the best thing for your daughter who wants to be a pirate,” reflects Hurl, the 79-year-old artist, who truly didn’t end up ascribing to a life of conformity, eventually choosing to chart her own unique destiny.
Hurl has hovered into focus owing to the current retrospective of her career in IMMA – Irish Gothic brings together all the strands of her ground-breaking body of work in a fitting tribute to honour a bafflingly low profile artist. There are many reasons why this recognition eluded her but thankfully her astoundingly powerful, personal and accomplished paintings are finally finding an audience she is worthy of. But first, back to our connection.
“We had to be wives of Guinness men. He used to get an allowance for me.”
Admittedly, I had never heard of Hurl until I was reading an article about her in the Sunday Times Culture and realised I knew her son – Ken Doherty who along with his partner Gwen McGrath run, hands down, the best cafe in the city – Assassination Custard. This wedge of space on Kevin Street (it has two tables which seat eight people) has earned unanimous plaudits for their inventive and original dishes served in a basic and charming setting. It’s the stumble upon which thrills foodies on foreign holidays. It’s on our own doorstep. It is also the cafe that almost every chef in the game rates as a personal favourite. From Darina Allen to our own contributor Cúán Greene, Assassination Custard is a love letter to food writ large in the smallest of spaces.
And so, I sought to bring this mother and son together to discover more about their personal relationship – of which I knew nothing – and what makes them such original creatives in their own spheres. We started off on a drizzly Wednesday morning in the cafe before allowing Gwen and Ken to actually get about their day job and reconvened in IMMA in the afternoon for a walk around the exhibition.
The first thing which is striking about Patricia is her youthful exuberance and radiant beauty. She’s bubbly and vivacious from the get-go. I’m almost sure we hugged each other upon meeting. “I don’t think I’ve ever been properly interviewed by a journalist,” she says as we sit down. This, in itself, is exhilarating. We all know those people who have had countless conversations about themselves and trot out a well-worn narrative. This is fresh, unguarded and a voyage of discovery for me.
Born in Rathmines in “19 and 43”, Patricia is the last of her family left. She had three sisters and one brother. Her mum died from cancer when she was 17, a year before she met her husband Joe Doherty.
“My dad was living alone and all my sisters were gone cause they were older than me. My dad dreaded minding me in case I got pregnant which was the worst thing that could happen in Dublin in that day.” She met Joe from the Liberties at a disco in a tennis club in Rathmines.
“There were these amazing big drawn out dinners in this room and that stuck with me, all these artists talking rubbish I liked to hear.”
“When I brought him home, Joe had a pioneer pin on him, it didn’t last long but he had one on him. He came in and got the third degree and was asked where he worked. He said, ‘I’m an apprentice cooper in Guinness’ and my dad’s eyes rolled with delight cause he was going to have a pension.”
Back in the day this would be seen as a solid and Joe a keeper. They were married in ’63 and set up home in Deansgrange (Joe preferred to consider it Foxrock) with an interest free mortgage which the state provided at the time. “Everybody was getting the same house which we paid £3,000 for. Joe was on £9 a week at the time.” In many respects, Patricia found herself living a Stepford Wife style of existence rearing four children and playing the role of dutiful homemaker.
“Not only did he say ‘yes’ but he came down and gave us a big hug.”
“I had huge respect for him but he couldn’t see that. You had to prop up his ego a lot,” reflects Patricia. “He carried a burden,” says Ken, to which she responds, “Guinness kind of ruined it – first of all because of the drink but not only that, we had to be wives of Guinness men. He used to get an allowance for me. I had to dress up.
“The cooperage finished and he got into sales, going to the races and mixing with people he didn’t know, at that point it got bad. He hated what he was doing. We’d be going to a dinner and I’d be sitting along with all those wives and I said to one, ‘You look wrecked,’ and she said, ‘I was watching the television, this series I watch every week and he comes in and says you have to go.” She also remembers being hauled off to these functions where, “The men would start the talking and the jokes would come out, invariably sexist. Now they’d get a dig from somebody but they were disgusting and homophobic.”
The Company Wife (1986) in the exhibition is a study of this framing Patricia as an isolated figure nursing her gin and tonic whilst the suits hold their Guinness engaged in jovial banter. It reflects the era, one in which the Calor Kosangas Housewife of the Year was something many women were expected to aspire to for their “cookery, nurturing and basic household management skills.”
“Looking back now I wonder how in god’s name did I get away because there was nothing wrong with my husband. He was a good husband. He brought home the bacon but he was damaged by the place he worked.
“I’ll tell you what brought the marriage to an end though was this idea that he was retiring at 55. I could deal with him going to work, he was up and down with his moods and seeing a counsellor but I saw my life just going down the hill cause he really didn’t like me going out. He wanted me to be that 17-year-old girl and he used to say, ‘I wish you were like that girl when I met you.’” But life had moved on for Patricia. She had gone to NCAD in the evening and did a course in art teaching before doing another one in art and design in Rathmines.
“You’d admire them enormously but they were a bit patronising. Women like that are the ones that get things done.”
“There was no pretension with Joe,” says Ken. “He liked what he liked. He grew up watching classic Hollywood films. It was like the John Ford thing when he was asked what was the message in his movies and he said, ‘If I wanted to send a message, I’d go to Western Union.’
He was a movie guy, he basically did soundtracks for movies that weren’t recorded – The Quiet Man is his big one. He got the notes from Hollywood. He did another with Max Steiner (Casablanca, Gone with the Wind) and released it under Scannain Film Classics. I sang on The Quiet Man one in a pub.”
It was around this time that Patricia starting mixing with what one might call ‘arty types’. She’d find herself in the likes of Annaghmakerrig (the Tyrone Guthrie residency in Monaghan). “Joe, our dad, used to go and he hated it because everyone was an extrovert,” remembers Ken. “There was a Woody Allen buzz to him but then he didn’t actually like the city either,” he laughs.
“That’s it, I was married to Woody Allen,” says Patricia. “And when he’d hear the word ‘art’ his haunches would go up. The talk at these gatherings gets very competitive with one-upmanship. I used to get embarrassed in company when people weren’t nice to him.”
“I never stopped working. I’m like a musician that doesn’t ever play in a concert but plays every day because they love it.”
“When it was blazing in the summertime and everyone was going to the beach, he’d go to the cinema,” reflects Ken. “He loved the dark cinema. He had a moped and a cravat. He liked jazz but not the cool Miles Davis stuff, more Dixieland.” The portrait being cast is a man of simple tastes, yet profoundly complex emotionally.
It was at these Annaghmakerrig occasions that Ken recollects being exposed to food which kindled his interest. He was around 14 at the time. “There were these amazing big drawn out dinners in this room and that stuck with me, all these artists talking rubbish I liked to hear. Everyone was so relaxed. They were talking about stuff that felt at the time it didn’t matter but looking back it did. I remember roast duck one night and there were even vegetarians there – my mind was opened to this new world.”
“He adored his daughters but he didn’t like women,” muses Patricia. “He used to think women had no sound for music and couldn’t understand it. This was because I wasn’t prepared to sit for hours listening. I used to cook tripe for him and I really hate tripe.” The great irony here is that tripe is one of the many less considered dishes which Assassination Custard have made a staple of their culinary ingenuity. You may find lamb’s neck or kidneys on the menu but also collard greens, chard and their signature panella. The name of their cafe derives from a story about how James Joyce and Nora Barnacle brought Samuel Beckett a gift of an Assassination Custard after Shaw had been stabbed by a pimp.
“He met a director who took a fancy to him and maybe he did because he was gay. Joe was very good looking,” considers Patricia.
“He used to talk about that a lot,” says Ken. “I’d go for drinks with him and he’d kind of be going, ‘what’s that about’ but he’d talk about it so much that you’d wonder.”
“He used to love Errol Flynn,” adds Patricia. “I remember him saying one time, ‘If I was going to be gay for anyone I’d be gay for him.’ Why would you even say that? I’m going to give you all a medal afterwards for being psychiatrists because I never thought of it before,” she says with a hearty laugh. “I got separated in ’89 (Ken was 15). Finally we got divorced. it was still a disruption to everyone’s life.”
And now to a twist in this tale. Patricia went on to live her second life with her now partner Therry Rudin who she met in Annaghmakerrig. Rudin is patiently waiting in a car outside having driven them up from their home in Roscrea that morning. The Swiss artist had also been previously married but these two women found the love of each other and went on to become the first civil partnership on this island and “probably the oldest too,” laughs Patricia.
“I am one of five sisters and I adored them all, being the youngest. Berna was my next sister and she was the third to die from cancer. She adored Therry. She knew she was dying and said, ‘I’d love for the two of you to have a civil partnership.’ And I said but we can’t because it isn’t legal until June and I was talking to the doctor who said she is going to die fairly soon so we went to the courts. We were brought into the family courts to this man who looked very stern up at the top and I was like, ‘Jesus I’m going to have to beg this fellow now’. We told him our story and asked if it could be moved forward for us and not only did he say ‘yes’ but he came down and gave us a big hug and said, ‘I have never met a couple as old as you doing this. Fair dues to you.’ This was 2010. She died six weeks afterwards but she came to the wedding. It was such a lovely start to our relationship.”
Our photographer Malcolm McGettigan shoots some portraits as Ken gets his sharpie out to scrawl down the menu for the day, on both sides of a brown paper bag. I escort Patricia over to the car to meet Therry and we agree to reconvene in IMMA in the afternoon.
Upon arrival we meet Johanne Mullan, the curator who has worked on bringing over 70 of Hurl’s works together over the last six months to create Irish Gothic. It is clear from the way Patricia warmly embraces all staff members that she is so grateful for this moment and opportunity.
Whilst the exhibition has been on, Mullen recollects someone dropping in mentioning they have a Patricia Hurl. This is quite unique as very little of her work is in hands of collectors. “As far as I knew all you were doing was painting the landscapes and lilies that you sold on Merrion Square,” says Ken. But Patricia was also exploring her own life and existence in a far more profound way. She had become an activist fighting the good fight of her time as issues such as women’s rights and sexual autonomy started to headbutt the establishment of church and state. She traces her protest roots back to her dad.
“He was a teacher up in Derry who was born in 1894. He was in the Civil War on Dev’s side but never spoke about it. He was terrified of the new rebels – the IRA – and disassociated himself from them. He was really honourable and used to say we lost that and can’t go about killing people anymore. He didn’t want any of us to get any notions but I was always out marching on the street.”
She didn’t take the Contraceptive Train to Belfast in ’71 because she was pregnant at the time but was there waiting for them upon return. “They were all very middle class – doctor this and that – they were great talkers but also intimidating. They were like the suffragettes, you’d admire them enormously but they were a bit patronising. Women like that are the ones that get things done.”
She recalls unfurling black flags at the British embassy to mark the lives of those lost on Bloody Sunday in ’72. “We got them out on the balconies and they went up on fire. They were seen on the television. You chalk up something to yourself.”
Ken remembers the Wood Quay protests of ’78 as his first foray with his mum when the citizenry marched to attempt to prevent the building of the Dublin City Council headquarters and preserve the archaeological and historical integrity of the site.
It is merely coincidental that two of her works on show relate to the The Kerry Babies trial of 1984 which is back in the news of late owing to the arrest of a couple in relation to the death of Baby John. At the time, suspicion fell upon an innocent single mother Joanne Hayes who was pilloried and shamed in a tribunal which lurched into a moral showtrial of its time, not just putting Hayes on trial but all women who were considered to lead lives of dubious standards. This oil on canvas from 1997 and its accompanying study across the room depict the all-male tribunal as faceless, shadowlands of dispassion and opprobrium.
“I was in an organisation called WAAG (Women’s Artist Action Group) and we were affiliated to the Guerrilla Girls in New York, trotting after them. I just wanted to do the judges like crows. At the time we were fuming, we used to go to the courthouse and leave flowers outside. Everybody knew the ridiculousness of the whole thing. I chickened out of this one thing where I was asked if a slide of mine could be projected across the Liffey. I was so frightened, also about her (Joanne).”
As we walk around the exhibition, we also encounter depictions of Patricia’s miscarriage and subsequent abortion. These are powerful statements which resonate to this day. “I never expected you to put that up,” she says referring to Pregnant Figure with Bathtub (1983). “This is probably the most graphic thing I ever did. When I was told my baby was dead, they wouldn’t do anything for me because abortion wasn’t allowed but it had to be aborted. They kept telling me the baby would drop and I’d have a spontaneous abortion but it never happened and I had to go in screaming and roaring. Finally they put me on a drip, it’s just dreadful what used to happen, that was regular.” There are Harp Lager notebooks on display in a glass cabinet (Guinness related perks). One is dated 1973 and says ‘miscarriage’ on the cover while another is from 1977 and says, ‘Baby Joseph, died Nov. 29th’.
It is fair to say that Hurl was being recognised as an artist of note in the ‘80s. She graduate from IADT with first class honours in Fine Art in 1984. Her expressionistic and layered brushstrokes stood out. “I used to paint them perfectly with a proper face and always hated them and used to get my fingers (she goes up to canvas of Irish Gothic to indicate the smudge and swirl, we all gasp a little and then realise it is her work so she’s allowed to do this). It just happened, it’s like somebody moving, I never wanted to do a statue.” She received a GPA award for Emerging Artists in 1988 and won the Irish Life/Sunday Independent award for Visual Arts in 1989.
This came off the back of The Living Room: Myths and Legends, her solo exhibition in Temple Bar Gallery & Studios in the summer of 1988. Hurl painted a word-carpet on the floor, brought in her own bookcase populated with her feminist literature such as Marilyn French’s The Woman’s Room. There was a sofa and TV, the components of the suburban idyll which stood in marked contrast to the work on the walls.
“I was terrified to have this show. A lot of work definitely wasn’t done with the idea of it ever being shown. It got horrible reviews and a lot of my friends hated it, they thought I was attacking them.” In hindsight, it seems the material Hurl was showing was too raw and sensitive for its time, one in which a nation was on the cusp of ushering in great change but not quite there yet. Hurl retreated from exposing her work in such a way again and concentrated on lecturing in DIT in Fine Art which she did up until 2009 whilst continuing to prolifically create work, albeit mostly for herself.
“I never stopped working. I’m like a musician that doesn’t ever play in a concert but plays every day because they love it. I never wanted money for my art because I could never ask for what I felt they were worth. I’d give them away first. Until IMMA came in, I never sold a single thing.” They purchased a number of her works a few years ago. Most remain ‘courtesy of the artist’. “I put my life in their hands and am so grateful.”
As she walks by her work, it’s fascinating to see how the curation of Irish Gothic brings a new realisation to the importance of her work… “I had no idea that that was interesting,” she says referring to The Beauty of Ireland (1984), a triptych of work on the back of CIE Tours posters which she found in a skip as a source of a free canvas. “That was for the bin,” she says of a self-portrait of her with a dunce hat and a chalkboard with mathematical equations. “I can’t do sums.”
One motif which is evident in Irish Gothic and smartly accentuated as you pass through rooms is the use of yellow, a colour which bizarrely a tutor of Patricia said she shouldn’t use as a primary colour. She did. Extensively. You’ll see it in Ennui (1985), The Woman in the Yellow Box (1985), Trick or Treat (1989), All Fall Down (1989) and elsewhere in everything from clocks to dresses and moons.
Patricia is now part of Na Cailleacha along with Therry. There are eight artists, writers, curators and film-makers, spanning the age of 71 to 83 who are on a mission to explore their sources of creativity in old age. “It’s the best thing I did during lockdown, we’d Zoom every week and have done six shows already. We pick a theme and all work on it. This time it’s Paula Rego, we are using her as a role model. It’s great fun, we are not copying her work but responding to it.” Irish Gothic includes Dawn to Dusk, a film by Therry observing the collective. She is also working on a documentary about Patricia.
“I never expected it, that is the joy of all this. I feel like the luckiest person in the whole world.”
Other inspirations for Hurl include Louise Bourgeois and Frida Kahlo – trailblazers of their time. “When I was growing up, they showed that I could do it too because it was all men.” An obvious influence is also Francis Bacon, “our subject matter would be miles apart but his writing would be much more important to me.”
A hoarder which Ken admits is a trait of his too, Patricia thankfully kept everything which presented a restoration and selection challenge for Joanne and the team. One notebook entry reads, “Ken’s hair hippy style down his back – looking gorgeous too – I have beautiful children.”
As our afternoon comes to an end, Patricia remains overcome with happiness about what this means to her. “I never expected it, that is the joy of all this. I feel like the luckiest person in the whole world, there are so many people this could happen to.” As we bade farewell, she considers this moment of recognition and discovery. “It’s time to die,” she laughs. And, for once, I know she’s telling a bare-face lie.
Irish Gothic is at IMMA until May 21.
Words: Michael McDermott
Photos: Malcolm McGettigan