Famous for 15 Minutes – The Story of Andy, Bill and Séamus

Posted 8 months ago in Arts & Culture Features

Our editor meets the artist Séamüs and hears a tale involving Andy Warhol and Bill Cunningham.

“I grew up in the north inner city of Dublin, on a street where James Joyce’s short story Araby is set, and used to lie to my parents as a teenager and go hang out in the Hugh Lane Gallery on Sunday mornings in Parnell Square for the art and the music.

My father in 1960 had rebuilt a burnt out Georgian house near the half destroyed grandeur of Mountjoy Square and the tenements of Summerhill, at the edge of the Georgian city. On old maps our house had been No 1 Richmond Crescent, later renumbered to 603 when the North Circular Road was created, and in the early mornings we could watch herds of cattle and sheep come down the road on their way to be exported at the docks. Glass milk bottles arrived at our door from whirring electric vans and coal was delivered in sacks off the back of a horse drawn wagon and poured down the metal coal holes into the bunkers under the pavement. We could get at the coal from a door in front of our “area”, which we whitewashed enthusiastically every year to bounce more light into the basement kitchen. We paid £8 ground rent to some family called the Gore Booths, who we never met, who may have bought the land from an old religious order.

I was the youngest of five kids who all went to the local single gender schools, O’Connells Christian Brothers and Eccles Street Nuns. We played in the neighbourhood, shopped in Moore Street once a week, and could walk into O’Connell street in 10 minutes passed the spot where a bomb exploded in Parnell Street in the 1970s. I sang in the Palestrina choir as a little boy in the looming old Pro Cathedral and we visited my aunt’s newspaper and sweetshop at the bottom of Henrietta Street. Anything outside the canals was exotic, such as a trip to Dollymount or Howth, or walking in the Wicklow hills at the weekend. Suburbs were foreign places where almost nobody we knew lived, except my posh aunt Margaret who lived in antique filled grandeur in Kenilworth Square and rented the top of her house to Mr Pussy, a famous drag entertainer.

A few studious years in Trinity (I had no idea where UCD was, we were a TCD family) had given me a chance to go to several universities but I chose NYU, which I had never heard of, because some friends I trusted said, ‘oh you’re gay you will love New York,’ and they were right.

I landed one snowy January in NYC in 1987 and stayed the first night with a friend’s brother on Rivington Street on the Lower East Side. The burnt out buildings and empty lots of the L.E.S. seemed vaguely familiar, as if all cities had similar zones of decay, dereliction and dilapidation. As I walked the next morning to my new university I crossed Broadway and realised for the first time, Broadway is the name of a street! NYU gave us foreign students a visa, a teaching assistantship and a place to live in the shiny new grad student dorm on 3rd Avenue and 9th Street, at the entrance to the East Village, and I lived in downtown Manhattan for the next 27 years. A damper on this exciting new situation was imposed by the IRS who had just announced they were going to tax grad student’s incomes, so I had $12 a day to live on after rent and this seemed totally inadequate. I had a list of people who I vaguely associated with New York, Susan Sontag and Andy Warhol were top of the list, but Warhol suddenly died from a botched operation and it was big news.

At the suggestion of a friend Paul Cullen on the phone from Dublin I decided to make T-shirts. I made a collaged repeated image of Warhol with the date he died and a quote, “I have a social disease, I go out every night,” and found a silk screen printer and set up a table on St Marks Place to have a go selling them to make some extra money. There were some enthusiastic buyers, and I put them in Patricia Field’s very fashionable shop and some other places when I realised selling on the street was pretty slow. One day I was stopped on the street by a photographer named Bill who asked where I got it and I talked with him and he took my picture and I was pleased but forgot about it. A few weeks later one of my professors came over to me at coffee and said, do you know your picture is in the New York Times? There I was, photographed by Bill Cunningham wearing my shirt under a headline “Famous for 15 minutes”.

Bill Cunningham had rather comically described me as, “an Irish artist who calls himself Séamus,” and I thought how easy it is to do things here. A few days later the stop and desist letter arrived from a lawyer that Warhol’s manager had hired, saying they owned the commercial rights to his image. I found a pro bono attorney through Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts at the tip top firm of Skadden Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom. I went up to their glamorous offices in a midtown high rise where a copyright expert explained that I would probably lose any case, laughed at the law firm they used, and called them to say I was just a student and I would stop. She accepted some t-shirts as symbolic payment and I went downtown rather relieved that it all ended so simply. In fact Warhol said in the future everyone will be on television for 15 minutes.

I came back to Dublin in 2015 for the 50th birthday party of John Fingleton, where I met the wonderful Harold Clarke who was the first to restore a house on North Great Georges Street, in the 1960s when he worked at Easons. We lived together in Dublin until he died last year, which is sad because he won’t be able to come with me to the big ANDY WARHOL show now open at the Hugh Lane Gallery overseen by the energetic director Barbara Dawson. My youthful wanderings through the Hugh Lane must have formed my taste for old pictures as my favourite painting in the Frick Collection on Fifth Avenue is Titian’s Man with the Red Hat, which I learnt only recently was sold to Frick by Hugh Lane!”

The artist formerly known as Séamus has acquired an umlaut and is now Séamüs


Words: Michael McDermott

Andy Warhol Three Times Out is at The Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin until January 28, 2024.


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