Rock of ages: Ancient Celtic rock art inspires modern exhibition

Rock art - man-made markings from a prehistoric age, which remain preserved in parts of Ireland - are the inspiration behind a new exhibition by Co Antrim artist Seanna O Boyle-Irvine. Jane Hardy finds out more.

Artist Seanna O Boyle-Irvine found inspiration for this piece in the prehistoric rock art found at Killykeeghan Nature Reserve in Fermanagh. Dr Rebecca Enlander says they form part of a large cluster of rock art found in the Cavan and Fermanagh area, centred on Cuilcagh Mountain. "The Killykeeghan example is a rounded sandstone boulder located beside a sinkhole, and is decorated with two large and one smaller cup-and-ring mark," she says.

A cursory glance at Seanna O Boyle-Irvine's first solo show, Hidden But Not Hidden, indicates it's a contemporary exhibition. There's a pretty abstract approach in the canvases, with gold sun-like orbs and dark slabs of colour and non-representional sketches.

Yet in fact the exhibition, which runs at Whitehead Community Centre until Friday, is based on Celtic rock art that is thousands of years old.

The artist and craftworker's interest began on holiday off the west coast of Ireland, where she was inspired by some "ancient, 5,000 year old" oak sculptures.

The exhibition is a diversion of sorts for O Boyle-Irvine (56) from her day job, a successful business called Mise Handmade that produces attractive rustic furniture from sustainably sourced woods.

One of the artworks she created was a wooden sculpture in the Barbara Hepworth manner, Cry from the Bog (2021). She has an ability to fashion something new out of primitive, beautiful materials. When I put this to her, she says: "That's a big compliment but yes, I enjoy working with this wood."

We discuss artistic influence and O Boyle-Irvine reveals that Turner, the 19th century visionary artist behind The Fighting Temeraire, has affected her style.

"I hadn't seen his paintings until fairly recently but when I did was amazed at how abstract his canvases were, with their use of light," she says.

That blazing quality of light in a painting is something this artist may have acquired, albeit on a smaller scale.

One of O Boyle-Irvine's paintings shows a kind of landscape divided into three, with top left a Turnerish yellow opposite thick white, plus relaxed circles drawn on the surface.

Researching the prehistoric art, O Boyle-Irvine linked up with archaeologist Dr Rebecca Enlander, an expert in rock art who works in the Historic Environment Division at the Department for Communities.

Rock art expert Dr Rebecca Enlander from the Historic Environment Division at the Department for Communities, Mayor of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, William McCaughey and artist Seanna O Boyle-Irvine at the Hidden But Not Hidden exhibition.

The term 'rock art' refers to artistic creation made by prehistoric man, including the famous, sophisticated French paintings of animals in the caves in Lascaux, Dordogne. They are practical, documenting the wildlife primitive man killed, ate and admired, yet have a needless delicacy in the detail.

Enlander says dating the Celtic variations is tough: "The primary difficulty would be to date the art. The Lascaux caves art is palaeolithic, the material in Ireland is neolithic - in other words quite a bit later."

There are stylistic differences too, as Dr Enlander notes: "The Irish work is completely abstract with curvilinear shapes."

You can't help wondering why it was taboo for early Irish artists to represent people or indeed animals realistically. Was it religion or something else? "It's probably about ritual rather than religion," says Dr Enlander, adding that this extremely early art reaches across the centuries: "There's definitely an aesthetic quality we can relate to now."

Seanna O Boyle-Irvine's Rock Art at Drumirrill. Over half of the known rock art for counties Louth and Monaghan is located within this single townland of Drumirrill in Monaghan. Fragments of Early Neolithic pottery were recovered from two separate deposits at the site, with evidence of metallic material, comparable to Bronze Age metallurgical waste. The results of the excavation revealed that a complex series of activities had taken place at Drumirill - the only excavation to have taken place at a rock art site in Ireland.

It has to do with an appreciation of the landscape and early man's relationship with it. These rock paintings exist in places such as the Killykeegan nature reserve in Fermanagh and in Co Down. They are hidden treasures but thanks to this exhibition, they may become a bit better known.

O Boyle-Irvine, the woman who's joined up the dots, has followed a circuitous route towards her current career in fine art and craft.

"I'm from west Belfast but was born near Lusaka in Zambia as Dad had gone out with British Telecom. I haven't been back since, maybe one day..." she explains. At about three, she returned to Belfast, moving into Glen Road.

She reveals that art was not her favourite subject at school: "I didn't do art O-level and was more scientifically inclined. My dream was to become a marine biologist." That didn't happen as the future artist had had enough of education.

Her CV unfurled, with work at British Telecom, a brief encounter with training as a nurse ("I found it very clinical, not enough about the people...") even though that profession is in the family too.

Then came a bit of a breakthrough. O Boyle-Irvine designed bodhráns covering them with "great goat skins, although calf skins can be used too". After six enjoyable years, during which the designer learnt about traditional making, a period of office work ensued. She qualified in graphic design, gaining an HND at Belfast Met down the line.

That was productive for another reason too: "That's when I met my husband, Erskine Irvine. He works for the Bangor Spectator and we started a free sheet newspaper together."

The Larne Echo, reliant on advertising and home delivered, reached a circulation of 28,000: "We ended it in 2013 after three years, as my husband got another job."

Seanna O Boyle-Irvine was inspired by the rock art at Magheranaul at Doagh Island, near Carndonagh in Co Donegal for this piece. This style, says Dr Rebecca Enlander, "frequently occurs on flat, heavily fissured outcrops of pelite and schistose pelite". "The southern slope of the landscape affords the outcrops an elevated view of the water. The carvings employed range greatly from isolated cupmarks and discs, to more elaborate radial, grid and cartouche designs."

During a sabbatical, O Boyle-Irvine got creative. Using her dad Sean's garage, she started working with wood.

"I'd always loved wood, it's my medium," she explains.

"I moved to producing Celtic stools but also did stuff for Easter, for Mother's Day.

"And even wee signs like 'Drunk and disorderly'."

Feeling tired of the commercial side of things and stress of constant production, Seanna and her husband discussed her future direction, as she explains: "I said, 'I'm not making anything ever again.' And he said, 'Why not make something you want to make?'"

So she did. After creating beautiful three and four-legged stools ("It's essential to find balance, and they have more balance.") she moved on to sculpture and then visual art.

All these skills came together in the rock art exhibition, her first solo show which has unsurprisingly seen her paintings acquire quite a few red 'sold' dots.

O Boyle-Irvine says she used a polymerised marble dust paste to create the 3D effect found in the pieces because it "hardens to a stone-like consistency once dry".

"Into this I marked the shapes using my father's 3-pronged pipe cleaner tool," she explains.

"I painted using acrylics in earthy tones with some have hints of an horizon, all to place the symbols back into their environment - the natural landscape.

"I added an extra layer of my own symbolism with pieces of either bog pine or bog oak (both of which have been dated by Queen's University Belfast), referencing the antiquity of these markings and some 24 carat gold gilding as I wanted to stress the value of these cultural treasures."

And although O Boyle-Irvine has signed each piece - albeit on the back - in a nod to our ancestors who had no written words, she has also added her thumbprint, "which I thought was more fitting for these ancient works of art".

Hidden But Not Hidden, Seanna O Boyle-Irvine's solo exhibition inspired by rock art runs at Whitehead Community Centre, Kings Road, Whitehead, Co Antrim until April 29. More at

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