Veteran reporter unveils a story of Cold War intrigue under a Donegal canvas

A chance stopover in a Donegal pub ended in an international art search for BBC reporter Kevin Magee. He tells Gail Bell how he travelled from New York to Russia in search of famous Donegal paintings by controversial American artist Rockwell Kent

US artist Rockwell Kent's 'Annie' picture which depicts a dramatic skyline with the Donegal girl lying on the cliffs Picture courtesy of Plattsburgh State Art Museum
Gail Bell

WITH its enigmatic subject matter and dramatic sky, a famous painting of "ordinary" Donegal girl Annie McGinley has led BBC journalist Kevin Magee on an investigation like no other.

The hard-hitting reporter has recently been indulging his artistic side following a chance encounter with the painting he found hanging in a pub in Glencolmcille, Co Donegal.

It wasn't the original 'Annie' – that was traced to a family in New York – but the reproduction of the work by famous American artist Rockwell Kent that struck a chord and led to the making of Ar Lorg Annie – Searching For Annie – which goes out on BBC2 Northern Ireland this Sunday.

"The painting of Annie McGinley lying on the Donegal cliffs caught my eye and I was immediately hooked," Magee enthuses. "I had been on a cycle ride across the county and stopped off at the pub.

"It made me want to find out more. At one time Kent was a household name in the United States, but very little was known about the time he spent working in the Donegal Gaeltacht and I wanted to change that and uncover his story.

"His Donegal paintings are spectacular and in the film they are brought to a local audience for the first time. When I started out I didn't realise my search would bring me to galleries and private collections across the world."

The reporter's quest to uncover the "real Annie" led him from New York to St Petersburg and reveals a tale of political intrigue, a hint of romance and lifelong friendships as Kent – a controversial figure due to his socialist leanings in the anti-communist McCarthy era – quickly fell in love with rugged Donegal.

"It is a fascinating tale, with this famous artist arriving in Ireland in 1926 with his second wife and befriending and painting the locals as well as the landscape," Magee explains. "He turned out 36 paintings in four months, while living in a converted cow shed belonging to sheep farmer Dan Ward.

BBC reporter Kevin Magee on location in picturesque Glenlough, Co Donegal

"When we traced the original Annie McGinley to New York, we discovered the family had another painting in their possession, one of Annie's father carrying a poteen still in the moonlight. They didn't realise the connection – the paintings are worth about a million dollars between them."

Research also threw up intriguing details about Kent himself, including how he had his passport confiscated by the US State Department – a decision which prevented the artist from making a permanent painting base in Ireland.

"Kent always kept in touch with his Donegal friends and was keen to take up an offer from Dan Ward to buy the farm where he had stayed at Glenlough, outside Glencolmcille in the Gaeltacht area," Magee says.

"Unfortunately, he had no passport and by the time he successfully sued and got it back, it was too late; the land was sold to someone else.

"In the paranoia of the McCarthy era, the Americans assumed Kent was a 'Red' because of his socialist sympathies, but the artist always maintained he had made contact with the Russians in order to contribute to denuclearisation.

Controversial American artist Rockwell Kent

"The case resulted in a landmark judgment and afterwards it became enshrined in US law that no American citizen could be deprived of their passport."

After his passport was returned, Kent, by now sorely miffed at the Americans, opened an exhibition of his work in Moscow and later donated half his private collection to the Soviet people – including some of his Irish paintings, one of which was of his former landlord, Dan Ward, captured on a giant haystack.

"It's funny to think that these Irish paintings were part of a propaganda battle between Americans and Russians at the height of the Cold War," muses Magee, who interviewed [in Irish] living relatives of those immortalised in the paintings.

"Kent did return to Donegal again, in the late 1950s, and looked up his old friends, Annie McGinley and Dan Ward. By that time, Annie was living in Teelin, married to a fisherman and had reared 12 children. He said he could no longer dance a jig with her."

Annie's daughter Briege, now 83 and living in Killybegs, is interviewed for the programme, as well as Mary Ward, a niece of Dan's. To add more intrigue, it was discovered that Kent had given Annie a small replica of his painting of her, but its whereabouts today are unknown.

As well as finding the paintings, Magee says he wanted to scrape back the surface brushwork and reveal the hidden stories underneath. The result? "An extraordinary true-life story that often reads like fiction."

Dan Ward's Stack by Rockwell Kent Picture courtesy of the the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

:: Ar Lorg Annie, a Macha Media production for BBC Gaeilge, was made with support from Northern Ireland Screen's Irish Language Broadcast Fund; it airs at 10.15pm on BBC2 Northern Ireland on Sunday June 24.

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