Kevin Sharkey reflects on his bold artworks and Ireland’s multicultural era

Kevin Sharkey is opening a gallery in London (Kevin Sharkey/PA)
Kevin Sharkey is opening a gallery in London (Kevin Sharkey/PA)

It sounds like a ‘walked into a bar’ joke – Kirsty MacColl’s cleaner, a presidential hopeful and an actor who once played a priest – but these are the many faces Irish contemporary painter Kevin Sharkey has put on.

He has had a varied professional life: presenting 1980s ITV music show The Roxy, appearing in the comedy Father Ted, writing songs for German group Boney M and Irish rock band The Boomtown Rats, working in the kitchens of the Hard Rock Cafe on Hyde Park Corner and he also sought to become nominated in the 2018 Irish presidential election.

However, despite this ability to turn himself to anything, Sharkey has spoken of his rejection by his birth mother, difficulties growing up in an orphanage and eventually being homeless in 2016 during Ireland’s accommodation crisis.

Kevin Sharkey (care of Sharkey)
Artist Kevin Sharkey has spoken of growing up in care (Kevin Sharkey/PA)

In spite of, or because of, his struggles Sharkey is positively joyful in his pronouncement of why he wants to open up a gallery in the UK. Put simply, London has more of the super-rich than Dublin.

“Number one is to be closer to the millionaires and billionaires,” he tells the PA news agency. “In Ireland, we are relatively new to contemporary times whereas in London, and Europe, they’re pretty much far ahead of Ireland in terms of understanding and buying contemporary art.”

For Sharkey, it is also about reaching the lovers of contemporary art and learning from his mistakes 15 years ago, when he had a gallery in Mayfair. He says it was in the wrong location – now he has searched for seven years for the right place.

The new opening is testament to his success, as Sharkey says he has sold more than 10,000 paintings – one of his first was to rocker Bob Geldof and model Kate Moss and the Irish President Michael D Higgins are also customers.

Sharkey, who “takes great pride in the presentation” and being a “good shopkeeper” of his work, says he still does not feel part of the establishment, as he splits his time between New York and Ireland.

He said: “(In the) establishment there are two minds: the honest people who say ‘Fair play… he did it all on his own’. And the snobs who say, ‘Oh, but he didn’t do it the way we think he should have done it’.

Finding his own way for Sharkey is very much about being his own man. He admits he was “pretty unemployable” and as someone who is dyslexic, “the education system just didn’t work for me”.

This has allowed him to do what he calls “communicating an idea in a much more potent way than a painting,” by drawing on the power of people who “broke out of the box and went beyond the norm” and battling against “intolerance of any kind”.

He has done paintings of Sir Elton John as a breastfeeding mother because men had begun “to be seen as nurturers”; Katie Price as serial killer Myra Hindley, to show how “extreme” people’s reactions are to the glamour model; and another image of Pope Benedict marrying two men when he was outspoken against same-sex relationships.

20th Irish Film and Television Academy (IFTA) Awards
Rocker Bob Geldof bought one painting (Damien Eagers/PA)

Born in a mother and baby home to an Irish mother and Nigerian father in 1961, he was put up for adoption at six months old and raised by the Sharkey family in County Donegal.

However, aged 12 he was returned to the care system, remaining in a children’s home until the age of 16.

“I always say, ‘Look, this is my story. This is what happened to me’. So, you know, it’s always been important to be honest with myself, but also to be honest about what I’ve been through. If you don’t own your secrets they own you.”

Sharkey went to live in an orphanage run by the Christian brothers and a chance encounter with a woman who visited the institution led him to paint. He recalls: “I escaped how I was feeling for 25 minutes.”

Later Sharkey was reunited with his birth mother following his appearance on The Late Late Show with Gay Byrne.

He recalls that “there wasn’t going to be a relationship there” but the encounter led to him finding his birth father and the discovery that he had “15 brothers and sisters.”

There were bright spots, including those he grew up with in Donegal, whom he described as “generous, gentle and compassionate”.

His view of Donegal has changed since then and he became homeless after losing £5 million (he had made £4.5 million) as he explains “everybody in my family and everybody in the town knew about it and nobody, not one single person, offered me a room, a sofa … so it destroyed the illusion that I had a connection there and that there was a support system”.

Republic of Ireland v Northern Ireland – UEFA Women’s Nations League – Group B1 – Aviva Stadium
President of Ireland Michael D Higgins (Brian Lawless/PA)

Ireland has also changed since the time Sharkey grew up, as it has become more multi-cultural and become part of the European Union.

He says of previously supporting controversial activist Gemma O’Doherty in her own ill-fated attempt to run for the Irish presidency: “It’s quite singularly the biggest mistake I ever made in my life.”

Speaking about far right protests witnessed in Ireland in recent years, he said: “People talk about: ‘Oh Ireland, a racist country’. No, it’s not.

“It never was and it never will be because Irish people at the very core are incredibly kind, compassionate, gentle people and they welcomed me, they welcomed over new immigrants.”

Sharkey London opens in Notting Hill’s Westbourne Grove on November 1 and will be followed by a New York gallery opening in 2024.