Lives Remembered

Micky Donnelly: Belfast painter 'helped put Northern Ireland's visual arts on international map'

Micky Donnelly died aged 66 on September 13 

MICKY Donnelly has been described as “one of the major artists responsible for putting Northern Ireland’s visual arts on the international map”.

The Belfast man exhibited his paintings in Europe, America, Japan, New Zealand and Mexico and his work also features in collections around the world, including the European Parliament.

He received many awards and was elected a member of the Aosdána group of leading Irish artists.

His sudden death aged 66, from a catastrophic bleed to the brain caused by an underlying condition, also came as he was working on his second novel and just a day before he was due to start a new life in Donegal with his partner.

Born in Andersonstown in 1952, Micky was educated at the Christian Brothers Grammar School on the Glen Road where he showed a talent for both art and science – and initially pursued the latter, beginning a course in maths, computer science and astronomy at Queen’s University.

He joined People’s Democracy and became active politically as Belfast was convulsed by the Troubles, and in 1973 left his studies to take on a testing job as a social worker in Divis Flats.

After two years, his thoughts returned to art and he enrolled at the University of Ulster’s School of Art in the city centre.

Donnelly initially worked mainly in sculpture but a mix-up which saw some work accidentally recycled had the happy result of redirecting his attention to painting.

Graduating with a BA and MA, he became heavily involved in the early 1980s with the Artists Collective and Queen Street Studios, and was a founder member of Circa magazine of contemporary art.

He was awarded an Arts Council scholarship for the British School at Rome, where Italian renaissance art would become an important influence.

Donnelly had been questioning political, religious and societal norms from an early age and his critiques as an artist often employed familiar cultural images, such as Easter lillies, James Connolly’s hat or Edward Carson’s statue, but transposed onto abstracted backgrounds.

Micky Donnelly's early work often set Irish cultural images such as lilies and hats against abstracted backgrounds, such as the 1987 work Lily Among the Hats

His Belfast Series of the early 1990s also used street murals and graffiti, while his Reflex Series featured Rorschach-like inkblots.

He relocated for a time from Belfast’s Ormeau Road to Dublin, where his later work would introduce greater elements of randomness and ambiguity.

“It attempts to provide an antidote to the dull rhetoric of habit and repetition. As part of a general aspiration, it aims, in the first instance, towards a heightened joy in ‘looking’ and 'seeing’ as a means of engaging more intensely with the everyday world,” he said.

One of Micky Donnelly's recent works, entitled The River As Not No 10

Suzanne Lyle of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland said he was “a key figure in the development of the contemporary visual arts scene here in the 1980s and 1990s”.

“The body of work he leaves behind will ensure his lasting place among the front rank of Northern Irish painters.”

Taylor Galleries in Dublin also said he was “an immensely talented artist with a wickedly dry sense of humour” who would be sadly missed.

Micky Donnelly died in Sligo on September 13 and his donated kidneys and lung were used to give three people the gift of life.

At his funeral in Belfast, eulogies spoke of his lasting legacy as an artist, writer and teacher, having left an indelible impression on students on courses across Ireland.

He is survived by his partner Yvonne, sister Colette and brothers Paddy, Brendan, Ciarán and Dermot.

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Lives Remembered