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Cúchulainn tapestries (c.1973-99)



The Táin was illustrated by le Brocquy in a proliferation of superb black brush drawings which he modestly described as "shadows thrown by the text"... Such an impact was made by the Táin drawings in Kinsella's book that le Brocquy made a series of lithographs in a larger scale of key images from the book. The drawings transferred with ease to the larger size, while retaining their spontaneous character of brush drawings in Black ink. A vivid immediacy of movement was the essence of these single images. The theme of the Táin gave rise to a fresh surge of creative activity in the realm of tapestry, completely different from the earlier series. The first Tain tapestry was commissioned by the architects Scott Tallon Walker for P.J. Carroll & C.'s cigarette factory in Dundalk, Co. Louth. While the subject of the Tain may not immediately relate to cigarettes, the location of the factory is close to the legendary action of the epic, so that the artist chose the theme to relate the local mythology. The Táin, which is an Irish word meaning "hosting" or gathering of a large crowd for a raid, gave the theme of the tapestry. It is a very large work (407 x 610 cms) with its surface completely covered in multi-coloured heads, all facing the spectator. These heads retain that relentless individuality of single beings having no relationship to their neighbour; lacking Roman order, there are no military ranks, no imposed external form, the mass of heads is held together by an inner, inherent order, like a flock of plover. "In this tapestry", le Brocquy has said, "I have tried to produce a sort of group or mass emergence of human presence, features uncertain - merely shadowed blobs or patches - but vaguely analogous perhaps in terms of woven colour to the weathered, enduring stone boss-heads of Clonfert or Entremont - or of Dysert O'Dea... This poses a difficult pictorial problem. Pictorially a mass of individuals, conscious of each other, implies incident - better left to photography perhaps. In Clonfert each individual head is conscious only of the viewer vertically facing it. This I think is the secret of their mass regard. Each head is self-contained, finally a lump of presence. No exchange or incident takes place between their multiplied features." In an interview for Hibernia in 1970, I asked him whether he had been undaunted at the thought of treating this very large architectural surface with such a fragmented image. He replied: " A work like this certainly implies a big claim on other people, a big responsibility. I am very aware of this, but I was not nervous of the fragmented or multiple image. On the contrary, it was this image which encouraged me by suggesting a way in which the head-unit might be transformed into a vast honeycomb or mosaic, giving some kind of cohesion or vibration to the architectural surface."
Dorothy Walker, 1981.

Following the large Carroll's tapestry, le Brocquy designed a series of six smaller Táin tapestries with similar patterns of irregular oval heads; the minute, irregular "features" of the faces, even on this tiny scale, assert the individuality of the members of the crowd. One of the tapestries, Men of Connacht, composed of rows of black heads casting a grey shadow behind them, achieves an effect like the traditional "lace" stone-wall of Connemara. It recalls the legend of a king who shared the Celtic identification of the stone boss with the head, to the extent of attacking a stone wall under the illusion (admittedly cast buy a spell) that he was dealing with upstanding warriors. All of the Táin tapestries were woven in Aubusson, and in them the artist has contrived a masterly conjunction between the narrative content of the epic, his own and the ancient Celtic concern of the head image and the visual and architectural demands of a large modern wall-hanging. Le Brocquy has designed only two tapestries for the V'soske Joyce hand-looms at Oughterard, Co. Galway, which have made many tapestries for the other Irish artists. The first, made in the early sixties, is quite unusual for le Brocquy but does take advantage of the relief possibilities inherent in the arbitrarily cropped surface of the wool. It is based on his painting of a procession of girls carrying lilies, with a white linear outline depicting the figures of girls recessed into the rich blue surface of the tapestry. This work is very close to his early St. Brendan the Navigator, made for the same firm P.J. Carroll & Co., which also used a white narrative line on a tobacco-brown ground for the legend of Saint Brendan's sixth-century voyage across the North Atlantic.

NOTE: (The other works relating to the Táin are: Cuchulainn I 1973, Cuchulainn II 1973, Cuchulainn III 1973, Cuchulainn IV 1973, Cuchulainn V 1973, Cuchulainn VI 1977. In 1999 the artist has added to this series three further designs: Cuchulainn VII, Cuchulainn VIII, Cuchulainn IX.)