PAINTING 'MOTHER IRELAND' American artist Edmund Sullivan tells how Ireland has come to dominate his work

Landscape artist Edmund Sullivan, whose work since 1976 has focused on Ireland, is often mistaken for an Irish native, but the former Marine, in his own words, has "9,000 years of Irish red blood ... flowing through my American veins." He is the first American painter in history to focus his life's work on Ireland, and returns there often. In an exclusive, 3-part series, Sullivan relates how he came to turn his artistry to "Mother Ireland."


American artist Edmund Sullivan tells how Ireland has come to dominate his work

By Edmund Sullivan
Special to


Edmund Sullivan
Edmund Sullivan, painting Croagh Patrick in 1977.

Through the years and many shows, interviews and articles, I progressed in my career. I stopped recording all that happened in the mid-80s, because of the high cost of printing catalogs and the space required to record all of it. Showing my Irish work seemed more relevant to my patrons' interests.

During those years, I married, and had two sons Edmund and Thomas. They now are fine young men with excellence as their wake and prosperity in mind, body, and soul awaiting them if they continue straightaway.

I decided in those family years to stay close to home, investing in the love and warmth of family life. I knew soliciting and networking is a grand Irish tradition, but I chose to stay in the quiet of reflection and the kind spirit of family and peace and spirit.

I can brag that I have never had a dull conversation with my fellow Irish.

My forays into a world I noticeably retreated from brought me into Irish homes via the phone. Making myself accessible to any and all soon brought me into the eternal heart of the Irish-American and native Irish experience in America. They taught me about me through themselves and their own ancestries. I listened and also shared. I came to know the depth and grace and intelligence and integrity of the Irish. I brag not of myself, but of them, for I am them and have come to a fulfillment of life beyond the interior drama of creating art on canvas.

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I know I will not be asked in heaven about what I painted but how I loved. I keep that before me everyday. I can brag that I have never had a dull conversation with my fellow Irish. We are a wonderful group of God's people, and I can fill a book with story upon story of encounters of soul relating to soul

So what is an artist? Possibly just a soul whose chosen journey started before time, who had the unconscious desire turned by circumstance into reality on earth. Who saw, felt intuited, agonized, suffered, and not, spent days with the muses and won and lost, lived every moment seeking that which lay before him unseen but waiting for the veil to be lifted. Being a creature of light and all that light had to offer. Seizing life with hunger and passion. That very quality that undercurrents the human soul. Capturing glints of truth and beauty through a language internally felt and revealed visually.

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I often try to reach out to my Irish fellows about what I am trying to be and do. It's really not the picture I tell them, it's about a language of the soul. Soul cannot be revealed of symbols, be it word, music, or visual. It is of course, eternal, and only recognized. And so, with the frustration and complexity of effort, the artist, this artist, continues the process of removing the illusions taught long ago, to believe, so that through reaching deep within may, just may see beyond form, be it mountain field or stream, a luminosity that has origins beyond mere mortality.

Hard indeed but what a journey! I feel that there is no other journey so revealing and so compelling as the journey of a maker of art. I believe that art aches to reveal itself through the human heart. It runs parallel, and its proof is its endurance through time and through all cultures. Man needs to leave traces of his heart's inner beauty and hopefully finds the way to do so.

An Edmund Sullivan work in progress in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, 1994.

Twenty thousand years ago man put artistic rendering of the environment, animal images, and his own-hand shape onto the walls deep and away from the living areas of his cave dwelling. Why? Perhaps to protect his efforts, to preserve his urging to be remembered aesthetically for all time. Who can tell?

Man's nature is the veiled nature of God, I hope. That nature reveals itself in truth and beauty. I know I am part of an ongoing creative hunger revealed through the medium of my particular choice. I share it with you. I need to. I am compelled to.

There are compelling reasons I chose to paint Ireland. Early in my career I said "I wanted to paint this small magnificent country before modern man changes her too much." They were prophetic words, as we can see in Ireland today. History continues, and so it must be and with it, change.

For the ancestors, for my contemporaries, for myself. I chose Ireland and Ireland chose me.

And I continue today also. For I have the same mission I began with 31 years ago. To paint Ireland. For the ancestors, for my contemporaries, for myself. I chose Ireland and Ireland chose me. Or it wouldn't be. If not art, something else. I am happy it was and is art.

There are 31years of stories and encounters that make up my canvasses. For instance, the painting titled "The Irish Coast." It is 24"x36" on Masonite, framed in driftwood and 22-karat gold. I tried for three summers to paint this scene. Bad weather and slippery, grassed slopes pushed me back to wait for safer conditions. With my French easel on my back, and umbrella and paint bag, I navigated the final year's attempt and succeeded in traversing a sheep path on the side slope of Dunquin Head. A distance of 300 feet was fought for hand over hand sideways while ducking under a relentless seagull attack the entire way. Below me were black terrible rocks in a frothy surf and certain death if that flying fortress—or what seemed to be—got its way. Being a kid from the Bronx in New York City, I had no idea of nests and protective bird assaults.


When I got to where I wished to paint, I did. I took my well-earned time and painted many 6"x8" sketches, plus made written observations regarding correct color, the cools and warms of color, and focal points to consider. The result of this adventure can be seen on my web site and of course is one of my favorite paintings. The light in it was of particular interest and how it affects the scene as well as the spiritual reasons for its use, for painting most often is about light and its observable effects.

Another painting, "A Shepherd's Farm on the Irish Coast," is one of my enduring favorites.

Edmund Sullivan, painting
A Shepherd's Farm on the Irish Coast, by Edmund Sullivan.

In 1976 I photographed and sketched it on Hogs Head, County Kerry. When I completed it back in New York, an old neighborhood friend visited me upon his release from prison. I was shocked to hear that he had killed a man in self-defense. He learned to paint in jail on bed sheets and upon his release was told by other friends from my youth that I had become an artist.

Upon observing my painting, he told me of errors. After his visit, I rethought my work based on his observations and knew he was right. A month later I flew back to Ireland and went directly to Pat and Mary Murphy's farm to really study the entire area in paint and notes. To make a 12-year story short, I painted over 50 small sketches and stayed most warmly with my new Irish friends. Pat was an old IRA sympathizer and many stories were told till 2 and 3 a.m. with waves and wind howling as backdrop just a hundred feet from his humble home. Those visits were loving encounters to the three of us. I'd walk his land with my gear in tow, looking and meditating on the grandness of life. It was all very good.


This page was produced by Joseph E. Gannon, and edited by Gerry Regan.

Copyright © 2012 GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to

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