Writer, film maker and public speaker

Published Books

Brenda Ní Shúilleabháin is a writer, film maker and public speaker. She lives in the remote and beautiful parish of Ventry, and her work draws inspiration from many areas – her native Gaelic culture, literature, the visual arts, travel, people.


due for publication by Futa Fata 2013. A bilingual book, bringing the wisdom of Irish folklore to a broad global audience. 

It is a book to be enjoyed many times, reflecting on the wisdom of our forefathers and on its relevance to the very different world we live in. The modern theory of abundance, for example, which takes up volumes in any bookshop, is here encapsulated in four lines:

Tabhair agus gheobhair ó Dhia,

Tabhair go fial agus gheobhair níos mó

An té gur leor leis beagán do Dhia, 

Is leor le Dia beagán dó.

Briefly translated, this says, "Generosity is rewarded, always. As is its opposite." And we all know this is true. Those who give, of themselves, of their time, of their resources with a glad and willing heart are happier than those who concentrate on gathering for themselves. And it was as simple as that in the culture of Ireland.  


Bibeanna: Memories from a Corner of Ireland.

Bibeanna is unfortunately now out of print. 

Twenty women from the Dingle gaeltacht look back on their lives and the changes they have witnessed from childhood to the present day. The accounts they give are intimate, recalling their personal lives but their memories and experiences extend beyond the personal. Collectively, they provide a commentary on the changing face of Ireland. These women, who are familiar with the hedge schools and the famine from the first hand accounts of their grandparents, now connect with their grandchildren on their mobile phones. In their youth, healing relied on the use of herbs and such traditional healers as the bonesetter; today they have medical centres and home help. They have seen the arrival of radio, television, flush toilets and the page-three pin-up; new-found affluence and political, clerical and local scandal. They have taken much in their stride, and their vitality and resourcefulness continue to flourish.

Book is available to buy online at the Amazon.com

Corca Dhuibhne:

Liam O'Neill paints our souls, he illuminates our past, he is the visual bridge to our future.

With Liam O'Neill on publicity shoot for Corca Dhuibhne

A collaboration between the artist Liam O'Neill and Brenda Ní Shúilleabháin. Liam O'Neill's extraordinarily intuitive paintings of Corca Dhuibhne with text from authors near and far who have written of the area.

Liam O Neill: Introduction
Corca Dhuibhne is an iconic place. The towering bulk of Mount Brandon, the white curve of Ventry Strand, the smooth bulge of Dunmore Head pointing to the proud Blaskets strong against the sea, with the Three Sisters rising rhythmically to bring the eye back again to Brandon. It has been an inspiration to artists for generations. Some of the greatest literary works in modern Irish relate to this place.  This is Liam O Neill country.

He grew up here, between the mountains and the sea. Here is the source of his inspiration, from here he derives his colourful powerful images. Clear, truthful images, a careful, detailed account from the deep heart of the experiences of his youth. “I paint,” he says, “that which makes this area unique. The special views: Brandon, the Blaskets, The Three Sisters. They are are the backbone of the place, from which it takes its structure. They are powerful symbols. And then, there are the fields, the walls, the people and the animals.”

The pictures are an account of the artist’s youth. He was one of a large family, the thirteenth of fourteen children. They were poor. “We didn’t have a single acre of land,” O Neill says. “We rented a field or two from neighbouts. My father worked night and day all his life. We had a cow, and the finest vegetables in Ireland. He also fished, so there was a  barrel of salt mackerel in the house every winter. In the end, he got a job with the County Council. This gave him a steady income, but it brought its own difficulties. Work frequently involved travelling long distances on his bicycle, from Caherscullibeen to Dunquin and back again in hail, rain or snow. There was no money if you stopped for rain in those days. And when the poor man came home after that long day, he was faced with all his farm work. He was a wonderful provider, and he cultivated diligence and thoroughness in all of us. He hated laziness.”

His father is a hero in Liam’s life. Even to this day, he recognises something of his father in every picture he paints. Like Séamus Heaney, who emulates his father by digging with his pen, Liam digs with his palette knife. And as he digs, he reveals, for many of those looking at his work, reflections of their own fathers.

His mother, naturally, was not without influece.  Liam remembers one piece in particular of her advice: “Get a job that will last for you.” “I always knew,” he says “that I wanted to be an artist. But I never let on.” Hardly surprising. The idea of making a living from art in the Corca Dhuibhne of the seventies was inconceivable. He briefly considered architecture, since that required certain artistic qualities, but in the end he decided on primary teaching. The training period was half as long, and fees could be deferred to be paid from the eventual teacher’s salary.

But the desire to be an artist remained, and he began to paint from the start of his time in Dublin. And, of course, to look, searching every gallery, attending every exhibition. The first picture to take his breath away was, ‘Alone’, solitary boatmen, by Sean Fingleton, which he saw in the Emerging Artists Exhibition. This period was also a very prolific one for Robert Ballagh, whom Liam admires. Ballagh was another selfmade artist, who left the study of architecture for the free life of the showband era, and who developed a highly personal style. “His paintings knocked me out completely” Liam says.

Some years later he encountered Fingleton at an Oireachtas exhibition, and he told Liam “You paint like Oskar Kokoshka.” Liam rushed to the library to have a look at Kokoshka’s work, and realised the greatness of the compliment paid to him.

The picture he would like to have painted, however, is by neither of those It is by Maurice McGonigal and is in the Hugh Lane Gallery: ‘Dockers’. The placing of the figures, the craft of the finished work, fills him still with awe. He thinks that in his youth he once saw McGonigal painting on Feohanagh bridge, the first contact of his life with the formal pursuit of art.

Naturally, he attended some art classes. “You have to be taught the basics,” he says. The technical and mechanical drawing he learned in his days in the Vocational School in Dingle also stood him in good stead. But it was hard unrelenting work, and he owes a debt of gratitude to his friend and headmaster, Cyril Kelly (writer and Sunday Miscellany broadcaster), who criticised his every work, and was a hard taskmaster. “It took me fifteen years to satisfy him,” Liam says. “He felt that my early work lacked unity. He thought I was concentrating so completely on the segment in hand, the eyes of the subject, say, and losing control of the big pictture. I will never forget the day I arrived with a picture and Cyril said ‘Hah! Now I can see it! This is a painting, start to finish!’”

When he began to exhibit in the eighties, he used to show on St. Stephen’s Green. “It was hard, that beginning,” he says. “It was really tough.” For three weekends in a row, nobody bought anything. It was a blow to a young  painter’s self esteem. These were very dark paintings, probably a reflection of his grief at the illness of his sister Máiréad, who had been a second mother to him. Even the taxi-drivers said “Ah, son, you’ll never sell them dark paintings.”

But on the fourth weekend, a man came by, and stood looking for a long time. Then he took out a notebook and began to scribble. Finally, he turned to a fresh page, wrote something, and showed it to Liam. It was his figure for the purchase of the entire showing. “Done,” said Liam. And that was the beginning.

In the first paintings, the work is very fine, the painting style very finished and smooth, the work very restrained. “Then I began to fiddle with the brush. I used the stem rather than the bristles, but that was not quite right. Finally, I began to use the palette knife, and that has remained my instrument of choice. I love the beautiful thick, textured paint, straight from the tube.”

Liam’s life as an artist prospered. He began to exhibit professionally. A loyal band of collectors began to form. As time passed, it became more and more demanding to sustain the demands of painting and those of teaching. In the end he was forced to a decision, the  most difficult decision of his life. He abandoned the safe, predictable job of teacher, and returned permanently to practice his art in Corca Dhuibhne. “If you are put into this world to do something, “ he says, “you must do that thing. Put your mind to it. You have no other choice.”

He has no regrets. He is doing the work he loves in the place he loves, where he is happy. “I am doing what I was born to do,” he says. The truth of this is apparent in every one of his works. He paints old days, old ways, with the accuracy only possible for one who has been through that life. The accuracy and delicacy he manages to wrest from his expressionist style is amazing. In every one of Liam O Neill’s drawings, there is magic as well as skill.

The industrious nature developed by his father has shaped him to this day. He frequently works more than a tweve hour at a stretch. He believes that instead of waiting for inspiration to strike, it must be cultivated. “My inspiration is here, every day when I wake up,” he says. “All I have to do is cultivate it. I collect photographs, as an aid, and I find the digital camera very useful. When I am contemplating my next picture, I surround myself with photographs. As an idea develops, I store away the photographs.” He paints from his visual memory, a memory that he has carefully nurtured over the years.

“Red, blue and yellow, the primary colours, you have to have a good patch of every one of them in every picture. Then I think of contrasting and complementary colours, colours that agree and colours that conflict. Sometimes conflict is what you seek. You must always be aware of how the patches of colour work together,” he says.

His application of paint is very rapid. “And then,” he says, “You must allow the paint to do its own thing. Overworking makes a mess of a picture.”

The resulting works are bold, simple, colouristically vibrant, with a remarkable consistency in style. That he has a loyal following is not surprising. He paints for a “people at home in a displaced world, but yet haunted by memories, gazing back at Old Ireland as they walk away.”Progress is essential, it is the purpose of the present generations to walk into the future. Liam, with his passionate involvement with the living moments of our past enables us to bring our traditions with us, to maintain them as part of our existence, not to haunt but to enrich us.

This book gives an overview of the breadth and importance of Liam O’Neill’s work, An old lifestyle, still retained in community memory, this is what he reveals. A hardworking, laborious life, but also one that was deeply interwoven with humour, with music, with the occasional drink, with friendly conversation, with neighbourliness. The ‘ball night’, the local party night, when a whole parish celebrated was a big occasion. This world is largely visually unrecorded, apart from the occasional photograph. It is ably recreated in Liam’s images, a world as he lived it, seen from inside the community. He records his experiences with meticulous skill, so that we see accurately on the living canvas what is also live in the mind’s eye. He paints the souls of those who have gone before us, he celebrates his heritage, The richness of the accompanying texts supports the images, showing the ability of tradition simultaneously to conserve and to innovate.

The painter, the poets and the prose writers, all of them writing about Corca Dhuibhne, collaborate in producing a unique, special collection of material from the pre-industrial (and recent) past of Corca Dhuibhne. It is a Festschrift, a work of honour, in which O’Neill’s powerful images along with the textual snippets from renowned writers combine to honour this small region which was their inspiration.

It has been a great privilegte to have been involved in this work. Trawling through the work of writers, some of them friends and colleagues, and some famous names from past and present has been an exhilarating experience. A year spent in contemplation of Liam O’Neill’s animated, colourful images was a joy. It is my hope that the agreement of these images and text selections will resonate with all who take up the book, and that it will augment their understanding of a beautiful, special, spiritual space – Corca Dhuibhne.

Book is available to buy online at the Amazon.com

© 2012 Brenda Ní Shúilleabháin | Design by Jindra © 2012
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