This is the first in a new series here at In a Dark Wood. There is a lot of fantastic art being lovingly crafted all over the world celebrating ancient myths, ancient civilsations and ancient handicrafts and traditions and the Internet has become a fantastic forum for that art. I plan to speak to a number of these artists, to ask them about what they do, and how and why they do it.
Recently I had the great pleasure and privilege of discovering the artwork of JG O’Donoghue on Etsy. JG’s beautifully wrought works evoke, as he himself says, “wider issues of Irish existence and identity, such as language, history, typography and archaeology.” In short, “What once was, fascinates me” and to us here in the Dark Wood, that says it all.
1. What inspires you about the past?
What inspires me is the different ways of being and living than we have now, they weren’t inferior to us, or less sophisticated, in some ways they would be superior to us. Another reason is the past’s huge influence on our daily lives, the way it tells us who we are culturally, nationalistically, linguistically, even spiritually. Even for those who don’t care much for history, they live their lives according to past philosophies, they watch movies and read books that tell stories informed by history, listen to music tempered and morphed by historical events, how they talk, what they talk are influenced by the past, they enter historical buildings, walk down ancient streets, there is no avoiding the past, it is everywhere but often subtle, underneath, in many ways you could say there is no such thing as past, as it is always there in the present.
Above: JG O’Donoghue, Ogham Tree - Eadhadh
2. What inspires you about the standing stones, which seem to be a big feature of your work?
One is the locations, their builders had a great eye for picking the right spot, beautiful vistas usually surround them, there is something spiritual there, even for the unreligious, that still impresses to this day. I’m influenced by the place I live too, as Cork and Kerry are one of the most important areas in Europe for later megalithic monuments, it was this region that was the main source of Copper for Bronze age Ireland and Ireland as a whole has the second largest amount of megalithic monuments in Europe, second only to France.
It inspires me also the way the megalithic builders approached religion differently too, or at least how I see it, christianity and modern western culture puts people first, it alters the landscape and world to fit our needs, at the cost of everything else, while the megalithic builders used what was there as their cathedral. The fundamentals of their religion seem to be the focus on the earth and the sky, the former with the stones, and the latter with the various alignments and a combination of the two, connecting the heavens to the world below. But we still have to imagine the finer details of their religion, it is a great mystery, an echo of what they believed might be in early Irish mythology which suggests these places are seen as liminal, places of transition, a threshold from one point of existence to another, from our world to the spirit world.
3. Can you tell me about your depiction of the Irish language as connected to trees and the sea?
What better way to describe a language and to show its connection to the land around it, than the ancient forests of Ireland, mostly gone now, replaced by new man made landscapes, or an Island which stands for thousands of years but is slowly worn away by the tide. These are reflected in the Irish language, that is as native to this land as those trees, as old if not older, but as endangered and as diminished. Irish is the third oldest written language, after Latin and Greek, in Europe, and as a verbal language may even be older than both of those languages, it has been through attempted extermination, horrible conflicts and inflictions and yet it still lives.
I suppose some would say what does a local issue like the survival of the Irish language have to do with them, but I believe in the local you get the global, the national is the international. In this example, 98% of the world’s languages are spoken by 1 or 2% of the world’s population, the shrinking of linguistic diversity is an international issue. After saying all that the underlining message in my illustrations is a positive one, the sun is rising for a new day as the Irish language I believe can make a comeback, and this is exactly what is happening all over the country, and being done by far more dedicated and better people than myself.
4. Can you tell me more about Islander Art?
Islander art is a collective of artists that I co-founded, we essentially run an online interactive gallery. We are from the islands of Ireland and Britain because of this we are mostly an online collective, centred around a blog, where each member has their own day of the week they post their work on each week. Islander Art provides us all, I think, with certain things that we lack in our professions, one is a community to belong to; as the name of the group suggests, illustration and art are lonely professions so islanders creates a community where we get to interact, network, get feedback, encouragement, and critique from our peers. As we do this we promote ourselves individually as well as a group, from online social media to real world exhibitions, this all allows us to gain new ways of connecting with the wider world too.
5. Do you plan to do more with the 3-D comic on your website?
The 3D comic was a project I did for my masters, it took me over a year, with the writing of it and the production and all the rest. It hadn’t been done before, well not that I know of, so it was an uphill struggle without knowing where it would end up and no people to point you in the right way. So I tried it out, but unfortunately I found that 3D is wholly unsuitable and too work intensive for comics, well it is in its present form I think, but in the end I learned a lot from it but I have no plans to continue it or use it in the future.
6. What attracted you to the Ogham trees?
I love trees, I find them to be beautiful in their own right with complex shapes and bends, and each tree an individual and unique. If you notice nearly every European culture has a tree central to its beliefs, for instance the world tree that created all life in Indo-European cultures like Germanic, Celtic and Latin. Even nowadays it is central to the most important holiday of the western world, Christmas. Another attraction was Ogham itself, which is Ireland's first form of writing, judged to be between 1,600 to 2,000 years old, and the most unique aspect of it is that each letter was named after a tree. This idea shows the importance Trees held for the early Irish, each tribe or tuatha in Ireland had its own sacred tree, this was also where the kings of the tuatha were inaugurated, and this tree symbolised the world tree as well as the clans’ security and integrity.
Each tree has a lot of stories or meaning, like for instance Oak has played a major role in Celtic culture, the word most associated with Celts, "druid" comes from the Proto-Indo-European root dru, meaning "oak", the Irish word for oak "dair" comes from this root. Another is Aspen which is called Crann Creathach in modern Irish (Crann meaning tree, Creathach meaning to quiver, vibrate or shake), and in Ogham it’s called Eadhadh, which comes from ed uath, meaning horrible grief/terror, both are fitting as the loose toothed leaves of the tree tremble with the slightest breeze, this can often make a spooky rustling sound, appearing out of nowhere in a calm day as if whispering. I feel knowing the name of trees, their story and properties makes them come alive in a whole new way, knowing trees opens a world to you as does reading and writing, knowing both makes your life that much more fuller.
Above: JG O’Donoghue, “The Irish Language Forest/An Coill Teanga Gaeilge”
You can find JG online at :
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Please note that all images are protected by copyright and remain the property of JG O’Donoghue.