“Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine. – Only in the shadow of one another do we survive.” – Irish saying from County Kerry
Seán Fitzgerald is an Irish artist living in the Gaeltacht in the North West of Ireland. His illustrations are inspired by nature, folklore and Irish mythology as well as his family upbringing in Counties Cork and Kerry. He has been immersed and trained in many Irish traditions and crafts such as dry stone wall and currach or naomhóg building, traditional environmentally friendly agricultural practices, folk story telling and herbalism. He has recently become a community healer, a Liaig, ‘herbal physician’ or a Fear Feasa, ‘wise man’ after training for two years at the Irish School of Herbal Medicine. In collaboration with Wild Awake, they have released a wonderful series of journals on Irish herbalism and foraging called ‘Airmid’s Journal’. Seán also accompanies Lucy on immersive journeys throughout the Irish landscape teaching about the mythology related to the natural features as they travel as well as telling stories by the fireside chats. He enjoys spending time with his family and gardening or foraging as well as exploring the many ancient sites of Ireland with his dog Rudi.
He is currently working on multiple books including one related to the Irish landscape’s mythological features and structures connected to various folk stories and characters as well as another book on Irish herbalism. Additionally, he is putting out an Irish Mythological Tarot deck in collaboration with tarot reader Amanda Healey from Tarot Open Studio on the Hill of Tara. His artwork has been displayed in multiple magazines and galleries throughout Ireland such as for the wonderful show, Soul Noir and he has published a beautifully illustrated adaptation of ‘The Last Battle of Moytura’. Seán’s artwork has consistently been heralded as very genuine and coming from a place of integrity to the mythological tales and characters, illustrating them with a more Native, pagan and authentic energy. He is very passionate and active in many social causes including anti-racism, anti-bullying and many other animal and human rights organizations. He has many prints and tees available at his websites on Threadless and Big Cartel. You can also find him on facebook and instagram.
What is your background?
When I left school I went to art college, and after about 9 months I left as I was completely disillusioned by it. I found the whole thing to me was geared toward selling to the rich. I didn’t know what to do with myself so in 1992 I hitched around sleeping under the stars and visiting megalithic sites. After a time I began to build traditional Irish currach boats, as outside of drawing my passion was in Irish mythology and history. Making Indigenous Irish boats was earth-friendly, positive and life changing, but it didn’t put food on the table. So in time I did various jobs, from dry stone wall building to vegetable farm labour, animator, graphic designer and loads more. During this time I always drew for bands, heritage groups etc.
In 1989 with a friend I started an independent zine called “Protest” covering underground music, injustice and a more alternative Ireland. This led onto lot more design work, so at this point I have drawn over sixty album covers for various bands throughout the world. In 2010 I began to illustrate maps and characters from the story of Lugh and Balor of the Evil Eye and selling my own Irish mythological illustrations. In 2017 I illustrated the book “Lugh Na Bua”. After which I was asked to teach Celtic knotwork and worked on Irish mythology mural and book projects with teenagers. Then in 2019 I collected my illustration work since 2010 and wrote my own book “The Last Battle of Moytura”.
Where did your love for art begin?
Art is something that would always take me away to another place in my head. So would give me an overwhelming sense of peace and wellbeing no matter what was happening to me in life. I think art college distorted the experience, as it was focused on money. Growing up in Ireland there was always some type of Celtic knot-work on school books, crosses, coins and even on the manholes here. The knot work that intrigued me most as a very small child was a very large Celtic cross behind my grandfather’s home off the Ring of Kerry. The cross is in a very old overgrown graveyard with a twelfth century church ruin with only a grassy path leading up to it. The cross has lots of serpents interweaved in knots that used to scare the living bejesus out of me. I have a very vivid memory of my father holding my hand when I was very small and him saying not to be so frightened by it. I still visit there occasionally and it still is just as impressive as it was then.
Other knot work that really spoke to me as a child was on an old boreen road in Co. Kerry. At the beginning of the boreen was a great big twisted and gnarly branch with large carved Celtic knots on it, it was showcasing that there was a wood carver living at the end of the road. This large sign used to fascinate me, I never walked down to where this wood carver was, but would get lost in the patterns. It seemed like it was created through a seemingly magical process, like a form of alchemy.
When I was a teenager a beautiful illustrated comic called “Sláine” came out, I could never afford it much, but would flick through it in the shop. I bought loads of the back issues many years later. The story was about a Cú Chulainn type of warrior called Sláine who would shapeshift, meet and interact with many of the Gods and Goddesses from Irish mythology. Of course the Celtic artist Jim Fitzpatrick was practically a household name here too. When I applied for art college my art teacher told me not to mention that I liked Jim Fitzpatrick. It was better to say you were a fan of some obscure painter from outside of Ireland, to give that sense of pseudo-intellectualism. Outside of Celtic art I also loved ‘protest art’ of the 1980s, mainly the art of people like Gee Vaucher and H.R. Giger, as they opened my eyes to all sorts of realties.
What was your first piece of artwork you did when you said to yourself I want to do this as a career?
There wasn’t a specific piece, it is more like a calling. When I was 11 I would see my father breaking his back and always tired when he came in from work, to where he would fall asleep in his chair. He would say don’t do a Job like mine where there is always dirt under your fingernails, get a white collar job. I knew then I didn’t want to do either, I loved drawing so thought that would be much more enjoyable. Of course I didn’t realise how tough that would be in years to come. Everything I did I wanted to come from the heart, but after a time I became a full time graphic designer and did everything in order to survive. When my father died in 2010, I quit my job and reassessed my life. I live by the seven sisters mountain range, so would hike and camp in them and think about what I wanted to do. I think for a time I had got caught up in the mundane things of life and knew that I had to focus on things that I really wanted to do.
I would swim in the mountain lakes, watch wild deer and just took in life. In the mountains you can see Tory Island in the distance where Balor of the Evil Eye and the Formorian tribe lived 200 years before the first people in Ireland landed. I would imagine what type of communication took place and the hill fires which would have been seen from the island and the mainland. I started looking into the older Irish place names and how they linked into the stories, and I drew a map of the area using the place names which linked into the stories. When it got hung up in the local hall, it was stolen. Surely this was a sign of people’s interest in this knowledge. I knew I wanted to record and illustrate these older stories in this area. The characters in these stories are larger than life, so things just grew and grew. A career isn’t what I’d call it, money can withhold self expression. This is the pursuit of what I think needs to be shown, without compromising. I could do very nice colourful Celtic knot work which says nothing. However I want it to say something and not just churn out somebody else’s idea of a pretty picture. Sometimes it is a fist in the air against corruption, at other times it is the beauty of something. Yes it is more of a struggle to survive when you draw like this, but we need more real things in this world rather than just something that is plastic. People who I admire growing up were the outsiders and the revolutionaries. By doing something you like or believe in, it gives you strength.
What do you find is your biggest inspiration for your art?
The biggest inspiration comes from our ancient texts and folklore, it is all in the texts. I find after reading them or dwelling on aspects of these stories the ideas just fall in to place. Sometimes it can be the landscape, other times it is about empowerment.
I love people who don’t fit into categories and be who they are. My favourite being the Irish poet and revolutionary Ella Young who never compromised who she was and what she believed in. I looked through the Irish census from 1911 when she listed her religion as Pagan, I can’t imagine the reaction that would have caused back then. When going to the US in 1925 she was detained at Ellis Island for mental illness, as she stated her belief in Irish fairies. There is too much to be said of just how feckin cool Ella was. We need more people like that, that do not follow convention.
It is much easier to fit into the normality of life and keep your head down and ignore rather than follow your heart. You can spot it straight away in a drawing, a book or a song when someone is speaking from the very depths of themselves.
There are amazing tattoo artists now doing outstanding work within Celtic and Viking style knotwork who inspire me, that people should check out. Artists such as Sean Parry, Broc Ó Diolúin, Villkat Arts, Dyrs Hjarta, Habba Nero, Colin Dale and Paula Cruz. Of course other Celtic artists like Courtney Davis, Vitor Gonzalez, Sonia Lord, Sean O’hUltachain and so many more.
I think we all have these great abilities of putting thought puzzles together. In that, I mean art of any kind. It can be influence from a conversation, a Youtube channel like Mythical Ireland, The Irish Pagan School, Bealtaine Cottage, an old Irish word, a podcast like Fire Draw Near, Story Archaeology, Rebel Matters, Ireland Beyond Colonialism , Airmid’s Almanac or a song or radio sound bite. The results can really resound with people and sometimes it won’t. But the important thing is of how it makes you feel. It is about being content, William Blake and Oscar Wilde both died in poverty, but both followed their bliss and spoke from the deepest parts of their heart.
What were your favorite stories growing up that shaped your love for Irish mythology?
The stories of Fionn mac Cumhaill and Cú Chulainn were drilled into us as kids, those were the big heroes along with the ones we saw on the telly. I read once that in the GPO during the Easter Rising of 1916, Patrick Pearse was telling stories of Cú Chulainn to encourage everyone. It is very sad when you think of it, but I think what he was pushing was the blood sacrifice of a martyr. I think it shows the significance of these stories to the Irish psyche. The Fianna are ingrained into the national consciousness. No matter how much the government, churches and corporations sway us, that is still there.
Which mythological characters inspire you the most or you find you like drawing the most?
The Mórrígan I think really captivates me. For my Moytura book, I drew her as a middle aged woman with red hair standing in the aftermath of a battle, holding a skull with a Sheela-na-Gig carved on it. I didn’t want to portray the heroic male winning a battle that we have seen a million times. I wanted to show her in a ritualistic type way amid the tragedy of war. A friend told me you’ll never sell your book to tourists, only crusty looking Pagans will buy this. It made me think, is that what our Indigenous stories are or what Celtic art is, is it just something to sell tourists along with a pint of Guinness. Bollocks to that, let’s have something real.
In saying that I don’t think people visiting Ireland want the same ‘ole shite that we always give them. They want to see real ancient sites and meet real people. I’ve gone off the point again, what were we talking about, oh yeah, inspiring mythological figures. Well everyone likes Lugh, and I have been involved in three books about Lugh. However if I am honest Balor of the Evil Eye intrigued me, we only hear of their evil and the prophesy that he was told of, that if he had a daughter and that her child would kill him. He didn’t kill his daughter even though he knew what would happen, as he loved her, even though yes she wasn’t allowed to leave the island. He didn’t ask for this evil eye, it was given it in error by Druids. I think it is good to understand the dark figures, rather than seeing just good and bad. There are always a whole range of layers to everyone. We don’t have light without the dark. It is why I am also very interested in the darkness of Crom Cruach. I went to Cavan to visit the carved Killycluggin Stone which was said to be a representation of Crom Cruach. The story goes that the local priest ordered it to be smashed up when it was found, due to who it represented. St. Patrick smashed up a figure that was said to have represented Crom Cruach and refers to him as a demon. We should never just brush something under the carpet out of fear. It should be understanding these that are brushed aside.
How does the living Irish landscape impact your designs?
Hugely, I could pretend and give a charming view of a picturesque Ireland. But I was brought up in a Cork housing estate and my folks were from a rural part of Co. Kerry. We would go there every summer to work, I loved it as a small child as my mind would be full of the wonderment of it all. A friend of my mother’s would scare the crap out of us with stories of fairies, of the Irish kind, not anything remotely cute.
When I was a teenager in the early eighties I hated visiting Kerry as wanted to hang out with my friends in Cork city. When I was about fifteen and bored I used to head off on my own walking in the woods any opportunity I got, just to get away from everyone. One day I decided to follow the coastline to see where it would take me. I jumped along rocks along the bay where unknown to me at the time, the Druid of the Milesians, Amergin Glúingel had once told the “The Song of Amergin”. After a time I came to an open field along a river leading towards the bay. As I climbed up from the river onto the field I saw 15 standing stones circled around a central altar type boulder. Before walking towards it, I stood and stared, it was like I had stepped back in time. I remember still walking to the centre, I walked slow feeling like something magical was going to happen. During that summer I would go there as much as I could, and on the summer solstice watch the sun mark the central stone. Locally it was known as the Druid’s circle. My mind used to run riot imagining what would have gone on there… it still does.
At that time I was fascinated with certain words that were seen as wrong. Words of insult said by parents would be “heathens”, which would refer to people doing anything outside of the norm or immoral. The word could be thrown out to describe a group of underage drinkers, someone not going to mass, someone half naked etc. I was curious about anything different, so this Druid’s circle I very much viewed as a heathen place. By the time I was in my late teens I hitched with a friend around the UK to visit megalithic sites, one being Stonehenge where we were stopped by the English Police. This was at the height of the New Age Traveller movement, where Stonehenge on the summer solstice was the sacred place for folk who identified with ancient pre-Christian sensibilities. Here I saw a huge scale police operation with hundreds of police in riot gear stopping people and creating a three mile exclusion zone barring people from anywhere near the site.
My friend and I had gotten a great lift from an archaeologist who dropped us off where a group of festival-goers and new age travelers known as the Peace Convoy were camped. It was here that there was a group decision that the idea of a group of thirty people from different nationalities would walk single file to the stones. My friend and I were picked as we were Irish, as we walked we were followed and surrounded by riot police and media. On route we stopped by the Beanfield where police beat up the Peace Convoy in 1985. As we walked, it was the TV and newspaper media that surrounded us that kept our small group safe. The more we were surrounded, we began to link arms. As we got closer to the site of Stonehenge police with riot shields surrounded us to where we could go no further.
This whole experience made me realize and appreciate of how lucky we are that outside of OPW sites, you do not have to pay or go through barriers to see the ancient monuments. We can touch the stones and watch the sun rise. As always I have rambled off from the question. The landscape here nearly always has a story behind it. There are place names like Queen Maeve’s Vulva (Baile Phite Méabha), The Stone of MacAneely’s Head (Chloich Cheann Fhaola), this is where Can MacAneely (Lugh the God of Light’s father), got his head cut off by Balor of the Evil Eye. I live by Lugh’s Mound which is overlooked by Muckish mountain meaning the boar’s back, where a cairn in honour of Medb sits which is called “Meascán Méabha”. The influence is always there in the Irish landscape, perhaps sometimes it is just to see it.
What other traditional Irish trades have you been involved in?
After I came back from hitching I thought to go live off the land in West Cork. I visited and stayed on a mountain there with New Age travellers and found it wasn’t really my thing, but had an obsession with the ancient and traditional. One day in 1992 I saw a scrap of paper hanging up in town asking for interested people in building currachs. These are traditional Irish wooden framed boats which were once covered with animal skins, back then we used canvas and painted them with tar. These days people use kevlar cloth. Here I worked alongside a few older native Irish speakers. I think this just stemmed my interest further into history and working an honest days work without hurting others. We built six currachs and a coracle. The coracle is much smaller and weaved together like a hazel basket and used in rivers and streams. Charity shops had stopped selling fur coats due to it’s cruelty, so we went around and collected a few and sewed them together to cover the coracle. The idea being that this would act like an animal hide covering, and this of course didn’t work. So we also used the heavy duty canvas which we painted with tar. If you get the chance check out online the work Boyne Currach‘s are doing. They have made a massive ship type currach which they have called “Bovinda”, it looks amazing.
I also trained in the Donegal Gaeltacht as a Traditional Dry Stone-Mason. In that I built variations of dry stone walls, a beehive hut and an arched bridge without use of any cement. It is a craft of patience and can be quite tough physically. I did that when I was forty years old, so much older than the others. It wasn’t a career move, but it was to learn Native craft. Since then I have done some dry stone work for local communities and have a built a ‘Teach Allais’ (Sweat House). The Teach Allais has a dry stone roof and walls partly covered over by earth. Traditionally used for sweating cures, it is reminiscent to ‘Dumha na nGiall’ (The Mound of the Hostages) on Tara Hill in Co. Meath. I also have an entrance aligned to the summer sunset with an entrance stone much like the sill stone at Cairn H at Carnbane West, Loughcrew or the entrance stone at ‘Brú na Bóinne’ (Newgrange). A fire of turf is made inside the house until heated. Then swept out and water splashed on the stones to produce a steam. Then the person crept in where the entrance was and closed behind them. They remained there for roughly an hour or so. After emerging they plunged into stream water. This was seen as very good for rheumatism and other ailments. It is important to keep these traditions alive.
What is your favorite ancient Neolithic site(s) and why?
Of course my first love the Druid’s circle in Kerry, Uragh Stone Circle in Kerry, Kilclooney Dolmen in Donegal and a huge love is Beltany stone circle in Donegal for so many amazing experiences. Then like most people sacred sites like the Hill of Tara, Loughcrew, Uisneach, Rathcroghan, Emain Macha and Brú na Bóinne. To answer why, some are personal reasons and others are just for the feeling of the ancient, of sanctuary or just watching how the sun hits them.
What personal practices spiritual or otherwise help you stay inspired, relaxed or focused on your craft?
I went to a Roman Catholic school run by priests, so I have all these issues with words like ‘spiritual’, ‘prayer’ and probably a heap load more. Not that there is anything wrong with those words, but to me I never liked large organised religion for all the reasons you have heard before. Being inspired is from family, friends, visiting sites, books, conversations or a comment on a webpage. I like working with soil, wood, stone to herbs or swimming in a mountain lake. I think it is a more earthy type practice that keeps me focused.
What is one thing you think people would find surprising about you?
People have preconceived perceptions about everyone, don’t they. I know some people might think I might be devoid of humour and just talk of mythology. To some I might sound uneducated or look a bit rough. Some see me as that Pagan fella. It’s all nonsense really isn’t it. Some years back I read this great book about the Irish god Lugh Lámhfhada. The book was written by archaeologist and historian Brian Lacey, it is called “Lug’s forgotten Donegal kingdom”. I read it and reread it, you know those books that really makes you think. Brian captured and investigated the landscape and linked it into the stories, it is a perfect book.
About a year later Brian was doing a talk and after the talk he walked past me. and I just had to tell him how much I loved his book. As he walked past, I muttered I loved your book Brian, he turned and started talking. All those confidence issues were flashing through my mind thinking I don’t have the academic background to engage and converse. Nevertheless we talked and talked, to the point where I completely relaxed. We can be our own worst enemies with our preconceived notions of others and our ourselves. I didn’t answer your question at all really did I.
How can art propel personal growth both to create or to look at?
I was chatting with a friend the other day and we were saying that normally when you hear a modern day Druid talking or someone talking about a Pagan spirituality they nearly always have an upper class or middle class accent. It’s like the working class are constrained from any ‘ideas above their station’. I think art now is very much open to most. You don’t have to have paid a gazillion euros on a higher education, anyone can view and see what they want to see in art. We can dream of a culture in balance with nature through art, which can influence you as a human being in your everyday. For me drawing gives me more of an understanding, in my mind anyway. When drawing a character I look for iconography which might be half hidden in the text. When finding these it opens up thoughts even more. They have these attributes that open your imagination.
If you’ve ever read Peter O’Connor’s “Beyond The Mist: Reflections On Irish Mythology” or Joseph Campbell’s “The Power of Myth”, they really explore the archetypal characters in our stories. It gives us great insight into life and our own behaviour. I think this can be very much explored by drawing too, as there is connection and being part of a thinking.
What do you dislike about the art world?
How someone can do a splash of paint and claim it is modern art, yet someone who can spend months working on a penned illustration or on a computer and that is seen as lessor than. The constant focus on money, I know it is something we need to survive in this world, but it really shouldn’t be the end goal every time. You should be able to draw something and not think will it sell, it should be about contentment or to say something, not material gain. I also see an elitist group who run it all and live off funding directed by government to the arts. Jim Fitzpatrick once told me that he never ever got an Arts grant from the government as he never wanted to beheld by them.
What makes you angry or sad that’s happening in the world?
Fake spirituality, fake ‘Celtic’ or Irish Paganism. I find there are always people out there willing to feed lies and want people to follow them. I think beware of someone who has all the answers. Of course that is in relation to the subject at hand. There is of course loads of abuse in the world, too much to mention.
What makes you happy and hopeful that’s happening in the world?
The new generation coming up I see questioning everything from gender, race, the patriarchy, food and just about everything else. It is refreshing, every generation sees themselves as groundbreaking and making change. But then there is normally a burnout where they put their head down in order to fit in. Whereas I see a much stronger change this time round. When I was a child most people visiting Ireland were sent for a large overpriced meal, a huge feed of pints and buy a load of Guinness products to say they had been to Ireland. Ireland is part of the Guinness marketing, for a company who back in the day wouldn’t hire Irish Catholics. You go into the tourist shops and they are selling more Guinness t-shirts than t-shirts that say Ireland.
However I see it changing, I don’t think the Irish Tourist Board (Failte Ireland) has seen it yet. But people who visit here now want to see ancient sites, eat locally sourced food and go off the beaten track. There isn’t as much money in it for Failte Ireland, so I doubt they’d want it to happen. I visit Kerry every year and always go to the Druid’s Circle. It has changed a lot now being surrounded by manicured trees and bushes. I sat there for the day drawing one day and there was a constant flow of people coming and going. All reflecting on what happened there, some all knowing, it was great to see that these stones still breathe such life and imagination.
What do you listen to while you’re creating?
For me I like getting up just before sunrise, it is a time that AE Russell, Yeats and Ella Young would have viewed as when the mind can rise. Between daylight and darkness, when we can see the beauty and truth through everything. For me it is the quietness of the morning, I live in a very rural area so it is quiet anyway, but just before sunrise is the quietest, where I get a lot more done.
When hanging out in the studio of Courtney Davis on Tara, he was blasting the Sex Pistols and Hawkwind. I was surprised as I had assumed he would have being playing all this mediative type of music. I was chatting to Choctaw artist Waylon Gary White Deer who does these beautiful large First Nation American paintings and he told me he loves to listen to surf music. Again I thought he would be playing mediative type of music so as to get into the right frame of mind. But it is really what creates a flow isn’t it, something that gives you a huge burst of energy.
Most of the time I listen to Youtube videos of Mythical Ireland, Lora O’Brien and some old anarcho punk stuff I grew up listening to, where the sound can bring up memories of a time. Sometimes heavy stuff like Sedition, Senzar, Okus or Neurosis will get things cooking. Also some traditional influenced stuff like Lankum, Dick Gaughan, Teknopeasant, Heilung or DakhaBrakha.
What are your favorite animals to draw and how do animals shape or fit into your art?
There is no animal that is a favourite, but I do love drawing antlers. There were many horned deities and people in the ‘Celtic’ tradition, such as The Dagda, Cernunnos, Conall Cernach, Furbaide Ferbend and Suibhne mac Colmáin. There are also representations of horned figures, most notably the Gundestrup cauldron and here in the North West of Ireland we have a horned god-like figure carved in stone at Rathmullan, Co. Donegal.
Christianity pushed the idea of horns on their fallen angel, Satan to discredit Pagan iconography, for people to view horned Gods and Goddesses as evil. How could horned be evil when they are from some of the most beautiful animals. I love drawing them on various Irish deities, as they look majestic and primeval, so fit in nicely.
Are there any places you want to see in the rest of the world?
There are loads I want to see, but there are still so many places I would like to explore in Ireland too. I know I am lucky as I live near great megalithic sites. I loved staying on Tara Hill with Courtney Davis. My first morning there I got up really early and went to the Lia Fáil (Stone of Destiny). It is well known that if you put your feet on the stone it would roar if you were a fit and true king of Ireland. So I lay on the grass and put my bare feet against the stone and relaxed. It wasn’t that I had any aspirations to be a king. It was pondering on the conception and belief of it. There aren’t many places where you can do things like that these days.
If you had a main goal regarding your art, what would it be?
It would be lovely if it helped someone find their way, no matter what has happened in their life or empowerment. For me I was bullied very severely, to where I used art and music to escape to. I hope that someone can find comfort or consolation in those times of distress or sadness. That it is something to escape to, when I say escapism I mean that in the sense of protection rather than escapism from the wrongs of the world. People have sent me photos of altars, framed prints or things that they have seen in the drawings, and that to me is the goal.
What do you want your imprint on Irish Celtic art to be?
I would like to capture some of the darker stories without turning them into a Disney type take on things. I see a lot of Celtic artists in the USA, and I would love people to see more Celtic art coming out of Ireland. Not just mine as there are others too. Celtic/insular art is of course from the monk tradition, so a religious art. Unlike some Celtic artists, I don’t draw St. Patrick or the saints, as I see too much oppression in them. People are people and of course good and bad, but I like to draw pre-Christian Ireland. That is the imprint I would like to leave on Celtic art.