It is that time of year again when I begin my journey west. As a part time lecturer at GMIT Letterfrack I commute from south Sligo in a journey that takes 2 hours door to door. Past Westport, the Connemara landscape of quiet mountain roads are often punctuated with groups of sheep and the landscape is grim and windswept in winter. In summer I agonise behind slow rental car drivers and coaches in a part of Ireland that has drawn tourists since the nineteenth century. I console myself with the thought that (for a small window of the year when the mornings and evenings are bright) I get to drive through a three dimensional Paul Henry painting.
Henry was the twentieth century artist whose landscapes gave a modern and recognisable visual narrative to the rugged western landscape. He influenced countless later Irish artists and his work influenced the dissemination of ‘brand Ireland’ in tourism and representations of the country. The landscape today remains similar to when he portrayed it, with massive looming mountains, lakes and even turf stacks still featuring and in some parts.
The Other: As an urban Northern Protestant the west of Ireland must have held a particular Otherly draw for Paul Henry (1877-1958). In philosophical terms the Other is defined as ‘dissimilar to and the opposite of the Self’, and as the son of a Bapstist minister, Belfast born Henry was urban, relatively sophisticated from a place that was modern, built up and industrialised. He was also an English speaker in a place where Gaelic was spoken and from a different cultural and religious background (although his family did have some Irish nationalist leanings).
He studied art at the Academie Julian in Paris where he trained with James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903). He absorbed the ideas of the artistic avant-garde, Realism and contemporary French thinking about valeurs and essential form. He was influenced by artists like Millet and Cezanne and movements such as Post Impressionism. He was a ‘modern’ painter even though to some his work looks safe and ‘traditional’ because it portrays an archaic subject.
He had been living in London and went on holiday to Achill island, Co. Mayo returning to live in 1912-19. He was accompanied by his wife Grace Henry who was an accomplished painter in her own right. In the 1890s writer J.M. Synge had gone to Achill in the 1890s and used the Otherness of life there as inspiration for his work and Henry was influenced by him. He certainly wasn’t the first artist to depict the west of Ireland, but he did it in his own distinctive way.
Work: Henry’s paintings are characterised by depictions of Irish rural peasant life with the landscape looming in the background, and he portrayed a type of rural Arcadia untouched by modernity. His work is not creative but his technique of using bold simple shapes with a clarity of brushwork which brought out the simple basic forms of the landscape was fairly original for its time. In his landscapes he used a hard horizon line with large skies: in many of his scenes his skies usually take over about a third of the canvas. The skies are populated by puffed up cauliflower-like clouds, large blue mountains and in sharp contrast tiny manmade thatched cottages or turf stacks or lakes. In his early work Henry portrayed the local peasants in rural scenes. However, his peasant subjects became uncomfortable being painted by him (Henry had to hide his sketchpad inside a book) and his subject matter evolved to take in inanimate objects, such as cottages and mountains. Although Achill was his base, he did venture to Donegal and Connemara, and Killary Harbour, Letterfrack and the surrounding area became featured in his work. Over time Henry's paintings became symbolic of not only these locales, but of the Gaelic speaking rural and unspoiled West, which was seen as the true, authentic Ireland.
Henry’s influence: Paul and Grace Henry moved to Dublin in the 1920s and he later worked chiefly as an illustrator, but his western landscapes before the 1920s were arguably his best work. The Henrys became involved the Society of Dublin Painters, members included Jack B. Yeats, Mary Swanzy, Harry Clarke and Charles Lamb. In later life Henry promoted the Paris School in Dublin.
From the mid 1920s the London, Midland and Scottish (LMS) Railway Company began to use his paintings for posters advertising holidays in Ireland. This led to his work becoming a metaphor for Irish identity in the early tenuous years of the new Irish state leading to him being described as ‘painter laureate of the Free State’ . His work was further disseminated onto prints, calendars, table mats, and to some commentators his imagery became associated with cliché. His subject matter certainly did not portray Ireland as a twentieth century country with the many thatched cottages he painted. Yet his recognisable style had made him regarded as Ireland’s greatest landscape painter and his work fetches high prices at auctions today. Recently, Potato Diggers, a large canvas of peasants digging in a west of Ireland landscape, made €400,000 at Adam’s Auctioneers. 
His importance is distinguished here by Dr SB Kennedy an expert on Henry and the author of a biography of the artist: "Almost single-handedly he defined a view of the Irish landscape, in particular that of the West, that remains as convincing to modern eyes as it was in his own time”. 
And here we come full circle, for as I drive through the Connemara landscape tomorrow and every time I do, I will be reminded of the work of Paul Henry. Many of the thatched cottages may be long gone, but the landscape remains.
 Fallon, B. (1994), Irish Art 1830-1990 Belfast, Appletree Press, p.99.