Sidney Nolan Returns to the Burren

Sidney Nolan at Poulnabrone

This week sees the opening of an exciting exhibition at the Burren College of Art, and a one day symposium on the work of Australian artist Sidney Nolan.


The Celtic Image | Sir Sidney Nolan OM RA

June 21 – July 20, 2018
The Gallery | Burren College of Art | Newtown Castle | Ballyvaughan | Co. Clare




SYMPOSIUM: Friday, June 22
The Lecture Hall |Burren College of Art


For the 2018 Burren Annual Exhibition, the  Burren College of Art brings together a group of hitherto unknown and  previously un-exhibited late monochrome spray paintings, titled Celtic Image, by the acclaimed international artist Sir  Sidney Nolan.  Curated by Professor David Ferry RE, and from the collection of the Sidney Nolan Trust in Prestigne, Powys, Wales, the works selected for this exhibition are inspired by Nolan’s visits to the Burren and surrounding areas.

The Burren Annual exhibition brings Irish and international artists working with diverse modes of practice to the Burren to engage local and visiting audiences.  Inaugurated in 2004 it foregrounds Burren College of Art as a site for discourse and artistic engagement and prioritises the rural as a hub for building local and international creative networks.



The opening sequence of Brian Adams’ documentary on Sidney Nolan, filmed in 1987, shows the artist striding, thoughtfully, across the stone strewn landscape of the Burren. Nolan was a traveller, fascinated by landscape.  He was intrigued by the manner in which civilisations have marked the landscape and how the environment has moulded and shaped civilisation.

Nolan first came to Ireland, and to the Burren in 1971. The Australian Ambassador at the time was Keith Gabriel Brennan. Brennan secured a chair of Australian History at University College Dublin and having met him in Ireland, championed Nolan’s cause for a retrospective exhibition. The venue, the RDS in Ballsbridge, afforded Nolan a vast exhibition space where it was possible to show his current obsession.  A vast triptych of murals, 4260 separate painted images. His Oceania.  A homage to the indigenous Australian civilisation on a truly vast scale. When hung, in 1973, much of it was only just dry.

You can read the Irishman’s Diary from the Irish Times on 30 August 2006, which refers to the 1973 exhibition here


or go to

In 1986, Sidney Nolan announced that he would donate one work from each year of his working life as an artist to the Irish people to aid the cause for the creation of an Irish Museum of Modern Art.  This did not come to pass, however Sidney donated six works painted in 1989 from a planned series called the Wild Geese. They were inspired by the Irish soldiers who fled the country after the failed Jacobite wars of the 1690s, with the artist representing them as well-known latter-day exiles and wanderers such as James Joyce and Ernest Shackleton. These works were included in IMMA’s opening exhibition, which Sidney Nolan attended, and are regularly exhibited around the country.

In honour of Bloomsday last weekend, I’ve chosen an image of a  James Joyce painting from the Wild Geese series:

James Joyce - from the Wild Geese series by Sidney Nolan

You can read a 1998 Irish Times letter about the Wild Geese donations here

or go to

In 1986, Nolan exhibited his large-scale spray abstract paintings at the Douglas Hyde Gallery.  At his home, The Rodd, in another remote landscape on the borders of Wales, Nolan was working with paints that he had used many years ago in the design department of a hat factory in Melbourne.  He claimed to be coming full circle and dealing with his life in abstract, just as he had as a young man:  “…painting in abstract means that you can convey the most intense of emotions.”

Follow this link to the website of the Art Gallery of New South Wales for images of the The Journey series of paintings – listed as exhibited in the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin, 16 Oct 1986–08 Nov 1986. I can still remember that exhibition, and the impact the paintings had on me as I walked into the sanctuary of the gallery on a bulstery, grey, autumn afternoon.  Below is one of those images:  Desert

Desert - from Nolan's The Journey exhibition 1986

In the IMMA show of 2012, (the most recent) Ned Kelly made the reverse journey of his convict Father in the body of Nolan’s notorious paintings of the life of the outlaw. Painted in the 1940s these works rarely leave the National Gallery of Australia let alone the continent and yet strangely the parting of the infamous bandit from the shores of Australia was greeted with whimsical sadness rather than the celebration that could have been expected.

A painting from the Ned Kelly series


Nolan searched for his Irish roots, his heritage, and found them in the village of Ballyvaughan on the south shore of Galway Bay.  His aim was to buy back a derelict family cottage and he left £10,000 with a local solicitor in case it came up for sale when he was in Australia or abroad.  This never happened and the money was returned to Lady Nolan, long after Sidney’s death, in 2013.

The landscape of the Burren, Nolan’s search for a heritage, and his use of spray paints in his art of that time, came together to inspire and shape his Celtic Image series.  Executed with the boldness and clarity of a mature artist, these paintings are primeval and yet modern.  Their monochrome quality harks back to Nolan’s early fascination with Malevich that led to the black Kelly square.  Again, in these works we can feel him striving to create an abstracted formal language but, in this case, one which resonates with his perception of the marks of an ancient civilisation.

Sidney Nolan - Celtic Image 1 at the Burren College of Art exhibition

There have been Sidney Nolan retrospectives in nearly every decade in the last half of the 20th century, and his work is widely represented by the National Gallery of Australia; The Tate, London; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Pittsburgh Museum of Art, and the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Sidney Nolan was knighted in 1981 and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1983. He died in London in 1992.

This is an exciting exhibition of work by one of the twentieth century’s great artists.  The exhibition has been supported by Clare County Council and the Sidney Nolan Trust


Entry to both exhibition and symposium is free, but you’ll need to email Dr Lisa Newman,  or phone +353 (0) 65 7077200 to book a place at the symposium.

Further information can be obtained by visiting the College website:


Welcome home, Sidney.

[This blog was written using notes from the Burren College of Art, with some additional research]

Send To Friend

Captcha Verification
captcha image

Send Inquiry

Captcha Verification
captcha image

About Discover Ballyvaughan

Discover Ballyvaughan has been created to ensure potential visitors to our area have a fast and efficient method of booking their stay. → read more