Almost forgotten Belfast artist’s centenary marked by new book

Quite a few introductions to newly-published books arrived in Roamer’s mailbox over the past number of months.
Belfast-born Artist Daniel O'NeillBelfast-born Artist Daniel O'Neill
Belfast-born Artist Daniel O'Neill

Several were mentioned as the traditional Yuletide ‘book-reading break’ approached, and the rest will be shared here in the near future.

But one of the books, sent at the beginning of December, came with a poignant covering letter telling a story that’s all too common these days - “What a year it has been for the visual arts with so many shows in the public galleries cancelled or postponed.”

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While there’s been constant news-coverage of countless Covid-19 closures, cancellations, suspensions and shut-downs, there’s been little mention of art.

Daniel O'Neill (left) with Gerard Dillon in Dublin  in 1943Daniel O'Neill (left) with Gerard Dillon in Dublin  in 1943
Daniel O'Neill (left) with Gerard Dillon in Dublin in 1943

“Who would have thought when the year commenced,” the letter continued “that the proposed retrospective exhibition of Belfast artist Daniel O’Neill, which was to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, would be cancelled for a second time this year?”

The letter came from David Britton, husband of Dublin-author Karen Reihill, an expert on the life and work of some of Northern Ireland’s leading artists and painters.

Karen has been studying and researching them for several years - Gerard Dillon, George Campbell and Daniel O’Neill, known as ‘The Belfast Boys’ - and her latest book entitled ‘Daniel O’Neill Romanticism & Friendships’ was published in November.

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She also wrote ‘Gerard Dillon, Art and Friendships’ published in 2013, and ‘George Campbell and The Belfast Boys’, published in 2015.

Daniel O’Neill.  Self on Western ShoreDaniel O’Neill.  Self on Western Shore
Daniel O’Neill. Self on Western Shore

The proposed retrospective exhibition of O’Neill marking the 100th anniversary of his birth, was due to open on November 28 in Dublin’s Farmleigh Gallery, having been postponed from its original date in May due to the pandemic.

“It was to be the first time since his 1952 Belfast retrospective,” David Britton’s letter continued, “that so many of Daniel O’Neill’s works were to be seen together and included a number of works from The Ulster Museum Collection, as well as from many private collections.”

Undeterred by the exhibition’s demise, Karen was determined to mark O’Neill’s centenary year “so we pushed ahead independently” explained David, “and published this monograph on him.”

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It’s a lavishly illustrated book with over 370 reproductions of O’Neill’s work and black and white period-photographs of himself and his friends.

Girl from The North by Daniel O'NeillGirl from The North by Daniel O'Neill
Girl from The North by Daniel O'Neill

“This is very much an Ulster story,” David’s note continued “as unlike his artist friends Gerard Dillon and George Campbell, who left Northern Ireland, O’Neill lived in Belfast and County Down for 43 of his 54 years.”

The book is the result of a decade of research and contains much new information on the artist, his life, and the art scene in Dublin and Belfast in the period from 1940 to the early 1970s.

The O’Neill family “lived in a Victorian redbrick terrace at 4 Dimsdale Street, overshadowed by Mackie’s iron factory,” the book’s introduction begins.

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Daniel was born on January 21, 1920 and started painting at the early age of 12 years old. He loved reading art books from his local library.

Front Cover of the BookFront Cover of the Book
Front Cover of the Book

“Following his education at St John’s school on Colinward street (off Springfield Road), O’Neill left school to become an apprentice electrician.”

He and his art-loving friends were “drawn to the Belfast Reference Library to learn more about art.”

The author quotes a reference to the head librarian, Mr Jenkinson, “who would, contrary to library rules, allow O’Neill and his fellow painters to borrow illustrated texts for the weekends.”

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The book recounts O’Neill’s first attempts to exhibit in Belfast during World War II with fellow artists and life-long friends, Gerard Dillon and George Campbell.

Considered a mysterious and enigmatic figure during his lifetime, and “tall, graceful, and incredibly good looking”, new research material in the book shines light on O’Neill’s personal struggles (with alcohol and depression) and his complex relationship with his dealer, Victor Waddington.

As well as his solo exhibitions, Karen Reihill’s book explores O’Neill’s participation in mixed exhibitions of Irish art sponsored by Waddington and the new Irish Arts Council, which took place in Ireland, UK, Europe, North America and Canada.

In addition to Dillon and Campbell, other artists included in O’Neill’s story are Colin Middleton, Arthur Campbell, Markey Robinson, Nano Reid, Nevill Johnson, Arthur Armstrong and James MacIntyre.

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Paintings exhibited in art institutions at home and abroad are reproduced in the book for the first time, complimented by archival photographs of O’Neill and his friends, showing the reader how O’Neill adapted to the various political, social and economic changes in Ireland until his untimely death in 1974.

It’s a vivid and evocative portrayal of the somewhat forgotten artist’s life, work and fellow-artists by an accomplished author and art consultant who ran Bonham’s world-renowned, picture department in London in the late 1980s.

Karen is a vocal 21st century champion for the Ulster Painters who has also worked as a conservator at Ireland’s National Gallery before founding Dublin’s Frederick Gallery with husband and fellow art-lover David Britton in 1991.

The book ends with acclaimed author and Irish art critic Brian Fallon’s commendation of O’Neill as “one of the strongest and most original personalities in Irish art since the second world war…. a visual poet whose imagination has its own soft, haunting and very individual radiance.”

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Daniel O’Neill Romanticism & Friendships, by Karen Reihill, is available to order from bookshops, or online at As bookshops are currently closed no postage is being charged for delivery.