The Portrait of Róisín Dhu – Dorothy Macardle (1924)

(For S.H.)

It was a year after the artist was drowned that the loan exhibition of Hugo Blake’s paintings was opened in Philadelphia by Maeve. “Whom the gods love die young,” people said. To remember those paintings is like remembering a dream-life spent with the Ever-living in an Ireland untrodden by men. Except once he never painted a human face or any form of life, human or faery, yet the very light and air of them thrilled with life – it was as though he had painted life itself.

There was the great “Sliav Gullion” – stony, austere, – the naked mountain against the northern sky, and to look at it was to be filled with a young, fierce hunger for heroic deeds, with the might of Cuchulain and Fionn. There was “Loch Corrib” like a mirage from the first day of Creation – there was Una’s “Dawn” …

The critics, inarticulate with wonder, made meaningless phrases:

“Blake paints as a seer,”

“He paints on the astral plane.”

At the end of the room, alone on a grey wall, hung the “Portrait of Róisín Dhu.” Before her, Irish men and women stood worshipping, the old with tears, the young with fire in their eyes. There were men whom it sent home. Had Blake seen, anywhere on earth, others were asking, that heart-breaking, entrancing face? Knowledge of the secrets of God was in the eyes; on the lips was the memory, the endurance and the fore-knowledge of endless pain; yet from the luminous, serene face shone out a beauty that made one crave for the spaces beyond death.

No woman in the world, we said, had been Hugo’s Roisin Dhu; no mortal face had troubled him when he painted that immortal dream – that ecstasy beyond fear, that splendour beyond anguish – that wild, sweet holiness of Ireland for which men die.

Maeve, as we knew, had been his only friend. When strangers clamoured, “Was there a woman?” she would not tell. But one evening when we were five only around Una’s fire she told us the strange, incredible tale.

“I will not tell everyone for a while,” she said, “because so few would understand, and Hugo, unless one understood to the heights and depths, might seem to have been … unkind. But I will tell you:

There was a girl.”

“It is almost impossible to believe,” Liam said; “It is not a human body he has painted; nor even a human soul!”

“That is true in a way,” Maeve answered hesitating: “I will try to make you understand.”

“He was the loneliest being I have ever known. He was a little atom of misery and rebellion when my godmother rescued him in France. She bought the child from a drunkard who was starving him almost to death. His mother, you know, was Nora Raftery, the actress; she ran away from her husband with François Raoul, taking the child, and died. Poor Blake rode over a precipice while hunting – mad with grief, and the boy was left without a friend in the world. It was I who taught him to read and write: already he could draw.

To the end he was the same passionate, lonely child. The anguish of pity and love he had had for his mother he gave to her country when he came home: he suffered unbearable “heim-weh” all the years he was studying abroad. The “Dark Tower” as we called it, of our godmother’s house on Loch Corrib was the place he loved best.

I have known no one who lived in such extremes, always of misery or of joy. In any medium but paint he was helpless – chaotic or dumb, yet I think that his pictures came to him first not visually at all, but as intense perceptions of a mood. And between that moment of perception and the moment when it took form and colour in his mind he used to be like a wild creature in pain. He would prowl day and night around the region he meant to paint, waiting in a rage of impatience for the right moment of light and shadow to come, the incarnation of the soul….Then, when he had found it, the blessed mood of contentment would come and he would paint, day after day, until it was done. At those times, in the evenings, he would be exhausted and friendly and grateful like a child.

Image from page 62 of “Priced catalogue of artists’ materials : supplies for oil painting, water color painting, china painting … and drawing materials for architects and engineers, manual training schools and colleges.” Internet Archive Book Images

For all the vehemence that you feel in his work he painted very slowly, with intense, exquisite care, like a man in love. That is indeed what he was, – in love, obliviously, with whatever spirit had enthralled him imagination at the time. And when the picture was finished and the vision gone he fell into a mood of desolation in which he wanted to die. He was very young.

I tried to scold Hugo out of those moods. I was with him in April just after he had finished his “Loch Corrib” – you know the innocence, the angelic tranquility in it, like the soul of a child. He would not go near the lake: “It is nothing to me now,” he said somberly, “I have done with it.”

“Hugo!” I said, laughing, “you are a vampire! The loch has given you its soul.”

He answered. “Yes: that is true; corpses are ugly things.”

For a month that empty, dead mood lasted and Hugo hated all the world. I took him to London to give him something to hate. After two days he fled back to his tower and breathed the smell of the peat and sea-wind, and the sweet, home-welcome of burning turf, and looked out on Ireland with eyes of love. The next morning he came in from a bathe in the loch with the awakened, wondering look I had longed to see and said, “I am going to paint Roisin Dhu.” Then we went off to walk the west of Ireland seeking a woman for his need.

I was astonished and excited beyond words; he had been so contemptuous of human subjects, although I remembered, in his student days, studies for heads and hands that had made one artist whisper, “Leonardo!” under his breath.

I wondered what woman he would bring home. They came about two weeks later, after dark, rowing over the loch, Hugo and the girl alone. After supper, sitting over the turf fire in the round hall of the tower, Hugo told me that she was the daughter of a king.

She smiled at him, knowing that he spoke of her although she had no English at all, and I told her in Irish what he had said. She answered gravely, “It is true.”

I looked at her then as she moved from the window to her chair, and I felt almost afraid – her beauty was so delicate and so remote …

Those red lips with all their mournful pride”… Poems of Yeats were haunting me while I looked at her. But it was the beauty of one asleep, unaware of life or of sorrow or of love…the face of a woman whose light is hidden…

She sat in the shadowed corner, brooding, while Hugo talked. He was at his happiest, overflowing with childish delight in his achievement and with eagerness for tomorrow’s sun.

Nuala was her name. The King of the Blasket Isles was her father – a superstitious, tyrannical old man. Hugo had been able to make no way with him or his sons.

“I invited one of them to come too, and take care of her,” he said, “but they would not hear of it at all.”

“The old man was as dignified as a Spanish Grandee.”

“It is not that I would be misdoubting you, honest man,” says he, ‘but my daughter is my daughter and there is no call for her to be going abroad to the world.”

“And her brothers was as obstinate:

“’Tis not good to be put in a picture: it takes from you,’ they said.

‘They got me into a boat by a ruse, rowed me ‘back to Ireland’ and when they had landed me pulled off.

“The blessing of God on your far travelling!’ they called to me gravely: a hint that I would not be welcome to the island again.

“You can imagine the frenzy I was in!” he said. And I could, well. He had walked night after night on the rocks of the mainland planning some desperate thing, but one night Nuala came to him, rowed out through the darkness by some boys who braved the vengeance of the old king for her sake. He rewarded them extravagantly and brought Nuala home.

He told it all triumphantly, and Nuala looked up at him from time to time with a gentle gaze full of content and rest. But my heart sank: there was only one possible end to this; Hugo, at his best, was loving and kind and selfless – all might be well – but I knew my Hugo after work.

She slept in my room and talked to me, softly, in the dark, asking me questions about Hugo’s work. “He told me you were his sister-friend.” she said.

I told her about his childhood, his suffering and his genius: she listened and sighed.

“It is a pity of him to be so long lonely,” she said, “but he will not be lonely any more.”

“Why, Nuala?” I asked, my heart heavy with dread for her. Her answer left me silent.

“I myself will be giving him love.”

Hugo had found a being as lost to the world as himself. How would it end for her, I wondered. She slept peacefully, but I lay long awake.

The next morning work began in the studio at the top of the tower. I gave up all thought of going home. Nuala would need me.

Hugo was working faster than usual it seemed, beginning as soon as the light was clear and never pausing until it failed. I marvelled at Nuala’s endurance, but I dared not plead for her. I had wrecked a picture of Hugo’s once by going into his studio while he painted: his vision fled from him at the least intrusion and I had learned to keep aloof.

Day after day, when they came down at last to rest and eat, I could measure his progress by the sombre glow of power in his eyes. I could imagine some young druid when his spells proved potent, looking like that.

But the change that came over Nuala frightened me; he was wearing her away: her face had a clear, luminous look, her eyes were large and dark; I saw an expression in them sometimes as of one gazing into an abyss of pain. The change that might come to a lovely woman in years, seemed to come to her in days: the beauty of her, as she sat in the candle-light, gazing at her own thoughts in the shadows, would still your breath. It grew more wonderful, more tragic, from day to day.

One night after she has stolen away to bed, exhausted, while Hugo sat by the fire in a kind of trance, I forced myself to question him.

“Hugo,” I said, as lightly as I could, with my heart throbbing: “Is it that you are in love with your Roisin Dhu?”

He looked up suddenly, with a dark fire in his eyes. “Love,” he whispered in a voice aching with passion. He rose and threw back his head and cried out in tones like deep music –

“I could plough the blue air!

I could climb the high hills!

O, I could kneel all night in prayer

To heal your many ills!”

Then he sighed and went away. Nuala’s look was becoming, day by day a look of endurance and resignation that I could not bear, as of one despairing of all human happiness yet serene.

At last I questioned him again:

“Will you be marrying your Roisin Dhu?”

He turned on me startled, with a laugh, both angry and amazed.

“What  a question! What an outrageous question, Maeve!”

I was unanswered still.

When seven weeks had gone I grew gravely anxious. I feared that Nuala would die: she had  the beauty you could imagine in a spirit new-awakened from death, a look of anguish and ecstasy in one … She was frail and spent; she scarcely spoke to me or seemed to know me; she slept always in the garden alone.

It was towards the end of June that I said to Hugo, “You are wearing your model out.”

“I am painting her better than God created her,” he answered. Then he said, contentedly, “I shall have done with her very soon.”

I cannot express the dread that fell on me then; I was torn with irresolution. To interfere with Hugo – to break the spell of his vision, would not only sacrifice the picture, it might destroy him. I thought his reason would not survive the laceration, the passion that would follow the shattering of that dream.

That night I found Nuala utterly changed. She came down from the studio dull-eyed and ugly and went straight to bed in my room.

Hugo told me he did not want her anymore. I rowed her out next morning across the loch: it was one of those grey, misty days when it is loveliest; the Twelve Bens in the distance looked like mountains of Hy Breasail, the weeds and sedges glimmering silver-gold…but she had no eyes for its beauty, no beauty of her own, no light…she lay drowsy and unresponsive on her cushions; her hands and face were like wax.

Attribution: “Twelve Pins” by Joebater at the English-language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

I would have rebelled that night, taken any risk, to make Hugo undo what he had done. She lay down to sleep under a willow by the water’s edge and I went to him in the hall. He was stranding by the fire and turned to me as I came in; there was a look of wondering humility in his face, as if his own achievement were a thing to worship – a thing he could not understand.

“Tomorrow!” he said: “It will be finished in an hour: you shall see it.” Then he came and took my hands in his old and affectionate way and said:

“You have been such a good sister-friend!”

One hour more! She must endure it: I would not sacrifice him for that. But I lay awake all night oppressed with a sense of fear and cruelty and guilt.

At breakfast time there was no Hugo: he had eaten and started work. Old Kate rang the bell in the garden but Nuala did not come. My fears had vanished with the sweet air and sunshine of the early morning: larks were singing; it was mid-June: the joy of Hugo’s triumph was my own joy. I went down to the willow where I had left Nuala asleep. She was lying there still: she never stirred when I touched her. She was cold.

I called no one, I ran madly up the spiral stairs to Hugo’s studio in the tower. Outside his door I paused: the memory of the last time I had broken in and the devastating consequences arrested me even then. I pushed the door open without a sound and stood inside, transfixed.

I looked for a moment and grew dizzy, so amazing was the thing I saw. Hugo stood by his easel: before him on the dais, glimmering in the misty silver light, stood Nuala, gazing at him, all a radiance of consummated sacrifice and sweet, unconquerable love – Nuala, as you have seen her in the portrait of Roisin Dhu.

Hugo stumbled, laid down his brush, drew his hand over his eyes, then turned and, seeing me, said, “It is done.”

When I looked again at the dais she was gone. I was shaken to the heart with fear. I cried out, “Come to her! She is dead.”

He ran with me down to the water’s edge. I believe I hoped that he would be able to waken her, but she was cold and dead, lying with wide-open eyes.

Hugo knelt down and touched her, then rose quickly and turned away: “How unbeautiful” he said.

I called out to him sternly, angrily, and he looked down at her again, then stopped and lifted her in his arms.

“Maeve, Maeve!” he cried then, piteously: “Have I done this?”

He brought her home with state to the Island, told them she had been his bride and gave her such a burial as the old King’s heart approved. Then he came home again to his lonely house. I left it before he came; he had told me he wanted to be alone.

I heard nothing of him then for a long time and felt uneasy and afraid. After I had written many anxious letters a strange, disjointed answer came.

“She has never left me,” he wrote. “She is waiting, near, quite near. But what can I do? This imprisoning body – this suffocating life – this burdenous mortality – this dead world.

“The picture is for you, Sister-friend, and for Ireland when you die.”

Before I could go to him the picture came and with it the news that he was drowned. They found the boat far out on the loch.”

Maeve’s face was pale when she ended: she covered her eyes for a moment with her hand.

“He had seen the hidden vision…” one of us said.

Nesta was looking into the fire, her dark eyes wide with foreboding.

“It is written in Destiny,” she said: “the lovers of Roisin Dhu must die.”

A Note on the Text: Published by kind permission of the Macardle estate from Dorothy Macardle’s Earth-Bound: Nine Stories of Ireland. Worcester, Mass., The Harrington Press. 1924.

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