Painters & Poets : Fishermen & Scholars

The Great Irish Pike
Part of the Irish Archives

Barrie Cooke & Ted Hughes

The natural world was a central theme in Barrie Cooke’s expressionist painting (1931-2014). His work captured both the sensual idealism of nature, and its dystopian destruction by human hands. This preoccupation was also evident in his personal life, where he was known as a keen fisherman, and a vocal advocate for the protection of rivers, lakes, and seas.

Cooke's love of fishing was a pastime he famously shared with the poets Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) and Ted Hughes (1930-1998), both of whom regularly joined him to fish along the banks of various Irish rivers in Kilkenny, Sligo, Clare, and Limerick. This friendship and shared passion would inspire each of the men in turn, with nature’s sublime beauty and power as evident in Heaney’s and Hughes’ poetry, as it was in Cooke’s own expressionist art. In fact, the painter and the poets were often known to collaborate, with Cooke said to have produced over 100 paintings, prints, and drawings in response to his friends’ literary works. Amongst them a series of illustrations for Heaney’s Bog Poems, published in 1975, and a series of lithographs for Hughes’ The Great Irish Pike’, published in 1982.

Collaboration in Motion

Cooke's collaboration with Hughes is particularly interesting as Cooke has been widely credited with first suggesting the project to his friend. In 1982 Cooke wrote to the American critic, art collector, and poet ‘Jack’ Sweeney (1906-1986), and his wife, the Irish academic and folklorist, Máire MacNéill (1904-1987), concerning the Great Irish Pike collaboration with Hughes. It is 'a wonderful poem and I think a strong set of lithographs. Ted found a superb master printer living in Devon, so I did them over there. I drew and then Ted wrote lines on each plate. If this proves ‘successful’ perhaps we’ll do a ‘Great Irish Elk.’ [Hughes was resident in Devon at this time].

The Great Pike

Most intriguing amongst Cooke's correspondence with the McSweeneys, however, is a simple pencil sketch by Cooke in which he captures an Irish pike in profile. Inscribed beneath, Cooke writes, ‘Pike study for the set of Hughes/Cooke lithographs1982, the seed for which was sown by Jack and Máire in 1958. With love from Barrie.’ Such archival remnants as these help add a new narrative thread to the biography of the Cooke-Hughes collaboration, suggesting a significant role for the Sweeneys in the project’s early conception, dating as far back as 1958.

Support from the Sweeneys

The Sweeneys were a much admired and influential couple in both Irish and American academic and artistic circles. John Lincoln ‘Jack’ Sweeney had been Curator of Harvard Library’s Poetry Room between 1942-1945, specialising in twentieth century poetry in English, and was later curator of the Library’s Farnsworth Room between 1945-1947, when he became Subject Specialist in English Literature, retiring in 1967. His brother was the art critic and museum director, James Johnson Sweeney, who had served at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas.  Máire MacNeill was herself a revered scholar, and the daughter of the Irish political leader Eoin MacNeill. Having travelled to Boston, to lecture at Harvard’s Department of Celtic Studies, she married Sweeney in 1949. The couple maintained a second residence in Corofin, County Clare, and would settle there permanently following Sweeney’s retirement.

The Sweeney’s broad circle of friends reflected their diverse artistic and cultural interests, embracing writers, poets, artists, politicians, and critics. It is speculated that the couple and Cooke first became acquainted in the 1950s, when the British-born Cooke first settled in Ireland. In fact, a portrait of Máire MacNeill was undertaken by Cooke in 1959 (which now forms part of the National Gallery of Ireland’s permanent collection). Perhaps unsurprisingly the couple were also acquainted with the poet Ted Hughes, whose correspondence with the Sweeneys may also be dated to the 1950s, having himself worked with Sweeney at Harvard.

The introduction of the Sweeneys into the origin story for the Cooke-Hughes Great Irish Pike collaboration presents both Cooke and Hughes researchers with an interesting line of enquiry, and poses a number of questions worthy of further investigation. Did the Sweeneys have a role to play in introducing the poet and painter or was this friendship already in place? On which occasion in 1958 did an opportunity arise for Cooke and the Sweeneys to meet, giving birth to this creative spark, and might Hughes also have been present? Could Cooke’s portrait of MacNeill in 1959, and any earlier preparatory work and communications in this regard, have had a role to play in the timeline? The answers, like the questions themselves, will most likely be found in archival records, once again highlighting the value of our historical collections for the study and understanding of our creative and cultural lives.



Claire Doohan, Mahon Project Archivist

Published online: 2022