Tribute to Brian O'Toole, read by Peter Betts at the end of the Requiem Mass said by Father Kearney at St. John's Church, Fountains Rd. Kirkdale, Friday September 7th 2001.
Above: cartoon from the Yellow Press no.1, 1991
Brian O'Toole was the most remarkable man that I have ever met. Nothing about him was ordinary, average or dull.
Most people might characterise him as 'a one off' but that empty cliché just doesn't do him justice, it doesn't get anywhere near describing his very special personality and talent.
He was first and foremost a brilliant illustrator, with an instantly recognisable and entirely unique style which I could best describe as an astonishing synthesis of the work of black and white artists of the Victorian era and the great American underground comic artist Robert Crumb.
He could draw just about anything from memory whether it was a computer, a tin toy or the exact type of trainers worn by a septuagenarian Echo seller who he had once seen in Church Street years ago.
Yes he had a sharp eye for detail and a gift of perfect recall for all the things that mattered deeply to him.
I knew and admired his work before I had the privilege of meeting him.
About twenty years ago, I visited an exhibition of the work of North-West illustrators at the Bluecoat Gallery.
A small drawing caught my eye almost immediately, it was finely drawn in pen and ink, with bright but sinister colour.
Imagine the scene, an interior of a spacecraft, with two intrepid intergalactic travellers. But this was not Dan Dare and Digby, this I was to discover was an authentic eyewitness report from Planet Brian.
The two figures hunched over the controls of the spaceship had eyes the size and colour of fried eggs, hideous canine teeth and their faces were bright blue and very hairy.
Amidst the spaceship control switches, cables and wires, there was a gas meter and a Belfast sink.
The commander of the spaceship held an enormous spliff in his pink gloved fist and the caption bubble above his head said, NOW AZOG. DROP THE GIANT RUBBER SPIDERS ON THE EARTHLING FOOLS!!
This masterpiece of mad graphic humour was for sale and so for the first time in my life I bought a work of art.
I was to come across further examples of his work, CND Christmas cards complete with the Holy Family clad in nuclear contamination suits and a magnificently dark and detailed poster opposing the Ring Road.
The Ring Road of course was never built and I like to think that Brian's poster played some part in that famous victory over the mad planners, property developers and their sacred cars. I finally met Brian at the opening of an exhibition of his work in 1986. It was a memorable event seeing so many of his finely crafted drawings, many of which had been drawn for publication in the Irish Magazine, In Dublin.
I remember especially with great pleasure, an exquisitely executed cartoon with the title, The Miraculous Toaster of Mullingar.
He loved Ireland and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Irish history, literature and art. He had in recent years been working on a series of portraits of Irish writers Behan, Beckett, Oscar Wilde, Flann O'Brien, W B Yeats and James Joyce. These oil paintings have been reproduced as postcards.
Brian himself was a picture of some elegance, seldom seen without a collar and tie and frequently seen in a three-piece suit whatever the event. On those rare occasions that he dressed casually, there were always knife-edge creases in his jeans.
Brian's appearance was the source of some alarm and consternation on at least one occasion. Many, many years ago, when Clement McAleer was presiding over a private view of his paintings and the red dots were appearing on the labels, as the pictures began to sell at a brisk rate. Clem was suddenly alarmed by the sight of an unknown, grim faced, be-suited figure, advancing towards him. Clearly this was a senior executive from the Inland Revenue with a demand for immediate payment. But no, it was just Brian in his Sunday best.
Brian was devoted to his family, his mother and late father, his sister Bernadette and his niece and nephew Katie and Joseph. He cared for these children and helped and encouraged them with their school-work. They were always able to seek his assistance and advice, he had an inexhaustible supply of facts and information. He knew a lot.
He had a mischievous and sometimes perverse sense of humour. Who else but Brian would insist on introducing his sister, the blushing bride Bernadette, on her wedding day, as' this is Miss Haversham'
I should say now that Miss Haversham was the Dickens character who famously didn't get married, abandoned as she was by her husband to be on her wedding morning. I don't think Brian would approve of that little explanation.
You don't know? You can't follow what I'm on about? Well why not? You must know! You should know! That was his attitude, he knew so, so should you.
And what didn't he know? I remember the occasion last year at an exhibition of his paintings in the Everyman Theatre, when he was approached by a stranger who congratulated him on the show. The young man introduced himself as an Iranian, studying for a Ph.D. in English literature.
Thereupon Brian immediately launched into an enthusiastic appreciation of Iranian poetry. I was not surprised myself, but I can still see now the student's expression of slackjawed incredulity. When Brian paused to re-light his ciggy, the student exclaimed, 'I have been in this country for eight years and I've never met anyone who has ever heard of Iranian poetry and now I'm having a conversation about Iranian poetry with you'
Brian's response to this was to furrow his brow and pause silently as if to say, Jeez! You've been mixing with bunches of eejits all the time you have been over here.
The most puzzling and endearing aspect of Brian's relationship to long dead artists and authors was that he acted and spoke as if he was personally acquainted with them all. 'When he spoke of Joyce or Baudelaire, Van Gogh or George Grosz it was always as if he had been conversing with them only recently. Yes he knew and loved their work so he was certainly on speaking terms with them all.
And who amongst us here today would not like to think that he is amidst them now? Just imagine that he's become a welcome member of some vast, celestial cafˇ society. Think of him now conversing with Edgar Allen Poe, Verlaine and Baudelaire. He'll be of course be avoiding Picasso like the plague - 'I can't stand the man' he was wont to say. This led to sharp disputes between us, equalled only by the time when I confessed that I found the later works of James Joyce difficult. I once became the victim of a vicious assault late one Friday night in Berry St. Happily the assault was entirely verbal and richly deserved.
So cheerio Brian, Chief! You will never be dead while your family and dear friends draw breath.
Read John S. Doyle's Irish Independent article remembering the man and his work here.
Read the Shem 'n' Sam comic strips, written by Stephen Walsh and drawn by Brian O'Toole, here.
For purchasing details of Brian O'Toole's postcards depicting Irish writers, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US the set of cards are available from Irish Books and Media via their website, www.irishbook.com, or by calling toll-free 800 229 3505.
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