Northern Ireland

Rockwell Kent, the Gaeltacht, Cold War and Annie McGinley

Kent painting Image copyright Courtesy of Plattsburgh State Art Museum
Image caption "Annie McGinley" now rests in a private collection in New York

When I first set eyes on Annie McGinley, I had no idea she would lead me on a journey of political intrigue half way around the world.

Although the painting of her was a copy hanging on the wall of a pub in the tiny Gaeltacht, or Irish-speaking, village of Glencolmcille in County Donegal, it was clear at first glance that she was something special.

Who was the mysterious barefooted woman in the blue dress lying sunbathing on the edge of a vast cliff gazing out towards the Atlantic?

The original Annie was painted by the famous American artist Rockwell Kent.

In pursuit of his passion for painting and living in remote and isolated places around the world, his compass eventually pointed him towards Donegal, where he arrived in 1926.

Image copyright Courtesy of Plattsburgh State Art Museum
Image caption Rockwell Kent painted 36 oils around Glencolmcille

Who is Rockwell Kent?

Rockwell Kent was one of the most popular American artists of the first half of the 20th century.

He is best known for his landscape painting and enjoyed acclaim as a major American artist during the 1930s, but also gained notoriety for his political activities.

He was frequently called a Communist, a charge he denied. In 1953, the artist refused, on Fifth Amendment grounds, to say whether or not he was a Communist when he was questioned on this point by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.

In 1960 he presented the Soviet Union with 80 of his paintings as well as a number of prints, drawings, and manuscripts, which were divided among four Soviet museums.

He died in 1971.

Local woman Annie McGinley became his inspiration, and he never forgot her. More than 30 years after she posed for him on the rocks, he went back to Glencolmcille searching for Annie.

Kent's return was delayed much longer than he expected as he found himself a prisoner in his own country.

He was summoned in front of Senator Joseph McCarthy's Committee on Un-American Activities because of his political beliefs, and when he steadfastly refused to answer whether he'd ever been in the Communist Party, his passport was denied, and Kent could not leave the US.

"Annie McGinley" was one of 36 oils Kent painted around Glencolmcille.

Image copyright Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo
Image caption Kent had a passion for painting and living in remote and isolated places around the world

Driven by his love of solitude, he found the most remote place he could among the Donegal wilderness, a valley called Glenlough that was accessible only by foot.

From there he worked in a tiny cow shed that he hired from a local hill farmer called Dan Ward. Kent evicted the cow, and turned the byre into his studio.

One of Kent's finest Irish paintings was of Dan Ward building a giant haystack.

To this day, the iconic picture hangs on permanent display in the famous Hermitage museum in St Petersburg.

According to historians, Dylan Thomas found refuge in the same cowshed a decade later while trying to recover from the ravages of excessive drinking.

Kent often referred to Dan Ward as "my dear friend", but that didn't prevent the farmer criticising Kent's work.

After he had been painting for several weeks, Kent invited Dan and his wife Rose over to the cow shed for tea.

Image copyright Courtesy of Plattsburgh State Art Museum
Image caption Kent kept some of the Donegal paintings, others were sold into private collections or ended up in galleries across the US.

They were the first people to see Kent's original Donegal paintings.

But the product testing didn't go too well. Dan stared at the canvasses for ages, and finally removed the pipe from his mouth before delivering his verdict: "Begorra, they're terrible."

In 1926, Kent and his 36 Donegal paintings returned to New York, and have never been seen by an audience in Ireland. Kent kept some of them, others were sold into private collections or ended up in galleries across the US.

McCarthy's attention

Annie fell into private hands and she rests in a private collection in New York, where I managed to find her.

Kent's support for various left-wing causes and his unshakable belief in building closer ties between the US and Russia at the height of the Cold War brought him to the attention of McCarthy.

While all this was going on, his friend Dan back in Donegal contacted him, and asked Kent if he would be interested in buying his farm at Glenlough where he had once lived in the cowshed.

Reminded of the spectacular views he had painted and the warmth of the people, Kent decided to take Dan up on his offer. He fought the passport ban all the way to the Supreme court, where he won a famous landmark case.

Image caption Kevin Magee at Rockwell Kent's grave in upstate New York

With his new passport in hand and now free to leave the States, the first country he visited was Ireland, hoping to buy Dan's place.

He arrived at Belfast docks in 1958, took a train to Strabane and a narrow gauge railway to Killybegs. But by the time he arrived in Glenlough it was too late - Dan's place had been sold.

McCarthy's allegations during the anti-communist paranoia at the height of the Cold War tarnished Kent's reputation at home, but whatever friends he may have lost in his own country, he made new ones in the USSR.

His paintings were exhibited in Russia for the first time in 1957, and when he could finally travel there, Kent was given a hero's welcome and treated like a celebrity defector.

In recognition of their appreciation of his work, he gifted the Russians more than 80 of his paintings - "Dan Ward's stack" among them.

"I want my pictures to be seen and loved, and that could only happen among the Soviet Union," Kent wrote.

Image copyright Courtesy of Plattsburgh State Art Museum
Image caption Kent's Donegal collection was split east and west between the world's great super powers

As a result of Cold War politics Kent's Donegal collection was split east and west between the world's great super powers, and Donegal lost out as a potential home for one of the most controversial and talked about artists of the last century.

In my documentary "Ar Lorg Annie" or "Searching for Annie" I track not only the paintings, but the descendants of the people in them. Viewers will see the real Annie McGinley and the real Dan Ward's stack paintings for the very first time.

Hopefully their verdict will be at odds with Dan Ward when he first saw the originals in his converted cow shed.

"Ar Lorg Annie" is a Macha Media Production for BBC Gaeilge, made with the support of Northern Ireland Screen's Irish Language Broadcast Fund.

It will be shown on BBC2 Northern Ireland at 22:00 BST on Sunday 24 June.