In the WittyLeaks series, Diplomac&Trade regularly publishes the personal accounts of ambassadors and other diplomatic mission leaders accredited to Budapest. This time, the Irish ambassador shares the story of an artist connecting his country with Hungary.
Art and culture has the power to connect people, to bridge divides, either physical or emotional. I come to learn this even more since my arrival in Hungary. Since arriving in this beautiful country, I have been struck by the depth, richness of, and love for art and culture. There is nothing I enjoy more than strolling through the National Gallery or visiting Szentendre to soak up its artistic and creative spirit or to travel to Pécs to ramble around the Hungarian Modern Art Gallery. And of course, to rest my weary feet and discuss the amazing art over coffee and cake.
Hungarian artist of Irish ancestry
You can only imagine my delight that this infectious love for art, Hungary’s deep cultural tradition and amazing Hungarian artistic talent has a strong link with Ireland. That link comes in the form of Ferenc Martyn, one of Hungary’s leading modernist artists. Ferenc Martyn has a special place in the hearts of the Irish people and I know that Ireland had a special place in the heart of Ferenc Martyn. He was very proud of his Irish roots. In 1790, his great-great grandfather, Peter Martyn, who hailed from Galway in Ireland and came from the famous Galway tribe of families, came to Hungary to join the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Army, rising to the rank of major and eventually settled with his family in Hungary, dying in 1827 at Arad. This Irish heritage stayed with Ferenc and came to influence much of his work.
We do not know for certain if Martyn visited to Ireland but Éva Hárs, the biographer of Martyn, cites his words about the journeys he took throughout his life: “At the age of ten, I went to the home of my ancestors, to Ireland”. Martyn expressed many times his longing for his ancestral home. A number of his Irish themed works have titles containing the word “memory” – Memory of Ireland, Memory of an Irish loom, Memory of Ireland with a harp. But it is not clear whether “memory” refers to actual recollections of a visit to Ireland or means rather nostalgic, emotional images of Ireland.
The illustrator of Ulysses
However, Martyn’s connection with James Joyce and his seminal book, Ulysses, is perhaps his most well known connection with Ireland and Irish culture. Twenty-four of twenty-seven of Martyn’s illustrations of scenes from Ulysses hang to this day in the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, donated by Martyn to Ireland in 1982 to mark the centenary of Joyce’s birth. Of course, Hungary has a strong link with Ulysses. The father of Leopold Bloom (or Virág, the Hungarian word for flower), the hero of Joyce’s Ulysses, hailed from Szombathely.
Martyn’s generosity to the country of his ancestors did not end there. He also gifted eleven of his paintings to Ireland. I am proud that one of those paintings hangs today in the High Lanes Gallery in Drogheda, my hometown, something that I was not aware of until moving to Hungary and exploring the life and work of Ferenc Martyn and his Irish connections. His other paintings hang in galleries all over Ireland, including in Cork, Galway, Sligo and Waterford.
Tata and Pécs
I have enjoyed immensely exploring the work and life of Martyn since my arrival in Hungary and come to be a great admirer of his work, so much so that three of his original paintings now hang in my residence as well as eight prints of his Ulysses illustrations. This love for the work of Martyn has helped in building a strong relationship with the town of Tata, where Martyn lived part of his life and with Pécs, where is also lived and died, and is home to the Ferenc Martyn Museum.
In March this year, I visited the University of Pécs where I donated 24 prints of Martyn’s Ulysses illustrations, which I hope will act as an inspiration for the students of Ireland’s rich literary heritage. I have also had the honor to visit the Hungarian Modern Art Gallery in Pécs, where I had the privilege to view three of the twenty-seven Ulysses illustrations, which remained here in Hungary. I also visited the Ferenc Martyn Museum when I could take in many of his paintings inspired by his Irish heritage, such as the High King of Ireland, my personal favorite.
In August this year, I visited the town of Tata where a number of Martyn’s paintings hang in the city hall. In the city hall, I also had the opportunity to admire a wonderful stained glass representation of Martyn’s painting, the High King of Ireland. Thanks to the generosity of the Mayor of Tata and the Director of the Kuny Domokos Museum, in October, the Embassy and I could host a temporary exhibition of Ferenc Martyn’s paintings. I am delighted that the city of Tata has allowed us to keep three of Martyn’s paintings in my residence on a more permanent basis, including Martyn’s painting, Ulysses. In some respects, it felt like a homecoming, Martyn returning to the home of his ancestors, to the representation of ancestral home here in Hungary.
Hungary’s vibrant art scene
My family and I have felt so welcomed here in Hungary and have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know this wonderful country and people. The good thing is that we have another few years in which to explore every corner of Hungary, its culture, language, food and to sample its well renowned sense of humor, something I think Hungarian and Irish people share in abundance. But it is the thought of strolling through Hungary’s art galleries and learning more about Hungarian art and Hungary’s vibrant art scene that excites me the most. And a big part of this great Hungarian adventure will be exploring more about Martyn Ferenc, learning more about his work and life and his love for Ireland.
But why? Apart from the inherit joy that comes from admiring good art, something that can lift the spirits, especially in these difficult times, for me it is important to strengthen the cultural bonds between Ireland and Hungary. Culture and art brings people together, and it is through that act of togetherness that understanding and cooperation grows. Discovering, celebrating and protecting the legacy of Ferenc Martyn is another example of the strengthening relations between Ireland and Hungary and our peoples. Martyn Ferenc, a proud son of Hungary and a valued member of the Irish tribe, is yet another stone in the bridge that links Ireland and Hungary.
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