By: James Bartlett
The Irish diaspora are famously all over the planet – but what about those who are living right on the edge?
Artist Fred McCullough was born in Belfast, but has lived in Tasmania for nearly 50 years. He described the island as “close to same size as Ireland – but with a population of only half a million people” off the south coast of Australia and the last stop before the icy wastes of the Antarctic.
His recent exhibition Marking Time: A Maritime Trilogy ended at the Maritime Museum of Tasmania, a series of paintings celebrating three vessels from the Great War, two of which made commercial trips between Tasmania and mainland Australia.
McCullough, 73, recalled how he was one of the first boys at Orangefield Boys’ Secondary in 1957 – the same year as a young lad who went on to be known as Van Morrison. He loved art, going from the lower grades to the Belfast College of Art and then to university to gain an art teachers diploma, yet he was always playing rugby.
Both passions went with him to Tasmania, a place he admits he knew nothing about – but “I wanted to broaden my life experiences, so I applied for a teaching position there.”
As the last of the so-called “10-pound poms” (post-WWII emigrants from the UK), he sailed from Southampton and arrived in Australia five weeks later. He took a trip back to Belfast a few years afterward, but on his return, he met Sue, a physical education teacher, whom he married and started a family.
McCullough exhibited some work in Launceston and Hobart, the two biggest cities in Tasmania and spent several years as the art education officer at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston.
He was also heavily involved with his local rugby club, but “after numerous collar bone breaks and other injuries, he moved in to coaching. In 2003, he was the local liaison for the Romania rugby team when it played Namibia in Launceston in the Rugby World Cup.”
McCullough works from his home, a 1904 farm cottage in rural Glengarry, a small town some 21 miles outside Launceston. His specialty tends to be maritime and military, becoming involved in 2000 in an unusual and extremely personal art project.
“I became the custodian of my late uncle’s RAF log book, which led to a random production of work based on his 12 operations with Bomber Command entitled Above and Beyond: A Flight Engineer’s Log,” he explained.
“As part of the process, it was impossible not to become involved in researching each of my uncle Harry’s operations, and his demise over Munich in 1943. I traveled to Germany in 2007 and visited the Durnbach War Cemetery where the crew of his Lancaster ED 703 plane are buried.”
There were other visits too, and the subsequent paintings were also part of an exhibit at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast in 2009.
The project has been ongoing. In 2013, McCullough was in London for a family wedding after which he and other family members went to see – and hold – fragments from an aircraft his uncle had previously flown in, and to visit its crash site in Nottinghamshire.
“I returned to Tasmania with a photographic record, and began a new series of paintings that were titled Seven From Syerston. Service numbers of the crew feature in many of the paintings.”
His family’s military history also led him to bring a keepsake nearly 11,000 miles from Belfast to Glengarry:
“My grandfather served as a runner with the 8th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, in WWI, and amongst memorabilia he brought back from the front was a German shell case which sat on the hearth in the house I was born,” McCullough indicated.
He recalled how he helped his grandfather Tommy cut and fold tapers which were then placed in the shell case and used to light his Woodbine cigarettes.
“I brought the case to Tasmania in the 1990s, and it takes pride of place at my fireplace,” he notes, adding that the case was the catalyst for a series of paintings which were exhibited as part of last year’s exhibition The Great War 1914-1918: Sacrifice and Shadows, at the Queen Victoria Museum in Launceston.
The exhibition provided an insight in to the war experiences of Tasmanian soldiers, nurses, airmen and navy personnel, acknowledging their fears, courage and stoicism.
As for family, McCullough’s siblings are still in Ireland. Older brother Harry lives in Athenry, Co. Galway, and sister Margie lives in Belfast and is married to a minister. McCullough happily remembers their childhood holidays together.
“Our whole extended family rented a house and descended for a month on Donaghadee on the Co. Down coast. That month was the highlight of my year. Donaghadee and no school. What more could you want?”
Fred recalls spending his time there working for free on fishing and tourist boats.
“Morning and night, it was deep sea fishing and collecting lobster pots, and in the afternoons myself and other kids touted for trade for our respective boats taking people to the Copeland Islands and back. Those were probably the most enjoyable times as I grew up.”
McCullough finished teaching in 2003, but is still busy when he’s not in the studio. He has to keep his acres “ticking along”, but he also spends time at the gym and takes long walks in the bush with Maggie, his black Labrador.
“My art is always present and part of my DNA,” he said, also calling himself an “Australian Rules tragic who enjoys a weekly dose of (Australia Rules) footy.”
He makes an annual trip to Melbourne to see his favorite team, Geelong, play – but even then Belfast isn’t far from his mind.
“It’s often an excuse for a silly weekend with my son, and to catch up with a Belfast mate from my early childhood days,” he concluded.