Farrell, Micheal (1940–2000), painter and print-maker, was born 3 July 1940 at Cookstown House, near Ceanannus Mór (Kells), Co. Meath, one of two sons and two daughters of James Farrell, farmer and rugby player with Bective Rangers, and Nora Farrell (née Folwell). He began his education at the CBS in Kells and often expressed his surprise that he remained unaware of the town's ancient historical past. After a short, happy period in St Gerards, Bray, Co. Wicklow, he was sent to Ampleforth (1953), a catholic public school in England where he felt there was an attitude of superiority towards the Irish. He had a difficult time there as he was dyslexic, and constantly questioned his history teacher's version of Irish history, claiming it was colonial and distorted, but ironically he felt Ampleforth gave him his first real sense of being Irish. Fortunately his art teacher, Mr Bunting, spotted his talent and encouraged him to take extra classes at an art college in York, but – always the rebel – his discovery in a local cinema put an end to that. Initially he planned to study commercial art and was accepted at St Martin's School of Art, London (1956). London was intimidating for a young man, but he frequented the bars of the London art crowd and soon made friends such as Francis Bacon (qv), Robert McBride, and the writer Colin Innes. He spent a year in Port na Bláth, Donegal (1960), immersing himself in the works of Yeats (qv) and Synge (qv) and in Irish history, confirming his view that England had mistreated Ireland through the ages, an opinion he held all his life and was later to express in his art, believing that art should be a commentary on society.
As an artist he showed signs of success from his first important exhibition, the ‘Young contemporaries’, London (1961). His interests were mainly formalist and he sought a harmony of hard-edged abstract forms, both amorphic and geometric. He won the Carroll second prize in the Irish Exhibition of Living Art (1964), and was awarded an Abbey minor travel scholarship to Italy. In the same year he married an Englishwoman, Patricia Pamfleu. He had a daughter, Georgia, from a previous relationship but did not maintain contact with her at this stage. Practically every year brought new successes, but winning the Macaulay fellowship (1966) meant a year in New York, which firmly established him on the international scene. He taught at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and benefited from his exposure to American art and artists. Frank Stella particularly impressed him, though they had little in common. His work gained confidence and he now described it as ‘hard-edged Celtic’, taking the form of intertwining circles such as in ‘Contained series’ (1965) and later the ‘Cairn series’, quite decorative in appearance. His wife was expecting a baby so he returned to Ireland and received an important mural commission from Sir Basil Goulding (qv) for the National Bank of Ireland, Dublin. In Toners pub, Baggot St., he hired Robert Ballagh as an assistant. They worked on the huge canvasses in Ardmore film studios, Bray, where they met Peter O'Toole. Farrell represented Ireland in the Paris Biennale (painting section) and for the third time was awarded the Carroll prize at the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, Crawford Gallery, Cork (1969). Recent events (the oppressive reaction to the civil-rights marchers in Derry, October 1968) prompted him in his acceptance speech to condemn the British handling of Northern Ireland, and he berated the Irish government for their lack of action. His speech met with a cool reception and he retreated, wounded, to the nearest pub. He donated his prize of £300 to the Northern Refugee Relief Fund. His passionate interest in the ‘Irish cause’ was increasingly translated into his work, which correspondingly became more figurative, hence allowing him to introduce meaning and symbolism and express criticism, sarcasm, and wit.
Despite the fact that he was doing so well in Ireland, he decided to move (1971) to La Ruche, an artists' colony in Paris, with his wife and three boys, Séamus, Liam, and Malachi. He had a horror of becoming too comfortable and resented his exclusion from the ROSC exhibition. Brian O'Doherty ran an associated exhibition ‘The Irish imagination, 1959–1971’ and in the catalogue essay described Farrell as ‘intellectually hard’ and ‘aggressive’, having ‘breached the atmospheric mode’ of Irish art (Sources, 271). At this time he was working on his ‘Pressé’ series inspired by the French drink citron pressé, but in his outrage at the news of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings (1974), the squeezed juice became blood and he incorporated silk-screened reproductions of Irish newspaper reports and images of the events, calling them ‘Pressé politique’. These were passionate and shocking works, particularly ‘Une nature morte à la mode irlandaise’ (1975), but betrayed an exile's simplistic view of Ireland, a righteous indignation. More complex is his ‘Madonna Irlanda: the very first real Irish political picture’ (1977), based on a François Boucher nude painting of Louison O'Murphy, a mistress of Louis XV. She becomes in his painting a scandalous Caitlín Ní Houlihan figure wearing a halo, a potent attack on the hypocrisy of the political system and attitudes to religion and sex in Ireland. There is an element of self-criticism through art-historical references: in the top left corner, Leonardo's ideal man protects his genitals, suggesting seeds of self-doubt. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Farrell's marriage was in difficulty and his works, generally titled ‘Café triste’, reflected his increasing desperation as he depicted himself naked and despairing, drowning in glasses of absinthe. To escape his broken marriage, he visited Australia (1982), where his mother was then living, taught painting at a summer school at the University of New England, and exhibited his work in the Robin Gleeson Gallery, Sydney. He returned a second time (1985) and met Meg Bosanquet Early, who had been a student of his at the summer school and had become a successful illustrator of children's books. They married (1986) and lived in Cardet in the south of France in a chateau once owned by her family. This was a happy time for him and during this period he produced work depicting conversations between his favourite writers and artists such as Joyce (qv), Proust, and Picasso, and paintings of the village of Cardet and surrounding countryside.
On 28 November 1988 Farrell was diagnosed with throat cancer. He had been a heavy smoker and led a tempestuous life. The treatment was severe, but with an extraordinary zest for life he continued working and exhibiting, causing controversy (1994) when the Taylor Galleries had to withdraw his exhibits ‘Lune de miel de l'évèque’ (‘the bishop's honeymoon’) for legal reasons, because of their reference to recent episcopal scandals in Ireland. Another show in the Taylor Galleries, titled ‘The wounded wonder’ (1998), again saw him dealing with politically inspired themes, the Irish famine (1845–8) and Bloody Sunday (1972). After a five-year remission his cancer returned and he underwent several serious operations in France, the last one in January 2000, which he endured without complaint. He was nursed by his wife and said that he had never felt happier. He died in his sleep on 7 June 2000 at his house in Cardet. He was a regular exhibitor in the Taylor Galleries, Dublin, held numerous solo exhibitions, and was represented in group shows around the world. He won many prestigious awards and was elected a member of Aosdana (1987). His work is held in many private and public collections including the Hugh Lane Gallery, IMMA, the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, and the National University of Australia.