Barry Britton is an accomplished pen and ink artist, sandetcher of glass, architect and interior designer. And that’s just with his artist’s hat on! He’s probably best known for his work with the the Irish Intercounty Surf Contest and the Ballyshannon Folk Festival but he’s done a whole lot more over the last 40 years. If you want to see the full range of his artwork, then a visit to the Britton and Daughters Gallery, Rossnowlagh, is an absolute must. You might want to ring in advance before heading out though. Barry is as passionate about surfing and traditional music as he is about art, so he could be out on the waves or away at a festival when you call by. To be sure to see the man and his art, come along to the Abbey Arts Centre, Ballyshannon, tonight at 7.30pm, when actor and musician Adrian Dunbar will open an exhibition of Barry’s works, to mark the official opening of the Ballyshannon Folk Festival.
From a professional point of view, Barry regards himself first and foremost as an architect. “That’s what I do for a living, but I’ve always been drawing and sketching and all kinds of stuff,” he smiles.
It was in the early ‘70s that Barry started doing the designs for posters that have become so iconic, first for surfing contests in Rossnowlagh and then for the Ballyshannon Folk Festival. He says the production has come full circle.
“I was handwriting in the beginning but that was easier for a while, because I still did the illustration by hand but the lettering was photographed and made into a plate for printing at the Donegal Democrat. People like Paddy McLoone, Charlie McGloin, John Cassidy, Denis McGuinness and Cecil King were a great help. The last poster done in the old Democrat office was in 2000 with Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh on it. The posters were bigger then too, probably double the size of the ones we do now.
“Now, I’m back to doing it completely by hand. The exact poster is handed to the printer and then it’s photographed for printing.”
“I’ve got a bit quicker over the years. It took me about a month when I started. I would need about a week or ten days, still, to do one.”
Anthony Travers, a close friend and a former Chairperson of the Folk Festival committee, says Barry has never taken any money for his festival poster designs. “Those who know him will appreciate that Barry is not a committee man, not a publicity seeker and not commercially motivated. He volunteered his talents and his services down through the years.”
The popularity of Barry’s designs, Anthony recalls, created an unexpected side effect. “The main difficulty experienced by the Festival Committee is that when posters are put up to advertise the festival, they are invariably taken down by people who want to have them for themselves!” Barry laughs, “But their friends see the posters and that’s publicity for the festival too!”
Over the years, Barry has built a certain number of re-occuring distinctive elements into the posters, including a banner across the top, the ‘four yahoos’ icon, Celtic ornamentation and and a range of instruments associated with traditional music. He’s also incorporated a number of visual in-jokes, such as a pint of Guinness the first year the company sponsored the festival, putting anonymous heads onto the bodies of easily-recognised local musicians, and depicting an underwater Ballyshannon on the 1987 after heavy rains at the previous years’ festivals.
He says he takes his inspiratioin from Celtic art, archaeology and legends. “I’ve a big interest in Celtic art and I always try to get elements of that into whatever I’m doing, although it doesn’t always happen.” Nature is another big influence. “A lot of my stuff, especially the newer stuff in the exhibtiion is inspried by nature. I live at Durnesh Lake and it’s a really beautiful place.”
“People have said I use local characters and I do sometimes but it’s not deliberate and sometimes, in fact, they end up looking like me, especially, when, as is often the case, I put a beard on them. A lot of stuff happens on the page - it’s not particularly thought out in advance.”
Barry’s designed are coveted the world over. He’s even been commissioned to design posters for the big Pipeline Masters in Hawaii and the Hawaiian Pro surfing competitions. Limited edition prints of some of these posters will be available at the exhibition during this year’s Ballyshannon Folk Festival.
Barry, who is clearly a free spirit, grew up in the rather formal splendour of the 4-star Sand House Hotel. But he says it wasn’t one bit constraining.
“We had Grade A rooms during the winter, as the hotel closed from September to Easter. Once the tourists started to arrive, we were shunted out to a caravan, which we couldn’t wait for because it meant we could surf all day. It was great craic. I worked in the bar for a while with my father Vinnie too.
“I’m addicited to surfing - all my brothers are and that’s due to my mother, Mary. She went out to California in the ‘60s with Bord Failte and a group of hoteliers. This was during the big surfing craze. When she saw the breakers, she thought, ‘We have waves like that back home’ and she ordered two big Malibu surfboards, thinking they’d be great for the guests. But they never got a look-in. I think she always regretted buying those boards and turning her five sons into beach bums!
“I used to play drums in a punk band, The Rossnowlagh Rejects in the late ‘70s early ‘80s, too. I still play in the Parthalon Street Band, Ballyshannon, mainly for the craic. Our next outing will be at the Ballyshannon Carnival for the Blue Stacks Festival.”
And so, we come full circle, back to Hawaii.
When Barry got married to NC, the one thing his mother wanted was that he and his brother Willie (best man) would wear proper suits. They complied. Sort of.
“Willie and I were out surfing that morning. We borrowed two pinstripe suits, neither of which fitted very well, but we kept our Hawaiian shirts on. “We got into the church at Killymard before my mother, thinking she wouldn’t notice the shirts till the end. But when Fr Friel came out to talk to us, she came up to say hello to him. ‘Jesus Christ!’ she blurted, at the top of her voice. We were nearly excommunicated after that. I thought we did very well to get there at all, as the waves were really good that morning.”
Barry certainly seems to have been born in the right place at the right time.
“That’s true. I studied architecture in Dublin was working in an architect’s office. Things were going well but it drove me crazy. I was back up to the west coast every weekend.
“There was a bunch of us like that, the other guys were mostly from Strandhill and Enniskillen. One of the lads was getting married. He had a VW camper but not much money and he invited us along for his honeymoon. There were six of us, including his new wife, in the campervan.
“We headed off and ended up in Morocco in 1975. That was when life began. Dublin didn’t feature after that trip. I knew what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be after that. And I’ve never looked back.”
Barry’s work is also available for purchase in Bundoran Surf Co and Fin McCool’s Surf Shop in Rossnowlagh. His Music Festival posters can be viewed at www.ballyshannonfolkfestival.com