Mending Nets, Aran

Gerard Dillon


OIL ON CANVAS: (33.25” X 36.25”)

GERARD DILLON (1916-1971)




A mostly self-taught artist, Belfast born Gerard Dillon began painting full time in the late 1930s, having left school at the age of fourteen to pursue a career as a painter and decorator and studying at the Belfast Technical School before moving to London in 1934. In the following decade Dillon spent bouts in both London and Dublin, having exhibitions there and in Northern Ireland. His first solo exhibition was at the Country Shop in Dublin in 1942 and was opened by Mainie Jellett. 

He exhibited at the IELA (Irish Exhibition of Living Art) first exhibition in 1943, joining the Committee in 1950, a position he held until his death. 

However, the place that significantly impacted the subject matter of his painting was the West of Ireland, where he was intrigued by the locals and the landscape. 

Dillon received international recognition in 1958 when he had the double honor of representing Ireland at the Guggenheim International Show in New York and Great Britain at the Pittsburgh International Exhibition. During his career he continually exhibited at the Victor Waddington Gallery, the Dawson Gallery and with at the RHA. In 1972 a major retrospective of his work was mounted by the Ulster Museum and travelled to the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. 

Adams hosted a major retrospective exhibition of his work 'Gerard Dillon: Art and Friendships' in Dublin and Clandeboye, Co. Down in (2013). Gerard Dillon's work also features extensively in the following exhibitions:  'George Campbell and the Belfast Boys' (2015); 'Ulster Artists Exhibition' (2010); 'A Celebration of Irish Art and Modernism' exhibition (2011); and 'Ireland: Her People and Her Landscape' exhibition (2012).  

His work is featured in many public and private collections that display Irish art/artists.





“Cycling around the West of Ireland with his good friend Ernie Atkins in 1939, Dillon was fascinated by a group of three limestone Islands in the mouth of Galway Bay. He returned to the Aran Islands in 1943 and 1944, where he would have known Elizabeth Rivers (1903-64) who had been living on Inis Mór. Both artists observed the culture and character of the people, and in doing this, must also have been conscious of being outsiders on these Irish-speaking Islands. Elizabeth Rivers was born in England, and Dillon lived most of his life in the urban environments of London, Dublin and his native Belfast. Perhaps, it was this sense of difference that attracted other Northern Irish artists, Paul Henry, James Humbert Craig and Charles Lamb to the area, a world geographically close but socially and physically completely different. Gerard Dillon produced several paintings from his visits to the Aran Islands. These include ''Turf Boats'', (Kilronan, Inis Mór), ``Island couple''(Inis Meáin), ''Aran Islanders in Their Sunday Best'' and ''Sunday Afternoon, Aran Islands''. ''Mending Nets, Aran'' would appear to be from this period of work.” (excerpt)

Karen Reihill is currently researching the Life and work of Gerard Dillon.





Ian Kuijt, Professor of Anthropology, The University of Notre Dame, and a Faculty Fellow of the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies


"Time and Tasks: Thinking about the painting Mending Nets, Aran- Gerald Dillon (1916-1971)"


On the Aran Islands in the 1940’s time was governed by fishing nets. Simply put, fishermen organize their lives around these nets: they spend long hours making fishing nets by hand during the winter, often in front of the evening fireplace; they cured the nets in a laborious process of soaking them in a waxy preservative called Bark several times each summer; dry them out on a regular basis; and conduct regular inspections for damage so they could mend the nets during the fishing season. While we may consider fishing nets to be inanimate objects, lifeless and stored below deck on wooden boats awaiting deployment, they inspire and require collaborative effort, thought, and skill of fishermen for their creation, care, protection, and use.  Very simply, nets embody the enormous potential and capacity to feed families, organize daily and seasonal rhythms of life, and offer a material focus for creativity and hopes for prosperity.   

Painted by Gerald Dillon (1916-1971), the painting Mending Nets, Aran celebrates the vibrant cultural and fishing heritage of the Aran Islands. As central figures in the foreground we see three men wearing brightly colored traditional clothing, relaxing while on the fishing pier and engaging powerful sensory moments of island life: smoking a pipe; partaking in a glass of porter; and taking a moment to gaze north to the mountains of Connemara, the sky, and the sea. Casually blanketing the ground, a large fishing net embraces the legs of the seated man and travels across the quay to drape over the top of the stone wall.  

The men on the pier, however, are merely pausing for a moment, for the nets must be mended and the work needs to be completed to feed their families. It requires weeks of work to make a gill net,  sown by weathered hands and often longer than 60 feet with capacities more than 6 feet deep. Net makers designed them so that fish became tangled up as they tried to swim through the almost invisible net near the surface. Netmakers attached small pieces of cork, such as seen in the painting, on each end of gill nets, which floated on the ocean’s surface while waiting for unsuspecting herring and mackerel to entangle themselves.  Gil fishing, often called “Shooting the Nets”, was accomplished from small boats, like currachs of puchans. All fishing equipment, especially nets, eventually gets damaged from rocks on the shore, tearing on a boat’s gunwales, oars, or other fishing equipment, or simple deterioration from the sting of the sun.  Thus fishermen regularly and carefully tended and mended their nets, ensuring their ability to feed their families.  

The painting Mending NetsAran offers more than a snapshot of three fisherman pausing for a moment on any particular day. The nets themselves represent the dynamic and never-ending striving to make a living from fishing in the Aran Islands almost a century ago.  In the 1940’s fishing nets commanded the efforts, labor, and the thoughts of men, shaping how they spent their time and labored for their families: making, using, mending, and preserving nets involved cooperative labor and technological expertise. This painting demonstrates how fishing nets literally and figuratively wove communities together: fishermen worked collectively to weave nets, dip the nets in the large barking pans near the pier, dry them on the ground and stone walls, replace worn-out sections as needed, and deploy these same nets from their boats. All the while these fishermen and their brethren watched the changing sky and shifting seas to read the weather and fishing conditions, chatting about what boat repairs would necessary over the winter and making arrangements for fishing over the next few days.   

Those interested in learning more about traditional boat and fishnet making, and the development of Irish-America, are encouraged to watch the 60-minute social documentary, Nets of Memory (Líonta na Cuimhne) (2020) by Ian Kuijt and William Donaruma.

It can be accessed on-line at: 



MUSICAL REFLECTION (Courtesy of Ian Kuijt)


The melody is called High Island, from the CD called Amara: Island Currents (1997).

 “…the music is about fishing off of the islands,  2-3 to a Currach, and the peace of place. It is not about the banter, the mixed sounds on the pier, and of boats slapping against the walls. High Island is about being away from people on the water, with no need to talk, and the comfort of fishing with people who know what the other fisherman is going to do before they do it. It is a great piece of music… focused on the open water and using the nets. “

Composed by Joe Boske  (Artist, musician, Connemara)


High Island, track 8


Accordion – Máirtín O'Connor

Effects – Paul Brennan

Fiddle – Eithna Hannigan

Lap Steel Guitar, Keyboards – Stuart Cowell

Mandocello, Keyboards – Garry Ó Briain



(Which, alternatively and poignantly captures the risk associated with this lifestyle.)


Launching the Currach

 Men in white shirts and caps

arms stretched with the weight

of black.  The shadow

of a boat glistens

on sand as the tide

rolls out. The wild waves

of the Atlantic

churning wet and cold.

The water a blue

as dark as drowning.

For the fishermen

never learned to swim.

Better to sink in

her arms than struggle

for hours in harsh storms

that have no known cure.


They turn their backs on

the sanctuary

of dry land. Hide faces

from the trap of soul

stealing paint. Their eyes

are salt stung and wet

as they must reflect

the hundred thousand

colours of the sea.

Her brush they have felt

many times out there

alone when the stroke

of death threatened

to wipe their figure

from this vast canvas.



(For Launching the Currach by Paul Henry)


Published in: Lines of Vision: Irish Writers on ArtThe National Gallery of Ireland, Edited by Janet McLean. (London, Thames and Hudson, 2014)