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Friday, 24th November 2023

Thomas Markey - Drogheda's most prolific artist of the early 1900s

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Thomas Markey at work in his studio at the Mayoralty House in Drogheda.

By Sean Collins

Drogheda's most prolific artist of the early 1900s, Thomas Markey, was born in 1885, the son of James and Teresa Markey of Patrick Street. Both Thomas and his brother James followed in their father’s footsteps and went on to become carpenters.

Thomas spent all his working life with the Drogheda Corporation thus continuing the Markey family’s connection with the carpentry trade and the Corporation which stretched back to 1722.

Markey’s passion though was art and his work included water colours, oils, pen and ink, and copper etching.These days a collection of his pen and ink drawings can be seen in The EBS offices in West Street, courtesy of Bernard Woods. There is also a collection in the Highlanes Gallery and a set of his etchings in the museum at Millmount.

Thomas Markey received his early education at the C.B.S School at Westgate and was one of the first pupils to attend the Drogheda Technical School in Fair Street after it opened in 1902.

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In 1904 the young Markey won awards in the “Drawing in light and shade”, “Freehand Drawing and outline”, “Model drawing”, and “Drawing on the Blackboard” sections of the Board of Education exams.

Also in in 1904 he won the prize for best exhibit at the Drogheda Agricultural Show in the Whitworth Hall. His prize was a set of carpenter’s tools valued at £1.00.

In an interview in later life Thomas said he had enjoyed drawing for as long as he could remember, and the varied curriculum at Drogheda Technical School gave him some formal grounding as an artist. He also studied woodwork and construction [1908-11] in the technical school as part of his seven-year apprenticeship as a carpenter. 

The Drogheda Technical School had a very broad and varied selection of courses which must have proved a great help to young people who were art orientated like Markey in the early 1900s.

Thomas Markey married Kate Coogan from the Railway Terrace at St. Mary’s Church in James Street on the 4th February 1912 and they moved into their new home at Coolagh Street where, during one of his three terms as Mayor, Kevin Callan placed a commemorative plaque.

Meanwhile the flow of creativity never ceased. A report in the Drogheda Argus of 1918 praises Markey’s backstage paintings for shows in the Whitworth Hall, he also taught himself to play the violin, and was listed as second violin in the orchestra at a variety concert in the Whitworth Hall in 1920.

 A young local tenor Tom Halpin also participated in the show and was a promising upcoming star. Sadly, the following year Halpin, a Sinn Fein Alderman on Drogheda Corporation, was murdered on the Marsh Road by British Crown forces.

At the Drogheda Agricultural Show in 1920, Thomas Markey won first place with one of his water colours. Another aspiring young artist Nano Reid came second. In the same competition Markey took first and second place for paintings of historic buildings from old photographs.

Throughout the 1920s and indeed for all his life Thomas Markey continued to exhibit his work at any given opportunity.

He witnessed many important local events which he painted on hardboard. One such was the “Shelling of Millmount “in 1922 during the Civil War. The late Austin Greene had the painting cleaned in the 1990s for Millmount Museum where it is housed to this day.

The Old Abbey by Thomas Markey.

”The Black and Tans at Ballsgove”, also from this period and possibly one of his largest historical works, inspired by Riccardelli’s view of Drogheda, is part of the Municipal collection at the Highlanes Gallery. In later years he said he had sketched the blown-up Boyne Obelisk on the morning after the explosion in May 1923.

In the 1930s Thomas, ever eager to learn, did a course in copper etching. With his interest in the history of Drogheda he decided to produce copper etchings of images of the medieval structures of Drogheda.

He donated these etchings to Drogheda Corporation and the members proposed that they should framed, covered in glass and displayed at the relevant sites around the town. However, having been exposed to all weathers for over 50 years, the etchings became almost illegible.

However, in the mid 1990s Eddie Quinn and Paddy McKeown, two overseers in the Drogheda Corporation, who coincidentally were carpenters like Markey, arranged to collect the etchings, Patsy McKenna of Millmount Museum restored them and they are on display in the museum to this day.

Thomas Markey retired from Drogheda Corporation in 1951 which gave him time for his favourite pastimes of drawing and painting scenes of Drogheda. In an interview in the Drogheda Argus in 1953, he said that since retiring he had painted seventy-three new pictures in water colours and oils and a number of pen and ink sketches.

He was allowed use the ballroom of the Mayoralty House as a studio and there he painted a pre-reformation image of Mellifont Abbey for Tullyallen Church. He also made a copper etching of the scene which he sent to the Cistercians in Mount Mellary.

A painting of St. Bernard was sent to Kylemore Abbey. In 1957 Thomas was honoured by Pope Pius XII in for his Mellifont picture and a painting of “Christ before Pilate”.

Pope Paul VI also honoured him in 1966 for his religious paintings for the Augustinian Church in Shop Street, “The Pieta”, “The Resurrection of Christ” (see above) and the “Sacred Heart”.  I can’t think of many Drogheda men who were acknowledged by two popes. 

The Mellifont painting which showed the River Mattock was put on public display in Anderson’s Draper’s shop window at No’s 4+5 West Street in 1954, now it hangs in the EBS office next door. 

Some years ago a number of pen and ink drawings of Drogheda scenes by Thomas Markey came up for auction in Dublin. Fortunately, they were acquired by Bernard Woods who had the pictures professionally mounted and today they are on display in the EBS Office in West Street.

Bernard was immediately attracted to Markey’s work because of the Drogheda scenes and he deserves congratulations for acquiring the pictures and keeping them in Drogheda.

From time to time people renovating old houses in Drogheda come across Thomas Markey’s name carved on wood and date when he had carried out work on their houses. A “Memento Mori”, one of his quirky habits. Thomas Markey indeed left his mark on Drogheda.

In a rare interview in the Drogheda Argus in 1957, Thomas Markey said his personal favourite picture was a copy he painted of the Van der Hagen work over the fireplace in Beaulieu House depicting Drogheda in the 1600s.

In the report, headlined “Hands of a gentle carpenter”, by an anonymous reporter, Markey showed an incredible exuberance for life and art in a man of advanced years. In 1966 he was re-united with Nano Reid when they both acted as Judges at the Drogheda Musical Society’s Art Competition entitled “The Merry Widow’ to coincide with a production of the operetta in that year. 

Winners of the competition included, Elizabeth and Brid McDonnell of Dyer Street, Catherine McKeown of 53 Laurence Street, Phyl Marry of Dowth, Magaret McQuaile of Duleek Street, and Gabrielle Gogarty of the North Rd. I wonder where they all are now.

Thomas Markey well deserved his household plaque. His contribution to the town of Drogheda and art was phenomenal. I hope that reading this piece may prompt the powers that be to organise a Thomas Markey retrospective. There surely must be a lot of his art work still out there. The plaque was a good start. 

For Eugene and Joyce.


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