“I do think they tell the truth,” Patricia Hurl tells me about her paintings, “and it's painful.” Ireland in the 1980s was hard on women – given the regressive gender politics and social mores inculcated by the powerful Irish Catholic Church. It was a particularly hard place for a woman to pursue a career as a figurative painter. “I paint with an urgency which still surprises me!” Using broad brushstrokes and often painting with her hands to blur figures, Hurl’s work similarly blurs distinctions between abstraction and figuration. Honest and personal, the paintings confront the daily repressions and setbacks experienced by Irish women. Now 79, she observes that “little has changed, but at least these days we hear about it more.” With a chronological approach – series of paintings depict the Kerry Babies trial in 1984 and, in more recent years, the Belfast rape trial of 2018 – Irish Gothic catalogues who Hurl paints, and why.

Patricia Hurl, Madonna (Irish Gothic 2), c. 1984 – 1985, oil on canvas, 155 x 94cm, Drogheda Municipal Art Collection, Highlanes Gallery

A stand-out painting is the eponymous Irish Gothic (Living Room). It portrays a newly-married couple standing before a house, and references Grant Wood’s American Gothic. In Hurl’s painting, Wood’s white-picked-fenced suburbia is transposed to the repressed anxieties of Hurl’s reality and the strict conventions of 1980s Ireland. Madonna (Irish Gothic 2) depicts the mother and child as loose and wispy, their forms a far-cry from the reverential or divine. In other paintings, Hurl continues to depict figures trapped between states of materialising and dissolving. The veiled faces of hospital nurses and scrawled faces of babies in Hush a Bye Baby were painted in response to the pro-life constitutional amendment in 1983, a law proclaiming pregnant women’s lives were less important than the foetus they carried. Painting to deal with personal trauma, whilst also telling the story of so many female experiences, Jingle Bells (1988) depicts a woman lying vertically, her womb is hollow, her family looking on. Giving birth to a still-born was the excruciating experience that drove Hurl to study at art college with four young children.

Patricia Hurl, Irish Gothic (Living Room), oil on paper, 123 x 90cm, On loan the artist, Photography: Denis Mortell Photography, Image © the artist

Another room is filled with a series depicting the Kerry Babies trial. The state organised, all-male tribunal falsely accused Joanne Hayes of killing two babies. The gruelling trial lasted for eighty-two days and Hurl was amongst a mass of women who protested outside the courtroom. Study for The Kerry Babies Trial, 1984, shows a row of clerical figures, their faces anonymous with swathes of paint. Colour palette is emotive for Hurl; the distinctive red in Hurl’s ongoing Warrior series invokes the resilience of women in the face of adversity. Today, Hurl’s studio is covered in collected newspaper clippings and news headlines reporting the maltreatment of women close to home and further afield in Iran and Afghanistan.

Patricia Hurl, The Kerry Babies Trial, oil on canvas, 155 x 109cm, Drogheda Municipal Art Collection, Highlanes Gallery

Hurl is a member of the Na Cailleacha collective – translated to witches or wise women – a group of eight female artists over-seventy with the message to embrace “the processes of ageing, personal loss, loneliness and stereotypes of the older woman as witch or hag.” Progression in Ireland has taken course because of female activists, writers and artists like Hurl defiantly upending the domestic realities of an Ireland enduring significant change in the 1980s. The exhibition unveils the impermanence of power driven by the state, government and religion, making visible the central theme of Hurl’s practice. Amidst ongoing debates surrounding gender equality and women's rights in Ireland and beyond, the exhibition is timely and pertinent. I observe the supportive nature of the Na Cailleacha women, smiling and celebrating an Irish feminist who has managed to avoid the overshadowing experienced by many women artists throughout the course of art history.

Patricia Hurl, Study for the Kerry Babies Trial, 1984, mixed media on paper, 120 x 90cm, Collection Irish Museum of Modern Art, Purchase, 2021