Ballintubber is a small, tranquil village in Ireland, home to historic Ballintubber Abbey. It is also the birthplace of the founder of LASALLE College of the Arts, Brother Joseph McNally, fondly known as Brother Joe.
Having grown up in this small farming community, Brother Joe’s journey as an educator began at 14 years of age when he left his hometown to join the De La Salle Order of Brothers, eventually arriving in Singapore in 1946.
In conjunction with the 100th birth anniversary of Brother Joe, Edmund Chia and Vicente Delgado (Tito), lecturers from LASALLE’s Faculty of Design, headed to Ireland in May 2023 as part of the Faculty’s Drawing Lab initiative. The Drawing Lab examines current and emerging tools, techniques and methods to augment designers and their environments, to think and observe critically about their presence and interaction in a given space, place and time.
During their time in Ireland, Edmund and Tito held a Drawing Lab workshop for students at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, and spent several days in Ballintubber. Their visit aimed to trace Brother Joe’s history and journey to Singapore, and create artworks in response.
Discovering the young Joseph McNally
What Edmund and Tito found was an enchanting town where the presence of Brother Joe was still deeply felt.
Mother and Child by Brother Joseph McNally in the Ballintubber Abbey garden
Many of Brother Joe’s sculptures remain around the village, including Mother and Child in the historic Ballintubber Abbey, Counsellor II in the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life in County Mayo and Jesus Breaking Bread, a large sculpture on the shores of Lough Carra.
Edmund comments, “People were very friendly, and many of the residents know of Brother Joe’s work in Singapore. When they found out about our visit, many would come up to us and start conversations about Brother Joe.”
Although Tito knew Brother Joe personally, having worked with him at LASALLE’s Goodman campus, the visit was an eye-opener for him on a personal level. Seeing Brother Joe through the eyes of his family revealed more about the person he was – a deeply caring and courageous young man.
“Visiting the house where Brother Joe was born, Maura Walsh, a niece of Brother Joe’s, recalled sharing how her uncle would carry the children across a river, which they needed to cross to get to school,” Tito shares.
Edmund and Tito with Brother Joe’s sister Teresa O’Toole
While in Ballintubber, Edmund and Tito stayed with Maura at the Tranquil Escapes Bed & Breakfast (B&B), which she runs. They also met with Brother Joe’s sister, Teresa O’Toole, who shared with them her recollections of Brother’s time in Singapore and his journey to establish an arts institution in his adopted country.
Maura served them bananas and Guinness Stout at the B&B, a small tongue-in-cheek tribute to her uncle Joe—as Teresa shared, Brother Joe took a long time to get used to food in Singapore and Malaysia, eating mainly bananas when he first arrived.
Tracing Steps, Learning Journey
The Tracing Steps, Learning Journey exhibition features a series of drawings responding to the trip. The works by Edmund and Tito were developed from their impressions of the village, as well as collectables they found in local charity shops.
Through physical and digital drawings, reflective of Brother Joe’s spirit of exploration and experimentation, Edmund and Tito reinterpret what they gathered from their visit to showcase a range of approaches, materials and techniques. The exhibition also showcases ephemera collected from the area in Ballintubber, such as natural and found objects, and photos from the trip.
The exhibition, ongoing at LASALLE’s Earl Lu Gallery until 7 October 2023, is part of a series of year-long events to commemorate the centenary of Brother Joseph McNally.
Edmund reflects that they felt a deep sense of fulfilment talking about Singapore and LASALLE with Brother Joe’s relatives. “They may not come here to visit regularly, but they know Brother Joe did something significant in Singapore, and they are proud of his achievements.”