Guggi’s bohemian rhapsody

Growing up with nine siblings Guggi, was known as the eejit one, but now the ex-Virgin Prunes member is at the forefront of Irish art, still friends with Bono and looking far more like an eejit savant, writes Sarah Caden

Sunday March 15 2009

‘AM I a good Christian?” asks Guggi, sitting in front of the Superser in his studio, relighting his roll-up cigarette for the umpteenth time. “No,” he answers himself, “I’m a dreadful one, but I’m in. I’m the first to say that you’re either in or you’re out, and I’m 100 per cent in.

“I probably get the obvious things wrong,” the painter and former Virgin Prune continues. “Maybe having a good night out and drinking amounts that Christians shouldn’t drink, or whatever. Put it this way, I’m probably the only person in the Grace Baptist Church on a Sunday morning who has ever, ever been in a nightclub.”

It’s not a boast or a confession so much as a statement of fact, though Guggi quickly informs me that he wouldn’t be in a club the night before attending Sunday church. “I don’t go with a hangover because I like to go to church and to be available,” he explains, and as he talks you realise how seldom it is you hear anyone discuss their faith, or the mechanics of their practice. Today, non-practice of religion — and even non-belief — is almost taken for granted in younger generations, and so it comes as some surprise to find yourself talking deep faith with the likes of this long-haired artist who proclaims himself “still rebelling” a year short of his 50th birthday.

More interesting again, then, is Guggi’s perception of himself as really only hitting his stride at this stage in life. He is at ease in his faith, despite his own shortcomings, he believes his work to be better and more fulfilling than ever, and as a man and a husband Guggi believes “at the last minute, I’ve got it together”.

Never mind talking God, you don’t often see a Superser these days, either. As Supersers do, the one in Guggi’s studio radiates dry, gassy heat in its immediate vicinity and no further. We sit practically on top of it in the studio — once the coach house of the home he shares with wife, Sybille, their four sons aged from seven to 17, and Guggi’s 21-year-old son, Moses, from a previous relationship — with its double-height ceiling and his latest paintings leaning against the walls. The Irish Museum of Modern Art has bought its first painting from him; this morning, the final photographs were taken for the catalogue of his forthcoming exhibition at the Kerlin gallery and last night he finished the final painting, a replacement for what he feared was “a weak link”.

He’s excited about the new show — which debuts his sparser style and his first works on sheets of wood rather than canvas — having got over any fears when fellow-artist Sean Scully came to see them the previous weekend. (He’s writing the introduction to the exhibiton catalogue). “He said they are light years ahead of anything else I have done,” says Guggi, calling Scully as close to a hero as he has in life. It’s a great high, he says, putting new work out there, but that’s what it’s all about for him, great highs, some lows, a bit of a roller coaster but one he’s ridden since a young age and with mixed results. He’s a work in progress himself, perhaps, always striving for a little bit more.

“The rebellion was always very strong in me,” says Guggi, “I was always very rebellious, I probably still am, though I’m an oul’ lad now.” One of 10 children, Derek Rowan — as he was baptised — was the second oldest and, he says, always an artist at heart, not something that was encouraged at home. “There were 10 of us,” he says, “so we fought for our individuality. And the girls came towards the second half, so there were a lot of boys, and a lot of fights and a lot of staking your territory. I was the artist and I was written off as the eejit and I was regularly reminded of that.”

As a kid on the Ballymun Road, growing up with the boys who became Gavin Friday, Bono and The Edge, Guggi sold potatoes for pocket money, and as a teenager, worked in the battery business owned by his father, a strict, driven man who cut all his sons’ hair into a severe pudding-bowl style that set them apart. From an early age, Guggi wanted to paint, and while the adults acknowledged that he was not academic, they tried to steer him into an apprenticeship or something steady.

“It was advice they believed to be correct,” he explains. “Which was to cop on, wise up, be realistic. They advised for the right reasons, but it wasn’t right for me.”

Friendship, he says, was what kept him on course. Experience has likely taught Guggi to be cautious in discussing his more famous friends, and only Gavin Friday is mentioned by name, but Bono hovers silently. With these two, Guggi was part of Lypton Village, a band of Ballymun Road boys who gave each other nicknames that started as elaborate wordplays and stuck to some more than others. Derek Rowan is just Guggi, no surname, like Bono, while even Guggi refers to the man born Fionan Hanvey by his full Lypton Village title of Gavin Friday. It’s an unusual thing, to hang on to a nickname through adult life, almost as rare as hanging on to your boyhood friends and each realising your boyhood dreams of a bohemian life.

“I think that we were a group of artists in the middle of a jungle, who happened to be attracted to other people who weren’t like everyone else,” says Guggi. “We thought we were a bunch of oddballs on the street, but in fact we were a group of artists.

“And on top of that,” he goes on, “we prized friendship so highly, we valued it so much. Maybe we were people who needed friends more than others because we felt very alone, because we were oddments.”

It was with Gavin Friday and others, including Guggi’s brother, Trevor, and The Edge’s brother, Dik, that he founded The Virgin Prunes, scandalising Ireland with their music and avant-garde, outrageous stage shows. “The things with the pigs’ heads and the blood all over the place,” says Guggi.

“I had some guilt about aspects of that and some of the performances, but I loved the performance and for years after leaving the band, I really missed that. It was an amazing way to be young and to be with your friends in that life.”

That youthful rebellion, which coincided with Guggi growing his hair, was a very obvious break from where he had come from and his father’s house and rules, but the young man’s faith was never in question. “I believe and have always believed that I am forgiven for sins past, present and future and that’s a deep belief. I’ve always had the comfort of that. But the least I can do in return is to conduct myself as a Christian but I haven’t always done that and I don’t always.

“I’m better at some things than others,” he says. Like what? “Y’know, whatever,” says Guggi, making the drinky-drinky motion, then explaining he’s not talking about “falling down drunk” or an excess of nights on the tiles, just a weekly few drinks, a few more than he judges to be appropriate. But, never on a Saturday night, before the Sunday morning service to which he brings his boys in the Baptist church in Dublin 6.

“For me, it’s not about ceremony, it’s about a great preacher who gets the message across with no bullshit,” says Guggi of his choice of the Baptist church, citing his mother, an uncle and his former Sunday School teacher as the best Christians he ever met, for example rather than instruction. This is the guidance Guggi gives his sons, Moses, Noah, Eliah, Caleb and Gideon, though he allows them their head in other regards. Literally, in fact, as their long-hair — a mirror image of his own waist-length locks — is very much their own choice, he says.

“I thought I’d be the last gobshite they’d want to look like,” says Guggi with a laugh, “but I take it as a compliment and I love that we look more like a tribe than a family walking down the street. People have suggested in the past that I make them have long hair, but that’s laughable. My thing with my sons is that they be whoever and whatever they want to be. My thing since I was a child was a hunger for freedom and when I was a kid, if I could stay away from my dad and his scissors, I would have the hair as long as I could. People thought it was a hippy thing, but I was influenced by American Indians, guys bare- chested on horses with hair flowing down their backs.

GUGGI’S mother, Winnie, eventually recognised his need to paint and encouraged him, but it was his friends whom he credits with inspiring him, and with whom he has remained friends. “I wouldn’t be painting at the standard I am now without the friends I had and have. We were all blessed to have the gifts we had and we were blessed to end up on the same street. They made me dig deeper. When I see how deep they dig, I feel there’s no way I’m going to let the side down. I might not be big in the sense they are, or a household name all over the world, or anywhere, but I want to be a great painter, which is what I’ve always wanted to be.”

His recent works feature the bowl and enamel jug motifs of previous work, but are more about the backdrop, the overall feel, than the subject matter — carrying with them a great sense of freedom for Guggi. “I have left series that I could have sold like hotcakes,” says the man who admits he went from broke to “loaded” in the past decade. “But that’s what you have to do. A lot of artists find something successful and can’t leave it, but what I would say to any young artist is stay on the journey, stay free, and stay broke a little bit longer for it.

“And I think my sons have a sense of freedom,” says Guggi. He talks about Moses’ free-running and the prime condition in which he keeps his body; how Noah is the natural academic of the family but wants to be a cage fighter and does all sorts of martial arts and boxing and how all the family are terribly fit. Even seven-year-old Gideon can do 12 full press-ups, his father laughs. Guggi himself has always worked out every morning and he smiles to acknowledge that his own family environment is as male and testosterone-charged as the one in which he grew up. The slagging at the dinner table is merciless, he says, and mostly directed at him.

Sybille, Guggi’s German wife, has introduced some women into their South County Dublin household, however. In the family home, they have all manner of reptiles — with some lizards the size of a small dog — but at the end of the garden she has a proper house for the professional breeding of lizards where she has only female staff. Sybille would have loved a little girl as well as the boys, says Guggi and he admires her patience, with all the male energy and with him specifically.

“I didn’t learn how to treat a woman,” he says, “and I’ve really only just begun to learn how. I hope now, at the last minute, I’ve got it together, but she’s been very patient. You know, I lacked empathy and all the qualities you need for a relationship. I was good at kissing, that kind of thing, but that’s where it started and ended.Or maybe I just thought I was,” Guggi laughs. “I’ve been clinging to that one.”

Looking back, says Guggi, he sees a lot of things for what they were — rebellion, a quest for personal freedom, a desire to plough a different path. He doesn’t tend to analyse, he says, but there comes a point where you can see the patterns of your past. “I’m better at some things than others,” he explains, but the desire to dig deeper, do better, keep rebelling is still there. Even if he is an oul’ fella now.

Guggi’s latest paintings will be on exhibition from March 27 — April 25 at the Kerlin Gallery, South Anne St, D2. Visit