The family chose Gurteen over Co Galway for what, I discover, are typically counter-intuitive reasons. In Connemara, “there is something special that’s impossible to describe. When I was walking there I felt a happiness that was completely unexplainable.”
So how come Tipperary? “I wanted to be happy, but too happy? Anyway, the ceilings here are higher, there’s more space and it was unrestored, so I could develop it to my taste.”
“I need to line it with clay,” he says of the lake. “I research all the time. I know how to make a lake now, with the old techniques.”
So if the art doesn’t work out, you could become a house restorer? I joke, because his international reputation is so strong (he’s currently working towards an exhibition at San Francisco’s Modernism Gallery in September), this eventuality is extremely unlikely. He takes me seriously for a split second, before agreeing that he could, but that for now he’s lucky enough to do both.
Does that, I wonder, tie into the timeless aesthetic of his own work which, despite contemporary references, could sit comfortably alongside master works from art history?
Walking back, plastic toys are clustered under a tree beside the vegetable garden. Three of the Helnwein’s four children live at the castle, plus three grandchildren: Croí (10), Éala (5) and Solas (2).
They are, as Helnwein says, “the joy of my life” and regular models for his work, although, he tells me, Éala doesn’t like to sit still: “She’s a hurricane.”
Many of Helnwein’s themes come from his experiences growing up in post- war Austria. He was born in 1948, a time that he describes as horrible, dark, carrying “the smell of death”. He has also cited the influence of imagery from the Catholic church.
“The first pictures I saw depicted pain,” he has said, while also remarking, in answer to a question about the controversies that surround his own work, that it seems okay to watch TV and movies where children are killed, or kill, but that art seems to evoke far more powerful reactions.
In 1979, on reading an article in which Dr Heinrich Gross, then Austria’s top court psychiatrist, admitted to killing children “humanely” during the war by poisoning their food, Helnwein painted Life Not Worth Living, an image of a little girl collapsed, either asleep or dead, into a bowl of soup.
He published it in an Austrian magazine, sparking a debate that led to Gross appearing in court, ultimately being judged mentally unfit to be tried.