A Conversation with Orla Mary Gilheany


Orla Mary Gilheany is a painter and holistic therapist, currently running her Shamanic healing practice ‘Thornwitch’ from her studio at Neon Parlour. She also has a solo exhibition coming up at Neon Parlour from the 1 - 19 August. We had a chat with her about her work as an artist and healer and got some fascinating insight into her practice and the upcoming show Thornwitch, which speaks to a narrative of her recent journey from Ireland to Australia.

Peachy: I’m interested in how you became a shamanic healer. Have you always had a connection and awareness of the earth and it’s healing elements or was there a later discovery which you think lead to holistic/shamanic healing? And if so was it a defining moment or something more gradual?

Orla: Apparently as a kid I didn’t talk until I was four or five. My Mum said she was really worried about me, she said she knew I could (talk) and I could read, but I wouldn’t talk and I was really shy. I have early memories of staring at things intensely, leaves, even patterns on the wall. I was just very observant of nature. I think maybe it’s true for a lot of children; they don’t feel that separateness from nature, it’s very tactile, you’re exploring you’re curious, so I suppose there was (a connection) yeah.

My Dad was from a rural community. His father was actually the person in the village who would go when somebody had died, he would go lay out the body, he was respected. I think from that side my Dad, even though he’s a practicing Catholic as most Irish people are, he’s still very much connected with an older sense of the land; Things like, In Ireland we have a fairy tree, and we don’t touch that tree. Even to this day, because it has fairy energy. Fairy energy is kind of like earth spirits. Later on in my 20’s I had some dealings with an earth spirit but i didn't know what it was at the time. A tree troll/spirit stomped around my house until it was acknowledged. I did a small ceremony to honour the tree and I didn't hear it much after that. Training in the shamanic realm helped me further understand this later. So I suppose from my dad I gained a great respect for the pre christian ancestral links with the land, the sacred stones and sacred sights, and that these are places of reverence and I suppose that they give us sense of who we are. And the thing is, I’m calling myself an Irish shamanic practitioner but the practice is universal. For every country and area of the world our ancestors lived in reverence with the earth, in that you respected trees, you respected the forest, it had its own energy. The sea had energy, you respected the sea. It’s not like I want to me a luddite, I think humanity evolves, consciousness evolves. It’s about staying connected to our roots and where we come from. We come from this earth we’re not separate from it. We are from this earth as much as the animals are. We’re not separate from nature, we are nature. But it’s that sense of separateness that I suppose is causing destruction. So for me the practice was about tapping back into something that was very innate for me as a child, and for all children. So yeah for me I suppose it’s just common sense. Of course we respect the trees, of course they have their own energy, of course there is a force of life that we don’t understand. You know, cells divide, how do they divide? There is some force that keeps things moving. We don’t know why or how, but it does. So I think it is important to keep that sense of reverence and wonder. Which is easily lost when your going to work; lost in your daily life. It’s not possible to be in that constantly but once you tap back into it, and remember it, it is actually available at all times.

P: Is there anything about being a Shamanic Practitioner that has surprised or continues to surprise you?

O: There’s probably a lot actually! But I guess that the more you do it the more you realise it works for people. It always makes sense. It happens too much for it to be a coincidence. Also the different energy that people bring in. There was one person recently, I was blown away by the ancestral energy she brought in. I could really feel the ancestors she brought in the room. Also that the shamanic practice is the one thing I can always do. Sometimes I might be really tired or stressed and I’m like “oh god I have to do it”, but no matter what happens I’m always fine, I’m present, I’m just there, but that’s to do with the training I got, the support that I have; calling in ancestors, so it’s not actually me! (laughs) I’m just like the hollow vessel. It’s about empowering the client to make the change and break though. It’s empowering them to do the work.

P: And where did art intersect in your life? Has it always been interlinked or did your art practice come at a later stage?

O: From about 4 I can remember saying I either wanted to be writer or an artist. I actually really did like writing and I got a place in university to do english and theatre studies. But I chose art because I felt there was a lot about art that i didn't know and didn't understand. I think I was trying to understand something that was non verbal. I probably didn't realise at the time but it was a sense, it was more like understanding feelings. And also I think as a teenager when I wrote I wrote very honestly and I used to get in trouble! So I associated writing with getting in trouble. I think with art you can obscure things a little more, and put different meanings into things less obviously. With writing you can't hide in a sentence. It’s all there. It’s a different medium.

P: For your upcoming exhibition I found your statement on the act of painting really fascinating. You said “the act of painting alone has resulted in personal psychological processing and the prediction of life events.” Do you feel you use your art practice to inform your decision making, Is that something to take from your art practice?

O: Yes, I think they are very intertwined. For example there’s a painting that will be in the exhibition, that I really do feel got me to Australia. The making of it got me to Australia. I had built a life in Ireland, and I was coming out of an relationship. Coming to Australia had always been in the back of my mind because my mother is an Australian (She lives in Ireland). But It was like starting again in your mid thirties, I was like, what am I doing? I can’t do this! (move to Australia) Basically I didn't have a lot of resources, I’d been on a career break, myself and my partner had been planning to open a huge rural art space in a dilapidated swimming pool, so all my energy; everything had gone into that. I was living on his family farm down in the Cooley mountains, which is very stark area in Ireland. It’s where the epic Irish saga ‘The Tain’ took place, where Queen Maedb of Connacht battled against Ulster hero Cu Chulainn. This tale has been retold many times and been subject to various modern analysis. One interpretation is that in transcribing the tale in the 8th century, Christian monks denigrated Celtic Maedb to nothing more than an evil and sinful woman, and that the story was retold to symbolise the destruction of the old Celtic culture that Maedb was so revered in, a pre-patriarchal Ireland where women often had equal status to men, were free to take lovers whilst married, divorce, drink, own property, become poets, seers, druids, engage in warfare and to rule.  It was so weird being down in those mountains because it felt like I was in a battle. My (ex), he’s a very strong character and It was on his turf. And because we’re both strong characters in what we envisioned for things, I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but I really had to fight my way out of it. It was crazy. I did wonder if on some level we were caught up in the archetypal energies of the mountain, a female warrior and a male warrior. It felt like I was engaged in warfare, of the psychological kind. But once I made the decision to go, it was strange how things happened.  I just decided I was going to go, so I threw out all of my cloths and packed a suitcase with summer cloths! I told my mum I was going and she was like “ok” but she was curious to see what was going to happen and then a week later she said, “you’re not going to guess what’s happened”. I was suddenly gifted some money by a great aunt who worked as a journalist in Australia in the 50s and 60s.

P: So what was it about that painting that connected to your decision to leave?

O: I think it was that it was cathartic to get me through my fear of leaving. I had actually started to paint it before I’d really decided to go. The painting is about breaking free, but I wasn't quite sure what I was breaking free from. I think making the painting gave me strength, and it gave me purpose, and as I started to paint, that was helping me think and plan, and then things started going into motion. I suppose it’s like setting the intention, but maybe setting the intention through painting.

P: Looking at your you body of work in your upcoming exhibition, when you see it now, does it give you a different reflection on your  journey from Ireland to Australia?

O: Yeah that’s interesting. When I’m reflecting now it all makes sense, it’s all fallen into place, it’s like ahh! When I was curating the show, with some help from a friend she said “you already have enough work”! It’s work that helped me process this year. I’ve been doing it all along, processing things and creating work. I moved into an art space in brunswick and did some of the work there. That work is very much it’s own thing. I have a couple of pieces from home. I brought over the piece that got me to Australia, it will be there, it looks crazy! And then there’s works after being at Soma on sydney rd which are different again. They are all quite different, it might show the change. The work I was doing in Ireland was really rigid, my style since has been more open and exploratory in taking chances, and maybe a bit more confident as well. I think when I painted in Ireland I had a really set vision for what I would work on, if i made a mistake I would still work with that, because I knew it was for a reason, but now I’m just more free.

P: Do you have any routines or rituals to your art practice?

O: The only thing I do ritually is that only really use three colours unless a really need to use black for something specific. I mix my own colours, and I just stick to magenta blue and yellow. Everyone sees colour differently, so for me I like to make my own. Usually I have a vision or a spark, I see an image in my head and it's’ like, ok I have to paint that somewhere. I don’t paint all the time. I have an idea and I go with that as opposed to painting loads of stuff. It usually just comes so I trust that process.

You can see Orla’s exhibition Thornwitch at Neon Parlour 1 - 19 August. Join us for opening night on Friday 3 August 6 - 9pm. For more information on Orla’s Shamanic practice and to make a booking, check out her page Thornwitch.


Interview by Peachy Fulford-Wierzbicki