With a church for a studio, sacred music turned up loud and nights sometimes spent in the confession box, it’s no wonder that sculptor Patrick O’Reilly feels he is finding out ‘what’s in my soul that I really want to say’

NIBBLING GRAPES, smoking cigarettes and jumping up at intervals from the long orange table in his kitchen to make more coffee, sculptor Patrick O’Reilly confesses to feeling nervous about his first exhibition on home soil in more than 10 years. “An artist can’t hide behind anybody, it’s not like doing a play or a piece of theatre where you can stand behind the director or the actors,” he says. “You are very exposed and it’s a different kind of pressure again doing it at home.”

As an artistic brand, O’Reilly remains relatively unknown here, but his work can be found in collections from Athens to LA. He lives in a restored Georgian house on Fitzwilliam Street in Dublin with his wife, Gerardine Connolly, a senior counsel. His work is everywhere. Giant pastel-coloured pills grace one section of wall, there are outsized marshmallows in a glass jar, teetering towers of paper in a corner and an Alice in Wonderland-like giant tea set in the kitchen. His garret-style studio is at the very top of the house, where Jack – his assistant – beavers away in preparation for his latest exhibition, which opened in Dublin this week.

Although O’Reilly graduated from Belfast College of Art in the 1970s and worked constantly at his art while running a furniture business in Kilkenny, it took more than 20 years for him, encouraged by Connolly, to hold his first exhibition in Galway in 1996, which led to a show at the Hugh Lane gallery. He was nervous back then too.

“If I exposed myself, if everyone who saw my work said ‘that’s shocking stuff’, I would have had to cope with the guilt that perhaps what I was doing was worthless – although I would never have stopped, it’s a compulsion,” he says.

The reaction, as it turned out, was enthusiastic and, with 20 years of work ready to show, O’Reilly arrived seemingly fully formed on the art scene.

Oliver Sears, a Dublin-based art dealer who is organising the exhibition, comes to collect O’Reilly in a bright-red Bentley once owned by David Bowie. “Don’t lick the seats,” says Sears.

Later, he adds: “As an artist, Patrick is the real deal, his work is just deeply exciting and serious and profound.”

For the past five years O’Reilly has had his main studio in Drumcondra’s St Alphonsus Church, which he owns. “Before it came on the market I would never have thought it was possible to own such a thing. I needed somewhere secure, and this has walls 10ft thick,” he says.

The church, built in 1812, belonged to a silent order of nuns and O’Reilly delights in showing it off, especially the side entrance where relations could come and leave messages for their loved ones. He plays loud “sacred music” here while working. It’s a magnificent building, all Egyptian and Italian marble, stunning stained glass, intricate plasterwork. When he is working late, immersed in his latest project, he sleeps overnight in the church’s confession box.

“It’s just warmer than anywhere else,” he says, wary of how this might be interpreted.

On a workbench can be spied a selection of masks in the form of china doll faces, on another shelf countless packets of seaside rock. His artistic world is deeply engaging, cleverly kitsch, full of work which begs to be stroked or patted or puzzled over. He has just ordered 1,000 tin cans from Batchelors for another series of works and still harbours a “pipedream” of illuminating the red and white striped chimneys on Dublin Bay.

The pieces for the current exhibition, The drunkenness of things being various,play, in part, with the notion of the human tribe. Some feature hundreds of “little humans”, colourful figures moulded in polyester resin, seeming to move across the canvas with intoxicating fluidity.

Up close it looks chaotic, but from a distance there is method in the flow of movement. These are sculptural works to be hung on walls, with the materials aping traditional painting disciplines, in this case pointillism.

Another piece, made using bulldog stationery clips, depicts the modern office workplace as viewed from above. The monochrome uniformity should be depressing but it actually has a playful feel, a characteristic found in most of O’Reilly’s work. Those three smile-inducing bronze bears outside the O2 are his.

“People carry around several bags of stones in this life. I don’t want to add to that, I want to make things lighter for them,” he says.

O’Reilly, who is 53, crackles with nervous energy, his brain fizzing with ideas that send him off on endlessly entertaining tangents. He writes aphorisms, reams of them, reads philosophy and relaxes listening to ancient church music. He works between Dublin and a tiny country village in the Auvergne in France, where he is feted. His bronze works are fashioned in the local foundry there, and are first displayed in the square for villagers before being sent away around the world.

O’REILLY GREW UP in the village of Ballyragget, in Co Kilkenny, the youngest of seven children. His father was the local creamery manager. He remembers finding, at school, a small blue career information booklet from the Department of Education. “Artist”, it said, and he kept it folded up in a pocket for years, astounded by the notion that a person could choose such a role as a career. “At the time there would have been more possibility of becoming the pope,” he says.

Encouraged by the Jesuits at boarding school in Limerick – they gave him a disused dormitory as a studio – he applied for college in Belfast and was awarded a scholarship. He only told his parents the day before he was due to leave for college. They thought he had applied for accountancy in UCD and were appalled at his determination to pursue such a precarious career path.

“My parents had their own view and I know now they only had my best interests at heart,” he says. “I don’t like this thing of writers and artists disparaging their parents who are not alive to defend themselves. I think that is unfair. We had many arguments, but I don’t blame them for anything they did. It was perhaps my job as a child to revolt and their job to worry about me, and if they were wrong . . . Look, very few people end up making a career of being an artist . . . I wouldn’t want anything said about them. They are dead now and I miss them a lot.”

He has a son, 23-year-old experimental film-maker and animator David O’Reilly, who is based in Berlin. David worked on the last U2 video and recently gave a lecture at Pixar. At the first signs of artistic talent, O’Reilly encouraged his son. “Sometimes I do wonder how my artistic life might have been different if I had been encouraged in that way, but I think it would have worked out the same,” he says. “Ultimately, if you are going to become an artist you are going to do it, regardless. You can blame circumstances or your parents or your upbringing, but if you really want to do it you will find a way.”

He says it takes many years for an artist to discover “what’s in my soul that I really want to say”, and that he is growing closer to that now. “In the past my work has looked outwards, commenting on society, and now I am looking inward, stripping everything back, simplifying what I want to say – to paraphrase Patrick Kavanagh, finding it all in one simple blade of grass.”

Patrick O’Reilly’s exhibition, The drunkenness of things being various,runs at Connaught House, Mespil Road, Dublin 4 until June 3. His work can also be seen at Treasury Holdings, Burlington Road (Queen Maeve), the Jameson Distillery (Horse), the O2 (Three Bears), and Rotunda Gardens (Bear With a Bucket)