O’Malley is born in Callan, County Kilkenny, on September 25, 1913. He is a self-taught artist, having drawn and painted for pleasure from childhood. He works as a bank officìal until contracting tuberculosis in the 1940s. He begins painting in earnest while convalescing and, though he does at first return to bank work, he continues to paint and in 1951 he begins exhibiting his work.
In 1955 O’Malley holidays in St. Ives, Cornwall, England, then an important center of abstract art, and home to the artists Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron, and Bryan Wynter, who he meets and works with. He returns again in 1957 and in 1958 retires from the bank to paint full-time. Prompted by a mixture of frustration at the indifference shown in Ireland to his work, an attraction to the sense of freedom he feels among the artists in Cornwall, and an engagement with the attempt to represent natural forms current in their abstraction, he settles in St. Ives in 1960. While he is strongly influenced by the St. Ives artistic community, his relationship is one of engagement rather than direct participation. His painting never completely assimilates the rigour and formality of the British abstract painters. It retains a muscular extravagance which is central to his artistic identity. O’Malley explains:
“Not so much abstract as essence. I could not paint for the sake of the pigment of whatever, but I like abstract form in the painting which instills it with meaning and power. Abstraction does enable you to get under the surface, to get beyond appearance, and to express the mind. But abstraction for its own sake does not interest me.”
O’Malley adopts a sombre palette in the second half of the 1960s and many of his paintings are dedicated to the memory of his friend and mentor, Peter Lanyon, who is killed when the glider he is piloting crashes in 1964.
In 1973 O’Malley marries Jane Harris, and through the mid-70s they spend time in the Bahamas and in O’Malley’s native Callan. During this period, his paintings become less sombre and the Bahamas paintings are extremely colourful and vibrant. In 1990 they move back to Ireland. In 1993 he is elected a Saoi of Aosdána.
O’Malley dies at his home in Physicianstown, County Kilkenny, on January 20, 2003. At the time he is regarded as one of Ireland’s leading painters.
The Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) displays a major retrospective of his work in 2005, a selection from which is exhibited at the Tate St. Ives in 2006. The Butler Gallery, Kilkenny, stages posthumous exhibitions of his visual diaries in 2005, and his constructions in 2010.
In 2010 under the guidance of Jane O’Malley the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) establishes an artist’s residency in the house where O’Malley grew up in Callan, County Kilkenny. The studio residency is awarded to artists who work primarily in paint. Previous recipients of the Tony O’Malley Studio Residency Award include Magnhild Opdøl, Ciaran Murphy, Ramon Kassan, Mollie Douthit, David Quinn and Paraic Leahy.