AN IRISH TALE (true, like all Irish tales): "I was born in County Roscommon," says Brian O'Doherty, with the conviction of every Irishman that you need to know exactly where in Ireland. "My mother died four years ago, and at a time like that you rehearse the past a bit. I remembered that when I was growing up in Ireland there was no American art for me to look at. Some old Parisian stuff, but nothing new and exciting."

He came to New York in '61, became editor of Art in America in the early '70s, started exhibiting his own work, but the Irishness stayed with him, and when the British killed 13 people on Bloody Sunday, Jan. 30, 1972, in Derry, he went back. It was a tense time. There were bombings. Whenever a car passed yours, you wondered if a bomb would fly in the window.

"My mother's people were radicals," he says. "The Brennan Boys. I was part of that tradition but not violent. I was still an Irish citizen. I wanted to express what I felt some other way."

So he changed his name. He became Patrick Ireland: Patrick for all the "Paddies" so contemptuously patronized by some Britons, Ireland for the word that has stirred wrath and fear in England for centuries. "It was a name of challenge and dignity, to be used, though not my legal name, until the British military presence is removed from Ireland and all citizens are granted full civil rights."

He dressed in white coveralls with a white stocking over his head, lay down on a stretcher, and had two artist friends publicly paint his body, one starting at the top with green, the other from the bottom with orange. Halfway through, he looked like an Irish flag. But at the end, both colors splashed on from head to toe, he looked like the bloody, muddy victim of some terrible atrocity. Later, the friends were stopped at the border of northern Ireland and were detained because they carried photos of the ceremony. It looked pretty subversive to the guards, and maybe they were right at that.

Over the years, O'Doherty--now at 47 director of the media arts program in film, radio and TV of the National Endowment for the Arts--had exhibits as Patrick Ireland all over the country and halfway across Europe. He married the noted historian Barbara Novak, made a film about Edward Hopper that will be shown at the American Film Institute Tuesday. He started a project of videotaping artists, poets, musicians and others in action.

And all this time he swapped pictures with his friends, as artists will do. Gradually he got a houseful of Rauschenbergs, Jasper Johnses, Christos, Hans Richters, Duchampses, Hoppers and a lot of others, plus a promise of two Rothkos. He had a great idea: Why not give them to Ireland so other Irish kids could see some first-rate new American art?

He talked to Charles Haughey, the Irish prime minister whose generous policies toward artists were well-known. Haughey and others steered him to a building on the grounds of Dublin's Kilmainham hospital, site of a shrine to the leaders of the 1916 uprising.

There would be about 80 paintings in 12 small rooms at first, but the collection was to grow to include European artists who worked in America and vice versa. O'Doherty was to find a curator.

Then Haughey fell from power last year. Everything stopped.

This year he came back into office. O'Doherty started the American-Irish Art Foundation and got ready to talk to Haughey once more. He has also enlisted the help of Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.) for congressional support.

"I want to name it in memory of my parents. The Dublin Museum of American Art, with the Martha and Michael O'Doherty Collection," he says.

So you see, if your child wants to be an artist, don't fight it. You might get to be immortal.