Delving into the arcane: the legacy of Æ’s hidden murals

A new show has its roots in occult groups, such as Dublin’s Theosophical Society, and celebrates their influence on pop and counter culture

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 01:00

The title for Pádraic E Moore’s curated exhibition at the Hugh Lane Gallery is intriguing – A Modern Panarion: Glimpses of Occultism in Dublin. It is, as he’s quick to point out, a show of contemporary art. But it has its roots in one of the stranger episodes of Irish cultural history: the flowering of the Dublin branch of the Theosophical Society.

Established in New York in 1875 by a small group of people centred on Helena Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott and Dublin-born William Quan Judge, the society held that a body of ancient, hidden knowledge lay behind all the world’s religions and, similarly, that hidden laws lay beyond the bounds of conventional scientific thought.

In Ireland, George Russell (Æ), James M Pryse and others set up a branch in Dublin, based at number 3 Ely Place. “It was a kind of commune and in many ways idealistic, even utopian,” says Moore. “The theosophists were, and are, completely non-sectarian. They believe in universal freedom and equality.”

Though it sounds as if it might be a religious cult, he points out: “It’s not. It ambitiously aimed to synthesise elements of science, philosophy and religion.”

Too ambitiously, perhaps. Some of Blavatsky’s claims were at best fanciful and outlandish, at worst fraudulent – as many detractors forcefully argued – and, almost from the beginning, the movement was beset by rows and splits. The Irish society was no different, and Russell parted company with it in 1898, not before he’d had a hand in painting murals on the walls of 3 Ely Place.

They were discovered quite recently under layers of wallpaper. They feature in A Modern Panarion, partially revealed, in photographs by Dorje de Burgh, that seem to offer a glimpse into a murky, teeming underworld inhabited by fantastic, perhaps comically threatening creatures. This menagerie has been linked to some of the beings described in Blavatsky’s sprawling, two-volume work The Secret Doctrine. The show also incorporates some of the Dublin Society’s formidable amount of published material.

Moore was impressed by the murals. He might, at first glance, have sprung from the era in which they were created – he looks as if he’d be at home in the late-Victorian world. Originally, Moore studied art history and English at UCD then, about 10 years ago, he went on to complete a master’s in curatorial practice at Dún Laoghaire IADT.

There followed two years on a post-graduate programme in Stockholm – an interesting, useful experience, he says. He’s good at offering carefully measured observations and not elaborating. Consistently busy throughout his studies and ever since, he’s brought a distinctive curatorial sensibility to the Irish cultural landscape.


Outside the mainstream

That sensibility might be best exemplified by his gravitation towards things outside, or perhaps at a slight angle to, the mainstream of cultural convention. He warms to the alternative, the unorthodox, the indefinable, the arcane. Where might that inclination have come from? “I don’t know,” he says, frankly, and considers the question.

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