An Irishman's Diary
The Romans talked of “bread and circuses” as the formula for keeping people happy. A 20th- century writer, James Oppenheim, was slightly more idealistic. In a poem that launched a socialist slogan, he described poor Americans marching for a better life, in which both basic and higher needs would be met. “Yes it is bread we fight for,” they chanted. “But we fight for roses too!” The poem was published in 1911, and the slogan was adopted during a strike of textile workers in Massachusetts in 1912. But another year later, on the opposite side of the Atlantic, campaigns for bread and roses were to be dramatically juxtaposed. And the failure of each, at least in the short term, would produce an even more famous poem.
WB Yeats’s September 1913 was a response both to the Dublin Lockout, then in its first weeks, and to the refusal of the city corporation to pay for a new art gallery to house pictures offered – on condition of suitable accommodation – by his friend Hugh Lane.
In both cases, the objects of Yeats’s contempt were the city’s merchant classes, fumbling “in a greasy till”. But a particular target was the publisher and businessman William Martin Murphy, whose opposition to trade unions culminated in the Lockout and who also led the assault against the gallery.
It’s probably fair to say that, in their struggle for a better life, the general population was less worried about roses than Yeats or Oppenheim. In fact, it was one of Murphy’s arguments that there was no justification for housing Lane’s paintings in a dedicated museum, unless the existing National Gallery were proven to be overcrowded.
On the contrary, he suggested, crowds did not seem to be a problem there. He gleefully seized on a comment by George Bernard Shaw that, during his youth in Dublin, the National Gallery was regularly visited only by a policeman and a small boy, namely the writer himself.
Typically, Shaw went on to imply that the gallery had nevertheless justified its existence, by contributing to a genius’s education. But Murphy questioned the value of such an arrangement. In a letter to The Irish Times, he quipped: “Taking Mr Shaw at his own not too modest estimate of himself, his light, so far as it shines on us, is only reflected, as he has long left his native city, and it is not easy to be convinced that the chance of finding and developing a budding Bernard Shaw, who would desert us when his genius is ripe, is worth £2,000 a year in perpetuity to the rate-payers of Dublin.” It’s a fact obscured by the fame of Yeats’s poem that the Lane collection had already been housed, since 1908, in temporary premises. And that, as such, it constituted what may have been the world’s first gallery of modern art. That’s what its latter-day descendant – now resident on Parnell Square – believes, anyway, although it wisely allows for some doubt on the matter.
At any rate, Dublin was at least somewhat ahead of the curve then in having a collection of French Impressionists. And critics suggested it was getting ahead of itself, too, in aspiring to a specialist gallery for the art, when there were so many other needs.
But in Yeats’s defence, he also protested publicly at the hardship caused by the Lockout. And his bitterness towards the philistines was a response not just to their penny-pinching, but also to insults aimed at his friend during the debate. These included Murphy’s suggestion that Lane was motivated by vanity, wanting the gallery as an ante-mortem monument, rather than trusting posterity to honour him.
As fate ordained, that posterity was nearer than anyone could have suspected. Lane went down with the Lusitania in 1915, aged only 39. And that in turn led to decades of wrangling over whether he had revised a will, drawn up in pique at the height of the controversy, leaving many of his paintings to London instead.
In the meantime, as 1913 began in Dublin, so did the separate fights for bread and roses. And, for now at least, it suited William Martin Murphy to pit one against the other.
Thus in a letter to this paper, 100 years ago today, he nailed his philistinism to the cause of the poor: “Speaking for myself, I admire good pictures, and I think I can appreciate them, but as a choice between the two, I would rather see in the City of Dublin one block of sanitary houses at low rents replacing a reeking slum than all the pictures Corot and Degas ever painted.”