Painting of first World War blessing stirs memories
Moving painting by Matania rekindles memories of ‘Irish Times’ readers
"Goodbye Old Man", watercolour, painted by Fortunino Matania (Italian, 1881-1963), showing a British soldier saying farewell to his dying horse. The painting was commissioned by The Blue Cross Fund in 1916 to raise money to help relieve the suffering of horses on active service in Europe. Over one million horses saw service with the British Army during World War I and The Blue Cross treated thousands.
Soldiers on the Western Front wearing gas masks – illustration by Fortunino Matania, for sale at Christie’s London on October 8th, 2014, estimate £700-£1,000
‘The Last General Absolution of the Munsters at Rue du Bois’ painting by Fortunio Matania. © Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans
The publication, earlier this month, of an image of the lost first World War painting, The Last General Absolution of the Munsters at Rue du Bois has rekindled memories among several older Irish Times readers.
The fate of the original painting, by Italian-born artist Fortunino Matania, remains unknown but prints of the painting, published in weekly newspapers a century ago, have survived.
The painting depicts soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers regiment receiving “general absolution” from their chaplain, Tipperary-born Fr Francis Gleeson, depicted in the painting on horseback, on the eve of battle in May 1915. Many of the men died within 24 hours including their commanding officer Lieut-Col Victor Rickard who is also depicted, on horseback. It is believed the painting was commissioned by his widow, Jessie Rickard. She returned to Ireland after the war and lived in the Montenotte, Cork home of a family friend, the historian and war veteran Denis Gwynn, who cared for her.
Fr James Good, a priest in Douglas, Cork now aged “over the 90 mark” said he “was on the staff of UCC in the 1950s” and was approached by Gwynn, then the university’s Prof of Modern Irish History who “had a fervent Catholic invalid living in his home and she felt deprived of the Eucharist while the priest of her parish (St Patrick’s, Cork) was on holidays”. Fr Good regularly visited Mrs Rickard and recalls once asking how old she was on her birthday and said: “Mrs Rickard taught me a lesson which I have never forgotten: ‘You don’t ask a lady her age’”.
Limerick native Joe Hardaker (87), who has a print of the Matania painting in his Co Clare home, said his father, also Joe Hardaker, had served with the 2d Battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers on the Western Front and, after being wounded, was visited in Amiens hospital by Fr Gleeson. He has a photograph of the men together at the hospital and also “postcards from the trenches” sent home by his late father. Mr Hardaker himself joined the RAF. during the second World War when, aged “only 16”, he used a Limerick cousin’s birth certificate to confound recruitment staff in Belfast where he signed up.
David Bird of Cobh, Co Cork, whose father TH Bird was in 3rd Battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers, also has a copy of the Matania print personally annotated with the “names of those in the foreground of the painting” by Col HS Jervis, the last Commanding Officer of the 2nd Munsters. The soldier in the front of the painting is Regimental Sgt-Major John Ring who was born in Bandon, survived the war, and died in Limerick in 1960. According to the Royal Munster Fusiliers Association, Ring “survived five consecutive years of fighting in France, refusing promotion time after time rather than leave the battalion and was highly respected by officers and men”.
After seeing the photograph of the painting, Dr Ita Beausang of Clontarf said “it brought me back to 1955” when, then a music student at UCC, she was invited to a lunch at Prof Gwynn’s house in Montenotte” and met Mrs Rickard. The other guests included “Elizabeth Bowen [the writer], Eddie Sackville-West [a British music critic who became the 5th baron Sackville and lived at Clogheen, Co Tipperary], the Earl of Rosse and a London art dealer”. Mrs Rickard died, in Cork, in 1963 aged 86.