The Times We Lived In

Portrait of a gentleman

The Arts Council presenting to the millionaire Sir Alfred Chester Beatty a great portrait of himself in 1954. Photograph: Dermot Barry

The Arts Council presenting to the millionaire Sir Alfred Chester Beatty a great portrait of himself in 1954. Photograph: Dermot Barry


Published: October 1st 1954
Photograph by Dermot Barry

W ho said Ireland in the 1950s was a place of unremitting dullness? It may appear so, from this stiff-and-starchy photo of the 1954 Arts Council presenting to the millionaire Sir Alfred Chester Beatty, by way of thanks for his donation to the Irish people of his priceless collection of Oriental and Islamic art, a stonking great portrait of himself.

It must be pretty awkward to pose in front of such a thing – remember Brian O’Driscoll’s embarrassment under that mammoth “Thank you, Brian” banner at the Ireland-Italy game? But Sir Alfred smiles gamely at the camera, reflecting the hint of a smile in the portrait. If he has noticed that the man on the canvas is considerably slimmer, he gives no sign.

The rest of the people in the photograph look unaccountably glum. They are named as follows: standing, left to right, Dr RJ Hayes, Professor Séamus Delaney, Mr Thomas McGreevy, the artist Mr Seán O’Sullivan, Dr N Nolan and Dr Liam O’Sullivan. Seated in the front row, left to right, John Maher, Mr Eamonn de Valera, TD , the taoiseach Mr JA Costello, Sir Chester Beatty, Miss M Gahan and Senator EA McGuire.

On the face of it, it’s a depressingly masculine gathering. But the anonymous-looking “Miss M Gahan” is in fact Muriel Gahan, feminist heroine, founder of the Country Shop and a tireless campaigner for Irish craftspeople, who now has a museum named after her at the Irish Countrywoman’s Association premises in Termonfeckin, Co Louth.

Meanwhile, back at The Irish Times of October 1st 1954, the picture is on a page which also features a story expressing Dublin Gramophone Society’s delight with the latest Pye “Hi-Fi” record-player, aka the “Black Box” – a quarter-page ad for which instrument runs shamelessly alongside – a report on the (voluntary) limiting of dance hall licenses to 1 am in summer and midnight in winter, and a graphic account of the rampancy of myxomatosis in the Irish countryside.

“Anyone who motored from Wexford to Dublin, through Carlow, saw motor-cars driving over dying rabbits . . .”

Ireland in the 1950s: a place of unremittingly dullness? Not when you look closely.

Arminta Wallace

Images from The Irish Times
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