100 artworks: a century of creativity

‘Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks’ is a new series on key pieces of art and literature from 1916 to today. Here, Fintan O’Toole introduces the first of them, James Joyce’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’


Joseph Stalin called artists “engineers of the human soul”, and to show that he meant this as a high compliment he added that the production of souls was more important than the production of tanks. Revolutionary regimes tend to take the arts very seriously.

This is partly because of their potential propaganda value but partly, too, because of a notion that revolutions and artists share the idea of making everything anew.

A glaring exception is the Irish revolution. The revolutionary government elected by the first Dáil had a minister for fine arts, Count Plunkett – for all of five months, between August 1921 and January 1922. Thereafter the post disappeared, a statement in itself of official indifference to the work of artists.

This indifference is especially odd when one considers the milieu from which the Irish revolution sprang. As Roy Foster shows so fascinatingly in his new book, Vivid Faces, the revolutionary generation was every bit as passionate about culture as about politics. Many of its members were extremely active in theatre groups. Many were poets. Almost all of them were involved at some level in the Irish-language movement.

Indeed, for very many of the rebels, culture was a primary motivation: the fear that Ireland was becoming culturally anglicised and that, if this process were not reversed soon, it would be too late.

Cultural regime

From the other side of the equation, most Irish artists of international standing were broadly supportive of Irish independence. George Bernard Shaw, WB Yeats, Augusta Gregory and James Joyce may have differed widely on many political issues, but support for some form of Irish state was not one of them.

Even artists like Sir John Lavery and Sir William Orpen, who received enormous patronage, both public and private, from the British establishment, became sympathetic to the Irish cause and faced accusations of treachery because of it. (Unionism, by contrast, had little active support among prominent Irish artists.) The very least that might be said of the Irish nationalist revolt is that it had no reason to feel antipathy towards artists in general.

Yet the revolutionary movement and the independent Ireland that came out of it did not attain a clear sense of how Irishness could or should be represented, to itself and to the world, through art, architecture, literature and theatre.

There was significant official patronage for a small number of visual artists, Seán Keating, Paul Henry and Gabriel Hayes among them. Occasional public projects, such as Busáras in Dublin, Cork County Hall and memorials to Thomas Davis and Wolfe Tone, provided significant commissions for sculptors and architects.

The Abbey Theatre became the first state-subsidised theatre in the English-speaking world, in 1925 (albeit that the subsidy was modest), endorsing it as, in effect, the national theatre.

The establishment of 2RN (later Radio Éireann and then RTÉ) gave support to music and drama. Cultural institutions that predated the State, like the National Museum of Ireland, National Gallery of Ireland and National Library of Ireland, continued to be supported, although again at a very low level.

But it would hard to claim that these modest interventions represented any coherent sense of what Irish art was supposed to be.

And, in the literary field at least, these benign acts have to be set against the deeply malign effects of State censorship from the late 1920s onwards. Censorship was, paradoxically, a ferocious attack on cultural nationalism. It made it impossible for most serious Irish writers to have a literary career in their own country and for most Irish readers to have a consistent relationship of the best of what was being written by their own compatriots.

To official censorship must be added, in the theatre, the dominance of the Abbey from the late 1930s into the early 1960s of the extreme conservative former politician Ernest Blythe, who ensured that many important and challenging plays did not make it to the stage.

Why should the State have been so indifferent to art? One obvious answer is that, at least in the verbal arts, it had one vastly ambitious project that, had it succeeded, would indeed have revolutionised Irish literature: the revival of Gaelic and the abandonment of English as the vernacular language.

It was a legitimate goal, and it is certainly true that, had it succeeded, it would have been enormously consequential for Irish culture as a whole. But was it ever likely to succeed in a State from which half the population emigrated, overwhelmingly to anglophone countries?

Propagandists for the Gael

It was true, too, that artists in Ireland had rather stiff competition for the job of engineers of the soul. There was a very powerful institution – the Catholic Church – already with a dominant position in the soul-engineering business, and it guarded its near-monopoly ferociously.

Particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, the church did itself become a very significant, and often enlightened, patron of adventurous architecture and visual art, but it obviously had its own ideas about what values these forms should articulate.

More broadly, there were unresolved tensions about what Irish art should aspire to be. Was it a “revival”, looking back to an assumed golden age of Gaelic culture and trying to reproduce it? If so, it should be characterised by the use of Irish legends in literature and of a “Celtic” style in the visual arts.

Or was it a modernist attempt to make everything new? If so, it would have to be cosmopolitan, avant garde and perhaps experimental in ways that most Irish people (who, during much of the period, had no more than primary education) might find alien and alienating.

Was it to be idealistic, expressing the finer essence of a devout, patriotic people, or realistic, describing life as it was actually lived in Ireland? Was it to seek distinctiveness by holding up the rural west as the real Ireland or was it to embrace urban (and therefore internationalist) sensibilities? Who, indeed, was Irish art for: was it a people, in Joyce’s words, forging its own conscience, or was it a people performing for others?

The impossibility of resolving these tensions, and the relative indifference of the State, meant that there could be no single framework for Irish artistic creativity in the century after 1916. And, in the end, this absence may have been no bad thing.

There were awful sides to the lives of artists in Ireland, and many of them took refuge in more hospitable places. The institutional infrastructure for artists was generally miserable. But unresolved tension is an energy in itself.

What you sense when you stand back and survey 100 years is, above all, that energy. Often it’s the centrifugal energy of trying to escape the place and its restrictions. Often it’s the energy of fists being shaken at a powerful orthodoxy. But often it’s just the energy of individualism.

In the absence of a strong official sense of what Irish art was supposed to be, Irish artists largely decided that it was whatever they managed to make for themselves. They ended up being not engineers but explorers and excavators.

As the revolutions that demand that artists be engineers of the soul usually ended up killing most of them, we may say of the confusion that beset Irish art that, to adapt Brian Friel, it is not an entirely ignoble condition.