Great moments in Irish history captured on the canvas

A new exhibition at the National Gallery shows Ireland’s history in 55 paintings, and reveals a few secrets if you look carefully

Creating History: Stories of Ireland in Art, the National Gallery of Ireland's new exhibition, and its main contribution to the Decade of Centenaries, marshals 55 paintings produced from the 17th century to the 1930s, each of which illustrates and addresses an event in Irish history, extending back to the arrival of St Patrick and concluding with the establishment of the Free State. (The Decade of Centenaries programme began in 2012 and focuses initially on the many significant centenaries occurring over the period 1912–1916. )

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the exercise is that it does not and could not offer a linear, straightforward narrative. Rather it’s a chronicle of continually shifting aims, priorities and viewpoints. Every picture tells a story with Ireland at its heart, whether conjured up in retrospect, depicted in real time or meticulously constructed, and every story is different to a greater or lesser extent.

With paintings drawn from the National Gallery's collection – some rarely seen, several having undergone extensive conservation – and private collections in Ireland and abroad, the exhibition offers a unique take on Irish history and Irish art. An accompanying book, edited by Brendan Rooney and including a series of thematic essays, is published by Irish Academic Press and the National Gallery (€24.99).

James Barry: “The Baptism of the King of Cashel by St Patrick,” circa 1800


Every nation needs a foundation myth. Witness Samuel Watson's dramatic Battle of Clontarf or Margaret Clarke's St Patrick climbs Croagh Patrick or, more ambiguously, Daniel Maclise's dramatically over-the-top The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife. At first glance James Barry's (1741-1806) oil sketch seems to contribute to Ireland's. But the Cork-born Barry, who rose through the academic ranks in London, where he remained something of a truculent misfit, may have intended an allegory on the virtues of the union between Ireland and England, which he supported. The finished painting was substantially damaged and this sketch is the most accurate surviving account of what he had in mind.

Legend has it that when St Patrick baptised the king of Cashel, he pierced his foot with the point of his crozier – a potentially fatal wound. Look carefully and the reactions of some witnesses suggest just that, but Barry edited the vital area of the composition to ameliorate the message.

Jan Wyck: “The Battle of the Boyne”, 1693

A strategic error on the part of King James II had a major impact on the course of Irish history. Misinterpreting the movements of the army of the opposing King William III, he diverted the majority of his forces upstream to oppose what turned out to be a diversionary foray, leaving several downstream crossing points lightly defended and fatally exposed. Jan Wyck (c 1645-1700) depicts a decisive moment as the Williamites cross the river at Oldbridge and the Jacobite defenders, under the Duke of Tyrconnell, are forced into a tactical retreat that marks the beginning of the end. Although casualties were relatively light for an engagement involving some 61,000 men, and conflict continued for a year, the victory came to assume considerable symbolic significance. In all probability, Wyck not only did not witness the battle, he may never have been in Ireland, but his fellow artist, Dirk Maes, was there on the day.

Joseph Haverty: “The Monster Meeting at Clifden, ” circa 1844

After achieving Catholic emancipation, Daniel O’Connell’s considerable energies focused on a parallel objective, the repeal of the Act of Union. A great political orator, and a barrister with a famously caustic tongue, O’Connell opposed violence. His series of monster meetings, huge rallies in the early 1840s, mobilised widespread popular support for repeal to a degree that rattled the British establishment. As a champion of effecting political change through peaceful means, O’Connell’s worldwide legacy was immense. However, in his lifetime, the alarming success of his campaign led to his arrest and imprisonment, which, though relatively brief – the House of Lords quashed his conviction after three months – broke his health. He died on the way to Rome in 1847. Haverty’s painting zooms in on the centre of one gathering, with O’Connell in full flight: a copiously detailed lithograph offers a more expansive view, with a sense of the scale of the attendance.

Edwin Hayes: “The Emigrant Ship, Dublin Bay, Sunset,” 1853

Best estimates put the number of fatalities attributable to disease and starvation during the worst years of the Great Famine at about one million. Roughly as many people emigrated immediately prior to, during and following those years. Many of them died in the process. Daniel MacDonald and George Frederic Watts were among the artists who set out to show the impact of the Famine on individuals, the former depicting the moment a family discovers its potato crop is afflicted with blight, the latter a similarly dejected family group. Edwin Hayes (1819-1904) doesn’t address the Famine directly, but his elegiac depiction of passengers being ferried to an emigrant ship in Dublin Bay has a melancholy resonance as a memorial to those who perished and were driven away. The Turneresque glow of the setting sun points to the end of a chapter in Irish history – and perhaps implies the beginning of a new one.

Lady Butler: “Evicted,” 1890

Elizabeth Thompson (1846-1933), later Lady Butler, was a celebrated painter of vivid battle scenes, usually involving heroic feats on the part of British forces, often in colonial settings. Her Irish husband, William Butler, had a long, distinguished career in the British army, rising to the rank of lieutenant general, but he admired Parnell and was critical of colonialism. Visiting Glendalough one day, they were told of an eviction taking place just a mile away. It was an extremely brutal process, involving the utter, physical destruction of the household. Arriving at a scene of devastation, Lady Butler set up her easel to make a sketch as the woman who had lived there searched "among the ashes of her home to try to find some of her belongings intact". Not surprisingly, exhibited in London, the subsequent painting failed to sell and even attracted sarcasm from the then prime minister Lord Salisbury about the "breezy cheerfulness and beauty" of the landscape. As Lady Butler knew, no one in England wanted to be reminded that the British government was doing "some dreadful things" in Ireland.

Archibald McGoogan: “After the Bombardment,” 1916

The most widely-circulated painting of the interior of the GPO during the Easter Rising is an imaginative but relatively accurate composition by Walter Paget, an English artist who wasn't there but may have consulted Jack B Yeats. Kathleen Fox was in the city and, sketchbook in hand, witnessed the arrest of Countess Markievicz outside the College of Surgeons. Archibald McGoogan (1866-1931) was also nearby and, like Yeats, took a more sombre, subdued view of events. McGoogan's dark-lit study of a devastated, eerily deserted metropolis is focused on the bombardment of Kelly's gunpowder shop on the corner of Sackville St and Bachelor's Walk and the jeweller's directly opposite. Almost invisible in the murk, marksmen exchange fire with a machine gunner firing from an armoured car on the bridge. It is a very specific, atmospheric image and it's thought that McGoogan, also a designer and illustrator, worked from his own photographs and sketches. The painting was exhibited at Combridges in January 1917.

John Lavery: “Michael Collins (Love of Ireland),” 1922

Strangely enough, Sir John Lavery (1856-1941), a Northern Irish Protestant by birth and a London-based society portrait painter by occupation, created an unrivalled and sympathetic artistic record of the politics of Ireland’s move towards independence from about 1910 through to the Civil War. In those years he painted portraits of virtually every relevant political actor, and a remarkable work capturing Sir Roger Casement’s doomed appeal against his death sentence in 1916. Lavery and his wife Hazel became particularly close to Michael Collins, who stayed with them in London during the Treaty negotiations. Lavery painted a formal study of Collins’s state funeral at Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral. This smaller, more personal and heartfelt study was painted prior to that, over the course of one day, when Collins’s remains were laid out in the chapel of St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin. It was widely reproduced and circulated.

Creating History: Stories of Ireland in Art is at the National Gallery of Ireland until January 15th, 2017