The great Irish painting that turned up on eBay


Lost for almost a century, John Mulvany’s ‘ The Battle of Aughrim’ re-emerged on the online auction site, put up for sale by a dealer who believed it to be an American battle scene. For NIAMH O’SULLIVAN, who had spent years searching for the painting, it was a heart-stopping moment

The Battle of Aughrimwas last seen in Denver, in the US, in 1914. In 2003 I travelled there, to try to track it down, but to no avail. Earlier this year I saw the painting on eBay, for sale as an American military painting. I knew immediately what it was. Seeing something flash before you that you have been searching for over seven years is a heart-stopping moment.

Many years ago, in a dark recess of the Battle of Aughrim Interpretative Centre, in Co Galway, I had come across a black-and-white photogravure entitled The Cavalry Fight at Urachree, 12 July 1691. When I saw the painting on eBay I knew immediately that it was the original and that I had struck gold.

I contacted Anne Weber, the great-grandniece of the artist, with whom I had been working on the Mulvany project for some time. She jumped on a plane to the dealer in San Francisco. When she saw the painting she was quite overcome: here was the painting that was closest to her great-granduncle’s heart, and it was spectacular.

One hundred and thirty five years later the painting was on its return journey, this time from California to the Gorry Gallery, on Molesworth Street, around the corner from where it was first exhibited in Dublin, on Grafton Street, in 1885.

That year, when the Fenian and Irish National Land League founder Michael Davitt saw the barely-dry Battle of Aughrim he declared: “If I were a wealthy man it should never leave Ireland.” But the painting was promised, and its artist, John Mulvany (c1839-1906), took it to the US, where it was last recorded in 1914. The rediscovery of the painting marks an exciting moment in Irish art history.

There is a common assumption that Irish artists of the late 19th century transcended the harsh realities of political and economic life either by emigrating and assimilating or by staying put but avoiding subjects that might mirror or create discontent. Mulvany’s The Battle of Aughrim, however, places visual art at the centre of an emergent nationalism traditionally perceived as the preserve of poets and playwrights, journalists and politicians.

Mulvany chose a propitious moment for the action of the painting, the momentary victory by Jacobite forces over the Williamite army at Urraghry on July 12th, 1691, before their subsequent calamitous defeat on the Hill of Aughrim, in Co Galway. By showing the weakest link in the Jacobite position Mulvany illustrates the bravery of the Irish as they took on the superior forces of William. But when the Jacobite commander Lieut Gen St Ruth was decapitated by a cannonball, near victory became a rout. In a striking prefiguration, the painting depicts a Williamite soldier, in the centre of the picture, staggering backwards as his head is severed from his neck.

The myth of Aughrim is largely built on the randomness of the defeat – the decapitation of St Ruth – as one stray cannonball consigns Ireland to another 200 years of subjugation. As if to emphasise this, the decapitation of the British soldier in the painting signals, in its one-on-one combat, the valour of the Irish by comparison with the contingency of the British victory. From near triumph to resounding defeat, the story of Aughrim was subsequently reclaimed in Irish cultural memory as an enduring symbol of entitlement, a site for future resurgence.

According to the Gaelic American of March 6th, 1909, Mulvany was “of an imaginative and inquiring mind, his teacher’s favourite . . . They both loved Ireland and hated the Sassenach.” As a Famine child Mulvany emigrated from Moynalty, in Co Meath, to the US, where, according to the Nation of January 15th, 1887, “he became an infant phenomenon as a colourist . . . and was soon earning thousands of dollars a month”. Notwithstanding the hyperbole of late-19th-century art criticism, the reviews of his work bordered on the ecstatic.

When the Irish-American Club in Chicago wanted Irish pictures, it consulted Mulvany. He explained that the wealthy Irish had little time for national art, that nationalists could not afford to buy art and that painters could not live by ideals alone. Following the remarkable success of his epochal Custer’s Last Rally (1881) – the first major painting of another celebrated defeat – Mulvany was at the peak of his artistic powers, and pledged himself to the cause of his homeland.

But why did he select Aughrim as his plumb line to the past? In the late 19th century radical nationalism was focused not only on peasant proprietorship but also on political independence. Such boldness required representation on a large scale: galvanising, iconic images that had the power to incite action. Mulvany began Aughrim only 15 years after the 1867 insurrection and six years after the formation of the Irish National Land League, and the bicentenary of the battle was less than 10 years away.

This was no incidental exercise in nostalgia, then, but a purposeful, positioning image, designed to press powerful memories into a contemporary political use. If out of violence and trauma comes renewed resolve, The Battle of Aughrimmay be seen as an exemplification of Ireland’s glorious past and a call to arms in the present. And by creating Aughrim for the diaspora, Mulvany was able to reach international audiences.

Aughrim was one of the bloodiest battles fought in Ireland, with 7,000 slain out of the 40,000 engaged in the confrontation. Following the defeat, Galway and Limerick fell fast. For these reasons Aughrim rather than the Boyne can be considered the decisive battle of the Williamite wars in Ireland.

In its subsequent mythic versions the battle functioned much as the loss of Meagher’s Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg, or Pickett’s men charging to their deaths at Gettysburg, celebrated defeats resounding to the credit to the losers. Indeed, the characterisation of Aughrim as the Gettysburg of Ireland would have not displeased the Irish-American Mulvany, himself a Civil War artist and an ardent Irish nationalist. Inevitably, it was also likened to Ireland’s Little Big Horn.

MULVANY WENT OVERthe battleground meticulously. He went to London to research the uniforms and arms but had difficulty gaining access to the Tower of London, as his republican views and associates were known. The early 1880s in London were characterised by violence, instigated by the dynamiting campaign funded by Clan na Gael in the US. That January there was an explosion at London Bridge. Mulvany, a member of Clan na Gael, fled to Paris with the painting; he believed that, if he had not, he would have spent the rest of his life in an English prison. In Paris the famous Goupil engraved it, and Mulvany then took the painting back to Ireland.

In Dublin the Freeman’s Journal of July 11th, 1885, announced that “no one but an artist of genius could possibly have produced such a masterly and realistic picture . . . The work may be said to be of the school of De Neuville – the manipulation is broad, rapid, and consequently singularly effective, the drawing is perfect, and the colour masterly.” Contemporary reviewers also compared Mulvany to Landseer and Vernet. Stylistically, the composition of Aughrim is circular, cyclonic and sweeping: full of verve, dynamism and energy.

But Mulvany’s associations with Clan na Gael began to catch up with him. Chicago was a major centre of the organisation. Alexander Sullivan, its leading light, had forged connections between Irish nationalism and the shady side of machine politics, turning on ward “healers”, thugs and liquor dealers. In 1885 there was a move to curb Sullivan. Dr Patrick Henry Cronin, a prominent member of Clan na Gael, initially friends with Sullivan, became his enemy when Cronin accused Sullivan of embezzlement. Anticipating his assassination, Cronin entrusted Thomas Tuite, a friend of Mulvany, with his “evidence” to implicate Sullivan. And, sure enough, in 1889 Cronin’s death followed suit.

Although The Battle of Aughrimhad been rapturously received, there was a sudden froideur. As a supporter of Cronin, Mulvany was to be taught a lesson, and the sale of the painting fell through. And the postscript is indeed macabre. The trials that followed Cronin’s murder were inconclusive.

Everyone knew who committed the murder, but convictions proved impossible. Around 1901 Mulvany began work on The Anarchists, a painting that showed a group of men cutting a pack of cards to see who would commit murder. As if life imitated art, Mulvany was soon found dead, face down in the Hudson River, his own death as enigmatic as the fate of his painting.

Missing for a century

It’s a mystery how a painting that measures 198cm by 89cm could vanish for so long, but The Battle of Aughrimhad been missing since 1914. Then, earlier this year, a San Francisco dealer put it up on eBay.

Although its painter, John Mulvany, is relatively well known, the painting’s subject had been mistaken as an American military scene. Put up for sale twice, with the price varying between $50,000 and $100,000, it was stumbled upon by Prof Niamh O’Sullivan.

James Gorry of Dublin’s Gorry Gallery, which specialises in repatriating Irish art from abroad, stepped in, and the painting was bought in a private sale. It arrived back in Ireland a week ago and is in very good condition, although its original frame has been replaced. Once it has been reframed it will go on view at the Gorry Gallery, on Molesworth Street, Dublin 2, from December 1st to 15th.

The battle and the war: the background

In the conflict between the Protestant William of Orange and the Catholic James II the crown of England, Scotland and Ireland was at stake, as part of the wider European wars of the 17th century. James was supported by Catholic Jacobites in Ireland and France; William was supported by English, Scottish, Dutch, Danish, French Huguenots and Ulster Protestants; the Dutch Republic was at war with France; and the Stuarts were allies of the Catholic Louis XIV.

When James’s wife gave birth to a son in 1688 the prospect of an enduring Catholic Stuart dynasty impelled parliament to issue an invitation to William of Orange to take the throne with his wife, Mary, daughter of James. The Catholics of Ireland were prepared to fight for James in the hope of regaining political and religious lands and freedoms. Although there was no love between them, James looked to Ireland to regain his kingdoms. He landed in Kinsale in 1689. Louis XIV sent Lieut Gen St Ruth to Ireland with officers, troops and supplies. William needed to quell the Jacobite opposition in Ireland to secure British dominance and the Protestant Settlement, whose power was based on land ownership.

Following a series of defeats, notably at the Boyne, St Ruth managed to regroup 20,000 men on the Hill of Aughrim. On July 12th, 1691, when the Dutch commander Baron de Ginkel came through the pass at Urraghry, the Jacobites put up a valiant fight, and briefly it looked as if they might win. This moment was short-lived, but it is perpetuated for future generations in Mulvany’s The Battle of Aughrim. Like the battle, the painting itself was lost, but, true to its subject matter, has come back to enjoy an unexpected afterlife in the new century.

Niamh O’Sullivan is professor of visual culture at the National College of Art Design