Art windfall for Cork


The background to the latest bequest of art to the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork is one of those wonderful stories of a passion for art developing in relative obscurity. Father John McGrath, a parish priest in Tipperary and then in Doon, Co Limerick, wasn't brought up with a love of the arts. But he formed a friendship with a certain John Cody of Ballingarry, Co Tipperary, who hadn't had the opportunity of a secondary education, but cultivated an interest in the arts, nonetheless.

The same Cody persuaded Father McGrath to come with him to the Wexford Opera Festival one year, and that, writes a mutual friend, Father Noonan, "was the beginning". They went to some art exhibitions, Father McGrath made some friends, and his career as an art collector was assured.

He took advice from many people and bought from galleries such as The Hendricks in Dublin. His interest was primarily in Irish art, and the collection of 45 paintings bequeathed to the Crawford includes works by 18th-century artists such as William Sadler, 19th-century artists, such as James Arthur O'Connor, as well as established 20th-century names such as Sean Keating, Maurice McGonigal and Charles Lamb. There is an excellent selection too, of more recent work by artists such as Barrie Cooke, Brian Bourke, Louis le Brocquy, Robert Ballagh, Tony O'Malley and Derek Hill. There are also three highly prized prints, by Georges Braque, Salvador Dali and David Hockney.

Apparently, the Crawford was selected for this windfall because Father McGrath was convinced that was where his collection would be most accessible to the public, and this was what concerned him most of all. He died last year, with his will perfectly in order. How did a rural parish priest have the money to acquire such art? The Crawford's Colleen O'Sullivan knows only that there is "no whiff of sulphur" about the acquisitions: "He spent money on art rather than on a car or luscious living," she says. What? Disposable income, out of a priest's salary? "It may have been family money, or private donations," adds O'Sullivan.

Well, Father McGrath certainly spent it well, and showed care and imagination in his plans for its ultimate destination.