Taking a politician unawares


Eucharistic Congress art was big in 1932 and the late Justin Keating was a model for the infant Jesus

THIS WEEK’S International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin has prompted recollections of the 31st congress held in the city 80 years ago. One forgotten legacy is the art created to celebrate and commemorate the event in 1932, which reflected the widespread fervour, and deep Catholic faith, of the vast majority of the population at the time.

Among the paintings made that year was Our Lady, Queen of Ireland by artist Leo Whelan, which was commissioned by Dublin’s Gill family – owners of the publishing company, which later became Gill and Macmillan.

The model for the Blessed Virgin was Sally Deale and the child used to depict the infant Jesus was Justin Keating, the son of Whelan’s fellow-artist, Seán Keating. In later life, Justin Keating became a Labour Party minister in the 1970s government of Liam Cosgrave.

In 1979, Sally Deale’s son, Julian, approached the Gill family to try to buy the painting – in memory of his late mother – but it was not for sale.

A few months later, he said, “Unfortunately this painting was destroyed in a fire,” when the Gill premises on O’Connell Street burnt down.

Although the original painting was lost, art historian Geraldine Molloy, who researched the work of Leo Whelan for a thesis, said prints of the painting had been made and sold to the public in the 1930s – and some have survived. According to the Catholic Bulletin, a framed print was presented to Pope Pius XI in the Vatican in 1934 and the artist was praised for depicting the “Madonna”, for the first time, with “Gaelic features”.

Separately, the Haverty Trust, an Irish family bequest established to fund religious art, commissioned three paintings – all depicting the life of St Patrick – from leading Irish artists of the era. The paintings were displayed during the Congress in 1932.

St Patrick Climbs Croagh Patrick, by Margaret Clarke, was later presented to the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin.

St Patrick Lights the Paschal Fire at Slane, by Seán Keating, was donated to the Irish College in Rome where it still hangs. The rector Fr Ciarán O’Carroll said, “An Post used the painting for the St Patrick’s Day stamp in 2006.”

The third painting, The Baptism by St Patrick of Ethna the Fair and Fedelmia the Ruddy, Daughters of the Ard Rí Laoghaire, was made by Leo Whelan. The artist has suffered a double whammy as this work is also lost.

However, unlike the fate suffered by his Our Lady, Queen of Ireland it is believed that the Baptism by St Patrick painting has survived although its current location is unknown.

The painting is understood to have been presented to an Irish institution abroad in the 1930s. Does anyone know where it is?