‘Phenomenal’ history of Irish art and architecture published

Taoiseach launches 3,000-page ‘gospels of Ireland’ in five volumes at €95 each

Taoiseach Enda Kenny described them as "the gospels of Ireland". President of the Royal Irish Academy Prof Mary Daly said they were "national monuments" and Minister for Arts Heather Humphreys described them as "phenomenal" and said they would greatly enhance Ireland's reputation internationally.

They were speaking of a “truly epic project” by the academy, a five-volume history of art and architecture of Ireland, covering 1,600 years of visual arts from the year AD 400 to the 21st century.

Mr Kenny told guests at the Mansion House in Dublin yesterday that the five hardback volumes, Art and Architecture in Ireland, were a "modern presentation of the personality of the Irish".

‘Price of a dinner’

Each 600-page book sells for €95 – or €400 for all five – covering medieval arts, painting, sculpture, architecture and the 20th century in two million words and 3,000 illustrations over 3,000 pages.


Editor of the medieval art volume Dr Rachel Moss described each book as the price of a "good dinner out, a very good dinner out for two".

Free copies of all volumes will be distributed to each of the 32 county libraries. Work is being finalised on a a digital version of each volume, which is then expected to be sent to every school in the country.

‘Gospels of Ireland’

The Taoiseach said 10 editors had written “the gospels of Ireland. They will be as enduring as the stones in Newgrange, or the flags[stones] on Dún Aonghasa or the many keystones on the innumerable bridges we have built in the past.”

He told the writers and supporters of the project: “You have put the keystones in place to build bridges for the future.”

Mr Kenny said Ireland’s poets, writers and musicians had long been celebrated, but these five volumes were a “celebration of our extraordinary but often unrecognised visual culture, painting and sculpture and what is the ultimate social art: architecture”.

The work includes articles on artists and designers including Eileen Gray and John Henry Foley, the sculptor of the O’Connell monument in Dublin and London’s Albert Memorial.

Prof Daly said the five volumes would ensure Ireland’s story was integrated into the great international canon.

She paid tribute to the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the Paul Mellon Centre and, in particular, philanthropist Carmel Naugthon of the Naughton Foundation for financial support. Ms Naughton, who hosted the launch in the Mansion House, said she hoped philanthropists would be encouraged, with Government help, to "step up to the plate" for similar projects.

‘Beginning of history’

Dr Moss, assistant professor of art history at Trinity College Dublin, said the five volumes covered “essentially the beginning of history in Ireland from 400 AD” and involved more than 250 expert contributors. She said the medieval volume went to 1600, a period when art was “considered in a very different way. It’s not tied into the cult of the artist the way that it becomes after 1600”. The way art was valued then was different: it was “illuminated manuscripts, fine metalwork like the Tara brooch and the Ardagh chalice”.

The volume includes essays on bookbinding, on fine metal working and on set design for public street performance. Dr Moss said the National Museum had the largest collection in the world of the fine metalwork of this period.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times