Official portrait of Brian Cowen yet to get go-ahead

Paintings of 11 of 12 ex-taoisigh on display in Leinster House

The Department of the Taoiseach has yet to give the go-ahead for an official portrait of former taoiseach Brian Cowen almost three years after he retired from the position.

A spokeswoman confirmed the decision to commission the portrait has not been approved by Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s department.

The department provided no explanation for the long delay in commissioning the portrait, which goes against the tradition of portraits of recent taoisigh being displayed on the walls of Leinster House soon after they resign as TDs.

The portraits of 11 of the 12 former taoisigh are on display in Leinster House. The most recent addition is that of former Fianna Fáil taoiseach Bertie Ahern, which was hung on the walls near the main stairs in the autumn of 2011.


The portrait was commissioned as far back as 2001 during Mr Ahern’s second term as taoiseach and was completed in 2003.

The painting is the work of James Hanley and the commission was worth some €12,700. It shows Mr Ahern sitting on a chair against a neutral background.

Some of Ireland's most prominent artists have painted portraits of former taoisigh, including Seán O'Sullivan (William T Cosgrave and John A Costello); Leo Whelan (Éamon de Valera); Maurice McGonigle (Seán Lemass); Edward Maguire (Liam Cosgrave); John F Kelly (Jack Lynch and Charles Haughey); Derek Hill (Garret FitzGerald); Carey Clarke (Albert Reynolds); and Edward Plunkett (John Bruton).

John F Kelly’s portrait of the late Mr Haughey is striking because it captures him staring directly at the viewer in a portrait against a neutral background.

The portrait is in a prominent position on the mezzanine level and anybody passing along the corridor is confronted by Mr Haughey's strong direct stare.

The first stage in the process for commissioning a portrait of a taoiseach is for it to be sanctioned by the Department of an Taoiseach.

Once that is done, the Office of Public Works begin the process of selecting an artist and agreeing a fee.

In the case of Mr Ahern, the then taoiseach was given a choice of three artists from whom he chose Mr Hanley. The process, including sittings, can take as long as 18 months. With one exception, all recent portraits of taoisigh have been completed when they are still in office or within two years of them standing down.

For example, another short-lived taoiseach John Bruton stepped down from the position in 1997, his portrait was commissioned in 1998 and completed in 1999. The exception is Jack Lynch whose portrait was commissioned in 1984, five years after he stepped down as taoiseach. However, Mr Lynch remained a Dáil deputy until 1982.

It is not known if the Department of the Taoiseach has made any approach to Mr Cowen with a view to commissioning the painting.

It is unlikely the matter was considered when he was in office, given the massive crisis facing the country and the subsequent bailout.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times