Watters rising – Frank McNally on the campaign to revive the memory of a forgotten artist

Una Watters’s death at 47 had been untimely in more ways than one

Along with the Month’s Mind of continuing tradition, there used to be a “Twelvemonth’s Mind”, a phrase now vanished except from old dictionaries. It too was a requiem for the recently dead, a solemn remembrance on the first anniversary.

A year after the Dublin artist Una Watters (1918-1965) died, she was the subject of a kind of Twelvemonth’s Mind, organised by her heart-broken husband, the writer Eoghan Ó Tuairaisc.

It took the form of a retrospective exhibition: 37 pictures displayed for three weeks at the Dublin Painters’ Gallery on St Stephen’s Green.

After which, Ó Tuairaisc further honoured his wife by giving her life’s work away, presented to friends and relatives as mementoes.


It was a generous, affectionate gesture. Unfortunately, in helping to enshrine her in private memory, it had the unintended effect of reburying her in the public one.

Watters’s work was thereby scattered to the winds, out of reach of the galleries and art critics who might have burnished her reputation. Except by a devoted few, she was soon forgotten.

Her death at 47 had been untimely in more ways than one. At the height of her powers, she had just won an Arts Council award for producing what became the official symbol of the 1916 Rising’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

The “Sword of Light” was everywhere in 1966, on official documents, stamps, badges, brooches, tie pins, and as a hallmark on silverware. It even appeared on the fronts of buses and trains.

But Watters had not lived to enjoy the reflected glory. The £100 cheque she won for the design was delivered, in late November 1965, on the day of her funeral.

Happily, if her husband’s misguided generosity served to obscure the artist’s fame in the short-term, it may yet triumph in the long.

His unwitting strategy was to place her work in places where at least it was deeply appreciated. Some who enjoyed proximity to a Watters painting went on to become evangelists for her cause, most notably the novelist and former Irish Times journalist Mary Morrissy.

One result is that, as of this week, a Watters picture now finally hangs where it belongs: in the National Gallery of Ireland.

Painted in 1959, Girl Going by Trinity in the Rain is a modernist treatment of old-fashioned Irish weather. It may have taken half a century to reach the NGI. But it has aged well.

Born Una McDonell on November 4th, 1918, the future painter was educated at Holy Faith Convent, Glasnevin and later in the National College of Art and Design.

She worked for a time as a librarian. Then in 1945 she married Eugene Watters (as was), the bilingual poet and playwright later best known as Ó Tuairaisc, at which point the notorious “marriage bar” turned her into an ex-librarian and a full-time artist.

That early career explains the location of another Watters painting, The Four Masters, which hangs in her former workplace, Phibsboro Library (itself one of a venerable quartet: the 1930s Art Deco libraries of Dublin, also built in Drumcondra, Ringsend, and Inchicore).

Una painted in the kitchen of the couple’s cottage at Cappagh Cross, Finglas, semi-rural at the time but since swallowed up the M50. Her later subjects included the new suburban estates emerging nearby, depicted – as in her Cappagh Road (1960) – in a naive style.

A youthful visitor to the cottage was Colbert Kearney, friend of the couple and future professor of English at UCC. When he published his memoir of a Dublin childhood, Down by the Liffeyside, in 2019, it featured “Cappagh Road” on the cover.

But after Watters’s death, Kearney had been the grateful recipient of Girl Going by Trinity in the Rain, now donated to NGI.

He also happens to be the partner of Mary Morrissy. And as fellow evangelists, a few years back, they took it upon themselves to track down the rest of the 1966 exhibition, if possible, and along with Sheila Smith, the artist’s niece, to mount the first career retrospective since that fateful show.

Hence a 2019 mission to Ballinasloe, described by Morrissy in this newspaper, during which they uncovered a cache of the artist’s work in what had once been the Emerald Ballroom.

The Galway town was Ó Tuairaisc’s birthplace and the couple had spent many summers there: hence a gift of numerous paintings to the local bridge club.

The club-house and ballroom had been redecorated and repurposed many times. But in 2019, nine watercolours remained where they had hung for half a century, in what was now a computer training room.

“Into the Light”, the new exhibition of Watters’s work, took place at the United Arts Club, Dublin, last year. Since when, the artist’s paintings have continued to reappear.

When Morrissy gave a talk at Phibsboro’s Phizzfest a few weeks ago, according to her blog (at unawattersartist.com), the owner of yet another watercolour was in the audience. There are still a few known works at large, however. The search continues.