Seán Keating – Escaping the Storm

Storm Ciara was upon us as we headed over to the east coast – a mere few hops from Nead an Iolair. But it wasn’t all black clouds and thunder and lightning: winter storms here in Ireland feature high winds and spectacles such as this rainbow (above) which seemed to hang in the sky over County Wicklow for hours. When the rain comes, we often find refuge in a church – especially if it helps Finola’s quest for new stained glass windows. Sometimes they seem to reflect the weather patterns:

This panel, which could be seen as an indoor rainbow, is in an impressively large church in Ballyroan, Rathfarnham Parish, County Dublin: it was built in 1967 to seat a thousand. What caught my eyes was not the array of windows by Murphy Devitt (Finola has written extensively about this creative partnership), but two murals high on the walls of the crossing. I was delighted to find that these were painted by one of Ireland’s great artists working through the turbulent twentieth century – Seán Keating.

Seán Keating’s ‘Baptism of Christ’ mural in the Church of the Holy Spirit, Ballyroan

I am always surprised to find that Keating is under-appreciated: yes, he gets mentioned in books of art history, and is reasonably well represented in the state’s galleries. Yet you will also find terms such as ‘not great art’ applied to his work by critics and commentators. This is possibly because he is best known for his documentary work and, particularly, for his raw representations of the tempestuous years of Ireland’s struggle to gain independence. Here is ‘Men of the South’, dating from 1921 when there was a ceasefire in the Irish War of Independence while the Anglo-Irish Treaty was being negotiated and out of which the Irish Free State was born.

Top: Men of the South – Seán Keating’s documentary portrayal of the North Cork Brigade of the Irish Republican Army. Below the painting is one of the photographs taken in Keating’s Dublin studio in preparation for the work. Two versions of this painting were made by the artist: the one above is in the Crawford Gallery, Cork City, while the other (which depicts eight men) is now in Áras an Uachtaráin, the official residence of the President of Ireland.

After the War of Independence and the abhorrent Civil War which followed it, Keating’s work concentrated on documenting the founding and burgeoning of the new State. Scenes of conflict were replaced by works showing industrial development, such as Ireland’s largest ever civil engineering contract: harnessing the power potential of the State’s major waterway, the River Shannon. The construction of a dam and hydro-electric generating station at Ardnacrusha, County Clare, together with a country-wide electric distribution infrastructure, was a symbol of major importance to the nation’s fledgling government. Keating began recording the work in 1926, soon after inception. No-one had commissioned him – he saw the significance of making dramatic documentary work of this nature, but his vision was eventually recognised by the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) – which now owns the largest collection of Keating’s paintings in Ireland. Above is one of the artist’s working sketches of the dam under construction.

Seán Keating painting en plein air at Ardnacrusha, 1920s

Keating studied under William Orpen in Dublin. He was to become one of Orpen’s important pupils (and, latterly, his assistant) and his documentary painting style owes a debt to his teacher. One of his famous early paintings is Thinking Out Gobnet (below), a portrait of his good friend Harry Clarke, dating from 1917. Keating and Clarke frequently visited the Aran Islands together. The painting shows Clarke sitting on a grave slab within the ruins of Teampall Chaomháin (St Kevin’s church) on Inis Oírr, along with a holy water font at his feet, and a holy well to the bottom right of the image. The suggestion is that Clarke is finding inspiration for his series of eleven windows for the Honan Chapel, Cork, which include a fine representation of St Gobnet. The ‘healing’ symbolism of the holy water and well are deliberate references to Clarke’s TB, the illness which ended his life at the age of 41.

Seán Keating was always a committed Catholic, and we have seen many examples of his artwork in churches, including the murals at Ballyroan. Most striking, perhaps, are the Stations of the Cross which he painted for St John’s Church, Tralee – the church which features in Finola’s wonderful Irish Arts Review article (and RWJ blog post) about Ireland’s Newest Stained Glass Window.

Stations of the Cross by Seán Keating in St John’s Church, Tralee, County Kerry

Back to Ballyroan: while we were sheltering from the tempest and admiring the church architecture, and the murals, I was delighted to find out that Seán Keating had lived for much of his life just down the road, in Ballyboden, in a house which he had designed himself. He attended mass regularly at Ballyroan until his death in December 1977, aged 88.

Keating’s mural The Descent of the Holy Spirit in his own church of Ballyroan, Parish of Rathfarnham, installed in 1967

We discovered that Keating is buried in the nearby Cruagh Cemetery, so we had to head out into the storm again to find his grave. It is as unassuming as he apparently was in life: a visitor would not be aware that herein lies one of modern Ireland’s greats.

Cruagh Cemetery, Co Dublin (top) is the resting place of Seán Keating. His grave is shared with his wife, May, and son Michael

Our little artist’s memoir is almost over. The gale continued with ferocious lashing rain: cold and hungry we made a beeline for the local pub – the Merry Ploughboy, evidently a famous music venue. It was warm and welcoming, and full of a crowd watching Six Nations Rugby on the big screen (Ireland won the match).

In the lounge we were intrigued to find an oblique reference to Seán Keating – a painting which has a nod to his style but is by a different artist!

We agreed that our day trip to the east, in the teeth of the gale, was a memorable way to discover the life, work and death of one of Ireland’s significant artists.

10 thoughts

  1. I love the work of Sean Keating. He documented so much of our history and people and caught the character of the people he painted. The National Gallery has some great paintings by Sean Keating, however, you have shown me some I had not seen, especially the mural in the Church. Wonderful! Breda Smyth

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Michael. He deserves more of an appreciative audience. It’s astonishing that the ‘Thinking out Gobnet’ painting sold to a private collector for only €56,000 in 2018. It should be in a public collection in Ireland!

      Like

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