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.

The Splendour of Cobh

My favourite sea voyage was on the (alas now defunct) Swansea to Cork Ferry. I travelled this route very many times while living in Devon and Cornwall, and most enjoyed the last leg of the journey to Ireland, when the ship entered the Lee estuary and made its way upriver to Ringaskiddy. In all weathers I was out on deck to watch the slowly changing scenery that welcomed my arrival in to Cork, knowing that it was surely the best place in all the world to be going!

The excitement mounted when we steamed past the port town of Cobh, as the ferry terminal was then just around the corner. From afar I admired the way this settlement embraced the water with its long, colourful terraces lined up the steep hillside on which it was built, crowned atop by the magnificent Victorian edifice which I now know to be probably the finest architectural work of Edward Welby Pugin in Ireland: St Colman’s Cathedral.

I am almost ashamed to confess, then, that I had never called in on Cobh until last week – and the visit was a relevation. First, let me clear up some possible confusions: the name is pronounced ‘Cove’ – and the word in fact comes from the English, but has been Gaelicised to Cobh, (Irish An Cóbh), the location having allegedly been known since around 1750 as ‘The Cove of Cork’. The name was changed to ‘Queenstown’ after a visit from Queen Victoria in 1849, and was then changed back to Cobh after the founding of the Irish Free State in 1922. Or – have I just contributed to the confusion? One thing is for sure: the strategic waterside location in the great natural harbour of Cork is the raison d’être of this grand town.

Yes, it’s all about the water, and the fact that it is located beside the “second largest natural harbour in the world by navigational area” (a claim also made, incidentally, by Halifax Harbour in Canada and Poole Harbour in the UK – the undisputed nomination for largest harbour is Port Jackson, Sydney, Australia). Cobh faces the wonderfully named Haulbowline Island and Spike Island, both of which have been established as defensive fortifications, and the former as an important naval dockyard since before Napoleonic times. Today, Cobh has the only dedicated cruise ship berth in Ireland.

Do you remember my telling of the story of Cessair and the first human footsteps on Irish soil in our own Bantry Bay? The story is recounted in the 11th century Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Invasions of Ireland). The same book tells us about Neimheadh and his followers the Muintir Neimhidh  – People of Nemed – who arrived soon after Cessair around 2000 BC, but in Cork Harbour and settled the islands there: Neimheadh, like Cessair, shared his genealogy with Noah and is said to be buried in a mound on Great Island, overlooking present-day Cobh.

So why am I so impressed by Cobh? Perhaps it’s because – as an architect – I find the streetscapes so elegant, and quirky. For me it’s a cross between the horizontal graceful manners of Georgian Bath and the higgledy-piggledy uphill habitation of the steep lanes of Newlyn in Cornwall, where I lived for many years.

Above – Cobh yesterday and today, showing the elegance of the development of the town in the nineteenth century. Below – another side of Cobh: the steeply descending streets with some remarkable and picturesque terraces, crowned always by the glory of the Cathedral, which took half a century to build. Construction began in 1867.

Cobh is such an attractive town to walk around: it should be the jewel on County Cork’s tourist trail. This post is a fairly minimalist photographic essay of what caught my eye on the day we visited. There is a lot more to explore: we never made it to the Heritage Centre, nor to the Titanic Experience, which has brought particular fame to the place in recent times: it was the final embarkation point on the ship’s fateful maiden voyage. All for another day. But we did get up to Cobh’s Old Church Cemetery, high on the hill, where the victims of the Lusitania sinking were buried in mass graves in 1915: a poignant place.

But it was the architecture that had me absorbed: well proportioned and detailed buildings – often simple – that may be overlooked except for the way in which they come together into such a dignified whole. And – such an exploration of colour!

There’s much more to tell of the story of Cobh, and – certainly – so much more to see. I will follow up this post in the coming weeks; the magnificent Cathedral can justify an article on its own. Hopefully you will visit yourself if you have not already done so: your eyes will be opened . . . Look out for the small details!