Frank, Jack and Eibhlín Dubh: The Lament for Art O’Leary

Caoineadh Áirt Úi Laoghaire (The Lament for Art O’Leary) is a classic work of Irish literature. Composed as a keen by his widow, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonail (Dark Eileen O’Connell, pronounced Eileen Duv), in the immediate aftermath of his death in 1773, it survived in oral tradition until it was finally collected from an aged professional keener in Millstreet and written down about 1800. Here are the opening lines in Irish followed by Frank O’Connor’s translation. (For those who would like to read the full text in Irish, you can find it here, with a translation by Thomas Kinsella.)

Mo ghrá go daingean tu!

Lá dá bhfaca thu

ag ceann tí an mhargaidh,

thug mo shúil aire dhuit,

thug mo chroí taitnearnh duit,

d’éalaíos óm charaid leat

i bhfad ó bhaile leat.

Keening was a women’s prerogative and tradition, and this keen is powerful and poetic, with long sonorous vowels, patterns of repetitive phrases, and all the devastated grief of a heartbroken woman. To get a sense of the pronunciation in Irish, the best reading I have come across is this one by Joanne Ryan.

The Lament has been translated many times, including by Thomas Kinsella, Brendan Kennelly, Vona Groarke and Eilís Dillon. In 1940, the Cuala Press brought out a special limited edition of the poem, in a translation by Frank O’Connor and with illustrations by Jack B Yeats. The Cuala Press was run by Elizabeth (Lolly) Yeats, sister of Jack B and William B, and was a driving force in the proliferation of printed material, beautifully produced, related to the Irish literary and artistic revival. 

Frank O’Connor (above), although better known for his short stories, was a scholar of the Irish language and translated many poems into English. His version is magnificent, capturing Eibhlín Dubh’s passion and fierceness and the rhythm and cadence of her keen. 

Art O’Leary was a handsome young cavalry officer in the army of Maria Theresa of Austria. He returned to Ireland upon his marriage to Eibhlín and they had two children. She was pregnant with a third (who did not survive) when he was shot dead by Abraham Morris, a local magistrate, when Art refused to sell Morris his horse for £5, as required by the Penal Laws. Art O’Leary is buried at Kilcrea Friary, above. His grave can be seen there (below).

The Lament lauds Art’s many virtues and paints a picture of him as brave and handsome, in the flower of his manhood.

Eibhlín curses Morris, and tells how, when Art’s horse came home alone, she leapt into the saddle to search for him.

She found him lying dead in a pool of blood, which she cupped in her hands and drank.

Jack B Yeats’ illustrations have the same wild quality that we imagine was characteristic of Eibhlín Dubh – an untamed spirit who expressed the extremes of great joy and pride and deep anguish. They are pen and ink drawings, hand coloured at the Cuala Press with light washes in blues, yellows and browns for the limited edition. Very little of Yeats’ illustrative work is included in the current, must-see, exhibition of his paintings in the National Gallery, and I was very pleased indeed to find this book online as part of the Internet Archives digital library.

Ireland 50 Years Ago: Jack B Yeats Special Edition 1

A special edition of Ireland of the Welcomes, July-August 1971, was devoted to Jack B Yeats, in honour of the hundredth anniversary of his birth. Having been intensely moved recently by the National Gallery’s exhibition, Jack B Yeats: Painting and Memory, I was interested to look at how he was viewed in 1971, as part of my Ireland 50 Years Ago series.

The illustrations are all from this issue and sorry – photographing from an old magazine doesn’t guarantee the greatest quality. This post will take us up to the beginning of his career as an expressionist painter, after he honed his drawing and watercolour skills and started to exhibit. This part of Yeats’ work is not really covered in the National Gallery Exhibition, which is almost entirely devoted to his oil paintings and is organised thematically rather than chronologically.

Island Funeral, rendered in the magazine in black and white

The long article is by Roger McHugh, based on his Introduction to the Dolmen Press book Jack B Yeats, A Centenary Gathering. Roger McHugh was himself an esteemed academic at UCC, a writer, playwright and critic, an ardent republican, and according to his bio in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, ‘an enthralling dinner-table raconteur.’ His analysis is insightful and evocative. I will simply use his words after the poem by MacDonagh and through the rest of the post, indicated by italics.

The article begins with a poem by Donagh MacDonagh (an equally  erudite man with an impressive literary and nationalist pedigree) which I will quote in full as it expresses wonderfully what it is to look at a Yeats painting.

Love of the dusty rose 

Blooming above the Square 

Lights the whole studio 

And singer, fisher, clown, 

Horseman and Saddled Horse

Surge through the winter air

Razing the years and the walls 

For the wild man of the fair

To snatch the wagered purse

And bring the champion down.

The women by Liffey side,

The pig-buyer home from the fair,

The horse taking time in its stride

Are dead, with the big-muscled men

Who bullied their way into sight

And froze in an arrogant stare;

But they and the sailors of Sligo

Are bright in a memory where

Colour condenses in light

And the starved rose blushes again.

Donagh MacDonagh

Create? The painter had his reservations: ‘No one creates’, he wrote; ‘the artist assembles memories’. By this I think he meant that the intense moment is always already past but that observation, memory and technique can recapture it. . . He thought that ‘painting was the freest and greatest means of communication we have’ and that the finest paintings always had ‘some of the living ginger of life in them’.

As a youth in Sligo He preferred to play around the quays and the streets, inspecting with due reverence sea captains, sailors and pilots, or at country fairs and sports observing and sketching small farmers, pig-jobbers, worried shopkeepers, untamed tinkers, shouting ballad singers, exultant jockeys surrounded  by triumphant or sullen wild faces, or the stirring arrivals of Bianconi long cars, of bands, of circuses.

This drawing (also reproduced from Ireland of the Welcomes) is an illustration from Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. Read more about Yeats’ and Synge’s collaborations in this post

As a background to these assorted characters was a setting of great variety; cliffs whose wildness was accentuated by the ‘crashing wind and lashing sea’ . . . legended mountains like Ben Bulben and Knocknarea, long reaches of sand sometimes marked ominously by wrecks perhaps dating to the Armada.

Jack B Yeats as painted by his father, John Butler Yeats. I find it uncanny how little his expression changed between this boyhood image and a photograph taken of him as an older man (below)

Even at sixteen he had started his career as a professional illustrator . . . he illustrated school-books, newspapers, periodicals, comic-cuts, racing papers.

Where England gave him many subjects for his illustrations and sketches, Ireland provided almost all those for the drawings and watercolours which he exhibited up to 1911 in Dublin and London. The Painters who exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy at that time were either English or Irish imitators of the Leightons and the Poynters, titled men who set the standard. ‘It was into their varnished world where it was nice to see a bit of Normandy or something from Surrey painted by an Irish artist,’ wrote C. P. Curran, ‘that Jack Yeats broke with his troop of tinkers and maggie-men, jockeys and drovers, pig-jobbers and purse-proud horse dealers, stout farmers and sea-faring men, the whole life of a little western town by the sea. It was very exciting, but was it art?

Following his own lead about the affectionate zest for life that is the basis of artistic achievement, I think that people untutored in technique but with some sensitivity can catch the essential elements of those early works. . . . They depict individuals. . . . but in such a way as to capture some essential quality which lifts the picture above its particulars. A tinker is painted in black garb which is set against the black of rock and the dark sky, relieved by a glimpse of white sea-foam. His wild eyes gleam from a ‘black-avised narrow face; he seems the embodiment of some wild night spirit.

The line-drawing of the squireen, bowler-hatted, gloomily assertive, owes much to the sharp, sure vertical lines of his coat and umbrella set against the curve of road, wall and mountain.

The next post will take us through his life as the greatest of Irish painters. Here’s a sample image from the article.

Portobello

We have been spending a little time over on the east side of the country, not too far from Dublin. We like exploring, and the built-up areas have much to offer in terms of history so I’m returning – for a brief moment – to one of my favourite subjects: the canals of Ireland. You may remember my forays back in 2016 to seek out the journeys taken by L T C Rolt seventy years before that, and recorded in his classic book Green & Silver. You can find all those posts here. Earlier this year I added a further post to the series, examining in greater detail the meeting of the waters of Grand and Royal Canals, within Dublin. Today I’m simply concentrating mainly on one place, to the south of the city: Portobello.

This wonderfully drawn map (the two extracts above) dates from 1797, and was complied by William Faden (1749-1836) and Samuel John Neele (1758-1824): it was published in London and Dublin. You can see from it that the Grand Canal at that time virtually created the southern boundary of the city, with the canal basin at Portobello being a significant location to serve the growing conurbation south of the River Liffey.

This extract from the 6″ first edition of the Ordnance Survey shows Portobello Harbour with its significant warehouses, the ‘City Basin’ and a lock and bridge – known as La Touche Bridge. We have encountered the La Touche family in an earlier post – Glen of the Downs – and learned there that the family had built a big house – ‘Bellevue’ – on their estates near Greystones and Delgany.

The bridge (photo courtesy of excellentstreetimages.com) was named after William Digges La Touche (1747–1803), a director of the Grand Canal Company. The waterway was, of course, an important business venture in its heyday, contributing to the prosperity of the city merchants. Prior to its construction the area was farmland, and the name Portobello is said (curiously) to have come from the Irish Cuan Aoibhinn, meaning ‘beautiful harbour’. Note the ‘City Basin’ marked on the OS map: this was used from 1812 to provide a drinking water reservoir for the south side of the city. In the 1860s the water was found to contain a high concentration of sulphuric acid, and this source was eventually superseded by the new reservoir at Dartry, in Co Wicklow.

This is a fine early print of the Harbour, showing the Grand Canal Hotel designed by James Colbourne and opened in 1797. In the foreground is a passenger or ‘packet’ boat. We might forget how important the transport of people was in the early days of canal transport, before the advent of railways (see Trollope’s account in my post here): roads were often in a poor state and the boats provided a smooth – if not exactly speedy – way of getting about.

…the company’s hotels were simply the posting houses of this water-road …There was considerable interchange of passenger as well as goods traffic at Shannon Harbour. Travellers changed here from the Dublin passage boats into Bianconi’s ‘long cars’ which operated between Birr, Shannon Harbour and Athlone in connection with the boats. Alternatively they might board the paddle steamers The Lady Lansdowne or The Lady Burgoyne which plied between Killaloe pier head and Athlone, calling at a jetty on the river near the mouth of the canal. Smaller craft sailed from Killaloe pier head to the transatlantic port of Limerick, and so the Grand Canal became a link in the route between Dublin and America…

L T C ROLT, Green & Silver, 1949

The hotel at Portobello was one of five constructed along the length of the Grand Canal: all were fine buildings – probably state-of-the-art in terms of accommodation for travellers by water. You will find a post which I wrote about them here. On the header picture is a view of a packet boat at Harcourt Lock, and you can see a stage-coach there waiting to transfer passengers. The Portobello hotel closed in 1835 but the building has survived to the present day through many incarnations.

This is a great photo if you are a transport history enthusiast! It must date from the 1940s, as the Dublin tram system declined at that time, the last one in the city being phased out on 9 July 1949. The bridge and former canal hotel are clearly seen.

Portobello House – the canal hotel in the 1960s. Some fine classic cars in this picture! At this time it was a nursing home: one of its elderly residents was Jack B Yeats, the celebrated Irish painter who currently has a major exhibition in the National Gallery.

The former canal hotel was completely refurbished in 1972 (the photograph above dates from that year) and survives today – in good order – as a private educational establishment. Here it is again (below), as you’ve never seen it before – through the eagle-eye of Google Earth!

I can’t resist finishing with this plate from from The Graphic, a British weekly newspaper set up to rival the popular Illustrated London News. Published on May 13, 1882, this shows “. . . the lighting of tar-barrels in Portobello Harbour, on the Grand Canal in Dublin, to celebrate the release from prison of Charles Stewart Parnell and two colleagues . . .”

Ireland 50 Years Ago: April 1971, JM Synge Issue

Back to Ireland of the Welcomes and this time to the March-April issue of 1971. This was a special issue, largely devoted to John Millington Synge, born April 16th, 1871, which means that next Friday is the 150th anniversary of his birth. These two photographs from this issue show Synge and the beautiful Abbey actor to whom he was engaged, Molly Allgood. Alas, JM died far too young, at 38, and Molly went on to lead a longer but unhappy life.

There’s a special connection to West Cork too – Synge’s mother, Catherine but known as Kathleen, was the daughter of the Rev Robert Trail, Rector of Schull. She is shown above with her children – JM is bottom right. I have written about the various roles her father played in this area.  During the Tithe Wars he railed against all protests, declaring that he “waged war against Popery and its thousand forms of wickedness”. He saw an outbreak of cholera after a huge rally as God’s vengeance on this who would deprive him of his income. He tried his hand at mining and established a considerable workings at Dhurode, the remains of which can still be seen – see Two Mines are Better Than One. It was doing well when interrupted by the Famine.  Finally, during the Famine, his better nature won out and he worked tirelessly to alleviate distress. He died of famine fever in Black ’47, universally mourned and honoured for his efforts to inform the public about the dire situation and to feed the starving people all around him. That’s Traill below in one of James Mahony’s sketches for the Illustrated London News – he had led Mahony to Mullins hut so he could witness and capture first hand the desolation, disease and despair.

That was in 1847 and Kathleen would have been 11. There is a contemporary account of how hard the whole Traill family were working to fill the soup pots, how difficult was the ceaseless onslaught of begging, how dangerous the fever-filled air. Her mother fled Schull as soon as she could after Robert’s death – she was later sent a bill for damage to the rectory caused by building a soup kitchen! Kathleen married a barrister, John Hatch Synge, and Edmund John Millington was their youngest child. Kathleen found solace from the trauma of her early experiences in her father’s stern fundamentalist faith – a faith that never wavered although it brought her into conflict with JM. Interestingly, that conflict did not destroy their mutual love for each other, and Kathleen (although looking stern in the photograph below) has been described as kind and generous.

JM grew up to be one of Ireland’s foremost dramatists and the writer of a unique and inventive form of English that set out to capture the idiom and cadence of Irish. And here’s where our second West Cork connection comes in – his Irish teacher in Trinity was none other than our own Canon Goodman (below), who spent half of each year in his parish of Abbeystrewry in Skibbereen and the other half in Dublin teaching Irish. He had no more committed or enthusiastic student than JM. 

For an excellent summary of the life and work of JM Synge I recommend you to the essay by Declan Kiberd in the newly-available-online Dictionary of Irish Biography. In this issue of Ireland of the Welcomes the major essay on Synge is by the distinguished Canadian Academic Ann Saddlemyer. Saddlemyer is now 90, an elected member of the Royal Irish Academy and a long-recognised expert on Synge, WB Yeats and the history of Irish theatre.

Another charming piece is by JM’s great-nephew, Lanto Synge, a fine arts and antique consultant, recently retired. His essay tells the stories that have come down through the family, including the great religious divide. He paints a portrait of a shy, nervous, intensely musical and engaging man, travelling and studying wherever he went, philosophically attuned to modern thought while immersed in an appreciation of an ancient language and way of life.   

The issue contains several extracts from Synge’s plays, poetry and prose, each one illustrated by photographs or drawings.* One thing I hadn’t realised  is that Synge was an early photographer. Although some of his photos are are reproduced in this article (two examples below), you can see better images at Ricorso. They show he had an ethnographer’s eye and an interest in the everyday lived experience of his subjects, such as the man threshing by hand and the two women spinning.

One of his great friends was Jack B Yeats and they worked collaboratively on several projects. Yeats illustrated his book on the Aran Islands (downloadable from archive.org – a site that is surely the greatest boon to researchers like us!). The two pictures below are from that source rather than the article. Synge and Yeats were of one mind, it seems, in what they chose to focus on.

But Jack B Yeats did more than illustrate The Aran Islands – he produced drawings for Synge’s three-act masterpiece, The Playboy of the Western World. This appears to have been an iterative process. We see a letter from Yeats to Synge, advising on the outfit a jockey might wear in the West of Ireland.

The finished illustrations are wonderful – this subject gave Yeats great scope to indulge his love of horses and horse racing.

Two of the horse racing sequences occupy the centrefold of the issue. It is obvious that both Synge and Yeats are intimately familiar with, and relish, this kind of occasion in the West of Ireland.

This issue of Ireland of the Welcomes does contain a couple of other articles, but I will leave it there, since the bulk of it is devoted to Synge and it is good to focus on and celebrate him on such an auspicious anniversary.

*Although individuals (some no longer alive)  are thanked for illustrations in the issue, it is unclear after all this time whether there are any copyright issues and so I have reproduced illustrations from the magazine, and from my downloaded copy of The Aran Islands, with gratitude to those who provided them. I will remove these images, or seek permission to retain them, if I am alerted to any infringements of copyright.

Loughrea Cathedral and the Irish Arts and Crafts Movement

How did a church in an Irish country town become a repository for some of the greatest treasures of the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century? That church is St Brendan’s Cathedral in Loughrea, Co Galway, which we visited last week.

Evie Hone’s St Brigid window

The Arts and Crafts movement was a reaction against soulless methods of industrial production which emphasised repetitive tasks and removed the link between the worker and the final product. Such factory processes were eventually applied to works of art, such as stained glass windows, where numerous workers would be employed to assemble a final product. Within the movement, artisans, artists and makers sought to get back to a former time, often conceived as medieval and highly romanticised, when craftsmen and women designed and executed exquisite works from start to finish.

Queen of Heaven window by Michael Healy

So where does Loughrea come in? Well, for a start, it was the home of Edward Martyn, a wealthy enthusiast for all things Gaelic Revival including language, theatre, literature, music and art. Heavily influenced by the philosophies of the Arts and Crafts movement, particularly by those of William Morris, he worked with Sarah Purser to found An Túr Gloine (The Tower of Glass) as an artist/maker stained glass studio. Not a small part of their initial success was his ability to promise commissions from the decoration of St Brendan’s Cathedral.

The Stations of the Cross are by Túr Gloine artist Ethel Rhind and are executed in the unusual opus sectile mosaic technique

Thus it is that this church, in outward appearance very much like the prevailing neo-Gothic style of the end of the nineteenth century, is packed with the work of the most eminent women and men artists of the opening decades of the 20th century. Yes, that’s right, women and men – the Arts and Crafts movement empowered women artists like few such movement had before (or since, perhaps).

The Agony in the Garden by A E Child, detail

It takes a moment to realise what you have entered – initially the church interior seems familiar and unremarkable, almost heavy in its preponderance of marble, tile and dark wood.

But as the eyes adjust, you can be permitted a gasp or two as you realise that all the capitals are carved with scenes from the life of St Brendan, that there are fine sculptures here and there, that the arm of each pew has been individually decorated with idiosyncratic characters, that are are art-nouveau-looking light standards throughout the aisles, that the stations of the cross are unlike any you’ve seen before, and finally that the stained glass windows are numerous and beautiful.

Two scenes from the Death of Brendan, carvings by Michael Shortall

All the Túr Gloine stained glass arts are represented here: A E Child, Michael Healy, Ethel Rhind, Catherine O’Brien, Beatrice Elvery, Evie Hone and Hubert McGoldrick. There is even a small St Brendan window by Sarah Purser herself – a rarity as she mostly confined herself to the management of projects rather than glass-painting.

One of the very few stained glass windows actually executed by Sarah Purser herself – a Brendan image in the porch of the church

The stone carving is mostly the work of Michael Shortall, a student of John Hughes, the foremost sculptor of his day who provided bronze figures for the church. Eminent architect William Scott was engaged to design church furnishings and was responsible for the side altars, the entrance gates, the altar vessels and candlesticks, the baptismal font and altar rail.

Each pew arm has a whimsical creature – this one was no doubt intended to concentrate the mind on mortality

The woodwork was all done locally, with the workers encouraged to use their skills to depicts beasts and mythical figures, in much the same way that medieval craftsmen had done.

The museum contains an outstanding collection of sodality banners designed by Jack B Yeats and his wife, Cottie, and embroidered by the Dun Emer Guild. Above is the original design and the finished product

But that’s not all. Beside the church is a small museum, similarly packed with treasures. In particular, here is where you will see the work of the Dún Emer Guild, a women’s cooperative enterprise that designed and supplied materials (altar cloths, vestments, rugs, tapestries) to churches and others. Strongly influenced by traditional Irish designs such as scrollwork, interlacing, high crosses and Book of Kells symbols, the works supplied to St Brendan’s are wonderful examples of Irish Revival motifs, skillfully embroidered in gorgeous colours.

The Museum holds other artefacts too, including extremely rare medieval wooden carvings: most wooden statues were destroyed by the Puritans and very few have survived. There are also fifteenth century vestments, original drawings and sketches by Irish artists, altar vessels, and stained glass cartoons.

Twelfth or Thirteenth century wooden statue of the Virgin or Child

This post is a small introduction to the wonders of Loughrea Cathedral. About 40 minutes east of Galway and just south of the M6, this church is a must-see for anyone interested in the history of Ireland and its Arts and Crafts movement. The only comparable experience is the Honan Chapel in Cork.

Michael Healy’s magnificent Resurrection window

All I can do here is show you a representative sample of what we saw and encourage you to go see the totality for yourself. You won’t regret it.

The massive cathedral gates, designed by William Scott