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.

Ireland’s Newest Stained Glass Window

It’s in Tralee, in St John’s Church – and it’s breathtaking!

It isn’t often that new stained glass windows are installed in Irish churches. In fact, depressingly, many churches fall into disrepair from lack of use and the windows break (or are broken). Nowadays we are more likely to be losing stained glass than gaining it. So it’s a huge cause for celebration when a community commissions a new piece. Hats off to Tralee!

The Garden of Eden or an image of reconciliation: one of the window details

This window is out of the ordinary in many ways. Let’s start with who commissioned it, which leads us on to the theme. Although it’s installed in the Catholic church, it was a joint initiative of the Catholic and Church of Ireland congregations. There may be other windows that can claim that distinction, but I don’t know of them. (Readers?)

The theme is Reconciliation, and the central figure is the return of the prodigal son. The right panel is of Jesus reading from the Book of Isaiah and the left is of John the Baptist, patron saint of the church.

The father embraces his prodigal son

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is a natural choice to illustrate reconciliation, with the father embracing the son who has squandered his inheritance but returns home, contrite, to his family. Instead of punishing him (as his brother resentfully feels the father should do) his father embraces him, orders that the fatted calf be slain for a feast, and says, It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.

Jesus Reading from Isaiah is perhaps at one remove from a direct reference to reconciliation. It happened in Nazareth, his old home town, and he read at the behest of the elders. The passage is a beautiful one and points to ideas of love and healing, and perhaps to the real purpose of Christianity, no matter the denomination: he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.

St John is the patron saint of the church 

Possibly my favourite image is that of John. Usually, he is shown in the act of baptising Jesus, but here he is, the ascetic in his coat of camel hair, very much as he described himself, as a voice crying in the wilderness.

A myriad of tiny images fills the panels – figures holding hands (reconciliation), swallows (hope of spring, renewal), Tralee Bay, figures from Tralee history. . . there are even tiny names engraved where it is impossible to see them. Take a look at this video, where Tom Denny shows us some of those names.

Tom Denny? Yes – he’s the artist but the significance of that goes beyond the fact that he is one of Britain’s most eminent and respected stained glass artists, responsible for numerous windows in British churches. A browse of his website reveals the breadth and depth of his skill and the uniqueness of his style. The Tralee windows are typical – blazing with colour, filled with large and small figures and scenes that reveal themselves upon close inspection, rich and intricate, thoughtfully composed to draw the viewer into the subject of the panels.

Tralee Bay

You see, the Denny’s came to Tralee as part of a British military expedition in the 1500s and the name is inextricably linked with the North Kerry area. Sir Edward Denny (1547 to 1599) was one of the architects and enforcers of the Plantation of Munster, and was rewarded with lands taken from the Earl of Desmond including Tralee Castle, a knighthood and the title of Governor of Kerry. Tom is a direct descendent. 

Sir Edward Denny. Image used with the permission of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Denny’s stayed in Ireland for hundreds of years, branching out and acquiring land and estates. Eventually the family spent less time in Ireland and concentrated on their estates in Britain**. In Ireland, such a history as this is a complicated legacy, and Tom was eager to be part of the whole idea of a reconciliation window, donating his services to the project. Over twenty members of the Denny family came for the unveiling. This adds a rich and poignant dimension to the purpose of the window – reconciling the past with the present, and looking to the future. 

The father runs out to meet his returning son

Finally, this magnificent work of art is only one of the many artistic delights of this Tralee church. They deserve a post of their own some day, but I will give you a sneak peek by telling you that the Stations of the Cross are by none other than the famous Irish artist, Sean Keating. Here’s a detail from just one of them.

My friend Eileen drew my attention to this new window.  So thank you, Eileen – as you can see I lost no time in making the trip to see it. I am SO glad I did.

**Edit: I got this wrong. There were no English estates. The Denny’s, along with many members of the Anglo-Irish landlord class, eventually lost their lands. In the case of Tom Denny’s grandfather, although he was a baronet he was also a clergyman,  living the life of an impoverished cleric dedicated to his church. The move to England was related to his church service. RTE has now screened their program on the window and it does a marvellous job of adding fascinating detail about the window and the history of the Dennys – mostly supplied by Tom himself.