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.

That He Might Better Rest

In my time browsing and photographing stained glass windows I have come across many WWI memorial windows in Protestant churches, but only three in Catholic churches – an extraordinary ratio, given that over two hundred thousand Irish men fought in that war, with Catholics far outnumbering Protestant Irish soldiers (simply because they represented a far greater portion of the population). It is estimated that thirty five thousand Irish soldiers died in that conflict. 

The O’Keefe War Memorial window in the Church of the Assumption, Wexford town, by Harry Clarke (above, and detail top image) 

There are many reasons for the lack of memorials in Catholic churches – for example, the vast majority of Irish soldiers in the British Army came from poor families who could not have afforded such a memorial. But also it has to do with the collective amnesia we developed about our participation in British wars. As I wrote in Outposts of Empire, returning soldiers came back to a new Ireland, one in which nationalist aspirations dominated, and many young Catholic men preferred not to speak about their British Army service.

A figure, possibly St Anthony, in the top tracery light of the O’Keefe window

But the three windows I have seen are beautiful and interesting, using some different icons from so many Church of Ireland windows, which tend to feature Michael the Archangel defeating the dragon or a knight in armour fighting “The Good Fight” with regimental standards and lists of engagements in the bottom panel.

St Aidan of Ferns

I have started with everyone’s favourite, Harry Clarke, who designed and executed this window in the Church of the Assumption in Wexford town. The fallen soldier was 21 year old Lieut Henry O’Keefe and Harry travelled to Wexford in Sept of 1918 to meet his mother and discuss the window, which was installed the following year.

St Adrian, Patron Saint of Soldiers

The design is classic Harry Clarke. Serenely floating high on the left panel is the Madonna and child, clothed in an elaborate and bejewelled blue gown which extend across to the second panel where two saints have come to pay homage. The image of the Madonna evokes the bond between mother and child, while the two saints are carefully chosen: St Adrian is the patron saint of soldiers and St Aidan of Ferns represents Wexford. Above, in a tracery light, a monk, possibly St Anthony, gazes out in an attitude of prayer.

The O’Keefes were a prominent Wexford merchant family and their coat of arms is shown in one panel. Numerous tiny details – a ship, leaping fish, crucifixion images, a tiny image of the Church of the Assumption itself, as well as Harry’s ubiquitous floral ornamentation, fill every section. The overall result is highly emotive. I can imagine the O’Keefe family visiting often and finding comfort in the beauty and compassion of the imagery.

Harry Clarke designed two WWI memorial windows simultaneously and they are completely different. Above is the cartoon for the O’Keefe window and, on the left, for a window, Angel of Hope and Peace, for the Holy Trinity Church of Ireland in Killiney, Co Dublin

Our second example is from the West Cork Church of the Immaculate Conception in Enniskeane. Probably by Watsons of Youghal, this window is a memorial to Dr Thomas J Fehily, a native of the parish who qualified and practised medicine for many years before enlisting.

Local historian, Anne Lynch has given a good account of his life in a Southern Star article. She writes, Ballineen was a long way from the action when World War I started in the summer of 1914. However, two local brothers, both medical doctors, saw the war as an opportunity to utilise their medical skills. In doing so, it cost one brother his life, while for the other, it was the start of an illustrious career in the British Empire. The doctors were the Fehily brothers.

This is an Ascension window and at first I was puzzled by this choice for a war memorial window but as I thought about it, it became clear – Jesus ascends to heaven having sacrificed his life for his fellow man, while his sorrowing mother weeps below.

The final window is in the neo-Romanesque church of Spiddal in Co Galway and is dedicated to the memory of George Henry Morris, a hero of the war, and second son of Lord Morris.  A painting of George Henry by William Orpen ends this post.

There is an affecting account of a visit to his grave by his grandson Redmond Morris with his own children, where they even manage to take a photograph in the very spot that George himself was last photographed. By all accounts a brilliant man and a highly respected officer, George died within two weeks of arriving in France. Read more about him on his Wikipedia page and note that he was the father of Lord Kilanin, for many years the esteemed President of the International Olympics Committee.

The window is by Catherine O’Brien, one of the artists of An Tur Gloine.  See this post about Loughrea Cathedral for more about this design co-op: Edward Martyn was also involved with the design and furbishment of this Spiddal church. O’Brien has depicted a golden-haired figure reaching upwards to a divine light, with the words lux perpetua luceat ei – Let Perpetual Light Shine Upon Them. The figure is a rider (denoted by his spurs only) and a riderless horse is seen at the bottom right. The location in Connemara is captured with thatched cottages and sea cliffs.

One of our most famous War Dead was the poet, Francis Ledwidge. His poem, A Soldier’s Grave, has given me my title, and I will leave it here now in honour of the many brave Irish men who gave their lives in WWI.

Then in the lull of midnight, gentle arms
Lifted him slowly down the slopes of death
Lest he should hear again the mad alarms
Of battle, dying moans, and painful breath.

And where the earth was soft for flowers we made
A grave for him that he might better rest.
So, Spring shall come and leave its sweet arrayed,
And there the lark shall turn her dewy nest.

George Henry Morris, painted by William Orpen