Discover the Munster highlights from a definitive book on Irish art and architecture

The Royal Irish Academy is about to publish the most comprehensive book on Irish art ever produced. Alan O’Riordan selects some of the Munster highlights

JAMES BARRY (1741-1806)

On of the most significant Munster figures in the Royal Irish Academy’s five-volume book, Art and Architecture of Ireland, is James Barry. Born in Cork to a Protestant builder, innkeeper and trader, and a Catholic mother, Barry spurned the family business and trained in Dublin.

In 1763, his prize-winning The Baptism of the King of Cashel by St Patrick was the first painting of an Irish historical subject. He came to the attention of Edmund Burke, under whose patronage he spent time in France and Italy. His classical knowledge and scenemaking impressed London on his return, though criticism of a self portrait of himself and Burke as Ulysses, and his companions escaping Polyphemus (the Cyclops), saw him break with the Royal Academy and never again show there. His most important work was displayed in the Great Room of the Adeplhi, headquarters of the Society of Arts (now the Royal Society of Arts). The work, The Progress of Human Culture, took seven years and consisted of six large paintings. It stands as one of the major achievements of Irish art.

Barry died in 1806, his body laid out at the Society of Arts. According to contemporary record he was, “surrounded by a screen hung with black and sufficiently low, to admit of the paintings being seen by the sombre light afforded by the sconces and many candles placed around the corpse. The whole presented an awful and impressive spectacle”.

Barry was buried at St Paul’s between the remains of Christopher Wren and Joshua Reynolds.


Another example of the well-travelled Irish artist, Maclise is best known for his large-scale murals at Westminster in London. Born in Cork, to a shoemaker, Maclise began his career by drawing from the plaster casts of the Vatican marbles that were presented to Cork city by George IV in 1818 (the casts are now held by the Crawford Gallery). Later, he made portrait drawings of Sir Walter Scott while he was touring Ireland, establishing his reputation as a portraitist in Cork, where he opened a studio on Patrick Street. In London, Maclise moved in literary circles, accompanying Dickens on walks around the city and illustrating his Christmas books.

He also illustrated the 1846 edition of Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies. Maclise’s extensive work at the Houses of Parliament culminated in two huge murals, The Meeting of Wellington and Blucher (1861) and The Death of Nelson (1865). Both works are noted in the AAI as, while showing scenes of British victory “avoided triumphalism and showed the suffering of war”.


This is the earliest securely dated Romanesque church, consecrated in 1134. It was commissioned by King Cormac Mac Carthaig of Munster, who gathered craftsmen in England for the task, which he saw as the crowning achievement of the Rock of Cashel, the family seat since the 5th century. The chapel is one of the only truly integrated examples of Romanesque in Ireland, unique in its plan and decoration, with pilasters, mouldings, carvings of human heads and animal masks, and wall paintings combining to make a substantial impression. At the time of its construction, the AAI says, the chapel would have been seen as “an exotic oddity”. VIEW OF WATERFORD, BY WILLIAM VAN DER HAGEN One of the achievements of the AAI is how it dispels myths of Irish artistic isolation on the fringes of Europe. Its pages throng with the names of sculptors, designers, decorative artists and painters who made their way here from the Continent, while, on the other hand Irish artists won fame and acclaim far and wide, and looked very much to the northern European tradition as a model and a place to train and study.

One of the great legacies of this tradition is William Van Der Hagen’s View of Waterford, held at the Waterford Museum of Treasures. Van Der Hagen was the first professional landscape artist in Ireland. His Dutch origins remain vague, but he worked in England before arriving in Dublin in the early 1720s. In 1736, he made his panoramic view of the city — the oldest landscape view of an Irish city — and he was paid £20 for it.


A name that crops up several times across the second half of the 19th century in the AAI’s volume on architecture is Thomas Deane. The Cork-born architect joined with Benjamin Woodward in a partnership that brought together Deane’s business savvy with Woodward’s design genius, to leave a legacy of landmark buildings, including University College Cork and the Museum Building in Trinity College.

After the death of Woodward, Deane, in partnership with his son Thomas Manly, worked on the design and building of the National Library and National Museum. Thomas Manly was jointly commissioned, with the British architect Aston Webb, to design the Royal College of Science on Merrion Street, now Government Buildings.


Discover the Munster highlights from a definitive book on Irish art and architecture

Sculpture is perhaps the least-examined field in Irish art, so it is fitting to include the O’Shea brothers of Ballyhooly, Co Cork, a pair of unsung stone carvers in the 19th century. Their style was outside the European mainstream, yet they left their mark on one of Victorian England’s finest buildings, including the Custom House and the Museum Building in Trinity College, and others.

The art critic John Ruskin praised the O’Sheas for their naturalism, and they took nature as their inspiration, decorating the columns of buildings with flowers and leaves rather than repeating geometric patterns and with cats, birds, squirrels and even monkeys incorporated — a provactive gesture in the Oxford building, given Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species.

The AAI notes that “it appears O’Shea was obliged to convert his monkeys into cats”. Billiard-playing monkeys can still be seen on the base of the capitals on the facade of No 2 Kildare Street, once the home of the Kildare Street Club.


Discover the Munster highlights from a definitive book on Irish art and architecture

The fifth volume of the AAI, dedicated to 20th-century art, reveals many figures who left Ireland to exert influence abroad, including Michael Craig-Martin who notably fostered the Young British Artists while teaching at Goldsmiths.

Others have managed to become influential while staying put, though adopting an outward aspect. Among these was Patrick Scott, who died this year. Born in Kilbrittain, Co Cork, in 1921, Scott studied to be an architect before embracing the modernism of the White Stag Group that gathered in Dublin during the war years.

Emboldened perhaps by his representing Ireland at the 1960 Venice Biennale, he became a painter full time. An award of $1,000 at the Guggenheim International Exhibition meant he could buy the house in Dublin, off Baggot Street, that would become his base.

Scott came up with the iconic orange and black livery of CIE’s intercity trains. He also worked as a set designer, was on the board of Kilkenny Design, and for 36 years, designed the Christmas cards for ScottTallon Walker architects. He is best known for his later-period works, which followed the re-emergence of the Zen Buddhism he became interested in during the 1950s. His explorations of form and the colour gold in particular, create a clean aesthetic — elegant, simple and harmonious. In them, two of his influences seem to gather perfectly here — the expansive Atlantic skies of his childhood, and, looking east again, the flat sun as depicted on the Japanese flag. Scott became a man of the world in art, but also knewthe value of being more than merely cosmopolitan.


Opened in 1991, the National Sculpture Factory aimed to provide a safe, subsidised, fully equipped facility. Housed in an old tram building in Albert Road, Cork, its size, space and light made for an advantageous location. The factory was the brainchild of the sculptors Vivienne Roche, Maud Cotter, Eilis O’Connell and Daniel McCarthy, with the advantages of pooled expensive equipment and a site technician, seen as key benefits. Among the notable works associated with the space is World Events, made by Tony Cragg at the factory. The 26-foot aluminum mesh bust was commissioned for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.


Post-colonial Ireland was the scene of a war on statues, as the AAI notes, the targets mostly being imperial remnants. Yet non-representative sculpture has proven just as divisive. That difficult relationship is probably best summed up by the history of Eilis O’Connell’s monumental Great Wall of Kinsale.

Commissioned by the Arts Council and Kinsale Urban District Council and presented in 1988, the piece was at the time the largest public sculpture in Britain or Ireland. Its tent-like corten steel forms, reminiscent of opened books, were laid out along a winding low wall. Objections were soon being recorded in the pages of this newspaper, with one local councillor objecting that it did not fit with the town’s “old world” charm.

The corten steel’s development of rust, an intended characteristic of the material, also drew local criticisms, with petitions for its removal circulating. To the disappointment of the artist, it was painted over. Decorative ponds were also added. Unsightly barriers were also added at the base of the tent-like structures, presumably to deter skateboarders.

Published by the Royal Irish Academy and Yale University Press, the five volume Art and Architecture of Ireland is in stock at county libraries nationwide and on sale, €95 per volume, in bookstores and online at

Acknowledging Ireland’s arts

The Royal Irish Academy’s monumental Art and Architecture in Ireland (AAI) is an update on a 1913 dictionary of Irish artists by Walter Strickland, a crucial work in its own right since it referenced much archive material that was destroyed during the War of Independence.

The AAI was suggested in 2007 by two UCD art historians, Nicola Figgis and Paula Murphy, and is published in five volumes, dedicated to the medieval period, sculpture, painting, architecture and 20th century art. For Peter Murray, director of the Crawford Gallery in Cork and editor, with Catherine Marshall, of the volume on 20th-century art, “there’s been nothing like this before in Irish publishing or in the discipline of Irish art history”.

The publication is, he says, an event of national importance, and one that has been backed by the government as well as the Naughton Foundation and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. Copies will be sent to every city and county library, and to Irish embassies around the world.

When the hundreds of contributors, thousands of entries and images, and millions of words are considered, the AAI’s seven-year turnaround is a remarkable feat in itself. Murray singles out James Slevin, chairman of the RIA for praise.

“Lots of projects like this are talked about for years,” he says, “and it’s to the credit of the RIA that this wasn’t just talking and planning. Jim Slevin, who is a physicist, drove it with extraordinary determination. In former years the acadeny was perhaps a slower moving institution, but in recent times it’s become very active and nimble. It’s a bridge between the universities and the wider public. And while these are published by Yale University Press, they can be enjoyed without specialist knowledge.”

One of Murray’s hopes for the book is that it balances the myth that Ireland’s art tradition has been overshadowed by its literary one.

“There was huge poverty and emigration of course,” he says, “but also the material culture here was extraordinary. In many cases people never got to see these,” says Murray, citing private collections and dispersal around the world.

The overlooking of other aspects of Ireland’s visual culture is more difficult to explain.

“We can see around us some fabulous examples of engineering that is simply not recognised,” says Murray. “We have some of the earliest examples of steel-framed buildings around the Guinness area of Dublin, things that would be of international importance if they were in Berlin or New York.

“These volumes will go a long way towards redressing the imbalanced view of Ireland in the arts. It will be very good for Ireland’s image. And this is not propaganda. This simply tells the full story.”


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