PAUL ROUSE: Keating portrait truly a picture that paints a thousand words

The Tipperary Hurler. Picture courtesy of the Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane, Artist's Estate

You can find hurling in the most unexpected places, says Paul Rouse.

At one end of Parnell Square in Dublin — the end closest to Dorset Street — stands Charlemont House. It was built in 1765 and its limestone-clad and curved walls are majestic.

The building is a legacy of James Caulfield, the 1st Earl of Charlemont, and its design is an expression of his interest in the classical arts — something he developed when as an 18-year-old he undertook a grand tour of Europe in 1746.

Since 1933, this old townhouse has served as the permanent home of the Dublin City Gallery: The Hugh Lane.

And it houses a magnificent collection of art.

This collection would be all the better if the National Gallery in London did not hold paintings — including masterly works by Renoir and Monet — which should by right hang in Dublin.

This is a tawdry story: In 1913 when plans to build a municipal gallery in Dublin collapsed, Hugh Lane gave to the National Gallery in London 39 paintings which he had earlier planned to exhibit in Dublin. In 1915 Lane changed his mind and in a codicil to his will said that the paintings should be returned to Dublin should a suitable gallery be built to hold them.

But then Lane died when the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine.

His will had not been witnessed, even though initialed on every page, and the National Gallery in London did precisely what imperialists do — they declined to return the paintings and instead they remain in London.

This, of course, is devoid of all integrity.

But it is not surprising — naturally, the view from London would be that the paintings would be lost on the natives.

Either ways, what is undeniable is that the Hugh Lane Gallery on Parnell Square is now a magnificent place to visit, something that is worthy of a capital city.

And it is free to enter.

If you walk in through the main hall and cross through the exhibiting rooms, you can quickly forget that you are in a busy city.

These exhibition rooms have housed magnificent recent exhibitions on the centenaries of the 1913 Lockout and on Home Rule.

The books which were produced to accompany the exhibitions are scholarly and perfect for any student of history.

And there in a beautiful room hangs the greatest painting associated with the game of hurling: ‘The Tipperary Hurler‘ by Seán Keating.

For more than 70 years, Seán Keating worked as an artist, an art teacher, and a broadcaster.

His working life spanned the establishment of the Irish Free State and the story of his paintings — and much else — is also to be found in Éimear O’Connor’s fine book Seán Keating: Art, Politics and Building the Irish Nation.

Among his famous paintings depicting the revolutionary era, is his 1921 ‘Men of the South’, which shows a group of IRA men gathering to ambush British soldiers.

Indeed, it is said that the ‘Men of the South’ is based mainly on photographs which Keating took of Seán Moylan’s North Cork Brigade of the IRA — it hangs in the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork.

For its part, the ‘Tipperary Hurler’ painting was finished in 1928 and was completed for exhibition at the Amsterdam Olympics of 1928.

At that time, art and poetry and music were an essential part of the Olympic programme.

Keating did not win a medal, but the painting was eventually donated to the Hugh Lane Gallery in 1956, by an American called Patric Farrell, who was the curator of an art gallery in New York.

It is actually based on sketches completed earlier in the 1920s on John Joe Hayes, one of the stars of Tipperary hurling of the era.

Keating had sketched Hayes playing in a match in Croke Park, possibly the 1925 All-Ireland final.

The thing is, though, that there is more to the story of ‘The Tipperary Hurler’, than it being merely a rendering of John Joe Hayes, celebrated and all though he was.

In the months before the Amsterdam Olympics, Keating asked one of his students at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, Ben O’Hickey, to model for him.

O’Hickey is reported to have borne an uncanny likeness to Hayes — and his own backstory is a fascinating one.

Originally from Bansha in Tipperary, O’Hickey had been a ferocious member — and then a leader — of the IRA in Tipperary.

He had been imprisoned several times, in both Ireland and England, for his IRA activities.

Once, down in Clonmel, when the War of Independence was gathering momentum, Ben O’Hickey was arrested by the Royal Irish Constabulary.

A crowd heard of the arrest and gathered in the town and headed for the barracks.

Just as the crowd arrived, some 80 RIC men poured out the front doors and launched themselves at the crowd, hitting left and right with their batons.

All that night there were running battles around the town.

It was a sure sign that the growing breakdown was irreparable.

By the time he had enrolled as an art student in the second half of the 1920s, however, O’Hickey had moved away from violence and sought to create his own future in art.

And the jersey sported by ‘the Tipperary Hurler’ is not a Tipperary one either. It is, in fact, the red jersey and green sash of the Commercials Hurling Club in Dublin.

Commercials were one of the great storied clubs of the city.

The club had been founded back in 1886 when dozens of bar and shop workers from the country who were living in inner-city Dublin came together to play hurling.

They began their training and matches in the Phoenix Park, but did not enjoy initial success.

By the end of the 19th century, their jersey was iconic, however — they won five Dublin senior hurling championships in a row between 1895 and 1899.

Three more followed in the first decade of the 20th century and then a ninth — and final — senior hurling championship was won in 1977.

The club now thrives out in Rathcoole, where it relocated having secured its own grounds in 1979. It plays at intermediate level and fields a host of underage teams.

And its famed red-and-green jersey is immortalised in Sean Keating’s painting in a beautiful library in an independent city.

Paul Rouse is Associate Professor of History at University College Dublin and his new book ‘The Hurlers’ is now on sale.


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