Received wisdom has it that the Irish are verbal, not visual, and it’s certainly true that there are many more songs, stories and poems about Irish history than there are paintings. So the “decade of centenaries” presented a bit of a problem for the National Gallery of Ireland.
It could have assembled a dozen or so paintings loosely connected to 1916 and the War of Independence, by John Lavery, Sean Keating and Jack Yeats, but that would have looked pretty thin. So instead, very smartly, the Gallery took the opportunity to stage a full-scale exhibition of Irish history painting. Or perhaps more accurately, Irish history in painting. It’s called “Creating History”, it’s free at the Gallery in South Leinster Street in Dublin until mid-January, and it’s wonderful.
There’s no shortage of Irish history, and no shortage of painterly opinions about Irish history. From St. Patrick making Irish Catholics out of the heathen Gael, to Brian Ború driving out them foreign Vikings in 1014, through the foundation myths of Irish Unionism, the siege of Derry and the Battle of the Boyne, they’re all here.
And all wear their hearts on their sleeves. “Tendentious” seems to have been a kind of oil paint. But the deeply sectarian politics they embody has become irrelevant, and its melting away has made the paintings themselves stranger and more beautiful. And most of them are huge – visiting in person is the only way to get a full sense of their scale.
Perhaps the most poignant are the works depicting nineteenth-century visits to Ireland by British monarchs, deeply self-important at the time and now competely forgotten. My favourite is the painting of the hordes who turned out at Kingstown to see off George IV in 1821. Or maybe they were out in their thousands in astonishment that the sun was setting due North, right over Howth.
The only disappointment is the absence of Daniel Maclise’s deliriously lurid ‘The Marriage of Aoife and Strongbow’, depicting in detail all seven centuries of sorrowful Irish history springing from the union of the Gael Aoife with the Norman Strongbow. I suspect the only reason it’s missing is that they just couldn’t get it in the room. At 10ft by 16ft, it’s the size of a large billboard. Appropriately enough.