The origins of Irish art are obscure, dating back to perhaps as early as 3,000
BC in tombs and sanctuaries along the Boyne Valley. This art was abstract and
three dimensional, expressing itself through spirals, loops and geometric forms
on kerbstones and granite slabs, following the contours of stone pillars at
passage graves and burial tombs in Newgrange and
Knowth. In the pre-Christian era, the dominant form belongs to the La Tene period of
Celtic art, which relates to a broader culture spanning the continent of Europe.
Uninterrupted by the Roman incursions which fragmented Celtic culture in
Britain, Irish society remained based on small tribal units whose structure was
not affected in a radical way by the coming of Christianity in AD 432. Artists
and craftworkers enjoyed a privileged position in society, producing bronze and
enamel work, as well as some manuscript illumination.
By the 8th and 9th centuries,
technical advances and the scholarship encouraged by the many monastic
settlements throughout the island brought Celtic art to its greatest heights.
Illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Durrow, a copy of the Gospels,
combined abstract panels of interlocking forms and spirals with a limited
palette of red, green and yellow, turning at times into highly stylised animal
shapes. These forms were developed in such works as the Book of Dimma and
culminated in the late 8th century in the Book of Kells, where the previously
central abstract motifs were organised around the figure of Man, whether as
Christ, as Devil or as Angel. The artist's palette now included several shades
of blue, brown, yellow, green, red and mauve.
A centuries-long period of invasions, civil wars and tyranny began with the
Viking incursions from the mid-9th century. One form which in particular
survived this period was stone sculpture, from the simple High Cross at
Carndonagh to the Cross of Moone which depicts scenes from the Gospels. Metal
and other craftwork also flourished. The most notable example is the Cross of
Cong, a shrine for a fragment of the True Cross which was made early in the
11th century by order of the high king.
The Norman invasion and later the dissolution of the monasteries under English
rule interrupted and finally changed the system of patronage through which
Irish art had flourished. Guilds of urban craftworkers now emerged, influenced
from England and continental Europe; a new ruling class sought images of itself
from painters and sculptors. By the mid-l7th century the decorative arts of
goldsmithery, plasterwork, silver, glass and furniture flourished under the
auspices of guilds such as the Goldsmiths' Company of Dublin. Easel painting
replaced tapestry and wall painting and a 'painters' guild', formed in l670,
included in its number such artists as Garrett Morphy (fl. l680-l7l6) and James
Lathan (l696-l747), who had studied at Antwerp.
Two major painters of the 18th century, George Barret (1732-84) and James Barry
(1741-1806) . With such ideas as the excitement of pain or danger (the sublime)
or love (the beautiful), the subject-matter of painting broadened to include
historical and some landscape work, often with classical or mythological
allusions. Topography, too, was a central concern and was best expressed by
James Malton, a former draughtsman in Gandon's practice, who drew his Views of
Dublin between 1790 and 1791.
The Act of Union in 1800 removed the centre of power from Dublin to London.
Many artists emigrated to London; others stayed at home and formed structures
which were to support the arts for many years to come. The foremost of these
was the Royal Hibernian Academy, established in 1823 as an amalgamation of
previously splintered artists' groups. The Academy's annual exhibitions
established a reliable market for its members, and stimulated debate on the
concerns of painting. A major tradition of landscape painting emerged, led by
James Arthur O'Connor (1792-1841), amongst whose influences was 17th century
George Chinnery (1774-1852), William Sadler (1782-1839) and Gaspare Gabrielli
(fl. 1805-30) were also concerned with the art of landscape through
watercolour, gouache and oil, as were Cecilia Campbell (1791-1857), Henry
O'Neill (1798-1880) and Edward Hayes (l797-l864). Daniel Maclise (1806-70) and
William Mulready (1786-1863) had significant impact on English art, as had
Francis Danby (1793-1861) whose work was characterised by the Romanticism which
influenced much Irish painting at the time. Sculptors such as John Henry Foley
(1818-74), John Lawlor (1820-1901) and Samuel Ferris Lynn (1834-76) worked with
British sculptors to produce the Albert Memorial. Foley's work includes the
memorials to Oliver Goldsmith and Edmund Burke in Trinity College Dublin, and
the memorial to Daniel O'Connell in O'Connell Street, Dublin.
Impressionism began to influence Irish art with the work of Nathaniel Hone,
John Butler Yeats, John Lavery, Sarah Purser, Walter Osborne, William Orpen and
Roderic O'Conor. Foremost among painters of this period, however, was Jack B.
Yeats, (1871-1957), whose appeal continues to the present day. Brother of the
poet and playwright William, Jack Yeats's work focussed upon key moments and
actions in the lives of individuals. The best-known artist of the period was
Paul Henry who had studied at Whistler's studio in Paris before settling in
Connemara to paint landscapes based on a palette of matt blues and greys.
The assurance with which Yeats, Orpen and Henry had painted Irish life came
less readily to that generation of artists whose lives coincided with the Civil
War and the establishment of the Irish Free State. The cultural aspirations of
the young State were based on those of a nationalist tradition, historically
separate from the ruling class which had been the main patrons of art in
Some artists travelled abroad to absorb the heady advances of Cubism, Futurism,
Dada. Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone returned from a period of work with Andre
Lhote and Albert Gleizes in Paris to become leaders of the modern movement in
Irish painting. Others belonged to a landscape tradition of academic realism:
Se�n Keating, Maurice MacGonigal, Sean O'Sullivan were foremost in this school.
By the end of the second World War, the modern movement had begun to challenge
the academic tradition through such artists as Louis Le Brocquy and Norah
McGuinness. They, together with Hone and Jellett, had in 1943 founded the Irish
Exhibition of Living Art as a salon refus� for work which was unacceptable to
the annual exhibitions of the Royal Hibernian Academy.
Sculptors like Ois�n Kelly and Hilary Heron pioneered the use of new casting
techniques and promoted the concept of an Irish vernacular sculpture. The
Living Art Exhibition became a forum for artists whose influences were derived
from the international language of visual art: Patrick Scott, Gerard Dillon,
Gerda Fromel, Nano Reid, Barrie Cooke, Cecil King and Camille Souter, as well
as artists like Patrick Collins and Tony O'Malley whose work derived from
landscape. Living Art's activity continues to the present day, headed in the
sixties and seventies by such artists as Brian King, Michael O'Sullivan, Tim
Goulding, Michael Farrell, Martin Gale, Robert Ballagh and by immigrant artists
including Alexandra Wejchert, Erik Adriaan van der Grijn, Adrian Hall. In the
eighties, Living Art extended its concerns to video and performance art as well
as painting and sculpture, exhibiting the works of Aileen MacKeogh, Nigel
Rolfe, Eilis O'Connell, Helen Comerford, Joe Butler, Cecily Brennan and a host
of emerging artists. A strong new expressionist movement has emerged from the
Independent Artists group, represented by Michael Kane, Patrick Hall, Brian
Maguire, Patrick Graham, Eithne Jordan, Michael Mulcahy and Michael Cullen.
Sculptors of achievement include Michael Bulfin, John Behan, Edward Delaney,
Conor Fallon and John Burke.
Since the introduction of bursaries and studio grants in the 1970s and the
development of galleries and arts centres, a structure has been provided within
which the visual arts can flourish. Businesses are developing collections and
sponsoring exhibitions and events and municipal authorities are allocating
budgets for the arts. The 'Aosd�na' scheme, which is administered by An
Chomhairle Eala�on (the Arts Council), provides for a collegiate of 200
creative artists and for five-year annuities to those wishing to work full-time
at their art.
During the past decade, the Arts Council has paid particular attention to
developing access to the arts in those parts of the country outside of the
major cities. Central to this process was the creation of arts centres where
the public could have access to theatre, music and the visual arts. The Council
supports centres in Wexford, Waterford, Cork, Tralee, Listowel, Mullingar,
Limerick, Galway, Castlebar, Sligo, Monaghan, Drogheda and Dublin (three).
Twenty four of the country's 33 major local authorities employ specialist Arts
Officers who organise and promote theatre, music and the visual arts. The Arts
Council and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland co-operate closely on joint
projects such as touring. To accommodate the growth in sculpture, there are two
art foundries in Dublin and the National Sculpture Factory (1989) in Cork.
Reflecting the upsurge of interest in the contemporary visual arts, the
Government established a new Museum of Modern Art at the Royal Hospital,
Kilmainham. With the addition of the completed RHA Gallagher Gallery in Dublin
the capital has large, well equipped public exhibition places.
The standing of the arts and culture was enhanced with the establishment in
1997 of a new Department of Arts, Heritage,Gaeltacht and the Islands.
Major development of the national cultural institutions is underway, including
the conversion of Collins Barracks, near the centre of Dublin, for use by the
National Museum. The National Library is to be extended and its services
improved, and development is continuing at the National Gallery. Proposals are
being developed to relocate the Chester Beatty Library, with its prestigious
collection of Islamic, Oriental and Christian manuscripts, paintings and other
works of art, to the Clock Tower at Dublin Castle.
Cultural relations abroad are assisted through the Advisory Committee on
Cultural Relations ('the Cultural Relations Committee') which advises the
Minister for Foreign Affairs on expenditure on projects involving Irish artists
Main source of information:
Department of Foreign Affairs