Artist Biography: Oisín Kelly

These biographies are excerpted from Art and Architecture of Ireland Volume III: Sculpture 1600-2000, edited by Andrew Carpenter and Paula Murphy and published by the Royal Irish Academy.

KELLY, OISÍN (Austin Ernest Kelly) (1915–81). 

By Brian Fallon

Kelly was born in Dublin on 17 May 1915, the son of a schoolteacher. He acquired the name Oisín, apparently, through a misprint dating to his schooldays and chose to retain it. Oisín Kelly was undoubtedly the best-loved Irish sculptor of his era, working in a directly accessible style without descending into either academicism or neo-Celtic pastiche, and mastering thoroughly a wide range of techniques and materials. 

Always craftsmanlike and unpretentious, his work as a whole is marked by a very personal humour and sensitivity, sometimes allied to a strong folkish strain. Sheer versatility is another characteristic. Although he is usually associated with the gifted generation that gave the IELA its character, he can be viewed as essentially a middle-of-the-roader who was equally acceptable to the RHA, of which he became a full member in 1965. Kelly might even be called an eclectic, but in the more positive sense. He drew on varied sources, including old Irish carvings, and greatly admired the works of the early twentieth-century German master Ernst Barlach, but the personality behind this rather hybrid mixture remained consistent and always recognizable. Much respected by his contemporaries, he also influenced younger sculptors such as John Behan and Edward Delaney (qqv). 

Kelly was equally effective as a public sculptor and a private one, and several of his works, notably the monument to Jim Larkin (‘Big Jim’) in Dublin’s O’Connell Street, have become landmarks for the ordinary citizen, just as the statues of Burke, Goldsmith and Grattan in College Green had already been for generations. At a time when Irish sculpture was at a rather low ebb, after the great generation of John Hughes, Oliver Sheppard, Andrew O’Connor and Jerome Connor, and when F.E. McWilliam (qqv) had thrown in his lot with the English Surrealists, Kelly steadily, but modestly, upheld standards at home over several decades. He had, in any case, few Irish contemporaries of real calibre – Melanie le Brocquy, after a promising start, did not exhibit again for many years, while the reputation of Hilary Heron (qv) appears to have shrunk with 

the passing decades. It was not until the emergence of Gerda Frömel (qv) that the bar was raised again, but this time for a younger generation. 

Kelly was educated at Mountjoy School and TCD, where he studied French and Irish – he was a proficient linguist, with innate academic abilities – and on graduating he became a schoolteacher, like his father. He also attended night classes at the NCA (later NCAD). In 1937 he won a travelling scholarship to Germany, where Nazism was already in power, but Kelly’s chief interest was not in politics. On his return to Ireland he taught at a number of schools, including Bishop Foy School in Waterford, where he also attended woodcarving classes in the local School of Art under the much-respected principal Robert Burke – remembered by many as an inspirational teacher. Discovering an inborn flair for carving, Kelly created his first mature works in the mid-1940s, including Ceili Dancers – a theme to which he often returned. 

In 1946 Kelly joined the staff of St Columba’s College in Rathfarnham, Dublin, where he remained for nearly twenty years, teaching a generation of Irish schoolboys firstly French, later Irish, and finally art, taking a period of leave to attend classes under Henry Moore in London. It was not a time when artists – particularly sculptors – could make a living by their art alone, and the NCA was still too hidebound to admit even Kelly’s mild version of Modernism to its students. By this stage he was married – to Ruth Gwynn, the daughter of a TCD provost – and had a growing family. They lived in a large rural house at Firhouse, close to Rathfarnham, and Kelly had his studio-workshop in one of the outbuildings. He sold his first works at this time, and exhibited at the Oireachtas exhibition among other outlets. A neighbour was the stained-glass artist Evie Hone, with whom Kelly developed a close friendship. 

Kelly was soon a regular figure in both the IELA and the RHA summer shows. Though wood was probably his favourite medium, he also worked at various times in stone, bronze, copper, and even in cement. Dublin then had few private galleries, and even fewer which sold modern art; Irish sculpture in general was conservative and academic, and dealers or gallery-owners were reluctant to risk exhibitions of it, because they considered it too difficult to sell. Kelly, in any case, rather shrank from solo exhibitions, preferring to show his work in small numbers or even singly. He never had a one-man exhibition until the large-scale retrospective of his work, which took place in 1978, by which time he had only a few years to live. 

Although his family background was Protestant, at a time when religious divides in Irish society, both South and North, were strongly marked, he readily accepted commissions from the Catholic clergy, beginning in 1949 with Our Lady of Fatima for the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary in Limerick. Other commissions included a copper crucifix for the Church of the Redeemer, Dundalk; St Brigid, Church of St Brigid in the Curragh Camp; St Peter, Church of St Peter, Milford, Co. Donegal; St Christopher for the church at Dublin Airport; the Last Supper (teak), Church of Corpus Christi at Knockanure, Co. Kerry [167]; St Patrick for St Patrick’s Church near Lifford, Co. Donegal. And for the newly built St Theresa’s Church at Sion Mills, Co. Tyrone, Kelly engraved a version of the Last Supper on a massive piece of slate measuring 4 by 14 metres, which was installed over the main entrance door.

Oisín Kelly, Last Supper, 1962, teak, Church of Corpus Christi, Knockanure, Co. Kerry. © Estate of Oisin Kelly.

During all this activity Kelly continued to produce bronzes and woodcarvings for private buyers and to participate in group exhibitions. Animals (principally cattle and horses), fish and birds were among his chosen themes, often shown in motion; he won the Oireachtas Gold Prize in 1969 for a piece called Faoileán (Seagulls) and there is a fine bronze Tern from 1975. However, he also created standing or dancing figures (Dancing Sailor, 1956, in wood, is one of his best-loved pieces), as well as several depictions of sportsmen, and he was an able portrait sculptor. Kelly modelled heads of the poet Austin Clarke and the Celtic scholar David Greene, among others, and there is a ceramic head of Dr C.S. (“Tod”) Andrews in the NGI. In 1951 he was elected a committee member of the IELA. Throughout his career, he seems to have been regarded as a man who was conscientious and with high standards, but also easy to work with. 

The later decades of Kelly’s life were largely dominated by a succession of public commissions: The Children of Lir (1966– 71) for Dublin; Two Working Men, 1969 [168], originally intended for Dublin but moved instead to Cork; a statue of Sir Roger Casement (1971) for Ballyheigue, Co. Kerry, overlooking Banna Strand; a giant grasshopper in metal (1972) for St Mary’s Girls’ Primary School at Strabane, Co. Tyrone; the statue of Jim Larkin (1977) for Dublin, and finally, Chariot of Fire (Irish Life Centre, Dublin) which was not unveiled until 1982, one year after the sculptor’s death. Kelly left unfinished a statue of the harpist-composer Turlough Carolan, for Mohill, Co. Leitrim, which was subsequently completed and unveiled in 1986. With the exception of the grasshopper, all these works are in bronze. The final location of the Casement statue was much fought over, and the unveiling did not take place until some years after Kelly’s death. 

Oisín Kelly, Two Working Men, 1969, bronze, County Hal. © Cork Ann Lane and Wordwell Books.

The Children of Lir was a state commission for the Garden of Remembrance, which was created by the architect Dáithí Hanly (1917–2003) in Parnell Square (directly overlooked by the HL, from whose windows it is best seen). Surviving correspondence of the artist shows that he was eager to create an appropriate symbol of Irish nationhood, with the swans surmounting the figures apparently intended as an image of soaring aspiration. The work was cast in Florence, in sections, and when finally erected it stood nearly eight metres high and weighed eleven tons; it was unveiled in July 1971. While undoubtedly a landmark in Irish public sculpture, it has divided critical opinion then and since – an artistic triumph, or a high-reaching failure? A tentative verdict might be that the parts are more convincing than the whole, that quasi-symbolic themes were not Kelly’s forte, and that he was perhaps working against the grain in opting for a complex, neo-Baroque composition – particularly on such a scale. The maquettes, to some people’s eyes, seem more successful than the final product. 

By comparison, the lifesize Two Working Men, originally intended to stand opposite Liberty Hall but planning permission was refused, seems to show that Kelly was happier when working with single, relatively straightforward figures. The figures are not joined, even compositionally, but stand independently of each other, looking upwards (Liberty Hall being a multi-storey building). When permission to install them in Dublin fell through, they were snapped up for Cork, where they are positioned in a small public park directly facing the County Hall. The Jim Larkin statue is possibly Kelly’s masterpiece, at least as a public sculpture, and with its powerful presence, its erect, fearless stance and uplifted arms, it appealed straightaway to the sensibility of the average Dubliner – and to many art connoisseurs as well. It might be said that it possesses dignity without inflation, and emotional force without rhetoric. The statue stands a little over three-and-a-half metres high and was cast by the Dublin Art Foundry. 

Kelly’s final large-scale sculpture was the ambitious Chariot of Fire for the plaza of the Irish Life Centre, not far from the Larkin statue. Probably his most elaborate project, it was cast in sections, over a period of two years, by the Dublin Art Foundry. Weighing roughly seven tons, it was incomplete when the artist died. Again, opinions are divided over the outcome and on the suitability of such a subject for a sculptor who, though not short of imagination or invention, seemed more comfortable expressing himself through a largely realist vocabulary. While Kelly was by temperament a visual poet, he was not naturally a rhetorician. 

Kelly had ceased to teach at St Columba’s in favour of becoming a part-time artist-in-residence at the Kilkenny Design Workshops, where he worked for two days a week, commuting to and from Dublin by train. In this capacity, he designed a variety of objects, ranging from silver statuettes to metal candleholders. It was in these workshops that he died suddenly on 12 October 1981 – perhaps weakened by the cumulative strain of his public commissions, but also saddened by the death of his supportive wife. 

Oisín Kelly received many prizes, awards and marks of distinction over his career, including membership of the board of the NCAD and the RHA professorship of sculpture, an honorific post; he was also included in various group exhibitions, including The Irish Imagination which formed part of ROSC ’71. Church works and major commissions apart, he is represented in numerous public and private collections. His personal charm, modesty and natural courtesy made him a much-loved figure among his contemporaries. He united a scholar’s brain with a capacity for hard, exacting craftsmanship and was always a welcome presence on art juries and committees.

SELECTED READING The Work of Oisín Kelly, exh. cat. Arts Councils North and South, essay by Dorothy Walker, Dublin, 1978; Fergus Kelly, ‘The Life and Work of Oisín Kelly’, GPA IAR Handbook, 1989/90, 35–38; Hill, 1998; Snoddy; Paula Murphy, ‘Let Us Rise’, IAR, 30, 4 (November 2013–February 2014), 114–117.