Celtic Revival Sculpture

By Paula Murphy

In the aftermath of the early death of Fenian poet John Keegan Casey (1846–70), a cross was erected to his memory in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin [355]. Commissioned by the Monuments’ Committee of the Young Ireland Society, it was carved in the local stoneyard of Thomas H. Dennany (R.J. O’Duffy, Historic Graves in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin 1915, p. 39). The mason sculpture firm established a successful practice in the carving of Celtic Crosses (qv), among which the Keegan Casey memorial, replete with national symbols, could well have served as the perfect advertisement for Dennany’s Celtic Revival work. The rock-like base, on which the cross is supported, presents a harp, Irish wolfhound, rising sun, sham- rock, miniature round tower and ruined abbey church, as well as a verse of Keegan Casey’s (whose pen-name was Leo) rebel ballad ‘The Rising of the Moon’. Only the Maid of Erin (see ‘Éire/ Hibernia’) and Celtic interlace patterning are omitted. All or some of these motifs were typically included in much Celtic Revival sculpture. 

354. John Maguire (d. 1932), Maguire Monument, Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. © Denis Mortell Photography.
355. Thomas H. Dennany, Memorial to John Keegan Casey (d.1870), Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. Photo © Jacqueline Hayes.

The use of such motifs in sculpture was prompted by Celtic antiquarianism and particularly by the display of antiquities at the Great Exhibition in Dublin in 1853. Casts of entrance porches and window mouldings from Irish Romanesque churches were exhibited, as well as Celtic crosses in original and in copy form, and early Irish metalwork. The Hall of Antiquities was considered to be one of the highlights of the exhibition. An appreciable amount of journalistic comment on the subject, as the exhibition was in preparation, created a sense of anticipation and kept the subject topical. Even the British press got the message. The Illustrated London News, in an issue that detailed the different sections of the exhibition, considered the implications of including a section on ancient art in what purported to be an exhibition of contemporary work. The weekly newspaper argued in favour, noting the way the exhibition enabled visitors to compare the past with the present, but more particularly because it led ‘to the recovery of lost, or almost forgotten, arts, designs, and manufactures, which might possibly be revived advantageously’ (4 June 1853). 

The obsession and desire for continuity with the Celtic past became manifest in some aspects of Irish sculpture in the second half of the nineteenth century. The establishment of the Act of Union at the beginning of the century and the energetic oppositional nationalism that ensued; the granting of Catholic Emancipation and the emergent expansion of church-building in the mid-century; and the 1798 centenary celebrations at the close of the century are some of the events that generated increasing interest in the use of Irish or ‘un-English’ symbolism. Tomb monuments (as above), figurative work, as manifest in public sculptures and subject pieces, and decorative work on buildings of the period show evidence of such dedication to Irishness at the time. This was both a national and a nationalistic art (Barrett, p. 393), in which the subject matter and the motif were predominant over style. Jeanne Sheehy, an early authority on Celtic Revival art, insisted that national styles cannot be ‘created by acts of will’ (IT, 16 October 1999). However, Thomas Davis had urged the ‘foundation of a national school…Irish in its character’ (Nation, 27 May 1843). 

The demand for specifically Irish commemorative sculpture in the public domain became manifest in the mid-nineteenth century, when it was pointed out that ‘No public statue of an illustrious Irishman has ever graced the Irish capital’ (Dublin University Magazine, vol. 47, 1856, 321). There followed a proliferation of such statues, among which were Thomas Moore (Christopher Moore) [214], Oliver GoldsmithEdmund Burke and Henry Grattan (J.H. Foley), William Smith O’Brien and Sir John Gray (Thomas Farrell) (qqv). However, other than the nationality of the person portrayed, there was nothing that could be considered particularly Irish about the statues and nor were any of the sculptors exclusively devoted to creating work within a national idiom. Thomas Farrell had the reputation of being a nationalist sculptor. His work for the Catholic Church and his political commemorative statues confirm this, and occasional use of specific Celtic symbols is evident in his work, such as, for example, the Irish harp in the Young Ireland/IRB Monument (1883, Glasnevin Cemetery) [105] and in his statue of organist and professor of music Sir Robert Stewart (marble, 1898, Leinster Lawn, Dublin), who had a deep interest in early Irish music. If some of Farrell’s work was the product of his nationalist inclination, nonetheless to describe him as a Celtic Revival sculptor would be misleading. 

John Henry Foley received the most prestigious public sculpture commission in nineteenth-century Ireland – to commemorate Daniel O’Connell in a national monument in the centre of Dublin [2]. However, based in London and acknowledged as a leading British sculptor, Foley was more imperialist than nationalist in his leanings. His monument design as executed, while including representation of Erin with her characteristic attributes, could scarcely be considered a highlight of Celtic Revival sculpture. Among the entries in the failed design com- petition to choose a sculptor for the commission, there was greater evidence of a desire to display Irishness. Several of the designs by local sculptors, while similar in form to Foley’s monument, attempted to convey the important phases of O’Connell’s career in relief form and included more insistent use of nationalist symbolism (DB, 15 February; 1 March 1865). 

Celtic Revival ideology is more manifest in the work of John Hogan (qv), who employed a depiction of Erin in several of his sculptures (Erin with Bishop Doyle (1839, Carlow Cathedral), with Lord Cloncurry (1844, UCD) [153], with Brian Boru (1855, CAG)). It can also be identified in the work of sculptors who used historic or legendary Irish subject matter, often to emotional ends. Richard Barter’s (qv) Aileen, the Huntress (RHA 1845, untraced) is an example, its subject taken from a poem by Edward Walsh (Nation, 5 April 1845), recounting the legendary exploits of Ellen, wife of James O’Connor of Cluain-Tairbh, as she moved through the Irish landscape in the year 1731. The editor of the Nation, Thomas Davis, encouraged the use of Irish subject matter, suggesting suitable writers and also topics that artists could explore (29 July 1843). Notable among them was Thomas Moore, who was certainly popular with sculptors, although perhaps independently because the themes popularly selected from his work, such as Lalla Rookh and the Peri, were not Irish. Patrick MacDowell (qv), who was based in London but proud of his Irish background, recalled, in his autobiography, the pleasure he felt working on his first statue group, the subject of which derived from Moore’s Loves of the Angels (Belfast Art Quarterly, no. XL, Summer 1919, 10), not the only work he took from Moore’s writings. However the sculpture as completed had no Irish association other than the nationality of the sculptor, the poet and the patron who purchased the work for his collection in Belfast. In England, where sculptors were encouraged to source their subject matter in the work of British writers, several sculptors were also making use of the writings of Moore, particularly in the aftermath of his death in 1852. 

More specifically Irish subject matter, and therefore more manifestly Celtic Revival in its inspiration, is found in the work of sculptors working at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries – Oliver Sheppard (qv) being the most noted in this regard. Living and working in Nottingham, he was, nonetheless, immersed in Celtic subject matter – The Bard Oisín and Níamh (RHA, 1895), The Training of Cúchulainn (RHA, 1897), The Genius of Celtic Art (RA, 1896/RHA, 1898), and several more. An RHA review in 1897 noted the Cúchulainn as being for lovers of Celtic folklore and remarked on the Gaelic patterning used in the garments (IT, 6 May 1897). A later version of the subject The Death of Cúchulainn (bronze, 1911/12, GPO, Dublin) [356] would become Sheppard’s best known work, dis- patched to represent Ireland at the World’s Fair in New York in 1939 in an enlarged version and serving ultimately as a 1916 memorial sculpture. Sheppard had been drawn back to Ireland from Britain at the beginning of the century by W.B. Yeats, who in 1901 proposed to him the opportunity of joining ‘a strong little group of writers and artists’ who were already reshaping Ireland (Yeats to Sheppard, 20 July [1901], Sheppard Papers, NCAD, quoted in Turpin, 1997, p. 63). Sheppard, who befriended and portrayed many of the Irish revival activists, adopted the most insistently Irish standpoint among his generation of sculptors. 

356. Oliver Sheppard, The Death of Cúchulainn (detail), 1911-12, General Post Office, Dublin. Photo © Paula Murphy.

A contemporary of Sheppard’s, M.J. McNamara (1869– 1929) in Cork, used Celtic ornament rather than legend in his work. More Arts and Crafts than Fine Art sculptor, McNamara, for the base of his portrait of Canon James O’Mahony(marble, 1917, Cloughdubh, Co. Cork) employed Celtic interlacing (ill. in Brian Lalor, ‘A Lost Leader: M.J. McNamara and the Arts and Crafts Movement in Cork’, IAR, vol. 17, 2001, 41). If McNamara’s mark on furniture design was ultimately to be more prevalent, nonetheless as a teacher in the Crawford School of Art, he had Joseph Higgins and Séamus Murphy (qqv) among his pupils, both sculptors who would retain a strong relationship with and dedication to Irish subject matter and an interest in its unsophisticated and primitive elements. Higgins’s Daughter of Lir (bronze, c. 1923), while a portrait of local girl Ann Condon, is a mythological bust replete with Celtic ornament. 

Celtic Revival motifs began to form part of the exterior design of commercial buildings towards the end of the nineteenth century, probably the best known of which is the popular bare-breasted representation of the Maid of Erin (1912) by Pat McAuliffe (qv) on the façade of a public house in Listowel [357]. The lurid composition includes the statutory harp, Irish wolf- hound, round tower and rising sun, all modelled in the most rudimentary fashion. Underneath the figure, amidst Celtic interlace and shamrocks, are the words Erin go bragh (Ireland for ever), which were also to be found accompanying depictions of Erin on several other façades, notably the Irish House in Dublin. Also a public house, the Irish House was built in the vicinity of Christ Church Cathedral at the corner of Winetavern Street and Wood Quay in 1870 [58]. As a result of its richly deco- rated, colourful stucco façade, it became a feature in the city. The stuccodores were William Burnett (qv) and James Comerford. The figurative panels contained representations of Erin weeping over her harp, Daniel O’Connell clutching the Repeal document, and Henry Grattan, in a group portrait, making his historic appeal against the Act of Union in the Irish House of Commons [358]. The façade was also decorated with wolf- hounds, methers (ancient Irish drinking vessels) and, above the cornice, a series of round towers, set like tall chimneys against the skyline. (The building was demolished in 1968; the sculptures were saved and are in the collection of Dublin Civic Trust.) Burnett portrayed Erin as a desolate figure, bearing a crown of shamrock and leaning on a chained, unstrung harp. The bold upright presence of Edward Smyth’s (qv) seated Hibernia (1799, RDS, then located in Kildare Street), has been transformed by Burnett into a figure of despair. Burnett’s representation is also in marked contrast to James Pearse’s interpretation of Erin, known as Erin go bragh (1889) [359], on the skyline of the former National Irish Bank, Dame Street, Dublin. But then a weeping Erin would scarcely have been appropriate as an icon surmounting a bank building. 

357. Patrick McAuliffe, Maid of Erin, 1912, stucco, The Square, Listowel, Co. Kerry. Photo © Sean Lynch.
358. William Burnett, Henry Grattan’s last address to Parliament, 1870, stucco, Dublin Civic Trust, detail of façade of The Irish House, formerly on Wood Quay. © Irish Architectural Archive.
359. James Pearse, Erin go Brágh,1889, stone, former National Irish Bank, Dame Street, Dublin. © Denis Mortell Photography.

Pearse’s sculpture group is a busy composition of harp, wolf- hound, ancient crown, barrels, chest, ship, sheaves of wheat, and more. A preparatory drawing for the work (ill. in Duffy, 1999, p. 130) reveals Pearse’s initial ignorance of the form of the Irish harp, which has been corrected in the finished sculpture to reveal a fine rendering of the so-called Brian Boru harp in TCD. While Pearse’s allegorical group incorporates most of the national attributes, it remains a formal academic work, heroic in its manner of presentation, refined in its expression. Burnett’s stucco scenes on the Irish House are naive in their modelling and have a primitive quality that renders them less remote, as a consequence of which they more readily convey the spirit of the Celtic Revival. 

Among the most perfect examples of Celtic Revival art are the Irish gesamtkunstwerke or treasure houses – Loughrea Cathedral, Co. Galway (1897–1902), and the Honan Chapel, Cork (1915–16) – which employ sculpture both as part of the decoration and in independent works. Hiberno-Romanesque architecture was the source for sculptural detailing in Celtic Revival buildings, an early example of which is Glenstal Castle (now Abbey, 1836–61), Co. Limerick, built for lawyer Sir Matthew Barrington. The doorcase connecting the dining and drawing room in the castle, carved by local sculptor White in 1841, is an accurate copy of the portal at St Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, Co. Clare, and the capitals in the library [360] suggest similar sources. This work is considered ‘an important moment in the history of the revival of interest in Ireland’s Christian and Celtic legacy’ (Seán O’Reilly, Irish Houses and Gardens from the Archives of Country Life, London, 2012 (first published in 1998), p. 174). Cobh Cathedral [398], built at the end of the nineteenth century and incorporating a range of Irish elements in its neo- gothic design, promoted not just Catholicism, but Irishness. It was noted in the Cork Examiner in 1879 that, among other Irish details, ‘a prevailing ornament in the edifice consists of frequent carvings of the national emblem – the shamrock’ (quoted in Ann Wilson, ‘The Gothic Revival in Ireland: St Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh (1868–1916)’, Antiphon, 11, 2 (2007), 26). 

360. Capitals in the library at Glenstal Abbey, Co. Limerick. © Country Life.

St Brendan’s Cathedral, Loughrea, reflects the interests of its local patron Edward Martyn, who devoted his substantial for- tune to Irish political and cultural activities. The cathedral, which incorporates stained-glass from An Túr Gloine (a cooperative stained-glass studio established in Dublin in 1903), and banners and vestments from Dun Emer (a craft studio and press founded in Dublin in 1902), has sculptural work from the hands of John Hughes and Michael Shortall (qqv). If Hughes was the first commissioned of the two sculptors in 1901, he introduced Shortall to the scheme almost immediately, resulting in the inclusion of sculptures that were in keeping with the neo-Celtic impetus of the design programme. Shortall’s imagery on the capitals [345] and corbels includes Irish subject matter and Celtic decorative patterning. ‘Graceful, simplified and distorted’, the carvings, which conform to their relevant architectural feature, are reminiscent of Romanesque treatment, particularly those found on early Celtic crosses (Ann Wilson, Visions Materialised: The Building of St Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh (1868– 1917), NCAD thesis 2002). Two large corbels at the entrance to the sanctuary show a young Patrick (titled, in Celtic script, Padraig) ridding Ireland of snakes, and a shawlie saying the rosary (similarly titled Creideamh). 

John Hughes’s work for Loughrea Cathedral, a Madonna and Child (marble) for a side altar, and a relief depicting the Man of Sorrows (bronze) over the main altar, are both Italianate in style. Nonetheless, a marked association with the past is evident in the Man of Sorrows, images of which were typically found, similarly located, in pre-Reformation churches in Ireland (Raghnall Ó Floinn, Franciscan Faith, Sacred Art in Ireland, ad 1600–1750, NMI, Dublin, 2011, p. 8). Hughes’s early career had suggested a deep interest in Irish subject matter. Sculptures of Fenian leader Charles J. Kickham, in Tipperary town, and Cúchulainn, seen in Hughes’s Dublin studio, prompted AE to suggest that Irish ‘leg- ends are beginning to exercise their enchantment over Mr Hughes and we may expect later his more complete absorption in them’ (George Russell (AE), ‘The Art of John Hughes ARHA’, The New Ireland Review, vol. 10, (September 1898) 162–65, quoted in Turpin, 1997, p. 67). But this was not to be. Hughes was impatient for recognition on a bigger stage, with London and Paris seemingly more important to him than Loughrea. 

The design of the Honan Chapel [361], dedicated to St Finbarr, was intended to replicate the churches built ‘for priests and missioners all over Ireland a thousand years ago’ (Sir John R. O’Connell, ‘The Honan Hostel Chapel, Cork’, Studies, vol. 5, no. 20, December 1916, 613). The carving of the west door, by Dublin sculptor Henry Emery (Sharp & Emery), assisted by local apprentices, quotes sculptural detail from the twelfth-century chapel of St Cronan at Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, and incorporates the heads of Munster saints on the capitals; the statue of St Finbarr, located in the pediment about the entrance and whose vestments are adorned with Celtic patterning, is by Oliver Sheppard; the decorative capitals in the nave are the work of architect James F. McMullen; later additions to the chapel by Imogen Stuart (qv), reflecting the liturgical changes of Vatican II, prolong the earlier Celtic inspiration. 

361. Capitals and doorway carved by Henry Emery, west front of the Honan Chapel, with Oliver Sheppard’s St Finbarr, 1916, limestone, University College Cork. Photo © James G.R. Cronin, University College Cork, 2013. 

Before he died in September 1941, Oliver Sheppard expressed the wish that, what he described as his last work, Níamh and Oisín would be exhibited at the art exhibition being held as part of the Gaelic League Annual Oireachtas in that year, the first Oireachtas exhibition for nearly thirty years. The Irish Times considered this wish to be ‘expressive of [Sheppard’s] life- long interest in the Gaelic revival’ (20 October 1941). Sheppard had first exhibited a version of the subject in 1895. Although made in Nottingham, the original sculpture, based on W.B. Yeats’s poem ‘The Wanderings of Oisín’ (1889), was considered, nonetheless, a ‘strong statement of Irish cultural nationalism’ (Turpin, Oliver Sheppard, 2000, p. 57). Jeanne Sheehy’s assessment of Sheppard as the leading sculptor of the Celtic Revival (p. 184), is confirmed in an artistic expression of Irishness that reveals more assuredness than was evident in the work of his earlier counterparts. 

Opening the Oireachtas exhibition in 1941, not long after Sheppard’s death, Irish-language poet and keeper of antiquities at the National Museum Liam Gogan remarked in his speech on the need for a permanent gallery of works by contemporary artists, ‘especially those who showed the Gaelic outlook in their works’ (IT, 25 October 1941). However, by the early 1940s the anti-modern sensitivities in what was by then the Free State had been identified by artists and such a suggestion will have con- firmed feelings of insularity. Contemporary Irish artists were increasingly keen to be in touch with European developments in art, rather than remaining insistently ‘Irish’ in their outlook, and just two years later the Irish Exhibition of Living Art was founded. 

SELECTED READING  Cyril Barrett, ‘Irish Nationalism and Art 1800–1921’, Studies (Winter 1975), 393–409; Jeanne Sheehy, The Rediscovery of Ireland’s Past, The Celtic Revival 1830–1930, London, 1980; John Turpin, ‘Nationalist and Unionist Ideology in the Sculpture of Oliver Sheppard and John Hughes, 1895– 1939’, The Irish Review, 20 (Winter–Spring 1997), 62–75; The Irish House, Dublin Civic Trust, 2009. 

 The Royal Irish Academy has kindly granted permission to Sculpture Dublin to reproduce a number of texts from Sculpture 1600-2000, Volume 3 in the Royal Irish Academy’s 5-volume publication Art and Architecture of Ireland (Yale, 2014). The book, edited by Paula Murphy, comprises introductory essays, biographies and thematic essays.