This is a longer, unedited version of an article published in the Spring 2022 edition of the Irish Arts Review.
The magnificent Shaw Room at the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI) has been transformed radically. Daniel Maclise’s monumental The Marriage of Aoife and Strongbow has new neighbours. Gone are those stern 18th and 19th portraits of the celebrated and the forgotten. In their place is Original Sins, Hughie O’Donoghue’s intriguing new exhibition. It was commissioned by the NGI as a site-specific show to complement Maclise’s painting. It consists of six works of epic scale (350 x 250 cms) based on historical personages: Saint Deirbhile, the Anglo-Saxon King Wuffa, Aoife MacMurrough, William the Conqueror, Emily Davison the suffragette and Michael Collins. O’Donoghue describes them as “players in history – sometimes overlooked.” The exhibition is part of a series to mark the Decade of Centenaries and its eclectic cast of characters is bound to invite conjecture and create controversy about how they relate to our past. O’Donoghue has stated that “I don’t want the paintings to be thought of as portraits or likenesses” – his core theme is how we construct our identity and he has selected these characters as players in this process. His aim was to produce “paintings that ruminate on history and open ups a discourse on the complexity of our origins.”
The sexes are represented equally, the sine qua non of all group shows in our rigorously woke era. It’s a strangely disparate group you might think at first until you explore further and links and associations began to manifest themselves – hunger strikes, Normans, inter-twined lineages, women’s freedom to make decisions, migrant incursions and more. Three of the characters are Irish and three are English, or at least are significant figures in English history. This makes the point that whether we like it or not, our history is inextricably bound up with that of our nearest neighbour. This duality reflects O’Donoghue’s own bifurcated past and present. He was born in Manchester, the son of a Kerry man and a Mayo woman. He currently lives half the year in Greenwich, London and the other half in the remote region of Erris, in Northern Mayo. He is not interested in nationalism or nationalities and likes to describe himself as Manchester Irish.
These are not portraits. In any case an essay in creating portraits would have been highly speculative - there is only a substantial photographic record of one of the characters, Michael Collins. The few images of Emily Davison are dominated by a series of pugnacious hats. Instead of attempting to achieve or imagine “likenesses”, O’Donoghue uses members of his own family as surrogates. Thus his son Vincent plays Michael Collins and his daughter Katy is Emily. The only photographic images are of Michael Collins as a swash-buckling military man, and of Anmer, the King’s horse that Emily Davison upended, with its unfortunate jockey Herbert Jones. The paintings aim to represent the complex nature of history where “definite truths are elusive.” The works do however have a strong sense of place. There is a horizontal swathe of landscape at the top of each painting that anchors the subject to a significant location. With St. Deirbhile it’s Blacksod Bay in Mayo, with Wuffa it’s the North Sea, and with Aoife the woods of Leinster. The paintings also contain elements that suggest how these individuals might be portrayed by the contents left in their tombs – a suffragette badge perhaps or a crucifix. O’Donoghue has always been interested in buried evidence of our past – from the bog people of Ireland to the ongoing excavations at Sutton Hoo – where there is speculation of a link with King Wuffa. O’Donoghue has said that all of the six “are significant because they are remembered and contribute in varying degrees to how we see ourselves.” His efforts to convey the slippery truths of history extend to the industrial tarpaulin on which the paintings are created. The tarpaulin had originally been folded and an irregular grid is still visible, referencing their own history as objects: ghostly intimations of their original shape. The paintings are adorned with symbols such as a portcullis from the suffragette’s badge, the harp for Ireland and the raven Fiachra of the West – an oracular bird. These symbolic addition were inspired by a set of Courtly Household Cards from the 15th century, replete with symbols, that O’Donoghue came across at an exhibition (The World in Play, Luxury Cards). in the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2016. Connoisseurs of playfulness will be delighted to note that the dimensions of O’Donoghues paintings are in the exact same scale as a conventional playing card (3.5 by 2.5 inches).
In keeping with the size of the paintings, the scale of the endeavour is broad. Two of the figures, Saint Deirbhile and King Wuffa come from the Dark Ages where myth and truth mingle freely. Two come for the Medieval Period, Aoife MacMurrough and William the Conqueror, where tangible data starts to emerge. William appears as a character on the Bayeux Tapestry – and now reappears in these large tapestry-like works. The 20th Century is represented by Emily Davison and Michael Collins, both of whom died for their causes. Davison’s sacrifices also included her hunger strikes which severely weakened her before her death. A resonance with the tactic much favoured by Irish Republicans up to the present time.
The personal is never far away in Hughie O’Donoghue’s work. His earlier paintings featured glimpses of his father’s World War II activities and he has done a whole series on his mother’s birth place in Famine-haunted Erris. Even his recent show at the Marlborough Gallery in London, with those towering images of the rusting hulk of the MV Plassy, are based on childhood trips to Inis Oirr with his father. The inclusion of Saint Deirbhile again points to his ancestors in North Mayo. Saint Deirbhile is one of the lesser-known Irish saints – information about her is primarily contained in the Annals of the Four Masters - but she is revered in the Blacksod, Erris region. St. Deirbhile’s Church and St. Deirbhile’s Well near Belmullet attract regular pilgrims. She represents the monastic tradition that’s part of the fabric of our culture. Her origins are even more shadowy and speculative than St. Patrick’s. The story goes that she rejected an unwanted suitor who had admired her eyes by plucking out said eyes, thus sending the poor man on his way. She then went to a nearby well and bathed her presumably empty sockets and her sight was restored miraculously. She subsequently devoted her life to prayer and solitude in the Wild West of Ireland. The painting, A Solitude in the Ocean: Deirbhile, shows a strapping young woman with golden hair on the left. In the middle section we see a saintly figure in white, holding a large crucifix, her features only barely visible beneath an enveloping shawl. On a the right a sinister raven, symbol of the West of Ireland stands atop a pole. This bird could represent the ostensible evil from which she escaped and also, these birds been partial to eyeballs, the hurt she inflicted upon herself.
The Michael Collins painting, Boreen: Mícheál, is the most direct in its narrative. The painting is divided into three vertical sections, the folds of the tarpaulin facilitating the triptych effect. On the right a photograph of a more callow Collins, standing by a piece of luggage. The young buck heading to London and a job in the Post Office, or perhaps Collins dressed as a civilian for the Treaty Negotiations. On the left is the famous image of the masterful military man, pistol hanging from right hip and a definite swagger in evidence. In between the two versions of Collins sits a golden harp, emblem of the nationhood for which he fought and died. A heroic figure cut down in his prime – our very own JFK. The Boreen of the title, depicted in the horizontal section at the top of the painting, is a pointer to Collins rural West Cork origins and a sinister suggestion of the landscape where he was ambushed. Incidentally, and yet another example of O’Donoghue’s taste for keeping it personal, Michael Collins was best man at his second cousin Paddy O’Donoghue’s wedding, which took place in Stephen’s Green in 1919 when Collins was on the run.
While the activities of Michael Collins led to Irish freedom, those of Emily Davison and the suffragette movement led to the first substantial step in the liberation of women: In 1918 Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act 1918 Which granted the vote to women over the age of 30. While Collins appears swashbuckling, Davison is depicted not as a virago in a funny hat but rather as a beautiful, bare-headed, saintly vision in virginal white. Her frequent imprisonment, her hunger-strikes, her horrific force-feeding and her untimely death make her the primary martyr of the Women’s movement. The painting , The Kings Arrows and the Kings Horse: Emily, emphasises her imprisonment with both the barred window and the threatening portcullis. The King’s horse Anmer and its jockey dominate the left side of the work. Perhaps worth our sympathy, but also standing as a potent metaphor for an uncaring British establishment riding rough-shod over basic human rights. Davison’s use of the hunger strike tactic and her willingness to die for her cause all resonate with our own 20th century freedom fighters.
The exhibition is entitled Original Sins and when you consider our history of occupation and subjugation it’s hard not to lay a lot of the blame on Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster and his beautiful daughter Aoife. In an attempt to regain power in a country riven with rival rulers and ongoing wars and skirmishes, he decided to enlist some serious military firepower in the form of the Normans. He bartered his daughter Aoife’s hand in marriage to seal the alliance. The Norman invasion was sanctioned by King Henry II. It was led by the Earl of Pembroke (Strongbow). His forces wasted no time in turning a foothold into outright possession and thus began the 800 years of oppression, dispossession, and servitude that is only now beginning to end. It could be said that MacMurrough was the Judas of Irish history, who sold out his country for personal gain. Like Juan he didn’t live long enough to enjoy the spoils – dying shortly after Strongbow’s invasion. However, his daughter went on to initiate a royal lineage that included all the kings of England since Henry IV and of Scotland since Robert 1 – and much European royalty besides. A secondary consequence of this Norman invasion was that it established the Catholic Church in a country where the liberal Brehon laws still obtained. Ironically it was these laws that allowed MacMurrough to take the second wife who was to become Aoife’s mother.
Of the six characters featured in the ehibition, King Wuffa is probably the one least familiar to an Irish audience. Students of Anglo-Saxon literature would know him as the first king of East Anglia in the 6th Century. This attribution was made by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People and it is disputed by later scholars who see him as more a representative, composite figure for the Wuffingas dynasty. It is also claimed that in the ongoing Anglo-Saxo excavations at Sutton Hoo are connected to rulers from this dynasty. These people originated in Jutland and went on to become the dominant force in Britain until late in the 8th Century. So what’s Wuffa doing in an exhibition that forms part of our centenary celebrations? There is of course the link with the Vikings who also swept into Ireland so we share a common set of ancestor-invaders. There is also the inference that our people, like our neighbours, are descended from migrants and all of us are the product of diverse origins.
Although William the Conqueror never set foot in Ireland he has had an immense influence on our history. He created the template in England and Wales for those Norman armies who swept into Ireland after Dermot MacMurrough opened the door. Faced with scattered and divided local armies they quickly mopped up the opposition and changed the course of our history. O’Donoghue sees William as a more significant figure than Strongbow in our history – the latter was merely an agent of Norman expansion. Unlike the subsequent invasions, the Elizabethan wars and Cromwell’s brutal campaigns, the Normans settled here and were absorbed into Irish society. They built keeps, castles and churches and could be said to have brought with them a European sensibility. They also brought the Catholic Church unfortunately. William was the first Norman king of England and during his reign, following the Battle of Hastings, the old Anglo -Saxon aristocracy (Wuffa’s descendants) were replaced by a Norman one. William is represented on the Bayeux tapestry and O’Donoghue’s giant tarpaulin works approach the condition of tapestry. According to O’Donoghue: “My idea was that it should feel like an enormous tapestry, something that took me in the direction of William of Normandy.” William is represented in the Bayeux tapestry carrying a cudgel – a potent symbol of his brutal tactics.
The overall colour of the six paintings is gold which works sympathetically with the dark blue wall of the Shaw Room. The gold also creates a tension between the opulence of that rich colour and the industrial feel of the silver ground on the tarpaulin. This silver ground was chosen to reflect light as the paintings are situated opposite windows in the Shaw Room. Aside from William the Conqueror there are further references to the Bayeux Tapestry in symbols, words, and pointing fingers. The horizontal strip at the top of the paintings and the opaque, white vertical panel in the centre on which the figures are depicted suggest a hammer. This hammer form, according to the artist, point to the relentlessness of history, the anvil where meaning is forged. The epic scale of this work suggests Anslem Kiefer (an artist much admired by O’Donoghue) and his magnificent paintings that bring us back to the monstrous evil that was Nazi Germany.
It’s hard to think of another Irish artist who could create an exhibition of such scale and ambition. The word “epic” is thrown around carelessly these days but this work is assuredly worthy of this designation. In the Winter 2016 edition of the Irish Arts Review, its late editor John Mulcahy delivered a swingeing critique of the exhibition Creating History at the NGI curated by Brendan Rooney. He chided the NGI for not commissioning new work by contemporary artists: “Would this not have been a worthy challenge for the likes of Hughie O’Donoghue?”, Mulcahy asked. Whether or not NGI director Sean Rainbird read Mulcahy’s words, he and curator Brendan Rooney have come up trumps this time (to extend the playing card metaphor) and thanks to the bold O’Donoghue have a given us a spectacular and thought-provoking show that must not be missed. And it’s free.
John P. O’Sullivan