Analysis: it was the largest exhibition ever of Irish art and design in the history of the State, with over 2,000 artworks on display

By Billy Shortall, TCD

According to legend, the original Aonach Tailteann was organised by the Irish High King Lugh in 1896 BC. They were funeral games to solemnise the funeral rites of his stepmother Queen Tailté and consisted of sport, 'in fact every sort of contest exhibiting physical endurance and skill … and exhibitions of art and crafts…' The Games were an annual event until the Norman invasion of 1169 AD, a time identified as the beginning of British rule in Ireland.

The plan to re-introduce the Games in 1922 by the new Irish Free State government was seen to signify Ireland’s further disengagement and independence from England. The revolutionary Dáil discussed the matter and a resolution asking the first Irish Free State government to ‘organise an Irish Olympiad to be held in Dublin this year [1922], during which efforts will be made to revive old Irish games’ was passed at the World Congress of the Irish Race in Paris.

This proposal was made by the chief advocate for the Tailteann, J.J. Walsh. When pro-treaty Walsh put forward the program for the proposed 1922 Games to the Dáil, it was Éamon De Valera who seconded the proposal, ‘hoping that it will prevent it being a party question’.

Patrick Hogan was Minister at the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction which included responsibility for art and he raised the funds for the Aonach Tailteann

The 1922 Tailteann would serve to announce the rebirth of a state with an ancient and unique cultural past. It would also allow the display of modernity with an up-to-date event infrastructure before a national, diasporic, and international audience. However, the Civil War forced the postponement of the Aonach Tailteann, and it would be 1924 before the full event took place. It was held again in 1928 and 1932.

But one noteworthy 1922 Tailteann event did proceed: the Aonach Tailteann, Great Exhibition of Irish Art, which was held in the RDS in August. Patrick Hogan, Minister at the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction which included responsibility for art, petitioned the Department of Finance seeking the necessary grant.

He assured them the art exhibition would be ‘representative of every aspect’ of art in Ireland. To guarantee this, he confirmed that the Exhibition Committee would ‘include eight members of the Department’s staff’. This extensive State involvement in the committee was to ensure that a breadth, as well as quality, of art production would be exhibited.

Promotional brochure for abandoned 1922 Aonach Tailteann (Dublin: Helys, 1922).

The catalogue shows there were 48 classes and 2,163 exhibits of Irish paintings and arts and crafts, and the exhibition was extensively advertised and reported in newspapers. This remains the largest exhibition of Irish art and design in the history of the State, deserving its 'Great Exhibition of Irish Art' moniker. Painters were as diverse as the modernist Mainie Jellett to the more academic RHA president Dermod O'Brien, and the Arts and Crafts categories included stained glass, art prints from the Cuala Press, enamels, and church bells.

The primary aim of the exhibition was to show the extent of Irish creativity. On visiting the show, Walsh expressed himself 'very pleasurably surprised with the success’ and pleased that ‘such a fine thing’ materialised. Newspaper reports described it as ‘a remarkable success’ and ‘been filled with interested visitors every hour of each day’.

Hugh C. Charde's Portrait of Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, 1920. Image: Collection Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.

Many exhibits were 'not for sale', artists showed work not only for financial benefit but to fulfil the State’s wish that every aspect of artistic production in the State be exhibited. The portraiture class included only two political portraits: Terence McSwiney, a martyr to both sides of the treaty-divide, and the recently deceased Arthur Griffith. The art and culture presented was national and nativist and deemed acceptable to all. Rural landscape scenes, such as images of Sheephaven Bay by James Humbert Craig and Landscape by Paul Henry, dominated the painting classes, with the west coast most prominent.

Jack B. Yeats won a class with Approaching Rosses Point, Early Morning. Yeats' four paintings also included Singing the Dark Rosaleen, Croke Park, which depicts the singing of a patriotic ballad at the Gaelic football grounds that had become famous for the Black and Tan massacre of Bloody Sunday less than two years earlier, and his well-known, Before the Start, a west of Ireland race meeting populated by distinctive Irish people.

Margaret Clarke RHA (1888-1961), Mary and Brigid, Inisheer, Aran Islands. 1917. Oil on canvas, 107x83cm. Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax, Canada.

Seán Keating also exhibited four paintings and his Men of the West won second in its class, featuring distinctive Irish types as armed revolutionaries. Selected by the committee dominated by government officials, these works served to illustrate a turbulent past when Irish people were united in the fight for independence, in contrast to the Civil War raging outside the exhibition hall.

Representations of Catholicism were evident in several pieces. Albert G. Power won both sculpture classes with Marble head of the most Rev. Dr Mannix, the Irish born archbishop of Melbourne and Marble relief of Madonna and Child. Estella Solomons won a medal in portraiture for The Rev. Father Patrick Dinneen. Architecture classes reflected the ongoing programme of building by the Catholic Church, and architect R. M. Butler was awarded a medal for his design, ‘new church, Newport, Co. Mayo’.

Harry Clarke's Queens (1917) was one of the artworks on show

Harry Clarke took first place in the stained-glass class, described as ‘one of our most promising art industries’, where his exhibits included Queens in nine panels. Wilhelmina Geddes took the runner-up spot. Clarke exemplified artists’ commitment to the exhibition, he wrote to Thomas Bodkin saying, ‘I’m going hard for the Tailteann Games Art Exhibition’.

Queens is ‘an extremely important series of nine cabinet panels’, each approximately 5x15cm, it was among Clarke’s most accomplished work and this exhibit helped achieve the stated ambition to demonstrate Irish art’s exceptionalness. The exhibition included a noteworthy display of designs for the new Irish stamps.

The artwork on view represented an independent people and an ancient nation within a tradition of Aonach Tailteanns. Composite parts of official Irish identity were visible, figures from Irish history, religious, and cultural life, along with west of Ireland landscapes, in an exhibition designed to appeal to both sides of the political divide.

Dr Billy Shortall is a Ryan Gallagher Kennedy Research Fellow at the Irish Art Research Centre (TRIARC) at the School of Histories and Humanities at TCD.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ