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Who invented Ireland?

Catherine Marshall

Art, Ireland, and the Irish Diaspora: Chicago, Dublin, New York 1893-1939 Culture, Connections, and Controversies, by Éimear O’Connor, Irish Academic Press, 400 pp, €35, ISBN: 978-1788551496

Who exactly were Lady Aberdeen, Mrs Alice Hart, Helen Hackett, Patric Farrell, Horace Plunkett and John Quinn and what did they have to do with Irish art and the Irish diaspora?

The question is relevant, since neither Lady Aberdeen nor Helen Hackett, to name the two most prominent in this narrative, were Irish; Mrs Hart and Horace Plunkett never emigrated and none of the people on this list were artists. What connects them is their sense of entrepreneurship, not a quality usually discussed in relation to the arts, however necessary it might be. For different reasons, altruistic in the case of Lady Aberdeen, whose husband was the viceroy in Ireland (1886-92 and 1906-15), and Horace Plunkett, founder of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, both of whom sought opportunities to improve the lot of the Irish poor; or more commercial in the case of Alice Hart, Helen Hackett and Patric Farrell, they promoted Irish art and Irish crafts in New York and Chicago between the early 1890s and 1939, until World War II brought these activities to an end. John Quinn was an art lover who collected art by his friends John and Jack Yeats and George Russell and who supported Hugh Lane’s attempts to found a municipal gallery of modern art, but his preference was for European modernism.

Their varying degrees of success and the difficulties they had to contend with are told in considerable detail in Éimear O’Connor’s book, and thanks to her ability to chase every line of inquiry the reader comes away with a tapestry of who’s who and where and how they lived and dined between Dublin, Chicago and New York, with occasional forays to London, Paris, Boston and even New Orleans. The early pioneers, Lady Aberdeen and Mrs Hart, put considerable organisational skills to work to prise money out of supporters among the Irish diaspora abroad and the authorities at home (the author is good on nuances of difference in patronage between the pre- and post-Independence establishments), as they worked to re-create pastiches of Irish villages, with round towers and stone monuments, inhabited by happy natives who were carted across the Atlantic to behave like picturesque peasant crafts-workers. They were followed a generation later by the opening up of the Helen Hackett Gallery and Patric Farrell’s Irish Theatre and Art Rooms in Manhattan, where the emphasis on craft was subordinated to paintings and sculpture usually by male artists, mainly members of the RHA, and all with a strong impetus to present Ireland as a good place to visit. They managed to avoid showing Irish Modernists such as Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone. This pattern worked for a decade or two, but was challenged in the 1930s when the Irish government sought to emphasise stories of heroic rebellion at the expense of either holiday destinations or progress and all of this came to a head with the 1939 New York World’s Fair. It is wearyingly familiar to note that despite a stated theme of “The World of Tomorrow”, the de Valera government insisted that the Irish pavilion should focus on Ireland’s history, prompting The New York Times to remark cynically: “Apparently working on the theory that to know what to expect in the world of tomorrow you must know what is happening today and what happened yesterday, the two Irish pavilions give little attention to the future but much to the past and present.” Irish honour was saved only by the direct intervention of Sean Lemass as minister for industry and commerce. It was he who recruited Michael Scott, whose modernist, shamrock pavilion earned him the award for best architect in the show.

O’Connor is at her best in her creation of profiles of the key players, whom she clearly admires. Irish art historians have always known about Lady Aberdeen’s support for the Arts and Crafts movement, but it took O’Connor to reveal that she refused to hoist the British flag over the Irish village in Chicago in 1893, a singularly political statement from a vicereine, (even one temporarily out of office) and possible because the village was not funded by government. We also knew about Helen Hackett, although perhaps not that she was Austrian-American, and this writer certainly did not know that her Kilkenny-born husband, E Byrne Hackett, was the first director of Yale University Press, establishing its accompanying bookshop and providing the inspiration for the art gallery. The most absorbing pages of the book – nothing, however, to do with the Irish diaspora, are those in which she describes Helen’s triumphal travels around Ireland in 1929 to pay artists for the work she had sold on their behalf, and especially to dine out in the homes of the great and famous, such as Moore Abbey, home of John McCormack and his countess, where she also met Governor General and Lady McNeill; to have tea with Marquis MacSwiney, when she was enchanted to discover that the marchioness was a cousin of the Kaiser, or forage in Irish antique shops, (“If I don’t stop falling for Irish silver, I’ll have to work my way home as an able-bodied seaman”).

The book takes us through the shenanigans and sometimes petty rivalries that were a feature of the world’s fair villages (worthy and dignified for the most part, but with the odd descent into peep shows and drunkenness), throws valuable light on the contributions made by knitters, weavers and lace-makers to the rural economy of Ireland and the strategic moves made by Horace Plunkett, George Russell, Lady Aberdeen and Mrs Hart to build up a market for their work in America. It introduces figures like Madeline Boyd, French wife of the New York-based Irish critic Ernest Boyd and the Irish artist Margery Organ, who, with her famous husband Robert Henri (founder-member of the New York Ashcan school, and who also had connections with this country) visited Achill regularly in the early decades of the twentieth century. It is good to discover that Madeline Boyd, who knew the Irish-American literary world well through her husband and through Hackett’s brother-in-law, the novelist Francis Hackett, prompted the most successful exhibition held at Helen Hackett’s gallery, an exhibition of Irish art that she hoped would dispel notions that Ireland could only produce good writers. Nice too to be told that President Theodore Roosevelt apologised for not being able to attend the 1905 Irish Exhibition at Madison Square Gardens, instead sending a letter of support which was read out at the opening ceremonies.

Declan Kiberd notes in his introduction that the dependence of the visual arts on money and privilege is rarely addressed and welcomes this attempt to change that. But in this book poverty is only hinted at in the subject matter of picturesque, but not impoverished peasants, in the stark lives of the Aran Islanders in Robert Flaherty’s film Man of Aran and as the target for Lady Aberdeen’s philanthropy. Diasporas are concerned with poverty, since they are scatterings of people who have been dispersed from their homelands as a result of political events or desperate poverty and often both. In a book that purports to be about the Irish diaspora we should expect that deficit to be placed centre stage. For all its erudition the book is concerned only with a relatively small number of highly successful Irish businessmen, lawyers, writers, artists and theatre people, curiously referred to as “emigrés” rather than as “emigrants”. It is not concerned with those artists of the Irish diaspora who had successful practices in Chicago and New York, such as John Mulvany, Aloysius O’Kelly or Jerome Conor, although one might wonder why Michael Power O’Malley – a solidly competent artist – gets a reasonable amount of cover while they are omitted. Mulvany and O’Kelly carried a lot of political baggage that would have made them difficult even for a home-rule-sympathetic vicereine, but it is more likely that they are omitted here because the book is centred on world fairs and big public spectacles, where the nation as a tourist venue is foregrounded rather than its artistic merits. James Johnson Sweeney, already a figure of real authority and prominence in the art world in New York and later to become the leading figure in the Rosc exhibitions at home in Ireland is not even mentioned, nor are such noted collectors and supporters of art (Irish and otherwise) on both sides of the Atlantic as Ernie O’Malley and his American wife, Helen Hooker.

The author clearly connects the world’s fairs to the usual committees of intellectuals and public office holders (rarely artists) who make decisions. That might explain why the several million people who already made up the Irish diaspora by 1893 don’t get a look in either, apart from a handful who are distinguished from the majority as emigrés. The word “emigré” carries connotations of culture, class superiority and intellectualism. While their contribution is to be valued it would be good to hear how the masses responded to the way their homeland was represented or how many actually visited the fairs. The book suggests that the majority of visitors to the fairs were tourists from all over the world. The fairs and the two galleries did find some buyers for Irish art, people referenced in the text as “Byrne from Saint Louis”, George Parker and, of course, John Quinn, although even he is quoted as writing that no one was interested in Irish art except himself. It would have been particularly interesting then if some analysis was done about what kind of work those few Irish collectors did buy. Did they all, like John Quinn, dispose of their Irish art later to buy work by Picasso and Matisse or did they hang it proudly to remind them of home, and if so, what aspects of home featured most? The author begins her introduction with a question from Declan Kiberd: “if God invented whiskey to prevent the Irish from ruling the world, then who invented Ireland?”, and praises Lady Aberdeen and her colleagues for their role in constructing a sense of an Irish identity in the United States. How did this sit with the popular press imagery – the racist cartoons of drunken paddies and slatternly wives – which had such a powerful but negative effect?

Éimear O’Connor has a vast knowledge of the period covered in her book. If anything it suffers from the inclusion of too much Irish contextual information, all of it adequately rehearsed elsewhere, and too many digressions away from the diaspora. Perhaps if she had a clearer sense of her audience she might have opted for a book about Irish art aimed at the American Irish, or a book about the diaspora aimed at an Irish readership. I hope that she will return to this subject again but this time to look at it with a lens that is both wider-angled and more focused.

1/1/2021

Catherine Marshall is an art historian and curator, formerly founding head of collections at the Irish Museum of Modern Art and Co-Editor of Twentieth Century, Vol V, Art and Architecture of Ireland, published by the Royal Irish Academy and Yale University Press, 2014.

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