By Jim Slaven
In 1884 Aloysius O’Kelly’s Mass in a Connemara Cabin became the only painting of an Irish subject ever to be exhibited at the prestigious Paris Salon. In subsequent years it was also exhibited and well received in London and New York before vanishing at the end of the nineteenth century. The painting remained missing for 100 years before turning up, mysteriously, hidden in the priests house of my local parish, St Patrick’s in Edinburgh’s Cowgate. The mystery of O’Kelly’s chef-d’oeuvre missing century is entirely in keeping with the mystery of the painter himself.
Aloysius O’Kelly and his family were steeped in revolutionary politics. His three brothers, James, Stephen and Charles were all Fenians (and artists) and his sister Julia married into the family of James Stephens, founder of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Following the failed Rising of 1867 his brother James and Stephen were exiled to New York. During this period Aloysius moved to Paris (using his brothers passport), immediately making contact with James Stephens, and began studying at École des Beaux-Arts.
In the early 1880’s O’Kelly returned to Ireland having been appointed Special Artist to the Illustrated London News. This position allowed him to visually capture the bleak existence of working class people on the west coast of Ireland in the aftermath of An Gorta Mor and the subsequent agrarian unrest, rise of the Irish National Land League and political and social upheaval. It was during these turbulent times that O’Kelly produced Mass in a Connemara Cabin.
The painting itself has been compared to James Guthrie’s Funeral Service in the Highlands and said to be an example of ‘peasant piety’. And, as the name suggests, it certainly deals with piety. Capturing parishioners crowded into someone’s home as a young priest says mass. However it is also possible to read the painting differently. To, as it were, offer a republican reading of O’Kelly’s work.
Against the backdrop of the Land War, the struggle between tenants and landords, the holding of mass was often a precursor for social and political gatherings. Given the social aspect of the mass Niamh O’Sullivan says ‘they almost seamlessly facilitated the transition from socializing to politicizing’. In other words the significance of the mass may not be the mass itself but what comes next, what is unseen, anticipated. O’Sullivan also points out that as an example of history painting the moment captured in Mass in a Connemara Cabin is not the climax but ‘the pregnant moment’. So the single image captures the past and at the same time suggests a future. O’Kelly chooses not the consecration of the Eucharist as the most significant moment in the mass but instead the final blessing, when the priest points towards the people as he makes the sign of the cross. Pointing us towards the political and social events which would follow a mass in the West of Ireland during this period.
Such a political and subversive reading of the painting would certainly be consistent with O’Kelly’s politics and with the mood of the times. There are other hints at political meanings too. The priest’s top hat sits on the chair. The priest is young, yet everyone is prone before him. The top hat represents his power within the community, power that comes from his clerical position not through experience or wisdom.
It has been suggested the Cabin itself may be the home O’Kelly rented in the area. Certainly the location places the painting in the tumultuous political times outlined above and also geographically locates the work in a part of Ireland which has proved productive to artists. Ernie O’Malley described Connemara as ‘a gaunt, ragged district of mountain form, freckled lakes, broken bouldered slopes bedazzled with light and serrated with an edge of sea’. He wrote this in relation to the work of another Irish painter, his friend Louis le Brocquy, who visited Connemara at the urging of O’Malley.
In 1946 O’Malley became the first writer to produce a critical appreciation of le Brocquy’s work. In particular he highlighted le Brocquy’s Famine Cottages Connemara with its ‘white washed cottages, abandoned in the Great Famine of 1848, indefinite now in reduced form as hollow wind-worn shells, slowly sink back into the soil from which they have come. Shawled women jut out of darker paint passages in the foreground as if they were worn stone shapes’. Unfortunately the missing O’Kelly painting didn’t provide O’Malley the opportunity to compare the two works.
Following the republican defeat in the Civil War and his eventual release from prison O’Malley set about advancing his republicanism through culture. Not only did he produce two magnificent autobiographical accounts of the anti-colonial war (On Another Man’s Wound) and the Civil War (The Singing Flame) he also educated himself in a wide range of cultural activities. All aimed at advancing the republican ideals he had fought so hard for while a soldier in the IRA. Writing from Kilmainham Jail in December 1923 he recognised the end of his IRA career and wished ‘to place at my country’s service what training I can by reading, and thinking’.
O’Malley viewed the work of le Brocquy, and that of another of his friends Jack Yeats, as part of the ongoing Irish resistance to British domination. He viewed their paintings as being at the intersection between aesthetics and politics. O’Malley viewed their portrayal of society’s outsiders such as the prisoner, the clown or the travelling community, as representing a lingering republican sentiment in Irish society following the republican defeat in the Civil War.
For O’Malley, who championed Yeats and le Brocquy before they received international acclaim, the work of both painters chimed with his view of Ireland and republicanism. Their work conveyed the particularities of Irish life, while at the same time reflecting an outward looking internationalism. Politically O’Malley rejected constitutional nationalism, he represented a republicanism which fought for independence while rejecting insularity and isolation. For revolutionaries like O’Malley culture was a site of struggle where British hegemony was contested through cultural independence and a process of decolonisation.
Republicans today have much to learn from O’Malley and his generation of republicans. The impact on republicans of the failure of the republican project has been profound. I have, until now, remained silent on the semi-public debate going on within republicanism about whether the (Provisional) IRA were defeated or not. The debate reminds me of the story recounted in On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War by retired US Army Colonel Harry Summers on his meeting in Hanoi with a North Vietnamese Army Colonel in 1975. At the beginning of the meeting Summers declares ‘You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield’. After some consideration the North Vietnamese Colonel said ‘That may be so, but it is also irrelevant’.
It is irrelevant because the battlefield is not the centre of gravity in the struggle. The people are the centre of gravity in political struggle. As the struggle shifts from (primarily) military to (primarily) ideological republicans need to adapt. We need to develop new tactics and strategies to advance our republican objectives. The goal remains the same, what James Connolly described as the re-conquest of Ireland, the independence of Ireland and the end of UK state occupation and colonial domination of the island.
The independence outlined in the 1916 Proclamation and fought for by Connolly, Pearse, O’Malley and subsequent generations, was not only political and economic but also social and cultural. In other words the process of decolonisation must be thorough. Republicans must build a counter-culture which stands independent of the state(s) and challenges the British Ideology. As we approach the centenary of 1916 Rising the process of decolonisation advanced by, what O’Malley called ‘the ’16 group’, must be re-examined and advanced.
And what of O’Kelly’s Mass in a Connemara Cabin? How it ended up hidden in Edinburgh for 100 years remains a mystery. Local legend has it the painting was a gift to the parish for various acts of support for the revolutionary struggle in Ireland. Another version, less exciting but no less political, has it being gifted to a parish priest with similar politics to O’Kelly. None of this can be dismissed as at the time the Cowgate area of Edinburgh, known as Little Ireland, would have been a hotbed of Irish republican and nationalist sentiment.
With thousands of people crowded into horrific slum conditions not only did Little Ireland produce James Connolly, it also formed Scotland’s original Irish football club, Hibernian, after players from the Irish community were excluded from local teams. Michael Davitt addressed a meeting in the area around this time in support of Irish Home Rule. So irrespective of how it got there the painting found a very appropriate hiding place. A reproduction of the painting now takes pride of place at the back of St Patrick’s church and in the homes of many in the area’s Irish community, including mine.
Mass in a Connemara Cabin now hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. Whenever I’m in the city I find myself drawn to the painting almost without asking myself why. Below the huge frame sits a sign stating simply ‘On loan from the people of St Patrick’s, Edinburgh and the Trustees of the Archdiocese of St Andrew’s and Edinburgh’.
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Jim Slaven tweets @JimSlaven