Irish art

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The history of Irish art starts around 3200 BC with Neolithic stone carvings at the Newgrange megalithic tomb, part of the Brú na Bóinne complex, County Meath. In early-Bronze Age Ireland there is evidence of Beaker culture and a widespread metalworking. Trade-links with Britain and Northern Europe introduced La Tène culture and Celtic art to Ireland by about 300 BC, but while these styles later changed or disappeared under the Roman subjugation, Ireland was left alone to develop Celtic designs: notably Celtic crosses, spiral designs, and the intricate interlaced patterns of Celtic knotwork.

The Christianization of Ireland in the fifth century AD saw the establishment of monasteries, which acted as centres of scholarship, and led to the flowering of the Insular art style with its highly decorative illuminated manuscripts, metalwork and stonework (High crosses). From around 1200 to 1700, however, Irish art was relatively stagnant, and Irish culture was left comparatively untouched by the influence of Renaissance art.

From the late 17th century, talented artists began to emerge in the fields of fine art, particularly the painting of portraiture and landscapes. The early 18th century saw increased prosperity and establishment of new cultural institutions including the Royal Dublin Society (1731) and Royal Irish Academy (1785). In the Victorian era, with a lack of patronage and better opportunities to be found abroad, many Irish artists emigrated to London (portraitists) or Paris (landscapists), which stifled the nascent indigenous scene. By the dawn of the 20th century things began to improve. Opportunities began to spring up at home; the Celtic Revival movement saw a renewed interest in aspects of Celtic culture, Hugh Lane established the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, the first public gallery of its kind in the world, and with increased patronage a new generation of homegrown talent and returning emigres gradually formed a solid basis for the regrowth of art in Ireland. The foundation of an independent Irish State in the early 1920s did not lead to vast improvement in the state of Irelands' visual arts; in the years following Independence, the arts establishment (exemplified by the committee of the Royal Hibernian Academy) was dominated by traditionalists who steadfastly opposed attempts to bring Irish art into line with modern European styles.

Early Irish art[edit]


Irish gold personal ornaments began to be produced within about 200 years either side of 2000 BC, especially in the thin crescent-shaped disks known as lunulae, which was probably first made in Ireland, where over eighty of the hundred odd known examples were found. A range of thin decorated gold discs, bands and plaques, often with pin-holes, were probably attached to clothing, and objects that appear to be earrings have also been found. By around 1400–1000 BC, heavier thin torcs and bagles have been found. The Late Bronze Age of 900–600 BC saw the peak of the surviving Irish prehistoric goldsmithing, with superbly worked pieces in simple but very sophisticated designs, notably in a type of dress-fastener that looks like a double-ended trumpet curved round so that the two bell mouths are roughly pointing in the same direction. There are also a series of grand gold collars, representing a development of the lunula, with round plates at either end, and a broad corrugated "U"-shaped body, decorated geometrically along the ridges and troughs of the corrugations. Goldwork all but disappears in the Iron Age, except for the late and enigmatic Broighter Hoard of the 1st century BC, which appears to mix local and Roman pieces.

Although Ireland tends to be strongly associated in the popular mind with Celtic art, the early Continental style of Hallstatt style never reached Ireland, and the succeeding La Tène style reached Ireland very late, perhaps from about 300 BC, and has left relatively few remains, which are often described by art historians together with their British contemporaries as "Insular Celtic". Buried ironwork does not last long in Irish conditions, and gold is very rare, so the survivals are normally in bronze. The Petrie Crown, Loughnashade Trumpet and a series of discs whose function is mysterious are among the most striking pieces. The decoration on a number of bronze scabbards, many found in the River Bann, have inspired much discussion, as they seem close to other pieces from as far away as Hungary, and the possibility of an immigrant master has been raised. The National Museum of Ireland in Kildare Street, Dublin holds the majority of major finds from the whole prehistoric period.

Later Irish art[edit]

Book of Kells, folio 124r, Tunc Crucixerant

In Ireland, "La Tène ornamented material dating from the third to fifth centuries AD is difficult to demonstrate [from Ireland]".[1]

In the 6th to 8th centuries the art of the newly Christianised Irish mixed with Mediterranean and Germanic traditions through Irish missionary contacts with the Anglo-Saxons, creating what is called Insular art (or the Hiberno-Saxon style) and such masterpieces as the Book of Kells, the Ardagh Chalice and the Tara Brooch, the most spectacular of about fifty elaborate Celtic brooches in precious metal that have been found. The stone high cross was a distinctive insular type of monument, of which many examples survive. Later in the period, Scandinavian influences were added through the Vikings. These earlier styles largely came to an end with the Norman invasion of 1169–1170 and the subsequent wide adoption of Romanesque art. Through the Gothic and Renaissance periods Irish art was essentially a regional variation of wider European styles, with many works imported from England or further afield, and some English artists and craftsmen active in Ireland. Many objects of a distinctively Irish form from the first millennium, such as bell or book shrine reliquaries, were renovated or repaired in the contemporary style.[2]

Towards an Irish art[edit]

Due to ongoing wars, occupation and poverty much of the Irish arts were restricted to music and literature. Yet beginning in the late 17th century, Irish painting began to take a foothold. These painters typically looked outside Ireland for influence, training and clients who were wealthy enough to afford the purchase of art. For example, Walter Frederick Osborne developed his open air painting in France whereas Sir William Orpen studied in London.

In the second half of the 19th century a climate of cultural resurgence and nationalist ideals contributed to the development of an Irish style. A revived interest in the Irish language and Celtic history prompted a revival in the Irish visual arts as well. Belfast born Sir John Lavery may be the most internationally known painter of this generation. He trained in Glasgow and France, but unlike Orpen, maintained close ties to his native land. In 1928 he was commissioned to paint the symbol of Éire which would be used as the central image on the bank note of the new Irish Free State. Other paintings embodied the call for independence, such as Beatrice Elvery's Éire of 1907 which depicts the history of Irish Catholicism with the still-nascent Irish Republic.[3]

Early Irish masters[edit]

The Irish impressionists[edit]

The Irish landscape[edit]

Irish sculptors[edit]

The Academy[edit]


Jack Yeats[edit]

Social realism[edit]

The Stained Glass Movement[edit]

Modern art[edit]


Abstract expressionism[edit]

The Northern artists[edit]


Public art[edit]

Contemporary art[edit]

Ireland's best known living artists include Brian O'Doherty an art historian, sculptor, and conceptual artist who is based in New York City, Sean Scully an abstract painter who lives and works in New York City, Dorothy Cross, a sculptor and filmmaker and James Coleman, an installation and video artist.

Interest in collecting Irish art has expanded rapidly with the economic expansion of the country, primarily focussing on investment in early twentieth century painters. Support for young Irish artists is still relatively minor compared to their European counterparts, as the Arts Council's focus has been on improving infrastructure and professionalism in venues. That said, Ireland's unique tax break for creative artists (writers, visual artists and composers) has encouraged a wide community of artists to remain in Ireland.[citation needed]

An exhibition called 'The Art of a Nation: Irish Works from the Allied Irish Bank and Crawford Art Gallery Collection' was held between 13–31 May 2015 at the Mall Galleries, The Mall, London. It celebrated the story of Irish art from 1890s to the present day and included important works by Aloysius O'Kelly, Sir William Orpen, Jack B Yeats, William Scott, Sean Scully and Hughie O'Donoghue. Admission to the exhibition was free and a fully illustrated catalogue was for sale.

The short career of Patrick Ireland[edit]

Patrick Ireland was a fictitious identity assumed by the artist, art historian, painter, and sculptor Brian O'Doherty between the years 1972 and 2008, initiated in 1972 as a protest to the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry. O'Doherty (who was born in County Roscommon in 1934) and who moved to the United States in 1961, produced his artwork during those years (1972–2008) in which he had an extensive following in museums, galleries and the press nearly exclusively under the pseudonym of Patrick Ireland. In 1972 as a protest to the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry he changed his artistic identity to Patrick Ireland, until peace would be restored in Ireland. On May 20, 2008, in recognition of the progress for peace in Ireland he ceremoniously buried his alter ego in a public funeral at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin.[5][6]

Mural painting[edit]

Northern Ireland has a significant tradition of political mural painting, from both the loyalist and republican standpoints.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ NMI, 134
  2. ^ NMI, Chapter, 7, Later Medieval Ireland
  3. ^ [1] Steward, James Christian. The Irishness of Irish Painting. Retrieved Nov. 15, 2007.
  4. ^ Irish Arts Review Spring 2009: "Patrick Collins: A Modern Celt", Brian Fallon "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-10-27. Retrieved 2010-07-30. 
  5. ^ Irish Artist to "Bury" Alter Ego, ARTINFO, May 6, 2008, retrieved 2008-05-14 
  6. ^ Kimmelman, Michael (2005-05-22), Patrick Ireland, 36, Dies; Created to Serve Peace, New York Times, retrieved 2008-05-22 


  • "NMI": Wallace, Patrick F., O'Floinn, Raghnall eds. Treasures of the National Museum of Ireland: Irish Antiquities, 2002, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, ISBN 0-7171-2829-6
  • Bruce Arnold (1977). Irish Art: A Concise History. London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-20148-X
  • Kevin Samuel Murphy (1969) Irish artist born in London, England.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]