Recently new figures emerged in Ireland which show 250 (mostly young) people a day are leaving our shores. Emigration has always been a painful feature of Irish life. During the 1800’s when famine ravaged the country, it is estimated that up to a million people left Ireland, travelling on what became known as ‘coffin ships’ to seek a new life abroad, mainly in the United States. With the exception of a brief hiatus during the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger” years of the 2000’s, emigration has always been a feature of Irish life. Those who emigrate now are generally well-educated and highly skilled and these skills are valued abroad. The world is also a smaller place now-cheaper air fares and the impact of social media and new phone technologies make it easier for people to keep in touch with family and friends at home and to return for holidays as well as for important family events. Despite this, it does not make the decision to go any easier, nor does it lessen the sadness for those left behind. The impact it will have on Ireland is not yet known and we may not know for years to come. When people left in previous decades, these technologies were not available. In the early part of the twentieth century, ‘American Wakes’ were held by the family of the emigrant, both as a celebration and a final farewell. Those going and those who were left, never had any expectation of seeing their loved one again and so in that sense it was a death.
The painting I want to talk about today is Ulysses of Connemara by the Limerick born artist Sean Keating (1889-1977). It is a depiction of emigration and shows a group of people who are waiting by a shoreline in Connemara as one of them prepares to depart. The emigrant stands waving to a ship in full sail out at sea, while a boatman prepares to launch a currach (a small boat, unique to the West Coast of Ireland) which will take him to the waiting ship. On the viewers’ right are a group of four people huddled around what appears to be the ruin of a house. One figure, undoubtedly the mother is seated, her eyes downcast and her face stricken with grief and resignation. Beside her is the seated figure of a man (who bears a striking resemblance to Keating himself). He holds an object, it could be a bottle or glass containing, perhaps poitin or whiskey, or maybe Holy Water to bless the emigrant on his journey. Behind are the figures of a woman in a shawl and a youth. The woman may represent the girlfriend or fiancée of the man who is leaving. Perhaps the youth is a younger brother or maybe his friend. The emigrant is not is not looking back at the family group but since we cannot clearly see his face, we can only guess what he might be thinking. It is a sentimental vision of emigration, but the mother’s face tells a story as relevant now as it was when this was painted. Keating often used allegory to make a point, and the ruined house could represent Ireland itself, and is something which resonates in modern Ireland as well.
Keating studied under William Orpen who regarded him as his greatest pupil. He has been described as an academic painter and he was certainly a traditionalist, who had little time for modern art, much of which he regarded as bogus. He was influenced by Realism and Romanticism and can be justly described as among Ireland’s greatest representational painters. He was fiercely nationalist in his thinking and his paintings record the birth and development of the Irish Republic. Aside from his iconic paintings of the War of Independence, such as Men of the South (1921, Crawford Art Gallery) or Allegory (1922, National Gallery of Ireland), he also painted a series of paintings which record the building of a hydro-electric power generator at Ardnacrusha on the river Shannon. The paintings record one of the great achievements of the new Irish State. His paintings are often romanticised and idealised depictions of life in Ireland and there is always an element of heroism present. He was very interested in and greatly admired the lifestyle of the people of the Aran Islands, which he visited for the first time in 1914 on the advice of his friend Harry Clarke.
Ulysses of Connemara was sold in 1977 to a private collector for stg£400,000, a record sum for a Sean Keating painting anywhere in the world. There is a certain irony that such a large sum was paid for a painting whose subject matter deals with economic need and deprivation – but that’s the art world for you!