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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Irish American Painter William Harnett

william-michael-harnettWilliam Michael Harnett, Irish American painter known for his trompe-l’œil still lifes of ordinary objects, is born in Clonakilty, County Cork on August 10, 1848, during the time of the Great Famine.

Shortly after his birth Harnett’s family emigrates to the United States, settling in Philadelphia. Becoming a United States citizen in 1868, he makes a living as a young man by engraving designs on table silver, while also taking night classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and later, in New York City, at Cooper Union and at the National Academy of Design. His first known oil painting, a still life, dates from 1874.

The style of trompe-l’œil painting that Harnett develops is distinctive and inspired many imitators, but it is not without precedent. A number of Dutch Golden Age painters, Pieter Claesz for instance, had specialized in tabletop still life of astonishing verisimilitude. Raphaelle Peale, working in Philadelphia in the early 19th century, pioneers the form in America. What sets Harnett’s work apart, besides his enormous skill, is his interest in depicting objects not usually made the subject of a painting.

Harnett paints musical instruments, hanging game, and tankards, but also paints the unconventional Golden Horseshoe (1886), a single rusted horseshoe shown nailed to a board. He paints a casual jumble of second-hand books set on top of a crate, Job Lot, Cheap (1878), as well as firearms and even paper currency. His works sell well, but they are more likely to be found hanging in a tavern or a business office than in a museum, as they dds not conform to contemporary notions of high art.

still-life-violin-and-musicHarnett spent the years 1880–1886 in Europe, staying in Munich from 1881 until early 1885. His best-known paintings, the four versions of After The Hunt, are painted between 1883 and 1885. Each is an imposing composition of hunting equipment and dead game, hanging on a door with ornate hinges at the right and keyhole plate at the left. These paintings, like the horseshoe or currency depictions mentioned earlier, are especially effective as trompe-l’œil because the objects occupy a shallow space, meaning that the illusion is not spoiled by parallax shift if the viewer moves.

Overall, Harnett’s work is most comparable to that of the slightly younger John F. Peto. The two artists know each other, and a comparison can be made between two paintings featuring violins. Harnett’s Music and Good Luck from 1888 shows the violin hanging upright on a door with ornate hinges and with a slightly torn piece of sheet music behind it. The elements are arranged in a stable, deliberate manner. Peto’s 1890 painting shows the violin hanging askew, as well as chipped and worn, with one broken string. The sheet music is dog-eared and torn around the edges, and placed haphazardly behind the instrument. The hinges are less ornate, and one is broken. Harnett’s objects show signs of use but are well preserved, while Peto’s more humble objects are nearly used up.

Crippling rheumatism plagues Harnett in his last years, reducing the number but not the quality of his paintings. He dies in New York City on October 29, 1892. Other artists who paint similar compositions in Harnett’s wake include his contemporary John Haberle and successors such as Otis Kaye and Jefferson David Chalfant.

Harnett’s work is in collections in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo, New York), the Amon Carter Museum of American Art (Fort Worth, Texas), the Dallas Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Brooklyn Museum, the Carnegie Museum of Art (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Harvard Art Museums, the High Museum of Art (Atlanta, Georgia), the Honolulu Museum of Art, the Joslyn Art Museum (Omaha, Nebraska), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, New York), the National Gallery of Art (Washington D.C.), the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa, Ontario), the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the San Diego Museum of Art, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum (Madrid, Spain), the Toledo Museum of Art (Toledo, Ohio), the Wadsworth Atheneum (Hartford, Connecticut), and the Wichita Art Museum (Wichita, Kansas) among others.

(Pictured: Music and Good Luck, oil on canvas by William Michael Harnett, 1888, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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Birth of William X. O’Brien, Politician & Trade Unionist

william-x-obrienWilliam X. O’Brien, politician and trade unionist, is born on January 23, 1881 in Clonakilty, County Cork. He is christened “John William.”

O’Brien moves with his family to Dublin in 1897, and quickly becomes involved in the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP). He is described as “a very significant figure in the ISRP” by ISRP historian David Lynch. He is a member of the Socialist Party of Ireland, serving on its executive.

A close friend and associate of James Connolly, O’Brien helps establish the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) in 1909, and is instrumental in the Dublin lock-out strike in 1913.

A member of the Irish Neutrality League and Anti-Conscription Committee during World War I, O’Brien is interned on several occasions by the Dublin Castle government. During one of these instances, he stands in the 1920 Stockport by-election, but is refused a release to campaign in it.

With the formation of the Irish Free State, O’Brien is elected as Teachta Dála (TD) for Dublin South at the 1922 general election, and again for Tipperary in June 1927 and again in 1937.

An important figure in the Labour Party in Ireland in its formative days, O’Brien resists James Larkin‘s attempt to gain control of the Party on release from prison. Taking Larkin to court over his occupation of ITGWU headquarters, the Larkin-O’Brien feud results in a split within the labour and trade union movements, and the formation of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

In 1930, O’Brien seeks to have Leon Trotsky granted asylum in Ireland, but the head of the Free State government, W. T. Cosgrave, refuses to allow it.

Active in politics and the trade union movement into his 60s, O’Brien retires in 1946 and dies on October 31, 1968.


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Birth of Michael Collins, Revolutionary Leader & Politician

Michael Collins, soldier and politician who was a leading figure in the struggle for, and achievement of Irish independence in the early 20th century, is born near Clonakilty, County Cork, on October 16, 1890.

Michael Collins is born to a successful farmer, Michael John Collins, and Mary Anne O’Brien. When the couple marries, she is twenty-three years old and he is sixty. The couple have eight children, with Michael being the youngest.

Raised in a beautiful but remote part of southwest Ireland, Collins is educated at local primary schools. At the Lisavair National School, Collins is inspired by his teacher, Denis Lyons, a member of a secret organization, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), whose aim is to gain Ireland’s independence from Great Britain. Collins is also influenced by the stories of local men who had taken part in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, a conflict that sparks a feud between the Irish Protestants and Catholics. From these stories Collins learns of Irish pride, rebellion, executions, and the general harsh treatment imposed on his country by the British.

In 1906 Collins goes to London to enter the civil service as a postal clerk. For ten years Collins lives in London, where he becomes active in various Irish organizations, including the Gaelic League, a society that promotes the use of the Irish language. Also during this time, Collins is influenced by the writings of Arthur Griffith, an Irish nationalist who founded the Irish political party Sinn Féin. In 1909 Collins himself becomes a member of the IRB, and later becomes the IRB treasurer for the South of England.

Collins returns to Ireland in 1916 to take part in the Easter Rising, a rebellion against British rule. After the rebellion is crushed, Collins is interned in North Wales along with most of the other rebels from the IRB. When the internees are released in December 1916, he goes to Dublin, where his sharp intelligence and dynamic energy soon secure him a leadership position in the reviving revolutionary movement.

After their victory in the general election of December 1918, the revolutionaries establish an Irish parliament, Dáil Éireann, in January 1919. The Dáil officially announces an Irish Republic and sets up an executive to take over the government of the country. British attempts to crush the Republican movement are met with guerrilla warfare from the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Collins plays the most important role in this struggle. As director of intelligence of the IRA, he cripples the British intelligence system in Ireland and replaces it with an effective Irish network. At the same time he performs other important military functions, heads the IRB, and, as minister of finance in the Republican government, successfully raises and hands out large sums of money on behalf of the rebel cause. Despite constant efforts, the British are unable to capture Collins or stop his work. The “Big Fellow” becomes an idolized and near-legendary figure in Ireland, and he wins a reputation in Britain and abroad for ruthlessness, resourcefulness, and daring.

After the truce of July 1921, Collins reluctantly agrees to Irish president Éamon de Valera‘s request to serve on the peace-making talks headed by Arthur Griffith. During the autumn negotiations in London, the British government firmly rejects any settlement that involves recognition of the republic. Instead its representatives offer Dominion status for Ireland with the right of exclusion for loyalist Northern Ireland. Collins decides to accept these terms, in the belief that rejection would mean renewal of the war and quick defeat for Ireland, and that the proposed treaty will soon lead to unity and complete freedom for his country. Using these arguments, he and Griffith persuade their side to sign the treaty on December 6, 1921, and Dáil Éireann to approve it on January 7, 1922.

De Valera and many Republicans refuse to accept the agreement, however, believing that it means a betrayal of the republic and a continued domination by Britain. As the British evacuate southern Ireland, Collins and Griffith do their best to maintain order and enforce the treaty signed with the British. They find their efforts frustrated by the opposition of an armed Republican minority. Collins seeks desperately to satisfy the forces that oppose the treaty without abandoning the treaty altogether, but he finds it impossible to make a workable compromise.

In late June 1922, after the population had supported the settlement in an election, Collins agrees to use force against the opposition. This action sparks a civil war, a bitter conflict in which the forces of the infant Irish Free State eventually overcome the extreme Republicans in May 1923. However, Collins does not live to see the end of the war. He is killed in an ambush in West Cork on August 22, 1922, just ten days after the death of Arthur Griffith.

Much of Collins’s success as a revolutionary leader is due mainly to his realism and extraordinary efficiency. He also possesses an amazing vision and humanity in his character, however, which appeals to friend and foe alike. The treaty that costs him his life does not end the argument, as he had hoped, but it does make possible the peaceful gaining of full political freedom for most of Ireland.