Oliver Sheppard RHA, Irish sculptor most famous for his 1911 bronze statue of the mythical Cuchulain dying in battle, dies at Knockranny, County Cavan, on September 14, 1941. His work was also part of the art competitions at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris and the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam.
Sheppard is born at Old Town, Cookstown, County Tyrone, on April 10, 1865, to Simpson Sheppard, a sculptor, and Ellen White, of Ormond Quay, Dublin. His main influence is the Frenchman Édouard Lantéri who teaches him at the Royal College of Art in London, and then at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (DMSA) in Dublin, now the National College of Art and Design (NCAD), where he later becomes a lecturer.
Sheppard is based in Dublin for almost all of his life, having traveled widely across Europe. His wife Rosie dies in 1931, with whom he has several children. They live at Howth and 30 Pembroke Road in central Dublin.
From 1902 to 1937 Sheppard teaches sculpture at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. His annual stipend is £250 but for this he only has to lecture three mornings a week, allowing him plenty of time for work on commissioned projects. One of his most famous students is the sculptor Kathleen Cox.
The Dying Cuchulain is considered Sheppard’s masterpiece and an important work of Irish art. It is a bronze figure of the mythological warrior-hero Cuchulain, who continued to fight against his enemies while gravely wounded and tied to a tree. It is created in 1911 and later chosen by Éamon de Valera in 1935 as the national memorial to the 1916 Easter Rising. It can still be viewed today in the General Post Office (GPO), O’Connell Street, Dublin.
As a prominent sculptor Sheppard is a member of the Royal Hibernian Academy, the Royal Dublin Society, and is made a governor of the National Gallery of Ireland from 1925–41. He also exhibits works at European exhibitions during his lifetime, occasionally winning prizes.
Sheppard is generally critical of the low standards of sculpture in Ireland: “For the last sixty years or so thousands of figures and groups have been executed in Dublin for ecclesiastical purposes, and, with one or two exceptions … was not up to a reasonable standard. The making of a work of art hardly entered into it at all. The sculptor, well trained and properly encouraged, should collaborate with the architect.”
In 1890–1910 Sheppard is a part of the Celtic Revival movement, and, from his works such as Inis Fáil, is admired by his student William Pearse. Through him he meets his brother Patrick Pearse who later helps launch the Easter Rising in 1916. While most of the Revival’s artists are writers, playwrights and poets, Sheppard can claim to be the main sculptor working on themes similar to theirs.
After the Irish War of Independence (1919–21) Sheppard says, “They thought me too old to fight but I have tried to help in other ways. My politics are simple. I have always thought that this country should be a free country.” His opinions are not overly dogmatic, considering his work on the war memorials in 1920.
In the mid-1920s the first series of Irish Free State coinage is planned, and is finally launched in 1928. Sheppard is one of the designers short-listed but his designs are not accepted.
After his retirement in 1937 from the National College of Art, the now renamed Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, he is appointed in 1938 by the Minister for Education to the College’s standing committee. He is also made a judge in the Royal Dublin Society art competition in 1939 and 1940.
Sheppard dies on September 14, 1941, in Dublin and is buried at Old St. Fintan’s Cemetery, Sutton, Dublin. There is a small retrospective exhibition of fourteen of his works at the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) in 1942. There are portraits of Sheppard by George William Russell (Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane) and Sir William Orpen (NGI), and photographic portraits in the Sheppard collection, National Irish Visual Arts Library (NIVAL) at the National College of Art and Design, Dublin, where his papers are located.