seamus dubhghaill

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


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Birth of Historian George Benn

george-bennGeorge Benn, Irish historian of Belfast, is born in Tanderagee, County Armagh on January 1, 1801.

Benn’s grandfather, Jonn Benn, came from Cumberland about 1760 as engineer of the Newry Canal. His father, also John Benn (1767-1853), was proprietor of a brewery in Belfast. He is educated at the Belfast Academy, under Rev. Dr. Bruce and afterwards under Sheridan Knowles, then a teacher of English at Belfast. He enters the collegiate classes of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution in 1816, being one of the original alumni, and takes gold medals in logic (1817) and moral philosophy (1818).

In 1819 the faculty prize is offered for the “best account of a parish.” Benn is the successful essayist, with the parish of Belfast as his theme. He also gains in 1821 the faculty prize (The Crusades), and Dr. Tennant’s gold medal (Sketch of Irish Authors in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries). His essay of 1819 attracts the attention of James M’Knight, LL.D., then editor of the Belfast News-Letter who offers to print and publish it. It is issued anonymously in an enlarged form in 1823, with three maps and sixteen engravings by J. Thomson. For so young a writer it is a work of uncommon judgment and research, exceedingly well written, with an eye for scenery and a taste for economics as well as for antiquities. It is not superseded by Benn’s later labours.

Benn, with his brother Edward (1798- 1874), engages in distilling near Downpatrick. Subsequently the brothers spend the prime of their days on an estate they purchase at Glenravel, near Ballymena. Here, in an unimproved district, they plant the hillsides, plough the moors, build good houses, and collect a valuable library. They endeavour to create a new industry by an experiment in the manufacture of potato spirit, but excise regulations in place at the time frustrate their object. The cost of the experiment, and the losses from potato disease, induce the brothers to undertake a business in Liverpool for some years. Returning to Glenravel, a casual circumstance leads to a rich discovery of iron ore in the Glenravel hills. The first specimen is smelted in 1851 under Edward Benn’s direction. In 1866 an agreement is made with James Fisher, of Barrow-in-Furness, to work the mineral beds. Hence comes a new and valuable addition to the commercial products of Ulster, which has since attained important proportions.

Meanwhile, Edward Benn is contributing antiquarian articles to various journals and forming a fine archaeological collection, now in the Ulster Museum. It his proposed to George to resume and complete the history of Belfast. He modestly indicates, as more fit for the task, William Pinkerton, who collects some materials, but dies in 1871 without having begun the history. Pinkerton’s papers are submitted to Benn for publication, but he finds employment of them impracticable, and states in his preface to his history, “It is all my own work from beginning to end.”

Benn returns to Belfast after his brother’s death in 1874, publishing A History of the Town of Belfast in 1877. A second volume appears in 1880. This supplementary volume, though the proof-sheets are “corrected by a kind friend,” the late John Carlisle, head of the English department in the Royal Academical Institution, bears evidence of the author’s affecting statement: “Before I had proceeded very far, my sight entirely failed.” Benn dies on January 8, 1882.

Edward and George Benn are members of the nonsubscribing presbyterian body, but wide in their sympathies and broad in their charities beyond the limits of their sect. Edward is the founder, and George the benefactor, of three hospitals in Belfast and their gifts to educational institutions are munificent.

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Birth of Robert Ballagh, Artist, Painter & Designer

Robert “Bobby” Ballagh, artist, painter and designer, is born in Dublin on September 22, 1943. His painting style is strongly influenced by pop art. He is particularly well known for his hyperealistic renderings of well known Irish literary, historical or establishment figures.

Ballagh grows up in a ground-floor flat on Elgin Road in Ballsbridge, the only child of a Presbyterian father and a Catholic mother. He studies at Bolton Street College of Technology and becomes an atheist while attending Blackrock College. Before turning to art as a profession, he is a professional musician with the Irish showband Chessmen. He meets artist Michael Farrell during this period, and Farrell recruits him to assist with a large mural commission, which is painted at Ardmore Studios.

Ballagh represents Ireland at the 1969 Biennale de Paris. Among the theatre sets he has designed are sets for Riverdance, I’ll Go On, Gate Theatre (1985), Samuel Beckett‘s Endgame (1991) and Oscar Wilde‘s Salomé (1998). He also designs over 70 Irish postage stamps and the last series of Irish banknotes, “Series C,” before the introduction of the euro. He is a member of Aosdána and his paintings are held in several public collections of Irish painting including the National Gallery of Ireland, the Hugh Lane Gallery, the Ulster Museum, Trinity College, Dublin, and Nuremberg‘s Albrecht Dürer House.

In 1991, he co-ordinates the 75th anniversary commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising, during which he claims he is harassed by the Special Branch of the Garda Síochána.

He is the president of the Ireland Institute for Historical and Cultural Studies, which promotes international republicanism. It is based at the new Pearse centre at 27 Pearse Street, Dublin, which is the birthplace of Pádraig Pearse in 1879.

In July 2011 it is reported that he might consider running for the 2011 Irish Presidential election with the backing of Sinn Féin and the United Left Alliance. A Sinn Féin source confirms there has been “very informal discussions” and that Ballagh’s nomination is “a possibility” but “very loose at this stage.” However, on July 25 Ballagh rules out running in the election, saying that he has never considered being a candidate. His discussions with the parties had been about the election “in general” and he has no ambitions to run for political office.

That same month, Ballagh breaks ranks with his colleagues in the travelling production of Riverdance in their decision to perform in Israel. He is an active member of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which insists that artists and academics participate in boycotts of Israeli businesses and cultural institutions.

In July 2012, Ballagh says he is “ashamed and profoundly depressed” at the en masse closure of Irish galleries and museums. He cites an example of some Americans and Canadians on holiday in Ireland. “They described most of the National Gallery as being closed along with several rooms in the Hugh Lane Gallery. I’m glad they didn’t bother going out to the Museum of Modern Art in Kilmainham because that’s closed too. At the point I met them, they were returning from Galway where they had found the Nora Barnacle Museum closed too.” He condemns the hypocrisy of political leaders, saying, “I know arts funding is not a big issue for people struggling to put food on the table but we are talking about the soul of the nation.”


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Birth of Artist William Conor

Artist William Conor is born on May 6, 1881 in the Old Lodge Road area of north Belfast, the son of a wrought-iron worker.

Celebrated for his warm and sympathetic portrayals of working-class life in Ulster, Conor studies at the Government School of Design in Belfast in the 1890s. His artistic talents are recognized at the early age of ten when a teacher of music, Louis Mantell, notices the merit of his chalk drawings and arranges for him to attend the College of Art.

Conor initially works as a commercial artist, before being commissioned during World War I by the British government to produce official records of soldiers and munitions workers.

Conor moves to London in 1920 and there meets and socialises with such artists as Sir John Lavery and Augustus John. He exhibits at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1921 and in Dublin at the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) from 1918–1967, showing nearly 200 works.

Conor is one of the first Academicians when the Belfast Art Society becomes the Ulster Academy of Arts in 1930. He becomes an Associate RHA in 1938 and a full member in 1946. Exhibitions at the Victor Waddington Galleries are held in 1944 and 1948. In 1952 he is awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and in 1957 he is elected President of the Royal Ulster Academy, an office he holds until 1964.

More than 50 works of his in crayon and watercolour are in the permanent collections of the Ulster Museum.

(Pictured: Bronze statue of William Conor at Conor’s Corner, Shankill Road, Belfast)


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Birth of Artist Sarah Henrietta Purser

Sarah Henrietta Purser, Irish artist mainly noted for her work with stained glass, is born on March 22, 1848, in Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) in County Dublin, and raised in Dungarvan, County Waterford. She is educated in Switzerland and afterwards studies at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin and in Paris at the Académie Julian.

Purser works mostly as a portraitist. She is also associated with the stained glass movement, founding a stained glass workshop, An Túr Gloine, in 1903. Some of her stained glass work is commissioned from as far as New York City, including a window at Christ Church, Pelham dedicated to the memory of Katharine Temple Emmet and Richard Stockton Emmet, grandson of the Irish patriot, Thomas Addis Emmet. Through her talent and energy, and owing to her friendship with the Gore-Booths, she is very successful in obtaining commissions, famously commenting, “I went through the British aristocracy like the measles.”

In 1977 Bruce Arnold noted, “some of her finest and most sensitive work was not strictly portraiture, for example, An Irish Idyll in the Ulster Museum, and Le Petit Déjeuner (in the National Gallery of Ireland).”

Sarah Purser becomes wealthy through astute investments, particularly in Guinness. She is very active in the art world in Dublin and is involved in the setting up of the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery, persuading the Irish government to provide Charlemont House to house the gallery. In 1923 she becomes the first female member of the Royal Hibernian Academy.

Until her death she lives for years in Mespil House, a Georgian mansion with beautiful plaster ceilings on Mespil Road, on the banks of the Grand Canal. After her death in Dublin on August 7, 1943, it is demolished and is developed into apartments. She is buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery in Dublin.

(Pictured: Stained glass window in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, by Sarah Purser made in 1906: a depiction of King Cormac of Cashel)


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Death of Irish Painter Sir John Lavery

john-laverySir John Lavery, Irish painter best known for his portraits and wartime depictions, dies of natural causes at the age of 84 in Kilmoganny, County Kilkenny, on January 10, 1941.

Born in Belfast on March 20, 1856, Lavery attends Haldane Academy in Glasgow in the 1870s and the Académie Julian in Paris in the early 1880s. He returns to Glasgow and is associated with the Glasgow School. In 1888 he is commissioned to paint the state visit of Queen Victoria to the Glasgow International Exhibition of Science, Art and Industry. This launches his career as a society painter and he moves to London soon thereafter. In London he becomes friends with James McNeill Whistler and is clearly influenced by him.

Like William Orpen, Lavery is appointed an official artist in World War I. Ill-health, however, prevents him from travelling to the Western Front. A serious car crash during a Zeppelin bombing raid also keeps him from fulfilling this role as war artist. He remains in Britain and mostly paints boats, aeroplanes, and airships. During the war years he is a close friend of H.H. Asquith‘s family and spends time with them at their Sutton Courtenay Thames-side residence, painting their portraits and idyllic pictures like Summer on the River (Hugh Lane Gallery).

After the war Lavery is knighted and in 1921 he is elected to the Royal Academy of Arts.

michael-collins-love-of-irelandDuring this time, he and his wife, Hazel, are tangentially involved in the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. They give the use of their London home to the Irish negotiators during the negotiations leading to the Anglo-Irish Treaty. After Michael Collins is assassinated, Lavery paints Michael Collins, Love of Ireland, now in the Hugh Lane Gallery. In 1929, Lavery makes substantial donations of his work to both the Ulster Museum and the Hugh Lane Gallery and in the 1930s he returns to Ireland. He receives honorary degrees from the University of Dublin and Queen’s University Belfast. He is also made a free man of both Dublin and Belfast. A long-standing member of Glasgow Art Club, Lavery exhibits at the club’s annual exhibitions, including its exhibition in 1939 in which his The Lake at Ranelagh is included.

Sir John Lavery dies in Rossenarra House, Kilmoganny, County Kilkenny on January 10, 1941, and is interred in Putney Vale Cemetery.