Irish Artists at War
John Lavery (1856-1941)
Apparently Sigmund Freud never said of the Irish, “This is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever,” but the idea that it is pointless to attempt to fathom “the Irish” has implanted itself in popular culture. But true or not, the not-quote by Freud begs the question: who are “the Irish?” The indigenous Irish, who were left strictly alone by the Roman Empire and overlords of England, were Celts from Iberia, an origin that distinguished them from the Celts of southern England who were Germanic. Only marginally disturbed by visiting Danes, the wild Irish tribes were “civilized,” i.e. Christianized, by Saint Patrick, but they continued their warlike contentious habits, going to battle in a perilous state of nudity. However, internecine conflicts among contending kings left the dis-united territory ripe for conquest from the neighbor across the sea. Under Henry II, the Normans colonized Ireland in 1171 and established rule over a territory called the English Pale, a rather small chunk on the Western edge which encompassed Dublin. For centuries, following the Plantagenet practices, the English rulers rewarded their vessels with Irish land, giving away large dominions that were often neglected by the absentee landlords.
Under Elizabeth I, the Irish were also expected to forego their Catholic beliefs and become Protestant, like those who lived in the English section of Ireland. Once converted by Saint Patrick, the Irish would not be reconverted, and became, in the eyes of the English rulers, enemies who would align themselves with Catholic powers. Four hundred years of religious persecution followed. Having firmly rejected the Anglican faith, the Irish were inspired by the American Revolution and dreamed of throwing off British dominance. For the British, the Irish were inferior savages and the colonizers created terms for the Irish that became the bedrock for racist language that would be transferred to America. As late as 1988, a member of the British parliament referred to the Protestants in Ireland as the “white people.” In 1910, on the eve of the Great War, Irish were thought to be “excitable,” emotional, lazy drunks, good with music and dance, but angry people, who “got their Irish up.” They were “Paddies,” a reference to Saint Patrick and they were also the weak “feminine” to the “masculinity” of the the overlords. The English had such contempt for this inferior race, they allowed the Irish to starve during the devastating years of the Irish Potato Famine. The lucky ones were able to immigrate to America where they were met by imported English prejudices. Those who somehow survived the famine stayed behind to repeatedly rebel agains the hated colonizers.
Literally days before the declarations of war in August of 1914, the Third Home Rule bill seemed poised to allow the Irish to govern themselves, if only under the umbrella of Great Britain. But the War put Home Rule on hold once again and it is with the current cloud of bad feelings that the English attempted to convince the Irish, Catholics and Protestants alike, to enlist in the conflict against the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. To be Irish and to be at war in 1914 meant serving with the British and supporting the English cause against the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. To be Irish means to be in a divided nation, torn between Catholics, the colonized inhabitants of Ireland, and the colonizers, the English Protestants. But over 100,000 Irish men volunteered to serve their country or Great Britain or to prove their worthiness for home rule. The leader of the Irish Party and Minister of Parliament, John Redmond stated that, “The interests of Ireland – of the whole of Ireland – are at stake in this war.” Some wanted adventure. A future leader of the Irish Republican Army, Tom Barry, said that he enlisted “for no other reason than to see what war was like, to get a gun, to see new countries and to feel like a grown man.” Other men, living in poverty, simply needed the money. By all accounts the Irish fought bravely. In fact the London Irish Rifles became national heroes at the Battle of Loos in 1915 when Sargent Frank Edwards led a group of Irish soldiers who kicked a soccer ball over No-Man’s Land to the enemy trenches. Although there are doubters who think the episode has become more myth than reality, the football still exists (or so they claim) and there are accounts written at the time:
Suddenly the officer in command gave the signal, “Over you go, lads.” With that the whole line sprang up as one man, some with a prayer, not a few making the sign of the Cross. But the footballers, they chucked the ball over and went after it just as cool as if on the field, passing it from one to the other, though the bullets were flying thick as hail, crying, “On the ball, London Irish,” just as they might have done at Forest Hill. I believe that they actually kicked it right into the enemy’s trench with the cry, “Goal!” though not before some of them had been picked up on the way.
The Irish artists who responded the war included the poet W. B. Yeats (1865–1939), who wrote “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death.”I know that I shall meet my fateSomewhere among the clouds above;Those that I fight I do not hate,Those that I guard I do not love;My country is Kiltartan Cross,My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,No likely end could bring them lossOr leave them happier than before.Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,A lonely impulse of delightDrove to this tumult in the clouds;I balanced all, brought all to mind,The years to come seemed waste of breath,A waste of breath the years behindIn balance with this life, this death.
Sir John Lavery. A Misty Day, the Firth of Forth (1917)
Sir John Lavery. The End: The Surrender of the German Fleet, 16 November 1918 (1918)
Sir John Lavery, A Convoy, North Sea (1918)
Sir John Lavery. The Cemetery at Étaples (1919)
“Loyalty is a sentiment, not a law. It rests on Love, not on restraint. The government of Ireland by England rests on restraint and not on law; and, since it demands no love, it can evoke no loyalty. Judicial assassination today is reserved only for one race of the King’s subjects, for Irishmen; for those who cannot forget their allegiance to the realm of Ireland.”
Roger Casement wrote to his family, asking, “Who was the painter in the jury box?” Yet, as Casement noted, the painter “came perilously near aiding and comforting” the prisoner in the way he “eyed Mr Justice Darling’s delivery” of the verdict confirming the death sentence. Casement also noted that Lavery’s wife, Hazel, looked “very sad” at the same moment.Sir John Lavery. High Treason: The Appeal of Roger Casement (1916)
Sir John Lavery. Michael Collins Lying in State. Love of Ireland (1922)
Until the 1970s, Hazel Lavery, Irish-American hero, as depicted by her husband, Sir John Lavery, former Official War Artist, famous portraitist to the powerful, smiled out from the face of the Irish bank note, as the allegory of the spirit of Ireland itself.
If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.