Margaret Rossiter, Columnist
IT WAS NOT the best of times in Ireland. Indeed, many people who lived through it, would say it was the worst of times. It was the 1940s. World War II had just ended. The economy and industry, already severely depressed, was struggling to recover. Unemployment was widespread. Emigration escalated. Poverty and poor housing prevailed. Enough said...
Yet, into this gloom, came a small group of talented people in Clonmel. They had a vision. All were artists, members of the Tipperary Fine Arts Society, which had been founded about 1941. By 1946, they had conceived the idea of establishing a Municipal Art Gallery in the town.
The group collected works of art, the work of very reputable contemporary Irish artists of the time, to which they added some of the very best work of local artists. These became the nucleus of a collection, which even today is remarkable in the context of the cultural history of Irish provincial towns.
Many of the local artists had already produced work which, according to Peter Jordan (“Tipperary Historical Journal 2006”), expressed the “unspoken need” to demonstrate that “Clonmel artists can compete on the same terms as their more famous Dublin counterparts.”
Indeed, many people who now treasure works by R.J. (Dickie) Long, (father of the late Brendan Long, former editor of this newspaper), Edward O’Connor, Molly Bracken, Lilla Perry, Margaret Condon, Mary Morris, would enthusiastically agree.
The group identified and availed of some capital available at the time, through the Haverty Trust and the Friends of Irish Art and they bought a number of works by celebrated Irish artists: Jack B. Yeats, Kate Dobbin, Letitia Hamilton, William J. Leach, Nathaniel Hone, Bea Orpen.
The vision became a reality in 1948, when the Gallery was opened in the premises vacated by the former Munster and Leinster Bank in Parnell Street, and which had been acquired by the Local Authority. This building also accommodated the library and the very early museum. (The establishment of a museum had long been campaigned for by the Clonmel Historical and Archaeological Society, some members of which contributed some of the original artefacts, which they had collected over the years). The actual ownership of the art collection was ultimately transferred to Clonmel Corporation.
Subsequently, the original collection was added-to by a number of bequests, the most notable of which came from Clonmel man, William English. This brought relatively modern artists (working in the late decades of the 20th century) into the gallery: Robert Ballagh, Patrick Pye, Leo Hogan, Julieta Guipeal, and the Clonmel-born artist, Martin Quigley.
There have also been some interesting bequests to the collection of portraits: There are two portraits of John O’Leary, one by an unknown artist and donated by Dan Breen, and the second by John B. Yeats (the father of the poet William Butler Yeats and the artist Jack B. Yeats) which came via the Friends of the National Collection.
Amongst the other interesting portraits, there is one of Fr. Sheehy and another entitled “Miss Brunicardi” (in a nurse’s uniform). Citizens interested in the history of Clonmel local government will recognise this Italian-sounding name, since a member of the family was Borough Surveyor/Engineer during the last decades of the 19th century, a time of much development in street building and widening and the provision of piped water supplies to the town.
COLLECTION NOW NUMBERS OVER 80 WORKS
The collection now numbers over 80 works, including many valuable pictures. It is part of Clonmel’s wealth - its capital - its hidden treasure. Yet, the vision of those artists of the 1940s did not intend it to be hidden. Their objective was the enhancement of the town and of its citizens; the improvement of the quality of the lives of ordinary people via the establishment of a gallery where works of art could be permanently displayed.
But the collection has remained virtually hidden for a number of decades. Following the closure of the premises in Parnell Street, it was moved to the newly-built museum. There, it has been stored safely and conserved but, with the exception of a very occasional exhibition of some of the pictures, it has remained out of sight of ordinary people. (In the memory of this columnist, the last exhibition took place in 2005).
This exclusion did not form any part of the vision of those inspired Clonmel artists in those dark days of the 1940s. They envisioned a public Municipal Gallery.
It is, therefore, good to hear that in the proposed reorganisation of the County Museum that some space is now being reserved for the display, at any one time, of part of the collection. But, while this is welcome, it seems to this columnist that the space is necessarily limited; that it is just an adjunct to the display of museum artefacts. It is no substitute for a proper space, a special room, a gallery.
In the many properties now available to the local authority in Clonmel is there any such a room? In the upper story of the Museum itself? In the now largely empty Town Hall? In the Main Guard? This art collection is a treasure of the sort that few Irish towns possess. It should not be locked away, safe, unseen, forgotten.