This is one of my favourite places in Dublin. It`s a blissful haven of peace, just around the corner from the city`s main thoroughfare, O`Connell Street. It`s Dublin City Gallery, also known as the Hugh Lane gallery.
I trotted along there this week to catch a wonderful exhibition Dublin Divided. This is part of a series of events and exhibitions to mark the centenary of the 1913 Dublin Lock-out. Luckily, some of these exhibitions have spilt over into the this year. Catch them, while you can.
Dublin 1913 was a miserable place for many. Once grand streets of Georgian mansions had been effectively converted into slums. Unsanitary, unsafe and overcrowded, one third of the city`s population lived in them in 1913. The poor also suffered under employers who were too willing to exploit them.
Led by Trade Union leader, Jim Larkin, the poor revolted. They became members of the Trade Union movement and this led the employers, under the leadership of William Martin Murphy, to lock them out of their places of employment. By mid September 1913, 15,000 workers were refused work with other workers from Britain and elsewhere in Ireland, taking their jobs. This was known as the Great Lock-Out.
The Hugh Lane Gallery
Dublin was divided into those who support Larkin`s cause, and those who supported Murphy. An interesting twist on this is that Hugh Lane wanted to establish the first Irish modern art gallery in Dublin. He bequeathed thirty nine paintings to the city to this end. But for years, the battle raged on about funding such a gallery.
William Martin Murphy, the employers` leader, was opposed to it. He was a capitalist and wanted money to be spent on business, `convents or churches` and, like many of the city`s population, thought the new gallery was an unnecessary extravagance.
But there was a movement among others in the middle classes, notably, William Butler Yeats, his aunt Lady Gregory, Sarah Harrison, Constance Markievicz and George Russell to bring the arts to all sectors of society. They were supported in this by Jim Larkin, who himself, enjoyed the arts and felt that enjoyment of the arts should transcend social boundaries.
A gallery was designed by Bristish architect Edwin Lutyens. It was built to replace the Metal Bridge which was regarded as unsightly. Said Metal Bridge is now known as the Ha`penny Bridge. That the Ha`penny Bridge was regarded as unsightly surprised me and, I am sure, would surprise many visitors to Dublin as it is now regarded as one of the iconic images of the city.
Of course, history frequently teaches us that vision is immensely improved by hindsight!
The divide over the new gallery ran through political lines too. In 1913 it seemed that a system of devolved government might emerge to resolve the Irish Question. This would be a compromise between the nationalist and unionist positions and was known as Home Rule. Led by John Redmond, the Irish Parliamentary Party seemed on the verge of having Home Rule granted by the British government of the day.
But, John Redmond was opposed to the Dublin City Gallery. Like William Martin Murphy, he thought it an unnecessary extravagance. Even though the current exhibition shows a fine portrait of him by Sir John Lavery, Redmond declared that he had no time for paintings.
So, it seems, Dublin was divided in its response to the labour movement and the creation of a new gallery.
The exhibition itself shows all of the main protagonists in this division. It notes, however, that the poor are not so well represented because artists painted for their patrons, and they were the middle and upper class.
The exceptions here are some fine paintings by Walter Osborne and one by John Butler Yeats, father of the poet, William.
This fine painting by Maurice Macgonigal shows stevedores awaiting the call to employment on the docks. Two decades on from the lock out, nevertheless it shows the cruelly casual nature of employment at the time and how that can be exploited.
Of course, all of this history is part of anyone living in Ireland now. The opportunities we have had are the result of those who have gone before. This exhibition does not just reflect the split on whether we need a gallery or not, or whether we should be an independent nation or not, it reflects the rights of everyone to have access to good education and proper health care. It reflects the need a to curb laws which exploit the poor. And the need to allow every voice to be heard, regardless of class, race or gender.
I am guessing my ancestors would have thought Lutyens`design for the city gallery to be an unnecessary expense. I think, in the face of all the poverty in the city, I would have also thought the money would be better spent elsewhere.
As it happened, the row about finding a suitable place to house the Lane bequest continued on for years. It wasn`t until the 1930s that the gallery was opened in the redesigned Charlemont House. This Georgian house is in itself, a beautiful building and a modern extension was added to it in 2006.
The policy of the gallery to bring modern paintings to everyone is still very much present today and something I am very grateful for. Entry is free. Access is easy. And there are very many more paintings within, including the wonderful Francis Bacon Studio.
But it seems that people are not interested. Dublin is divided into those who prefer to explore the cities cultural treasures and those who prefer to hanker after treasures in the shops. Any time I visit the Hugh Lane gallery it is very quiet. Yet two hundred yards down the road, Henry Street is heaving with shoppers.
I`m happy to keep the gallery all for myself. But nip in, if you have a moment, to catch Dublin Divided, or Francis Bacon, or some of the Hugh Lane bequest.
It`s all there to be enjoyed.
Pictures are credited within the captions unless they are my own.