- Imaging the Land War
In a letter to his friend Anton van Rappard, Vincent van Gogh wrote enthusiastically about some of the illustrators of Irish scenes who caught his eye, announcing that he had just acquired "one very beautiful sheet by O'Kelly, Irish Emigrants" (presumably Departure of Irish Emigrants at Clifden, County Galway).1 The attraction of Aloysius O'Kelly's work for van Gogh lay not just in its evident concern for the poor and the downtrodden, but also in its mastery of the new medium of wood engraving which raised far-reaching questions, as Walter Benjamin would later phrase it, about the role of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.
The increases in population, prosperity, and literacy produced a burgeoning readership for the remarkable number of illustrated weeklies that formed such an important part of Victorian life—a readership that was attracted equally to the illustration as well as the text. Projected as an art form of, and for, the people, black-and-white illustration was credited with a serious role in the democratization of art. We can thus appreciate why O'Kelly's works should appeal to van Gogh—and, indeed, why illustration itself as a pictorial form should appeal to O'Kelly. By the early 1880s O'Kelly was spending long periods of time painting and sketching in Connemara. As a location, the West of Ireland was both politically and [End Page 100] aesthetically captivating, and it was these illustrations which van Gogh collected with great avidity. Moreover, it was through such illustrations that O'Kelly was subtly but significantly instrumental in elevating the Irish political situation from a British domestic irritant to an international cause. His work also lends itself to a critical study of the Illustrated London News in the 1880s—how it handled the Irish question at this time, and how the editorial line, the journalistic text, the skill of the artist, the mediation of the engravers, and the mode of production interacted in the creation of a new mass-readership in the mid to late nineteenth century. His illustrations dominated the widely circulated Illustrated London News in the early 1880s. Eviction in the West of Ireland (19 March 1881), figure 1, gives powerful visual expression to the inhumane conditions then endured by the peasants in Connemara. O'Kelly's standing with that pictorial newspaper was such that his Eviction was accorded full-blown, double-page treatment in a separate supplement. His rendition is emblematic of the perniciousness of landlordism in Ireland, so much so that this same image was carried in a prominent
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French newspaper on 22 May 1881. Landlordism, in the eyes of Irish nationalists, maintained the Irish peasantry in a deeply subjugated condition by the most severe methods of coercion; L'Univers Illustré stressed the utter poignancy of O'Kelly's eviction scene, explaining that there were then ten thousand outstanding orders of expulsion, predominantly leveled at those living in the remote areas of the West of Ireland. According to James Hack Tuke,
soldiers were brought from Galway in a gun-boat and landed in Roundstone Bay. It was like a military invasion of the country; they were prepared for fighting; there was an army surgeon with them, and a box, with a red cross on it, containing bandages and medicines for the wounded . . . ; no resistance was offered; [and, significantly] scarcely anywhere did people enough gather to be called a crowd.2
This last observation contrasts with O'Kelly's method, as he engages in an imaginative act of solidarity by grafting a subdued but supportive crowd onto what would otherwise be a portrayal of utter helplessness. From the outset the most characteristic aspect of O'Kelly's illustrations is the agency of the protagonists.
In 1879 fewer than a thousand landlords owned more than half of Ireland, and half the peasants of Connacht were at risk of eviction. Those who lived on the land faced a severe agricultural depression, which gave rise to extreme anxiety. Following a period of...