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  • Mass in a Connemara Cabin:Religion and the Politics of Painting
  • Niamh O'Sullivan (bio)

Trained as a painter at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris under Jean-Léon Gérôme, Aloysius O'Kelly returned to the West of Ireland in the early 1880s, to the highly coveted position of Special Artist to the Illustrated London News. His work now gave visual expression to the harsh realities of life in the West at the height of a massive social and political crisis. O'Kelly systematically charted the formation of the Irish National Land League that harnessed growing agrarian unrest, as tenant farmers resisted evictions, refused to pay rent, and agitated for legislative changes to the land system. It was during those tumultuous years that he painted his chef-d'oeuvre, Mass in a Connemara Cabin.

In comparing an outline sketch for this landmark painting with the rustic devotions of Alphonse Legros and Léon L'Hermitte, and in relating its provincial realism to James Guthrie's Funeral Service in the Highlands, Kenneth McConkey suggests that O'Kelly provides "one of the first modern records of primitive western piety."2 But we should beware of viewing this painting as an unambiguous image of "peasant" piety. The painting no doubt is concerned with [End Page 126] Irish religious devotion, but its execution at a moment when radical Fenianism and land agitation sought a rapprochement, however qualified, with a hitherto critical Catholic church suggests that its rationale derives as much from politics as from piety.

Born into an advanced nationalist family in Dublin in 1853, O'Kelly's extended family was steeped in both the art world and the world of militant republicanism. His older brothers, James, Charles, and Stephen, were all Fenians as well as artists, and his sister Julia married another Fenian, Charles Hopper, brother-in-law of James Stephens, the founder of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. After the failure of the Rising in 1867, his older brother, James, his younger brother Stephen, his cousin-in-law, James Clancy, and the poet Joseph Ignatius Clarke were involved in the reorganization of the IRB, resulting in their political exile to New York in the 1870s. While his older brothers headed west to become, respectively, a leading journalist and a sculptor in the US, Aloysius, using James's passport, went to Paris, where he immediately made contact with James Stephens. Although on different continents, the brothers did not lose contact: the painter visited his journalist and sculptor brothers in New York, and James made many visits to Aloysius in France in the 1870s, where they furthered their family, artistic, and political connections.

Using visual material as historical evidence can be problematic. It would obviously be unwise, for example, to treat images as simple or direct reflections of beliefs, especially if we cannot establish the intentions of the artist, and know of whose beliefs we are speaking. We do not know Aloysius O'Kelly's religious convictions, if indeed he had any. And we do not know whether this painting was commissioned. What we do know, however, does not encourage speculation about the artist's orthodoxy or piety. For instance, Aloysius's relation to his swashbuckling brother James gives glimpses of his attitudes to politics and religion. James was a self-professed atheist, and although it could be folly indeed to ascribe the beliefs of one brother to another, in so many respects they acted as one in a serial of masquerades and swapped identities—at some times comical, and at others deadly. James was elected a Parnellite member of parliament for County Roscommon in 1880, despite his underground [End Page 127] Fenian and gunrunning activities, and became Parnell's most loyal supporter, even when he fell from power. Not to be outdone, Aloysius sought to have himself proposed for election in the adjoining constituency of South Roscommon in 1897. The close relationship between the two brothers extended beyond politics to the lurid, including, among other things, a bigamous marriage that James sought to conceal by blurring the identities of the two. The underworld of republican politics—secret addresses, disappearances, invisible ink, false passports, dual identities, false names, destroyed letters—were...


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