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New Hibernia Review 9.3 (2005) 50-71
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The State on Display:
The 1924 Tailteann Art Competition
The Irish Free State that was brought into existence in 1922 was not the state that had been dreamt of by the insurgents of 1916, nor the state imagined by those that had fought in the Anglo-Irish War. The new state was partitioned, and many of those who remained true to the idea of the republic sought to challenge the Treaty settlement through force of arms in a bitter and bloody civil war. Even after the truce of 1923, the Cumann na nGaedheal government was continually challenged by its anti-Treaty opponents both outside, and after 1927, from inside, the Dáil.
The decade of Cumann na nGaedheal government from 1922 is a remarkable period. Faced by an intransigent opposition which, at times, remained committed to violence, the government had to set about the task of rebuilding the state and much of its infrastructure, while also seeking to make the wider world aware of the existence of a newly independent Ireland. Given the challenges that the government faced, it achieved much, and it is a testimony to the success of its state-building activities that power was, in due course, peacefully transferred to Fianna Fáil after its victory in the 1932 election. A specific state-sponsored spectacle was undertaken by the government in the 1920s—the games and competitions of Aonach Tailteann, and in particular, its art competition of 1924.1
The art competitions shed new light on our understanding of the Irish Free State in the years immediately after independence. Such cultural schemes, events, spectacles and symbols as the Aonach Tailteann and its art competition were attempts by the government to create a feeling of consensus in the Irish population and to encourage an identification with the new state. The Cumann [End Page 50] na nGaedheal government used a variety of functions, the art competitions among them, to deflect public criticism of the poor state of the Irish economy, the problems associated with the Treaty settlement, and the slow pace of rebuilding the infrastructure after years of conflict. The government developed and supported a range of broadly defined cultural schemes, events, spectacles, and symbols to impart enthusiasm for the newly independent Ireland, no matter how imperfectly it had been formed. The competitions shed light on the state of Irish art in the wake of the period of revolution, and they demonstrate which forms of artistic representation were being favored in the context of state building. More generally, the staging of an art competition within Aonach Tailteann represents an attempt by the state to present an image of itself for domestic and international consumption that embraced positive aspects of the Irish tradition for creativity, rather than the negative and destructive imagery of war and death.
The staging of the art competitions is also instructive in showing how far the artists of the Free State had progressed in the creation of an Irish national style—a question that had dominated artistic debate in Ireland in the years prior to the First World War. The national style debate was important in the context of a broader understanding of an Irish culture that had been promoted during the cultural revival, aspects of which would be employed by the state in the 1920s in an attempt to create a clear identity for the new state that was Irish, rather than British. The Aonach Tailteann art competition demonstrates not only how the government used public events to assist the project of nation building, but also how the meanings attached to such events by the press and other observers provided art with an ideological purpose around the question of a national style.
The Cumann na nGaedheal government committed itself, and a proportion of its scarce fiscal resources, to the staging of a whole series of initiatives that attempted to encapsulate and symbolize the creation of the nation. These events were projected to a domestic and international audience. At home, the aim was to...