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  • Reading Visual Art Rural Ireland: The Inside Story
  • Vera Kreilkamp

From 10 February to 3 June 2012, the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College will present Rural Ireland: The Inside Story. Gathering art and artifacts from the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, the exhibition offers a selection of paintings and drawings that depict how ordinary Irish families farmed, prepared food, arranged their homes, produced textiles and baskets, worshipped, mourned, conducted business, educated, and entertained themselves. The Inside Story complicates assumptions that late eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Irish artists, dependent on the patronage of an elite public, painted primarily landscapes and portraits of that privileged class and its big houses.1 On the contrary, the exhibition demonstrates that both local and visiting painters also turned to the country’s rural tenants for subject matter—in some cases graphically recording the desperate poverty of famine-era dwellings. These works constitute an insufficiently recognized group of Irish genre painting warranting more investigation by historians and scholars of literary and visual culture.

The exhibition includes shards excavated from an evicted famine cabin that reflect the varieties of imported ceramic ware evident in many paintings, suggesting the aesthetic pleasure even the poorest tenants found in the display of their possessions. In addition, The Inside Story gathers chapbooks, broadsides, images of the Sacred Heart, and other printed matter that would have made its way into rural homes. Prominently on view are many of the “things” evident in the paintings: furniture (including a settle bed and traditional [End Page 5] dresser), dishes, cooking utensils, a woven chicken coop, baskets, religious items, and tools.

This multidimensional exhibition includes major paintings and drawings of tenant cabin interiors generously lent by the National Gallery of Ireland, the National Library of Ireland, the Crawford Gallery of Art, the National Gallery of Scotland, and the Ulster Museum. Essential works have also been loaned by smaller collections, both public and private, in Ireland, Britain, and the U.S. Building on recent scholarship in visual and material culture and gathering works of art and objects, most never before exhibited in America, the exhibition provides rich evidence for students of Irish social, cultural, economic, and political history.2 This inclusion of visual imagery in historical and cultural analysis accompanies a growing recognition of the fine arts tradition as an underutilized resource for interdisciplinary Irish Studies scholarship.3 To suggest the ambitions of The Inside Story and the evidentiary role of visual art and material culture, we offer three excerpts from essays printed in the forthcoming exhibition catalogue; each reads visual imagery as a path into Ireland’s past.4 [End Page 6]


1. See P.J. Duffy, “The Changing Rural Landscape, 1759–1850: Pictorial Evidence,” in Ireland: Art into History, ed. Raymond Gillespie and Brian Kennedy (Dublin: Town House, 1994), 26–42.

2. Toby Barnard, A Guide to Sources for the History of Material Culture in Ireland, 1500–2000 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005); Claudia Kinmonth, Irish Country Furniture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993); Claudia Kinmonth, Irish Rural Interiors in Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006); Peter Murray, ed., wford Art Gallery, Cork: Gandon, 2006).

3. See Vera Kreilkamp, “ Visualizing Irish History,” in Palgrave Advances in Irish History, ed. Mary McAuliffe, Katherine O’Donnell, Leeann Lane (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave, 2009), 247–68.

4. Vera Kreilkamp, ed., Rural Ireland: The Inside Story (Chestnut Hill, MA: McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, 2012), (forthcoming February 2012).



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