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THE ACADEMY OF CHRISTIAN ART (1929–1946): AN ASPECT OF CATHOLIC CULTURAL LIFE IN NEWLY INDEPENDENT IRELAND* SIGHLE BHREATHNACH-LYNCH despite the onset of historical revisionism in all its forms, there still persists a view that life in Ireland of the 1920s and 1930s was a cultural desert. To be fair, this is easily evidenced by even the most casual perusal of the contemporary press, particularly the Catholic press. For instance, the 1920s abounds with examples of rampant inward-looking and plainly ignorant philistine views about art and it creators. Such a tirade was abetted by the general belief that that “art” was middle-class, foreign, and, worst of all, associated with the former British masters. For many, “art” was housed in the National Gallery of Ireland, itself unloved and unvisited. In the 1990s, it is amusing to read the wilder statements of publications such as the Catholic Bulletin, but these views were not so comical at the time. Criticism of the “new baby” of the Free State carried with it the taint of being a “West Briton,” a “Shoneen” with its consequent social penalties. Expressions of dissent, often from writers, provoked book-burning, loss of employment, and, for some, exile. Censorious and ignorant clerics, and the malleable lay associations in their thrall, held sway in the press and the pulpit . So great was this docile sanctity that, allied to the force of Irish nationalism , there was little space left for the cold douche of critique. For writers, artists, and intellectuals to make a peaceful living in Liam Cosgrave ’s Free State carried with it the moral price of silence. Yet this depressing state of affairs it is not the whole story. The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate that, notwithstanding alleged popuTHE ACADEMY OF CHRISTIAN ART (1929–1946) 102 *I would like to thank Colm O Laoghaire (grandson of George Noble, Count Plunkett, founder of the Academy of Christian Art) for his kind cooperation and enthusiastic help during the research for this article. Thanks also to the staff of the Central Catholic Library, Dublin, for their valuable assistance and to Oliver Snoddy (formerly of the National Museum of Ireland) who initially directed me to the topic. lar apathy to matters artistic in Ireland, particularly in religious art, in at least one case a considerable and sustained effort was made by people to raise the standard and foster a national talent for artistic creation. It was to be done through establishing the Academy of Christian Art. While the mindset of those running this academy itself was insular (indeed in this lay the seeds of its own destruction), nevertheless, what this organization did achieve deserves to be put clearly on the record. The Central Catholic Library in Dublin holds a set of Minute Books detailing the history of this now little-known organization. On 20 June 1929, during a week of ceremonies celebrating the centenary of Catholic Emancipation, a public meeting was held in Wynn’s Hotel, Dublin. Present were a number of people well known for their activities in Irish cultural life. These included Liam Gogan, then deputy-keeper of Irish Antiquities at the National Museum; Charlotte Dease of the Central Catholic Library; Arthur Darley, a distinguished musician; and two architects , J.J. Robinson and T.J. Byrne. Spearheading the meeting was George Noble, Count Plunkett,1 best remembered for holding down the first and short-lived Ministry of Fine Arts post in the first Dáil (1921–1922). By 1929, he had also been director of the National Museum, vice-president of the Royal Irish Academy, and president of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. Letters promising collaboration were received from Professor Stockley and Daniel Corkery, both important literary scholars. The reason for the meeting was ambitious. It was proposed to launch nothing less than an academy of art in Dublin. Its lofty objectives were to improve the quality of church art and to promote the study of Christian art in all its various branches: architecture, painting, sculpture, illumination , iconography, sacred archaeology, music, literature, and drama. The initiative for the venture had come principally from Count Plunkett, a deeply devout Catholic who believed fervently that Christian art...


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