The contemporary arts scene in Ireland from the 1940s to the 1970s and to a certain degree in Offaly also, was dominated by the friendship between the architect Michael Scott and the Jesuit priest Fr. Donal O’Sullivan. Both Scott and O’Sullivan were close friends of Desmond Williams, the managing director of Irish Mist and a director of Williams’s whose commercial interests extended beyond the famous whiskey brand to a chain of grocery shops and pubs in Offaly and Westmeath. Williams and his wife Brenda, whose father Oliver St John Gogarty had been an early supporter of the painter Jack B. Yeats, owned many superb works by the artist.
Michael Scott (1906-1979), the most notable Irish architect of his generation (and along with Yvonne Farrell one of the few Irish designers to receive the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects), had already established his reputation in the Midlands having designed the County Hospital in Tullamore (1937-42). Its entrance mural The Legend of St. Columcille was carried out by one of his early girlfriends, the artist Frances Kelly RHA (1908–2002) – aka Judy Boland and mother of the recently deceased poet Eavan Boland. Scott had Offaly connections in the Brady family of Kilcormac, with whom he often stayed when on site visits particularly on his work on the technical school in Clonaslee, or his housing scheme for Offaly County Council at The Hill, Banagher. In a conversation with the present writer late one night in Groomes Hotel in Dublin in the 1970s, he recollected with amusement how on his visits the eight daughters of the family were lined up in the form of steps of stairs from the youngest to the eldest for his inspection. His friendship with Desmond and Brenda Williams resulted in the design of several family homes including Shepherd’s Wood in Screggan in the early 1940s, the plans of which were a wedding present and Ashleigh on Charleville Road, Tullamore. He was also commissioned to design the company’s main store on Patrick Street in Tullamore, (see photograph) as well as the redevelopment of their chain of pubs and shops in Edenderry (now ‘O’Donoghues’), Athlone, Birr and on Dame Street in Dublin. Scott gave all of these a unifying theme of facing panels of horizontally laid buff coloured Clonaslee stone to emphasise their Midland connection.
‘The Murals Bar’ Tullamore
In the 1940s D.E. Williams sought Scott’s advice in the redevelopment of their pubs in the Midlands and he suggested that their interior decoration should include extensive pictorial decoration in the form of murals. The decoration of pubs and restaurants by notable artists was very much in fashion in this period as may be seen in the murals by Cecil French Salkeld in ‘Davy Byrnes’ in Duke Street in Dublin, while Frances Kelly had decorated the walls of the fashionable Russell Hotel on Stephen’s Green. Indeed on a more banal note, one of the earliest and happily long vanished works of the present writer was the decoration around 1956 of the back lounge in Lawless’ (now Spollen’s) in High Street Tullamore with local scenes. In around 1945 Scott engaged the artist Sean O’Sullivan RHA (1906–1964) to provide murals as part of his refurbishment of the Williams owned shop and pub (later known as ‘The Murals’) on Patrick St., Tullamore. O’Sullivan who made a specialty of painting West of Ireland characters, devoted three sides of a long narrow bar to a continuous linear conception of a joyful and tipsy wedding in Connemara, but including his own friends and local characters as the participants. The artist himself sits on the ground, sketch book in hand recording a scene of dancing, drinking and revelry. On the long run of figures behind the bar Scott was shown in a baneen jacket dancing with one of the pretty barmaids who had attracted him. The other most identifiable character was Ker Brien, a customer of the pub who had lost an arm in an accident but was shown toasting the company with a pint in the hand miraculously restored by O’Sullivan. As O’Sullivan was a hard drinker the project began to fall behind and Desmond Williams hired the local house painter Terry Harris to assist, mainly to keep the artist steady on the ladder. Eventually the very ambitious work was completed around 1947 and the bar became the fashionable drinking venue for the smart set of Tullamore. In scale at least it was one of O’Sullivan’s most important works and as a local landmark and cultural artefact its removal in the 1980s was a great loss. Scott also commissioned the distinguished artist Louis le Brocquy RHA (1926-2012) to provide a mural for D. E.Williams’s ‘Palace Bar’ in Athlone. This was less successful and has vanished also but I recollect a rather gloomy fresco with vaguely Irish mythological figures not unlike his later ‘Táin’ series. However, it was while executing this minor work that Le Brocquy became fascinated by the lifestyle of a Traveller family he encountered outside Tullamore and which inspired one of his greatest paintings Tinkers Resting (1946), now in the Tate Gallery, London.
Father Donal O’Sullivan S.J. and the Chapel at Tullabeg
Father O’Sullivan (1904-2003) was one of the most influential and controversial individuals in the Irish art world of the 1950s and 1960s. His advanced and liberal views extended to an exotic personal lifestyle which included a liaison with the mistress of the English novelist Graham Greene. He was a member of the Arts Council along with Michael Scott and the earl of Rosse of Birr Castle. A committed proponent of Modernism in art and architecture, he supported artists of whose work he approved such as Le Brocquy and Patrick Scott but excluded younger artists to whom he became a hate figure. Nonetheless, through his chairmanship of the Arts Council and his successful efforts to promote modern art by initiatives such as ‘ROSC’ the international art expo.
He created the environment in which the more talented of the group who excoriated him, would later flourish. In his position as Rector of the Jesuit Seminary at Tullabeg in Rahan, Fr. Donal commissioned Scott to convert its chapel from public to private worship. The finished work was to be recognised as one of the glories of Irish religious art of the 20c. Unfortunately it was dismantled when the Jesuit Order sold Tullabeg in 1991. Scott created a simple, small, calm space with four windows along one side and one at the end. When the question of who would design the stained glass arose, Fr Donal suggested the studio of Harry Clarke which, even though Clarke was long dead, had flourished on work from the Order. Scott however favoured Evie Hone and this suggestion was inspired as she and Fr. Donal struck up a friendship when they met. The magnificent Tullabeg windows, now in Manresa in Dublin, are regarded, after her window in Eton College Chapel, as amongst Hone’s finest works. Opposite the single window in a small apse, the sculptor Laurence Campbell RHA (1911–1964) provided a carved timber altar now in Mucklagh Church and a statue of the Madonna and St Ignatius whose whereabouts are unknown. Around the walls were a series of circular terracotta Stations of the Cross by the French sculptor Robert Villiers(1887–1958).These were later removed and it is unclear whether those in St. John’s Church of Ireland in Sandymount, Dublin or Durrow Church outside Tullamore are the originals or copies. The chapel opened in 1946 and as its nature and decoration were in such contrast to the traditional approach to church design of the time its Offaly location soon became a mecca (stet) for artists and architects of advanced views.