Commissioned by the Irish Republican Memorial Committee (IRMC), Leabhar na hAiséirighe was completed in three stages between 1924 and 1951. Combining Irish mythology with the people, places and events from the Easter Rising and the subsequent fight for independence, O’Murnaghan’s work echoes the traditional style of Celtic art and Irish manuscript illumination without ever being a mere copy. In 1882, Douglas Hyde said, “Celtic art is the best claim we have upon the world’s recognition of us as a separate nationality,”(i) and throughout the nineteenth- and early twentieth- centuries, Ireland’s artists and writers revived its past glories to commemorate moments in its present. Along with many of his contemporaries, it seems that O’Murnaghan took these ideas to heart. Following the formation of the Irish Free State, the new government established the IRMC to commemorate the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent Irish War of Independence.(ii) The committee included Count George Plunkett – father of executed Rising leader Joseph – as well as members of the artistic community: Ella Young, Jack B. Yeats, Mia Cranwill and Leo Whelan. Following its first meeting in 1922 the committee held a competition to find the artist they felt would best represent the spirit of Irish national identity. Art O’Murnaghan (1872-1954) submitted an example of his artwork entitled Éire and it was chosen as the winner by Mia Cranwill for its revived use of the style of medieval Irish illuminated manuscripts and for its unique composition.(iii)
The IRMC stressed that Leabhar na hAiséirighe would unite Ireland’s past and present as “a national memorial to the memory of the heroes who [had] given their lives for the attainment of the absolute independence of Ireland since Easter Week 1916.” (iv) Among those commemorated within its pages are Kevin Barry, Cathal Brugha, Michael Collins, Terence MacSwiney, Kevin O'Higgins, Patrick Pearse, Joseph Mary Plunkett, Roger Casement and Erskine Childers (the latter two on the page titled 'Men of the Harbours', left). O’Murnaghan also dedicated pages to the four provinces of Ireland and the Treaty of 1921 that established the newly independent Free State, as well as the Milesians, who, according to Irish mythology, were the final race to settle Ireland. It seems reasonable to assume that the decision to form the IRMC and create Leabhar na hAiséirighe was made partly in response to the commissioning of another commemorative work – Ireland’s Memorial Records 1914-1918 – which was illustrated by Harry Clarke to commemorate those Irish soldiers who had died in the First World War. In very much the same vein, the IRMC intended the book as a contribution to Ireland’s national heritage, with O’Murnaghan’s artistry perhaps even serving as “the starting-point of a new school of Celtic designers.”(v)
Born Arthur Murnaghan in Southampton, England, Art O’Murnaghan moved to Dublin in his twenties. Stimulated by his interest in Irish calligraphy, illumination, history, and mythology, he embraced his Irish roots and changed his name to the more Irish-sounding O’Murnaghan. He was a self-taught painter as well as an actor, writer, and teacher. He joined the Gaelic League in 1893, where he became friends with Arthur Griffith and Douglas Hyde, and designed badges for the organization.(vi) He was wholly caught up in the Irish nationalist spirit of the time, and his work on Leabhar na hAiséirighe over the course of thirty years became a labor of love, for he carried on “after more than a thousand years the Irish tradition of beautiful sacred books.”(vii)
Leabhar na hAiséirighe can be considered, in terms of both its aesthetic and contextual identities, a “renaissance” of Irish art, adopting an ancient Irish art form to a wholly modern context and fluidly encompassing contemporary art forms and styles to form a new form of Celtic Revival art. Termed “Neo-Celtic,” it encompassed characteristics of early Irish Celtic art and Art Nouveau. Following the First World War in Ireland, this new form of Celtic ornament became a key propaganda instrument in the service of the state. It was used to commemorate the cause for Irish independence and created martyrs of those killed in the cause, thereby becoming a material representation of Irish nationalism. With its twenty-six hand-painted and illuminated vellum pages, it echoes the programme of imagery seen in medieval illuminated manuscripts and Celtic Revivalist art with its use of Irish symbolic imagery, Celtic ornament and decorated initials alongside contemporary artistic styles. The 'First Milesians' page uses interlacing motifs inspired by the Book of Kells, while the Éire page (right) is dominated by the word for Ireland that was in use on Irish stamps until the 1940s which is superimposed over a list of alternative names [Eire ‘Banba Inisfail, Inis-Ealga, Fodla, Scota, Ierne, Hibernia, Moira, Iuverna’] surrounded by panels of Celtic filigree designs, figures of birds and a quotation from theVision of St. Bridget.
O’Murnaghan’s work, while paid for by public subscription, was never acknowledged as a national monument during his lifetime. When the meagre funds for the commission ran out, he was forced to leave the book unfinished for months and sometimes years at a time. This may explain why there is (at least) one page of the book missing today. In order to raise funds, O’Murnaghan printed, signed, and sold copies of finished pages, the most popular of which was the Éire page. Following the Second World War, O’Murnaghan returned to working on the book for the final time. Between 1946-1947, he was in regular correspondence with the then director of the Belfast Municipal Museum and Art Gallery (now the Ulster Museum), J.A.S. Stendall. In these letters, O’Murnaghan described how busy he was, working on the last pages of the book, as well as photographing pages of the book for the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania and Syracuse University in New York. Contemporary newspaper sources in Ireland reflected on the book’s purpose, creation and progress, and American newspapers praised it. Pages from the book occasionally made their way to America, where O’Murnaghan’s work was popular, with at least one page never making it back. An original edition is currently on display as part of the Making it Irish exhibition in the McMullen Museum, Boston College. However, for over thirty years after its completion, it was forgotten at home, as seems to have been the case for many Celtic Revival works. It is gratifying to see O'Murnaghan's Leabhar na hAiséirighe brought to light as part of Ireland’s centenary commemorations of 1916 and made available to visitors in the National Musuem of Ireland exhibition Proclaiming a Republic (above) Collins Barracks, Dublin.
Dr. Kayla Rose is a historian of Irish and British art and material culture. Currently employed as Research Fellow in Design History at Bath Spa University in Bath, England, she received her PhD from the University of Ulster, Belfast in 2014 and her MPhil in Irish Art History from Trinity College, Dublin in 2011. Her current research interests revolve around expressions of civic and national identity through art and material culture, particularly in nineteenth-century industrial cities. A native of Queens, New York, Dr. Rose's academic interest in Ireland has been strongly influenced by New York City’s Irish-American culture.
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(i) Etienne Rynne, “The Revival of Irish Art in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” Topic, no. 24 (1972), p. 32.
(ii) MS 1737, Minutes of the Meetings of Committee of the Irish Republican Memorial Society (Dublin: National Library of Ireland, 1924-1926 and 1937-1939).
(iii) Peter Figgis, “Remembering Art O’Murnaghan,” Irish Arts Review, vol. 2, no. 4 (1985), p. 41.
(iv) Sandra Heise, “Leabhar na hAiséirighe,” Irish Arts Review, vol. 29, no. 3 (2012), p. 98.
(v) Irish Republican Memorial Society, Cuimhneachán.
(vi) Figgis, “Remembering Art O’Murnaghan,” p. 41.
(vii) Nicola Gordon Bowe and Elizabeth Cumming, The Arts and Crafts Movements in Dublin & Edinburgh, 1882-1925 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1998), p. 160.
Cite this blog post using the following format (MLA):
Rose, Kayla, “A Closer Look at Inspiring Ireland 1916: "Art O'Murnaghan's Leabhar na hAiséirighe (The Book of Resurrection).” Digital Repository of Ireland. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to Inspiring Ireland 1916].