The Wandering Liberator

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Winter 2001), News, News, Volume 9

On St Patrick’s Day 2001, Bob McLean delivered a lecture in Edinburgh’s City Art Centre on Daniel O’Connell. It accompanied an exhibition of paintings belonging to the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBOS), including a magnificent portrait of the Liberator. With the painting as an imposing backdrop, the lecture detailed for a Scottish audience O’Connell’s significance as a constitutional nationalist and successful campaigner for Catholic Emancipation. O’Connell was also a great admirer of Sir Walter Scott, Scotland’s best-loved writer of the nineteenth century. The painting was executed by Sir David Wilkie (1785-1841), one of the leading Scottish artists of the nineteenth century who is best known for his 1822 painting, The Chelsea Pensioners. The artist was paid 300 guineas for his O’Connell portrait and recorded in his diary that the subject was ‘pleased’ with the result.
How had a painting of such Irish historical significance ended up belonging to a leading Scottish bank? The answer is tied up with the convoluted history of Irish banking. The portrait was commissioned in 1838 by the National Bank of Ireland. O’Connell was instrumental in its establishment in 1835 and became its first governor. The existing financial institutions, the Bank of Ireland and the Provincial Bank, were considered to be overly dominated by the Protestant Ascendancy. Despite its broadly nationalist outlook, the National Bank maintained its head office in Old Broad Street, London, where the O’Connell portrait continued to hang for generations. The National Bank built up a thriving network of British branches and by the end of the nineteenth century had become the eighth largest bank in Britain. These British branches were sold in the 1960s, as part of the shake-up of Irish banking. They were acquired by the National Commercial Bank which was subsequently taken over by the Royal Bank of Scotland.
Founded in 1727, the RBOS came into being at a time of turmoil in Scottish history in the wake of the defeat of the Stewart dynasty. Its founders were Hanoverian in sympathy while its rival, the Bank of Scotland, was suspected of having Jacobite leanings. Ironically, in 1745, the RBOS found itself having to finance the Jacobite army of Bonnie Prince Charlie, which occupied Edinburgh prior to its defeat the following year at the battle of Culloden.
The RBOS is justifiably proud of the O’Connell portrait. Some years ago, when they decided to return to Ireland a bronze bust of O’Connell and a ceremonial sword presented to him by the people of Dublin, the RBOS’s then chairman, Sir George Younger, made it clear that they would be holding on to the portrait which they regarded, despite its subject matter, as essentially a Scottish painting.
In 1999, the RBOS acquired the Ulster Bank as part of its take-over of the National Westminster Bank. By virtue of a circuitous sequence of corporate take-overs, the O’Connell portrait now belonged to a financial institution with an important stake in the Irish economy. An approach was made to the Royal Bank about the painting and on 20 June 2001 at a function in Glasgow’s Concert Hall, to mark the visit to Scotland by An Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, TD, its deputy chairman, Sir Angus Grossart, announced their intention to transfer it to Ireland. Ironically, on the same day the Taoiseach officially opened a new Edinburgh branch of the Bank of Ireland, which in 1966, had acquired the Irish branches of O’Connell’s National Bank. Sir David Wilkie’s fine work will shortly be put on display in Leinster House and in the National Gallery of Ireland before being located permanently in the Ulster Bank’s main Dublin branch located, appropriately, on O’Connell Street.

When this piece was written, Daniel Mulhall was Ireland’s Consul General in Scotland.

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