The Departure of O’Neill out of Ireland

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2007), News, Volume 15

The Departure of O’Neill out of Ireland by Thomas Ryan RHA, produced in 1958 by the then 28-year-old painter.

The Departure of O’Neill out of Ireland by Thomas Ryan RHA, produced in 1958 by the then 28-year-old painter.

Thomas Ryan’s painting may be more familiar to readers now than it was a few years ago. This year, the 400th anniversary of the departure of the earl of Tyrone, Hugh O’Neill, and the earl of Tyrconnell, Rory O’Donnell, from Portnamurray, near Rathmullan, Co. Donegal, has witnessed a flurry of reproductions. For those in search of a date upon which to hang ‘the end of Gaelic Ireland’, 1607 competes with 1601 and defeat at the Battle of Kinsale. Arguably, since partition the former event has been somewhat marginalised in the South as an episode associated primarily with Ulster. The events of 14 September 1607, however, have a wider significance to the extent that they can be presented, at least in an iconic sense, as the origin of the modern Irish diaspora. Oddly, having thus reflected upon the cardinal significance of the event, it might appear curious that more illustrators have not been drawn towards depiction of this most enduringly enigmatic and romantic occasion. One can think of depictions of O’Neill’s wife exhausted on the ride to Rathmullan, or the little sketch in A. M. Sullivan’s classic The story of Ireland (1868), but there is no doubt that most of us, in the past half-century, who have reflected upon the actual departure draw upon the major work of Thomas Ryan RHA, entitled The Departure of O’Neill out of Ireland or, more simply, The Flight of the Earls.
When Thomas Ryan produced the painting in 1958 he was a young man of 28, energetic and ambitious, stretching himself by seeking to produce a picture on a grand scale and very much in the classical European tradition of depicting important historical events. Great historical paintings like The Surrender at Breda by Diego Velázquez influenced Ryan in preparing to depict the Flight. He saw the enterprise as a real challenge but at the same time recognised it as a project out of keeping with the modernist fashion of the age. Many who view the picture today are surprised by its date, assuming it to be the product of an earlier era. Reading the painting as a historian with a primary interest in the history of Irish migration, I had made two assumptions about the artist’s motivation back in 1958. Firstly, I assumed that the 350th commemoration of the event the previous year had played some part in the selection process and, secondly, I guessed that the contemporary haemorrhage of emigration from Ireland in the ’fifties had somehow influenced Ryan’s attraction to this most poignant scene of departure and future exile. In both respects I was quickly put right by the artist, who told me that he had painted the picture for a scholarship competition and had no real awareness of the significance I had attached to the date. His recollection was of conceiving of the idea and moving fairly swiftly to an outline of the essential composition. At the time there was little enough to read about the event, but he did refer to Tadhg Ó Cianáin’s contemporary account although he did not consider visiting Portnamurray. His intent as an artist was to project a dramatic, heroic scene rather than to offer a finely judged interpretation based upon in-depth research.
The central theme of the work was departure, and at the time it was the artist’s conception that O’Neill’s backward glance was effectively a last look at Ireland. O’Neill is not the central figure in the painting; rather the eye of the viewer is drawn to him as the key figure by several compositional devices. He is positioned at the bottom of a circle created by foreground, figures, clouds and trees; he is also positioned between a group of figures on the right of the scene who are moving away, downhill, towards the sea and a group of figures on the left who are static, left behind in Ireland. In addition, the eyes of the Dominican friar and the figure immediately below invite the viewer to follow their gaze to O’Neill. The figures on the right represent the vanquished military, arguably as much a symbol of the numbers of ‘idle swordsmen’ departing at this time for Spanish service on the Continent as members of the actual emigrant party of allegedly 99. On the left is the dominant figure of the friar blessing O’Neill and his fellow migrants. This component of the picture is reminiscent of the 1851 depiction from the Illustrated London News in which the priest blesses emigrants as they depart for America. The figure dressed in fine white habit is a Dominican rather than a Franciscan. Ryan is refreshingly candid in disclosing that he was aware that a Franciscan was probably more appropriate but he had a friend who could lend him a habit and he felt that pristine white would have a stronger visual impact.
Whilst the artist was far from cavalier in relation to the costume of his figures, he informed me that he had to raid his own wardrobe and recruited his friends and others as models. For example, the seated figure in the foreground looking towards O’Neill is none other than the painter Seán Keating; the young barelegged boy on the right is a youth from the tenements of York Street, Dublin. Needless to say, the figure of the friar in particular, from the perspective of 2007, confirms the traditional ‘faith and fatherland’ interpretation implicit in the painting. On the left of the painting Ryan depicts a departing soldier saying his farewells to wife and child, a repeated element of many paintings of later emigrant departures across Europe. Here too sit those representing the despoiled figures abandoned to their fate under the soon-to-be-established new order of Planter hegemony.
The painting, allotted an unfavourable space, never won the sponsorship prize back in 1958, and the artist, sharing a modest flat, was left with a huge painting on his hands. Initially the work was accommodated in Kennedy’s art shop in Harcourt Street, then migrated to the artist’s home in Rathgar, on to the United Services Club and eventually to its current home in the State Apartments in Dublin Castle. Despite the painting’s being poorly received by the art establishment in 1958, Ryan is emphatic that he was very glad he did it. Apart from what he gained from the experience, it left the Irish public with a striking visual reference point for one of the cardinal events in Irish history and augmented the fairly thin portfolio of paintings depicting scenes from Irish history. Now in 2007 with the attention surrounding the 400th anniversary of the Flight his work is receiving some attention, but for virtually the last half-century few from the worlds of history, art or journalism paid it much heed. The only real interest came from the North, recalled Ryan, reminding me that the Ulster Historical Foundation had used the image for the front cover of Familia, their annual journal, in 2005. Perhaps it is a nice irony that our most enduring visual representation of an event often consigned to the history of Ulster was the creation of a Limerick man.

Patrick Fitzgerald is Development Officer at the Centre for Migration Studies, Ulster-American Folk Park, Omagh.

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