Una’s little book of Kells

This blog has tended to concentrate on Una’s paintings, but as noted elsewhere on this site, Una did a great deal of jobbing art and design work. During the 1950s, she provided illustrations and calligraphy for her uncle Brian O Higgins (1882-1963), the poet and patriot, whose portrait by Una is highlighted in a guest blog (May 19, 2020).

O’Higgins had founded a publishing company in 1924, whose output ranged from rousing political pamphlets (Unconquered Ireland, 1927) to devotional tracts (The Little Book of St Francis, 1958) as well as Christmas and greeting cards, all of which showcased the work of Irish artists and illustrators.

The cards, in particular, were a popular venture for the company. In the 1950s, a decade of mass emigration from Ireland (half a million people left the country between 1951 and 61), these were dispatched to the Irish diaspora all over the world, but particularly to the US.

The company’s publications reflected O’Higgins’ own passions – politics and prayer. He was a die-hard, anti-Treaty Republican figure, a founding member of the Irish Volunteers and a 1916 combatant. He was imprisoned several times between 1918 and 1921 and went on hunger strike during the Civil War. He served the Clare constituency as a TD until 1927 when he lost his seat. He resigned from Sinn Féin in protest in 1934 and sided against DeValera in 1938. O’Higgins was also a devoted Catholic. (He died aged 81 in St Anthony’s Church in Clontarf while attending Mass.)

But his political and religious agenda chimed with a broader economic nationalism, borne out of De Valera’s economic war of the 1930s which had rigidly promoted a policy of Irish self-sufficiency. Even though Seán Lemass was in the process of moving the economy away from this insular path in the late 1950s, O’Higgins was still clearly appealing to patriotic supporters of the “Buy Irish” strand of De Valera’s isolationism.

The craft skills of Irish artists were central to the publications he produced, honouring traditional skills – in particular calligraphy and Celtic design. These pamphlets promoted the arts and crafts movement in the Ireland of 1950s, as much as the Yeats’ sisters’ Cuala Press did during the same period.

O’Higgins’ publishing firm had an export market in mind. The subject matter of both the secular and religious publications might seem twee and verging on the “Oirishy” for contemporary taste but they were cannily serving their target audience. Prayer-book sized ( approx 10.5 x 14 cms), slim and light, and easy to post – remembering that large diaspora – they served as both devotional tools for the practising Catholic and nostalgic mementos for the lonely exile.

The difficulty for the Una Watters scholar is in identifying the specific publications she worked on. While the verses were clearly authored by O’Higgins (he was a prolific poet, balladeer and songwriter) or drawn from traditional sources, the art work for smaller items was not always credited. That’s why we’re really excited to have been a gifted a pristine copy of one of these publications – The Little Book of Blessing (1959) – which is very definitely one of Una’s with her name prominently on the cover. (see above)

Glenn Slaby – – came across Una Watters by chance when he was doing his own research on Brian O’Higgins after he had acquired a copy of the Little Book of Blessing. (He thinks he may have picked it up at a library sale or at the sale of a family library owned by a woman of Irish descent in New Rochelle, NY, where he lives. ) “I love, enjoy picking up old, and/or unusual books,” he writes. Adding to its rarity value, is the fact that this pamphlet is not listed among O’Higgins’ attributed publications.

Glenn has kindly donated the booklet to this site, and we intend to hold it as part of a material resource for scholars interested in Una’s work. In time, we will offer it for safe-keeping to a national institution.

Glenn included with the pamphlet a letter which he found inside dated June 22, 1967, in which Nora (no surname), the writer of the letter (based in Belfast), notes she is sending the booklet to Bernie in the US in the hope that “it will bring back happy memories of the Old Country & his Youth”.

Artistically, the influence of the great monastic scribes is obvious in Una’s Celtic designs. Compare Una’s frontispiece (see above) with this detail from the Book of Kells.

Una’s interest in and debt to manuscript illustration is also evident in her witty portraits in The Four Masters, (1959, oil on canvas, 60 x 70cms) the painting which now hangs in Phibsboro library. (See post: February 20,2022) and in private work done for family and friends – take a look at her St Patrick’s Breastplate on the Uncatalogued Work page on this site.

Once again, thank you to Glenn Slaby for his generous gift.

Below see some sample pages from The Little Book of Blessing.

By Mary Morrissy

Mary Morrissy curates this site. She is an award-winning novelist, short story writer and journalist. She has taught creative writing at university level in the US and Ireland for the past 20 years, and is also an individual literary mentor.

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