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The following essay was a runner-up in the inaugural 2022 Sarah Cecelia Harrison Prize established by the National Gallery of Ireland.

Una Watters: Total Eclipse

An artist’s legacy doesn’t look after itself. Reputations rise and fall on the basis of who takes care of the work after the artist has died. What makes Una Watters’story particularly poignant is that an ill-judged gesture by her distraught husband, an artist himself – Irish language novelist and modernist poet Eugene Watters (Eoghan Ó Tuairisc) – conspired to keep her work out of the public eye for over half a century. 

It would be glib to reduce this decision to a vengeful act of the patriarchy, or the response of a jealous husband.  The truth, as always, is more complicated. Love and grief undid Una Watters’ reputation as surely as her sudden death in 1965 at the age of 47. 

A year after her untimely death, Una’s husband Eugene Watters, organised a memorial exhibition of her work, consisting of 37 oil paintings, at the Dublin Painters Gallery on St Stephen’s Green. Some of the work was on loan, but the majority had been in Una’s possession, and after the show, he distributed the remainder among family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances.  

It was undoubtedly a well-meaning attempt to memorialise Una’s work among those who loved and admired her; it’s clear that he wasn’t attempting to monetise her artistic legacy. They had been a devoted couple – he wrote many love poems to her. 

The love in your heart, lady, it is like the thought

That tints a daisytip the merest red.[i]

Furthermore,  their artistic inspirations often overlapped and they were adamant in their support of one another’s artistic endeavours.  However, Eugene’s informal scattering of Una’s work effectively froze her reputation and because the work remained predominantly in private ownership, it was rarely seen.            

As Gladys Engel Lang and Kurt Lang have written: “The artist’s reputation stands to benefit most when the body of work is kept together and future identification is assured.  Unless the artist is already famous the dispersal of an estate (or the contents of a studio) by way of auction block or consignment to a gallery for sales, deprives the future scholar of the needed cache of prints with notations and information to make the research pay off.” [ii]

Una Watters missed even the advantage of a public sale. Her work disappeared into private ownership, often without documentation, where it was cherished certainly, but not available to a wider public or to academic scholarship. As a result, there is no primary research done on her work, beyond this article, the website I curate – www.unawattersartist.com, and a thesis on her design for the official emblem of the 1966 Easter Rising commemorations.  

Earlier this year, I organised a new retrospective of Una Watters’ work at the United Arts Club, Dublin (Una Watters: Into the Light. March 10 – April 2, United Arts Club, Dublin.) With the help of Una’s niece, Sheila Smith, and using the 1966 exhibition catalogue as a guide, we set out to locate the 37 oil paintings in the original memorial show. We managed to locate 29,  and to exhibit 20 of the works along with some newly discovered undocumented watercolours that we had come across during our quest.  

Our biggest discovery, though, was the profundity of Una’s eclipse. 

Dr Róisín Kennedy of UCD, who launched the exhibition and has written extensively on the position of women as artist and subjects in modern art, had never come across Una’s work. She wasn’t featured in the seminal Adams Summer Exhibition 2014, “Women Artists 1870 –1970”, for example, though she would have exhibited with some of these painters. Throughout the Fifties and Sixties, she showed at the RHA, Oireachtas and Living Art Exhibitions alongside William Leech, Muriel Brandt, Harry Kernoff and Louis le Brocquy. The reason for her eclipse is very simple; publicly, Una Watters was nowhere to be seen. As Engle Lang and Lang remark: “Just being in the museum allows the work and the artist to be ‘discovered’.”[iii]

Una’s artistic story begins in November 1918. Born Una McDonnell at the close of  of the First World War, she was one of four children.  Her father was a farmer at Cappagh, outside Finglas, a rural idyll now rendered unrecognisable by the construction of the M50 motorway. As a teenager she suffered what is believed to have been TB of the stomach [iv],  and during her recuperation, her godfather, the distinguished portraitist Seán O’Sullivan “gave her some tips” on sketching, according to her sister, Sheila.[v] O’Sullivan was an influential artist of the period who had been commissioned to paint several of Ireland’s leading politicians, revolutionaries, artists and writers, including Eamon de Valera, Douglas Hyde, Jack B Yeats and James Joyce. He was a cousin of Una’s father, and his influence can be seen in Una’s portraits, according to Dr Eimear O’Connor. O’Sullivan believed a portrait should be a statement of the character and intellect of the sitter, qualities O’Connor notes in Una’s Self-Portrait in Green.[vi]

When she left school she joined the library service and worked in several branches finishing up in Phibsboro where one of her paintings, The Four Masters(1959) still hangs. 

On the encouragement of Maurice McGonigal she attended the National College of Art (formerly the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art). She began evening classes three nights a week late in 1937 and added two morning classes the following year, according to O’ Connor.[vii] A bout of pleurisy in March 1940 put paid to her studies, however, and she never completed the three-year course.

Eugene and Una met at a dance at the Teachers’ Club in Parnell Square although he had spotted her earlier when she worked in the library on Capel Street.[viii]  They married in 1945.  Born in Ballinasloe, Co Galway, Eugene Watters (1919–1982) was a teacher and bilingual writer.  He wrote two novels in English, Murder in three Moves (1960) and The Story of a Hedgeschool Master (1975), as well as the Irish language poem cycle Lux Aeterna (1964) and the novel L’Attaque (1962), a fictional account of the French invasion of Mayo in 1798. But his reputation now probably stands on  the experimental modernist poetry of The Week-end of Dermot and Grace (1964) – described by Augustine Martin as “the most ambitious and to my mind the greatest poem by an Irishman since Patrick Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger”. [ix]

After they married, she was forced give up working because of the marriage bar, but it meant she could pursue her art full-time.  She painted in the kitchen of the cottage she shared with Eugene at Cappagh Cross – a small bungalow beside her family home, a wedding gift of Una’s parents – while he worked as a primary school teacher at St Canice’s and then St Fergal’s schools in nearby Finglas.

They would not have been the only literary/artistic couple in the Dublin of the time. The artist Estelle Solomons (1882 – 1968) and her husband Seumas O’Sullivan (1879–1958), the editor of the influential Dublin Magazine would have still been holding informal salons in their Morehampton Road home which attracted leading cultural figures well into the 1950s.[x] But Una and Eugene’s style was distinctly more modest. Of the two, Una was the more retiring. As a charismatic teacher, Eugene would invite his past pupils to the house to talk about literature.  One such acolyte was Síle Mongey, who remembers going to the house at Cappagh in the early Sixties.  “Una was grounded,” Mongey recalls. “We knew she was an artist, but we never thought to ask to see her work. It just didn’t occur to us.” [xi]

  Una devoted all of the Fifties and the early Sixties to her art, while also doing commissioned work as a designer, illustrator and calligrapher. Once again Una’s family connections were important in this regard. Her uncle was the poet, soldier and patriot Brian O’Higgins (1882–1963). A founder member of the Irish Volunteers, he took part in the 1916 Easter Rising and was imprisoned in Frongoch in Wales.  In 1924 he had set up a publishing house which printed devotional and patriotic booklets with rallying titles such as Unconquered Ireland (1927). He also published and edited the Wolfe Tone Annual between 1932 and 1962. From the 1950s onwards the firm extended its range into Irish Christmas cards. When they needed another illustrator, Una, by now an accomplished artist, was approached. 

As well as the Christmas cards, Una also illustrated a number of devotional pamphlets produced by the company including Little Book of St Patrick (1957), Little Book of St Francis (1958), Little Book of Exile (1959) and the Little Book of Memories (1960)  She designed covers for The Capuchin annual and Feasta magazine, which Eugene edited, and provided illustrations for theatrical programmes. Dozens of pen-and-ink portraits of family, friends and neighbours, done casually (though executed meticulously), as well as numerous watercolours  attest to her work rate and her dedication to her art.

Meanwhile, her oil painting was developing from the harmonious realism of earlier work such as St Michael’s Church (1952) or Isabella (1956) to a bolder more individual style beginning in the late Fifties and developed in the early 1960s. Logan Sisley, Acting Head of Collections at The Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, attributes this shift to the influences of early 20th century modernism. Writing about Una’s The People’s Gardens (1963, oil on canvas, 40.6 x50.8 cm) which is in the Hugh Lane collection (the only one of Una’s paintings to be held in a public art collection), he writes: “As is typical of her work, the trees and figures are pared down to angular forms.  This shows the influence of movements such as Cubism and Futurism, albeit interpreted in her own style.” [xii]   

Eugene and Una spent their summers in Eugene’s homeplace of Ballinasloe, painting, writing and fishing, at which Una excelled. She also found artistic inspiration there.  

Wild Apples (1964, oil on canvas, 56 x 43 cm) depicts the banks of the River Suck near Ballinasloe, a place that was significant for her. Una often placed herself in her own works and here she is the reclining figure in red in the mid-ground of the painting. Eugene is on the left in the white shirt.  His brother, Tom and sister-in-law, Bridie, and their two daughters, Georgina and Linda, complete the scene.

“I remember very vividly the day we discovered the crab apple tree beside the river, gathering the apples and taking them home to make crab apple jelly,” Georgina O’Donovan, Eugene’s niece recalls. [xiii]

The depiction of nature, and in particular the rendering of the trees, shows Una flirting with cubist forms, the trees becoming structural  impressions of colour. The use of shadow lends a mysterious depth to the orchard or woods in the background. The pink tree towards which the eye is drawn, hosting the wild apples of the title, is no more than a geometric block. Its sharp apex mirrors the delighted gesture of the girl in the apricot dress who has spotted the apples. Una had a particular gift for expressive gesture which animates the figures in her paintings. Their faces are often not visible or are not depicted in detail, but their characters are communicated through their physical stances. We see it here in the gambolling of the second child in the white dress, whom O’Donovan identifies as herself.

Eugene wrote extensively about Una in his correspondence. As Engel Lang and Lang  note – “The advantage of the tie-in to a literary circle. . . where artists and writers cross paths, may be even greater. Writers have always functioned as articulate spokespersons for other arts.” [xiv] Given the dissemination of Una’s art, inadvertently by his hand, it’s an irony that Eugene’s letters are the only accounts we now have of her artistic process

Wild Apples. . . ” he wrote, “represents any river, any landing, any discovery: but it is a real river, our Suck; an actual landing and landing place, in a grove of bog-ash and hazel in the wilderness near the mouth of the Killeglin river; and an actual discovery, the flush of crab-apples among the leaves and the delight of the children. A real moment in time and place.  Moments, in fact. Our river-years. Recollected in tranquillity. And understood, by the dreaming brush, in paint.[xv]

“The colour-construct, and the grouping, convey the thematic design; a sestet of apperceptions of the apple-flush – 6 real people transmuted; the two children, the father and mother, the artist (reclining, in red), and myself . . .  The boat in the picture is a real boat.  Ours.  But it is transmuted, the anatomy misted over in the dream of composition, till it emerges as a long thin nose pushed into the secluded creek.  Base of the picture, the Archetype, in dream-grey.

“Above, the children stretch their arms in delight and desire of the wild-ripe fruit: And ye shall be as Gods.  The adults, farther back, stand half-attenuated, stilled by some stir of memory, dimly aware they are on the verge of some revelation, the dress and drab riverclothes are half-transfigured, on holy ground, glimpsing the merest tinge of the quintessential red.  But the real red of the picture, the Artist reclining, entranced by the remembered scene – Look! – draws the whole composition together, and (unknown to herself) forms the colour-climax and heart of the Aisling.”

This letter also provides us with a pen picture of Una’s personality. She was, he says, very beautiful, hard-working, humorous, humble and sincere. “She knew about boats: she could pull one, patch one, cut out thwarts and knee-pieces. . . She had trained hands, could handle a trowel or an electric saw as well as a paintbrush or a pair of oars.”

This gifted pragmatism extended to, and informed, her approach to painting:

“Una never set out to paint symbols, or archetypes.  These are abstract formulations, fashionable and useful terms for criticism and psychology, which had little meaning for her, and bear about the same relation to practical art-work as Theology does to the Creation.  She thought sensuously, in terms of real people and common objects, actual streets and river-reaches, forms, textures, colour-tones, and transitions of light.”  

Una’s work as a commercial illustrator and designer also gave her, according to Eugene,  “the discipline of abstraction and the functional aspects of design.  It is all this that makes the poetry of Wild Apples possible”.[xvi]

Her other canvas was Dublin, and in particular, Finglas.  Her Finglas paintings can be divided into two types.  The first are golden reminiscences of the family farm – see The Farm and Harvest, in particular – which celebrate transcendent moments of childhood. But she didn’t shy away from the “new” Finglas. All around the cottage at Cappagh, new housing estates were sprouting up.  In the early 1960s, she painted a trilogy of works depicting the daily life of those new housing estates. Cappagh Road (1960, oil on canvas, 50.4 x40.5cm) is a fond view of the  “new” suburb in its brave infancy, when much of life was still lived out on the street. 

Two burly women on the right in their heavy coats, gossip, as one pushes a go-car in which a toddler sleeps, skewed to one side. We know they’re gossiping from their physical gestures. The blue-scarved woman is saying something to her companion, but the tilt of her head tells us that it’s a secret or a sly aside that’s being shared. Communicating through gesture is one of Una’s great strengths. The faces here are roughly rendered yet their actions are full of character. On the left of the scene, another young mother cradles a bottle of milk while trying to restrain a child in a blue bonnet who’s on the brink of a tantrum; note the operatic yawn of the child’s mouth. A boy in short trousers grabs another by the sleeve as they chase after a ball in the middle of the street.  Three more take up the rear in hot pursuit of the runaway ball.  In the mid-ground of the painting, another boy is stepping off the kerb heedlessly and about to collide with a hatted man on a bicycle who is swerving to avoid him. The moment of avoided impact is rendered by a circular compass-like brush stroke.

It is a winter’s afternoon.  A weak sun braves the chilly sky; the street lights are already on, but the shop in the background (the local chipper) is warmly aglow, communicating the painter’s own feelings about the scene.

Cappagh Road was one of three paintings Una made of the new Finglas in the early 1960s. (The two others, Schoolbreak (1960) and Building Scheme (1961), have not been traced.) During the Dublin retrospective earlier this year, this was the painting that attracted the most interest.  Not only is it artistically satisfying and narratively rewarding, but it also documents a slice of vanished urban social history, as much of Una’s Dublin paintings do.  The Ladies Committee (1964, oil on canvas, 76 x 56cm) is another example, a gathering of archetypal women in various attitudes of work and leisure, arranged around a table piled high with sandwiches and tea cups, viewed with a slightly wry eye. The detailed rendering of the clothing, in particular, gives us a glimpse into the respectable world of Catholic church volunteerism in the 1960s. (Una was a member of this committee, according to Nic Eoin.[xvii])

Una’s interest had always been in people. She had a gift for classical portraiture – there are formal portraits of her husband Eugene and uncle Brian O’Higgins and her work of the mid-Fifties is full of people or perhaps “characters” would be a better description. The depiction of figures in her non-portrait work often relies on dramatic gesture, rather than detailed rendering of physiognomy. We “read” them through the set of their shoulders or the jut of their chins. She often placed herself or members of her family in her work. The young girl in one of her only overtly political painting Thar an GPO, painted in the last year of her life, is said to be a self-portrait of the artist as a child, and she appeared in several other group portrait paintings – e.g. The Ladies Committee, The People’s Gardens, Wild Apples.

Other contemporary influences are clear in her work – the stylised vegetation of The Red Bridge (1956, oil on canvas, 51x 66cm), for example, (another work featuring the River Suck in Ballinasloe) has distinct echoes of Mary Swanzy.  Malahide in its treatment of day trippers to the beach, is redolent of Patrick Leonard (1918 – 2005), an exact contemporary of Una’s who attended the college of art around the same time. He covered similar terrain in his work. i.e. the beaches of north Dublin, and it’s possible Una might have seen these. His undated Bathers, Skerries (oil on board, 63 x70cm) , for example, captures the same disinhibition as Malahide does. The People’s Gardens which she returned to several times as a subject matter, was also painted by Harry Kernoff. 

Other touches are distinctly her own. The Farm (1964, oil on canvas, 36 x31.5 cm) one of her nostalgic depictions of “old” Finglas uses a vast swathe of gold leaf to depict the golden meadows lending the painting a luminescent aura.  But perhaps the major influence was closer to hand. The twinning of Una and Eugene’s artistic impulses is also evident in her work, and vice-versa.  The 1964 canvas, Malahide, (oil on canvas, 37.5 x35cm)  is a text book example of their creative symbiosis.

Malahide

Malahide, Saturday.  Clouds com

Henna with heat. Salt and sun

Leave all flesh lazarous,

These are lines from Eugene’s long poem, “Smithson’s Glimpse of the Three Graces” published in PEN magazine in September 1961. It’s almost a perfect transcription of Una’s painting. Smithson, the speaker of the poem, a barber, is on his afternoon off at the beach “within the shadow of his wife stretched” – very much as the horizontal figure on the left of the painting,  drowses “with one leg in the sun/Lazily like Italy on a warm day”.  While his wife knits (see the grey-haired woman in the black-and-white patterned dress with her knitting bag clearly visible on the sand) Smithson fantasises about the three young women who pass by loudly chatting. He imagines them as the three Graces, Alglaia (elegance) Thalia (youthful beauty) and Euphrosyne (mirth). 

Eugene’s work often drew on classical allusions. The poem’s epigraph is from Ovid and Smithson equates his own sense of isolation with the Roman poet’s lifelong exile. He also references the “lacrimae rerum” line from Virgil’s Aeneid (Book 1, verse 462) –“sunt lacrimae rerum et mentum mortalia tangent” translated by Séamus Heaney as “there are tears at the heart of things”.

This melancholy imbues the poem – “Drowning is as lonely an experience as living” – as does Smithson’s sense of being at odds with the mundane world around him.  That said, the Three Graces Smithson conjures up on the strand at Malahide seem to spring fully-formed from Una’s joyous painting.

Typists like graces coming together,

From the Four Courts, the King’s Inns,

Loosed and let go.  Towels trailing,

Uncertain and half-naked go

The great mothers of mankind.

The three girls in their bathing costumes who draw the eye deep into the painting, towels aloft or trailing, tiptoeing on the hot sand seem to match the description of Eugene’s Graces. However, Una’s expressive use of movement insists on viewing these girls as girls, rather than as metaphors; likewise, the sprawling “Smithson” figure, or the young mother in red who cradles a white-clad baby trying to pacify it. Each of them has a distinct character and the painter invites us to give them a story.

Perhaps they are inspired by real people – her own or Eugene’s family? – whom she often used in her group compositions in public spaces. Or perhaps the pictorial space is a combination of both Eugene’s and Una’s imaginations? Una might well have played with the dramatis personae of Eugene’s poem, but she has also inserted herself into the scene in the figure of the woman in the sand-coloured dress reading, while the dreaming, outstretched man might be Eugene, just as Smithson stands in for him in the poem.

Either way, Una’s painterly concern here seems to be the thing itself.  (The pragmatic titling of her paintings shows us that –  The People’s Gardens, Woman Sewing, The Flute Player, The Game of Chess.) [xviii] Here it’s the depiction of a summer’s day at the beach. There’s the saturated blue of the sea, the white sailboat, the tossed flecks of gulls (“birds rise to the life of the wind changing”), the cratered, undulating dunes scattered with towels and discarded clothes. 

Although not completed till 1964, Una’s Malahide could have been several years in the making, sitting on the easel in the kitchen at Cappagh Cross, providing a subconscious pictorial subtext, as Eugene wrote the poem. Or conversely, perhaps Una created on canvas the Malahide backdrop Eugene suggests in his Ovid-inspired modernist lament, and then peopled it with the characters he described after reading the poem?

Or is this a re-enactment of an actual day they shared at Malahide, as in Wild Apples?  For Una, a day of simple pleasures at the seaside, harmonious, full of recognisable types and some familiar faces: for Eugene, a springboard for the classical fugues of a brooding, mid-century man alienated from the world.

It’s hard to believe that either partner in this marriage of hearts and minds would have dreamed of deliberately harming the other’s reputation. But could their symbiosis have indirectly worked to the detriment of Una’s legacy?  Such was Eugene’s devastation after Una’s death in 1965, that he burned many of her personal belongings, letters and mementoes with, as Nic Eoin describes it, a record of Verdi’s “Dies Irae” blasting in his ears. [xix]  

Georgina O’Donovan, Eugene’s niece, who was living in the cottage at Cappagh with Eugene and Una at the time while attending college, remembers him setting bonfires in the garden after Una’s death.[xx]  Fiachra Ó Marcaigh, whose father was a close friend of Eugene’s, remembers a similar story.  “As I heard it, in family telling, when Una died he was distraught and got rid of every trace of their life together: burning many things, including their fishing rods, and distributing her work to friends.”[xxi] 

  For a painter who sketched tirelessly – family and friends have dozens of informal drawings Una did on the spot – it is baffling that there are no surviving notebooks or preparatory sketches of hers. This, despite the fact that Eugene makes mention in correspondence of her sketchbooks and studies “over the years” which revealed “the wealth of observation and hard work which lies behind her wonderful last paintings”.[xxii]  

The mystery remains – where did all these sketchbooks and studies go?

Maddened by grief, could Eugene have destroyed them in one of these conflagrations? It seems out of character, but by all accounts, he was out of character in the period following Una’s death.

The evidence against this is how fiercely he championed her art and emphasised her influence on his work long after her death. In a letter to writer and academic Eoghan Ó hAnluain explaining the genesis of his seminal poem, The Week-end of Dermot and Grace in 1969, Eugene wrote: “A critic might also remember that the writer of the work was graced, for 27 years, with the intimate companionship of one of the painters of our time. . . It might be interesting to read some of her pictures.” [xxiii]   

After her death, he memorialised her work in the 1966 retrospective exhibition and he bequeathed a set of  watercolours completed in the last weeks of her life to the diocese of Ballinasloe. These depict impressionistic landscapes and flowers executed swiftly and are delicate and ethereal in mood. They were perhaps studies for a bigger work, though they have a real minimalist charm in their own right. Most importantly, Eugene documented how the works were made.

“About a fortnight before the end,” he wrote, “she painted a remarkable series of watercolours, in a style and technique she had not used before  These pictures, 25 in number, were all painted in a single day, the artist working at high speed, as if hypnotised, in a final burst of creative energy. The room at Cappagh Crossroads (looking out on the late-autumn garden, trees, cornfields, and the Dublin hills) was simply littered with watercolours; and so absorbed was the artist that she did not wait to get fresh paper but painted new aspects of the developing theme on the backs of those already dry.” [xxiv]

Una’s last year had been marked by a furious rate of work. Along with five major oil paintings, she entered and won an Arts Council competition to design a symbol to represent the Easter Rising jubilee celebrations, commissioned by Cuimhneachán 1916, the government committee in charge of the directing the commemorations. Una’s winning design, the “Sword of Light” (inspired by the mythical An Claidheamh Soluis) was ubiquitous in the 1966 golden jubilee year.  It appeared on badges, brooches and tie pins, it was stamped on all official publications, showed up in hallmark form on silverware struck by the Assay Office, and featured perhaps most memorably on blue and yellow wooden plaques pinned to the fronts of buses.

The design competition was advertised in August 1965 with a first prize of £100.  Although 43 competitors submitted their designs, the adjudicators, Arts Council director Fr Dónal O’Sullivan and Council members Michael Scott and Dr C.S (Todd) Andrews described the general standard as poor. According to the Arts Council archive, they were firmly of the opinion that better-known names should be approached to design the Rising symbol, suggesting the Government steering committee should use Oisín Kelly, Louis le Brocquy, Patrick Scott or Gerda Fromel. But the committee appears to have forced the issue and the judges grudgingly deemed Una’s design to be “the best of a bad lot”.[xxv]

However, she didn’t live to enjoy the acclaim her winning Rising logo design might have brought her.  The £100 cheque from the Arts Council arrived on the morning her cortege set out for Ballinasloe. Had she lived, the award might have provided a breakthrough in her artistic career. A year later, when the 1966 memorial exhibition, curated by Eugene, was reviewed, art critic Patrick H Glendon, described her as “a brilliant artist who was just coming into her very own”. [xxvi]

It didn’t happen then. Over half-a-century later, perhaps it can happen now.

Mary Morrissy, November 2022


[i]  Eoghan Ó Tuairisc, “He Finds Words for the Love In Her Heart”, (1940)

[ii] Gladys Engel Lang and Kurt Lang, “Recognition and Renown: The Survival of Artistic Reputation”, American Journal of Sociology 94, no (1988): (79 – 109)

[iii] ibid

[iv] Máirín Nic Eoin, Eoghan Ó Tuairisc: Beatha agus Saothar (Baile Átha Cliath: An Clóchomhar, 1988)75

[v] Sheila Byrne, interview with author, January 24, 2019

[vi] Éimear O’Connor, “Una in Focus: Self-Portrait in Green,” blog post, May 27,2020, https://unawattersartist.com/2020/05/27/self-portrait-in-green/

[vii] O’Connor, “Una in Focus: Self-portrait in Green.”

[viii] Nic Eoin, Eoghan Ó Tuairisc, 66

[ix] Augustine Martin, “Review,” Studies (Summer 1966): 218-22

[x] Dictionary of Irish Biography, https://doi.org/10.3318/dib.008188.v1/., accessed August 30,2022  

[xi]  Síle Mongey, interview with author, March 29, 2022

[xii] Logan Sisley, “Una in Focus: The People’s Gardens”, blog post, May 6, 2020, https://unawattersartist.com/2020/05/06the-peoples-gardens/.

[xiii] Georgina O’Donovan, email to author, June 24, 2020

[xiv] Engel Lang and Lang, “Recognition and Renown: The Survival of Artistic Reputation.”

[xv] Eugene Watters to M.J.Wigham, October 18, 1966

[xvi]  Watters to Wigham, October 18, 1966

[xvii] Nic Eoin, Eoghan Ó Tuairisc, 106

[xviii]  For a full range of images go to www.unawattersartist.com

[xix] Nic Eoin, Eoghan Ó Tuairisc, 227

[xx]  Georgina O’Donovan, interview with author, March 29, 2022

[xxi]   Fiachra Ó Marcaigh, email to author, May 17, 2019

[xxii]  Watters to Wigham, October 18,1966

[xxiii]  Nic Eoin, Eoghan Ó Tuairisc, 442

[xxiv] Watters family archive

[xxv] “Cuimhneachán 1916: the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising 1965,”  The Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon, accessed  February 2, 2020,

http://archivestories.artscouncil.ie/cuimhneachan-1916/

[xxvi] “Posthumous show was artist’s best work”, The Irish Independent, November 25, 1966

Acknowledgements:

Images and extracts from correspondence reproduced by kind permission of the estate of Eugene Watters

Photographs: Dara McGrath

This is the first article that started our call-out for Una’s paintings and documenting the rediscovery of the Emerald Ballroom watercolours

In search of Una Watters and her ‘lost’ paintings

Irish Times, Tue, Jul 30, 2019

Many works by the Irish artist, born in 1918, have disappeared

Mary Morrissy

It was a wet windy Monday morning in December when we arrived at the Emerald Ballroom in Ballinasloe. We weren’t there for the dancing. We were on a quest of a different nature. The ballroom on Society Street, an austere, 19th century limestone street, is one of several public buildings that has been repurposed. The school was once a courthouse, part of the convent has been converted into a library and the former ballroom is now a community hub, hosting clubs and sporting activities and offering social services, such as the town’s jobs club.

That’s where we headed with our unusual request.

Ita Hodgins, who works in a coven of offices on the second floor, is probably more used to typing out CVs or coaching applicants for job interviews, but with the pragmatic grace of a true public servant, she didn’t fob us off when we said we weren’t looking for work, we were looking for art. Art we weren’t even sure existed.

We’d been led here on a rumour that a set of watercolours by the Dublin painter Una Watters (1918-1965) was somewhere in the building. They had been gifted to the bridge club (which once met in the ballroom) by her husband, Irish language poet and novelist, Eugene Watters (Eoghan Ó Tuairisc), a native of Ballinasloe, shortly after her sudden death 53 years ago.

So why the quest? Why had we – a novelist (me) and a “recovering” academic – become amateur art sleuths? We were way out of our comfort zone. The answer is simple. Admiration. My partner, Colbert Kearney, was gifted a painting by Watters, called Girl Walking by Trinity in the Rain (1959), and we have always adored it. (Other owners whom we’ve met, feel similarly evangelistic about her work and we’ve grown used to visitors exclaiming over the striking quality of ours and wondering why she isn’t better known.)

Colbert was a pupil in St Canice’s primary school in Finglas, where Eugene Watters taught in the 1950s, and remembers seeing many of Watters’s works being painted on an easel set up in the kitchen of their cottage at Cappagh Cross, Finglas, a once rural idyll now swallowed up by motorway construction. When Colbert came to write a memoir of his early life in Finglas, (Down by the Liffeyside) he knew exactly the image he wanted for the cover – Cappagh Road by Watters.

Cubist style

So who was Una Watters? Born Una McDonnell, she went to school at the Holy Faith Convent in Glasnevin and attended the National College of Art on the encouragement of the painter Maurice MacGonigal. She studied part-time, juggling her studies around her day job as a librarian. She met Eugene Watters at a dance in the Teacher’s Club on Parnell Square and they were married in March 1945; they honeymooned in a horse-drawn carriage which Eugene had built. They were a devoted couple, summering in Ballinasloe, fishing in the River Suck and making art.

Watters is remembered by those who knew her as a gracious, gentle woman, but as an artist, she worked tirelessly. She sketched, was involved in magazine and book illustration, calligraphy and design. (She won the Arts Council award for the 1966 Easter Rising commemoration symbol, based on the Sword of Light/An Claidheamh Soluis, though sadly did not live to enjoy her success.) She worked in oils and watercolours, painted portraits and landscapes and in her latter career, interestingly, developed an angular, almost cubist style.

One of her paintings, The Four Masters (1959), still hangs in Phibsborough branch library where she worked. Another, The People’s Gardens (1963), is in the collection of the Dublin City Gallery (Hugh Lane). Annunciation (1948/49) featured in the 1949 Irish Exhibition of Living Art, founded by Sybil le Brocquy, mother of Louis le Brocquy, to promote Irish modernist painting. Watters showed seven times at the RHA and was a frequent exhibitor in Oireachtas competitions. She was also a member of the influential Society of Dublin Painters which featured a strong female membership, among them May Guinness, Grace HenryMary SwanzyMainie Jellet and Evie Hone, with whom she also showed. Yet Watters remains an unknown quantity in this company.

Family and friends

Our mission is to counteract that, by tracing as many extant Watters paintings as we can with a view to mounting a retrospective exhibition. In 1966, Eugene organized a memorial exhibition of 37 of Una’s oil paintings, after which, heartbroken by his loss, he distributed all of her work among family, friends, relations and acquaintances, which is how Colbert came by Girl Walking by Trinity in the Rain. This gesture has, ironically, made our quest more difficult, because there’s no paper trail or provenance documentation which there would be had the paintings been sold. Nor do we have images of most of the “lost” paintings.

With the help of the McDonnell and Watters families, the couple’s wide network of friends, and using the 1966 catalogue as a guiding source, we have managed to track down 16 of these works and are on the lookout for more. Along the way we’ve discovered other works by accident that did not feature in this show. Like the mythical Emerald Ballroom watercolours.

The ghosts of dancefloors past accompanied us as Ita Hodgins led us around the second floor balcony at the Emerald. There was a time when this place would be heaving on a weekend night. On that Monday morning, down in the well of the hall, there was a group of pensioners playing bowls on a green felt alley fed out by a giant roller. Where young blades might have stood hanging over the rail ogling the talent below on a Saturday night, now there were partitions – presumably on health and safety grounds. Perhaps because of this, or because Hodgins, who had a strong folk memory of the Emerald but couldn’t recall any paintings on the walls, we felt pretty deflated.

Nonetheless, she humoured us. Armed with a bunch of keys, she suggested looking first in the former bridge room, now used for computer training. The ceiling of the once high room had been lowered, typing pool rows of computers filled the floor space, but as soon as Ita threw the door open we saw them – nine watercolours by Watters bolted to the wall. It was as big a surprise to her as they were to us. The walls around them had been repainted numerous times over the years but the frames had never been moved. The light of years had faded them, but they were here. They existed! The building’s caretaker was called and he rooted about in a storeroom and found another five. We couldn’t believe our luck.

The watercolours depicting impressionistic landscapes and flowers are delicate and ethereal. They were completed in the last months of Watters’s life and were perhaps studies for a bigger work, though they have a real minimalist charm in their own right. Even though they had hung on the walls for more than half a century, we felt that these works, much like Watters’s reputation, had receded into invisibility. For us, it was like they had just been painted and we were the first to see them.

We know there are at least 21 more oil paintings by Watters out there, and there may be more we don’t know about. We’re particularly interested in tracing Girl in the Sand (1950), Silken Thomas in the Tower (1956) and Woman Sewing (1958), as well as two more Finglas paintings, Schoolbreak (1960) and Building Scheme (1961) companion pieces to Cappagh Road, for which we have no images.

Watters always signed her paintings in the same way – UW in large, often italic, capitals in the bottom left or right hand of the work. If you think you may have an Una Watters, or know someone who has, please contact me at mary.morrissy@gmail.com.

The piece that started it all – An Irishwoman’s Diary in the Irish Times on Una’s Easter Rising symbol, An Claidheamh Soluis

Painting history

Mon, Nov 26, 2018, 00:01

Mary Morrissy

The concrete artistic legacy of the 1966 Easter Rising commemoration is still plain to see, particularly in Dublin – Oisín Kelly’s monumental Children of Lir and Daithí Hanly’s Iron Age weapon mosaics in the Garden of Remembrance, for example. But the official symbol of the Rising’s 50th anniversary year, once intended to supplant the Easter Lily, is now all but forgotten.

The “Sword of Light” image was ubiquitous in the 1966 golden jubilee year. If we were to apply today’s parlance we’d say it was the signature brand. It appeared on badges, brooches and tie pins, it was stamped on all official publications, showed up in hallmark form on special silverware struck by the Assay Office, featured on first-day cover stamps and adhesive stickers and perhaps most memorably on blue and yellow wooden plaques pinned to the fronts of buses.

The symbol was designed by the Dublin artist Una Watters (1918-1965) and won her an Arts Council award when it was chosen following an open competition.

The Sword of Light (also known as An Claidheamh Soluis) has deep resonances – it was the weapon with magical properties used by King Nuada of the Tuatha de Danann to slay giants, according to Celtic mythology.

Its image was later adopted by scholars of the 19th-century Gaelic revival to symbolise both armed rebellion and cultural renaissance, and in the early 20th century the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) called its weekly newspaper, edited by Patrick Pearse, An Claidheamh Soluis.

According to the 1966 Commemoration Committee, the winning Sword of Light motif was meant to represent “intuitive knowledge, education and progress”. In fact, the search for a new Rising logo was part of a government attempt to replace the Easter Lily emblem, which the republican movement, proscribed at the time, was selling door to door in order to raise funds. Ironically, Una Watters’ winning design – a sleek, stylised depiction of the Sword – subliminally references the pure, clean lines of the lily.

Winning the competition was a high point for Watters, and a showcase for her refined design aesthetic.

Born Una McDonnell in 1918, she attended the National College of Art at the encouragement of Maurice McGonigal. She juggled classes with her day job as a librarian. One of her paintings, The Four Masters, still hangs in Phibsboro branch library where she worked; another, The People’s Gardens, is in the Hugh Lane collection in Dublin City Gallery.

Hugh Lane curator Logan Sisley gave me a sneak view of The People’s Gardens (1963) in the gallery’s stores since the painting is not on show. It’s a witty pastoral depiction of the Phoenix Park with distinct echoes of Seurat’s La Grande Jatte. There are the same rolling green swards but they’re less populated than Seurat’s and full of angular shadows and geometric trees. Instead of ladies with high bustles and dainty umbrellas, there are rugged-up couples and in the foreground a burly, golden-haired child chasing a ball.

Most of Una’s work was completed at an easel set up in the kitchen of the small cottage at Cappagh Cross in Finglas which she shared with her husband, the Irish language novelist and poet Eoghan Ó Tuairisc.

Devoted to their art, they made a striking couple, honeymooning in a horse-drawn caravan which Eoghan had built himself, and summering in Ballinasloe (Ó Tuairisc’s home town) where Una painted and fished in the river Suck.

Una was also a jobbing artist. A superb draughtswoman and calligrapher, she created greeting cards and did illustrations for journals and annuals. She designed and scribed a series of exquisite booklets of religious meditations in the 1960s, written by her uncle, poet and Sinn Féin activist Brian O’Higgins, which drew on the Celtic manuscript tradition.

She exhibited frequently in Dublin in the 1950s and 1960s alongside Louis le Brocquy, Sean O’Sullivan (who was her cousin), Harry Kernoff, William Leech and Muriel Brandt and featured in numerous Royal Hibernian Academy and Oireachtas shows. Working primarily in oils, she was eclectic in her range – rural landscapes, semi-naive depictions of the new suburb of Finglas, religious subjects, and in her latter years paintings that moved towards abstraction. 

Her 1959 Girl Going by Trinity in the Rain, for example, though figurative – showing a woman in a proper Irish downpour – is decidedly abstract in the way Watters depicts the sheets of rain in jagged, almost solid slashes that run left to right diagonally across the canvas, giving the work a three-dimensional aspect and a bold modernist appeal.

It suggested a new direction in her work, one that she never got to explore fully. Nor did she live to enjoy the acclaim her winning Rising logo design might have brought her. According to her sister, Sheila Byrne, the Arts Council award arrived on the same day that her coffin left Dublin for burial in Ballinasloe, following her sudden death at the age of 47.

A posthumous exhibition of her oil paintings was organised by a grieving Ó Tuairisc a year after her death. The biographical note lists among her influences Botticelli, Velasquez, Celtic illuminations, the poets Chaucer, Dante and Keats, Irish skies and stonework and Greek myth. The show featured 37 works, many of them scattered now or in private hands. In Una Watters’s centenary year (she was born on November 4th, 1918), it would be a fine thing to see them united once again to celebrate an artist regarded by many of her admirers as unjustly overlooked.