November is Una Watters month. To mark the anniversary of her birth on November 4, 1918, we’re looking at “Thar an GPO” (By the GPO) painted in 1965.
The painting was one of several Una painted in the prolific last year of her life, and carries a title in Irish, presumably because it was shown at the Oireachtas exhibition of that year. Máirín Nic Eoin, Eugene Watters’ biographer credits it as the last painting Una completed, although some believe it was Harvest. The painting stands out as being an overtly political work and according to her sister, Nora McDonnell, in an interview with Nic Eoin for Eoghan Ó Tuairisc: Beatha augus Saothar (An Clóchomhar, 1988) Una saw it as a 1916 commemorative piece.
The 1916 Rising was very much in the air that year with the 50th anniversary coming up. Musicians and artists were engaged in exploring and reviewing the seminal event – e.g. George Morrison’s two Gael Linn films Mise Éire and Saoirse? with scores by composer Seán Ó Riada that entered into the national consciousness rather in the same way Riverdance did in the 1990s. Una herself had also been working on the design of a symbol for the 1966 commemoration for a competition sponsored by the Arts Council. (Her design won the contest, although, sadly, she did not live to collect the prize.)
It wasn’t only a memorial impulse. In 1966, Nelson’s Pillar was blown up by republicans, causing damage to the GPO, so the Rising and its fault lines was also a live political issue.
Thar an GPO (oil on canvas, 75 x 85cm) is an austere work in muted earth tones and more reflective in mood than Una’s other oils. The sombre palette of the painting serves to emphasise the ray of light shining from high right to low left of the canvas. A small girl in a russet coat – thought to be a depiction of Una herself as a child – is the only figure in the painting who notices the celestial beam, which slices through the ribbed columns of Portland stone of the GPO. The light forms an illuminated pathway into which the girl steps. This motif in the work could be seen as an Annunciation of sorts, a child of the revolution (Una was born two years after the Rising) bathed in the benign light of the new republic.
As often happened with Eugene and Una, there are subliminal echoes of each other’s visions in their work. Here’s a moment in Eugene’s long poem Aifreann na Marbh published in his 1964 collection, Lux Aeterna, that seems to embody the spirit of Una’s painting.
I see them naked, the bones of beauty,
The fluted columns, the empty stone of Corinth,
Rising from the haze on the left.
The pure virgin.
The figures crushed into the narrow space – both pictorial and actual – of the building’s portico between the columns and the forbidding granite face of the GPO represent every walk of life; a priest, a newspaper seller, a stylishly dressed young woman in a fawn suit, an elderly matron with a hat with her back to us. This hatted female figure appears in many of Una’s group scenes – in The People’s Gardens where she has been identified by family members as Una’s mother, and in City Bridge, where she appears in the bottom right of the frame in almost identical attire. There’s also a beaky, Beckett-like student with a scarf worn like a cravat, a newspaper seller and a nun among the throng.
Interestingly, the figures in the crowd are rendered transparently, their silhouettes overlapping so that, for example, we can see through the stolid gent rugged up in the overcoat and trilby in the centre foreground to the young girl in the tawny dress and the newspaper the seller is proffering.
As in many of Una’s group portraits, the “characters” are recognisable as archetypes, although the faces are rendered broadly and indistinctly. Here, though, they melt into one another, unified by the historic building and elevated by the revolutionary light, even if they don’t notice it. Their function is as a crowd, standing in for the many generations who have passed by the GPO.
There is some instability about the ground of the painting, given the overlapping figures so that the girl looking up at the light seems to be almost levitating. The other non-realist trope in the work is the rendering of the entrance to the GPO on the left of the painting which is suffused by a bronze light. The large entrance portal seems to open out into the pavement and we see the grey stone warmed up by an autumnal light emanating from the bronze decorative sashes on the glass.
Perhaps too it’s a subliminal reference to the bronze sculpture of The Dying Cúchulainn by Oliver Sheppard (1865-1941) which was designated by Eamon de Valera as an official memorial of the Rising in 1935 and has sat on its marble plinth in the GPO since then. Although the sculpture had not been created by Sheppard as a monument to the Rising, its placement in the GPO twinned it in the public mind with the events of 1916.
These two lights, dying bronze and transforming white, one of hope and one of defeat, seem an apt metaphorical configuration of the Rising itself.