Saturday 21 April 2018

What Lies Beneath: 'Portrait of Lady Lavery as Kathleen Ni Houlihan'

'Portrait of Lady Lavery as Kathleen Ni Houlihan' by John Lavery, Oil on canvas, 1928. The National Gallery, on loan from the Central Bank

'Portrait of Lady Lavery as Kathleen Ni Houlihan' by John Lavery.
'Portrait of Lady Lavery as Kathleen Ni Houlihan' by John Lavery.

Niall MacMonagle

On Easter Sunday, Christ rose. On Easter Monday, this country rose up and proclaimed its freedom. With inspired timing - and fusing religion and politics in one potent symbol - everything changed. Utterly.

1916, a momentous time, a time of vision, sacrifice; a time worth honouring and remembering. 2016? Yes, a more open and liberal outlook, multi-culturalism, better roads - but the commemorations "take our minds off the now", warns Paula Meehan, and when that 'now' is a caretaker government, health and housing crises, strikes and threatened strikes, high suicide rates, alcoholism, and people on the streets with outstretched paper cups every few yards, we must wonder how the most recent survey pronounced us the 19th happiest country on earth.

Mother Ireland is An tSeanbhean Bhocht, the Hag of Beare, but when John Lavery ­- born on St Patrick's Day, 1856, in Belfast - was asked to create the female personification of Ireland he painted his wife Hazel; her image appeared on our bank notes for 50 years.

Lavery's early life was difficult: orphaned aged three, his first wife died soon after giving birth to their daughter.

Later, he married Hazel Trudeau, whose first husband had died four months after their wedding when she was pregnant with her daughter Alice.

Hazel's family, the Martyns, had emigrated from Galway to Chicago, and she called herself a simple Irish girl.

As she was converting to Catholicism, Alice asked: "Why do you want to be a Catholic? You are such a bad Protestant" - but convert she did.

She used to meet Michael Collins, when he was in London, at 8am Mass. Having signed the Treaty, "my death warrant", on December 6, 1921, Collins went straight to the Lavery home. Rumours of an affair linger - when Collins was shot, he was carrying Rossetti's Poems, bookmarked with a letter from Lady L.

She knew everyone, Evelyn Waugh, Cecil Beaton, Sam Maguire, Churchill, and against a muted Irish landscape of lake and fell, and neither "bocht" nor haggard, this beautiful woman with those dark eyes, red lips and elegant, harp-playing fingers embodies dignity, confidence, grace. Things always worth cherishing.

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