HE SPENT 27 years completing just 14 illuminated folios for the manuscript Leabhar na hAiseirghe (Book of Resurrection). But when the job was done, they were left for years lying forgotten in a drawer in the National Museum.
Now, after decades of obscurity, the great Dublin character Art O'Murnaghan - who died in 1953 - is posthumously enjoying a certain celebrity with the first public exhibition of his life's work.
Previously almost unknown in Ireland, O'Murnaghan's work as a Celtic illustrator is admired around the world. The exhibition in the National Museum in Collins Barracks, Dublin, is a breathtaking example of one man's obsession with his art and his culture.
His cause has been championed by the writer Ulick O'Connor and Beverly Figgis, who married O'Murnaghan's grandson Walter and has carried on a long campaign to have his work recognised in his own country.
The 14 intricate Celtic paintings comprising the manuscript rival the Book of Kells in their detail, mysticism and meaning. One page - the only one that is a copy - was lost in California, where it had been taken in the 1930s by admirers trying to raise funds to help O'Murnaghan continue his enterprise. O'Murnaghan spent over a year reproducing the lost work.
But in between the three periods when he was creating the Book of Resurrection, O'Murnaghan got on with other aspects of his varied life.
He certainly fell on hard times, but such considerations never worried a man who was a believer in fate. He wrote plays under the name Patrick Kells; he was a librarian, and a trained chemist with a fascination for herbal medicine; he played the organ and was also actor manager of the Gate Theatre in Dublin for Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLiammoir.
During this varied career he managed to squeeze in the production of 14 volumes of architectural drawings, writings and diaries.
How did such a figure disappear from the public consciousness so thoroughly? O'Murnaghan, it seems, did not believe in self-publicity. He did what he did. If people wanted to support his art, they did. If they didn't, he neither minded or cared, believing that fate would find a way.
So he ended up in a little room in the National Library, paid a £1 a day stipend. He worked in three phases with vellum, tiny Chinese brushes and hand-mixed watercolour. He used only a magnifying glass, no other instruments, for his intricate figures.
Now almost the entire work is on public display for the first time in Collins Barracks as part of its 'Understanding 1916' display.
Art O'Murnaghan was born in England in 1875 and came to live in Dublin in 1898. He qualified as a chemist and took an interest in herbalism. But it was his interest in Celtic mythology and Irish history that fired his imagination.
He started the Book of Resurrection in 1924, and between then and 1927 produced the first nine pages. When the money - raised by friends, to fund his work - ran out, he had to get a job.
"He was an artist; he felt this was his life's work and it had nothing to do with money," says Beverly Figgis.
In 1937 a rich American whiskey manufacturer, Joseph McGarrity, came up with a huge donation, but O'Murnaghan wouldn't touch it, claiming that money was a bad influence on art. It was only when this bequest was handed over to a group of trustees that he returned to his art. In the meantime he worked in the Gate Theatre.
The third phase of his work began in 1943 when Gerard Murphy, a college friend, raised additional money and got him an office in the National Museum. The money was doled out at £1 a day.
"I have come out of a dream," he said in 1951 on finishing his last folio of the 14-page book, which he intended to have bound.
"For years we wrote letters and tried to get some information so that his work could be put on show, but nothing was ever done," said Beverly Figgis, who has championed his cause for years. "Then people like Michael Kenny and Sandra McElroy came in, and the drawings were restored."
She added, "It is strangely sad that few people remember him. When Art O'Murnaghan's work was finally put on show, it was a bonus for us all."
The 'Book of Resurrection' forms part of 'The Easter Rising: Understanding 1916' exhibition at the National Museum, Collins Barracks,Benburb Street, Dublin 7, Tel: 01-6777444; www.museum.ie