Tuesday 12 December 2017

When the Irish won medals ... for art

IT wasn't only in sport that the Olympic movement honoured the best. Between 1912 and 1948, competitions were held which rewarded those believed to have best transferred the sporting ideals of the Games into the arts.

The art competitions were part of the original intention of the Olympic movement's founder, Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin, who wished to celebrate the loftiest of human ideals.

Medals were awarded for works of art inspired by sport, divided into five categories: architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture.

And given our reputation as a land of literary giants and visual artists, it's no wonder that Ireland had a proud history in this category.

Three of our 28 Olympic medals were won in the arts -- almost as many as athletics.

While WB Yeats won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, his brother Jack B Yeats (1871-1957) won the silver medal in the Paris Games the following year for his painting 'The Liffey Swim', now held by the National Gallery in Dublin.

It meant he was the first medal-winner for the recently-independent Irish Free State, with the Central Bank issuing a commemorative €10 coin just this year to honour his artistic achievements.

Yeats wasn't alone in Paris that year, with writer and poet Oliver St John Gogarty (1878 -1957) taking bronze in literature for his 'Ode to the Tailteann Games', a 1,100-word epic which established a link between the ancient Irish version of the Olympics -- held the same year -- and the modern Games.

"God the runner to his course/ Holds, and urges on until/Lips and face of blood are drained/And fainting limbs are numb:/Till the heart, by God sustained/Bravely to the end is come", it reads.

The judges may have been impressed with his work, but St John Gogarty wasn't, later describing it as "rather tripe".

The 1924 Paris Games were also notable because they were the first time there was keen interest from the artistic world, with 193 entries including three from Russian artists, despite the Soviet Union not officially taking part because they considered the Olympics bourgeois.

But the art contests weren't to last forever. They were abandoned after the 1948 Games because of rows over the status of the contestants.

Olympic athletes were supposed to be amateurs, but artists were considered to be professionals and so the competition was dropped.

Ireland managed to feature that last year, returning to the medal podium where Letitia Hamilton (1878-1964) from Dunboyne in Co Meath -- who was taught by Jack B Yeats -- took a painting bronze in the oil and watercolours section for 'Meath Hunt Point-to-Point Races'.

Irish Independent Supplement

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