Creating History: 1500 years in 55 paintings

Trinity News speaks to the curator of the new exhibition at the National Gallery, “Creating History: Stories of Ireland in Art”


Dr Rooney is adamant that the best way to see these paintings, and indeed any works of art, is in the flesh.

The new exhibition in the National Gallery “Creating History: Stories of Ireland in Art”, is a rich collection, encompassing 1500 years’ worth of Irish history in 55 paintings, painted over 350 years. The works are both fascinating and moving insights into Irish history, its people and its culture. Dr Brendan Rooney, curator of the exhibition and TCD alumnus, agreed to talk to me about putting the show together.


The exhibition, which was three years in the making, is arranged thematically. Paintings are divided into five different rooms with the labels “Testimony”, “Conflict”, “Assembly”, “Allegory” and “Lamentation”. Dr Rooney explained that he chose not to arrange the exhibition chronologically, from the arrival of St Patrick in the 5th century up until the Civil War, because of the large gaps found in art. This is due to history being written by the victors, which leaves many rebellions and battles absent from both history books and paintings. This decision results is a pleasant categorisation that unites all the pieces in the room whilst also highlighting their differences: contrasting styles, periods and even political perspectives are found in the same room. Dr Rooney stresses however that his five categories are not “definitive themes” as they only emerged after he had sourced many of the paintings, and that many of the paintings could feature in two or more sections.

Much of the decision of which category to assign a painting came down to the practical element of what could physically fit in the room. Many of the works are extremely large in size; one such painting, which dominates nearly an entire wall is the anonymous piece “The Battle of Kinsale” which the gallery borrowed from Trinity, where it hung on a staircase in the Old Library building. The painting looks like a map at first glance but is actually a story, narrating the progress of Spanish troops throughout the area, with captions along the way and tiny soldiers painted in exquisite detail. Dr Rooney describes it as “pure propaganda” as one of the captions describes how the Spanish were “overthrown in a happy and victorious battle”. Trinity scholars originally thought the painting dated from the 18th century but upon further examination by the National Gallery it is now thought to be from the 17th century, making it the oldest painting in the exhibition by quite a stretch.

The exhibition is the National Gallery’s main contribution to the decade of centenaries, and although 1916 definitely has its moment, it does not steal the show.

Despite the apparent divide of the works, there are patterns to be found throughout the exhibition; Dr Rooney explains “There are links throughout about personnel, subject matter, location”.  He loved finding these links between the different rooms and different events. There is even a “before and after” depiction to be found in a pair of paintings by John Thomas Serres, depicting a navy battle between the French and the British and the aftermath. More intriguing examples are the many pictures of O’Connell Street, painted during various significant moments in history. As Dr Rooney told me, he enjoyed including paintings of familiar places in the city: one in particular stands out which depicts College Green in the 1700s. Although the area has undergone great change throughout the centuries, it manages to look familiar.

The exhibition is the National Gallery’s main contribution to the decade of centenaries, and although 1916 definitely has its moment, it does not steal the show. Despite this, Dr Rooney insists that “the complex relationship between Britain and Ireland underpin this show.” If he had to choose a favourite work, he would choose “Listed for the Connaught Rangers” by Lady Butler, which depicts two cousins travelling through Kerry to join the army. The main subject “seems very cocksure and confident, even though he is unlikely to see Ireland for a very long time.” Dr Rooney calls it “a subtle reflection on Irish society” and feels it sums up the whole exhibition well. There is a definite feeling of grief and melancholy about this painting, which is fitting as it sits in the “Lamentation” section of the exhibition, but this is a common feeling that many of the paintings exude. There are hardly any joyous scenes in the show, Dr Rooney points out “there is a lot of death and sadness in this exhibition, and it’s interesting that that was what was painted.”

Literary influence

Dr Rooney describes Creating History as “quite a texty show”, indeed its full title is “Stories of Ireland in Art”. There are works in the exhibition from the US, Canada and the UK, as well as from Irish collections; some by artists who never even set foot on Irish soil. Dr Rooney was particularly interested in these as they had “no obvious political baggage”. They were inspired by ballads, folk songs or plays popularising scenes from Irish history.  This suited Dr Rooney as he explains “I like the embellishment that comes with storytelling”.

The accompanying descriptions of the works highlight these literary inspirations; one painting even has an Irish Times article published alongside it to give further context. Great attention to detail was carried out in giving information about the paintings, and so the labels next to the frames needed to be longer than usual to include information about the artist and the subject matter, although they are still only around 120 words.   

The real thing

Dr Rooney is adamant that the best way to see these paintings, and indeed any works of art, is in the flesh. When asked what one gains from seeing the works in real life, one gets “textural quality and vibrancy, a sense of scale, finish and luminosity, detail, individual techniques… You see them in a specifically designed space, works are put side by side for a reason. They have an aura… That kick you get [from seeing the paintings in real life], I get that all the time! They’re originals, they’re old and very old, singular things have a certain appeal.”


“I wanted this to be a picture show, not a history exhibition”. Dr Rooney succeeds, in that no part of the collection is dry or boring; what you get instead are beautiful works of art grouped together in a digestible manner to show a broad spectrum of cultural events that resulted in the Ireland of today. It is extremely fascinating as an artistic introduction to the complex topic that is Irish history.

The exhibition “Creating History: Stories of Ireland in Art” will be shown, for free, in the National Gallery until the 15th of January, 2017. The accompanying illustrated book “Creating History”, edited by Dr Brendan Rooney, is available to buy at the National Gallery.