Ireland 1916

Ireland 1916​
Gerald Leslie Brockhurst (1890–1978)​
Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow
© Richard Woodward

This portrait by Gerald Leslie Brockhurst (1890–1978) depicts his French Basque wife Anaiis wearing local dress in Galway. The choice of costume, declaring solidarity with Brockhurst’s adopted country from 1915, paired with the wetland background of the Connemara Mountains, establishes a powerful connection between rural Ireland and culture – perhaps encapsulating the sitter as ‘Celtic Ireland’ during this pivotal moment for Ireland’s independence. Brockhurst’s friend and colleague Augustus John (1878–1961), who also painted in Connemara at the time, was involved in the Gaelic movement of Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats, a revival of interest in Irish language and culture drawing on the work of scholars of early Ireland, that had similar parallels in Scotland. 

Connemara National Park, as it is today, contains extensive bog habitats, with the entire range being listed as a special area of conservation (SAC); bog habitats serve as carbon sequesters, storing carbon and constituting an immensely rich historical archive. There are also many small lakes located within these peatlands, which contain the remains of crannogs. A crannog is an entirely or largely artificial island in a lake in a wetland system, typical of the Atlantic seaboard and Celtic fringe. In Ireland there are an estimated 1200 crannogs, constructed predominantly during the European Iron Age through to the early mediaeval, one of these may be visible at the left behind Anaiis. Crannogs are certainly very common amongst the wetlands of the west of Ireland such as Connemara; an example is shown in Figure 1 below.

Crannogs may have served a variety of functions, including as small settlements, fortified places of safety and/or for keeping animals[1]. Though he would not have been aware of these scientific and archaeological aspects, Brockhurst’s close-knit harmony of subdued reds, blues and purples against bright sky reflected in water, draws person and place tightly together, as if intuitively to suggest that what we would now call Ireland’s ecological identity, so integral to its age-old ways of life, must be cherished.

Figure 1: Crannog surrounded by wetlands on a lake in Connemara. Photo: Michael Gibbons, with permission.

Holly Mullins, Nicki Whitehouse and Clare A.P. Willsdon

[1] Tony Brown et al. ‘Ancient DNA, lipid biomarkers and palaeoecological evidence reveals construction and life on early medieval settlements’, 2021, Nature Scientific Reports 2021, 11: 11807.