From the eighteenth century, with the development of formal academic training for artists, ‘History Painting’ – i.e. paintings of Biblical or mythological scenes (only very occasionally including scenes from actual history) – was considered to be the most important and prestigious. Classical mythological themes became particularly popular as both artists and patrons travelled to Europe on ‘the Grand Tour’, and they remained significant well into the nineteenth century. Artists addressed such topics both to establish their own familiarity with classical culture, and in response to the interests of patrons.

The academic study of Irish mythology that blossomed in the nineteenth century raised the profile of such themes. Irish mythological subjects became particularly popular with artists wishing to express Irish national identity through their art. There are many examples of such subjects, including Oliver Sheppard’s The Death of Cuchulainn, an almost life-size bronze sculpture, located in the General Post Office in O’Connell Street, Dublin, which represents the tragic hero from the Ulster Cycle of Irish myth and legend. While it dates to 1911-12, it was subsequently identified as an appropriate symbol of Irishmen killed during the 1916 Rising.

Oisin Kelly’s Children of Lir was commissioned for the Garden of Remembrance (
An Gairdín Cuimhneacháin) as part of the 50th anniversary commemoration of the 1916 Rising in 1966. While it attracted some criticism for its ‘pagan’ rather than Christian theme, it was ultimately deemed as an appropriate representation of transformation and peace.

previousPrevious - Themes in Irish Art
Next - People in Artnext