Personification of Ireland: When Stories Collide

Published on 17 March 2021 at 13:47

On St Patrick's Day there are many jokes, quotes and stories that characterise Ireland and  what it means to be Irish. Deciding if our national day is called St Patrick's Day, Paddy’s Day or Patty’s Day always causes confusion, argument and debate. Images of leprechaun’s sitting on a pot of gold, comely maidens dancing at the crossroads and a creamy pint are just some of the images that are used to personify Ireland and the Irish.These are stereotypical image and often don’t do justice to Ireland’s history and culture.


One image that is often forgotten about when characterising Ireland is the image of Kathleen Ni Houlihan. An image of Kathleen Ni Houlihan adorned Irish currency from the late 1920’s till the 1970’s.


Who is Kathleen Ni Houlihan?


Kathleen Ni Houlihan was an Irish mythical figure and an emblem of nationalist politics in Ireland. Kathleen Ni Houlihan is also known as Cathleen Ni Houlihan or Sean- Bhean Bhocht (Poor Old Woman).


Many artists, poets and politicians in the west often try to symbolise their country as a young woman in an attempt to personify their country.These are often modelled on female war goddess in attempt to unify and galvanise support in the country. Examples of this can be seen in France ( Marianne) and England (Britannia). 


The approach was slightly different in Ireland our national personification were often of a beautiful yet helpless young woman or an oppressed old woman.This was mainly because they were created during the time Ireland was under British control.This image of the young women/old woman was generated by poets in Aisling poetry,bemoaning the oppression of the Irish people and predicting the coming of heroes to save them. 


This sentiment and characterisation subsided through the centuries until the Irish literary revival in the late 19th and early 20th century. The image was updated by poets such as Padraig Pearse as Roisin Dubh and playwrights like Lady Gregory and WB Yeats in the play Cathleen Ni Houlihan.


These images were a renewed version of what had existed in Irish culture for generations.It was the image of the old woman Kathleen Ni Houlihan was enduring and captured the minds of many Irish politicians.


After the 1916 rising and the war of Independence the new Irish Free State government was keen to have its own national personification to symbolise both independence and recognise Irish culture. The government commissioned the artist  Sir John Larvey to do the national personification. Larvey, a Catholic born in Belfast had been the official artist for the British Government was at home in British and Irish political camps.


Larvey often used his wife Lady Hazel Larvey as a model for his portraits and it was her likeness that was used in Irish banknotes for decades.

Who was Lady Hazel Larvey?


Hazel Martyn was born in Chicago in an Irish American family who had emigrated from Galway in the 17th century. She married John Larvey in 1909 after the death of  her first husband.Lady Larvey, a talented artist herself played the role of society hostess in London  and muse to her husband. At their home in London they hosted the many of the most influential members of society including politicians and royalty.


Hazel and John were very conscious of their Irish roots and were anxious to play their role in the negotiations to bring peace to Ireland.They used their connections to become friends and supporters of leading figures such as Micheal Collins, Arthur Griffith and John Redmond.It was around this time she started to describe herself as “A simple Irish girl” and converted to Catholicism.During the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations in 1921 their home at 5 Cromwell Place became a place of neutral ground allowing the negotiators to get the know each other informally.


The close relationship between the Lavery’s and the Irish government may have led to his commission  to paint a portrait of an “emblematic female figure” for the legal Irish Tender Notes. The Commission in charge had already decided that they wanted an Irish Colleen symbolic of Irish womanhood; the mythical Cathleen Ni Houlihan figure that had been handed down through the generations and featured in a W.B Yeats play. It is here where the stories of a mythical figure of Irish womanhood and a high society Irish-American hostess  collide.


Sir John Larvey was appointed in January 1928 and produced the portrait depicting Kathleen Ni Houlihan within a fortnight. Lady Larvey modelled for the portrait sitting left in an Irish shawl, leaning on an Irish harp, with  a classic Irish landscape of  lakes and mountains in the background. It was painted on an oval canvas and can be seen in the National Gallery of Dublin today.The portrait was carried on Irish currency until the 1970 and then appeared as a watermark until the 2000’s.


Both Lady Hazel Larvey and Kathleen Ni Houlihan may have been forgotten in history if is wasn’t for the other.It is difficult to decide what image or figure best personifies Ireland or being Irish but a combination of an Irish mythical figure of womanhood and an Irish-American hostess seems fitting.

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