A review of As They Must Have Been (Crawford Art Gallery, 30 July – 25
September 2022) by contributor Morgan Hegarty
Situated on the first floor of the Crawford Art Gallery, As They Must Have Been is a major
retrospective of the iconic group portrait of members of the Cork No. 2 Brigade of the Irish
Republican Army, Men of the South, celebrating its reunification with its companion piece,
An IRA Column, both by Seán Keating. While at first glance an engaging exhibition examining
the painting, a closer look betrays a sloppy treatment of history that legitimises partition.
The exhibition describes itself as an attempt to place the portrait in the extraordinary
context from which it sprung, that being the Irish War of Independence, more specifically
the inter-war truce period predating the signing of the Treaty and the outbreak of the Civil
War. What is most interesting, however, is the “broader exploration of 1920s Ireland, and
the emergence of the Irish Free State,” which takes up the majority of the exhibition.
Immediately upon entering, you are faced with a bust of Cathal Brugha, Minister for
Defence during the War of Independence and who later died at the hands of pro-Treaty
troops. The exhibition includes a variety of artworks; you will see portraits of Irish writers
and a series of works by Keating depicting the construction of the Ardnacrusha Dam in the
mid-1920s. The corner to your right is dedicated to portraits of Terence MacSwiney,
republican Lord Mayor of Cork and hunger striker, and his wife, Muriel MacSwiney, who
would become one of the many faces of the Irish Revolution abroad following her husband’s
death. This section is accompanied by a painting of Terence’s funeral.
There is an elephant in this room, the event looming over the exhibition and which is
curiously barely mentioned: the Civil War. While claiming to explore the context of the
period of the Truce, and examining the foundation of the Free State, the Civil War is only
ever hinted to. This is even though most of the named republicans depicted – including
Brugha and Muriel MacSwiney, – took up arms to oppose the foundation of this partitioned
and partitionist state. By presenting these figures without the essential context of their
ardent opposition to the Treaty, they are effectively instrumentalised as its supporters.
If you left this exhibition thinking that the Civil War was a very minor event in which nobody
fought against the “new Ireland”, as curator Dr. Michael Waldron tellingly calls the
partitioned state, you would not be faulted for doing so. The frustrating thing is that this
could have been an excellent examination of how artists were compelled by their support of the Free State to engineer an aesthetic that legitimised and whitewashed the southern state
in all its anti-republican, anti-feminist and anti-worker horror.
This exhibition could have presented a far more revealing and discursive examination of the
Treaty period. Instead, it intentionally mystifies the period, bringing all of the revolutionary
figures to the same level and creating a false equivalence between independence and the
continued partition of this island. In essence, it has wiped away the political aspect of art
and the artist, and has focused exclusively on aspects which legitimise a state which would
go on to assassinate figures like Brugha, ban the works of Frank O’Connor and Seán Ó
Faoláin and imprison others like MacSwiney and Markievicz, all of whom are represented in
the exhibition. Through the depoliticization of the republicans who opposed the imposition
of a British border in Ireland, the Crawford Gallery treats it as a natural and justified division;
a division which still defines political and social life on this island.