Aarhus University Seal

Material Culture 

How does classicizing material culture in Ireland complicate or mirror the literary tradition?

Classical influences in Irish material culture speak to narratives of colonialism, nationalism, and identity, through neoclassical architecture, through classically-inspired art, and in the Irish coinage of the newly independent state.

Neoclassical architecture was central to the British imperial project and, in its origins, neoclassical architecture in Ireland was almost entirely representative of British control (unlike the classical languages). Many neoclassical structures became sites for the expression of political rebellion in the 20th century. Neoclassical art had flourished under the British empire, most notably in the work of James Barry (1741-1806), whose art had a nationalist edge, but it was ancient Greek coinage to which the new Irish state turned for inspiration on becoming independent.  

Selected examples

  • Dublin’s General Post Office, completed in 1818, was built in the Georgian style, with an Ionic portico, six fluted columns, a richly decorated frieze and entablature and three classical statues on the acroteria of the pediment. As the headquarters for the leaders of the 1916 Rising, it was destroyed by shelling from British forces but was rebuilt to become, arguably, the symbol of Irish independence. By contrast, the Northern Irish parliament at Stormont, completed in 1932, remains a fraught monument to classicism and empire.
  • The son of a Cork builder, James Barry’s prodigious talent as a painter earned him the patronage of the classically educated (though imperialist) Edmund Burke. One of Europe’s best history painters, Barry consistently exploited classical forms and motifs for political and moral purposes, championing revolution in America and encrypting subversively Catholic imagery into his famous murals in the Great Room of the Society of Arts in London, for instance.
  • When Ireland chose symbols of nationhood for its new coinage in the 1920s, it took inspiration from classical Greek coins depicting animals to create the much-loved ‘ark’, as the set was affectionately designated in Seamus Heaney’s 2002 poem ‘A Keen for the Coins’, penned on the advent of the Euro. This ‘ark’ of animals, in which the bull and the hare were modelled directly on Greek originals, asserted Ireland’s agrarian identity as well as its claim to an indigenous pre-Roman classical aesthetic.