Tipperary is a county famous for the prowess of its pitchers and the ferocity of its fighters during the War of Independence. Arguably, both traditions are celebrated in Seán Keating’s painting The Tipperary Hurler, for which he used two models, sportsman John Joe Hayes and former IRA man Ben O’Hickey.
Keating, from the city of Limerick, was a key figure in the Irish art world. In Dublin he was Professor of Painting at the Metropolitan School of Art and was heavily involved with the Royal Hibernian Academy.
He had already produced a number of paintings with nationalist themes, including his portraits of IRA volunteers, western men and southern men, when he began work on The Tipperary Hurler.
“He started it in 1925, after Tipperary won the All-Ireland Championship,” says Logan Sisley of Dublin City Gallery: The Hugh Lane, where the painting now hangs.
“Hayes was one of the star players and Keating used him as a model. And then for some reason he gave up painting work until 1928.
Art historian Eimear O’Connor is the one who discovered that Keating then asked O’Hickey to replace Hayes so that he could complete the painting. It is said that the two looked a lot alike.
Hayes remains a famous figure in GAA history. A native of Ballerk, near Thurles, he played senior hurling for Tipperary from 1917 to 1927, usually at left-back, and also captained the Moycarkey-Borris side which won the county championship in 1926 Keating would have drawn it as he walked off the field after Tipperary’s All-Ireland triumph over Galway at Croke Park.
O’Hickey is more mysterious; a founding member of the IRA at Bansha, he fought throughout the War of Independence, served time in prison in England, then returned to Ireland to study art at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin.
“O’Hickey was one of Keating’s students when he finished the painting,” Sisley explains. “But we don’t really know what became of him as an artist.”
Keating’s paint thrower has an impressive, muscular and brooding build. With the wild hills and turbulent skies behind him, he could be Cúchulainn, the hero of Irish legend.
“The Tipperary Hurler is a very modern painting,” says Sisley. “He presents a very energetic and very positive image of the strong and manly young athlete. But it also seems to evoke a heroic figure from the past, someone who is almost a universal figure.
One of the striking details of the painting is the CHC logo on the subject’s shirt.
“The initials represent the Commercial Hurling Club, a Dublin-based team founded by people who had moved from the Midlands. My guess is that since the painting is a composite image, Keating chose a club that wasn’t really associated with any of his models.
The Tipperary Hurler had an interesting life before he arrived at Hugh Lane in 1956. The 1928 Olympics included art as a category, and Keating’s painting was among the works that represented Ireland.
“William Davidson, Mainie Jellett and I think Harry Kernoff were there the same year,” says Sisley. “You would wonder if Keating had the Olympics in mind when he decided to complete the painting. Did he revisit the painting because it gave him the opportunity to show it, or did he finish the job, and now was the perfect time to show it in Amsterdam?
“Keating did not win any medals, but the painting was subsequently exhibited in New York on several occasions. The Helen Hackett Gallery and the Irish Art Museum included the painting in its exhibits, and then it was shown at the 1939 World’s Fair. The Irish Art Gallery was run by an Irish-American named Patric Farrell, who never actually visited Ireland. until the 1960s, but it was he who offered the painting to Hugh Lane.
The Tipperary Howler will be familiar from many of his appearances on calendars and in magazines and newspapers.
“It’s become an iconic painting,” says Sisley. “We have just put it back on display, in a room of works from the 1920s and 30s. There are Keating, John Lavery, Paul Henry, Jack B Yeats, as well as some of the most modernist artists, such as Grace Henry, Mainie Jellett and William Leach.
“Even when we were hanging the piece, visitors were asking who painted The Tipperary Hurler. Keating was a fantastic artist and people love this portrait.