William Orpen, 'The Holy Well', 1916.

William Orpen (1878-1931)

The Holy Well, 1916

Tempera on canvas, 234 x 186 cm
Purchased, 1971

From 1913 to 1916 William Orpen painted several pictures which relate to the Celtic Revival. From the last decades of the nineteenth century, artists, writers and political ideologues had come to regard the west of the country as the 'real' Ireland, and those who lived there as the embodiment of a 'pure' Irish race. Orpen, however, did not wholeheartedly embrace this construct of national identity. The large canvas depicts Ireland's Celtic heritage with sardonic eye and is anti-romantic comment on the fanciful idealisation of western peasant culture.

He bases his scene on the old practice when, on 'pattern days', people would gather to pray at a holy site associated with a local saint. The location is an island off the west shore of Ireland, and the typically barren stony landscape of that region provides a backdrop for those gathering at the well. They are in varying states of undress. A monk stands to one side of the well and blesses the naked figures. Above him stands an amused figure dressed in peasant costume, observing the scene below. It was not customary for people to undress as part of the ritual, especially in Ireland, a country noted for its sexual inhibitions. Thus Orpen is poking fun at the superstitious nature of these religious practices. Rather than symbolising the nobility of the Irish he suggests instead that the Irish peasant is foolish and gullible.

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