The creation of a National Portrait Collection was first suggested as early as 1872, a short number of years after the opening of the National Gallery of Ireland. The Gallery's second Director, Henry Doyle (1869-92), envisaged a collection modelled on the National Portrait Gallery in London, but his application for funding was refused by the Treasury on the grounds that in the London gallery 'eminent Irishmen are represented indiscriminately with Englishmen and Scotchmen [sic]'.
Displaying admirable ambition and sensitivity to the social and political realities in Ireland, however, Doyle persevered and, without any exchequer support, opened in March 1875 a room dedicated to portraiture. Later, in 1884, this display was expanded to become the Historical and Portrait Gallery. Though the permanent display today consists of paintings and sculptures, the profile of the collection has altered little since its inception. The description of the Portrait Gallery in 1885 as a display of 'eminent Irishmen and Irish women… also of statesmen and others who were politically or socially connected with Ireland, or whose lives serve in any way to illustrate her history or throw light on her social or literary or artistic records' still stands. Indeed, the selection on display today, augmented by the addition of portraits of figures representing popular culture and sport, was made with Doyle's early aspirations very much in mind.
The collection has been enhanced in recent years by the inclusion of works commissioned as part of the Irish Life & Permanent Portrait Series. To date, six portraits by leading Irish artists have been added to the collection. They are: Mark Shields, Portrait of Mary and Nicholas Robinson, James Hanley, Portrait of Ronnie Delaney, John Kindness, Portrait of Gay Byrne, Tom Ryan, Portrait of TK Whitaker, Louis le Brocquy, Image of Bono, and more recently, Maeve McCarthy, Portrait of Maeve Binchy.
The National Gallery of Ireland houses the national collection of Irish and European fine art.