The Colour of Ireland

William Orpen (1878-1931), Trees at Howth.
William Orpen (1878-1931), Trees at Howth. Credit

Our 2019 exhibition Shaping Ireland: Landscapes in Irish Art explored the relationship between people and the Irish landscape, as visualised by artists over 250 years. As part of the fully illustrated catalogue accompanying the exhibition, we invited a number of experts to write their responses to the theme of 'Shaping Ireland'.

The following is the response by journalist Ella McSweeney, called The Colour of Ireland.

Popular images of the Irish landscape conjure one colour: green. This verdant tone has come to represent a particular vision of ‘authentic’ Irishness. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, cultural nationalists looked to the small green fields – typically in the West of Ireland – to form an image of Irishness that would serve both at home and abroad. This colour quickly became a symbol of independent Ireland; an evocation of purity, growth and untainted nature. The green land would literally – and metaphorically – feed the people of Ireland.

Today, the landscape is greener than it has ever been. Much of the country is an expanse of bright fields of monoculture rye grass which is grazed by millions of cows. There is nothing natural about this vivid shade of green. It is, quite literally, artificial – the result of the application of chemical nitrogen fertiliser. Far from being an indicator of intrinsic fertility, the green of Ireland’s fields today is distinctly unnatural.

If today’s glossy green is the result of man-made chemicals, does the Irish landscape have a ‘natural’ colour palette? Can we imagine the land before humans exerted such a strong influence on its form and appearance?

The big glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago and a surge of woodland growth and species-rich meadows appeared. We could imagine the landscape as remarkably colourful, with the delicate gold meadowsweet, along with silver-barked birches and hazel trees with their powdery, golden catkins. The uplands of the West of Ireland – so barren today – were thick with the deep green of Scots pine and the reddish-brown bark of the yew tree with its crimson berry. Oak woods, with their opalescent russets and greens, covered much of the south and north. As bogs began to engulf the soggy midlands, a plethora of colours emerged: the copper-coloured leafy liverworts; bright red, lime and gold lichens; the carnivorous red and green sundews with their hairy tentacles and pellucid dew; the pale pink butterworts, and the bright red and yellow sphagna. Were these the colours of an untouched Ireland?

Expressionistic painting of a landscape with purple mountains in the distance and grass and yellow flowers in the foreground.
Nano Reid (1900-1981), West Cork Mountains, 1949. Collection of Antoinette and Patrick Murphy. © The Estate of Nano Reid. Photo © National Gallery of Ireland. Photographer: James Fennell PhotographyCredit

It was the arrival of the first settlers that began the greening of Ireland, as they cleared the forests for crops and grazing animals. The colour balance shifted from diversity towards forty shades of green, to the eventual monotone of today’s cultivated fields.

We can get a tantalising glimpse into a world of colour that is now lost. Visit the Burren in spring and you see an explosion of colour that brightens the cracked grey slabs of limestone. The bloom of lipstick coral orchids, deep blue gentians, crimson bloody cranesbills and golden mountain avens turns the grey stone into a riot of vivid azures, deep ceruleans and bright golds. Some old hedgerows also contain a dizzying array of species which give a year-round display of colour – the characteristic creamy bloom of whitethorn, the flaming red leaves of the spindle tree, and the blackberry – so vividly described by Seamus Heaney as ‘a glossy purple clot / among others, red, green, hard as a knot’.

The battle for the colour of Ireland has been won by those who have commodified the land; nationalism, promoting the idea of greenness and purity, has been co-opted by agribusiness to sell Irish produce around the world. This version of the landscape has come at the cost of a diversity of colour. But if we look closely in the cracks in the stones, and deep in the hedgerows, we can still see it there.

Ella McSweeney, 2019.


The exhibition catalogue has many more responses to the theme of Shaping Ireland, including works by Paula Meehan (poet), Mary Reynolds (landscape designer), Duncan Stewart (environmentalist) and John Tuomey (architect), among others.
Shaping Ireland: Landscapes in Irish Art (13 April - 7 July 2019.

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