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Why 1690?

Earlier this month, Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690–1840 opened at the museum. For the casual viewer, 1690 to 1840 might seem like an arbitrary span of time, but the choice was quite deliberate. So today we’ll answer the question on everyone’s minds—why start with 1690?

While the century and a half our exhibition covers is noted as one of relative peace and stability in Ireland, the era was not without its conflicts; the period was ushered in by one of Ireland’s most famous (or infamous, depending on your politics) military encounters, the Battle of the Boyne.

But let’s back up just a bit. In 1689, William III, a Dutch Protestant, was crowned King of England, Scotland, and Ireland, deposing the Catholic James II. Protestant nobles in England, fearful of a Catholic royal dynasty, had secretly encouraged William to seize the throne.

When William took the crown, James was exiled to France, but he did not sit idly by. With troops supplied by his cousin, the Catholic King of France Louis XIV, James landed in Ireland hoping to invade England from the Emerald Isle and regain the throne. Ireland’s majority Catholic population rallied to his cause in the hopes that a Jacobite (from the Latin for James) victory would help them regain property they had lost after the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland some 40 years earlier and secure Irish sovereignty and Catholic religious toleration.

So on July 1, 1690, the armies of William and James clashed on the banks of the River Boyne, 30 miles north of Dublin, in what was the beginning of the Battle of the Boyne. Among those to fight alongside James was Sir Neil O’Neill, pictured below.

Wright Sir Neil O'Neill

This is not what Sir Neil wore on the battlefield but rather what he chose to portray himself in for his formal portrait painted a decade earlier. Nearly every detail is deliberately pro-Irish: the costume, spear, shield, and headdress are those of an Irish chieftain; the Irish wolfhound a symbol of national pride. Less obvious to today’s audience is the Japanese armor that appears in the bottom left-hand corner, but Sir Neil’s contemporaries would have recognized it as a reference to the persecution of Jesuit missionaries in Japan. So Sir Neil not only saw himself as a guardian of Ireland but as a defender of the Catholic faith.

In the end, Sir Neil, James, and the rest of the Jacobite army were defeated. William remained king, and James returned to exile in France. Sir Neil, unfortunately, died of injuries sustained in the battle. In Ireland, William’s victory ensured that the island’s minority Protestant elite retained their political, economic, and social authority for over a century in what is commonly referred to as the Protestant Ascendancy. But the fight for Irish autonomy did not die at the Boyne. Next time we’ll look at the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and some of its key players who, like Sir Neil, are featured in our exhibition.

—Anna Decatur, Assistant Director of Principal Gifts

P.S. You might be wondering why someone in the museum’s development department is writing on Irish history. In fact, I started working at the museum shortly after receiving my master’s degree in Irish history from Queen’s University Belfast, not knowing that a major presentation of Irish art was in the works. I’m deeming it a happy coincidence!

Image Credit: John Michael Wright. Portrait of Sir Neil O'Neill, 2nd Baronet of Killyleagh, 1680. Private Collection.