An Allegory - Crawford Art Gallery
Seàn Keating: Contemporary Contexts
Resource Pack for Secondary Schools
Section Four: An Allegory
The Irish Civil War (June 1922-May 1923) was a conflict that accompanied
the establishment of the Irish Free State as a country independent from
Britain. The conflict was waged between two opposing groups of Irish
Nationalists: the forces of the Provisional Government that established the
Free State in December 1921, and who supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty, and
the Republican Opposition, for whom the Treaty represented a betrayal of the
Irish Republic. The Free State forces emerged as the victors in this conflict.
The Civil War claimed more lives than the War of Independence and left Irish
society divided and embittered. Today, two of the main political parties in the
Republic of Ireland, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, are direct descendants of the
opposing sides in the war.
Seán Keating painted An Allegory in 1924. The Civil War had ended and he
had been badly affected by the mutually destructive violence that took place.
The word ‘allegory’ means that the artist is trying to tell us a story. Keating
was bitterly disappointed that the fight for political freedom that he had
passionately supported in Men of the South, had failed to bring peace.
Instead, Irish people had turned on each other.
It seems clear that Keating was initially pro-Treaty and he was hopeful that
the ‘rotten state of things’ would change as a result of the new political order.
But the brutality of the Civil War, and the lack of any sense of real change,
altered his political views.
He rejected violence. He felt that the violence gave credence to those who
believed that Ireland could not rule herself. This explains why he did not paint
the Irish soldiers in the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, or ‘the
troubles’ in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s and 70s.
Keating began to use symbols or visual metaphors in his paintings, to criticize
politicians and the church, and to highlight social inequality.
The setting of An Allegory seems to be the grounds of a grand estate. The
background shows a large house built in a classical style. No doubt, this
house was once well ordered and maintained, but it now stands ruined. The
house becomes a symbol, representing the chaos and loss of order that civil
war has wreaked.
Keating has painted his own self-portrait in the foreground; the artist, angry
and disillusioned is slumped against a gnarled, tree trunk. On his right, two
men representing different sides of the civil war bury a coffin covered by a tricoloured flag. The tri-colour could itself be described as a symbol of the civil
war. The men don’t seem to be working together and there is no sense of
their digging being a unified action, as each man faces completely away from
the other. Indeed, not one of the six adult figures in the painting is showing
any effort to communicate with another. Society has gone mad, and each
figure seems absorbed in a private world.
Two men on the left side, a businessman and a cleric, seem to be registering
the scene and quietly conversing, but they have distanced themselves from
the others, the ordinary Irish citizens, perhaps judging them, due to the civil
war, as unable to manage their own affairs or their country.
The mother and child can be said to represent mother Ireland and the
possibility of a different future. As a contemporary audience we need the
prompting of a history book to read this image, but Keating’s audience would
have immediately grasped the artist’s message.
An Allegory, 1924, Seán Keating, oil on canvas, 102 x 130 cm
Collection of the National Gallery of Ireland
Note: the information in this worksheet is derived from Dr Éimear O’Connor HRHA, ‘Celebrating Modern
Life. Seán Keating: Contemporary Contexts’, catalogue essay for the exhibition, Crawford Gallery, Cork,
2012, and further sources therein.