It’s clearly an Irish scene, a Dublin scene, but a “disappeared” Dublin.
“Cappagh Road” is by the Dublin painter Una Watters (1918 – 1965) and depicts one of the new corporation estates in Finglas in 1960, where she lived and worked. It appears on the cover of a new memoir, Down by the Liffeyside (Somerville Press) by Colbert Kearney (who knew Una personally) and is the perfect embodiment of the world Colbert describes in his book – the migration experience of thousands of inner-city dwellers to the outer suburbs in the 1950s, at a time when the government of the day was at least willing to tackle Dublin’s accommodation crisis head-on.
Una’s Finglas is a microcosm of the “new” suburb in its brave infancy, when much of life was still lived out on the street, rather than behind closed doors. Look at the two burly women on the right in their heavy coats, gossiping, as one pushes a go-car (what we used to call buggies in the 1950s) in which a toddler sleeps, skewed to one side. We know they’re gossiping from their physical gestures. The blue-scarved woman is saying something to her companion, but the tilt of her head tells us that it’s a secret or a sly aside that’s being shared. On the left of the scene, another young mother – or an older sister, perhaps? – cradles a bottle of milk while trying to restrain a child in a blue bonnet who’s on the brink of a tantrum. You can see the “I want” refrain in the operatic yawn of the child’s mouth.
A boy in short trousers grabs another by the sleeve as they chase after a ball in the middle of the street. Is he trying to hold his companion back, or pass him out? Three more take up the rear in hot pursuit of the runaway ball. In the mid-ground of the painting, another boy is stepping off the kerb heedlessly and about to collide with a hatted man on a bicycle who is swerving to avoid him. The moment of avoided impact is rendered by a circular compass-like brush stroke.
A young blade – a university student or a clerk? – is waiting for the bus. He stands, debonair, slightly louche-looking, one hand around the pole of the bus stop, the other hand thrust into his pocket. The bus is coming though he doesn’t see it. There it is at the vanishing point of the painting, as green and solid-looking as the trees it emerges from.
It is a winter’s afternoon – a weak sun braves the chilly sky; the street lights are already on, the shop (the local chipper) is warmly aglow, the people are rugged up. Only the eerily precise black dog, padding softly across the foreground, sniffing out his territory, tail alert, seems intent on his own business.
The 1950s policy of forcing people out en masse to housing schemes in what was essentially the countryside, without adequate social supports, may have been questionable but what Una Watters depicts very clearly here is the vibrant communities that ensued, at least at first. Here is a group of people of all ages interacting with one another. The rectangular, grid-like arrangement of the canvas may hint at the conformity folk singer Pete Seeger warned of in his song about the little boxes “all made of ticky tacky and they all look just the same”. But the individual houses here are proud, solid homes, their span-new TV aerials visible, their hedges carefully tended.
I have written here before about Una Watters (see blog September 30, 2018), a painter I feel has been criminally overlooked – particularly in the current climate of revisiting the reputations of mid 20th century female painters like Mary Swanzy, who would certainly have known Una, since they both exhibited in Dublin in the 40s and 50s.
Before Una’s untimely death at the age of 47, she had won an Arts Council award for her design of an emblem (see image) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966.
Her “Sword of Light” was ubiquitous in the 1966 golden jubilee year, appearing on badges, brooches and tie pins, stamped on all official publications, and showing up in hallmark form on special silverware struck by the Assay Office.
My hope, with the aid of Una’s family and friends, is to organize a retrospective of Una’s paintings based on the catalogue of a posthumous show of 37 works that her grieving husband, the Irish language novelist and poet, Eoghan Ó Tuairisc (Eugene Watters) organised after her death. Devoted to their art, they made a striking couple, honeymooning in a horse-drawn caravan which Eoghan had built himself, and summering in Ballinasloe (Ó Tuairisc’s home town) where Una painted and fished in the river Suck.
“Cappagh Road” was one of three paintings Una made of Finglas in the early 1960s. We still have not traced the other two – “Schoolbreak” (1960) and “Building Scheme” (1961). Perhaps, on the evidence of this painting, someone out there might recognize its companion pieces, either from the subject matter or the style.
If you do, or think you may have in your possession any Una Watters painting, please contact me via this blog.
We want the world to know about her!