A painter's disillusionment


You might have heard of the O'Connor family of Dublin. The eldest is Joseph who has written several novels, such as "Star of the Sea" and "Redemption Falls." He somehow manages to sell lots of books in different languages and please the critics at the same time. Then there's the international singing star Sinéad, who needs little introduction. By this point, you're probably thinking to yourself and indeed you'd be forgiven for saying it out loud: "Does anybody in that family actually do an honest day's work?" Well, that would be Éimear. She is a scholar who in recent times has joined her big brother in the authors' ranks. Echo readers got a flavor of the topic a while back with her account of painter Seán Keating's involvement with the Irish pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. The book is "Seán Keating in Context: Responses to Culture and Politics in Post-Civil War Ireland."

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Keating, who was born in Limerick in 1889, is still best known for some early War of Independence-themed works such as "The Men of the South" (1922), which depicts a group of IRA men waiting in ambush. He was enormously popular, though, during his long career. This indeed was a painter who was the recipient of a birthday tribute on Gay Byrne's "The Late Late Show" in 1973.

O'Connor discusses his life and work in the first half of the book and allows him to speak for himself in the second. "Keating's articles and broadcasts examine in detail the decline of his post-revolutionary enthusiasm and thus they offer a personalized critique of post-Civil War Ireland," she writes by way of introduction, "which is also to be seen in many of his paintings, drawings and book illustrations. They also signal the extent of his albeit self-censored but acutely evident socialism."

He died in 1977 at the age of 88. His son, the Labor Party politician and former government minister Justin Keating, died on last New Year's Eve at age 79.

Forgotten hero

Peter Duffy, the Manhattan-based author of the Roscommon-set "The Killing of Major Denis Mahon," has written a fascinating article about a forgotten 19th century hero for the online magazine Slate. Bare-knuckle prizefighter John C. Heenan, he says, was once a household name.

"In Clohissey's window a faded 1860 print of Heenan boxing Sayers held his eye." That's from "Ulysses," but Duffy reports that Heenan's fight with the English champion Tom Sayers was also mentioned in Dickens, Thackeray, Browning (Robert and Elizabeth Barrett) and Twain.

Heenan, who was born to Irish immigrant parents in Troy, N.Y, in 1835, was the first truly national champion in boxing. Says Duffy: "[I]n the year and a half that preceded Fort Sumter, both North and South (and West) were united behind the country's first sports superstar.

"Heenan's national appeal came largely because his rise coincided with that of the newspaper industry."

Then it was arranged that he fight Sayers, whom Thackeray called a "god-like Trojan." Duffy writes: "In the long lead-up to the fight, the papers spiced their coverage with sex. During the Cincinnati stop on Heenan's nationwide tour, the boxer had met a slim, beautiful stage actress with short dark curls named Adah Isaacs Menken." He married her. Her first husband, however, claimed they hadn't been properly divorced.

Duffy's account of the Heenan/Sayers slugfest itself includes this line: "The policemen, their uniforms torn and noses bleeding, inched closer to the ring, reaching its edge by the 37th round."

The telegraph meant that Americans learned of the result in the papers within a day or so, but it would be another month before the pony express brought news to California. You can find out more by going to www.slate.com and keying in the search term "Heenan."