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David Rooney’s 1916 portraits

David Rooney’s 1916 portraits
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Roger Casement

What a clever idea by the Royal Irish Academy to republish forty entries from its nine-volume Dictionary of National Biography in a new book entitled 1916 Portraits and Lives. But this new volume, edited by Lawrence William White and James Quinn, is greatly enhanced by the inclusion of superb, new portrait drawings by David Rooney of each of the forty men and women ‘whose careers were deeply involved with the Easter Rising of 1916’. A few members of the British administration and army are included in the interest of ‘giving a balanced view of the Rising’!

Rooney’s interest in engraving developed from his study of linocut printing at NCAD and his black and white engravings first appeared in Hotpress and The Irish Times. Work as a book illustrator for the Folio Society in London followed and this led on to his biggest commission yet (before the 1916 book, that is) – ninety-two engravings for the BBC TV series The Story of Ireland in 2010.

David Rooney

According to Rooney himself: ‘The material I use is scraperboard, an engraving technique in which black ink is scraped away to reveal a white chalk-board beneath. The figures, built up from thin, white cut lines, emerge from the black in darkness.’ But even more interesting than his technique has been his personal coming to terms with this most remarkable collection of participants ‘artists, musicians, and writers who were so motivated to act for an ideal that their own lives were comparatively unimportant’ one Easter morning, a mere century ago. Rooney succeeds admirably in depiction but emotion is difficult to convey in black and white engravings.

The portrait of Col Bowen-Colthurst who personally murdered Richard O’Carroll and ordered the summary execution of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Dickson and McIntyre looks more bored than manic. But there is no doubt about the spark in Roger Casement’s eye with various nude natives in the background.

The good news is that the OPW has acquired this entire collection which will go on display in the currently-under-restoration Kilmainham Court House early next year and then pass into the Irish State Art Collection.

All in all, a feather in the cap for the RIA, the OPW and most of all for David Rooney. JM

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