“Looking at the Stars”: Irish Art exhibit at the University of Notre Dame Snite Museum

From August until December 2019, the Snite Museum of Art hosted a remarkable collection of Irish art ranging from modern paintings, to a photographic collection of Irish Travellers, to 18th century James Barry paintings.

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Oscar Wilde

The unique collaboration between the Snite Museum and the Keough- Naughton Institute, along with key donors and partners, allowed for a striking and aesthetic look at Irish culture that’s never before been offered by a university museum, says Cheryl Snay, the curator of European art at the Snite Museum.

“The development of a collection of Irish art is a goal of ours because first, it supports the academic mission of the University. It offers new chances for collaboration, research, and teaching experiences across the Academy,” Snay explains. “The Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies is one of the jewels in the University’s crown and enjoys strong ties to Ireland. A collection of Irish art will distinguish the Snite Museum from other university museums in this country, none of whom have one, including those who also have Irish Studies programs. This makes us unique among our peers.”

The exhibition included a number of paintings by Irish artists including Jack Butler Yeats, Roderic O’Conor, and Mary Swanzy, which were gifted by the Donald and Marilyn Keough family. Pat and John O’Brien of Chicago also loaned several other contemporary pieces for the exhibit, while Alen MacWeeney, a Dublin-born photographer, also donated a selection of 50 photographs and audio recordings from his collection.

Looking At The Stars Painting

Patrick Griffin, the Madden-Hennebry Family Professor of History and director of the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, says, “The paintings are more than an aesthetic contribution to Notre Dame. They are part of an exhibit that helps to build a bridge between Ireland and America—an endeavor that is at the very heart of our institute.”

As complementary events, the Snite also hosted an Irish music session, a poetry reading of William Butler Yeats’s work, a performance by the Notre Dame/Saint Mary’s College Irish Dance team, an Irish whiskey tasting which paired five artworks with five whiskeys, and several other lectures and readings.

Snay notes that the exhibition was exceptionally well received and saw visits from foreign dignitaries including the Irish ambassador, former prime minister, scholars, and business leaders, as well as international press.

The title of the exhibit is a riff on Irishman Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan. The play famously says, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”