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Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design

 Crossroads of Ireland

Last week I had a chance to visit Ireland in Chicago. Spending a couple of hours at the The Institute of Art’s exhibit “Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design 1690-1840” was like taking a wee trip to the Emerald Isle.

Now I’d rather go to the real Emerald Isle, but this exhibit was a terrific way to get an overview of the culture we often miss or don’t think about.


And actually, my art teacher friend and traveling buddy, Peggy, says she thinks the exhibit was specially planned to appeal to the large Irish component of people in Chicago.   It’s probably a marketing effort.   After all, this is the city that turns the river that flows its  center green on Saint Patrick’s Day.

The exhibit —feeling a bit like stepping into a “Downton Abby” set—encompasses over 300 objects representing country life of Ireland and, of course, the bustling and influential city of Dublin. It demonstrates the Irish taste for making and buying lovely things.


 It starts with some massive murals and a map of Ireland.  My friend, Peggy, and I took a few minutes to look at it and share with each other where we had traveled in the Emerald Isle, commenting that we’d both like to return.


 The art work fell into categories of portraits, scenes of daily life and landscapes.  Here are a few I particularly enjoyed.



 We liked the portraits best.   They seem to communicate the spirit and soul of Ireland.






 But the paintings were not the main focus of the exhibit.  In fact, we agreed that with the exception of a few portraits, the art was pretty milk toasty.


 What interested me more was the collection of Decorative Arts from a time period when Dublin was a major cultural center of Europe.The exhibit includes all the decorative arts—furniture, silver, ceramics, textiles, and music.


 We learned about the harp as a symbol of Ireland and that elk anthers were a way to bring the “outdoors inside” in a grand old manner house.  The ones in the exhibit were over 11,000 years old.



 I really liked the furniture room.  Interestingly the box like chest shown below held wine—at the right temperature, of course.



 One of my “take aways” is the diversity of the culture.  On the audio guide, the curator said, “We tend to think of Ireland as black and white—Protestant versus Catholic—yet there was so much more there that was creative and interesting.”

And I think our impression of Ireland is that it was always very poor…… especially in the US where we experienced the influx of the Irish immigrants during and after the potato famine. The reality is that before the famine, there was a culture and emphasis on beautiful and well made items for the home.



 That’s what this exhibit is all about.

The exhibit did make me think about my last visit to Ireland and the Fitzwilliam Hotel with large faceless portraits.  Click here to see them.

And the lovely Gregans Castle House Hotel.  It will always be a favorite memory of mine. I’d for sure stay there again if in the area called The Burren.  Click here to see this hospitable spot.

Or click here for Ashford Castle—the ultimate Castle Hotel experience.

Gosh, this makes me want to head to Ireland for a bit of the blarney.

Post Author
Susan J. Smith
Susan's career includes writing for newspapers, lots of community work and a wonderful family life. Now she is enjoying traveling, photography and writing for DesignDestinations and Grand Rapids Magazine. She welcomes you on her journey and appreciates your comments.


1 Comment
  1. posted by
    Peggy DePersia
    May 12, 2015 Reply

    You captured the exhibit beautifully, Susan. I think the leprechauns must have been wrapped in your coat when you snapped the photo of the harp; it radiates a glow that makes it appear magical! Such a lovely symbol for an entire country.

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