Some portraits of Irishwomen.
This one above is by the wonderful Australian painter William Dargie (who survived many a hungry year on ninepence a day before finding fame and fortune) and looks to have been painted in the 1940s. Its subject looks like a movie star, but I’d say she didn’t brook disagreement lightly, that one; a certain narrowness round the eyes and toughness around the mouth hints at a future middle-aged harridan (check out photo of a Galway woman who could be her mother here).
This is a much earlier painting, but its subject is much younger than the sophisticated lady in Dargie’s portrait, a child almost. Lots of Irish people came over to England in the mid-19th century, most of them very poor. Many of them ended up in the street trade. Brown came across this young girl selling oranges, and painted her portrait. I don’t know her name, or what happened to her afterwards. That sort of life was tough on kids, particularly pretty ones. I hope she was all right.
This girl was probably painted by Lamb during the year or so he spent on Gola, off the coast of Donegal. Like so many off-coast faces, she has an exotic, almost non-European look, with her straight fine hair, high cheekbones and that phenomenally long distance between nostril and cupid’s bow characteristic of Woody Allen heroines and Native Americans. As with the others, I know nothing else of her identity.
Although the women in the portraits above look quite different one from the other, each of the faces instantly says ‘Irish’ to me. From my observations there are only about fifty or so types of face in Ireland and even when people from different types intermarry their offspring tend to be predominantly either one or the other. never a mix.
And these face types are so uniform, so omnipresent, capable of being narrowed down in some cases even to county of origin, that when someone looks a bit different, often it turns out to be because of some non-Irish ancestry thrown in there, generations back. One of the best examples of this would be our former Taoiseach Sean Lemass, who looked more Mediterranean than Irish; his family ‘Le Mas’ had come to Ireland as 17th century Hugenots and even though the spelling of the name became corrupted over years of Dublin living the swarthy French cast of feature had passed down through the generations unchanged – check out a portrait of him on the cover of Time Magazine here.
I love faces so much, especially Irish ones, and I wish I could draw them. Not my talent (I struggle with stick figures!), but looking at the Irish face either in portraits or in person – old or young, pretty or plain or ugly (and all the girls in the paintings above are lovely) - is a wonderful and abiding joy.