National Gallery of Ireland

Dublin, Ireland | C.1854

Photo Credit: Kelsey Muir

Though Ireland had emerged from the Great Famine by the mid-1850s, the country was still contending with the economic depression left in its wake. Over a million Irish emigrated, but one Irishman, William Dargan, resolved to help revive the nation through industry. What resulted was a much more artful legacy: the founding of the National Gallery of Ireland.

Considered the most important Irish engineer of the 19th century, Dargan is credited with building 800 miles of railway that still weave through Ireland’s countryside. Ever-ambitious, when he attended England’s Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851, he was determined to bring an exhibition home to Ireland. Within two years, the Great Industrial Exhibition arrived in Dublin.

Hosted on the grounds of Leinster House, the 1853 Exhibition was the largest international event held in Ireland at the time. Shows featured everything from lace to guns—yet failed to jump-start the economic boom Dargan had envisioned. The Exhibition was the first to showcase fine arts paintings, however, which succeeded spectacularly in making a lasting impression.

This enthusiasm for artwork revealed opportunity. Within a year, the National Gallery was established as a permanent art collection. A decade later, the Gallery’s building opened, with 112 paintings to its name. Today, it is home to some 2,500 paintings and approximately 10,000 works in various mediums.

The National Gallery has had a profound influence on some of Ireland’s most beloved artists, including George Bernard Shaw. As a child Shaw spent so many hours wandering the Gallery that he later lauded the venue for giving him “much of the only real education I ever got as a boy in Eire.” In his last will, Shaw left one third of his posthumous royalties to the Gallery, enabling it to continue inspiring generations of Irish artists (and engineers).

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