Histories of Imagination:
: Critical and Creative Approaches To Irish Art Writing In the Twentieth Century

  • Rory McAteer

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The main title of this thesis, Histories of Imagination, is intended to be a broad imaginative framework within which to consider a range of creative and critical approaches to Irish art writing in the twentieth century. The introduction sets out the purpose and general aims and objectives of the thesis, followed by an explanation of the methodology used, before giving an explanation of the title and subtitle. It then sets out to define modernism and, because the nature of the research is interdisciplinary, this is first defined in an art historical context and then in a literary context. At the end of the introduction, under the heading ‘creative writing as a source of art writing’, the historical context of how visual art and literature were regarded in Ireland in the twentieth century is sketched out before proceeding to outline the case for considering art writing within a history of imagination.

Chapter one addresses place, imagination and Irish art writing and explores how cultural imagination in Ireland has been suffused with changing notions of place and space over the last century. The chapter begins with a range of definitions of place before examining a range of perspectives on place. The work of Lucy Lippard and her focus on the idea that place is inherent in the idea of the local is considered, followed by a reflection on regionalism elucidated by Declan McGonagle. The tensions that exist between the rural and the cosmopolitan in Ireland are explored through the work of Vincent Cheng and set against current global and cultural theory. The final section discusses imagination, emigration, exile and the diaspora.

Chapter two begins with an attempt to clarify definitions of ‘art writing’ and then sets out the background to the historiography of Irish art writing in the twentieth century before reviewing how Irish art histories are written. There then follows an examination of the work of several specialists in art history writing, particularly in 9 relation to how they view the writing process. The chapter ends with a discussion of the intersections of creative writing and art history.

Chapter three addresses the role of philosophy and imagination in Irish art writing and sets out some of the definitions of imagination and their historical background before reviewing some twentieth century philosophical perspectives on art writing. The sublime in the word/image debate is then examined, followed by Richard Kearney’s contribution to the study of imagination, particularly his work on the hermeneutic imagination. The chapter ends with the outline of a speculative theory of imagination.

Chapter four is the first part of a review of critical art writing and imagination in Ireland in the twentieth century and begins with a sample of writers (Yeats, Joyce and Russell) from the early part of the century to illustrate their contrasting views on imagination. This is followed by a section on Mainie Jellett and Thomas MacGreevy and an assessment of their attempts to promote modernism in Ireland. The chapter ends with a section on Samuel Beckett and his influence on art writing and criticism,

Chapter five is the second part of a review of critical art writing and imagination in Ireland in the twentieth century and begins with a review of the significance of the Rosc exhibitions between 1967 and 1988 and the contribution of the artist and critic Brian O’Doherty to the debate on the Irish imagination. The section following this covers the critical response of Róisín Kennedy to O’Doherty’s essay and this is followed by the critical responses of Brian O’Doherty and Richard Kearney to Louis le Brocquy’s reconstructed heads of literary figures. The chapter ends with an assessment of Tom Duddy’s essay on Irish art criticism followed by a section on 10 Richard Kearney’s Transitions (1988b) which addresses the crisis in Irish culture which emerged during the twentieth century.

Chapter six, on creative writing, imagination, and Irish art writing, is derived from a selection of modernist work by James Joyce, Brian O’Nolan/Flann O’Brien, Samuel Beckett and Brian Friel. The chapter begins with a section on James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) in relation to imagination and memory. The last three sections are on the imaginative approaches of Brian O’Nolan/Flann O’Brien, Samuel Beckett and Brian Friel, with justifications for the particular works chosen.

In the conclusion the four objectives set out in the introduction are evaluated in sequence and an assessment made about how they contribute to the argument of the thesis. The purpose of the thesis is to attempt to place imagination and creative writing within the framework of a history of imagination in twentieth century Ireland and this is also appraised in the conclusion
Date of AwardMay 2019
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorHoward Wright (Supervisor) & Alastair Herron (Supervisor)


  • historiography

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