Limerick artist’s anger over ‘serious insult’ by Civic Trust

Anne Sheridan


Anne Sheridan

'Insult': Dr Thomas Ryan, Gabrielle Wallace O'Donnell, then chairperson of the Limerick Civic Trust and Paddy OSullivan, at the launch of a calendar using the portraits in late 2009 and below, the cover of the calendar, featuring 24 portraits by the artist. (LL)
ONE of Ireland’s most eminent artists has said that he has been dealt a “considered, premeditated insult” by the current board of Limerick Civic Trust, who have moved a major art collection of his away from its long-standing public display.

ONE of Ireland’s most eminent artists has said that he has been dealt a “considered, premeditated insult” by the current board of Limerick Civic Trust, who have moved a major art collection of his away from its long-standing public display.

Dr Thomas Ryan, of the Royal Hibernian Academy and its former president, painted a series of portraits of 24 prominent Limerick people, which had hung for a number of years in the home of the Civic Trust, the Bishop’s Palace, near King John’s Castle.

Dr Ryan, a Freeman of Limerick who designed the fifty pence coin issued to commemorate the Dublin Millenium in 1988 and the £1 coin in 1990, said he feels there is something “vengeful” about the actions of the board.

The portraits, which took over a year to complete, were presented to the late Denis Leonard, the then chief executive and co-founder of the Trust, based on a verbal agreement between them.

Featuring well-known local people such as former mayors Jim Kemmy and Ted Russell, the Garryowen rugby player Paddy Reid, who was part of the Grand Slam winning team of 1948, the artist Sean Keating, and opera singer Catherine Hayes, they were placed in a specially appointed room for public viewing, called The Dr Thomas Ryan Room.

However, when Dr Ryan, who now lives in Meath, visited the Bishop’s Palace recently to view his work, he was met by a shocked staff member, who apparently said: “They’re gone, they’re all gone. I’ve nothing to do with it.” It has now transpired that a decision was taken by the board of the trust up to a year ago to move the portraits to the stairwell, but the floor above only leads to offices and is not open to the public.

“I never signed away the collection to Denis [Leonard], but I was happy to leave it there forever as long as the conditions were adhered to,” Dr Ryan, 85, told the Limerick Leader this week. “It hurts me to think that the people who succeeded him, in the very place that he restored, went against his wishes. The public will go into a place or a room that is appointed to them for viewing, not a staircase that leads to nowhere or appears to be a private area,” he said.

“They should have asked permission. When I went there the walls were bereft ... they had decorated the whole room very handsomely.

“I never took a penny for the work and never thought of charging anything. It was a gentleman’s agreement, and Denis was a gentleman. He should have been made a Freeman of Limerick, he gave his life to the city. I just feel this was done to remove any connection with me or Denis, the very man who invented the place.”

“I was very unpleasantly surprised, but I would have been madder if I was 21. I was insulted, I felt it was a considered insult and a premeditated insult. It’s as if there was something vengeful about it.”

“Their name [Limerick Civic Trust] is a misnomer. They’re not a Trust, there’s nothing trustworthy about them,” he said.

In a calendar, launched in 2010, featuring all the portraits, the then chairperson of the Trust, Gabrielle Wallace O’Donnell, states that “we are proud of this permanent exhibition”.

The calendar featured all the portraits to raise much needed funds for the Trust at that time.

In response to queries from the Limerick Leader, David Deighan, the current chairman of the Trust, said in early 2014 the board reassessed how best to present its “treasured exhibits, which include the Ryan Portrait Collection.

Mr Deighan said they felt that the Ryan collection had been “hidden from public view for some time”, as it was not open for public. Nonetheless, the same room now contains a military exhibition and is open to the public.” He said the Ryan collection “deserves nothing less than the most prominent location in the Bishop’s Palace” and said it is hanging in that location now - the stairwell.

“It is the board’s plan to make the Bishop’s Palace more a visitor centre than an office and as a result our valuable and significant exhibits will be open to the people of Limerick and visitors to the city.

“To achieve this objective the main entrance area and the Georgian stairwell were redecorated especially to accommodate the Ryan Portrait Collection of distinguished Limerick citizens. The portraits were moved to the most prominent position in the Bishop’s Palace, the stairwell, and will be the centrepiece of the Limerick Civic Trust’s Bishop’s Palace visitor centre.

“Due to an oversight we apologise that Dr Ryan was not consulted in advance of the changes,” he said.

Mr Ryan has rejected all of the Trust’s responses as a “tirade of nonsense”, and to date has not accepted any offers to meet with them to discuss its new location.

He has suggested, however, that perhaps the University of Limerick, or Limerick City and County Council, might give better care to his work if they were to receive them, and any new agreement regarding the future of the collection should have legal standing.

As president of Limerick Art Society for 25 years, Dr Ryan told their members at a recent AGM of what had happened, and said they were “fired with indignation”. Born in 1929, Dr Ryan, who received an honorary doctorate in letters from the University of Limerick, attended the Limerick School of Art, then the National College of Art in Dublin, where he studied under Seán Keating.