A Sean Keating painting

Historical Context

This painting is one of a series of paintings depicting the building of the Hydro-Electric Dam at Ardnacrusha in County Clare between 1925 and 1929/30).   It is by far the most interesting and is a marvelous example of an allegorical painting.  Allegory in art is when the subject of the artwork, or the various elements that form the composition, is used to symbolize a deeper meaning that may have components of the political, religious, and historical.  A fascinating fact about allegory is its ability to freeze the temporality of a message.  For those who like a good tale and are always in search of a message, a painting that is allegorical presents a challenge.  Due to the concept of the passing of time, ‘Night’s Candles Are Burnt Out’ may require some interpretative help.

There is so much going on in this painting that it may be necessary to begin with providing the historical context surrounding its creation. The previous decade in Irish history was a tumultuous one with the rebellion of 1916 followed by the War of Independence (1919-1921).  The signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty created the Irish Free State, but this triggered a short but bitter Civil War that was fought between the Pro-Treaty IRA and the Anti-Treaty IRA.  The aftermath of the Civil War let to a 1920s and 1930s that witnessed involuntary emigration and widespread poverty.  In this context the building of this enormous hydro-electric dam at Ardnacrusha in Co. Clare was transformational in its scope.

Two key figures in the building of this dam were Dr T. A. McLaughlin and Patrick Mc Gilligan. McLaughlin encountered the harnessing of rivers in Germany to produce electricity and was determined to see this replicated back in Ireland.  McLaughlin worked for Siemens-Schuckert, and the company was highly receptive to his idea that Ireland presented an ideal opportunity for electrification.  Mc Gilligan, the Minister for Industry and Commerce, in the new Irish Government, was instrumental in seeing this ambitious plan become a reality.

The Painting

Sean Keating paints himself into this painting, not just once, but twice.  On the right hand side we see a family pointing upwards to where all the light resides.  Keating is here with his wife, May, and his two sons.  Directly underneath the family a priest sits reading by candlelight.  It appears that the priest is quite happy to stay reading by candlelight and not too concerned with the real world.  Keating and his wife May were Socialist in their outlook and not too enamored with the enmeshment of the Church and State.

In the middle of the painting, there are two male figures facing each other.  The larger figure, suited and holding a folder suggests a businessman intent on getting this project off the ground.  He regards the IRA man contemptuously and a strong sense of a different type of future, one without the violence of the past, is evoked.

To the left of the painting, Keating again appears and this time he is symbolically putting out an oil lamp which is held up to the hanging skeleton.  Seated beneath this are two men, one drinking copiously from an earthenware jar and the other staring ahead listlessly.  Keating is strongly putting paid to the belief, propagated by the coloniser’s narrative, that the Irish were good for nothing, lazy, and heavy drinkers.  The skeleton symbolizes the death of the stage Irishman and Keating is adamant that a new narrative has replaced the old one, one that embraces modernity and looks to a future.

The building of this enormous engineering scheme assumed major symbolic significance for the new Irish Government.  ‘Night’s Candles Are Burnt Out’ is the best known painting of the scheme and Keating’s embracing of this unprecedented industrial undertaking mirrors a transition in his artistic subject matter.  Up to this point in his painting life he had been concerned with cultural and political nationalism and there are many examples of this in his paintings such as ‘Men of the West’ and ‘Allegory’.  From this point on Keating wholeheartedly embraces a future that has a new social order, one that clearly wants to move on from a troubled past.  ‘Night’s Candles are Burnt Out’ is an incredibly meaningful painting in the history of Ireland.








Capitalist & Gunman

The Capitalist & Gunmen

The capitalist, in his three piece suit, carries plans for industrial development, looking with
disdain at the figure of the gunman who makes a mocking gesture. The confrontation between the two symbolizes the constant antagonism between the business elements and the
extremists which hinders the material progress of the state.

Considering the timing of this painting it could be speculated that this confrontation acts as an
acknowledgement on how Ireland was now moving on from the destructive capabilities of the gunmen to more constructive possibilities

The Priest

The myopic priest, determinedly reading his bible by the candlelight in the shadow of the development of rural electrification references the churches disapproval of this innovation.

Members of the clergy were against this development as they felt that the funding for this project would have been better spent on housing.

The Family

On the right hand side of the painting we see a family pointing towards the dam, where all the lights resides.

Keating paints himself with his wife May and his two sons Michael & Justin looking forward to a modernised future. This analogy aligns itself with the artists political ideals and hope for a new

The Skeleton Hanging from National Grid

Keating paints himself as the truth teller
holding a lamp upto the skeleton hanging from the National Grid, symbolizing the death of Old Ireland.

Here, Keating depicts the transition of Ireland from a country of ancient stagnation to a state of freedom and progress.

The Irish Workmen

Sitting beneath the skeleton are two men, one
drinking copiously from an earthenware jar and the other staring ahead listlessly.

Here, Keating is strongly putting an end to the belief, propagated by the coloniser’s narrative, that the Irish were good for nothing, lazy, and heavy drinkers.