The Liffey Swim and Jack Butler Yeats

First written for Headstuff.org

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The Liffey Swim and Jack Butler Yeats: Ireland’s First Olympic Medalist

The first Olympic medal won by the Irish Free State was a silver medal in 1924, awarded Jack Butler Yeats for his 1923 painting The Liffey Swim. That may seem surprising today, however between 1912 and 1948 the arts took pride of place alongside sporting events in the Olympic Games. The arts section was broken down into five categories: architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture.

The arts were introduced to the Olympic Games largely due to the work and enthusiasm of one man: Baron Pierre de Coubertin. The Frenchman spent his life studying sports and education, becoming convinced of the importance of physical exercise in day to day and cultural life. Known as the Father of the Modern Olympics after he founded the International Olympic Committee, he acted as the driving force behind the sporting events revival.

Inspired by a somewhat romanticised view of the Ancient Greek games, his prime ambition was to place sport at the centre of French social and cultural life. More importantly, Coubertin saw the arts as being equal to sports. One can then see why the silver medal went to a work such as The Liffey Swim, which is now held in the National Gallery of Ireland. A lyre is represented on one side of the medal next to oars, javelins and other sporting paraphernalia.

There was of course a catch; all eligible works of art had to be inspired by sport and this suited Yeats well. Many of his oil paintings depicted boxing and horse racing events. Alongside The Liffey Swim (credited by the Olympic Committee as just Swimming) Yeats also submitted his 1915 painting Before The Start; an oil painting of three jockeys before the race began. Fellow Irish artist Sean Keating entered his painting The Fowler, which did not take home a medal. The Gold medal winner was Jean Jacoby from Luxembourg. He submitted, and won for three paintings: Corner, Depart and Rugby. World renowned artists were a part of the judging panel including John Singer Sargent and Belfast-born Sir John Lavery (who also has works on display at The National Gallery). At 53 Yeats was already a star on the international arts scene.

Jack Butler Yeats was the younger brother of Nobel Laureate William Butler Yeats and son of the portrait artist John Butler Yeats. The family were very artistic, making their names through their writing or their paintings. A successful writer and playwright Jack started out as a cartoonist before he began to focus on oil painting. It was here that he found his calling and became one of Ireland’s most prominent artists of the twentieth century. Samuel Beckett once recorded that “Yeats is with the greats of our time”.

The Liffey Swim itself was a new event which Yeats captured in its infancy. The first race took place in 1920 with 27 entrants. Beginning at Victoria Quay, the swimmers would follow the river through the centre of Dublin, with spectators gathered on bridges to watch, before coming to an end one and a half miles later at Butt Bridge. After years of uncertainty, The Liffey Swim proved to be a transformative and vibrant communal event that bought people together from across the political divide. The painting captures the essence of that bond of excitement. According to the National Gallery, the 1923 swim was promoted as “the biggest free spectacle of the year in Dublin”. It was held after work hours on a Saturday so as many people as possible could watch. Even today the race still takes place on a Saturday in late August or early September. The 1923 winner was former Olympian water polo player Charles “Cecil” Fagan, who would go on to enter the race for many years to come. The runner up was the previous year’s winner Thomas Hayes Dockrell. The 1924 Olympics were the first Olympic Games after the years of conflict and war that had plagued Ireland. The fact that artists of such ability and stature wanted to take part arguably shows a great commitment to the new Irish Free State, and a desire to show the positive side of Ireland. The Liffey Swim is a positive and vibrant depiction of Dublin. For this one moment in time all are united in the joy and excitement of the competitive swim.

The bright blues of the painting reinforce the idea of this being a delightful day out. In reality it is likely that Yeats took a few artistic liberties with the colouring. On the actual day in 1923 the Irish Independent reported that “it rained now and then, but like a deluge during the concluding stages of the race” and that “a canopy of umbrellas ten deep lined the river”. Interestingly Yeats has also included himself in spectator scenes. The man wearing the brown fedora is thought to be Yeats, and the woman in the elaborate yellow hat his wife Cottie. In the painting the swimmers are approaching O’Connell Bridge. There is a feeling of activity and movement from the thick loose brush strokes and multiple layers of oil paint. The audience are placed in with the spectators, looking over shoulders to see the swimmers as they come into view. It captures the celebratory feeling that can be seen each year at the event.

Ultimately the fledgling Irish State only took home two medals from the 1924 Olympic Games. Both of these were from the arts categories: Yeats’ silver medal for The Liffey Swim and a bronze medal in literature for Irish poet Oliver Gogarty for his poem Ode to the Tailteann Games. Overall Ireland came joint fourth, with Denmark,in the arts section. Although Yeats was the first Irish artist of the twentieth century to sell for over £1,000,000 the silver medal did not initially lead to a sale. In 1925 The Liffey Swim was exhibited in the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin, with a £300 price tag. It wasn’t until December 1930 that the painting finally sold, for £250 to the Haverty Bequest Fund, who presented the painting to the National Gallery of Ireland in 1931.