The Irish Race Congress in Paris, 1922

Detail of the magazine 'Ár n-Éire, New Ireland'
Part of the Irish Archives

Aonach na nGaedheal: A Political and Cultural Gathering

In January 1922, as Ireland was transitioning to independence, a 'World Congress of the Irish Race' was organised in Paris to mobilise the global Irish diaspora and elicit international support for the nascent Irish state. The 1922 Irish Race Congress was a week-long cultural and political gathering, attended by over a hundred delegates from twenty-two countries. The idea originated in February 1921 – at the height of the War of Independence – with the Irish Republican Association of South Africa. The congress opened on 21 January 1922, a date chosen to commemorate the first sitting of the Dáil in 1919. However, Ireland’s future remained uncertain; the Anglo-Irish Treaty had been approved two weeks earlier by a split Dáil, but the state had not been recognised by other countries and many believed it would fail.

Programme of Events

The congress had a cultural and economic agenda. It deployed public and cultural diplomacy to showcase Ireland’s sovereignty, values and national identity, and to project the image of a confident and functioning independent state. The programme featured an Irish art exhibition, Irish concerts and plays, and lectures on Irish culture and economics. However, a planned athletic tournament was ultimately dropped from the agenda due to time constraints.

The lecture series was delivered by ‘experts on Irish art, music, language, resources, commerce, and athletics’. Evelyn Gleeson, founder of the Dun Emer Guild, lectured on Irish Arts and Crafts; William Butler Yeats delivered a talk on ‘Lyrics and Plays of Modern Ireland’; Arthur Darley performed and gave a lecture on Irish music; Douglas Hyde spoke about the Irish language and Gaelic League, and Professor Eoin MacNeill lectured on Irish History. The programme also featured a rare public lecture by Jack B. Yeats on Irish painting.

Painting is the freest of the Arts. The artist must himself be free and his country must be free…the Irish blood is full of freedom.

Jack B. Yeats’s speech at the 1922 Irish Race Congress in Paris

Ireland and Painting

Jack B. Yeats’s 1922 speech in Paris was the only public lecture ever delivered by the artist. The following month, transcripts of his speech were published across two editions of the nationalist weekly newspaper Ár nÉire/New Ireland. Another version, with slight variations, was published that same year as an essay entitled Modern Aspects of Irish Art, part of a series produced by Cumann Léigheacht an Phobail on subjects including Economics, Social Problems, Industrial Development, History and Art. Although the subject of his speech was Irish painting, Yeats did not mention the name of a single artist. Instead, he highlighted the importance of nature, observation and memory for nurturing creativity, and envisioned a patriotic role for the artist:

‘When painting takes its rightful place it will be in a free nation … the true painter must be part of the land and of the life he paints.’

There is a country more ready than any other to lift painting into its rightful place, and that is Ireland, this land of ours.

Jack B. Yeats’ speech at the 1922 Irish Race Congress in Paris

Exposition d’Art Irlandais

The programme also featured an exhibition of Irish art that ran for over a month at the fashionable Galerie Barbazanges. Over 300 works of Irish painting, sculpture and decorative arts were on display, including work by co-operatives such as Cuala Industries and An Túr Gloine. In the exhibition catalogue, art critic Arsène Alexandre singled out a number of artists as representative of the 'The Irish School', including Mary Swanzy, Walter Osborne, William Leech, Estella Solomons and Patrick Tuohy. A ‘propaganda value’ was envisaged from the Paris art exhibition, and among the major paintings on display were John Lavery’s portraits of the Irish Treaty signatories, Sarah Purser’s Le Petit Déjeuner, and Jack B. Yeats’s Bachelor’s Walk, In Memory. France signalled its support for Irish art when the French government purchased the Paul Henry landscape painting A West of Ireland Village from the exhibition for its national collection at the Musée du Luxembourg.

Trinity College Dublin has recently recreated the Paris exhibition online in an immersive digital display as part of the Decade of Centenaries project Seeing Ireland.

Yeats’s archival documents from the 1922 Irish Race Congress in Paris feature in the Decade of Centenaries exhibition, Roller Skates & Ruins, on view in Room 11 at the National Gallery of Ireland until 10 March 2024.


Marie Lynch, ESB CSIA Fellow

Published online: 2023