I first learned of Art O’Murnaghan from someone we shall call "Hestia" at a public discussion meeting in Friends Meeting House on St Martin’s Lane, London (pictured below).
The meeting was one of a series of public meetings advertised in Prediction Magazine and run by members of Charles Fielding’s The London Group in the 1980s. Resident for many years in 3 Queensborough Terrace (pictured below), "Hestia" had been a member of the Fraternity of the Inner Light and had worked closely over many years with Dion Fortune, Charles Seymour, Christine Campbell Thomson, Gladys Lathbury, Margaret Lumley Brown, Arthur Chichester, Rosina Mann and Art O'Murnaghan.
Art O'Murnaghan's family originally came from the staid and mixed Protestant / Catholic village of Loughbrickland, just outside the market town of Banbridge, in the lush farming lands of County Down, Northern Ireland. However, as the great Ulster Scots writer Sam Hanna Bell would have put it, Art himself was born "across the narrow sea" in the bustling port of Southampton, Hampshire, England in 1872. Art's father, Arthur William Murnaghan, was at the time employed there by the British government’s Ordnance Survey department.
Academically bright, Art succeeed in winning the offer of a Cambridge University scholarship. For reasons unknown to me he was unable to accept the scholarship, remaining instead in Southampton to serve a four-year chemist’s apprenticeship. At the end of this apprenticeship he shifted his career away from chemistry and into employment at the Carnegie Public Library in Southampton. The library had been created from a gift of money from the Scottish-born philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
Shortly after this, in 1898, Art left Southampton to commence his third career as a wallpaper designer with a firm of decorators in Dublin, Ireland. He told his grandson, Peter Figgis, that he had “felt compelled for some time to seek work more suited to his artistic skills”. There was another contributory factor to the Dublin move. This factor being his recent marriage to a woman whose family had both business connections and family roots there. The woman Art married was a niece by marriage of the well known artist Alexander Williams, RHA.
During these years he developed a strong intellectual and practical interest in Theosophy. It is thought that it was through his Theosophical Society membership and his Golden Dawn links that Dion Fortune met him. In Fielding's and others' view it was arguably through her close association with Art that Dion Fortune was able to tap into such deep Elemental and Celtic contacts. These richly productive contacts have continued to be developed down through the ages by many of those who have followed Fortune.
The Society paid on a number of occasions for O’Murnaghan to attend lodge meetings in Queensborough Terrace. Like Maiya Tranchell Hayes, on these occasions he was invited as an Adept of the Greater Mysteries to sit on the Eastern dias of the temple. Neither Maiya nor Art were ever formally initiated into the Fraternity of the Inner Light. They didn’t need to be.
Charles Fielding presents a slightly misleading picture of Art, suggesting that he essentially lived in abject poverty, roaming for weeks around the open countryside sleeping rough. Perhaps the biggest inaccuracy is that he illustrated “fine coffee table books of the Celtic traditions”. Not quite right as the two photographs of his work in this article demonstrate.
It is clear that the value and skill of Art’s creativity and illuminations were not widely known and appreciated during his life. For example, when he had completed the Book of Resurrection, the illustrations were left for many years lying almost completely forgotten about in a drawer in the National Museum of Ireland. However, after a number of decades of relative obscurity Art’s work was posthumously recognised with the first public exhibition of his life's work in 2006 at the National Museum in Collins Barracks, Dublin. Nowadays, O'Murnaghan's work as a Celtic illustrator is admired around not just the whole of Ireland but also across the globe. Modern Celtic artists such as Courtney Davis owe a huge debt to the man.
Throughout his life, O’Murnaghan wrote regularly for The Dublin Magazine, often under the nom-de-plume of Arthur Kells. Contributions to the magazine exist from the 1920s through to the early 1950s and cover a gamut of topics, from copious book and art reviews to intriguing articles such as Ireland's Mysteries. He also contributed to a range of archaelogical journals of the time and also wrote the forward to The Hidden Language in Irish Art by Charles Leland.
He also wrote a number of plays under the nom-de-plume of Patrick Kells, none of which appear to have survived in the public domain, and was widely read and practiced in herbal medicine. From a musical perspective he was a very accomplished keyboard player, indeed for a time he was the pianist at the legendary Volta Cinema in Dublin, with which James Joyce was briefly associated. On occasions he taught at the National College of Art in Dublin. For example, during 1937 and 38 academic year he taught a class on the study of original design of Celtic ornamentation.
As a manager of the Gate Theatre he was afforded ample opportunity to express the artistic impulses he had felt a career in chemistry or library would never have allowed. In his spare time he produced as staggering number of works including some fourteen volumes of architectural drawings, writings and diaries.
An interesting story tells that during 1937 a wealthy Irish-American Republican and Philadelphian whiskey maker, Joseph McGarrity, offered Art a vast financial donation for his future artistic endeavours. Art would have none of it, saying that money was a very bad influence on art. It was only when this bequest was put into the hands of a group of trustees that O’Murnaghan returned happily to his art. As an aside, McGarrity, who had been born in Ulster before emigrating to the United States, had also been hugely instrumental in providing enabling support for the ill-fated Collins / de Valera Pact before the 1922 Irish General Election. Personal letters between the two are still available to view at the National Library of Ireland.
Very importantly, his imagination was captivated and inspired by Celtic mythology, Irish history and the Theosophical writings and ideas of Blavatsky and Mead.
It is his deep and lasting love of Theosophy which may interest those interested in his connection with Dion Fortune and the Inner Light. In the 1920s and 30s Art was a regular contributor to The Theosophical Path a regular publication by the Theosophical Society. His articles included:
- Theosophy in Daily Life,
- Theosophy in Everyday Life,
- The Mysticism in Irish Folklore Parts 1 and 2,
- Theosophy and True Art, and, my favourite,
- The Sword of Light – An Ancient Irish Tale Retold.
After Dion Fortune's death, Arthur Chichester, the next Warden of the Society of the Inner Light continued to maintain fraternal relationships with O'Murnaghan. Shamefully, little much else is currently in the public domain.
I will leave you with a short but illuminating quotation by Art O'Murnaghan from one of his Theosophical articles. For me it gives a perfect insight into the man’s love and compassion for humanity.
Readers may be interested to know that I have written a total of four blog posts about Art O'Murnaghan:-
Art and Irish Theatre
Art and Irish Mythology
Art and his unavailable works
Art and Dion Fortune