Letter from SYLVESTER O'HALLORAN to JAMES BARRY, written 27 May 1791 , at Limerick

Source: The Nation, 2 December 1843, p. 12.

Sylvester O'Halloran (1728-1807), Irish surgeon and antiquary, came from a Catholic family in Limerick. His longstanding interest in Irish history and Gaelic poetry brought him into contact with many leading Irish historians and public figures of the day, including Edmund Burke.1. His main historical works were Introduction to the study of the history and antiquities of Ireland(1772) and A general history of Ireland, from the earliest accounts to the close of the twelfth century, collected from the most authentic records , 2 vols. (1778). Barry was certainly familiar with his writings.2

This letter was recently noted by Professor Tadhg Foley, then commented on by Claire E. Lyons, 'Fostering an Irish Identity Through Art: A Letter from Sylvester O’Halloran (1728-1807) to James Barry (1741-1806) May 1791,' The Journal of Cork Historical & Archaeological Society, 115 (2010), n.p.

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Limerick, 27 May 1791.

Dear Sir -

I have long proposed to myself the pleasure of addressing a letter to you. 1 avail myself of the present opportunity to put it in execution. It is of a twofold nature - a claim on your friendship, and a call on your patriotism. Young Mr. Russell, who will deliver you this letter, is the son of a very worthy and amiable couple, and from the little attempts he made here, aided by his own genius only, his friends form great expectations. He must be known, and not improbably, a pupil of yours.3 Your scientific and penetrating eye will soon see whether he has the talents necessary to become a master, and, if so, I persuade myself, from your patriotism and love for the fine arts, you will fan this generous flame. Our country wants not for men of genius in every department of science as well as in the fine arts; but we have not Maecenases,4, and an English government seems not very forward to call forth the exertions of genius amongst us, since, in the long swell of our pension list, not a single instance can be produced, of the smallest favor favour bestowed on men of genius and abilities.5 See, then, the necessity of our encouraging the fire of genius in each other.

Your Venus rising from the sea [img] I greatly admired; the thought was happy, and the execution bold and masterly;6 when presented at Gloucester-house, I was shown one purchased at a high expense at Rome, but by no means equal to yours.7 After I left London I heard with great pleasure that you were appointed to paint the rise and progress of the arts,8 this surely was paying the highest compliment to your genius, abilities, and execution, and your employers were not disappointed. Shall I fondly attempt, my dear sir, to beseech you to bestow some part of your talents on your native history. May I hope to see Irish heroes glow on canvass canvas ? I know of no history more replete with noble and generous deeds; shall I point to you two or three out of numerous instances where genius and execution would have a vast expanse? I cannot suppose that you—tho' it is too much the case with our countrymen—can be unacquainted with your native history. I shall therefore, without further prefacing, enter on the business.


About the middle of the 10th century two competitors appeared for the Crown of Munster -Cenedi of the house of Thomond, and Callachan of that of Desmond, from which the present O'Callachan is descended;9 the power of Cenedi prevailed. The estates of Munster met at Cashel to salute him King.10 In the midst of their deliberations the mother of Callachan appeared:11 respect and silence immediately succeeded; animated by maternal love and the glory of her race, she addressed Cenedi in a speech replete with dignity, boldness, and truth; she remonstrated against infringement of the laws of alternate succession; she acknowledged the force of his power, and then pointed out the glory he would acquire by giving up to justice what could not be wrested from him by force. The Feis, or assembly, were astonished - all eyes were directed to Cenedi. He paused for a couple of minutes, relinquished his claim, and declared young Callachan King of the Province. This is the only instance in Irish history of a woman appearing to solicit for a son, an husband, or a brother. However high the spirit of chivalry appeared in these days, and the respect paid to the fair, yet the sacrifice like this present is unexampled in history.


The surrender of the crown of Ireland by Melaghlin Malachie the 2d to Boroime Boroimhe (Boru).12 The story - Brian being called upon by a large majority of the people to assume the monarchy, sent ambassadors to Malachie to surrender the crown to him, or to meet him on a certain day on the plains of Dublin, where he would be at the head of 25,000 chosen men. This was the language from the remotest antiquity. To collect forces sufficient at the time appointed, Malachie sent ambassadors to Brian requesting a month longer, at the expiration of which he pledged himself that if not in force to meet him, he would peaceably surrender the imperial crown into his hands. Unable to oppose force to force at the day appointed, he waited on Brian at the head of 1,200 cavalry, made a formal surrender of his crown with a speech on the occasion. Brian, melted by the distress of his rival, embraced him, replaced the crown on his head, and gave him a further time of twelve months to try to retrieve his affairs, but even then not prepared to oppose so powerful an antagonist, he made a formal surrender of the crown to Brian in the presence of the national estates, who was then formally inaugurated Monarch of Ireland; and this, by the bye, is the only instance in Irish history of a peaceable abdication of the crown.

I have how finished what I intended to say; it only remains to know in what light you will consider my proposals, but at worst I shall console myself with the purity of my intentions.

I remain, dear sir,
Your most humble and obliged servant,

SilrSylvester O'Halloran