The History and Mythology Calendar Series

by Edel Cassidy

The story of a unique set of calendars, featuring illustrations based on Irish history and mythology, commissioned by New Ireland Assurance in mid-twentieth-century Ireland

Following the 1916 Rising, 1,800 Irish revolutionaries, including Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, were detained at Frongoch internment camp in Merionethshire, Wales. Known as ‘Ollscoil na Réabhlóide’ (University of Revolution), it was here that seeds were sown for the War of Independence and the formation of the new Irish State. 

One of the initiatives discussed during this time in Frongoch was the establishment of an Irish insurance company. Insurance premiums of Irish policyholders to the value of £5 million were flowing out of Ireland each year for investment, predominantly in British stocks and shares. It was felt that retention and re-employment of these funds would ensure that the monies would continue to circulate amongst the people of Ireland and thus enable the creation of further industry.

New Ireland Collecting Society, which later became New Ireland Assurance, was formed in January 1918, shortly before the foundation of the State, by many of the people who were themselves deeply involved in the formation of the State. As the name, New Ireland, suggests, the company was founded with an eye to the future at a time when a new independent Ireland was emerging after many centuries of British rule. 

Cú Chulainn (1934). The Hound of Ulster was the great Northern leader in the war of Táin Bó Cúailnge (The cattle raid of Cooley) waged about the beginning of the Christian era between Conor Mac Neasa, King of Ulster, and Maedbh, the warrior queen of Connacht. The fight at the ford of Ardee between Cú Chulainn and his friend Ferdia is one of the finest episodes in the great Saga. The pillar stone where Cú Chulainn died still stands at Cloch Mór near Dundalk in the Gap of the North. Victor Browne (1900-1953) 

The company was intrinsically nationalistic in its outlook and, as part of its promotional agenda, commissioned a series of artworks based on Irish history and mythology to form a unique and spectacular calendar series that graced many Irish homes from 1934 to 1967. 

The History and Mythology Artworks cover six relatively distinct periods, with one additional artwork commemorating the 1916 Rising on its fiftieth anniversary. The periods covered include the four great cycles of Irish mythology: The Mythological Cycle; The Ulster Cycle; The Fenian Cycle; and The Cycle of the Kings. Also included are: The sixteenth and seventeenth-century period with a focus on the Rebellion of 1641; and The Rebellion of 1798.

Oisín an Ceoil (1962). Oisín, son of Fionn, was a fearless fighter, but he was also a poet and a harpist. He could play three kinds of music, Geantraí, Goltraí and Suantraí: Love Songs, Songs of Sorrow and Songs of Sweet Sleep. Karl Uhlemann Junior (1912-1992)

Three artists were commissioned in the production of The History and Mythology Calendar Series. They were Victor Browne (1900-1953), Karl Uhlemann Junior (1912-1992) and Seán O’Súilleabháin (1906-1964). Although designed by three different artists, there was a consistency of approach in terms of style and theme across the thirty years of production. The images were idealistic with strikingly bold colour palettes and strong forms. The majority of the calendars were designed by Browne and Uhlemann – whose styles were similar – using simplified compositions, vibrant colours and a flattened perspective. O’Súilleabháin was responsible for just two – his designs also had a strong and vivid sense of colour but are of a more detailed figurative style.

Each Calendar within the History and Mythology Calendar series was of a consistent structure, with a small ‘tear-off’ type calendar surrounded by promotional corporate messages underneath the larger commissioned image.

The illustrated image on each calendar was contained within a bordered frame as in the example shown here.

An original set of the calendars has been preserved thanks to an employee of New Ireland Assurance, Brian Madden, who took an interest in preserving the company’s heritage. When Sean Casey took over as CEO in 2010, he felt that the shared legacy of the company was an important unifying factor for the 1,000 staff. He had known that the calendars existed and got some photographed and framed, and then hung them around the building, sparking a lot of interest from the employees. As a further step in the conservation process, he had the illustrated artworks digitally archived.  

Following the recent sale of the New Ireland Assurance office building on Dawson Street, storage space that had been available to house company memorabilia was no longer available. As a result, the original set of calendars along with other historical collectables from this unique Irish company (that was founded to support the economic development of our new nation) have now been donated to the National archives.

Featured here is a selection from the collection. The caption shown with each Illustration is the original text which was included on the back of each calendar.   

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