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WORK OF THE WEEK | 6 April 2020

CAG.372 Nathaniel Grogan, Whipping the Herring out of Town – A Scene of Cork, c.1800, oil on panel, 25.5 x 29 cm. Purchased, 1992

Did you know that, historically, the end of Lent was not just celebrated by Christians, but very particularly by the butchers of Ireland too!?

In this painting by Nathaniel Grogan (1740-1807), the unusual tradition of ‘whipping the herring out of town’ is depicted in small scale but rich detail. In this case, Cork butchers are seen heralding the last day of Lent, and the accompanying Lenten sacrifice, with a mock ‘herring funeral’ procession past the city’s old North Gate.

Painted c.1800, this ‘genre scene’ fits into a tradition in Northern European paintings of everyday life and offers a fascinating commentary on the meeting of Ireland’s faith and food cultures. The herring then symbolised abstinence as it was the staple (cheap) fish for many, but especially when other items were off the menu. The coming of Easter meant that forty days of fasting (or not eating meat) was at an end and the butchers could return to prosperity.

And what better way to announce this, you may ask, than to parade through the crowded city streets and ‘whipping the herring’ with a stick or birch broom!

While a good deal of raucous humour pervades this scene, the religious context of Lent and Easter is, however, not lost on the Cork-born artist. The importance of the quarter of lamb (Lamb of God) borne aloft on a pitchfork, for instance, is highlighted with a quasi-religious ‘glow’ near the centre of the work. It is the focal point in an otherwise busy composition of fiddle-playing and children’s curiosity (bottom right), dogs chasing boars (bottom left), and the well-to-do remaining aloof (background). Life marches on!

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