An Ulaid: South Down Society of Modern Art

Maimie Campbell // Pauline Doyle // Edward Hollywood // Sarah Leonard // Iris McAragh // Heber O’Neill // Thomas Pettit
a research project by SABINA MAC MAHON

An Ulaid - South Down Society of Modern Art was presented as the result of a year-long research project and realised as a two-part exhibition that took place at Belfast Exposed Gallery and Queen Street Studios (QSS) Gallery in Belfast in January 2015.

The South Down Society of Modern Art was formally established in Rostrevor, Co. Down on 10 March 1927 by seven local artists – Maimie Campbell, Pauline Doyle, Edward Hollywood, Sarah Leonard, Iris McAragh, Heber O’Neill and Thomas Pettit. Following time spent studying under Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant in Paris the group was founded with the aim of encouraging the practice and appreciation of the modern developments in painting and sculpture that had begun to emanate from France and other centres of artistic activity on mainland Europe during the previous half century.

The SDSoMA’s members focused their activities on Irish themes and, inspired by adaptations and translations by writers involved in the Gaelic Revival and Irish Literary Revival in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they adopted the geographically appropriate Ulster Cycle of mythological stories as their collective subject. An Ulaid, the name of the Society’s inaugural exhibition took place in Warrenpoint in 1919, was derived from an early Irish name for the modern province of Ulster. Unfortunately the exhibition was not well received and precipitated the group’s demise. They parted ways and their pioneering work was largely forgotten until the chance discovery of part of the SDSoMA’s archive in a biscuit tin in an outhouse in Dublin in 2013.

 The exhibition at QSS Gallery (an artists’ studio organisation) included a selection of surviving artworks by group members which illustrate the heroic tales of Cúchulainn and Conchobar mac Nessa through the variety of readily-identifiable Post-Impressionist-isms(Fauvism, Cubism, Pointillism, etc.) adopted by individual members of the group. The accompanying exhibition at Belfast Exposed provided biographical, historical and art historical contexts for  their work and comprised archival documents, including photographs, analytical texts, letters, press cuttings and other ephemera.
research image:
Members of the South Down Society of Modern Art at Kilkeel, Co. Down
(clockwise from top left: Thomas Pettit, Iris McAragh, Sarah Leonard, Heber O’Neill, Pauline Doyle, Edward Hollywood and Maimie Campbell) 
c. 1929
photographer unknown