Yeats sketched the colourful figure of the Kerry Mascot before attending the All Ireland Gaelic Football final between Kerry and Wexford at Croke Park in Dublin in November 1914 (H. Pyle, Jack B. Yeats. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings, Vol. I, London, 1992, p. 86, no. 98a. The sketch is in Sketchbook 184 , Yeats Archive, National Gallery of Ireland). Jack mentioned the match in a letter to the New York lawyer and art collector John Quinn. He noted that Kerry won and that ‘it was a fine match and there were 20,000 people at it. Wexford had all the scoring in the first half. Kerry not getting a point. So when Kerry got their first score in the second half, all the Kerry men in the crowd gave tongue’ (letter of Jack B. Yeats to John Quinn, 17 December 1914, republished in D.J. Foley (ed.), The Only Art of Jack B. Yeats, Dublin, 2009, pp. 85-86). The Mascot, a man wearing a flamboyant green sash, that is draped across his head as well as his torso, beats a drum on the steps leading down to the banks of the Royal Canal. Lines of spectators walk along the edge of the water and over the bridge in the distance. The grey winter sky and the large industrial type buildings on the left form a neutral background to the vibrant character of the Mascot. The rippled waters of the canal and its pale green banks dominate the composition leading the eye into the distance.
The Gaelic Athletic Association was founded in 1884, as part of the Irish Cultural Revival. Rapidly becoming a hugely popular organization it revived the traditional Irish sports of hurling and Gaelic football. In 1913 it acquired the Jones Road Sports Ground, renaming it Croke Memorial Park. It is now synonymous with the GAA and is the location where the annual finals draw thousands of fans from all over the country. Yeats’s painting commemorates the occasion and ceremony surrounding an early and obviously memorable manifestation of this event.
The ostentatious figure of the Mascot contrasts with the simplicity and reserved appearance of his fellow citizens. The absurdity of his appearance must have appealed to Yeats who delighted in sketching such interactions between performers and ordinary folk. The militaristic aspect of the Mascot’s demeanour may have reminded the artist of the spectacular parades and costumed events that he had seen in Sligo and Mayo in 1898, when they formed part of the centenary commemorations of the 1798 rebellion. This experience had a profound impact on Yeats’s awareness of Irish nationalism and inspired him to focus on Irish subject matter in his work and eventually to relocate to Dublin from England permanently in 1910.
The brushstrokes are varied with broad sweeps evident in the sky while the waters of the canal and the costume of the Mascot are painted in small strokes of pure colour. The latter is notable for the range of colours and brushstrokes that are used in its formation. Strong blues are evident in the jacket and the face is sculpted out of black, red and pink pigment. The sash is made of an intricate combination of broad strokes of blue, green and yellow paint. Its pale green blue tone is augmented by the same distinctive colour used in the banks of the canal. The gold and silver drum seems to be miraculously conjured up through an instinctive blending of pigment. In comparison the figures of the two young boys, whose backs are seen beside the Mascot, as they walk down the steps, are painted more simply in strokes of black and pink.
Dr Róisín Kennedy