The Tipperary Hurler
This painting, by the Limerick born artist Sean Keating (1889-1977), is one of six to appear in the 1997 calendar from the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modem Art, Parnell Square, Dublin 1. It is of interest to West Tipperary people in particular because the model for the painting, Ben O'Hickey, was a distinguished Bansha man.
The picture was painted in June 1928 and was exhibited by the artist at the Amsterdam Olympia in 1929 as part of a world collection of pictures relating to athletics. Keating was the only Irish artist whose name appeared in the catalogue. From Amsterdam the picture was transferred to the Irish Artists Exhibition in the Hackett Galleries, New York where it was seen and purchased for £1,000 by George Moore, a wealthy railroad magnate. It eventually made its way into the Municipal Gallery's collection.
The picture depicts a typical young Tipperary man of the farming class, with rugged, strong features and muscular build. The figure is seated against an Irish landscape that is almost as fine as the figure itself. According to Seamus McCarthy the red jersey with the sash, worn by the model, was a Galtee Rovers one from the twenties and was owned by a club player, Tom Compton. The hurley was made by Tom O'Hickey, the father of the model.
Ben O'Hickey was born into a strongly nationalist family in Lisgibbon, Bansha in 1899. He was responsible for forming the Bansha Company' of the IRB in 1917. Two years later he was sentenced to eighteen months hard labour for wearing uniform. He was jailed in Cork, later transferred to Derry and later still to Mountjoy. From here he made a dramatic escape with other Sinn Feiners in March 1919 and joined Tom Barry's flying column, taking part in a number of attacks and ambushes. In one of these he was wounded and captured. He was taken to Cork Barracks, courtmartialled and sentenced to death. On the morning set for his execution, his sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life and he was shipped to Wormwood Scrubs and then to Shepton Mallet Prison in the Cotswolds.
When peace was restored, Commandant O'Hickey entered the Metropolitan School of Art and studied under Sean Keating. During his time there he created a canvas portraying his experience in the death cell, entitled To What Red Hell. His teacher recommended its inclusion in the Royal Hibernian Exhibition but the committee declined to show it, considering the subject too controversial. Keating, O'Hickey and others were disappointed with the rejection and decided to found another outlet for young artists. Thus was the Academy of Irish Art founded and the first exhibition, which included To What Red Hell, was opened in the Round Room of the Mansion House by Sean T. O'Kelly in April 1931. The exhibition was a great success and O'Hickeys painting aroused much interest and media coverage.
And so the man who was the model for The Tipperary Hurler was an artist in his own right, as well as being a patriotic Irishman. The remainder of his life was also colourful and exciting and Ben O'Hickey died on August 9, 1964. He is buried in St. Michael's Cemetery, Tipperary.
West Tipperary Division G.A.A. Convention Handbook, 1997, p 24