Portrait, Somhairle MacCana ARCA (1901-1975), 'Henry St J. Atkins'

2 Feb 2021

Painting in oil on canvas, framed, of Henry St J. Atkins (President, University College, Cork, 1954-1963).

Ref: UCCHS.Portrait008 © University College Cork

Portrait, Henry St J. Atkins. Somhairle MacCana ARCA, Irish. Signed. Oil on canvas, 1956. University College Cork.

Dr Atkins (President, 1954-1963) is seated, wearing the President’s gown and holding a sheaf of papers in his right hand that rests on the right knee.

Artist: Somhairle MacCana ARCA (1901-1975).

Provenance: Commissioned by University College Cork. Exhibited at the 33rd annual exhibition of the Munster Fine Arts Society, held at the School of Art, Cork, November-December 1956.

Read more about Henry St J. Atkins 


More about the artist

Samuel McCann was born in Belfast on 23/11/1901 to John and Mary Jane (née Riddell) McCann. He was apprenticed in 1915 as textile designer to Joseph Mathews Ltd, damask and linen manufacturers, Belfast. MacCana attended Belfast Academy of Art, studying embroidery design, on a part-time basis. During the War of Independence he joined the IRA and was arrested in 1921. After being court-martialled and sentenced to death, he spent seven months in prison at Belfast, before the general amnesty. It was probably during this period that he began to use the Gaelic form of his name.

Somhairle (Soirle) MacCana resumed his studies at the Belfast School of Art, where he won the Sorella scholarship in 1923 and began teaching the following year. Securing the Dunville scholarship in 1925, he was enabled to study for three years at the Royal College of Art, London, from which he received an honours degree, Associate of the Royal College of Art (ARCA). Returning to Belfast, he taught for a year there before being appointed art master at Galway Technical School in 1929. MacCana exhibited for the first time in the Royal Hibernian Academy. Then in 1935 he was appointed art inspector in the Department of Education, Dublin, and two years later he became principal of the Crawford Municipal School of Art, Cork, where he remained until retirement in 1967. MacCana exhibited infrequently, and showed only three more times at the RHA (1943, 1945, 1946). He also showed at the Oireachtas exhibitions between 1944 and 1957. In 1956 he produced a book, Ceárdachas Gaelach: Irish craftsmanship, based on a series of advertisements for the Irish Hospitals' Trust during 1947 published in provincial and daily newspapers. This short book includes a further six crafts added to the series. (The booklet was reproduced in 1979 by the printing students at Cork Regional Technical College, on the occasion of the XXV International Apprentice Competition, September, 1979.)

MacCana worked in a variety of media as a figurative painter of portraits and landscapes. He also produced etchings and engravings. Much of his work was religious, including the 'The Holy Family' (CAG.1625), an oil painting, and 'Nativity', a woodcut, both in the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork. The Irish sculptor Desmond Broe's 3 m (10 ft) high 'Coronation of Our Lady' in Cork was designed by MacCana. In 1964 MacCana completed his 'Stations of the Cross' for the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Coolagown, Castlelyons, Co. Cork. A retrospective exhibition was held in Crawford Art Gallery in 1967. MacCana died on 25 November 1975 in St Stephen's hospital, Glanmire, Co. Cork and is buried at St Finbarr’s cemetery, Cork. He was survived by his wife, Mary Teresa (Maisie) (née Taylor). The couple had five children.

Soirle MacCana also painted the portrait of Professor John J. McHenry (President, 1964-1967).


Sources birth of artist, Belfast

Diarmuid Breathnach and Máire Ní Mhurchú, 'Mac Cana, Somhairle (1901-1975)',

Bridget Hourican, ‘Mac Cana, Somhairle (Soirle)’, Dictionary of Irish Biography

‘Soirle MacCana’. Online at

‘Munster Fine Arts Society, attractive exhibition’, Evening Echo, 12 December 1956, p.4 (with photo)

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