Crawford Art Gallerypermanent collection

Whipping the Herring Out of Town – a scene of Cork
Whipping the Herring Out of Town – a scene of Cork
Irish school
Oil on panel
25.5 x 29cm


Purchased from Sothesby's Irish Art Sale, 1992
Whipping the herring out of town was a custom which heralded the last day of Lent, when Cork butchers celebrated the coming of Easter and the return of economic prosperity (and meat-eating) by holding a mock funeral of a herring, which symbolised abstinence. Each Easter Sunday a single herring was borne aloft on a nine-foot-long rod or lath by the butchers, and was subjected to insult and ridicule as it passed through the streets of Cork. During the parade the herring was beaten until very little of it remained. On reaching the River Lee, the remnants of the herring were flung into the river.

The painting depicts the moment after the herring is discarded, when the butchers would tie a quarter of lamb to a lath, decorated with ribbons and flowers, which would then be accompanied on its return to the market place by musicians, revellers and mischief-makers. Situated at the junction of Batchelors Quay and North Gate (North Main Street), Grogan depicts the scene with a zest for his subject.

The individual groupings within the composition together create a real sense of the movement of the crowd along the streets. To the left of the painting a young mother holds her baby, swathed in cloth, to her chest as she is jostled by a drunken man. Behind, a man of wealth (and perhaps of public standing), mounted on a horse, oversees the chaotic scene, while under the arch of the North Gate is a couple travelling in a carriage, which, in addition to the sophisticated construct of the lady’s bonnet, suggests they are people of great wealth.

The religious context is not lost on Grogan, as he highlights the importance of the quarter of lamb (Lamb of God) in a quasi-religious ‘glow’. To the left of the painting a rather comical scene unfolds with a woman flailing around having been knocked over by an escaping boar. Presumably, the boar was destined for the butcher’s knife.

Nathaniel Grogan 1740–1807
Irish School