Catalogue entry

N05836 THE DEATH OF DIARMUID, THE LAST HANDFUL OF WATER 1945

Inscr. ‘Jack B. Yeats JAC.’ b.l.
Canvas, 24×36 (61×91).
Purchased from the artist through the Waddington Galleries, Dublin (Knapping Fund) 1948.
Exh: R.H.A., Dublin, 1946 (181); Galerie Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1954 (7), as ‘Diarmuid et Grainne et la derniére “poignée” d'eau’.
Lit: Douglas Hyde, A Literary History of Ireland from Earliest Times to the Present Day, 1899, p.385.

The subject is taken from a story in the Fenian Saga, The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne. ‘Diarmuid of the Love-spot unwittingly causes Gráinne, daughter of Cormac mac Art, the High-King, to fall in love with him, just on the eve of her marriage with his captain, Finn mac Cool. He is driven to elope with her, and is pursued round Ireland by the vengeful Finn, who succeeds after many years in compassing the death of the generous and handsome Diarmuid by a wild boar, and then winning back to himself the love of the fickle Gráinne.’ Yeats has chosen the moment when Diarmuid lies dying, his only remaining hope being to receive a drink of water from Finn, who has magic powers of healing. Reluctantly Finn goes to fetch water in his cupped hands, but as he returns he thinks of Gráinne and allows the water to trickle through his fingers. The same happens a second time. The third time Finn succeeds in bringing back the water, but by then Diarmuid is dead.

Finn was a Celtic hero of the third century A.D., whose exploits were first recorded in written form between the seventh and eighth centuries and survive today in the Book of Leinster (c. 1150). Gráinne is pronounced ‘Graanya’. The story has been edited and translated in the third volume of the Ossianic Society by Standish Hayes O'Grady.

Another painting, ‘The Path of Diarmuid and Gráinne’, now belongs to the Dowager Lady Aberconway and is inspired by the same story.

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, II