The Finishing Touch is an 1867 painting by Cork-born artist James Brenan; I would have named it Departing Ireland for America, 1867.

Recently I saw an article about the auction of this compelling painting, depicting an Irish family’s preparations for their daughter’s emigration to the United States. Of course it made me instantly think of my friends who are researching their Irish ancestry. The paintingwas first exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin in 1867 where it sold for £35; it realized €22,000 at auction last month.

The RHA says of this painting:

Great poverty in rural Ireland continued long past the Great Famine of the 1840s, and forced continuous emigration throughout the 19th century. Set in a dark cabin, a young woman is about to leave home for America, probably never to be seen again. The local sign-writer, sitting on a four-legged creepie stool, is inscribing the girl’s name “O’Connor, New York” on her green traveling box—small enough to be carried under her arm, and to contain her few possessions essential for the arduous journey ahead. She is trying on her new hat from the open box on the settle, while her already grieving mother looks on; on the cabin wall is an unframed chromolithograph of the Madonna and Child, the mother’s only future comfort. The heavy heart of her father, heightened by his advancing age and ill health, is evident in his farewell hand on her traveling trunk. The grandfather sits morosely by the fire. A young boy carries turf into the kitchen, in a creel on his back. It won’t be long before he too is off. Only the old and infirm remain behind.

The Irish Times wrote, “The artist was alarmed at the devastating scale and impact of post-Famine emigration from his native Munster. His 25in x 30in oil-on-canvas shows the interior of a rural Irish house where a family prepares for the dreaded American Wake – the traditional gathering of family and friends to bid farewell to a departing emigrant. Such occasions lacked the jollity and celebration associated with traditional Irish wakes for the dead.”

I wonder which family served as the model for this painting.Departing Ireland for America, 1867 – heartbreaking yet courageous.

For other posts about Irish migration, click here.