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Estella Solomons — 1882-1968

ESTELLA Solomons was born into a well off middle class Jewish family in 1882 the second child in a family of four. Her father was considered an 'Empire loyalist and deeply religious man' and her mother was a poet. All four children were talented in their own way. Estella was a gifted painter and her sister Sophie became an Opera singer.

Music, culture and literature were part and parcel of her upbringing, an upbringing which was that of any middle class girl of the time, a good education with private means — though it had only just become respectable for women to take up art! However there was one difference between Estella and many of her contemporaries — her political beliefs (which were considered radical at the time) set her apart from the privileged society she was born into. She developed in a social and political way that differentiated her from the rest of her family

In 1898 she entered the Metropolitan School of Art at the age of 16. From here she went to Paris to study and enjoyed her new freedom with Cissy Beckett and Dorothy and Beatrice Elvery. Estella was influenced to a certain extent by William Orpen and more so by Walter Osborne. Osborne's portrayal of Dublin street life (in the raw, the poor in the slums) made a deep impression on her.

She made drawings, prints and paintings of inner city Dublin slums which had, at that time, the highest child mortality rate in Europe. Rembrandt's paintings and etchings also influenced her (the subject matter of many of Rembrandts etchings/paintings are the poor and the disposed, the homeless people of Amsterdam). She visited Amsterdam in 1906 for his exhibition. Estella had a social conscience.

Estella opened a studio in Brunswick Street and her neighbour living below her was James Stephens who had just published his first book of poetry. They became firm friends though they could not have come from two more different backgrounds. James Stephens was born into the slums of Dublin. When he was six years old his mother sent him out begging in the hope that he would be arrested and sent to a reform school. This was the only way in which he would receive an education and escape from the grinding poverty he was born into. Her plan worked but she never saw her son again.

Estella grew up in Dublin at a time of great social and political change. She was part of a new Ireland and she identified very much with that new Ireland, the cultural revival, the literary revival and the political revival.

Estella fell in love with the poet Séamus O'Sullivan (James Starkey) but her parents opposed the relationship as Séamus was not of the Jewish faith. However Estella and Séamus were frequent visitors to AE's home in Donegal where Estella painted land and seascapes. They finally married in 1926 after both her parents had died.
Estella took up a teaching position at Bolton Street, Dublin where she considered the children deserving of attention and good teaching. She was the first woman in Ireland to set up an etching press in her studio in Great Brunswick Street and her etchings leave a very important record of Dublin of the time. As her circle included most of the figures of the ‘cultural revolution’ her studio became a focal point and she began to concentrate more on portrait painting.

She had no shortage of sitters. At various times over the years her portraits included rebels, Republicans, artists, and literary figures who helped shape and forge a new Ireland. Men such as George AE Russell, Austin Clarke, Arthur Griffiths, Jack B Yeats, James Stephens, Padraig Colum, Count Plunkett, Daryll Figgis etc.
Estella was conscious that she was part of ‘history in the making’ — something extraordinary was happening in Ireland and she and her friends were at the centre of it.

In 1917 Estella and Kathleen Goodfellow (who was a quaker) joined the Rathmines branch of Cumann na mBan. Her first task was distributing arms and ammunition which she kept hidden under the vegetable patch at the family home on Waterloo Road! At one time when her sister was visiting from London with her husband, who was in the British Army, Estella stole his uniform and gave it to the Republicans — Ernie O'Malley got some of it!

One day as she was sketching on Wellington Quay Estella was questioned by the authorities who were suspicious of her. They banned her from sketching in the Dublin area. Estella was also involved with the Prisoners’ Dependants Fund. She asked friends and family to donate paintings and other items that could be sold to raise funds for the PDF — John Lavery was one such person who contributed a painting. Her work with the PDF positioned her in the centre of the struggle as fund contacts became the eyes and ears of the Republican Movement.

Estella's IRA contact was a milk delivery man, a good cover for moving arms and gathering information. She called him The Butterman. She persuaded him to teach her to shoot, in exchange she painted a portrait of his wife The Butterwoman! Many key Republicans on the run stayed at Estella's studio and this gave her an opportunity to paint them. Unfortunately many were destroyed, as there could be no record kept of those who stayed there. Estella's extraordinary talent can be seen in the paintings that survived.

After the Treaty Estella took the Republican side and once again she gave shelter to the Republicans. But now the enemy were some of her old friends who knew that Estella provided a safe house and the Free State Troops often raided the studio. Again many fine portraits of many fine men had to be destroyed as records of the men she sheltered could not be kept. The new Free State gave it's troops special rights to execute people for carrying firearms. This included Erskin Childers who was a personal friend of Estella.

By the end of 1923 Estella was saddened and disillusioned. Her belief in a free Ireland and the people with whom she worked to bring this about was shattered. She had not, like many others, realised her dream of a free Ireland and her goal had not been achieved. Estella surrendered her arms to the Republicans and turned to her painting.

In 1926 when she married Séamus O'Sullivan she became involved in his magazine The Dublin Magazine of which he was editor for 35 years. She continued her painting but mostly land and seascapes. Estella and Séamus lived in Morehampton road where they entertained a wide circle of friends. Séamus died in 1958. Estella seldom exhibited but for virtually 60 years she exhibited annually at the Royal Hibernian Acadamy who in 1966 awarded Estella Honorary Membership.

In 1962 at the age of 80 Estella painted her last painting The Estuary.

Estella died in 1968.  Her life was commemorated in a fine documentary on RTÉ on January 14.


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