The UK press has been having a field day with a caricatures of the Irish premier in a compromising if not at all uncommon situation.  While the controversy is admittedly entertaining, it poses some interesting questions about the limits of political expression.


Dublin high-school teacher Conor Casby recently committed an act of what has been dubbed “guerrilla art.” The 34-year-old Casby succeeded in hanging two of his paintings, depicting Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen in the nude and on the toilet, in the National Gallery and in the nearby Royal Hibernian Gallery.

According to the AP, “The portrait in the National Gallery showed a naked, overweight Cowen sitting on the toilet holding a roll of tissue. The one in the Royal Hibernian showed the nude premier staring glumly into the distance as he holds his trousers to one side.” The portraits were pulled immediately by the galleries once they were noticed (the National Gallery piece managed to be nestled amongst paintings of the likes of  poet W.B. Yeats, slain rebel Michael Collins and singer Bono), and were then impounded by the police.

The Manchester Guardian tells us that the Prime Minister is not exactly a new subject for expressive artists, “Cowen was already a visual target for Ireland’s political cartoonists. In the Irish media he is often portrayed as thick-lipped, bulging out of an ill-fitting suit, his shirt poking out of his trousers and a cigarette stuck out of one of his ears.” These particular pieces, however, seem to have rubbed the taoiseach, and his party, the wrong way.

Public opinion has focused not on the paintings, but on the police and government responses to a national broadcast that gave a “tongue-in-cheek” report of the incident and televised images of the portraits from the waist up. National broadcaster RTE pulled the report and read an on-air apology while insisting that it was not doing so in response to government pressure. Today FM, on the other hand, was threatened with a search warrant to turn over its email communications with Casby.

Disagreement with such pressure to curb political satire was not limited, and, according to the London Times:

The apology prompted fevered discussion on blog sites, with much criticism of RTÉ and the Garda Síochána – the police – as well as caption competitions for the offending paintings. Michael Kennedy, a member of the Irish Parliament for Fianna Fáil, the ruling party, which Mr Cowen leads, insisted that the RTÉ report was “a gross insult to the dignity of the office of Taoiseach”. He called on RTÉ’s director-general to tender his resignation.

However, Fine Gael, the main opposition party, said last night that the affair was “more reminiscent of Russia in the 1930s than Ireland in 2009”.

The party called it a “scandalous waste of resources” for detectives to be investigating “what amounted to a practical joke that offended the Taoiseach’s ego”.

“Today FM has clearly come under pressure to hand over e-mails about this matter while RTÉ News was obviously browbeaten into a grovelling apology,” Charlie Flanagan, a spokesman, said.

As for the artist, Casby voluntarily accompanied investigators to a police station to be interviewed on Tuesday. He was brought in on suspicion of committing acts of public indecency, incitement to hatred and criminal damage. According to AP, police seized several other paintings of notable figures in the nude from his home.

Of interest in the current debate is the treatment of free speech by a Western democracy such as Ireland. While the government has apparently been branded “humorless”, this is certainly not the first time the world has been confronted with opposing views on the level of artistic satire allowable in terms of important figures.

The Times continued in defending the portraits by arguing, “Politicians need a stomach for satire. Mr Cowen needs to develop one before any over-zealous response to Mr Casby’s lark serves only to draw yet further mockery to Ireland’s leaders.”

No leader is safe from the artist’s paintbrush, just as no nation is safe from continued debates over the freedom of speech and expression, even if such freedoms are democratically guaranteed.

Valerie Nichols is a web editor at the Atlantic Council.