The O’Shea brothers John and James, and their relation Edward Whelan, were the incarnation of Ruskin’s ideal of the medieval craftsman reborn. They appear at the Museum Building in 1854 seemingly ready-made – a force of nature unleashed upon mid-nineteenth century architecture, conforming to Ruskin’s idea of the rude Northern European creative spirit:
…with rough strength and hurried stroke, he smites an uncouth animation out of the rocks which he has torn from among the moss of the moorland, and heaves into the darkened air the pile of iron buttress and rugged wall, instinct with work of an imagination as wild and wayward as the northern sea; creations of ungainly shape and rigid limb, but full of wolfish life; fierce as the winds that beat, and changeful as the clouds that shade them.
On meeting the O’Sheas later in Oxford (where they executed the carvings on the Oxford Museum) Ruskin saw them as wild Irishmen, obstinate and generous who by natural instinct brought a fluidity, freshness and life to their work. This energy was already apparent in their work at TCD’s Museum Building. The carving is profuse, weighty and sinuous. Tendrils spring forward from the deep undercutting, giving space to the bend of a stem or the subtle curve and dip of a leaf. They varied the tone of their work as they moved around the building: where rude imagination dominates the central bays of the north front, on the outer bays flowers and foliage appear in neatly curated rows, symmetrical, and precise (fig. x).
When they began work on the Museum Building the O’Sheas creative engagement was hailed by the Dublin press as a vindication of Ruskin’s ideas.
…the first experiment which has been made in the United Kingdom of giving the artisan’s power of design full play, with only the necessary restriction, that he shall use none but natural objects for his models: a restriction which, indeed, leaves him illimitable scope; for every leaf and flower, properly studied, offers suggestions to the artist’s eye, and, either imitated or idealized, affords innumerable forms adapted to architectural decoration.
Their work at Trinity brought a slew of high-profile commissions in Britain, including the Oxford Museum and Manchester Court House. Relatively little is known about the background of the O’Shea brothers, except that they came from the village of Ballyhooly in north Cork.
It is not clear where the elder brother, John, was born as he does not appear in the baptismal registers for Ballyhooly, which do however record the birth of a James O’Shea on 3rd February 1824, son of Daniel O’Shea and Eliza Spellane. This date accords well with the age of James O’Shea recorded in the 1861 census. His father’s name, Daniel, is that given to the first born sons of both James and his brother John. James gave his second son, named James, the middle initial ‘S’, likely derived from his mother, and used the initial himself in his advertisement at Derby in the 1860s.
No surviving evidence has yet been found regarding the training the O’Sheas received, but it is likely that they fell into the ambit of Sir Thomas Deane in County Cork. The births of all James O’Shea’s children, in 1847, 49, 51, 53, and 55, are recorded in Ireland (see pedigree, below), while John’s wife gave birth to their youngest children in 1850 and 1852 in Ireland, leaving little opportunity for an extended sojourn abroad during these years. Their work for Deane and Woodward coincides with changes in art education in Ireland and expresses well the wider contemporary movement to cultivate native craftsmanship. Indeed, in both stylistic and methodological terms, the work of the O’Sheas (and their younger relation, Edward Whelan) shares much in common with the new approaches advocated by the new Government Schools of Design.
Deane, Son and Woodward were well-placed to draw from this new pool of formally tutored artisanal talent. From April 1848, members of Cork town council had proposed establishing a school of design in the city which would train designers for artistic and manufacturing purposes, some eleven years after the first such school was established in England. Sir Thomas Deane helped establish the school at the Cork Institution, converting rooms in the building for this purpose, remarking that ‘it gives me life and energy to think we have the entire concurrence of the Government.’ The lord lieutenant, Lord Clarendon (1847-52), formerly president of the Board of Trade, who had originally proposed the establishment of schools of design in Ireland, took a particular interest, visiting the new school at Cork in October 1849, when he was led around by Deane.
One third of the pupils at the Cork School of Design, as nominated by the Corporation, were admitted free – inspired by the Gewerbeschulen in Germany. By 1852 there was an average of 50 free pupils each quarter, who could not afford to pay and who were supplied with half-price drawing materials. Their names do not appear in the fee register, so we do not know if the O’Sheas were among them. However it is notable that the O’Sheas came from Ballyhooly – not only an area where Deane and Woodward were working during these years – but also the seat of the Earls of Listowell, to whose generosity and memory a plaque was erected in the Cork School of Design. The earl of Listowell’s father had been responsible for acquiring the Canova casts from George IV for Cork, which had helped create the artistic environment at the Cork Institution from which John Hogan subsequently emerged. Sir Thomas Deane had provided the present earl with a design for a temperance hall in Ballyhooly in 1840 and Benjamin Woodward was involved in two architectural projects at Castletownroche, a parish conjoined with that of Ballyhooly, in the period immediately prior to the commencement of the Museum Building: the gatehouse at Annesgrove and the Catholic church (1847-52). The church, partially destroyed in a fire later in the century, was described in 1850 as being ‘the prettiest Gothic Church in the Province, without being extravagant…with stately columns and splendid arches’.  It is possible, therefore, that the O’Sheas came to work for the firm at this time. The training of artisans was something of a hobbyhorse with of Sir Thomas Deane, as he admitted in his lecture on sculpture to the RIAI in January 1851, and the O’Sheas may well have been protégés of his at the Cork School of Design.
Twenty nine-year old James O’Shea was living in the parish of St Catherine in the Dublin Liberties as early as November 1853, where his son Daniel was baptised, some three months prior to the commencement of the Museum Building. A James O’Shea is recorded on Thomas Street (in the same parish) in Griffiths Valuation (1854), living in Madden’s Court, a group of ten tenements around a courtyard leased out by shoemaker Thomas Madden, who in turn held them from the Dean and Chapter of Christ Church. It was immediately next to the city saw mills and O’Shea (if the same person) lived here with his twenty-six year old wife Eliza née Burke, with whom he would have at least eight children. The O’Sheas and Whelan did not advertise in the Dublin trade directories of the 1850s, presumably being too preoccupied with their work in Trinity. However, James O’Shea did carve a speculative statue of the Immaculate Conception ‘4 feet 9 inches high, sculptured in Caen Stone’ representing the Virgin Mary as a girl ‘of twelve or thirteen years old’, which was offered for sale to interested members of the clergy at 25 Wellington Quay in July of 1856. This was likely intended to capitalise upon Pius IX’s papal bull proclaiming the dogma of the Immaculate Conception two years earlier. Where the statue went is unknown.
The later career of the O’Sheas has been charted by Frederick O’Dwyer, to which might be added the rather tragic demise of James O’Shea in 1881. In this year he left his family in Manchester to return to Oxford, the city where his fame had reached its height twenty years earlier – but now he was homeless, arrested ‘drunk and incapable in Littlegate street’, described as ‘much addicted to drink’. He was, however, still described as ‘well-known’ in the town, suggesting his former success was not entirely forgotten.