When the former Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen nude portraits were hanged

In March 2009, two oil paintings depicting Ireland’s then-Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, in his underwear were briefly displayed in Dublin art galleries. The reaction of the media, lawmakers, and the Garda Sochána (Irish police force) sparked a long-running dispute dubbed “Portraitgate” by some. Conor Casby, a school teacher in his thirties from Claremorris, County Mayo, was eventually identified as the artist, who was first unnamed. On March 7, 2009, the first portrait was secretly hung in the National Gallery of Ireland. Casby is claimed to have entered the National Gallery carrying a shoulder bag, and located a free place for his photo and its caption among other portraits of important Irish people such as Michael Collins, W. B. Yeats, and Bono. Casby then left the building unnoticed by security.

After discovering the unauthorised painting, the National Gallery contacted garda. It stated that it had only been hanging in public view for twenty minutes before being removed, contradicting the Sunday Tribune’s report that it had been dangling for almost an hour.

At the end of the Nine O’Clock News on March 23, state network RTÉ aired a report on the hangings. Tadhg Enright’s report showed the paintings, got a 0% appraisal from an art expert, and stated that Cowen “is not thought to have posed for the unnamed artist.” On future newscasts, the report was not mentioned. The Nine O’Clock News apologised “for any personal offence caused to Mr Cowen or his family, or for any disrespect shown to the position of Taoiseach by [the previous] broadcast” on March 24. The original storey was taken down from RTÉ.ie’s online archives, and an apology was appended.

Senators Maria Corrigan and Mary O’Rourke of Fianna Fáil, as well as TDs M. J. Nolan and Michael Kennedy of Fianna Fáil, all criticised the RTÉ News broadcast as being in poor taste. Michael W. D’Arcy, a Fine Gael TD, described it as the “most unpleasant report I have seen on RTÉ in years.” Kennedy advocated compassion for Cowen’s wife and children’s sentiments, and asked for RTÉ Director-General Cathal Goan to quit. The station received multiple complaints about the report, including one from Eoghan Neachtain, the government press secretary, who claimed he was acting on his own initiative. Enda Kenny and Charles Flanagan of Fine Gael described it as a restriction on freedom of expression.

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