Irish Cultural Activist Elizabeth Solterer Dies
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2004; Page B05
Elizabeth Curran Solterer, whose charmed early life was spent among the giants of Ireland's literary and political flowering of the 1920s and '30s, died July 15 at Georgetown University Hospital after a stroke. She was 89 and had lived in the Washington area since 1955, often lecturing at area museums and cultural gatherings about the art of her native land.
She was 40 years old when she married and settled into a quiet life as the wife of a Georgetown University professor of economics, but the first part of her life was spent amid the artistic ferment of Europe between the world wars. In Dublin, where Mrs. Solterer grew up in the twin enthusiasms of revolution and modernism, her parents were at the center of the Irish freedom movement, which led to the Easter Rising of 1916 and establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922.
Her mother, Helen Laird, was a founding member of the Abbey Theatre and close friend of poet William Butler Yeats and his muse, Maud Gonne. Her father, C.P. Curran, was a lawyer who wrote some of the first journalistic accounts of the Irish revolt of 1916. Among their friends was James Joyce, the Irish novelist who once commented that the Currans' daughter was the only child he knew who had read his modernist masterpiece "Ulysses" -- and had done so by the age of 9.
"It was a village, Dublin, in those days," said Mrs. Solterer's daughter, Helen Solterer, a professor of French literature and culture at Duke University. "My grandparents held an open house and knew everyone."
Mrs. Solterer attended a school where classes were taught in the Irish language and, in later years, she became fluent in German, French and Italian. As a student at University College Dublin in the early 1930s, she and the writer Flann O'Brien founded a literary magazine with the waggish title of Blather.
After receiving a bachelor's degree in history in 1935, she traveled across Europe and studied art history in Germany, from which she was expelled with other "undesirable" foreigners in 1937. She moved to Paris, where she worked in an art gallery that sold works by Picasso, and renewed her friendship with Joyce, who at that time lived there. In 1939, Mrs. Solterer made her first visit to the United States, where she became acquainted with leading figures of modern art and stormed around New Orleans in a hearse owned by the sculptor Fritz Bultman.
After returning to Dublin in the early 1940s, she wrote about modern art for the Bell, a publication edited by the celebrated writer Sean O'Faolain, taught art history and helped found the Irish Living Art movement. The most prominent painter in that movement was Jack Yeats, the younger brother of the poet, who was "like a second father to her," according to Mrs. Solterer's daughter.
The Irish government sent her back to the United States in the early 1950s to introduce Irish art to the American public through a series of lectures.
Back in Ireland in 1954, she met Josef Solterer, a Viennese-born economist who had taught at Georgetown since 1932. They married in 1955 and settled in Falls Church on what was then farmland. They moved to the District in 1972.
In Washington, Mrs. Solterer spoke of Irish accomplishments in the arts at museums and galleries, at the Irish-American Cultural Institute and in lectures arranged by the Irish Embassy. She was active in the American Association of University Women and in Holy Trinity Catholic Church in the District.
Her husband died in 1992.
Survivors include her daughter, of Durham, N.C.; a stepson, retired Navy Capt. Carl Solterer of Arlington; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company