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Joseph McNally

Leading arts educator and founder of LASALLE College of the Arts


Published: 12 Oct 2016

Time taken : >15mins

I would like to be remembered as an educator, both as an educator in the classroom, as a principal of a school and as an educator through the arts. I would see myself really as an educator, first and last.

Joseph McNally, born in 1923 in Ireland, was an important arts leader and educator in Singapore. He came to Singapore in 1945 as a teacher with the Catholic De La Salle Brotherhood and became so attached to the nation that he became a Singapore citizen in 1985. A compassionate educator, passionate arts champion and talented artist and sculptor himself, he helped to develop arts education locally and founded the LASALLE College of the Arts in 1984 to offer quality, affordable arts education to Singaporeans. He passed away in Ireland on a home visit in 2002 and remains celebrated in Singapore for his great contribution and devotion to the arts, arts education and the promotion of religious harmony.

Brother John Joseph McNally was born in Ballintubber, Ireland on 10 August 1923. Raised in a close-knit farming community, he grew up steeped in the region’s rich, ancient history and Catholic faith. At the age of 14, he joined the De La Salle Brotherhood dedicated to mission work and helping disadvantaged youth around the world, particularly in the area of education. After six years of study at De La Salle’s retreat and college, during which he took art as one of his subjects, McNally was sent to Singapore in 1945 just after World War II.

Here, the 23-year-old taught at St Joseph's Institution from 1946. In 1951, he moved to St John’s Institution in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and spent the most part of the ’50s and ’60s teaching in schools in Malaysia affiliated with De La Salle, namely St John’s Institution, St Paul’s Institution in Seremban, St Xavier's Institution, and St Joseph’s Training College in Penang. In 1963 he became principal of St John’s Institution as well as a member of several Catholic school councils and boards. Two years later, he attained Malaysian citizenship. In the midst of his teaching career, he took a few years off to pursue further studies, first at Dublin’s Irish National College of Art from 1951 to 1954, then in Rome, Italy from 1960 to 1961, and subsequently at New York’s Columbia University where he attained a Master’s degree in Art and Education in 1969 and a Doctorate in Education in 1972.

Thus well equipped, McNally returned to Singapore in 1973 to teach at St Patrick's School. In 1975, he became its principal and made several changes—he abolished corporal punishment; set up a students’ council and students’ parliament; built a sports complex and hostel; formed The Patrician Society for parents, teachers and old boys to discuss school issues together; and introduced the teaching of Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. In 1983, he retired as principal but was later made consultant to Singapore’s Ministry of Education and helped to revise the art syllabus for schools and create the Art Elective Programme.

However, from the time he had pursued a doctorate at Columbia University, he had dreamt of setting up an art school in Singapore for students who were talented but could not afford to study art overseas. In 1984, a year after his retirement, Brother Joseph realised his dream by setting up the St Patrick’s Arts Centre on the St Patrick’s School premises. The school was financed by McNally himself with additional funding and support from professionals and former students-turned-arts professionals, who now volunteered their teaching services to the new school for a token fee until the school could recruit its own staff.

St Patrick’s Arts Centre started with 27 students and limited facilities, and slowly grew under McNally’s tireless efforts. In 1986, the school moved to a new campus at Lorong J Telok Kurau and was renamed LASALLE College of the Arts. McNally, who had become a Singapore citizen in 1985, became its president. Over the subsequent decade, he developed the school into a leading arts institution in the region, with a comprehensive visual and performing arts curriculum, highly qualified teachers and scores of well-nurtured students—many of whom graduated to become professional artists.

McNally also became a leading arts advocate and highly sought-after arts and arts education advisor to the government and other organisations, even after retiring to become President Emeritus of LASALLE College of the Arts in 1997. For his many significant contributions to local arts and education, he received many awards and accolades over the decades including the 1946 First Prize for Painting at the Festival of Limerick, Ireland; the 1990 Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Medal); a 1994 Honorary Doctor of Arts conferment from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia; a 1995 Honorary Doctor of Laws conferment from the National University of Ireland; a 1996 Paul Harris Fellowship from Rotary International; the 1997 LASALLE-SIA Medallion Award; the 1997 Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal); and the 1998 Montblanc de la Culture Award.

Besides being a committed arts educator, McNally was himself a dedicated artist and sculptor. Throughout his teaching career and after, he devoted much of his spare time to art-making. He created over 200 sculptures and paintings infused with Celtic and Southeast Asian influences that centred on life-affirming themes of humanity, spirituality and nature. Many of his sculptures were made out of ancient bogwoods recovered from swamps in Ireland during his biennial vacations to his homeland and shipped to Singapore. Over the decades, he held at least six solo exhibitions and participated in more than 10 group exhibitions in Singapore and other cities around the world including Dublin, Castletown and Galway in Ireland, New York, Bermuda, Penang and Fukuoka in Japan.

On 27 Aug 2002, McNally passed away from a heart attack while visiting his hometown of County Mayo, Ireland. Today, he is commemorated by a Brother Joseph McNally Gallery in the LASALLE College of the Arts campus; a posthumous 2004 memorial led by the then Minister of Foreign Affairs George Yeo to erect Brother Joseph’s sculpture Counsellor II on the grounds of the National Museum of Ireland; countless tributes; and his lovingly made body of work. The greatest tribute however lies in the success of LASALLE College of the Arts, a dream and gift to generations of aspiring Singapore artists made real through the efforts of Joseph McNally.


10 Aug 1923

Born in Ballintubber, Ireland.

1937 to 1939

Enrolled at De La Salle Retreat, Castletown, Ireland.

1939 to 1940

Novitiate, De La Salle Retreat, Castletown, Ireland.

1940 to 1943

Scholasticate, De La Salle College, Mallow, Ireland. Received first prize in an art competition.


Teacher, De La Salle College, Mallow, Ireland.


Sent to Singapore.


Teacher, St Joseph’s Institution, Singapore.

Received first prize (Painting), Festival of Limerick, Ireland.


Final profession as member of the Brothers of the Christian Schools.

Exhibited at the Singapore Art Society Exhibition.


Teacher, St John’s Institution, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

1951 to 1954

Graduated from the Irish National College of Art, Dublin, Ireland.


Exhibition – First one-man show at Brown Thomas, Dublin.

1955 to 1957

Teacher, St Paul’s Institution, Seremban, Malaysia.


Exhibited at the Penang Art Society Exhibition.

1957 to 1958

Teacher, St Xavier’s Institution, Penang, Malaysia.

1958 to 1962

Staff member, St Joseph’s Training College, Malaysia.

1962 to 1963

Vice-principal, St John’s Institution, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.


Secretary, Conference of Heads of Secondary Schools, Malaysia.

Secretary, Malaysian Guild of Catholic Schools.

Member, Malaysian Christian Schools Council.

Member of the Boards of Governors of St Paul's, Seremban; St Francis,

Malacca; St Andre's, Muar; La Salle, Petaling Jaya; La Salle, Klang; and of 10 primary schools.

1963 to 1973

Principal, St John’s Institution, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.


Received Malaysian citizenship.


Appointed to the District Council of the Brothers.


Delegate to the General Chapter of the Brothers in Rome, Italy.

1968 to 1969

Graduated from Columbia University, New York with M.A. (Art and Education).


One-man exhibition of Painting and Sculpture, Teachers’ College, Columbia University, New York, USA.

One-man exhibition of Painting and Sculpture, Bermuda.

Group exhibition with Abdul Latiff Mohidin and Foo Hong Tatt, Madison Avenue, New York, USA.


One-man exhibition of Painting and Sculpture, Crypt Gallery, Columbia University, New York, USA.

One-man exhibition, Castletown, Ireland.


Teacher, St Joseph’s Training College, Penang, Malaysia.


Conferred honorary degree Doctor of Education, Columbia University, New York, USA.

1973 to 1975

Teacher, St. Patrick’s School, Singapore.

1975 to 1982

Principal, St. Patrick’s School, Singapore.


Singapore representative at the first conference of Asian Christian Artists in Bali, Indonesia.


Singapore representative at the College of Education Conference in Perth, Australia.

Vice-chairman, Singapore Education Administration Society.


Foundation member, Singapore Schools Council.

Member, Ho Kah Leong Art Review Committee.

Exhibited at Fukuoka, Japan.


Organised and contributed to the first exhibition of Asian Christian Art in Singapore.

Exhibited at Asian Christian Art exhibition, Singapore.


Retired as principal of St Patrick’s School.

Appointed to develop the St Patrick’s Arts Centre

Consultant, Ministry of Education, Singapore. He revised the Art syllabus, negotiated the adoption by the Cambridge Examinations Syndicate, and created the Art Elective Programme.

One-man sculpture exhibition, Galway, Ireland.


Designed trophy for the UOB Painting of the Year award in Singapore.

Member, Visual Arts Advisory Committee, Ministry of Culture, Singapore.

Consultant (Art Elective Programme), Ministry of Education, Singapore.

1983 to 1987

Founder and head, St Patrick’s Arts Centre (later became LASALLE College of the Arts).


Member, Design Committee, Trade Development Board, Singapore.

Panel member, Sculpture Workshop, Ministry of Culture, Singapore.

Member, Selection Panel (for teachers in the Art Elective Programme), London. UK.


Received Singapore citizenship.

Chairman, Visual Arts Advisory Committee, Ministry of Community Development, Singapore.

Panel member, 2nd Sculpture Workshop, Ministry of Community Development, Singapore.

Exhibited in Fukuoka, Japan.


St Patrick’s Arts Centre is renamed LASALLE College of the Arts; McNally becomes president of LASALLE College of the Arts.

Consultant, STEP Programme, Ministry of Education, Singapore.


Consultant (art resource books), Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore.


Member, Committee on Visual Arts, Singapore.


Singapore representative, ASEAN Sculpture Square Symposium in Manila, The Philippines.

Member, Land Use and Quality of Life Sub-committee, National Development Committee, Singapore.


Received Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Medal) at the National Day Awards, Singapore.

Member, selection committee to choose the best artworks for MRT stations in Singapore.

Member, National Souvenir Design Competition, Singapore Science Centre.

Head of study team, Merlion Project, Sentosa, Singapore.

Vice-Chairman, Singapore Heritage Society.


Member, Japan Chamber of Commerce & Industry Singapore Foundation Awards Advisory Board.

Chairman, Creative Taskforce on the Visual Arts, Economic Development Board, Singapore.

Member, Coin Advisory Committee, Board of Currencies, Singapore.

Member, National Arts Council, Singapore.

Member, the Lee Kong Chian Art Museum Committee, National University of Singapore.

Group exhibition with multimedia master of LASALLE College of the Arts and the Della Butcher Gallery.


Member, Hospital Management Board, Mt Alvernia Hospital, Singapore.


Secured funding of $15m from Singapore Airlines for LASALLE College of the Arts, prompting a name change to LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts.


Group exhibition at the opening of the Atrium Gallery, Singapore

Sculpture exhibition A Terrible Beauty, LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts.

Conferred honorary Doctor of Arts, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia.


Conferred honorary Doctor of Laws, National University of Ireland.


Sculpture exhibition A Flash of Lighting, LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts.

Named Paul Harris Fellow of Rotary International.

Named Mayo Man of the Year, County Mayo, Ireland.


Retired as President of LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts. Became President Emeritus, LaSalle-SIA College of the Arts.

Received Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal) at the National Day Awards, Singapore.

Received LASALLE-SIA Medallion Award.


Received Montblanc de la Culture Award for patrons of the arts.


Conferred Honorary Doctorate, National College of Art and Design, Ireland.

27 Aug 2002

Passed away at age 79 in his hometown of County Mayo, Ireland.


TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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