Men of the South: The incredible tale behind the classic image from the War of Independence

As the painting by Sean Keating is released as a stamp, Ellie O’Byrne tells the incredible tale behind the classic image from the War of Independence

Men of the South: The incredible tale behind the classic image from the War of Independence

As the painting by Sean Keating is released as a stamp, Ellie O’Byrne tells the incredible tale behind the classic image from the War of Independence

Men of the South by Sean Keating
Men of the South by Sean Keating

It's an iconic painting with a particularly fascinating history.

In the summer of 1921, during the ceasefire that accompanied Michael Collins’ Anglo-Irish treaty negotiations in London, a band of armed and trench-coated IRA men knocked on the door of the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art.

“We’re here to see Keating,” they told the petrified porter. The artist Seán Keating, who taught at the school and had a studio there, is said to have casually responded, “alright, bring them up.”

The men, from the 2nd North Cork Brigade of the IRA, were to sit for Keating for a painting he would title Men of the South.

The painting, which now hangs in Cork’s Crawford Art Gallery, has been chosen by An Post as their commemorative stamp for 2020. It’s a painting that continues to fascinate, especially in Munster. And the painting’s enduring popularity is in no small part down to the fact that we know who all the men are.

The members of the North Cork Brigade who appeared in Keating’s painting were Jim Riordan, Denis O’Mullane, Jim Cashman, John Jones, Roger Kiely, and Dan Browne. Their commander, Seán Moylan, sat as a subject alongside them as Keating photographed and sketched the group, but asked to be omitted from the finished painting.

UCC historian Dr Donal Ó Drisceoil, editor of An Atlas of the Irish Revolution, which features Men of the South as its cover, says Moylan was worried he would be too easily identified.

“Moylan later explained that he feared the truce was temporary, hostilities might resume, and he was hesitant of giving the British authorities any opportunity to identify him,” Ó Drisceoil says.

The 2nd North Cork under Moylan was a brigade with a fearsome reputation. “Despite the fact that Tom Barry’s West Cork Brigade is better known, Sean Moylan’s outfit was probably the most effective fighting unit in the IRA,” Ó Drisceoil says.

For Keating, the Limerick-born artist who studied in the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art at a time when the institution was a hotbed of nationalistic idealism, frequented by the Pearse brothers, WB and Jack B Yeats, Men of the South was a “conscious work of propaganda,” Ó Drisceoil says. “an example of instant history, produced with an eye to posterity.”

PURCHASE PRICE

Men of the South was first shown at the Munster Arts Club exhibition in 1922 in Cork. Nearly three years later, it was purchased by the Crawford Art Gallery for £200.

“When we purchased it in 1924, one of the advisors to the board, the artist George Atkinson, said it was a ‘good painting, possibly even a great one,’” Crawford curator Michael Waldron says. “Keating was still an emerging artist, and he had asked for £250 for the painting. That would have been more in line with the price Yeats would have commanded at the time.”

“Seán Keating had come out of art school about 12 years earlier and was still gaining traction.

He was tackling subjects that were suddenly very real and he was reflecting the social and political change as a contemporary witness.

Keating, working in oils on a low grade canvas that probably reflects the materials available to Irish artists at the time, deliberately set out to portray his men of the south as heroic figures; Waldron points out that the painting’s composition, which sees the IRA men in profile, all gazing intently in the same direction, weapons in hand, is modelled on the classical form of the Greek frieze.

“It’s kind of a European, heroic tradition,” Waldron says. “They’re not active; they are seated, they are tense, and they are ready. They’re not in action, which I think was quite important to Keating; he’s not showing a skirmish. They’re playing the waiting game, fingers on triggers. Violence was there: Ireland had a violent birth.

But Keating wasn’t showing the violence; he was showing the potential for violence.

“There is plenty of symbolism in the painting: Keating introduced some green, white and orange into the fields of North Cork visible in the background, and there’s a laurel tree behind them, which is a European symbol of the victor, but it’s not a native plant.”

Men of the South is currently on display in the Crawford’s commemorative Mise Éire exhibition, where it is as popular as ever with Munster gallery-goers, Waldron says: “People joke that half of Cork claims to be descended from these men, but in actual fact there are so many people who do have a connection to it.

“These are all real men, from North Cork and South Limerick, and Keating was a Limerick man himself. It’s his hinterland in some ways, and it’s his generation.

"He may have even been older than some of the men in his painting; he was in his thirties when he painted this.”

Many people don’t know that a second, unfinished version of Keating’s painting, this time with commander Seán Moylan present, hangs in Áras an Uachtaráin.

STAMP OF APPROVAL

An Post have replicated Men of the South as a stamp with the permission of Seán Keating’s estate. Keating, who would serve as president of the Royal Hibernian Academy for 12 years, had focused so intently on romanticised depictions of Ireland’s struggle for independence in his early, political work, but showed far less appetite for such subject matter in his latter years.

Men of the South remains an important work, painted in a time of uncertainty about Ireland’s future; Waldron says An Post’s choice of the stamp to commemorate the mid-point of the Irish War of Independence, in all its complexity, is extremely fitting.

“It has become iconic because of how it reflects the War of Independence period,” Waldron says. “It was painted in a time when Ireland as a state was coming into being and as the Anglo-Irish treaty was being negotiated. It’s one of the go-to images to reflect on what happened.

“The 1916 commemorations had quite a clean narrative, but it’s way more complex and fractured when it comes to commemorating the War of Independence.

Six months after sitting for this painting, these men or men like them could have ended up fighting on opposite sides in the Civil War.

But Waldron says the passage of time has allowed us the opportunity for an honest and nuanced examination of this formative era.

“We’re now at a distance where the people in the painting are still in memory, but that generation is going or have gone,” he says. “If anything, we can have a richer sense of the complexities and painful realities of the time than we could 50 years ago,” says Waldron.

“Those in Cumann na mBan and the IRA who were involved in the struggle for Irish independence knew the unspoken truth, but now a lot of the stories are emerging, and we can address them. So maybe we can have a richer sense of it now.”

  • The stamp bearing Men Of The South is available from main post offices, and online here
  • Dr Donal Ó Drisceoil of UCC will deliver an illustrated lecture entitled ‘Men (and Women) of the South: Reframing the Irish Revolution’ at the Crawford Art Gallery, Friday, March 20, 12.30 pm. All welcome

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