The artist’s eye of Mick O’Dea has provided him with some interesting insights into how people looked in the 1916-23 period, writes Richard Fitzpatrick
ONE of the things Mick O’Dea noticed from spending the past ten years painting combatants during Ireland’s revolutionary years (1916-1923), which he based on old photos and newsreel stills, is that they were suckers for fashion. The way, for example, they used to let guns drop loosely in holsters by their thighs, an effect possibly taken from watching too many silent Western movies.
“The Auxiliaries and the Black’n’ Tans were paramilitary. They could put their own ensemble of clothing together,” says O’Dea. “There wore an assortment of boots, jodhpurs, trousers, jackets, belts, personalised weapons. They didn’t have the standard military uniform. They could adorn their uniforms with scarfs or whatever way they wanted. There was a lot of strutting going on. As well as being armed to the teeth and having all the latest military equipment and transport vehicles, they also had the necessary clobber.”
The Irish rebels in the War of Independence were on the run so they wore civilian clothing, with big caps and heavy raincoats down to the ankles.
“The country man’s cap had a Rastafarian capacity to hold hair — they had massive volume compared to the peaked cap of today,” says O’Dea. “They were almost caricatures. When you look at photographs of the men without the caps, you can see the fashion was for short back and sides, but for big hair on top of the head. So if you could get that hair growing up vigorously high that was obviously the fashion of the time.
“Certainly if you were to wear a cloth cap it didn’t flatten your hair so you could go into the dancehall and take off the cap and you had your big hair without it being dampened by what I call the Lester Piggott-style caps of today. It always annoys me when you get re-enactments of the War of Independence in television and the movies — the caps are always too small. And all the extras look like they’ve been eating too many burgers in Burger King while they’re waiting to go on set. The people back then compared to us were skin and bone. There was no sweetshops, really. Everyone walked or cycled everywhere.”
O’Dea’s exhibition The Cut of Them was opened in Thurles recently by Pat Shortt. The artist went to college with Tom Shortt, the comedian’s oldest brother. “Years ago, I remember staying down in Thurles with Tom, and Pa — as we used to call Pat — coming back from Semple Stadium with his Thurles Brass Band uniform on after playing before a hurling match,” says O’Dea.
One of the most arresting paintings in the exhibition has Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Hugh Tudor — a lifelong friend of Winston Churchill’s and the officer in charge of the crown forces in Ireland from his appointment in May 1920 — standing before a parade of paramilitaries and the RIC. The painting is entitled ‘All the King’s Men’ and in it he has dramatically unsheathed his sword.
In the background, the Black’n’ Tans and Auxiliaries — many wearing their distinctive Tam o’Shanter caps — are to the right of Tudor, with the RIC to the left of him. Interestingly, the regular RIC officer was taller than the Black’n’Tans and Auxiliaries, as there was a height restriction on joining the RIC.
“Tudor was the guy that gave the Auxiliaries and the Black’n’Tans free reign and more or less ensured that very few were prosecuted,” says O’Dea. “He in particular is a dandy little guy. He wears impeccably laced boots, with his sword standing at the very front.
“What I always notice about these officers unlike, for instance, the Free State officers under Michael Collins is that they never put anything in their pockets that will bulge — even though the pockets are very big — so that they are beautifully ironed.
“If you look at Irish Free State officers, in their uniforms, you can see they’ve got bottles or packets of cigarettes or lighters or bits and pieces, but this guy Tudor never put anything in his pockets so he must have had someone carrying around his clobber so he could be impeccably presented.”