Irish painter brings Easter 1916 scenes to life

Mick O’Dea is steeped in the traditions and lore of the turbulent period around Easter 1916, writes Richard Fitzpatrick

AFTER his trilogy of portraits from Ireland’s war years (1919-1923), Mick O’Dea is following up with a big bang to capture the spirit of 1916.

The Foggy Dew contains 18 portraits of the rebel leaders as well as some figures from the British side; several sculptures; and four “monumental canvasses” of the key sites from Easter Week. It’s a personal project.

In 1966, O’Dea was eight years of age when the Easter Rising’s 50th anniversary celebrations took over life in his hometown of Ennis, Co Clare.

It was the year his uncle Tom, an IRA veteran from the War of Independence, was buried with a military funeral at the local Drumcliffe cemetery.

In his family pub, O’Dea soaked up stories of old IRA men talking about ambushes.

“History became a bit of an obsession because it seemed to be a series of adventure stories not dissimilar to comics,” he says.

“The local courthouse acted as a GPO in my mind. The theatre of this show is O’Connell St in Dublin. I’m from O’Connell St in Ennis.

“There is a large statue of Daniel O’Connell in the show. He was the first historical figure I’d tried to figure out. I’d be running up and down to school and saw this fella up on a plinth.

“I asked one of my buddies: ‘Who’s your man?’ He told me: ‘That was an Irish hero who was killed by a coward from an arrow in the back.’

“All that activity stimulated the desire in me to create pictures. There seemed to be an absence of them around.

“There were lots of war films about Arnhem, The Longest Day and The Charge of the Light Brigade. There didn’t seem to be anything on Irish history.

“To take a football analogy, from the 12th century when the Normans invaded, all the matches, home and away, England won. In 1966, Ireland won 3-0.

“In an eight-year-old’s head, it was a bit like that. It’s great to be on the winning team at last. The reality, and the nuances, of the Troubles in Northern Ireland hadn’t reared their heads yet.”

O’Dea began to draw.

“I used the new technology of markers. My first marker drawings, which are in a copybook my mother preserved, were drawings of the GPO under attack, Michael Collins, Padraig Pearse, Plunkett, exactly what I’m doing now.

“The difference is that the drawings have the appearance of 1916 meets Carnaby St because of the Warhol colours I used, which I wouldn’t have been aware of at the time,” he says.

The size of O’Dea’s work is breathtaking. His sculptures of O’Connell and Britannia are 2.7m tall. He used scaffolding and a stepladder for extra reach.

“It’s an epic story so I wanted an epic scale,” he says.

His canvasses include one of a blazing Royal Hibernian Academy building on Abbey St, which was shelled by the Helga in 1916.

In a neat bit of symmetry, O’Dea is the academy’s current president. It’s not the only coincidence. One of his portraits is of John Lowe, son of the British commanding officer during the Easter Rising, General WHM Lowe.

As an 18-year-old soldier, John Lowe escorted Padraig Pearse to Kilmainham Jail after surrender.

He led a picaresque life, surviving time as a POW in a German war camp and five marriages, including one to the Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr.

He changed his surname to Loder for his screen career, and starred in a string of B movies, among them the 1936 film Ourselves Alone.

“He played a British officer during the Irish War of Independence who was trying to capture the head of the IRA, a guy called Mick O’Dea,” says O’Dea,

The Foggy Dew runs from today to February 21 at the Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin

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