The Tan War: Rebel art puts revolutionaries in the picture

Mick O’Dea’s new exhibition at Triskel is a preamble to his major show of the 1916-23 period, writes Richard Fitzpatrick

Mick O'Dea's paintings have been chronicling the revolutionaryyears in the lead up to thecentenary commemorations.

MICK O’DEA has been doing for painting what Sean O’Casey’s Dublin trilogy of plays famously did for the stage. For the last eight years, O’Dea has turned his gaze on Ireland’s revolutionary years, 1916-1923. This will culminate next year in a centenary exhibition at the Royal Hibernian Academy to commemorate the 1916 Rising (O’Dea is president of the Academy).

In the meantime, another O’Dea exhibition, ‘The Tan War’, is at Cork’s Triskel Christchurch from Friday. It is curated by John P Quinlan.

The paintings are rendered in black charcoal and ink with dashes of rich, playful colour, and are based on old photographs or newsreel stills. Some are familiar, such as the painting of Kevin O’Higgins on his wedding day, with Éamon de Valera and his best man, Rory O’Connor, whom O’Higgins later condemned to death.

O’Dea is only a few degrees removed from several of his subjects. Two of his uncles fought in the War of Independence. He once painted Seán MacBride, who shared a cell with Rory O’Connor on the eve of O’Connor’s execution. He also painted a portrait of Peadar O’Donnell, the revolutionary Marxist who was in the same cell as Liam Mellows, another Republican leader, on the eve of his execution.

O’Dea captures Mellows in severe, furrowed-brow pose in one portrait. “He was a left-wing intellectual. I don’t know if he had a sense of humour or not,” he says.

There is an especially striking painting, titled ‘Heroes’, of six Dublin street urchins aping a military drill. There isn’t a shoe between them.

“They’re imitating what they were seeing going on in the streets,” he says. “They’re standing in salute. They made their own makeshift bandoliers, where you’d keep bullets strapped around you, with bottle corks tied with string. There’s a fellow on the right, like an officer in command, who was kind of reviewing them. He has cardboard spurs on his heels, copying the soldiers that he would have seen.”

When you cast an eye over the portraits, which include the likes of Michael Collins (with fashionable moustache), brigades of Black and Tans and IRA flying columns, what catches the attention are the social details — raincoats down to the heel; hardly ever an overweight person; everyone smoking; short-hair fringes, but big caps.

“The caps were huge, more similar to a Rasta cap in volume,” says O’Dea. “If you had big hair, you grew it up really high. It was short-back-and-sides, but if you had the height on the hair that was obviously what the women were looking for.”

Not so immediately obvious are the stories behind some of the paintings. There is one, for example, of five RIC men in magnificent bottle-green uniform. “They’re the Royal Irish Constabulary,” says O’Dea. “That green would have come from the British Army uniform around 1860. It’s a beautiful green. That was the green that was worn by all Irish policemen until 1921. That painting is called ‘Defenders’. They’re the RIC who successfully defended Kilmallock RIC station against an IRA attack.

“Most of the RIC were Irish. In a way, you could say that during the War of Independence there was a civil war going on, as well — with Irishmen on both sides, with one of them backed by the British.

“The fellow in the middle, with a moustache, was Constable O’Sullivan. He was from Galway. He was later assassinated — shot in the back of the head by the IRA, as he walked down the street in Listowel. They’re in there, so we don’t forget. It wasn’t all that heroic, in a way.”

  • The Tan War runs from March 13 to April 4 at Triskel Christchurch, Cork

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