Mick O’Dea was just eight years of age in 1966, but the Golden Jubilee anniversary of the Easter Rising made a lasting impression on him and now forms part of an artistic journey that comes full circle with The Foggy Dew, the latest exhibition from the Royal Hibernian Academy president that opens this Thursday in Dublin. Joe Ó Muircheartaigh reports.
MICK O’Dea stands in the middle of a room where the seeds of the 1916 revolution were sewn — a room that was once a library and then a school staff room, but now stripped back to its four moulting walls.
With just a gentle prod he begins a monologue about his own 1916 story.
A 50-year journey from 1966 to the present day and back again. He may only have been an eight-year-old primary school student in Ennis CBS at the time of the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the Rising, but even at that stage the combination of the Christian Brothers’ education and his own geography meant a broad canvass of key dates in Irish history opened out before him.
There was the school run with pals from the top of O’Connell Street to the CBS on the other side of town that brought him by the imposing presence of Daniel O’Connell and made him wonder what it was all about, while at the bottom of Abbey Street he saw the lump of rock — derided at the time by local councillor Owen Linnane as “a grotesque monstrosity” — lowered into the ground as a monument to the men and women of 1916.
“At O’Connell Square I remember looking up and asking who’s yer man up there’,” recalls O’Dea, “and to be told he was an Irish hero who was killed by a coward in the back with an arrow. That made sense because his arm was extended and the electrical light conductor could have read as an arrow.
“Then further down the road I was watching the workmen as they were digging out the site to put in the rock for the 50th anniversary commemoration beside the Clubhouse Bridge. I was trying to figure out what was going on and when it was set up and I turned up for the unveiling by the bishop.
“It was putting stories together,” he now muses to explain away that early interest in history, “and I say with a bit of humour that I’m a veteran of the 50th anniversary of the commemoration of 1916, because that’s when the consciousness of 1916 first got into my head.”
It was there in his formative years as an artist, while in recent years it has floured in the RHA president’s emergence as one of the foremost chroniclers of Ireland’s revolutionary period.
“Sports Day in the CBS was a big thing back when I was young,” he recalls, scratching the surface of another 1916 story, “and everyone dressed up in white and marched around town to the park.
“The senior boys were dressed up as different leaders of the Rising — we were all marched behind them in columns, behind the senior boy who was dressed as Tom Clarke, Thomas McDonagh, Plunkett, Connolly or Pearse etc.
“I was very interested in it all and my mother kept a lot of the copy books I had in school in those years. Most of the drawings that I still have were of the leaders of 1916 — Plunkett, Pearse etc — from around 1971, as well as drawings of the GPO on fire and the attacks on O’Connell Street and the execution of the leaders.
“A lot of people who were involved (in the War of Independence) used to come into our bar in Ennis. The pub was O’Dea Brothers — my father and his brother Tom, who had been in the IRA. He died in January 1966 and got a full military funeral up in Drumcliffe Cemetery with old comrades from the IRA firing volleys over the grave.
“The lounge as we called it, was where I played. That’s where all the men were and that’s where I heard all the stories. There was a lot of things coming at me that I was trying to process and digest,” he adds.
It meant embracing the revolutionary period as a full-time artist, an although dubbed “a remarkable departure” in the wake of his acclaimed ‘Black & Tan’ exhibition in 2010, it was simultaneously a return to Ennis and stories he heard in O’Dea Brothers on the top of O’Connell Street.
Other exhibitions themed on the 1916-1923 period of Irish history followed with ‘Trouble’ (2012) and ‘The Split’ (2014), but it’s the 1916 start to this story that brought O’Dea to that room of peeling walls in Parnell Square as he began the process of gathering thoughts, ideas and inspirations for what would become ‘The Foggy Dew’.
IT’S Seomra 1916 — the old Conradh na Gaeilge (Gaelic League) library that housed a famous meeting in September 1914 at which the seven men who subsequently signed the Proclamation, among others, met for the first time as a group and decided that ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’ and that there would be a revolution.
“You could hold your breath,” says O’Dea, “and walk all the way down and exhale and that was more or less the scene of the event. O’Connell Street. The primary theatre.”
O’Connell Street where much of ‘The Foggy Dew’ is rooted — an exhibition that represents another radical departure from O’Dea’s most recent take on Ireland’s revolution, while at the same time being at home with his awakening interest in 1916 a half a century ago.
“The last couple of shows I did were quite linear and were connected with using available imagery and revisiting it,” he says, “like taking an old seans nós song and bringing it to the studio and giving it full orchestration.
“Some people might prefer the original, but I was giving it full orchestration and trying to make it contemporary. Interpreting the War of Independence and the Civil War was character driven — I was really interested in the individuals and trying to pick them out and as a consequence of that I saw them under cover as well as in uniform.
“The 1916 one is far more subjective,” says O’Dea of ‘The Foggy Dew’. “It’s about my experiences in and around 1966 — trying to process things. Those drawings I did as a kid were all done with markers, which had just arrived in Ennis for the first time. They were quite expensive, but I spent all my pocket money on them. I saw those drawings that my mother kept and they’re not too dissimilar to what I’m doing now. With the colour they’re a bit like 1916 meeting Carnaby Street.”
It’s O’Connell Street though — the great 1916 stage now given a theatrical makeover by O’Dea in a mixed-media show that pays homage to both insurrection and art at the same time.
“It’s a large installation that includes 4m x 3m paintings of the GPO, the RHA, Trinity and the Parnell Monument. I have a large sculpture — much larger than life size of Britannia coming in on a ship with Nelson steering it.
“I also have a column — a very shaky one, more like a pylon from F Troop (1960s television series) and Nelson is falling off of that. Then there are 11 or 12 sculptures suspended off the ceiling, life size of falling soldiers, who are the ever-present dead. The best way of putting it is that I engage with history,” he adds.
And again, while a new departure, it’s also ground he’s trodden before. “It ties in with another fascination I had with toy soldiers as a kid,” he reveals. “I went to Barcelona over 20 years ago to do an MA and I worked in sculpture — wood, cardboard, string, all disposable things.
“I did a series of exhibitions called plastic warriors. They were First World War English soldiers which I used for my 1916 imagination as a kid. I bought American Airfix troops in ’68/’69 and they filled in as the Citizen Army. I was re-enacting those things on top of the bed. In a way, with this I’m completing a circle that started in Ennis and in Barcelona and will be finishing up here.”
It won’t end there, however, because from the off, with O’Dea you sense that there’s more to it — a Royal Hibernian Academy thing, because of the organisation’s own 1916 story that the current president is acutely aware of and keen to embrace.
“The two major buildings that suffered in 1916, apart from the core of the Georgian city centre, was the RHA building and the GPO,” O’Dea notes, “and both of them were designed by the same architect — Francis Johnston. He was also responsible for designing Nelson’s Pillar. He was a predecessor of mine in the sense that he was the second president of the RHA.
“From my point of view as an artist, it’s important to remember that the Royal Hibernian Academy, which was then beside the Abbey Theatre next to Wynns Hotel. The annual exhibition of contemporary Irish art was all destroyed. I am interested, not only in the casualties, but the peripheral damage, but also the destruction of one of the finest streets in Europe if not the world which has never regained its splendour.
“There was a barricade put up by the Volunteers near the RHA and the British fired on it, even though it wasn’t manned. That set the building ablaze. The Keeper’s job was to look after the collection in the school. With the Keeper’s position came the accommodation in the academy and he was in his studio working.
“Everything was destroyed. The studios; the Academy collection; all the records; everything they’d built up from 1823 and before that — including an entire suite of Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’ from when the French invaded Spain. The Keeper Joseph Malachy Kavanagh ran out of the building saving the charter, some account books and the president’s medal.”
Fitting then that as part of the exhibition that the RHA president includes a painting of Joseph Malachy Kavanagh.
Fitting too that this Thursday, 100 years on from the Rising, the same saved medal that’s also the RHA president’s chain of office will be worn by Mick O’Dea at the launch of ‘The Foggy Dew’.