Black & Tan: belts, guns and straps in a savage period


Mick O’Dea’s representations of the War of Independence draw on his interest in history, his own family’s involvement and a childhood spent listening to veterans’ bar-room strategies

MICK O’DEA IS best known as a painter of portraits, the human figure and the landscape. In all of these he is directly engaged with a subject there in front of him, either the individual in the room or the landscape outside. So his current exhibition at the Kevin Kavanagh Gallery, Black & Tan, comes as something of a surprise. It covers selected aspects of a dramatic 18 months or so in Irish history, the fraught period from the spring of 1920 when the notorious Black & Tans were established as a paramilitary police force in Ireland, to the signing of a truce in July 1921, which brought a cessation of the increasingly savage hostilities between nationalists and the forces of the Crown.

O’Dea has made a series of works on paper and on canvas, based on documentary photographs of the time, some sourced in books and others in the National Photographic Archive. Many of the originals are, he notes, tiny, and he has made greatly enlarged pictures from them, editing and in some cases radically reframing and rejigging the compositions. What he hasn’t tried to do is make paintings to, as he puts it, a photographic level of finish. Rather he thinks of his works more as drawings than paintings. They are made with charcoal, either on textured paper or canvas which, as he says: “has a nice tooth to it”, so that it catches the soft charcoal. Often the images incorporate washes of colour. The end result is that they have a sketchy, dare one say provisional, look. They are cool and slightly distanced, yet at the same time there is a startling vitality and modernity to them.

“It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in history. If I hadn’t opted for art I would have studied history. I’m a bit of an amateur historian, I guess.” There’s also a more personal connection. “That time is very much alive to me.” He was born and grew up in Ennis, Co Clare, and he remembers marshalling his armies of toy soldiers on the table in the family’s pub. Most of the customers were farmers, but some were veterans who had been in the Old IRA or in the British armed forces during the second World War. Whatever their experience of hostilities, they usually held strong opinions as bar-room strategists. And they were informed in detailed ways. “I remember one of them looking at a toy soldier and saying he didn’t approve of the bren gun – it was too accurate. It didn’t spray the bullets around enough.”

Two of O’Dea’s uncles had been in the Old IRA and fought in the Civil War on the Republican side. One eventually emigrated to the US, one stayed. During the “Economic War” of the 1930s the one who stayed lost confidence in de Valera. “He became a Labour man and stayed that way to the end of his life.”

O’Dea’s own father followed his brother to the US. “He arrived just in time for the Great Depression, and then the two of them moved back here in 1939, just in time for the Emergency.” He grew up amid the veterans and “a lot of yarns, a lot of stories”. The shoemaker across the road had taken part in the Rineen ambush in which a number of RIC men and a Black & Tan were killed. “It’s said that he chased one man right down to the sea, and shot him dead.” Retaliation was deliberately extreme, with several killings and extensive fires in Miltown Malbay and Ennistymon.

As O’Dea examined more and more photographs from the time, he learned to distinguish between the various strands of combatant, and he realised that he could almost date a photograph on the basis of the uniforms worn. “To begin with,” he explains, “they were a raggle- taggle crew.” The men in the famous photograph of the so-called Cairo Gang, in their semi-civilian attire, could be civilian gangsters posing in an alleyway in any big city. There’s a certain swagger to their stance that becomes familiar throughout the exhibition.

THE BLACK & TANS were distinct from the Auxiliaries. The former, established first, were drawn from the ranks of NCOs and ordinary soldiers who had served in the first World War. “There are all these stories about them being the dregs of the English prison system and so on,” O’Dea notes. “I don’t think that’s really true. The vast majority were just veterans who had been through the first World War. Many of them had medals for gallantry. There were two VCs. Now we would say that they probably suffered from post-traumatic stress. A sizeable proportion were Irish Catholics.”

They worked on short-term contracts that paid them many multiples of what they could earn in civilian occupations. And, O’Dea points out, although they are notorious in Irish history, that is largely on the basis of the activities of another branch of the Crown forces, the Auxiliaries. There were no more than 2,000 or so of them (there were between 7,000 and 8,000 Black & Tans), but they were ferocious. “They were drawn from the officer ranks. Mostly they were what was termed ‘temporary gentlemen’. That is, they had been promoted through the ranks during the war, but they weren’t from the officer class. Back home they would lose their status. In Ireland they could do what they liked and they were paid much more than the Tans. They also had the reputation of being invincible.”

That came to an end when an entire patrol of 18 Auxiliaries was killed in an ambush led by Tom Barry – who had himself served in the British Army – at Kilmichael in Co Cork in the winter of 1920. That bitter winter saw a spiral of violence as attacks, minor and major – including Bloody Sunday – brought disproportionately extreme reprisals that ranged from the petty nastiness of the destruction of individual houses and shops to the murder of civilians and the burning of Cork’s city centre. But the nature and scale of the retributive violence generated disquiet and pressure in England and elsewhere to achieve a settlement. This meant, O’Dea notes, that the IRA’s biggest disaster, the seizure of the Custom House, carried out against the wishes of Michael Collins, was not as calamitous as it might have been. “It brought the IRA into the open, which was something they had always, rightly, avoided.” They were surrounded and overwhelmed. A couple of his paintings are derived from the immediate aftermath of that event. He thinks the truce, a couple of months later, came just in time for the nationalists.

What he noticed about the uniforms was not just the distinctions between Auxialiary, Black Tan, RIC constable and British soldier. “Initially the Tans wore whatever they liked. Often they wore parts of whatever uniform they had been issued in service.” Incidentally, the celebrated photograph of the Cairo Gang, he says, is so called not because of any Egyptian associations but because they frequented the Cairo Café in Grafton Street.

One can see clearly that, in the early stages of their brief existence, the Black & Tans wore a mixture of British Army and RAF uniforms and civilian clothing. Eventually, they were issued with their own uniforms. It was a protracted process for a number of reasons.

They were allied to the police and so they were not a military force but, O’Dea says, having come from an army of conscripts, most of them were physically smaller than the RIC men. Standard-issue police uniforms would not have fitted them. Then the tailors went on strike in protest at what was going on.

They had a distinct, even theatrical sense of style, though. In most of the photographs, he says: “They look as if they’re having quite a good time.” They wore tam o’shanters rather than regular issue hats. Those who had participated in the burning of Cork wore burnt corks attached to their berets. O’Dea reckons their habit of wearing revolvers in low-slung holsters derived from illustrations and perhaps films of cowboys. He has, he says, long been fascinated by “belts, guns and straps”, and looks intently at the way people carry things now, attired with shoulder-bags and other accoutrements: there could be a whole new series of paintings in the pipeline.

QUITE ANOTHER TYPE of uniform is also evident throughout the exhibition. That comprises the black suits, overcoats and top hats worn by the politicians, “the frocks”, the men who negotiated agreements but who also unleashed the dogs of war. Lloyd George, O’Dea notes, gave the nod to the lethal powers of the Auxiliaries.

Churchill, once a proponent of Home Rule, advocated a huge new paramilitary force to impose order on Ireland. The British monarch, George V, was known to be dismayed at the course of events. Partition is there in the background, in the figures of Edward Carson and Edward Craig and the massed ranks of the UVF. “Irish conflicts,” O’Dea says, “always have the quality of being civil wars, with the British weighing in on one side.”

Lately, O’Dea has been looking out for the places that feature in the photographs he worked from. They are often recognisable. One shopfront, he says, is spookily identical to the family pub in Ennis.

“Once you become aware of it, you realise that the past is ever-present, in the same way that, for someone who reads Ulysses, Dublin is alive in many dimensions at once.”

Black & Tanby Mick O’Dea (with an accompanying essay by Catherine Morris) is at the Kevin Kavanagh Gallery, Chancery Lane, Dublin 8, until April 3. See