Pen portrait – The 1922 diary of one of Seán Keating’s ‘Men of the South’

An Irishman’s Diary

Dan Browne (right) in a detail from Men of the South, by Seán Keating. Crawford Art Gallery, Cork

In Seán Keating’s classic War of Independence painting Men of the South, his subjects all face the same direction, as if looking towards a vision of the future Irish Republic (while also, in the meantime, awaiting the targets of an ambush).

This is ironic, because when the picture was painted in the first week of January 1922, the republican movement faced an imminent and catastrophic split. The coming Civil War is foreshadowed in a pocket diary kept by one of Keating's models, Dan Browne, who like the other IRA men involved had travelled from Munster to Dublin to sit for the portrait.

Browne's entry for Saturday January 7th, 1922, includes the following: "Got picture painted. Seen by M Collins. Went to Glasnevin. Peace Treaty ratified by 64 to 57 at 8.30pm. City very quiet." As for Sunday 8th, it begins: "Attend at Mansion House Anti-Treaty meeting".

Tensions between the two sides were growing by early March, when Browne and his friends returned to the Metropolitan School of Art for a second series of sittings with Keating. Not all the violence of the ensuing period was political, however.


His entry for March 3rd begins: "Went to School of Art 10.30pm. Present at Stephen's Green when Max Green was shot dead."

Green was a son-in-law of John Redmond and chairman of the Irish Prison Board. But he was killed while chasing robbers who had just held up two messengers delivering cash to the Department of Labour.

As the year of 1922 wore on, the diary nevertheless becomes dominated by the political split. The terse entry for November 24th reads only: “[Erskine] Childers executed at Dublin.” For the 25th, his last instalment: “[Free] Staters arrived at home at Meelin [Browne’s village in North Cork]. No arrests.”

Born in 1888, Browne had once planned to be a priest. But after joining the Irish Volunteers in 1917, he went on to become part of a fearsome flying column led by future government minister Sean Moylan.

A UCC historian has said of them: "Even though Tom Barry's West Cork Brigade is better known, Sean Moylan's 2nd North Cork Brigade was probably the most effective fighting unit in the IRA."

The similarity between the leader’s name and Browne’s home village had interesting consequences once, as recorded by Military History Tribunal.

During an ambush at Tureengarriff in 1921, where a British officer was killed, somebody was heard to shout: “Up Moylan”. By the time this was reported in the local press, it had become “Up Meelin”. As Browned noted: “Meeling got a lot more attention after that. Raid after raid was taking place there and further reprisals threatened.”

It was the flying column’s fame and a friendship with Moylan that led Keating to ask six members of the unit to pose for his propagandist portrait, a follow-up to Men of the West (painted in 1917).

But having sat for the first sessions, Moylan absented himself from the later ones: itself a measure of the disintegrating peace and a reluctance to have his face become so well known in advance of a renewed conflict.

Thus there are two versions of the picture: an earlier one (with Moylan) abandoned by Keating and forgotten for decades until it ended up in Áras an Uachtaráin, and the better-known version (without Moylan), now in Cork’s Crawford Gallery.

If it could not foresee the Civil War, Keating’s one-directional arrangement was apt at least in that all the men who posed for it took the anti-Treaty side. Moylan survived to become a TD for most of the rest of his life and a minister in the 1940s and 1950s.

Browne was eventually arrested in early 1923, while hiding in the house of a friend Kay McCarthy. He was interned in the Curragh until the end of the war. After that, he returned to Meelin and married Kay.

The pocket book passed eventually to their son. but it had been long neglected by the time of the latter's death in 2017, when a grandson, Jim Browne, found it in a drawer, somewhat the worse for the depredations of mice.

His diary aside, Dan Browne stands out among the figures painted (he’s the one on the extreme right of the picture) for being perhaps the least romanticised by Keating. In his own critique of the work, Moylan explained this as follows.

Browne was a “good soldier”, he said, but “always he seemed to me to have the grimmest face of all those in the picture. Perhaps this is due to the fact that he was a clerical student [...] trained to develop the characteristics of a parish priest in his early days.”