Exhibition celebrates centenary of Sean Keating’s pieces ‘Men of the South’ and ‘An IRA Column 1921’ and the story behind these works
A fascinating new art exhibition, entitled ‘As They Must Have Been’, was opened to the public at Cork’s Crawford Gallery on Saturday.
The exhibition celebrates the centenary of Sean Keating’s most famous painting ‘Men of the South’ along with its companion painting, ‘An IRA Column 1921’ which is on loan from Áras an Uachtaráin. These pieces are together for the first time in 98 years and are just two of a fascinating collection of artwork which includes the portrait of Sean Moylan which was described by those viewing the collection as ‘breath taking’.
‘Men of the South’ was purchased in 1924 by the Gibson Bequest Fund and has been on constant exhibit at the Crawford Art Gallery ever since. ‘An IRA Column 1921’ remained unsold until 1944 when President Douglas Hyde decided to assemble a collection of art documenting Ireland’s struggle throughout the centuries to assert its nationhood and he purchased this iconic painting.
The genesis of the paintings is as fascinating as their execution. The arrest on May 16, 1921, of Seán Moylan set in train a chain of events beginning with his detention at the Military Prison in Cork City, a meeting with solicitor Barry O’ Sullivan and the hiring of Albert Wood QC to defend him. Since his arrest, Moylan was now a newly elected TD.
Wood set about drafting a Writ of habeas corpus, in the matter of Moylan J.R. v Major General E.P. Strickland. A debate on this matter went all the way to the House of Commons, championed by Captain Wedgwood Benn and centred on the jurisdiction of the Military Court Martial’s over that of the Civil Courts.
In the meantime, back in Cork, Moylan was brought before a court martial. Having only the old clothes he was wearing when arrested, the O’ Flynn family of Newmarket came to his aid by supplying him with a suit of clothes and overcoat for this important date with destiny.
Moylan refused to recognise the court. He was acquitted on the first charge of levying war on the Crown and a sentence of 15 years penal servitude was ordered. This lenient sentence was in recognition of his chivalry to injured British officers in the course of the war.
Moylan began his sentence on June 13, 1921, on Spike Island. No-one more than he was amazed when a Truce was observed on July 11 to facilitate negotiation of a Treaty between the IRA and the British Government. De Valera refused any negotiations until at least all elected TDs were released to attend the Dáil. Seán Moylan was released from Spike Island on August 8, 1921.
The second Dáil convened on August 16 and Moylan was in attendance. That night he was invited out to dinner and happened to bump into Albert Wood QC. They agreed to meet up again for a longer chat with Wood suggesting the National Gallery, an institution unfamiliar to Moylan but a visit he thoroughly enjoyed. Wood then asked Moylan if he would permit artist Seán Keating to paint his portrait in the clothes he wore in the dock. Moylan agreed, once it would not interfere with his Dáil business.
Keating was thrilled to be commissioned for the project, as it was agreeable to him both financially and politically.
Albert Wood attended the studio most days that Moylan was present, and then had one more request. He wanted Moylan to bring his Flying Column to Dublin, to record them for posterity on canvas.
Their arrival in Dublin at the School of Art caused consternation as they arrived in uniform and armed. They told the frightened porter they were looking for Keating. Keating said calmly “send them on up”.
But Keating and his models were evicted from the School of Art, with Keating noting that it was a very British Institution. They relocated to the Mansion House but the lighting there made it difficult to continue. Keating eventually went back to the School of Art and got the Volunteers to attend one at a time, all the time hiding their guns. The resulting painting was ‘An IRA Column 1921’.
Those portrayed in An IRA Column 1921 are (front row) Michael D. O’Sullivan, Knockacluggin, Johnny Jones, Glencollins, Roger Kiely, Cullen, Dan Browne, Ballinatona; (back row) Jim Riordan, Kiskeam, Denny Mullane, Ballybohallagh, Jim Cashman, Kiskeam and Sean Moylan.
When the painting was complete, Keating thought that maybe it was too rushed with all the moving, that maybe he did not do it justice, so he started again. The second painting is called ‘Men of the South’. This time he omitted Moylan and O’Sullivan. Moylan, at his own request was not included in the painting. He did not believe the British were sincere and war could resume at any time. He did not want images of himself available!
It was indeed significant that Kiskeam Brass Band bearing the Thomas Ashe Banner were present at the Crawford Gallery to see the re-uniting of the two paintings. The original brass band, under leader Tim Kiely, attended every anti-conscription rally, election rally and various other events organised by the local volunteers. Their proudest moment was welcoming Countess Markievicz to Kiskeam in May 1919.
The present band gave a wonderful rousing rendition of well known songs outside the Crawford Gallery before marching in formation into the exhibition area. On their way in, they passed a fabulous bronze bust of the said Countess.
The Curator of the exhibition, Dr. Michael Waldron, welcomed the descendants of the men in the paintings to the event. Newmarket Historian Sheila O’ Sullivan gave a brief account of the sequence of the paintings, and then identified the Volunteers as depicted by Keating and as described by Sean Moylan in his Statement to the Military Archives.
For the family of Mike Denny O’ Sullivan, it was a proud and emotional day as this was the first time the painting featuring their uncle was on exhibition in Cork. It was especially poignant as Mike Denny left Ireland after the Civil War and never returned. As a special tribute to Mike and his comrades, Newmarket woman and gifted violinist Catherine Walsh of Inchintotane performed ‘An Chuileann’.
“We are lucky so much information exists about Moylan, Keating and the circumstances of the printing. One very fine source of contemporaneous information is Dan Browne’s diary. Dan is featured in both paintings and kept a diary of all the days and events surrounding the trip to Dublin, attending Keating’s studio, who was present, and on what days, as well as information on attending the Treaty Debates” Sheila O’ Sullivan said.
This diary is in the possession of Dan’s Grandson Jim Browne and he gave a comprehensive account of its content, relevant to the paintings, at Saturday’s event.
Other works of art on display is a Keating sketch in preparation for his painting ‘Republican Court’ on loan from the Hunt Museum in Limerick. A beautiful portrait of Terence McSwiney and McSwiney’s funeral by Artist John Lavery is featured along with so many other wonderful works of art. The exhibition runs until September 25.