Mick O’Dea (63) is a prolific artist. He does landscapes and portraits and his work is inspired by history. He has an ongoing project based on the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. Born in Ennis, Co Clare, he lives between Mayo and Dublin.
I was adventurous and accident-prone. On one occasion my mother was going through the front door of the County Hospital in Ennis ahead of me and I heard the nurse say to her: “It’s not Michael again, is it Mrs O’Dea?” Then I came into view being carried by two building workers.
Explain your escapades.
I was always climbing and falling. I’d do things like make a trolley from pram wheels and go down hills, and I’d be catapulted out.
Choose three words to describe yourself.
Curious, faithful, determined.
What was it like growing up in a pub and a grocery store in the middle of Ennis?
It was like living in a corridor. It was teeming with people — in the shop, in the pub, and all of us living upstairs, including my uncles. It was very busy, with little or no privacy and we worked all the time.
Your father also had a farm outside the town. Tell us more.
I was involved in saving hay, cutting hay, cattle. So I had a combination of being a townie and working on the farm. That introduced me to a lot of country men whose company I loved.
Why are you an artist?
I need to visualise the things that preoccupy me and bring them into colour. In infant school, I was handed a slate and chalk. I remember the sound of the chalk and how you could wipe it away with a cloth. I loved the tactile nature of it.
Tell us about your interest in stories.
In the bar there was nothing but stories and scandals. The local paper, the Clare Champion, called our pub the front office. There was always something going on. You’d see some broody fella sitting at the end of the counter and you knew he was trying to get some of the journalists to keep him out of the newspaper for a court case.
Why the interest in history?
History is full of stories and they stimulate me.
Tell us about your latest exhibition, ‘West Northwest’.
Most of these paintings are of the landscape in northwest Mayo. I was always on the lookout for somewhere that if I looked out the window, I just wanted to eat it and paint it. I like the sweep and scale of it and the remoteness.
How did Covid affect you?
As an artist, it was business as usual without the bell ringing on the front door. But I have regrets because dear friends and relations died and I couldn’t get to their funerals. I found photos I’d taken of them and I painted them. That was a moving experience. It allowed me to honour them.
You are renowned for your portraits. How do you approach them?
Like a geologist, I look at the surface carefully. Then what lays beneath may present itself.
Does it matter if the person doesn’t like the portrait?
Yes, it does. The main thing is that you have to be fair. It’s always a difficult moment when someone sees their portrait for the first time. It has to have a good likeness and be a good painting.
Coming from Clare, is trad music a big part of your life?
Yes. I listen to it a lot. My cousin is the fiddle player Martin Hayes and he has a tune written after me called Mick O’Dea’s Reel. I don’t mind about a piece of granite because I’ve been immortalised in this reel. I painted Martin in front of the public in Kilkenny a few years ago, when I was artist in residence during the arts festival.
What drives you?
I’m competitive in relation to the artists of the century going back. I want to throw my hat into the ring.
Who are your role models?
Low-key people who just get on with it.
‘West Northwest’ exhibition runs until November 27 in the Molesworth Gallery, Dublin. mickodea.com