The Colgate Scene
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Two weeks in Northern Ireland
|by Jack Bridges '00|
Historic Milltown Cemetery, Falls Road, Belfast
A Talk With Danny D|
Ever since the Hunger Strike of ten Republican prisoners in 1981, political murals have been a significant feature of communities in Belfast, Derry and other cities across Northern Ireland, dotting the landscape in both Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods.
Danny Devenney, one of the most prominent muralists in the North, and I make our way to his studio, which is tucked away at the end of a dark corridor on the second floor of Conway Mill, a rather imposing structure that used to house an old flax mill. My eyes roam the walls of his workplace like searchlights. The studio consists of two rooms -- space where Danny and his partner Martin paint much of their work and an office that adjoins the studio through an old door propped open by a chair. It would be a rather drab place if not for the many photographs, newspaper articles and other memorabilia that decorate the large wall above the two tables that serve as a desk. The carpeting is old and frayed and flecked with dried paint. The only window in the office looks out on a listless gray landscape of buildings that all bleed together. Danny lights a cigarette.
I am at the mercy of where Danny's thoughts take him. He tells me of not getting into Arts College in Belfast, of how Catholics did not gain admission to such university positions in the late 1960s. As he flicks the ash of his cigarette, Danny casually exclaims, "in 1970 I ended up in jail -- Longkesh.
"We tried to rob a bank."
Danny re-enacts the failed attempt to take a hostage in the bank; his eyes flashing with unsettling intensity. Danny could not pull the trigger. The British security forces did not have the same problem and shot him four times. Two other IRA volunteers, Danny's companions, were shot dead.
"So you started painting and drawing in the Kesh?" I ask.
The muralists: Danny D and Marty Lyons
"While I was in hospital my mother brought me paints and brushes. With little
else to do, I started sketching things in bed. The nurses would ask me to draw
things for them. Even the British soldiers would ask me to draw for them."|
"What would they ask you to draw?"
"A typical IRA man," Danny replies with a laugh.
Just before Christmas in 1976, after spending six years in prison, Danny was released. His artistic talent, which he had used to design IRA pamphlets and leaflets (that were smuggled out) in prison, would now find a home at the An Phoblacht (the Republican News).
By 1981, with the Hunger Strike under way, murals began to appear across the North. Danny quickly took to the new medium, which blended artistic vision with political and social issues.
"Murals are a part of the voice of the community . . . reflecting things within the community," Danny explains. Rain pours down outside. Danny lights another cigarette.
"Do you have anything in common with the Protestant muralists of Belfast?" I ask.
"Our medium is the only similarity. Their message is about triumphalism and promoting sectarianism. Yes, there has always been sectarianism." Danny's cell phone rings.
A chilling mural from Derry's Waterside neighborhood of a Loyalist emerging from the ruins of the Bogside, while a slain Catholic lies slumped over a rock
"What's the craic?" fires Danny. Another muralist has called seeking advice
about a project. "Stick to the lark," Danny replies when asked about the use of
a symbol to represent Bobby Sands, the most famous of the Hunger Strikers. |
Sitting in a grayness of smoke and rain, I was warmed by the words and images crafted by Danny Devenney for nearly two hours. For all the acclaim Danny has received for his work, it has not changed him -- save to add a few strands of gray to his dark brown shoulder-length hair. Together with Marty Lyons, he has painted murals for Hollywood movies (The Devil's Own) and Broadway shows -- and yet he still lives in the Short Strand, the neighborhood of his youth, and always has time for people.
Later at a pub I asked Martin if he would ever leave West Belfast. "Oh, no. Even if I hit the lotto, I would buy the biggest house in West Belfast."
I left Conway Mill and made my way onto the Falls Road, walking past a mural that Danny and Martin had recently painted. One thought flooded my mind -- beauty emerging from the void of violence and bigotry.
A tour of the Bog begins.
A tour bus pulls up beside a curb. Streams of tourists, armed with instant cameras and fanny packs, pour from the bus to stand blinking in the sun. Across the street an old woman slowly makes her way back to her apartment; one arm tightly curled around a brown paper sack. As she quietly ambles along with the morning's groceries, the bus driver rises from his seat, exits the bus and strides into the crowd, ready to begin his tour.
In massive cities such as Paris or London, where millions of tourists flock every summer, such a scene is a daily occurrence. To the residents of the Bogside -- a Catholic working-class neighborhood in the town of Derry, Northern Ireland -- the intrusion of tourist buses is a new phenomenon.
What draws tourists to Derry is very much what draws tourists to other, more popular cities -- history and art. In Derry, though, the attractions are not contained within the walls of a museum (although the Tower is excellent). Derry's story is painted on the walls of neighborhoods such as the Bogside, in the form of vast and haunting murals. These murals and the Bloody Sunday memorial draw the large white tour buses.
As I sat atop a stone wall above the Bogside, I could not believe my eyes as the tour began. Somehow, it all seemed wrong. Strangers with no knowledge of Irish history whatsoever, parading into an area that has seen so much violence over the years, as if it were just another place to snap a few pictures. Another meaningful and private place cheapened for profit.
A well-dressed old man passes behind me on the wall. He stops and we strike up a fascinating conversation. After listening to him recount his extensive travels across the United States, I try and learn of his life in Derry. He tells me he used to live along the old city walls in a neighborhood called Nailor's Row -- geographically sandwiched between the security forces and the IRA -- during the height of the `Troubles.'
He points to an area about 30 yards behind us. "That's where the house rested, right against the wall." Only now, the space is empty, save for the grass on the ground. On Christmas Eve 1972, due to a failed cease-fire, he and his father left their house forever. Clearly, this kind man, quick with a smile and a laugh, has seen his share of violence.
I ask him what he makes of the tour buses in the Bog. Without hesitation he replies, "Oh, they do no harm. I think it's grand people take an interest in the Bog and its history."
Margaret, an employee of the Tower museum in Derry, viewed the coach tours as a positive way to bring people to the city. And Nualla, the owner of the Bed and Breakfast where I stayed, also echoed the positive aspects of the tours.
A young Protestant girl in a garden of weeds
After 30 years of unrest and turmoil, the peace process has helped build the
tourism industry in Northern Ireland. This newfound source of revenue is
important to places such as Derry. Only five years ago, the idea of bringing
tourists into the Bogside would have seemed laughable. Now, though, with peace
comes the chance for economic prosperity. And yet, not everybody reaps the
benefits of the new bus tours. As Nualla observed, the tourists who arrive to
see the murals do not stay in Derry long. They arrive in the morning and are
gone by the afternoon. The tourists do not eat in local restaurants, patronize
the area shops or stay in the many fine B&Bs. To tourists, it is as though
Derry were a dream.|
The future of this sort of tourism in Derry is not bright. If the peace process fails, the small stream of visitors will dry up instantly. If peace succeeds in the North, over time, tourists will lose interest in the violent histories and forget all about places like Derry. Maybe someday the tourist industry will embrace Derry for what it really is -- a beautiful city inhabited by friendly and generous people; far more than a tour stop with sectarian scars.
Coiste patrols the Shankill Estate.
It is Saturday in Protestant West Belfast. After a brief spell of rain, the sun has come out in time for a parade. The neighborhood is abuzz with people who have awakened early to get a good spot on the damp sidewalk. Bands from all over Northern Ireland, complete with flutes, accordions and drums, are arriving by bus to provide the soundtrack for the day's marching. A Unionist parade needs Unionist songs.
The parade is now in full swing. After watching a select group of the Ulster Freedom Fighters (paramilitar-ies) march by wearing army fatigues, black boots, berets and black scarves over their faces, I retreat to a nearby patch of grass and sit down. I glance to my right and my heart turns to ice. A good distance away stands Michael Stone. His features are unmistakable: a pale broad face, a wicked smile and a mop of black curls tied back in a ponytail. A woman with two young girls nipping at her heels greets Stone and asks for his picture with her daughters. Without responding, he wraps an arm around each girl and smiles.
A few years ago, Michael Stone murdered nine people. Children in neighborhoods like the Shankill are not shielded from the conflict; often they are nurtured by it.
A day earlier, while photographing the new murals on the Shankill estate, I met and befriended an eight-year-old child named Coiste. After learning that I was American and not a spy for the Nationalists, Coiste and his two friends decided I was okay to hang around. As we sat beside discarded wooden pallets and old tires for a bonfire, I asked Coiste what he and his friends were drawing.
"We're sketching a UFF badge" he replies. At age eight, Coiste, Thomas and Ta were already mimicking the symbols, actions and language of the local paramilitaries. Once the three boys completed the paramilitary badge, drawn on an old piece of particleboard, they climbed atop the bonfire pile. With alarming volume they aimed their toy guns at the clouds and stood there with sly grins shouting, "No Surrender!"
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