Issue 4-2022 small

16 June 2011

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ART AS STRUGGLE | THE MURALS OF WEST BELFAST

The draw of politics

Mural artists Marty Lyons, Mark Irvine and Danny Devenny

BY PEADAR WHELAN

IN HIS BOOK Don’t Mention the War: Northern Ireland, Propaganda and the Media, David Millar writes:
“The propaganda war . . . attracts much less attention than  its shooting counterpart but it is arguably the more crucial part of the conflict - the battle for hearts and minds.”
When I went to talk to Belfast’s famed muralists Danny Devenny and Marty Lyons about the history of Belfast’s republican murals it was clear that the work they were and still are involved in is part of the age-old battle for hearts and minds.
Their murals, as well as the work of the other muralists that adorn the walls of West Belfast, tell the story of republican resistance to the British and unionist state.
They celebrate the bravery and the courage of the IRA’s Volunteers.
They celebrate the richness of Irish culture and language.
They make social commentary on many and varied topics.
They send out the message of solidarity to the many international visitors - from the Basque Country, from Cuba, from Palestine - who are involved in their own struggle that in Ireland and in West Belfast in particular that they are among friends. They are among people who are with them in struggle.
“The murals give people a voice,” says Danny in between working on another piece.
‘Danny D’ as he is better known (ask anyone who Danny Devenny is and it’s likely they won’t know who you mean) began painting when he was in the Cages of Long Kesh between 1973 and 1976. Like many a republican, he didn’t know he had talent until he found time on his hands while in prison.
His first works would have been painted on the walls of the POWs’ huts.
From those humble beginnings he began designing posters and doing illustrations for various republican publications that would be smuggled out of Long Kesh.
Positive images of republicans were not readily available in or through the media.
Indeed, the Emergency Provisions (Northern Ireland) Act 1978 prohibited the media from “soliciting or inviting support for an illegal organisation such as the IRA”.
On his release from prison, Danny D went to work designing posters and producing artwork for Republican Publications but mostly for An Phoblacht, where he became Head of Lay-Out & Design.
At this time the situation in the H-Blocks and Armagh Prison was dominating the republican agenda.
“Tom Hartley got me to look at the idea of painting prison-themed murals highlighting the situation the POWs were faced with: the brutality, the isolation and their strength of character in face of the prison regime.”
Marty Lyons, a young republican from the Beechmount area of west Belfast, also began painting murals around this time.
According to Marty, the murals were a more striking way of putting across the message than simply scribbling graffiti.
“The Brits and the Peelers didn’t like what we were doing either as they would go out of their way to harass and intimidate us. Sometimes they would drive armoured Land Rovers at the ladders we were on or the foot patrols would shake the ladders when we were on them.
“Usually they would paint-bomb the murals at night but the upshot of it all was that we were more determined to keep going.”
Ironically, murals were first seen as the preserve of unionists.
In his book, Drawing Support, Professor Bill Rolston writes:
“The first mural painted in Belfast depicted the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, when Protestant King William III defeated Catholic King James II. The first loyalist mural in Derry, painted in the 1920s, repainted regularly since and still extant, depicts both the Battle of the Boyne and the lifting of the Siege of Derry by Williamite forces in 1689. Thus, although in the early days there was an apparently wide range of themes – the Battle of the Somme, the sinking of the Titanic – in fact the predominant theme of loyalist murals has been William’s victory at the Boyne.”
When talking about republican murals, Rolston reinforces the view that they were an expression of the support for both the prisoners in struggle and the IRA’s armed struggle.
“The two main themes taken up were the Hunger Strike itself and the armed struggle of the IRA. The latter theme is noteworthy. It could have been possible to represent the Hunger Strike solely in humanitarian terms. Muralists could have avoided referring to the IRA campaign in the hope of attracting more sympathy to the plight of the prisoners. In fact, this did not happen. From the very beginning, unlike in the case of the loyalist murals, contemporary military images were prominent in republican murals.”
But according to both Danny D and Marty, the murals depicting armed IRA Volunteers was about demonstrating the support the IRA had in nationalist ghettoes and should not be interpreted as ‘glorifying militarism’.
“We were broadening the view of republicanism and demonstrating the support for republicanism within the nationalist population,” Danny D says.
As the years passed and the nature of struggle changed, so did the themes of the murals.
Nowadays, Danny and Marty, along with Mark Irvine, son of the late Progressive Unionist Party leader David Irvine, are redoing the impressive mural at Northumberland Street in tribute to freed American slave and leading anti-abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Douglass travelled to Ireland in 1845, during the Famine, and observed:
“I find myself not treated as a colour but as a man.”
Danny and Marty are bubbling with enthusiasm when they talk about the project and Douglass himself, whose writings and politics have impressed them.
Paul Robeson once said: “The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery.”
West Belfast’s mural artists have always elected to fight or freedom and they show no sign of giving up.

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