IT IS an arresting image, and it covers the entire gable end of a house in Rossville Street, Derry. A young boy wearing a Second World War gas mask, and clutching a petrol bomb, is pictured against a background of destruction in the Bogside, crucible for the Bloody Sunday riots in which 14 unarmed civilians were killed by British paratroopers on 30 January 1972.
The mural is the first of a series of 12 in the People’s Gallery, painted between 1994 and 2006 by the Bogside Artists — Tom Kelly, his brother William, and Kevin Hasson — all of whom grew up in that community during the Troubles. It is one of the most famous and most photographed murals in the world. But also, Tom Kelly says, one of the most misunderstood.
“When it first appeared, The Times described it as ‘violent’, and The Irish Times as ‘sinister’,” he remembers. “The boy is a 12-year-old wearing a gas mask that doesn’t work — wartime stock from a hut broken into at the heart of the Bogside. Hundreds and thousands of canisters of CS gas were being fired into this small area, and the kids wore the masks.
“I had one myself — big floppy things, and, when the gas got behind the mask, it was worse. But the kids thought they were cool, and wouldn’t take them off.”
The boy is facing what was, at the time, a sectarian police force, trained and backed up by the British Government. Paisleyites had declared their intention of burning the Bogside to the ground. “The mural asks the question: ‘What is this kid doing here in this silly mask?’” Kelly says. “When we first created it, we included on a poster a quote from Charles Dickens, along the lines of ‘There’s none so finely felt, so delicately perceived, as injustice to a child.’”
The artists describe the murals — memorials to victims of the violence, and all created with the consent and support of the Bogside community — as “a not-too-silent witness to the colossal price paid in suffering and brutalisation by a hopelessly innocent people in their struggle for basic human rights”.
THE paintings have a fierce, visceral intensity. Faces such as that of the hunger striker Raymond McCartney both haunt and disturb. In The Saturday Matinée, a tank is bearing down on a man watching from behind a flimsy shield.
Dr Adrienne Chaplin, who taught philosophical aesthetics in Toronto, has helped enable the artists’ presence at Greenbelt, as well as their travelling exhibition, finds a spiritual application in them, and parallels with the Stations of the Cross.
Most murals in Northern Ireland tend to be propagandist, but the People’s Gallery is “none of that”, Tom Kelly says with a fervour born of exasperation with some in the art world, and with what he calls the “incumbent politicos” of Northern Ireland today.
“There’s a world of difference between art and propaganda,” he says. “We just happen to be three artists who lived in this very troubled area, and tried to make [what we had witnessed] a cathartic experience, a healing document — authentic evidence of the key events as they impacted on the people of Derry.
“Each of the murals tells a story, and most of our work is looking at the whole idea of children in a conflict situation. So Death of Innocence shows the young schoolgirl, Annette McGavigan, killed by the British Army in 1972. She’s wearing her school uniform, and at her feet are some coloured stones she’d been sent out by the teacher to gather for a still life.
“We made it clear to the family that we would paint Annette only if she could represent all the children who died — Protestant and Catholic — and including the two boys blown up by the bomb in Warrington. We contacted the boys’ parents, and they were delighted with that.”
The mural also depicts a gun, a simple outline of a butterfly, and a small, barely visible cross. At its unveiling, the Bogside Artists told the media that, when peace came to the country, and children such as Annette “were not being blown up by whoever”, they would come back, break the gun, put the colour into the butterfly, and highlight the cross, which spoke of the innocent.
THE Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1997, and the artists duly returned, “on a lovely summer’s day — a great occasion for the community”, Kelly says warmly. “It was like a cleansing, a departure from something, and very much inspired by Desmond Tutu’s statement that conflict is like an open wound: unless we examine it and clean it out properly, it will never heal.
“Just like past conflicts, the people who end up in power want to brush everything under the carpet, and hope it will blow over. But, this time, we three artists were determined that our story — the everyday story of the Bogside, in particular — would not be swept under the carpet. We would paint it as large as we could, and we would look at it and examine it, but only with a view to moving on to the final mural, which is the last thing you see on leaving the Bogside.”
That final mural is the peace mural: a chequerboard of coloured squares symbolic of equality, and of all shades of religious background. Derry’s name derives from the Irish doire, meaning “oak grove”, and a dove is depicted within an oak leaf. “It speaks of the hopes and dreams and desires of this generation of children for the future,” Kelly says.
The trio created this mural in collaboration with both Protestant and Catholic children.
THE People’s Gallery is listed among the top 200 art sites in the world. The murals are the top attraction for the thousands of visitors to Derry. But they are not on the tourist guides’ itineraries — “an agenda of concealment which would be funny, if it were not a daily occurrence,” the artists say.
None of the three has ever drawn a wage from the murals, Kelly, who has been using the arts in the work of community reconciliation for 30 years, says. The Bogside Artists published a book on art and healing in 2002. At Greenbelt, they will be sharing the Art and Reconciliation Tent with the Corrymeela Community.
The images are “very representational, very simple”, Kelly admits. “We’re not in the business of trying to bamboozle or intellectualise anything. We’re not playing the blame game. We’ve a lot more to say than just the conflict in Northern Ireland: we’ve painted murals in many parts of the world, including one unveiled by the Dalai Lama in Maribor, Slovenia, the European Capital of Culture 2013.”
Kelly is principal spokesman for the Bogside Artists, and he also leads Wellspring, a small Christian community made up of people from both Roman Catholic and Protestant backgrounds. “We’re a community that understands what it is to be followers of Christ, and to have a real and personal relationship with him; but we’re not foaming-at-the-mouth fundamentalists.
“We’re not quiet little people who wouldn’t harm a fly, either. We believe in being the salt and light we’re supposed to be, and taking the Church out to people. ‘Thy Kingdom come’ — we take that literally.”