The roles of mural painting have always been to celebrate, to complain, to convince, to express fear, aspirations, and visions, to reflect and to educate the public about the society and often its taboo topics. But, in most cases, mural paintings have been used as a form of political and protest art. This form of visual storytelling used to express political views is especially true for the Irish art. The famous Irish muralist, Danny Devenny, known as Danny D, is for sure one of the most celebrated muralists in Ireland, who started his artistic career as a self-thought painter. Understanding his role in the society, his propaganda art posters, which he started doing in prison, after his release, transformed into street art. The history of art shows that art was always closely linked to politics, and the phenomenon of using art in the time of crisis is one of the most important roles of art. It would be very difficult to speak about Irish art and not reflect its history, full of conflict, revolutions, and full of hope as well, and it is all of this is that makes up the long lasting history of the Irish murals and inspiration for the Irish artists.
A former Irish Republican Army member, Danny D began painting when he was in jail in Long Kesh between 1973 and 1976. Like many republicans, he was not aware of his talents until he started using his time in jail for the production of posters and propaganda art that were later smuggled out of jail. At that time, the jail was full of republican agenda, which, upon his release, Danny D was asked to transform into mural paintings that would reflect the stories about the harsh prison conditions the Irish republican men imprisoned in England experienced, but more importantly, used as a propaganda tool that would speak about the republican resistance to the British and unionist state. Similarly to Chicano Art, rising out of the Chicano Movement in the late 1960’s and 70’s, Belfast’s republican muralists, made social commentary on many and varied topics and kept with the idea that ‘in order for the mural to work you must understand [the message] at a first glance’. And the messages conveyed spoke about the struggles for freedom, evoked images of armed IRA Volunteers, and represented important events in Ireland’s history, like the Hunger Strike. Celebrating the richness of the Irish culture and language, the republican murals also send out messages of support to many international communities, like Cuba, Palestine, and Basque Country, to their comrades in struggle. The Irish time of struggle, known as The Troubles, used murals to influence change, and artists such as Devenny and Marty Lyons, knew that their murals gave voice and created the identity of their community.
In the rich past of Ireland’s history, murals were used as a dynamic visual backdrop to the street battles occurring in Belfast. The Easter Uprising, the Hunger Strike, the IRA, all of the military images used by the republican muralist, were used not as a vehicle for promoting the violence but as a vehicle that evoked the support of the community. The division of the community, created by the opposing views regarding the question of the autonomy of the Ireland to the United Kingdom, created a division in the mural images as well. Unlike the republican murals, the unionist murals were used to signal the territory and to show support to the United Kingdom. As an attempt to stop the violent battles, numerous walls were erected in the streets of Belfast, functioning as division lines. Known today as Peace lines, originally few in numbers, they have multiplied over the years, and today they are major tourist attractions. But, to Danny D, the walls made of bricks are not the walls that need to come down. The walls of prejudice and walls inside the minds of men and women are the ones that need to crumble down.
What was unimaginable in the past is happening today in the streets of Belfast. The two opposing members of the artistic society, represented by Devenny and Mark Irvine, son of the late Progressive Unionist Party leader David Irvin, are known to work together. The images they produce reflect the images of famous protest art, such as Picasso’s famous painting Guernica. This in the past would not be imaginable, but today Ireland is promoting peace and is working towards the better future.
From a strong sense of pride and the recognition of the importance the history plays as a legacy and major element of the identity of Ireland’s people, Irish painters began to work. The mural history of Ireland was born from the need to react and so the self-thought painters started painting their political art. Devenny still refers to himself as a political activist and continues strongly with his practice. The murals for him and for the rest of the artists in Northern Ireland will continue to be strong symbols of the countries past and present political divisions.
Editors’ Tip: Politics and Painting: Murals and Conflict in Northern Ireland
The history of the fusion between art and politics showcases some of the most influential and most experimental works of art. For Ireland, art and politics go hand in hand when we speak about the murals found on the Belfast streets. The thirty-year conflict in Northern Ireland, commonly referred to as the Troubles, has been the focus of considerable scholarly attention and this book offers us an insight into Ireland’s history and the use of the visual language to express political views. Today a major touristic attraction, murals of the Northern Ireland are symbols of the struggle for freedom and the desire of the self-thought painters to express their views for a cause most were willing to give their life to.
All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image: Danny Devenny – Bobby Sands Mural, detail. Image via Wikipedia.com; Images representing examples of Belfast murals follow. Images via wikipedia.com