The Bogside Artists

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Words by Dalene Heck / Photography by Pete Heck

When we told some Irish friends that we were making a trip to Northern Ireland, and further revealed our interest of getting a better understanding of the thirty years worth of political conflict that plagued the region up until the late 1990s, they scoffed.  “I hope that’s not all you’re doing.  There is so much more to the area then that.”

Indeed, there is.  Our quick visit to Derry was a very pleasant one – we enjoyed strolling through the walled city and spontaneously found ourselves in engaging conversations with locals – the friendliness we immediately felt was impressive and thoroughly enjoyed.

But we still found ourselves drawn to Rossville Street, home to the Battle of the Bogside and Bloody Sunday, two significant events in the thirty year stretch that is referred to as “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland.  What once served as a scene of protest, riots, and violence between Catholic nationalists (in favor of re-joining the Republic of Ireland since being split up in 1921) and Protestant unionists (loyal to the United Kingdom), this famed street now displays a permanent memorial of the events in the form of tremendous murals.

Three painters: Tom Kelly, William Kelly and Kevin Hasson are The Bogside Artists, and these are just a few of their amazing pieces that line Rossville Street.

The Civil Rights Mural.  From The Bogside Artists website: “It cannot be doubted that Martin Luther King was the most influential figure in the Northern Irish struggle for human rights…”. The Catholic nationalists (living on the “Bogside” of Derry) were continually repressed by the Protestant government that ruled them, even though they were the majority. The voting systems were unequal, and their allotted housing was very poor and overpopulated.  This led to the protests and subsequent riots when they were attacked.

Petrol Bomber (representing the Battle of the Bogside).

The Petrol Bomber is just beyond the famous Free Derry sign, painted by a Catholic activist in 1969, on the corner of the Bogside. 

Operation Motorman and The Runner

Bernadette – a socialist republican activist who was elected as a Member of Parliament at the age of 21 in 1969.

The Saturday Matinee – a scene common in the early 70s, often on Saturday afternoons.

Bloody Sunday – On January 30th, 1972, 13 males were killed (7 were teenagers) by soldiers of the British Army during a civil rights march.  Those killed were completely unarmed (some even shot in the back), and it wasn’t until June, 2010 that an investigation led by a Canadian and an Australian found that the killings were “unjustified and unjustifiable.”

The Peace Mural – although “The Troubles” are debated to have ended in 1998, violence still sporadically erupts along old tension lines.

We had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with the artist Tom Kelly at “The People’s Gallery” – a shop profiling The Bogside Artists work, set up at a corner on Rossville Street where some of the early rioting started.  Recently back from displaying work overseas, we were lucky to catch him, and he filled us in on some of the problems the collective artists face in keeping their project alive.

He repeatedly emphasized that the murals are for the people, by the people – that their work would not have even been possible without the generosity of the residents in the Bogside, providing paint and other tools necessary to make it happen. Still, they struggle, with no support from the government to keep the murals fresh and the shop open. He cited the $22M “Peace Bridge”, opened just this June to represent a united Derry, and how even a few of those valuable dollars sent their way could keep this project of the people alive.

This is a story that needs to be told and remembered.  Although after a few days in the north talking to different people, one thing is clear: it’s very complicated. There were scads of human rights violations by the loyalists, atrocities committed against the innocent on both sides, and lines drawn so deeply that it is now hard to imagine them ever being dissolved.

More to come in our following post with details of our taxi tour in Belfast.

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  1. Ireland’s history has always been foggy to me-I know parts of it, but I have never taken the time to delve deeper into it. I probably should, my ancestors were Irish! Thanks for sharing such an informative post.

    1. There is a lot of history to discover – I feel like we are just scraping the surface. But the recent history in Northern Ireland is most fascinating to me.

    1. There are many times throughout our travels where I have looked back at my own country in comparison and it makes me SO happy that I grew up where I did.

  2. I’ve been to Belfast and saw some of their murals. When I lived in Dublin I talked to many Irish people and they still consider Northern Ireland a part of their country, I haven’t talked to to Belfast citizens, so I couldn’t say what’s their feeling, but it was a terrible situation indeed, so many attacks and so much violence.

  3. I remember how vivid the murals I saw were back in 1995. I had people poke their heads out of windows back then telling me not to take photos, and there were still Protestant and Catholic cabs. Would love to get back their one day.

    Amazing pics as always…

    1. Thanks Raymond. We took a tour of Belfast as well (post on that out tomorrow). It’s not quite as bad as when you were there by the sounds of it, but there were some times when our guide had to be careful of what he said because of who was around him.

  4. I’ve for a long time wanted to take a black cab tour of Belfast. Ever since I saw it on Bourdain’s show. I think history needs to be known. Lest we repeat the mistakes of the past. Yet it’s not an experience I would take lightly. Thank you for writing this. The murals are indeed quite powerful.

    1. History does need to be known and it’s really a shame that the artists aren’t getting the support they need and deserve. Come back tomorrow…we have a post on our taxi tour coming up…

  5. I got chills reading this. I don’t know much about the complexities, but with an English father I grew up aware of the general problems and the worst violence associated with the conflict. Thanks for sharing the art with those of us who haven’t seen it in person.

    1. Your welcome Emily. We didn’t know too much either about the troubles, but it was a great history lesson to experience. Being there and seeing the murals gives you an even bigger chill in person.

  6. Are you going to Belfast? Driving through the Catholic and Protestant areas there and seeing the murals sent chills down my spine.
    There is one mural where the eyes and gun of the masked gunmen follow you. So eerie.

  7. Wow. You can read so much history, and nothing compares to seeing these vivid pictures. I can’t imagine having been in person.

    1. You are right Abby. The pictures don’t even do enough justice. Standing in front of them you find yourself staring and transported back to the time when it was really happening exactly where you are standing.

  8. Excellent post, guys! We did not make it to Northern Island unfortunately but I was really curious about the issues. The artwork is so powerful

  9. LOVE the art. When we were in London a few years ago we got to see the news story where a pizza guy was sniped at an army base due to modern day tensions. It was crazy!

    1. It is crazy, and sad. Because with the younger people that are involved today – I’m not even sure they know what they are fighting for.

  10. great murals… im not that familiar with ireland’s history but these murals really say a lot about their struggle…

  11. Your very well-taken photos reveal quite a poignancy of sense of place. I wonder what Graham Greene ever said about this place.
    Meanwhile this is the very essence of what I expect to find on my far-future plans to explore a Diego Rivera route through Mexico. Cheers!

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