Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
“We’re three very different people who have come together to be creative instead of destructive,” said Bogside artist Tom Kelly during his lecture Wednesday.
Kelly, his brother William, and their mutual friend Kevin Hasson comprise the Bogside artists, three men who document Northern Ireland’s history of violence through murals. The neighborhood of Bogside in the town of Derry has been the site of violent conflicts between Catholics and Protestant, namely, The Battle of the Bogside and Bloody Sunday, in which fourteen people were killed. The Bogside artists, who are commissioned by the town of Derry, have created “The People’s Gallery” which consists of 12 large murals on neighborhood walls.
“Most of the murals are painted in black and white to make people understand that it is history and we must move on,” said Kelly.
The majority of the murals depict sobering scenes of violence. For example, “Petrol Bomber” is an illustration of a young boy in a gas mask, ready to throw a bottle. This scene comes from the artists’ memories of the Battle of the Bogside, a riot between the residents of Bogside and a police group. Another mural commemorates the fourteen victims of Bloody Sunday, a conflict when civil rights demonstrators were shot by members of the British army.
“People were shot in the back as they tried to run away,” said Kelly, referring to Bloody Sunday. “They [the victims] were not terrorists or IRA men. They were people who were interested in sports and music and were like everyone else,” he said.
Kelly, a Catholic, experienced discrimination at the hands of the mainly Protestant police force through raids on his home. As a young boy he remembered the police breaking down the door and intimidating his family. “My house was raided 5 times, but that was nothing. My aunt’s home was raided 38 times. By raid, I mean that they [the police] break down the door, rip up the floorboards, and take a sledgehammer to the chimney. And then they come back just when you’re getting things together,” he said.
Kelly spoke on the complexity of the conflict in Northern Ireland, stating that many different factors, such as the involvement of the British army, contributed to the conflicts. “It wasn’t just about Protestants and Catholics. There’s more to it than that. A lot of people died in my country for different reasons,” he said.
Kelly also acknowledged that all sides participated in violent acts.
“Our work is not just about challenging the status quo or the government. It’s also about challenging our own people. My people are not just victims of suffering; they also give out a lot of it,” Kelly said.
The murals have become a tourist attraction and are viewed by thousands of visitors every year. According to Kelly, the murals have had a positive effect on the town of Derry. “They [the murals] have actually changed what was once a battlefield, a ghetto, into something where the whole community has been transformed,” he said.
The Bogside artists conduct workshops in Ireland, helping adults, children, the elderly, and the disabled create art. Kelly recounted an incident when he was invited to paint for a youth club in a Loyalist town, where Protestants are hostile towards Catholics such as himself.
“I started to paint and the next day it’s defaced. I paint it out, and it’s defaced again. But my Irish pride wouldn’t let it go,” he said. Kelly said that he continued to paint, and as he became acquainted with members of the town, they began to welcome him and his paintings were no longer vandalized.
Kelly sees art as a way to reconciliation, and believes that reconciliation is necessary for peace in Northern Ireland. “My city is a beautiful city and you hear a lot of stories about it. Let me tell you something, the real heroes in my city aren’t known. The real heroes are those who reach their hand out for reconciliation,” he said.