22 October 2005

A Talk With Danny D

Bobby Sands Trust

Article posted by Rob Holmes 16/01/03

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The muralists: Danny D (right) and Marty Lyons - BBC photo

Ever since the Hunger Strike of ten Republican prisoners in 1981, political murals have been a significant feature of communities in Belfast, Derry and other cities across Northern Ireland, dotting the landscape in both Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods.

Danny Devenney, one of the most prominent muralists in the North, and I make our way to his studio, which is tucked away at the end of a dark corridor on the second floor of Conway Mill, a rather imposing structure that used to house an old flax mill. My eyes roam the walls of his workplace like searchlights. The studio consists of two rooms -- space where Danny and his partner Martin paint much of their work and an office that adjoins the studio through an old door propped open by a chair. It would be a rather drab place if not for the many photographs, newspaper articles and other memorabilia that decorate the large wall above the two tables that serve as a desk. The carpeting is old and frayed and flecked with dried paint. The only window in the office looks out on a listless gray landscape of buildings that all bleed together.

Danny lights a cigarette. I am at the mercy of where Danny's thoughts take him. He tells me of not getting into Arts College in Belfast, of how Catholics did not gain admission to such university positions in the late 1960s. As he flicks the ash of his cigarette, Danny casually exclaims, "in 1970 I ended up in jail -- Longkesh. "We tried to rob a bank." Danny re-enacts the failed attempt to take a hostage in the bank; his eyes flashing with unsettling intensity. Danny could not pull the trigger. The British security forces did not have the same problem and shot him four times. Two other IRA volunteers, Danny's companions, were shot dead.

"So you started painting and drawing in the Kesh?" I ask.

"While I was in hospital my mother brought me paints and brushes. With little else to do, I started sketching things in bed. The nurses would ask me to draw things for them. Even the British soldiers would ask me to draw for them." "What would they ask you to draw?" "A typical IRA man," Danny replies with a laugh. Just before Christmas in 1976, after spending six years in prison, Danny was released. His artistic talent, which he had used to design IRA pamphlets and leaflets (that were smuggled out) in prison, would now find a home at the An Phoblacht (the Republican News).

By 1981, with the Hunger Strike under way, murals began to appear across the North. Danny quickly took to the new medium, which blended artistic vision with political and social issues. "Murals are a part of the voice of the community . . . reflecting things within the community," Danny explains. Rain pours down outside. Danny lights another cigarette.

"Do you have anything in common with the Protestant muralists of Belfast?" I ask.

"Our medium is the only similarity. Their message is about triumphalism and promoting sectarianism. Yes, there has always been sectarianism." Danny's cell phone rings. A chilling mural from Derry's Waterside neighborhood of a Loyalist emerging from the ruins of the Bogside, while a slain Catholic lies slumped over a rock "What's the craic?" fires Danny. Another muralist has called seeking advice about a project. "Stick to the lark," Danny replies when asked about the use of a symbol to represent Bobby Sands, the most famous of the Hunger Strikers.

Sitting in a grayness of smoke and rain, I was warmed by the words and images crafted by Danny Devenney for nearly two hours. For all the acclaim Danny has received for his work, it has not changed him -- save to add a few strands of gray to his dark brown shoulder-length hair. Together with Marty Lyons, he has painted murals for Hollywood movies (The Devil's Own) and Broadway shows -- and yet he still lives in the Short Strand, the neighborhood of his youth, and always has time for people.

Later at a pub I asked Martin if he would ever leave West Belfast. "Oh, no. Even if I hit the lotto, I would buy the biggest house in West Belfast." I left Conway Mill and made my way onto the Falls Road, walking past a mural that Danny and Martin had recently painted. One thought flooded my mind -- beauty emerging from the void of violence and bigotry.

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