Battle of the Bogside: Artists Against Censors in Derry

John McDonagh (JM) interviews Tom Kelly (TK) of The Bogside Artists via telephone from Doire about the artists' history, their current difficulties and the plans to revamp the area where The People's Gallery stands. Thanks as ever to TPQ's transcriber.

Radio Free Éireann
WBAI 99.5FM Pacifica Radio
19 July 2014
(begins 17:42)

JM: Well, Chuck D from Public Enemy, who has a show here on WBAI, and probably one of his most famous quotes - which will go with him the rest of his life – he was talking about rap music and he said: Rap is CNN for black people. Well, we're going to speak about the CNN or the BBC and I would term this: that The Bogside Artists are the BBC for the Irish people in The Six Counties. Because during the height of The Troubles in the 70's and the 80's the censorship was unbelievable! BBC? You would have to have, if you had a Republican on TV, somebody would have to mouth his words. And it was worse in The Twenty-Six Counties where they were not allowed on at all on RTÉ!

So one way of getting the messages out in The Six Counties about how the people felt there and what they politically were thinking was The Bogside Artists - using the gable walls to put up political slogans and political murals.

With us on the line is Tom Kelly. Tom, before we get into what's going on right now in Doire, can you give us a little history of The Bogside Artists?

TK: Yeah. Basically, we're three guys that were born and lived all of our lives in the Bogside. So even before the modern conflict began we were already, as children, very experienced in what was discrimination and oppression and all of that. So by the time The Troubles started we were up to speed in that vein, knowing exactly what was going on and what it was about. We were acutely aware, too, of the big propaganda machine - you know, a lot of people outside of Ireland always said: What is that all about? Protestants and Catholics fighting each other in the twentieth century or the twenty-first century?

Obviously, eight hundred years of British involvement on our island sort of just crept back into the shadows where they wanted it to stay. So as three artists we decided that we wanted to express and to paint exactly what was going on outside our door. I mean really, it's not so much about propaganda or sectarianism.

It's as simply as three artists, genuine artists, we wanted to say: Right, this is what's happening. This is what we experienced. This is what we grew up with. This is what we were seeing as children - things that children should never see. And also the fact that we all, the three artists, have lost family members in this conflict. We wanted to also express and tell our story.

So the twelve murals that have become universally known as The People's Gallery is basically a human document. It's a narrative that tells the story about the conflict; and that's basically what it is. 

So we three artists have dedicated most of our lives to using art by way of communicating our message and letting the world know exactly what the people of Free Doire and The Six Counties in general have come through and experienced.

Our work has taken all over the place in recent years. We're not long back from China there - where I don't think we'll be invited back because we painted a mural over there about freedom of expression. And we actually were one of the highlights of the European City of Culture in Maribor in Slovenia. And this is not hype. This is not conceit. This is just the facts.

And the reason why I'm telling you about that is simply because very recently we had the UK City of Culture and I think we're probably the only group that I can think of in and around Free Doire and Doire as a whole that was really opposed to this because it was a complete nonsense as far as we were concerned.

And I say that not because of sectarianism or anything else simply because this is in keeping with the sort of appeasement, economically and culturally and every facet of our society that's actually engaged in it at the minute. And we're saying: Hi! Listen. This is our story. We painted it. It's not frightening. It's not scary. It's exactly what we went through. And many other people around the world can readily identify with it - people who've also experienced trauma and oppression. In fact, after 9/11 I think the American people can see the hurt and the pain and the loss that is involved in our work and they can also identify with that. So basically it's our story and...

JM: ... And Tom, maybe you can explain some of the murals that you're talking about that express that story. What are some of the murals that you'll see if you're walking around the Bogside?

TK: I think that probably the most famous one would be the young kid with the gas mask and the petrol bomb in his hand. And it's just sad when that very famous mural, probably one of the most photographed in the world, is actually misunderstood or misinterpreted. I mean, The London Times called it “violent”. The Irish Times, which is not much different in my opinion, called it “sinister”. But it's anything but!

It's a twelve year old child with a gas mask from the second world war that didn't work and he's got a petrol bomb in his hand, fair enough, but the bottom line is the police force at that particular time, the B-Specials, was ninety-nine percent Protestant - forty percent of its members were in the Orange Order - and basically they were trained and had all the apparatus supplied by the British. And they had also beaten to death Samuel Devenny in front of his wife and kids in the Bogside. So that was the beginnings of the Battle of the Bogside. So the mural that we painted, because we've been engaged for over thirty years now working - using art as a form of reconciliation between young Protestant and Catholic kids, the work is basically about a child and that particular mural, which is probably the most famous, is actually asking a question. It's asking the question: What is a twelve year old child doing in this position to begin with? So it's neither violent nor propagandist nor sinister it's actually ... the local people understand it very well.

JM: And Tom, last week we were covering the “glorious Twelfth” and speaking about that the night before there's these huge bonfires which is considered the Protestant culture of burning effigies of politicians, tricolour, Palestinian flags and it's actually funded by the local councils in a lot of areas. Where are you get your funding? Are you getting the same type of funding from the local council in Doire ...?

TK: ...(laughs out loud) Absolutely not.

JM: Huh?

TK: (still laughing) No. I pause to laugh here because just as we speak we were actually banned from the council. I think we're the first group since 1967 or 1968 to actually to be banned from Doire City Council! So we've been barred from going into the building or asking any questions. And the reason for that is basically when the UK City of Culture was happening, and very much endorsed and supported by all the political parties, in particular Sinn Féin who had the most to gain from it, we actually opposed it.

And not only opposed it but we asked thirty-two questions concerning the City of Culture as to where the forty-five million pounds that was available - where it was gonna be spent? and who was benefiting? And what about the working class areas who've experienced the brunt of this conflict? - what benefit was it going to be to them?

And when we asked those thirty-two questions, a week later we were banned by the chairperson of the city council. So that's our current situation at the minute. As far as funding for the murals? I mean I started our conversation off here with basically saying about our childhood and experiencing discrimination. We're in our fifties now, you know? We're no longer children.

And to this day we know what discrimination is because it's been a lifetime of it. For example, the UK City of Culture completely omitted our work. The Art Council of Northern Ireland have never supported The Bogside Artists in any shape, form or fashion. The City of Culture made no approach to us whatsoever. And the Ulster Museum just very recently in Belfast had a massive exhibition called Art of the Conflict: Forty Years of Conflict and the Art That Came Out of It. And well, guess what? We didn't figure in any of that.

So the discrimination at that level - I mean the Northern Ireland Tourist Board at the minute back here in Doire in The North have an ad up on the TV, you know a television ad, basically: “come to Doire and see the wonderful sights”. And just about everybody and anybody that's playing the game is making an appearance here.

But everybody knows, even the dogs in the street know that The People's Gallery in the Bogside is the biggest and economically it's a boost for the city and has been for the last twenty years. It's the biggest attraction in the city. But, the bottom line is it doesn't feature in the Northern Ireland Tourists Board.

So when it comes to discrimination there's a Northern Ireland Tourist Board, there's a Northern Ireland Arts Council, there's a Doire City Council, there's the Ulster Museum and this has been going on for a long time. And it's basically part of the appeasing because of Westminster and the British don't want those murals there because they echo back to the past as to what the British were up to and the things that they did and the atrocities that they carried out in Doire in particular.  And also Sinn Féin want to distance themselves from the past so they don't want anybody coming up here.

That's why in the recent fleadh, which was part of the UK City of Culture - believe it or not - there were two hundred thousand people wandering about the city centre where they were all guided and where they were all centered. And in the Bogside there was a couple of stragglers and that was about the height of it. Again, making sure that the visitors to our city didn't get to see the murals or the story that it tells.

JM: You're listening to Radio Free Éireann and we're speaking with Tom Kelly, one of The Bogside Artists, and he's talking about how they used the gable walls in Doire to convey political messages. Tom, you're talking about now the re-writing of history, the white-washing of history, you also now have the selling of history. Probably the most famous part of the Bogside is “Now Entering Free Doire”, the gable wall that's there. Now you were explaining to me today how the back of that wall is now being rented out, and the signs had to be politically vetted and it's rented out by the day.
Explain how something that started off as a symbol and reflecting what's going on to the people in the Bogside - you're now up for sale!

TK: The Free Doire Corner, as we all know, is a symbol of civil rights and freedom and just standing up against injustice, British or otherwise. And basically it belongs to everyone. But, that's not the way it is in reality. The reality is that a little quango, who they've never told us who the committee is or who elected them. They're actually situated in a community centre just off to the fringe of the Bogside with very strong Sinn Féin connections. And if you want to put something up on the back of Free Doire Corner you have to go there. First of all to get their permission. Second of all you have to make sure that the quality of what you're going to do is in keeping with what they have in mind. And also it basically has to somehow be approved by them as well. For instance, you can have pro-life images ... depending on where you're coming from ... but this is just an example: If you're pro-life - and you want the rights of the women and the rights to have an abortion and all of that - if you want to put a board up you could rent it and you could get your board up there. But if you're actually anti-abortion I would be very surprised if you could get a board up there at all. But that's not the issue. The issue is this here: Who gave these people the right to take some sort of ownership of it?

It belongs to all the people and it shouldn't be turned into a little sort of, piecemeal sort of art projects for the wannabes and those who are playing the game and those who are part of “the family” as they call it.

The Bogside Artists are very much independent so we would never get to do something on Free Doire Corner. But there again, we don't need to we've twelve large gable murals that actually put Free Doire Corner in a sense in its context. And it's a story, it's a narrative and it's what we try to express on behalf of all the people, and for that reason it's called The People's Gallery and that means all the people, too. All people of theological and political persuasions. It's just a very human story. And unfortunately, the way it is in the city of Doire at the minute, you're either are for a particular political party or you're seen as not. In other words if you support the UK City of Culture – then you do. But if you don't support the UK City of Culture then it seems that you're “anti-peace process” and you'll be labelled “dissident”.

And we've had this sort of demonising. It's been going on for a long time about The Bogside Artists. But the reality is that we actually go back over thirty of using art to bring kids together so that they can build up as opposed to dragging down and that they can be creative as opposed to being destructive.

And we even, for heavens sakes, wrote a book about ten years ago that we can't afford to republish but the book was very popular and it was called Art and Healing and basically it was a book where we had written about all the things that we had learned from the kids as opposed to from our politicians.

But, I mean what's happening right now at the minute is for example: Five hundred thousand pounds has just been spent on the city walls of Doire, which is basically the jewel in the crown of Ulster Unionism.

Now five hundred thousand pounds that is to actually illuminate them – to bring high powered standard European lighting to bear on the city walls to show them off in all their glory.

But The People's Gallery? When we asked for lighting? Nah. That stays in the dark. And no political party has supported us actually getting the murals lit up even though they are one of the biggest attractions in the city of Doire. And that's the problem. The problem is that the art is so popular and that we have actually become quite well known in our own city as well and the fact that we're not playing the game.

We're not playing the British game. We're not playing the funding game. We're not gonna take the money and run. And nobody's hand's in our back pocket therefore we're probably seen as loose cannons but the bottom line is: We believe in freedom of speech. And freedom of expression. And The Bogside Artists will continue to say what we want, when we want, with whoever we want because that's what freedom of expression is. So ...

JM: ... Alright, yeah well, Tom – I have so many more questions to ask you but we're going to go onto the next topic because I wanted to talk to you about Patsy O'Hara, he's got lots of his family living here, he died on hunger strike and Peggy O'Hara's been on the show. And plus the controversy now with the Bloody Sunday Museum extending to block one of the murals. But you know what? We'll pick this up next week and we'll continue a little bit more about now the political policing and re-writing of history in Doire that is going on. But Tom, I thank you for coming on.

TK: Well, thank you for taking an interest in our work and for having me on your programme. Much appreciated.

(ends 1:33:47)


  1. John Mc Donut needs a smack in the mouth and I am surprised that Tom Kelly allowed himself to be described as "the BBC for the Irish people "one thing for certain John is that the BBC was NEVER for the Irish people ,the work that these men have produced is truthful, and as it really was/is, the BBC are just a propaganda mouthpiece for the British government and would have been fitting if you had finished this interview with a suggestion to Tom and the other artists to organise either a bronze statue or mural to that most undauntable lady Peggy O Hara.

  2. Marty,

    I think John was making a play on the term and was suggesting Bogside Broadcasting Corporation. It is an informative interview.

  3. I know Anthony but sometimes the need to kick out is overwhelming,like when people who know better keep referring to the genocide that took place here as famine fer fuck sake, its like calling that waster Adams a statesman or bangers Morrison an honest man or indeed gorbels Gibney a journalist in the immortal words of Sorrybroy Deccie Kearney " I apologise " but like all those mentioned I,m also a wee fibber.

  4. The more important thing is the great service that RFE does in providing a springboard for people like the Artists so that they can leap over the censor hurdle.

    If we imagine the world before the internet, we had to rely on some editor in a newspaper to allow us to say something. And no matter how liberal they were they simply didn't have the space to permit everybody to say what they wanted. The ATN, for example, could malign and smear people at its leisure and brazenly deny a right of reply. Then the net allowed the vilified to come back and set the record straight.