Hands Deep in The "Hoor's Purse"

John McDonagh (JM) interviews via telephone from Doire Tom Kelly (TK), one of the Bogside Artists, about the controversy surrounding the proposed museum in Doire.

Radio Free Éireann
WBAI 99.5FM Pacifica Radio
New York City
2 August 2014

JM: Oh yes, Irish Ways and Irish Laws ... The Irish ways now in Derrylin in Co. Fermanagh tomorrow. Republicans will be marching naked through it after a parade committee announced that they're not allowed to have any flags, any uniforms, any emblems or any regalia. So that's all they're left to. We just got off the phone with Kate Nash explaining about the meeting that happened in Doire and some of the new plans that Arlene Foster with strings attached on the two million pounds that'll be going in. And if you can look it up on the internet you can see how the extension completely blocks one of the wall murals in the Bogside in Doire.

And as I said a couple of weeks when we had Tom Kelly on of the Bogside Artists, Chuck D has the famous saying that he will be forever known for that: Rap is the CNN for black people. Well the Bogside Artists' wall mural would be the news for the Doire people. That's how they got out the information. They were banned from television. Banned by RTÉ Section 31. 

And we had on Tom Kelly a couple of weeks ago but we didn't get into two other topics. And to follow-up on the discussion we had with Vincent Coyle and Kate Nash:
Tom, what do you know about the blocking of this wall mural and has anybody given you any explanation of: Is there that limited space in the Bogside that they have to build right up on top of that wall mural?

TK: From our point of view the whole thing is quite insidious. Simply put is that there's actually no real necessity. Nobody can actually justify or give us any reason why they need a ramp when there's one already there - an existing ramp. So the only conclusion we can come to is that basically they just want to block the wall mural out because it shows the civil rights era and the museum obviously used to be calledthe Bloody Sunday Museum now it's called Free Doire Museum which takes in the whole beginnings of the civil rights era.

And maybe they want to be the sole voice or maybe it's Sinn Féin in the background who want to interpret the history, and the revisionists move in and they get to tell the story. You know, as the old staying goes: The victors get to tell the history - get to tell the story. But this is very important to the people of the Bogside and that's why nearly eighty people showed up to actually contest this whole idea of building a wall and a ramp that cuts right across one of our murals.

And you have to understand that there's lots of murals in The North, in The Six Counties, and they're Loyalist and Republican etc etc. But the murals in the Bogside, of which there's twelve are known internationally as the People's Gallery, and they are a human document. They are a narrative. And therefore to take one of the murals out or to obscure one of the murals is almost like taking a major chapter out of the story – out of the history.

So I mean we're baffled as to why they want to do this because there really is as I said no real necessity – no need for it whatsoever. So I mean other things have come to light that really, you know, we didn't know about. I mean, this idea of building a memorial garden on the top of the museum for victims of the conflict in and around Free Doire which would include British soldiers and RUC and UDR.

And when that came out in the meeting we were told that: Well, really that's just an aspiration. But either it's in the plans or it's not. Either they were funded for this or they weren't. I just wish people would stand up and tell the truth, you know? So that's our take on it.

But as far as the Bogside Artists are concerned you have to understand that: 1) we're not politicians and 2) we're not anything other than three artists who just happened to be born in the Bogside and wanted to express and paint what we were seeing on a day-to-day basis outside our front windows. And if we were poets we'd have probably written and if we were song writers we'd probably sing about it.

But we just happened to be artists and we painted what is now, everyone knows, is the biggest attraction in the city for both locals and visitors alike – although you'll never get the government, the Arts Council or the Tourist Board, to acknowledge that. Or indeed Sinn Féin to acknowledge that for that matter because it's all about control at the end of the day-to-day and that seems to be a big problem for political parties, and one in particular, that we are independent. 

We are not propagandists. And we will not come under anyone's wings. And we happen to believe and still believe in freedom of expression and freedom of speech and that's where we stand.

JM: Tom, even though you say you're not a politician - but you are political. Maybe you could tell us the decision that you hope to do is to put up a wall mural for one of the men from Doire who died on hunger strike in 1981, Patsy O'Hara. We have a lot of his family members that live throughout New Jersey and the New York area who are listening today - how is that coming about and do you know when that might be going up?

TK: Well, let me just run this by you: This idea of blocking out the Civil Rights mural maybe, just maybe – and I'm not saying this is the way it is but - over a year and a half ago at the anniversary of the hunger strike the mural that exists there, which was always the hunger strike mural, is a depiction of Raymond McCartney who was on the first hunger strike and who didn't die.

But he was at the time when we painted a way back then in the day was just an ordinary figure, a Republican and well-respected at that. But today Raymond McCartney I think is like a big-time politician, “big medicine” as they would say in Doire, very much at the forefront of Sinn Féin in the Doire area. 

And that mural has been defaced about four or five times. Now the simple fact is each time – on our own bat and for whatever reason people think we should just drop everything and run down the street - get the ladders out whether it's the winter or the summer or the autumn and fix up the mural. But each time that it was defaced we did that. And nobody said: Can we support you? Can we help you? Or whatever.

Now this time around, at the anniversary of the hunger strike just two years ago, that mural was completely obliterated with paint bombs. Some people say it was young Loyalists thugs who'd came down into the Bogside who would do that periodically. Some other people say: No, it was dissidents who did it because of their opposition to Sinn Féin being on the policing board and other things.

Irrespective of who did it - just prior to that we had actually put in, probably against our better judgment, for grant aid to Doire City Council. And would you believe they actually decided that they would give us twenty-five thousands pounds to fix up and restore the People's Gallery – that's twelve murals - and it sounds like a lot of money and it is at that time of austerity - but you have to understand like they just spent eight hundred thousand pounds on an iconic so-called sculpture at the end of the Peace Bridge which nobody knows it's even there and even less understand what it is.

But nonetheless, they gave us twenty-five thousand pounds. When we went to Doire City Council – it only had to be signed-off with a vote. That meant that they had to put their hands up and say: Yes – this is an important feature of the city – it brings such economic benefit to the city - give this to the artists - let them restore the twelve murals and this would go a bit of the way towards covering the costs of scaffolding and cherry-pickers and paint and varnish and all the rest of it.

The sad fact is that when it went to council - the SDLP at the time in Doire had I believe twelve councillors, Sinn Féin had ten and the Ulster Unionists had five. Now the SDLP were saying: Don't worry about it – it'll go through Council - we have the majority.

But unprecedentedly, Sinn Féin went round the back door, recruited the five Ulster Unionists - when it went to council just to be signed-off there was a vote. And Sinn Féin and the DUP joined sides and voted that our grant should end basically or withheld or at least they would take control of it. In which case the Bogside Artists left the building.

So now at that same time as the hunger strike mural was banged up with graffiti, and Sinn Féin had the audacity to think – after dogging us - blatantly joining sides with the Unionists to dog our grant – that we would run down the street because now their champion Raymond McCartney's face was all obliterated with paint that we would run down and fix it up. But we didn't.

And the thing, it was the year of the UK City of Culture and we were probably one of the only groups who refused to participate in the UK City of Culture – and believe it from me one of the few groups – some of the so-called associated Republican groups in the past - their hands were well and truly dug into what we would term the “hoor's purse”.

Now our hands were not in it and we refused to be participants in any of it! Well, the simple fact is that with murals like that defaced during the UK City of Culture -
Sinn Féin obviously never forgave us for that and have a problem with us, the Bogside Artists.

Not only that but when the Irish Fleadh came to Doire it was made sure that the bulk of the people were kept in the city centre and well away from the Bogside – again so that they wouldn't see either the murals or especially the hunger strike mural.

Now this time around we're not going down there again to paint a mural that's going to be defaced and banged up with paint bombs and all the rest of it. We're going to re-do the mural under the theme of the hunger strike and of course Patsy O'Hara and Mickey Devine are two local hunger strikers from Doire and therefore the reference to them will be made in the mural.

But what we've always try to do is, with the support of the community and the people, we are usually left alone with the mandate to be creative and to come up with something that captures the moment and the time and what was going on, not just in the prison, but what was going on outside and how this was affecting the people outside as well.

So we haven't finalised the design but we'll be starting that actually very soon – we'll be starting that probably next week and that mural will be restored to a place of standing within the People's Gallery and to most peoples' liking I would think.

JM: You're listening to Radio Free Éireann and we're speaking with Tom Kelly of the Bogside Artists telling us a little bit of the history of how these wall murals come up and some of the thinking that's going into the next mural that'll be going up for Mickey Devine and Patsy O'Hara who both died in 1981 from Doire and they will be going up.

Tom, thanks for coming on. We will be staying on top of this – especially this garden of remembrance that's allegedly is going to be going in to the Free Doire Museum and the ramp that they want to take down and the blocking of one of the iconic wall murals in Doire and we know we'll be able to call on you to give us an update.

TK: Absolutely. Thank you very much for taking an interest in our work.

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