The two minutes silence were finished; the trumpet had blown The Last Post; and we had all sung the hymn ‘Abide with Me,’ as we had faithfully done every year in our local Anglican church in Cambridge in the U.K. Many people in the congregation wore poppies. And then it was time for me to introduce the two ‘special guests’ I had taken along to church. At that point only I knew how difficult this was going to be for them.
My guests, Tom Kelly and Kevin Hasson, are two muralists from the Bogside area of Derry/Londonderry, a working-class Catholic neighbourhood that had earlier suffered severe discrimination by Protestant Unionists and become the epicentre of the violent, 30-year conflict known as ‘The Troubles’ that officially began on October 5 1968 with a non-sectarian civil rights march in Derry, and concluded with the Good Friday Agreement on April 10 1998 in Belfast.
The Bogside was the location of ‘Bloody Sunday’, where 13 unarmed civil rights protestors had been fatally shot by British troops - the elite 1st Parachute Regiment no less, specifically flown in to teach the local ‘Young Derry Hooligans’ a lesson. Initially, in a hastily put together inquiry, the Government had defended the army’s actions. It was not until the publication of the Saville Report in 2010 that it was admitted that ‘there had been a serious and widespread loss of fire discipline among the soldiers.’
As Lord Saville put it in his conclusions:
What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased nationalist resentment and hostility towards the Army and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed. Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland.
The event itself, and the injustice of the initial inquiry, had left the Bogside community in shock, despair and anger. It marked the end of the Civil Rights movement in Derry. As Tom’s late brother William once described that time: “Paramilitaries, on both sides, took up their positions and the general population, having lost all faith in the forces of law and order, turned to them for protection. They took the role of policing of towns and cities and were called upon regularly by the population to resolve private and even domestic disputes. Things would never be the same from that day forward.”
During the conflict, both artists lost family and friends, some of them only in their early teens, at the hands of British soldiers. One of them, 14-year old Annette, features in one of their murals. Her family is still calling for an inquiry. Despite all this, the artists always rejected violence, and resisted any recruitment efforts by the IRA. Instead, they organised cross-community art projects with local youth.
In 1994, i.e. four years before the Peace Agreement, they embarked on what was to become The People’s Gallery, a series of twelve large murals depicting seminal events of the Troubles. The murals are located on the very street where many of the riots took place, some of the walls still pock-marked with bullet holes. Unlike most murals in Northern Ireland, the murals are resolutely non-sectarian. They do not contain hooded paramilitaries, brandished rifles or threatening slogans. They don’t show shamrocks, harps or Irish dancing girls. The murals do not glorify sectarian nationalism or violence. They are laments. They serve as local talking points to process painful memories.
The artists had been staying with us for the weekend to attend the travelling exhibition Art, Conflict and Remembering: the murals of the Bogside Artists that I have been curating with them over the last few years. The exhibition tells the story of the Troubles as experienced first-hand by the artists, through large photographic reproductions of their murals juxtaposed with black and white historical photographs.
It was first shown in Coventry Cathedral, known for its worldwide ministry of reconciliation, and was now on display in Norwich Cathedral. On Saturday, the artists gave talks about the murals and what it meant to grow up in a climate of conflict for most of their lives. An afternoon panel included representatives from the Church, the academy, the world of art and even the armed forces: a war artist and ex-soldier with eight tours of duty in Northern Ireland in the early ’70’s.
The exhibition is both topical and timely in the U.K. as it faces an exit from the European Union and the resulting uncertainty about the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Added to that are growing internal tensions with the possibility of a return to direct rule from Westminster as the ‘power-sharing’ executive has collapsed. The exhibition aims to increase awareness of the history of the Troubles and the ongoing pain and struggles of ordinary citizens on both sides. But it also goes beyond that. The images depicted capture universal human experiences that resonate with people from other regions of conflict or post-conflict. As a story of the violation of civil rights, radicalisation, violence and suffering, the murals’ story is a universal one that transcends its site-specific origins.
Although we had prepared some general comments before going to church, I was not entirely sure what the artists were going to say. While Tom had become a committed Christian in his youth - or ‘follower of Christ’ as he prefers to call it, in a country torn apart by conflict between ‘Christian’ traditions Kevin, like most of his generation, had left the Catholic Church disillusioned as a young man. Indeed, he had not set foot in any church for decades. And here he was, not only in a church, but a Protestant church, and that on Remembrance Sunday.
When he eventually spoke and said that, not in his wildest dreams would he have thought to find himself in this position, there was a spontaneous outburst of applause from the congregation. But the anecdote that followed was even more unforgettable. Remembering his beloved mother who had passed away only a few weeks earlier, he recalled an incident that captures the extra-ordinary life of ordinary citizens in conflict situations. His mother had been washing the windows from the inside and, while wiping away the dirt, had witnessed a British soldier shot in front of her window by an IRA sniper.
Instantly, she ran out onto the street taking along her rosary and, while praying frantically, had tried to staunch the blood of the bullet wound that had felled the soldier. Assisted by other women in the street, she had been able to call for an ambulance which, as it later emerged, had been there just in time to save the soldier’s life. This story, Kevin concluded, showed that not everyone in the Bogside - often referred to as ‘the backyard of the IRA’ - was a villain and that, on many occasions, the impulse of a shared humanity transcended political divisions.
The exhibition is meant to provide a safe space for open-ended cross-community conversations that can nurture empathy and mutual understanding. Art sometimes speaks more powerfully than words. The display opens with a quote from Desmond Tutu: “A conflict is like a wound that needs to be cleaned and examined before it can heal. It is the unexamined wound that festers and eventually poisons.” The murals, so the artists say, show the wounds. The exhibition closes with a quote from Stanley Hauerwas who once said: “Reconciliation happens when my enemy tells me my story and I am able to say: 'Yes, that is my story'." To which the artists say: “This is our story: what is yours?"
In the end only one person walked out during our presentation, noisily and ostentatiously so, while I was still in my introductions. He clearly was not ready to listen to a story from ‘the enemy.’ In the event, he missed out on a powerful and moving testimony of reconciliation, truth and healing.
For more information about the exhibition visit www.bogsideartistsexhibition.org
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