My Grandfather, Bogside Artist


Words || Aoife Wilkinson

Bullet shells littering the streets as residue from riots the night before was a common sight in the Irish city of Derry during the 1960’s. The tension between Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland peaked in 1969 and erupted into a communal riot now remembered as the Battle of the Bogside. Young people scrambled to the tops of buildings and hurled rocks and homemade petrol-bombs down on police, and in retaliation the police flooded the streets with CS gas, a respiratory irritant that sucked the air from rioter’s lungs. What had been a Catholic civil rights protest developed into a days-long battle, and became one of the first clashes of a 30-year period of guerrilla warfare between British and Irish armies, known as The Troubles.

Gas attacks, tanks and soldiers patrolling the streets became routine for those living in the Bogside neighbourhood, which lies just outside Derry’s city walls. My mother and her friends were no exception. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) had set a checkpoint down the road from their houses to hijack cars from Protestants. My mother’s group was curious, yet unlucky enough to arrive at the same time as the British Army. They were yelled at to stand up against a wall. With guns to their backs and their hands against the brick wall, they were frisked. The contraband they found on my mother? Pink lipstick and a cassette tape. She was just 13 years old.

Among those residents who grew up in the troubled Bogside were my late grandfather William Kelly, his brother Tom Kelly and their good friend Kevin Hasson.  The events of the Battle of the Bogside left a lasting impact on the community and inspired the three men to band together in the 1990’s and paint a series of murals known as ‘The People’s Gallery’. They received no financial support for their work,gathering funds by doing door-to-door and collecting pennies in a tin can from residents. The resulting works of the Bogside Artists became known throughout the world.

The open-air gallery of twelve murals visualizes the reality of the Troubles and shows an unfolding narrative of peace. At first the monochrome images display an arresting and turbulent past. One of the most arresting pieces is of a boy in a gas mask holding a petrol bomb. It was based off a real image of my grandfather’s cousin.

As colour begins to drip in, the narrative moves into the present day as images of hope, activism and familiar faces come to the forefront. The gallery’s conclusion, the mural of a two storey-high dove, is a myriad of colour that aspires for a peaceful future.

The people depicted are prominent figures, fromMartin Luther King Jr. to the victims of the Troubles. Bogside Artists have also painted murals in the USA, in Shenzhen China and in Slovenia, where a mural was unveiled by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 2012. The Bogside Artists have also toured countries such as Australia and America, hosting exhibitions and giving talks at universities.

It is important to acknowledge the People’s Gallery as a universal one. The Bogside Artists are independent and do not advocate for certain political or ideological beliefs. The murals transcend ideological boundaries and connect with theindividual. Representations of loss and violence, intertwined with imagesof community, humanity, and peace stand as a testimony to the name.

As a kid it was easy to wash over the reality of the Troubles when it was merely reminiscences from my mother and grandfather. My eyes would glaze over as I heard for the 50th time about how my grandpa came across a book with a bomb in it in the library he worked at. When I visited Derry last July to see the murals, I could truly appreciate for the first time what they had been talking about all those years. It was painted in tall hues of blue, black, and grey.

The work of my grandfather and his philosophy has had a profound impact on my own understanding of the world. Of everything I’ve learned, it’s the Bogside Artist’s philosophy of art and healing that left the biggest impression. My favourite quote from their book ‘Art and Healing’ is, “the artist is not a special type of human being, but every human being is a special type of artist”. It goes without saying that the Bogside Artists practice what they preach. They have run a reputable number of art workshops for students and the community of Derry to show them that anyone can be an artist.

My grandfather’s history and his work with the Bogside Artists was a story that I learned about over time. The once in a blue moon when grandpa would visit our home and I would be handed the job of keeping him company, we would spend hours talking about everything philosophical and political. I can’t help revisiting those chance moments that we did get to spend together. Grandpa was a mentor to me. His words were like writing prompts to the pen. One line he would often say to me was “you are not your body”. As an angsty teen who didn’t know whether to pig out on a whole jar of peanut butter or starve myself of dinner, those words dig deep, and they still do. My grandpa may not be in his own body today but his words live on in my life and family, and I am grateful for that. Rest in Peace.