This afternoon I went to the Ulster Museum to see the exhibition ‘Art of the Troubles’ which brings together the work of 50 artists and their responses to the Troubles. My favourite piece was ‘Year in Black Taxis: January-December, 1989’ by Belfast-born Brendan Ellis. It runs until September 7th. But it brought to mind another exhibition, ‘Painting The Troubles’ I had seen in the National Army Museum in London back in 2006 and which I wrote about in a feature for Daily Ireland. As I prepared to write that piece I made some interesting discoveries about some of the paintings selected and used by Ralph Lillford. Anyway here is that feature – Just Another Brick in the Painted Wall:
Looking at the wall, I thought to myself, where are and what ever happened to Joseph McNally, Joseph McKenna from 1C, Kevin Fusco and Jim Donnelly both from 2B, who were pupils at St Gabriel’s School, Antrim Road, Belfast, in 1974?
The story begins last Friday afternoon in London when I went to an exhibition at the National Army Museum. Parked outside the museum is a large First World War cannon and a Humber Armoured Car, or ‘Pig’, which we used to mistakenly call a Saracen. The claustrophobic innards of this vehicle always smelt of gun oil, sour sweat and bad breath, sometimes of cordite, and always fear, usually one’s own.
I went into the foyer and up to the desk. The receptionist said, “Can I help you, man?” Then, realising he was at work, said, “I mean, sir,” and we both smiled. I was looking for the ‘Painting The Troubles’ exhibition, and he pointed to a ground-floor gallery, next to The Great Escape Café.
I had heard about the exhibition on Radio Ulster’s Arts Extra. Other permanent exhibitions range from ‘The Making of Britain 1066 – 1783’ to ‘Fighting for Peace 1946 – 2006’, which I thought was an interesting euphemism for most of those brutal counter-insurgency operations Britain fought and lost before eventually relinquishing the majority of its colonial possessions.
From the beginning of the First World War Britain has had ‘official war artists’ to cover battles and army life during conflict. Paintings, which in the early days had to go through the censor, were for propaganda purposes as well as part of the official record. The Imperial War Museum in London has dispatched artists to every major conflict involving British soldiers (including the Falklands/Malvinas, today’s Afghanistan and Iraq) but never to the North of Ireland because the British government refused to recognise it as a war.
This is the first time that the National Army Museum has displayed an exhibition relating exclusively to the conflict here, so this represents some progress.
Ralph Lillford, who now lives in Australia, did his national service from 1952 to 1954, before becoming a professional artist. His visits to the North between 1971 and 1976 when he had access to the British army make up the theme of his exhibition. Images of soldiers, and life through the eyes of soldiers, predominate. Life in the barracks is depicted as extremely tedious. In a church, which has been taken over as a billet, the walls are covered in pornographic pictures.
A painting titled, ‘68-76’, of Belfast’s Grand Central Hotel after the IRA blew it up in April 1974, is depicted by Death calling and carrying a photograph of Christ, which suggests, unfortunately, that Lillford didn’t travel too far in his journey through the stereotypes. Another, ‘Seamus Dealer’, which is set in 1975, has this explanation: “To signify urban life at this time, the artist deliberately introduced incongruous imagery to strike a discordant note. He also placed the soldier midway between the Protestant house and the Roman Catholic-owned shop, so that he is caught in the middle literally as well as metaphorically.”
The soldiers neither arrest nor shoot anyone. Only a car is searched, no homes.
On a large piece of clear Perspex, representing a gable wall, visitors are invited to write their names, or whatever. I wrote ‘UP THE IRA’ – in the interests of balance – before noticing the CCTV frowning at me.
I don’t know enough about the art or philosophy of painting and what makes for greatness and can only articulate my own response. Lillford’s paintings are interesting – and do capture something of the atmosphere of the period. I suppose the one I liked most was that of the Grand Central Hotel (containing a sample of the original loud wallpaper), after the deathly Roman Catholic IRA came to redecorate.
Near the end of the exhibits I was surprised when I came across a series of adolescent drawings. They were street scenes, mostly of riots in nationalist areas, including The Bone in Belfast, and were signed by the young people I mentioned at the outset.
According to Lillford he was in a café in Belfast’s York Street late one wet and miserable Belfast night in 1974 with nowhere to stay. He got to speaking to a man who said he could stay in his house on the outskirts of the city. He was apprehensive but took up the offer. The next day the man took him to “some IRA headquarters” and introduced him to “some IRA staff” who gave him posters. The man said that his son was an arts teacher and later he sent Lillford these drawings by his son’s pupils.
I tried to locate the former pupils of St Gabriel’s but had no luck with Joseph McNally or Joseph McKenna. But I did get speaking to Kevin Fusco. He is now a furniture maker.
“I’m a bit shocked. I never thought I was that good,” joked the 44-year-old. “But my daughter is big into art.” He recalls his art teacher asking them to take part in a project, titled, ‘What do you think about the Troubles’, and it was supposed to appear in a book but he never heard anymore about it.
And what happened to Jim Donnelly whose painting hangs on a wall of the National Army Museum in London? Shortly after the 1981 hunger strike he was charged with dozens of other republicans, twenty-two of whom were sentenced to a total of 4,000 years in prison based on the word of supergrass Christopher Black.
From H-Block 7 in September 1983 Donnelly took part in the IRA takeover of the jail for the biggest IRA escape in republican history. However, he was quickly rearrested. Ironically, part of his Black conviction was overturned on appeal in 1986 but he was later sentenced for escaping and in total served seven years in jail.
He remembers a student arts teacher called Marcella inviting him and Kevin Fusco to take part in the project. They got off normal classes for a few days but he thought no more about it.
“It’s funny my painting ending up on the wall of a British army museum,” he joked. “Especially when you think of the wall I ended up behind!”