From murals to portraits: ex-prisoner's piece to be displayed in Belfast City Hall

Mon, Oct 22, 2012, 01:00

THE LAST thing Danny Devenny ever thought he would paint was an official portrait of a lord mayor to hang in state at Belfast City Hall. The former IRA prisoner has painted the city’s most notable republican murals, including an iconic image of hunger striker Bobby Sands.

It’s a sign of how far things have come that a portrait of Niall Ó Donnghaile – only the third Sinn Féin mayor of Belfast City Council – painted by an ex-prisoner could take its place at city hall which, for so many decades, was a bastion of unionism.

The portrait marks a sea-change in style, too. Painted on a grid of tiny rectangles, to represent bricks, it is shaped like the gable end of a house as if it is a mini-mural. It is a far cry from some of the more sombre studies – the school of poker faces, you might say – with which it shares wall space.

While the portrait will no doubt bring Devenny a wider audience, the truth is he was never merely a purveyor of agitprop. He has been commissioned to paint murals of the Beatles in Liverpool and anti-slavery hero Frederick Douglass in Massachusetts.

When Marie Jones’ hit plays A Night in November and Binlids were running off Broadway, Devenny was flown out by the New York city authorities to replicate his Belfast murals in the vicinity of the theatres.

Back in Belfast, he has livened up many a street corner with depictions of Van Morrison, Rory McIlroy and scenes from his favourite artist, Salvador Dali.

His take on Picasso’s Guernica, at the bottom of the Falls Road – co-painted with good friend and loyalist mural painter Mark Ervine, son of the late PUP leader David Ervine – is perhaps the clearest evidence of his move away from paramilitary imagery.

Devenny has also worked on set design for films such as Some Mother’s Son and The Devil’s Own – which has meant him socialising with the likes of Hollywood greats Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren and Brad Pitt. He was very impressed by Pitt. “He’s not just eye candy,” he says. “While he was in Belfast, he was down in the Linen Hall Library researching Irish history. He kept asking us to explain things to him. He was genuinely interested and a very intelligent guy.” Yet for all his worldliness, Devenny cuts an unusual figure in the city hall coffee shop.

Surrounded by savvy media types and American tourists, he looks stranded in time – the shoulder-length hair and droopy moustache, the PLO scarf, the National Health-type glasses – and we’re not talking trendy fashion statement. His talk is of Marxism and the Malvinas, revolution and resistance.

He is one of a family of 16 and still lives in the small nationalist enclave of Short Strand in east Belfast where he grew up.

Devenny is the son of two Donegal-born parents. He attended grammar school and “probably would’ve gone to art college” had the Troubles not broken out. He joined the IRA at about 16 years of age.

In 1973, along with Jim Ferris and Seanna Walsh, he was sentenced to three years in prison for robbing a bank. Fellow inmates at Long Kesh included Gerry Adams, Martin Meehan and Danny Morrison.

It was from his jail cell that Devenny embarked on his art career, illustrating a political column by Gerry Adams for the Republican News. He later got a job with the paper but in 1978 the whole editorial team – which included Danny Morrison, Tom Hartley and Gerry Adams – were arrested, effectively shutting down the Belfast operation.

Devenny was dispatched to Dublin, to the Parnell Square offices of An Phoblacht, to help orchestrate an all-Ireland printing operation – the beginnings of the Sinn Féin marketing machine.

It was while in Dublin that he was shot a second time (the first occasion being in Belfast, before his prison term). This time, he was accompanied by Brighton bomber Patrick Magee.

“We were just walking back from the chippy to the office when we heard a bang,” he remembers. “I think the guy, who was from the UFF, panicked. I reckon he had been sent to get Ruairí Ó Brádaigh or Joe Cahill, but he just panicked when he heard us coming and shot at our legs.”

Devenny explains his wounds to the younger of his nine grandchildren as being “where a tiger bit me”.

He is married to Deborah and has three children: Cara (34), Danielle (32) and Meabh (21). He talks a lot about family.

The commission to paint Ó Donnghaile was “one of the most stressful things” – not because of its historic symbolism, but because the Ó Donnghailes are lifelong family friends.

“I really didn’t want to mess up,” he says. “I wanted to do something Niall would be proud of. I wanted to represent his youth, his energy – not make him look staid and pompous.”

Did he enjoy the commission?

“It was a complete bore,” he laughs. “It was so intricate. I had to spend ages doing the links of the chain. With murals, you have so much freedom. It’s big, broad strokes, plus you get to chat to everyone as they drop by. I won’t be giving up the day job anytime soon.”