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