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‘I was buzzing. It’s the mecca of progressive politics in Ireland’: Spicebag on repainting Free Derry Corner

Adam Doyle likes to play with Irish imagery and iconography. His new Bogside design will be unveiled next weekend

On a chilly morning in Dublin, the artist Adam Doyle, aka Spicebag, is recalling his first visit to Trinity College. It was last year, and he had been invited to give a talk about his work. It was a big year for Doyle. He became embroiled in a strange national controversy about a relatively benign artwork that some took to be potently offensive, a depiction of an eviction that pulled the past into a contemporary context and vice-versa, catapulting him to notoriety. Doyle sees his work as part of “a movement of other creative people who are taking heritage and subverting it, or critiquing it, or having fun with it, repurposing it”.

So what better place to take someone who plays with Irish imagery and iconography than Trinity’s new Book of Kells Experience?

The Book of Kells is one of Ireland’s foundational artworks. Twelve centuries after its creation, its influence can still be seen in everything from contemporary graphic design to tattoo art. Now a new wave of young Irish artists are leaning heavily into old Irish iconography, from Celtic design flourishes to neolithic symbolism, Catholic iconography to 20th-century pop culture. These touchstones and remixes are cropping up everywhere: on album artwork and band merchandise, in apparel and textile design, in illustration and printmaking.

“This is f***ing sick. So cool,” says Doyle as we watch an impressive short animated film of the Book of Kells journeying to Ireland from the Scottish island of Iona unfold on a wraparound screen. This new attraction sees the university’s collection of books and instruments brought to life through a dizzying array of projection mapping, animations and immersive visuals.


Doyle’s eviction artwork added images of gardaí from an eviction on North Frederick Street in Dublin to the Famine-era eviction scene painted by Daniel Macdonald (or perhaps, it now seems, by his fellow artist John Joseph Tracey). He made the print in 2021, then reissued it when the Government decided not to extend the eviction ban that it had imposed during the pandemic. When Sinn Féin’s housing spokesperson, Eoin Ó Broin, posted the image on social media, a strange hysteria took hold among politicians and commentators.

The episode culminated in Doyle appearing on The Tonight Show on Virgin Media One, where he was harangued by the Irish Independent journalist Fionnán Sheahan. In the television studio, Doyle appeared perplexed by the performative outrage of current-affairs panel shows. “My art is political satire,” he said, swivelling in the studio chair. “I’m entitled to my own opinions. It’s my own art.”

Watching the programme, it felt as though Spicebag, much as he had dropped contemporary gardaí into an old scene, had himself been inserted into a media collage, the theatre of soundbites and bunfight debates collapsing around his refusal to engage with its tropes.

“I didn’t really clock it fully at the time, how much of a splash that made,” Doyle says of the controversy as we sit outside a cafe near Trinity after our tour. “People are still approaching me for college stuff or [say] their lecturer is teaching them about it in art college ... I guess it was interesting in that sense, to see how much it actually bothered people. It did lay bare the sort of bipolar [aspect of] Irish society: the haves and have-nots. They’re really not integrated with each other at all.”

Since the eviction artwork brought him to public attention, Doyle, who is from Bray, in Co Wicklow, has been working away on various projects. One was a series of fake Dublin City Council posters declaring, “Crack and heroin use permitted in this area”. “We made it look pretty legitimate and walked down to Donnybrook and stuck them up everywhere,” says Doyle of the collaboration with the Patternup collective. “People were getting annoyed about it,” he adds, laughing.

The artwork was a reaction to the dawdling of the Government and Dublin City Council on the provision of safe injection centres. “There’s an increasing crack-cocaine problem in Dublin,” he says. “Other countries around the world [are] learning to look at this more holistically, because it’s an addiction and crime issue, but it’s also a mental-health and healthcare issue.”

Now he is preparing to paint the iconic Free Derry Corner in the Bogside. “I was buzzing,” he says of the invitation. “I would be a republican, and I’m extremely into the history around civil rights. When they asked me I was, like, ‘No f***ing way! That’s so sick!’ In my opinion, it’s the mecca of civil rights and progressive politics in Ireland. That’s where it was born in a huge way. I was honoured when I was asked.” His work on the wall will be revealed next weekend.

Doyle is also finishing a final cut of his documentary on the death of Terence Wheelock at Store Street Garda station in 2005. When Doyle was in secondary school he learned about Wheelock’s death through Wikipedia. “I had kind of forgotten about it until I saw Gemma Dunleavy at one of her shows had the [visuals of Wheelock] up. I was looking around for anything about it. It’s pretty obvious something really bad happened there.”

He cites the countercultural documentaries of Vice and the work of Jake Hanrahan, of the conflict-journalism outlet Popular Front, as inspirations. Doyle began contributing to Popular Front when he sent Hanrahan a showreel, edited in Hanrahan’s style, with the message “Can I have a job?” at the end of the video.

“It’s been a bit of a shock, the whole thing,” says Doyle of the attention he has garnered. “I guess I haven’t really thought about the trajectory of my work. I have an idea and I try to do it. I’ve been sustaining myself entirely off my art now, which is new ... I feel like there’s a space for just pushing against the conservatism and pearl-clutching.”

As we walked through the Book of Kells exhibition, his phone was constantly out, taking photos and video clips. “There’s an element of reclaiming a sort of dusty or academic view of Irish culture and bringing it along,” says Doyle. “I think, generationally, Irish people do that.”