Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Belfast - a painting and the peace process by Bernard Conlon


Brendan Kennelly said in the introduction to his epic poem 'Judas', that the most difficult thing "to unlearn is learned hatred". That is certainly the case in Belfast and of Northern Ireland. That part of the world has seen over years many ugly clashes evoking different forms of violence. Children from the one community would experience on their way to school which leads them past the other community that there would gather people out in the streets to throw stones at them. Taxi drivers of Catholic confession would not drive into Protestant territory and vice versa. The peace fence - a wall plus fence much higher than the Berlin wall - is evidence of that dividing line between two communities difficult to be reconciled as both have distinct loyalties to a religious like fervour towards a positive definition of violence. That having been said, means after the poets like Brendan Kennelly, Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley have made efforts to question violence as legitimate means of defending whatever there is to defend, there is the dimension of Kids' Guernica as a need to start off with the children and youth in seeking peace in Northern Ireland.

Bernard Conlon had been working for some time in Brussels. He experienced how difficult it is to convey information as to what goes on at European level. For those who live not merely at local level, but in a twisted atmosphere of lies and accusations mistrust and suspect anyone above them, never mind a bureaucrat in Brussels. Consequently every information given about European affairs will not be trusted while the form of mistrust prevailing simply goes beyond any healthy scepticism. It makes building of bridges of understanding between various communities in relation to Europe as a whole and the rest of the world extremely difficult.

When Bernard Conlon heard about the Kids' Guernica project, he became most interested. At that same time in 2007 we wanted to take that up with a group of youth an appraisal of the wall murals in Belfast. They have been created over the years and give evidence to the kind of war being waged in Belfast. Since the youth was about to go on an exchange program to Canada, there was no time to start a Kids' Guernica peace mural. Instead Bernard Conlon came to Athens and showed slides of these wall murals.

Many of these wall murals are most impressive not only as documents of a certain period of time in that city, but truly outstanding political art works. After seeing the size of the Kids' Guernica peace murals all having the same size as Picasso's Guernica (7,8 x 3,5 m) he got the idea whether or not it would be possible to transpose some of these wall murals onto the canvas and therefore come closer to the idea Takuya Kaneda has been expressing, namely these peace murals are not walls that separate and bloc paths, but are movable.

It might become a fantastic method by which the political language of these murals in Belfast shall be preserved before changes in urban development and political mood leads to painting over these murals. This was the case in Berlin when some of the outstanding murals of the squatters were simply erased once the house owners took over. It reflects what public spaces mean even on walls when certain expressions vanish. Heinz J. Kuzdas preserved, for instance, with his camera the countless murals as they appeared and disappeared along the Berlin Wall while still standing.




Famine mural

There are many wall murals in Belfast – a city moving towards reconciliation


Bernard Conlon - Journalist, Northern Ireland

A Painting, Personal and Peace process

As someone who is into history and culture, I greatly welcomed an invitation to Athens in 2007.  A short time before, I had started to take more than a cursory glance at Northern Ireland’s infamous political art/wall murals.

Having studied history (and politics) and been a journalist, the notion of narrative is the supporting stone of my personal philosophy and perspective. My sense of narrative and an aesthetic attraction to a splash of colour in bleak urban environments, especially in a damp, grey climate, made me believe that the murals could have a life beyond conflict.

Firstly, I saw them as an interesting, if simple way of conveying and documenting history.   Every major milestone of Irish history is vividly depicted on Belfast’s walls.  This visual history display could, I felt, help people especially the young explore identity and help with education.

Identity is inherently unstable and can open up plenty of Pandora’s boxes. Culture is similar. When I went to mainland Europe in the mid 1980s I became deeply engrossed with both. Firstly, I did a Robert Schuman Scholarship at the European Parliament in Luxembourg.  After which I went to Brussels to work as a journalist on the expanding European Union (EU) project.

A liberating relationship with a native Irish (Gaelic) speaking woman from the West of Ireland completed an interesting circuit at that time. Having left Belfast at the height of the Troubles, I now finally had freedom, space and intellectual (and emotional) companionship. I could explore where I had come from and collectively where both parts of Ireland and Europe were going.

This led to a zealous crusade of cultural activism in the shape of a “culture and information forum” entitled Ex-Isle – Deoraiocht (in Gaelic). Exploration was through events: exhibitions, public debates, lectures and all manner of musical evenings: from classical recitals to raucous, pre-River-Dance Ceilis (folk dances).  This heady cocktail of culture and intense journalism lasted for several years until my neo-Bohemian existence inevitably started running out of steam.

A few years later I met Hatto Fischer in Brussels, who probably sensed my dented, but still intact idealism and curiosity. I had already started to drift back and forth to Belfast, courtesy of budget air travel.

I had come full circle: I went to Brussels to escape Belfast and ended up back in Belfast - escaping Brussels.  I was back in a society emerging from decades of conflict. It had an almost celebrity-like peace process and was awash with grants for everything. I was a strange, if not exotic fish out of water and the loop, but with a few good friends.

I started to hear again from Hatto Fischer around 2006. In late 2007 just before I had started a contract, ironically on an EU programme in inner city Belfast, Hatto invited me to Athens for a Kids’ Guernica exhibition. Kids Guernica, a worldwide children’s art movement for peace, were displaying their massive portable peace murals, the same size as Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, in conjunction with a conference of former European Cities of Culture.

So, on the last Aer Lingus summer season flight out of Dublin to Athens, in October 2007, I was heading for a feast of culture, art and networking, reminiscent of my Brussels heyday. During the journey I introduced myself to former Irish Minister of Culture, Michael D. Higgins, who was also attending the joint event, and whose company I would share in the coming days. Hatto picked us both up at the airport and drove terrifyingly through Athens as good food, wine and convivial conversation awaited. It was quite literally like coming home.

Portable peace murals - suddenly my fascination with wall murals made sense. There was, I was now convinced, a greater purpose in this omnipresent Belfast art form.

Bernard Conlon with art teacher*

* he undertook the painting of the Belfast mural

Shortly before my Athens trip, I had scoured Belfast with press photographer friend Kevin Cooper collating images of both republican and loyalist murals. A youth training organisation commissioned me to work with a group of trainees. This included a mural tour and explaining 800-years of Anglo-Irish history.  The murals provided an animated teaching aid. In the debriefing afterwards dormant passions induced by the images surfaced. Nonetheless, I was convinced of the value of interpreting this visual legacy of the Troubles.

The 2007 Athens visit was catalytic and cathartic.  Finding my-self back in an international setting with like-minded people had an inspiring impact. While in Athens I was subtly coaxed to get a Belfast Kids’ Guernica painting done. The decisive and defining moment for me was seeing a small, improvised Palestinian painting. The deeply disturbing images by children it portrayed and hearing how the original painting had been blockaded from travelling touched me deeply.

I returned to Belfast not realising how challenging getting a painting done would be. I had no practical art skills, nor a ready catchment of young people to draw on. Exhibiting in Belfast was yet another challenge. The Belfast Children’s Festival, for example, inexplicably turned down the Belfast Kids’ Guernica painting that I had striven months to get done. Finding Cathal Cauldwell, an art teacher in the Little Flower Girls School in Belfast, who got a group of his pupils to produce the painting, was a fortunate breakthrough indeed.

It was yet another Kids’ Guernica exhibition in Florida State University (FSU), Tallahassee, in January this year that provided the opportunity to document this challenge. A specially produced publication for the exhibition by FSU’s Tom Anderson published a full account of the first Belfast Kids’ Guernica painting.

Moreover, it was an academic event on Art and Design and Social Justice, run annually by the university and this year, concurrent with the Kids’ Guernica event that also afforded the opportunity for me to reflect more formally. I commented on the Belfast painting and how the wall mural tradition could be mobilised for building peace. Ensuring preservation, while gradually removing the majority of the murals from residential areas was just one aspect of what I considered.

All this was done by the authorship of a short paper and its presentation for the FSU conference. The paper finally came to be entitled: The Art of Conflict and Peace in Northern Ireland.

This paper has allowed me to objectify my engagement with a worldwide Portable Peace Mural project, inspired by Picasso’s Guernica and clarify my thinking on Irish history and politics.  The paper and the interaction in Talahassee, has also helped me to identify a practical approach to peace-building using art. The Belfast Kids’ Guernica painting provides a template and an excellent educational tool.

I have also been prompted to tentatively contribute to Kids’ Guernica’s evolution and its global role of giving a voice to voiceless children. It provides them with a platform, tainted as it unavoidably is with the complex antics of adulthood, but a very valuable and virtually unique platform nonetheless.

On a more personal level, the journey alluded to here, has allowed me to get more in touch with my own narrative.  I am elucidating my own history: my youth in Belfast, my rather genteel exile from Belfast, relationships and my time in a city which, as I used to say when on my crusade: was the crossroads of contemporary Europe.

The impact of plenty of positive people as an antidote to the less benign and engagement with, rather than just facile consumption of culture, is even a temptation to personal, albeit, tentative artistic output.  This all makes me hopeful that the decade that I have recently begun will continue to let me capture narrative and express experience, including the Kids’ Guernica experience – and hopefully help to preserve and promote peace in the process.


Bernard (L.) Conlon

For full documentation of the consequences of Bernard Conlon's link with Kids' Guernica leading to the creation of a peace mural in 2008, see


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