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Mural Magic

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

It emerges suddenly, and unexpectedly, just a few blocks from the Fort Hamilton Parkway subway exit, right next to the busy thoroughfare that runs through Brooklyn: a huge Celtic cross, painted in red, magenta, mauve, green and lilac blues, surrounding a smaller white cross on the gable wall of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Parochial School. Traditional Celtic representations of the Four Evangelists, as the bull, eagle, lion and mankind, surround the cross. On a bright sunny late fall morning, under a perfect blue sky, it stood out brilliantly, arresting the attention of any passer by.

And on a ladder, bespattered in bewildering variety of colors, was the man who painted it — 43-year-old Gerard Kelly, from Springhill, near Ballymurphy, in the heart of republican West Belfast.

For the last five weeks, Kelly, who is better known by his nickname, Mo Chara, has been working on the mural for the school. He has already completed two which adorn the school walls. One is a globe of the world against a black, white, red and yellow background, with the inscription “One Love, One Heart”; the other is inscribed “Share The Spirit,” depicting colored hands joining under a dove and includes an Irish touch — a view of New Grange, in County Meath, with a Celtic standing stone decorated with the triple spiral design so prevalent in that culture’s art.

“We have the oldest known building on the planet,” said Kelly, proudly surveying the representation of the neolithic structure, built with, he says, “250,000 tons of rock.” He uses this as a counter to anyone who tries to put down the Irish. Where he comes from, the Ballymurphy area, it is not surprising that Kelly is acutely aware of the issue of Irish identity. For almost 25 years, it was a stronghold of the Provisional IRA, an arena of guerrilla warfare, riots, army raids, and mayhem. As a result of that mayhem, Kelly learned his art behind the walls of the Maze Prison, where he served five years for possession of explosives. While in prison, he said he became inspired by the art of Jim Fitzpatrick, especially his “Book Of Conquests,” depicting Celtic legends.

“I was locked up 23 hours one day, 24 the next,” Kelly said. “I decided to do a bit of painting. I had nothing else to do.”

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When he was released, in October 1985, he kept painting. Within three years he had decorated the gable walls of the Falls area with a series of murals. Among the most striking was a portrait of Nelson Mandela, in black and white. It caught the attention, gazing unexpectedly over the Falls Road, as does the Celtic Cross overlooking Fort Hamilton Parkway, incongruous and surprising.

Among his other murals are the memorial to the Gibraltar Three, the Bobby Sands portrait which adorned the gable of the old Sinn Fein offices on the Falls Road, and the American Indian portrait on the Whiterock Road. Altogether, Kelly reckons he has painted about 50 murals in Ireland, France and the U.S.

He came to the U.S. to do murals thanks to an encounter with Chris Byrne, formerly of Black 47, during the West Belfast Arts and Music Festival. Byrne invited him to New York, where he met with Maureen O’Neill, a teacher at the Immaculate Heart of Mary School, who thought it would be an interesting experience for the children to work with Mo Chara on a school mural.

Ms. O’Neill was upstairs in what she calls the “decompression chamber,” the arts and crafts workshop. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and the room was bedecked with drawings by the second graders of Pilgrims, turkeys and Indians. Three drawings by Marcin, from Panama, and Charles and Mat, both Polish, were together. On one was the inscription: “If there were no Indians there wouldn’t be any Thanksgiving.”

“This is the most diverse school I’ve taught in, and I’ve been teaching in New York for 26 years,” O’Neill said, looking at the bustling children as they drew, painted, cut out, and pieced together their various celebrations of the holiday.

The school has 270 pupils, comprising Catholics, Moslems, Baptists and Hindi. But if O’Neill’s pupils were anything by which to judge, the children all share an easy going friendliness along with extremely good manners.

Esrat a second grader from Bangladesh, introduced herself, as did Kristie, from Haiti, who is also in the second grade.

According to Kristie, working with Mo Chara taught her “to be nice to everybody.” Then along came Nicole, Dana, Megan, Stacy, Adam and Aine, all of whom have worked with Mo Chara.

Said Aine: “He taught us how to hold the brush, and how to paint, and how to make our own murals.”

A group of seventh graders came in and introduced themselves as Daniel, Thomas, Natalie, Michelle, Jennifer, Jacqueline, Francisca, Christy, Josephine, Ashling and Britanny. They said that Mo Chara had taught them about Belfast and its problems, and how art can “express how you feel,” which they thought was a good thing, since it helped people understand each other better.

Six of the eighth graders had worked with Mo Chara in 1998 when he first came to the school. One of them, Mag-helder, had worked on the globe. He said he’d like to be an artist, “but I can’t draw.” Finally, Kristie, from the second grade, returned with a story she’d made up about two “baby birds” who got lost in the forest when their mother was away from the nest searching for food.

In another classroom, Sister Lawrence Therese Murphy, who has taught here for 36 years, was holding library studies but remembered trying her hand at murals. She painted one line, she explained.

“I’m 55 years a sister of St. Joseph,” she said. “Fifty years with the one man. I’m married to Mr. Perfect.” She laughed.

Outside, Mo Chara was still at work. How was the mural being received by the neighborhood, he was asked?

“One woman complained that the bull didn’t look much like an bull,” he replied. “Then one night I found a woman praying in front of it.” That was enough sanction for any artist’s work, he agreed.

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