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Painting the town red — and green and blue and . . .

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Ray O’Hanlon

YOU ARE NOW ENTERING . . . FREE NEW YORK? Well, not quite. But it seems like this message would fit right in on the building wall, only yards from the Lincoln Tunnel in Manhattan, adorned with murals of King Billy and Bobby Sands.

The sight is straight out of Belfast, although the combination of republican and loyalist artwork side by side on the same gable end would be, to say the least, an unlikely sight in the city by the Lagan.

The murals are the work of Belfast artists Danny Devenny and Marty Lyons and are part of the promotional effort behind the return to the Big Easel of the hugely popular one-man play "A Night In November," which opens this weekend at the Douglas Fairbanks Theater.

Not visible from the traffic-clogged street behind the theater is a courtyard with yet another wall mural depicting the history of Northern Ireland since partition.

Images of Carson, Bloody Sunday, British troops, loyalists and hungers strikers rub painted shoulders while the work concludes with a hopeful yet still awaited twist: a depiction of Gerry Adams and David Trimble shaking hands.

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"There’s no mural yet in Belfast of Adams and Trimble shaking hands, but that’s not to say there won’t be one sometime in the future," said Danny Devenny.

Devenny is no prophet. But the Short Strand native has seen the Troubles up close since the 1960s. Each landmark event of the last 30 years is reflected in his mind’s eye and those of other mural artists whose work is now familiar the world over.

The Trimble-Adams painting might not be all that farfetched, although nobody is betting on a white dove flying overhead — the mural depicts one — when the big moment finally arrives.

Devenny has been painting murals in Belfast since the 1970s. His partner, Marty Lyons, who hails from the Falls Road, has been working with brush and paint since the time of the hunger strikes. The two have notched up credits, not just on walls but on movie screens. Their work has appeared on films such as "Some Mother’s Son" and "The Boxer."

Bobby Sands is a natural subject for both men. But it is only after coming to New York that the two have been able to work up their very first King Billy astride his white horse. Though they might have been tempted at times, Devenny and Lyons have been respectful to the traditional treatment of the victor of 1690.

People can generally deal with the images of dead hunger strikers and long-gone kings, said Devenny, "but people find images of gunmen unsettling."

According to Devenny, the painting of murals was largely a response to the treatment of prisoners in the H-blocks back in the 1970s, a treatment he describes as brutal.

"It was a response to the British public-relations men who were in control of what the world knew about what was going on inside the prison." Devenny said.

He should know. He spent time inside himself. He never went to art college but considers himself a graduate of "Long Kesh University."

The murals, particularly those in Belfast, have been a powerful attraction to the world’s media since the 1970s and the time of the hunger strikes in particular.

The Manhattan versions are certainly attracting attention too. Some are literally pinching themselves at the sight of King Billy on his charger, not by the Boyne but alongside the Hudson.

"A car pulled up the other day and the driver got out. He came over and said, ‘Danny Devenny.’ We knew each other in Belfast years ago. He couldn’t believe his eyes."

Devenny and Lyons don’t skimp on the detail. They have even painted red bricks as a backdrop to the murals facing the Lincoln Tunnel entrance.

The murals will remain in place for the duration of "A Night In November’s" run at the theater, which is 432 West 42nd St. Tickets can be purchased at the box office or through Tele-Charge at (212)947-8844. Give the code NVR739 when you call.

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