When Robert Ballagh, the outstanding contemporary Irish painter, felt the growing need to make a statement on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, he felt increasingly drawn to the paintings that had marked him in the past. The most convincing in relation to the Derry massacre was that of Goya May third, a painting depicting the execution of Spaniards on Spanish soil by the invading French army. Ballagh’s painting is titled January thirtieth. The parallels in the situation are clear: on Bloody Sunday, Irish people were executed on Irish soil, by British soldiers.
What happened in Derry on January 30, 1972?
Bloody Sunday marked a turning point in the conflict in Northern Ireland. He shattered the civil rights movement which in the late 1960s had shone the international spotlight on the sectarian and unionist regime’s repressive measures against peaceful protesters demanding equal rights for Catholics.
On August 13, 1969, the British Labor government took British troops to the streets, initially to stop sectarian gangs, aided and abetted by the police, attacking nationalist communities in Nazi-style pogroms.
However, when in June 1970 the Conservatives came to power with Edward Heath as Prime Minister, the British state assumed a threatening role. The Conservatives (the Conservative and Unionist Party) were allies of the Unionist NI Party which had controlled the sectarian state since its inception in 1921. This led to an upsurge in repression of the Catholic community, culminating in internment without trial in August 1971.
During the introduction of internment, the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment (1Para) shot dead ten locals, including a mother and a priest, in the Ballymurphy Massacre. A plan drawn up in London by the highest levels of government aimed at crushing resistance through acts of “collective punishment” of the Catholic community in northern Ireland.
A civil rights demonstration was called in Derry on January 30, 1972, which demanded an end to internment. The agreement between the Derry Police Chief and the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Organization (NICRA) was that the peaceful march would remain in a Catholic area. The IRA (Irish Republican Army) had also specified that there would be no armed presence that day.
Increasingly, British Tories and their Unionist allies were infuriated by the existence of ‘Free Derry’, a Catholic residential area of the city that had become a ‘no go zone’ for British security forces since the August 1969 pogroms. This is where the civil rights demonstration was supposed to take place. An attack on such a demonstration, it was later claimed, was to lead to a direct confrontation between 1Para shock troops and the IRA and result in the subjugation of “Free Derry”. If this plan does not materialize, the protesters, considered by the British high command to be part of the enemy, could learn a lesson.
And so the Derry massacre was planned by Heath and senior military personnel. A company of 16 soldiers from 1Para was responsible for all the fire that day. It included the same soldiers who had been bled and praised for the Ballymurphy massacre.
A number of investigations into Bloody Sunday followed, none of which resulted in a conviction of those responsible. Although the evidence against the military was overwhelming, only one paratrooper, ‘Private F’, was charged (49 years later!) with the murder of two of the fourteen dead on Bloody Sunday, and then the charges were dropped. The same ‘Private F’ had received a commendation for his role in the Ballymurphy massacre. Currently, the UK government is pushing for an amnesty for all murderers in the north of Ireland in a bid to halt all possible prosecutions of their military and associated kill squads once and for all.
The artists respond
This inability of the British justice system to deliver justice in such egregious cases has acted as a sore wound in Ireland. Several of Ireland’s finest artists have taken a stand in their work, including Thomas Kinsella, Brian Friel and Robert Ballagh.
The title of Robert Ballagh’s painting, January thirtiethmakes clear in itself the connection with the May third. As expected, the visual language is compelling. While in Goya’s image the outline of Madrid defines the location of the executions in 1808, in that of Ballagh it is the skyline of Derry, its walls, St Columb’s Cathedral, the Presbyterian Church and , in fact, Walker’s monument still in place. (This was blown up in 1973.) Where there is a hill behind the Spanish casualties to the left of Goya’s picture, in Ballagh, the eye rises from the Bogside to the working-class terraces.
In both paintings, the focus is on the victims, the people against whom and on whose territory the atrocity is committed. These are the characters whose faces we see; the soldiers are faceless. As Goya chooses the moment for the execution of the central rebel (others already lie dead next to him), Ballagh depicts a scene just after filming begins. He shows us two victims, one dying, the other dead. Looking at the photo, we are faced with a group of people in distress running towards us, a press image that has gone around the world. The priest, Father Daly, holds a bloodstained white handkerchief, trying to protect a group carrying the first victim of the massacre, the mortally wounded Jackie Duddy, out of reach. These people are clearly recognizable. They also hold bloodied white handkerchiefs, pointing to a peaceful protest crushed in blood. In Goya’s painting, too, a monk stands beside the rebel, offering his support, along with others. On top of that, a priest, Fr. Hugh Mullan, had been shot in the Ballymurphy massacre. So there are many layers of associations in this figure.
In the center foreground is another victim, covered in a bloodstained white cloth, echoing the handkerchiefs. Pure white, associated with peace, innocence and martyrdom, reminds viewers of the bright white shirt of the man about to be executed in Goya’s painting. He is flanked on the right by a group of faceless soldiers, their weapons at the hip indicating blind fire, without aiming. Another soldier on the left, kneeling closer to the body, suggests ‘Private F’, who knelt down to shoot Barney McGuigan as he waved a white handkerchief above his head, trying to help the dying Patrick Doherty. “Private F” was responsible for a number of cold-blooded murders, and the only soldier to be charged with murder, only to be cleared later. Perhaps because of this identity, we see his face in part.
Ballagh clarifies that the marchers were unarmed. We see two signs on the ground saying “Civil Rights Now” and “End Internment”. A civil rights banner occupies the top center of the image, like a title.
The painting not only references Goya, but also Picasso’s Guernica, itself an image of foreign invaders murdering an indigenous population and inspired by Goya. Like Picasso, Ballagh opted for monochrome painting. The hand of the covered dead man in the center foreground still holds the broken end of the “End Internment” sign in his right hand, much the same way the slain man in Picasso’s painting grasps the broken sword. The left hand also echoes Picasso’s in its reach to the left corner of the painting, as well as in its gesture. The black-and-white execution of Picasso and Ballagh conjures up images from newspapers; in Ballagh’s case, most press photographs and event footage were black and white. The only color is blood red splatter on white. The smoke behind looming protesters in the background suggests the use of tear gas seen in so many photographs of police attacks on protesters.
In the left corner, under the foot of the kneeling soldier, there is a sheet of paper with the royal coat of arms and writing on it. These are the words of Major General Robert Ford. The title is the military code name for the massacre, Operation Forecast, and is dated January 30, 1972. The text reads: ‘I come to the conclusion that the minimum force necessary to achieve a restoration of law and of the order is to shoot ringleaders selected from among the Derry Young Hooligans. Ballagh leaves no doubt that the murders were ordered at the highest level. In this respect too, the painting goes further than any Inquiry Michael Jackson, a senior officer in command, was later promoted to Commander-in-Chief of the British Land Forces.
Art history and political history are linked. Art does not exist out of time, and there is a tradition in art that does not hesitate to take sides. Nor does it diminish the artist – think of the composer Mikis Theodorakis or the poet Pablo Neruda – and of course, Goya May third is one of those works that has echoed through time. This painting inspired Picasso’s 1937 Guernica and the 1951 Massacre in Korea; he also had a lasting influence on the work of Robert Ballagh.
The power of this work, through Ballagh’s interpretation, was captured by a community art group in Derry who recently asked him for permission to reproduce his painting after Goya on a wall in Glenfada Park, the one of the Bloody Sunday murder locations. They did this because they could see the direct link between terror and anger from their own experience and that described in May third. In both images, the viewer is a direct witness to the events and, alongside the artist in the midst of this carnage, feels involved.
Next door, until recently, the group exhibited its copy of Picasso Guernica. When artists take the side of the people against oppression, they resonate and are understood around the world because the condition of victims of wars for profit, power and control is global. Bloody Sunday is part of the global story of colonialism, occupation and popular resistance, and Robert Ballagh’s painting says just that and demonstrates the need for art.