Bobby Ballagh agus mise
Féile on Phobail is celebrating its 30th birthday this year. In the three decades since its establishment a lot has changed, not least the growth of the Féile. It’s now the biggest community festival on these islands. One example of that growth is the amazing number of visual art exhibitions. This year there are almost 50 exhibitions with hundreds of images.
Last Thursday evening renowned Irish artist Robert Ballagh, who has been a regular contributor to Féile, came to St. Mary’s University College on the Falls Road to formally open the exhibition. It was a marvellous evening.
I was asked to say a few words of thanks to mark Bobby’s long association with Féile. I was very happy to do so. It’s really important in the busyness of all of our lives that we take time to thank people. And I’m especially talking about people, who take a stand when they don’t necessarily need to. People who continue to make a stand. People who have remained faithful.
Robert Ballagh is one of the great stalwarts of progressive politics and the struggle for peace in Ireland and internationally. When we founded Féile it was to celebrate and to showcase the creativity of this community, of the people of west Belfast.
It was also to provide a platform for others from outside of west Belfast to join us, to use their creative genius in solidarity with us, to uplift us and to encourage us. And they came. Musicians, writers, poets, actors, actresses, playwrights, film makers, camogs, hurlers, dancers, chancers, fly men and wise women.
They all came and Robert Ballagh was there also. He is one of our island’s greatest visual artists. He’s passionate about his work but he’s also very passionate in the help and support he gives to others. He was there with the Birmingham 6 and the Guildford 4, with the families of Bloody Sunday, with the victims of the Dublin Monaghan bombings, with Pat Finucane’s family, with the people of Palestine, with the anti-apartheid movement. He is there with all of the other little causes when somebody says ‘will you go and get Bobby to do a print, will you get Bobby to do a painting, will you get Bobby to do something’ and Bobby Ballagh has always delivered.
He established with others the Ireland Institute for Historical and Cultural Studies on Pearse Street in Dublin. It is the birthplace of Padraig MacPiaris. The historical significance of the building was being ignored by Irish governments and it needed citizens to develop it. There would be nothing to mark where Pearse was born but for their efforts. The same thing happened with Kilmainham Prison which successive governments failed to protect properly or to develop its potential.
Robert was the chair of the Irish National Congress which campaigned for unity and for justice. He has designed over 70 stamps for An Post. So most of us will have had some of his work in our hands at some time in our lives. He designed the last batch of punt bank notes which featured James Joyce, Daniel O’Connell, Douglas Hyde and Charles Stewart Parnell. And he also created and designed the set for Riverdance. Robert has also been responsible for the sets of many Sinn Féin Ard Fheiseanna.
Apart from exhibiting his own work at Féile he helped some of our fledgling school of mural painters back in the day. In 1988 Bobby came to west Belfast to judge our murals. It was our first Féile and there was a group of young mural artists, who were being helped by Danny Devenny, Marty and Mo Chara. We asked them what they wanted to paint for Bobby to judge and they chose to paint a mural of Nelson Mandela. It was Madiba’s 70th birthday and 25th year in prison. Under the banner ‘Father of Freedom; the future belongs to you,’ they painted ‘Happy Birthday Comrade’ on a gable house at the corner of Leeson Street and the Falls Road.
Bobby has been back here year after year after year.
Two years ago we had a very big celebration to mark the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising. But it isn’t that long since Irish governments didn’t commemorate 1916. In fact, not only did they not celebrate 1916 but they banned others from commemorating it.
In one famous instance in 1976 Nora Connolly O’Brien, the daughter of James Connolly, was arrested for taking part in a commemoration outside the GPO.
In 1991 Bobby and a group of concerned citizens - aware that the Irish government was determined to ignore the 75 anniversary of the Easter Rising - organised a ‘Reclaim the Spirit of Easter’ commemoration. It was a brave step to take.
That was a great initiative and it wouldn’t have happened without Robert Ballagh and without the creative and colourful way in which those men and women were celebrated. I was there. It was a great day of music and craic and drama.
Two years ago Sinn Féin organised our own programme of events as part of the ‘Reclaim the Vision of Easter 1916’. We worked closely with Bobby as he, and his broad alliance of activists, organised a series of events, including a national march which took place on the date of the Rising, April 24th 1916.
So, on this the 30th anniversary of the Féile an Phobail I am delighted to say thank you to my friend Mr. Ballagh for all of that activism. Thank you especially for your art. Art, culture, the work of the imagination, should be applauded for its own sake. Because it moves us. It makes us think. It makes us marvel. It gives us pleasure. It can empower us. It takes us out of our of ourselves. That’s whether we are the artist or we are the person enjoying the piece of art.
And all of that is very, very important. It seems to me that the imagination is probably what the soul is – it is the essence of our spirit. To live in our imagination and to move people by the use of our imagination, by artistic expression is a very fine and joyous experience.
But art that stands up for itself, that highlights injustice, as well as being art of the highest quality, it what Robert Ballagh does and by so doing he leads the way for others who don’t.
And Bobby Sands had a word for them.
‘The men of art have sold their heart
They dream within their dream
Their magic soul for price of gold
Amidst a peoples screams’
Robert Ballagh never sold his magic for the price of gold. He used it to empower and enrich us all. Long may you keep doing so. Míle buiochas Bobby.