An unusual new portrait is hanging in the corridors of Belfast City Hall today. It’s unusual because it’s shaped like the gable end of a house, with tiny ‘bricks’ carved into the fibreboard canvas. And the portrait, of former Lord Mayor of Belfast, Sinn Fein Councillor Niall Ó Donnghaile, is the first mayoral portrait to be produced by a mural artist.
Mixing paint in thimble-sized pots was a big change for Belfast artist Danny Devenny, who is more accustomed to using paint tins as mixing pots when painting murals. But when he took on the commission for Ó Donnghaile’s official City Hall portrait, he needed smaller amounts of paint 'for the intricate details on the mayoral chain'.
Devenny would repeatedly forget to keep adding water to his thimbles of paint, and the acrylics would dry up, leaving him back at square one. The muralist – whose work includes the Bobby Sands mural on the side of the Sinn Fein office and the ‘International Wall’ on the Falls Road – also found portrait-painting to be a lonely job.
When Devenny paints a mural, it’s usually within a burst of ten days. Locals ask what it’s going to be, children request changes, friends stop by and help move scaffolding and tourists take photos. But painting the Ó Donnghaile portrait, he had to work inside for more than a month. It wasn’t for him.
'It’s just a bore,' admits Devenny, with surprising candor. 'I don’t know how people can do that stuff. I was telling people, "I’m in prison. I feel like I’m in prison again!" I don’t know how they ever finished the Book of Kells.'
Nevertheless the finished portrait, borne out of Devenny’s weeks spent sweating over a set of tiny brushes and photographs of Ó Donnghaile, drew a collective gasp from the assembled audience when it was unveiled at Belfast City.
It is full of personal touches. Ó Donnghaile may be in a suit, wearing his mayor’s chains and sitting on a plush chair, but he is also surrounded by pictures of his grandmothers, a Short Strand street sign and a James Connolly portrait to indicate his political affiliations. 'I didn’t want him to be this humourless lord mayor,' adds Devenny.
So what on earth would tempt a mural artist to swap what he knows best – the freedom that comes with working outdoors and on such large canvases – for such a painstaking project?
Devenny, also a Short Strand man, is a personal friend of Belfast’s youngest ever mayor (Ó Donnghaile was 25 when he was elected in June 2011), and his family. In fact, Devenny served part of a prison sentence with Ó Donnghaile’s father Paddy in the 1970s, and credits his time spent in Long Kesh as educational: it is where he learned to paint.
Ó Donnghaile was apparently adamant from the start of his year in office that Devenny would paint his official portrait. But the close connections only heightened the pressure on the artist. He remembers telling himself: 'You are not just doing this for a commission, it’s personal – you have to be sure that you represent him and his family.'
Now that the hard graft is over, Devenny is pleased to have painted a portrait that the Ó Donnghailes are happy with, and to be the first artist to have produced a mini-mural at City Hall. It’s a distinction that will surely live on.
'When my grandchildren grow up, it’ll still be hanging in City Hall,' says Devenny. 'Murals are part of our culture now, but maybe in 100 years’ time there won’t be murals. I’m very glad that it’s done and I can’t go back to it again, and that’s very unusual for somebody who works in the public space. It was probably the most nerve-wracking thing I have had to do.'