‘It’s so much more than just a picture on a wall’

Street Art
The Kevin Heffernan mural in Ballybough is unveiled in 2017.

IT’S 20 DEGREES on a sticky July afternoon in Dublin, but Jack Charlton is decked out in the classic Big Jack outfit of shirt, tie, coat and flat cap. It’s impossible to read the words printed beside his face and not hear that deep, distinctive Geordie voice. Put ‘em under pressure.

This is the Jack Ireland remembers and loves, and the fitting choice for a colourful mural by local artist Niall O’Lochlainn, hidden just off the North Circular Road, tucked in behind the Jodi Stand at Dalymount Park, home of Bohemians FC. Jack is in good company, with Phil Lynott and Bob Marley just some of the other cultural icons immortalised in spray paint around the ground.

The Jack Charlton mural at Dalymount Park.

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

A couple of minutes down the road, on the side wall of The Back Page pub, Emma Blake’s portrait of Katie Taylor catches more eyes while striking a familiar pose; gloves raised and ready, the hint of a smile etched on her face.

The images add to an already colourful and bustling corner of Dublin life.  

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The Katie Taylor mural in Phibsboro.

Head back towards the banks of the Royal Canal, aim for the north inner city, and when you get to Ballybough you’ll find legends of Dublin GAA dotted all around the short run of road between the canal and Luke Kelly Bridge.

There’s the striking splash of blue and navy which wraps around The Bridge Tavern pub. Under the old railway bridge, there’s the more understated image of former Dublin manager Jim Gavin, complete in trademark baseball cap, the Sam Maguire sitting just behind him as he stares in the direction of Croke Park. A remarkable era for Dublin football is summed up with the simple caption, ‘Jim Gavin’s Mighty Dubs’. Approaching Fairview, turn back at the busy junction outside The Clonliffe House to find more Dublin greats as Kevin Heffernan, Anton O’Toole and Jimmy Keaveney jump out from a packed Hill 16.

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All of the GAA-based street art around Ballybough is the work of Ruairí and Caroline O’Byrne, the husband and wife pair behind Galway-based Feature Walls, their works providing colour and character to an otherwise largely grey area of the the city.

“We try to keep them about the joy of the sport, the celebration and the actual fans, the team and the legends,” explains Ruairí. 

“It’s a celebration and I think that’s the energetic quality of when you walk by them.”

“What’s lovely about murals,” Caroline adds, “is when you’re walking through an area, particularly a city center, you walk along not really taking much notice of what you’re walking past. Then suddenly just to see that introduction of colour is one thing, but then obviously if it means something, even if you’re not familiar with the area… It’s so much more than just a picture on a wall.” 

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O’Byrne’s work at The Bridge Tavern Pub in Ballybough.

Across the Liffey, the gleaming glass curves of the Aviva Stadium rise high above Havelock Place, where a small, tidy group of houses lie just behind the stadium’s north stand. On a quiet afternoon, the only local in sight is a small, playful dog who keeps watch from a sunny patch of grass.

On first impressions it seems a strange place to be searching for a tribute to Argentine great Diego Maradona, but there’s a story behind how his face ended up on a residential wall in Dublin 4.

Chelsea Jacobs moved to Ireland with her partner and pets in 2020, settling into life in a new country amid the eerie backdrop of a global health pandemic. Originally from Iowa, Jacobs is a figure sculptor and fine artist by trade, and a bank analyst by profession, but like so many of us, the monotony of lockdown encouraged her to branch out.

A few months after the passing of the legendary No 10, Jacobs was chatting to a friend, the father of a football-mad young boy, and an idea was sparked.

“His kid couldn’t play in football camp for a really long time,” Jacobs says.

We were discussing that and just kind of saying, well, wouldn’t it be cool to have a painting of Maradona with the Aviva as a backdrop? Because he played there in the 80s and his son really loves Maradona. So I said, you know what, I think that that would be fun. I think it would be a really big morale booster for the neighbourhood and the kids that have been taken away from everything.”

After settling on an image, Jacobs got to work and soon discovered that in these largely residential pockets of Dublin, the sight of one artist with a spray can can quickly develop into a group project.

“I’m not by trade a photorealistic painter, so that wasn’t my goal. My goal was to incorporate heavy marks and different textures. Usually I am holed up in the studio by myself and I share working progress images when I want to, but this was definitely different.

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Diego Maradona by Chelsea Jacobs in Havelock Place.

“It was really fun because a lot of the kids in the neighbourhood helped. They helped me prime the wall, they were there being my critics the whole time putting the pieces together and it just all kind of came together in a great way. There were people coming by taking pictures, posting them on the internet when the piece is nowhere near being done! And having the kids say you missed a spot and you need to correct this and that. So it was a completely different experience for me.”

If Jacobs was a street art rookie, the O’Byrne’s are seasoned veterans. They paint murals to help fund their main focus, a podcast titled Love Being Awake which is centered on themes such as mental health and inclusion. It feeds into their work with paint.

“If anyone interacts with me I put a can in their hand and let them have a go,” Ruairí continues.

Even a kid walking by, if they pay attention to it in any little way you go, ‘Would you like to paint a blade of grass?’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, I’d love to!’ And then the mammys, you can always tell, so it’s ‘Would you like a go as well?’ 

“If somebody comes forward, it’s usually because they want to help and they want to be involved. Recognising that and being able to allow it, they then own it just as much as I do. They’ll walk by it in a couple of years and go ‘I painted some of that!’”

Back across the city, the home of St Patrick’s Athletic doesn’t loom as large over the locals. Penned in between the River Camac and a row of terraced red bricks, strolling down Emmet Road you can stand just a few yards from Richmond Park but see no trace of the ground. Closing in on the main entrance, a small traffic control box acts as one of the first indications that the area is home to a significant piece of Irish football history.

On one side of the box, ‘McGrath 5’. On the other, a young Paul McGrath smiles. He’s been raising smiles back ever since Dublin artist Cathal Craughwell brought a couple of cans of spray paint down to Inchicore almost five years ago, ready to pay tribute to The Black Pearl outside the stadium where in 1981, the 21-year-old took his first significant steps into senior football.

Craughwell’s piece is part of the city-spanning Dublin Canvas project, which sees artists pitch ideas to win commissions to commit their creations to various blank canvases. 

“Most of my work is portraits of cultural figures and icons from the worlds of sport, music and literature, and most of the time cultural icons are dead,” Craughwell explains.

“But I’m in my late 30s and I’m a big football fan, so I grew up watching Italia ’90 and USA ’94. I’m a season ticket holder with Ireland, I love watching the national team and Paul McGrath was just such a legend in the green jersey.

“So when I saw that this traffic control box was beside Richmond Park, I didn’t really put too much thought into it. Straightaway, I thought a tribute to Paul McGrath would have been really cool and really relevant to the area. So I put together a piece, submitted it to the Council and luckily enough, they selected it.”

McGrath falls into the same bracket as the likes of Charlton and Taylor as one of the select sporting figures universally loved across the country. In Dublin 8, he’s held in particularly high esteem thanks to his role in those halcyon days for Irish football across an era-defining run of tournaments in the early 90s.

“That particular image is from his Ireland debut,” Craughwell continues. “Then that white image with the green writing on the other side is from the performance he’s probably most remembered for, against Italy in ’94. And then I put a little bit of writing on the two sides, I titled the piece ‘The Black Pearl of Inchicore‘, and then just for want of putting something on the other side as well, ‘Ooh Aah Paul McGrath‘.

“It probably took me the guts of the day all in, and the day really stands out for me because I’m not from Inchicore, but I had everybody and anybody coming up to me offering me cups of tea or coffee, telling me I could use their house if I needed the toilet. 

I had people coming up telling me they played with him in St Pats, then some of the kids that were running around, they didn’t recognise who it was, even when it was fairly apparent to me anyway, and to the older people. But I suppose that’s part of the idea of trying to prolong his legacy to some of the younger people that might not have had the opportunity to see him play.”

In that sense the murals all serve a common purpose, acting as small injections of joy to passers-by whether they are seeing the works for the first time, or catch a glimpse every time they put the bins out.

The reaction the Maradona wall generates still stirs something in Jacobs.

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“Essentially I just wanted to bring something to the neighbourhood that really broke apart the monotony of the pandemic and gave us something new to talk about and look at,” she says. 

“But not only did it bring together my neighbourhood, I received Instagram messages from all over the world. It really warms my heart and it blew my mind that this mural I did of Maradona impacted so many people so positively in a time when everyone was just kind of having a really hard time.

“And it still goes on much to this day, you still have people stopping by. The Maradona is on the southside football tour now, so it just continues to grow and it makes me really happy to see that something that started out as a small morale-builder for the neighbourhood has really positively impacted people in a good way, and continues to. It’s an amazing feeling. I’ve never experienced it before. And to be honest with you, I don’t think I ever will again.”

The O’Byrne’s Jim Gavin mural was in place long before Dublin had worked their way through the 2019 Championship. On the morning of that year’s final, Ruairí made the trip down to Dublin with his daughter and a couple of cans of spray paint, ready to mark the historic five-in-a-row should Gavin’s team get the better of Kerry.

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Shortly after full-time the mural had been updated, and O’Byrne waited with some Ballybough locals and passing Dublin supporters for the anticipated arrival of the Dublin team.

When the van pulled up, it was that thing of is the Pope going to arrive? At the last minute we found out Jim wasn’t coming, but the team were. And Jim’s reason was clear and it was such a noble reason. Like, of course he wouldn’t come and stand beside a big picture of himself! It would be against every kind of ethos he has.

“But it wasn’t about the mural, it was about the cup and the team and the fans. So it became what a mural actually is then, it just became a colorful backdrop to human life happening. It kind of represents in your mind the memory of how colorful it was, as opposed to looking back at old photos where, Jesus, everybody was wearing hats and the walls were all fucking grey! Now we can represent what the atmosphere was like, and it will be in people’s memory longer if it’s full high definition. It’s surround sound, it’s colourful, it’s everything really.”

The reaction to the McGrath piece also caught Craughwell by surprise.

“I’ve seen St Pat’s unveil new signings and the photo they take with the player is beside the box,” he explains.

St. Patrick’s Athletic have used Craughwell’s piece for new signing photoshoots.

Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Club legends have given it the seal of approval, too.

“For a lot of people who do large scale urban art or whatever you want to call it, it’s all about taking pictures and documenting it on social media. The day I was doing it, before I even had the opportunity to post a few pictures on Instagram, somebody had sent on posts from Paul, he had obviously passed by and taken shots of it. He bet me to it, he had a picture of it on social media before even I had!

“It must have been unusual for him to drive along the road and see an image of himself, but he had taken pictures and sent me a nice message afterwards once he saw my signature on it to say thanks a lot and that he was honoured.”

Back in Ballybough, our walk through comes just a couple of days after Kerry forward Seán O’Shea created his own iconic image on the Croke Park turf with a whipped stroke of his gifted right foot. There’s enough room on the walls around here to add in a few more Sam Maguire wins, although O’Byrne hasn’t needed to pack the silver paint for a couple of seasons now. 

With the sun stretching deep into the day, a boisterous group of kids armed with a football head for the green space behind the Five in a Row mural. 

They’ve plenty of ball left to kick this summer.  

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