Image: Timothy O’Connell

The artist painting Free Derry Corner for Gaza

Adam Doyle—otherwise known as Spice Bag—on his Northern Ireland mural for Palestinians
February 5, 2024

Just outside the city walls of Derry, as church bells ring in the cold January air, a new mural is unveiled in the Bogside. It hangs over the famous “You Are Now Entering Free Derry,” free-standing gable wall, by way of wallpaper and emulsion, in a neighbourhood filled with paintings and iconography. This place, as Danes, Germans and Americans standing near me have come to realise, is Free Derry Corner, an area synonymous with pain and peace in equal measure. 

The new piece, in stylised, black lettering, reads: “If I Must Die / Let It Bring Hope”—two lines from a 2011 poem by Palestinian poet and professor Refaat Alareer. In November 2023, Alareer shared the poem on X. In December, he was killed in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City. He was 44 years old. “He was opposed to all of this, and to be surgically taken out by Israel… It’s a war crime, whatever way you cut it,” says artist Adam Doyle, who works under the moniker Spice Bag—a popular, cheap, Chinese takeaway dish in Ireland. “It would feel weird to do the Derry Wall and not highlight the injustice and massacre of civilians that’s happening right now.” The Bogside agrees; Palestinian flags hang from every pole, window and car in sight. “You’d swear you were in Gaza,” a voice behind me whispers. 

Doyle, and his depictions of modern Irish life, have repeatedly become national talking points since his bracing Eviction Print––a 2023 reworking of Cork artist Daniel MacDonald’s 19th-century painting depicting an eviction during the Great Famine. Doyle’s reinterpretation, which featured images of masked Gardaí and bailiffs on Dublin’s Frederick Street, was created in response to Ireland’s ongoing housing crisis, a breakdown so potent that children have been ripped from their beds. His second work was “You Are Now Entering Free Iceland,” a mural he created with Bristol-based collective PatternUp in solidarity with striking supermarket workers on Dublin’s Talbot Street. That piece piqued the interest of the organisers of the Bloody Sunday March. “It was obviously created in homage to the Free Derry Wall,” he says. “And the following week, I got a text asking me to come up.”

Doyle, 27, was born in the seaside town of Bray, just south of Dublin. As a child, he was enthralled by history. “I would obsessively watch the Discovery Channel or read books about the ancient Greeks,” he says. “I was always obsessed with what was going on socially around me.” Lacking direction in his teens, he turned to drugs, before channelling his energy into video game design at college. “There, I learned all the skills to the point where it became intuitive.”

Art by intuition is what created Free Derry Corner. Inspired by the 1960s Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the phrase “You Are Now Entering Free Derry” was coined by Eamonn McCann and painted by local youth Liam Hillen in January 1969. It marked an area of self-declared autonomy for the local, Catholic community. The wall was regularly paint-bombed, leading locals, like march organiser Jim Collins, to repaint it—“we’re talking hundreds of times,” Collins tells me at the unveiling. The area has since been filled with political poster boards; in 2003 it was shrouded with black fabric in protest at the invasion of Iraq; in 2007, it was daubed with pink to mark Pride. “We’re very keen to ensure the wall continues to be a living thing,” Collins says. “And Spice Bag’s work is absolutely relevant to the here and now.” 

Given the tumult of seventies Derry, the unveiling of the mural is a remarkably quiet experience. Birds sing, locals carry bags of shopping, drivers complain of traffic. Though the mural’s neighbouring walls are daubed with those considered rebellious heroes by their communities, like Martin Luther King and Bobby Sands, new posters—for Irish language lessons, Wrestlemania, lost property—prove that life continues to bloom in their absence. But those here will continue to remember the scars that haven’t healed. And they will do that for Gaza, too.