Artist Hugh Doherty

November 4, 2011 · Print This Article

Hugh Doherty is a former IRA POW who was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment after his and his comrades’ arrest in London in 1975. Now a successful artist, samples of Hugh’s works are currently being exhibited in the new Culturlann gallery on the Falls Road. In this feature, which appeared in the Irish News, Jim Gibney writes about the prisoner-turned-painter:

Hugh Doherty was 32-years-old when he lifted a paint brush to paint a landscape for the very first time. He was being held in the Special Secure Unit (SSU) in Parkhurst Prison in England. An SSU was a prison within a prison where the prisoner’s every waking movement was monitored and scrutinised. The SSUs were designed to crush the prisoner’s will.

Hugh Doherty’s baptism as a landscape and seascape painter began in an SSU. It was the backdrop against which Mr Doherty’s latent, and unknown to him, talent emerged. 

Hugh is well-known in republican circles. His brother Pat is the MP and MLA for West Tyrone. Hugh arrived on the public scene in very particular and dramatic circumstances in 1975 when he and a group of other republicans were besieged by London’s police in a flat in Balcombe Street.Those arrested became known in the tabloid press as the ‘Balcombe Street Gang’. At their trial the judge sentenced them to life in prison with a thirty-year recommendation.

In 1998 the British Home Secretary, not satisfied with the severity of this sentence, imposed his own, without due process, ‘never to be released’.

As he left the governor’s office in Whitemoor Prison after being informed of this decision, Hugh Doherty shrugged his shoulders and said, “Such is life”. He and his comrades believed they would ‘go home when the war was over.’

Less than a year later, as a result of the deal the British government made with Sinn Féin prior to the Good Friday Agreement, Hugh, Edward Butler, Harry Duggan and Joe O’Connell were back in Ireland, free men, at home with their families.

They spent nearly 24 years behind bars in English jails – the last year was spent in Portlaoise Prison in the south.

Hugh Doherty was born in the Gorbals in Glasgow into a Donegal Irish community of emigrants waiting to return home. And home for Mr. Doherty was Carrigart.

Back then his only interest in painting was to admire the work of great painters, especially Van Gogh, but his eyes were taken by the beauty of the Donegal land and seascapes, Mount Errigal, and the power of the sun as it shone over Sheephaven Bay.

He pays tribute to the man who was his first big influence and did so much to awaken his interest in painting. His name is Peter Leath, a renowned maritime and seascape painter who lives on the Isle of Wight.

Peter Leath supervised art classes in the prison every week and developed Hugh Doherty’s skill. He believes everyone has a talent waiting to be revealed. It very often depends on unforeseen circumstances and encounters before that talent is realised.

Ireland is the primary subject for Hugh’s paintings. He relied on his memory of the Donegal terrain and the postcards his brother Pat sent to him over a twenty-year period from Pat’s travels around Ireland as he ploughed the republican furrow.

He saw Pat and his son Daniel for the first time in 20 years in 1995 on a special visit when he, Gerry Kelly MLA and Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD arrived to update republican prisoners on the IRA’s decision the previous year to call a ceasefire.

Over the years Hugh has used oils, water colours and acrylics to portray his mindscape. In 1986 he ventured into abstract painting which he said allowed him to comment on political issues such as the Irish Famine (an Gorta Mór), the protests at Drumcree, the exclusion of Sinn Féin from talks at Stormont in the late 1990s and Barack Obama’s election. 

In 1990 a debate raged in the British House of Commons because a painting of Hugh’s, which appeared in a public gallery in Birmingham, annoyed the local Tory MP – an example of the power of the paintbrush!

Hugh built a studio onto his family home at Carrigart where he paints most days. He currently has an exhibition in Belfast’s Cultúrlann and regularly travels around Ireland exhibiting his works.

Of his decades in prison and as a painter he said, “I went in a republican and came out a republican and a painter. We are what we are.” And Hugh is above all loyal to his beliefs and his flourishing craft. Hugh Doherty website here.


5 Responses to “Artist Hugh Doherty”

  1. stan carberry on November 5th, 2011 2:04 am

    Hi Hugh my name is stan to tell you what this is. As a victim of the troubles my dad was murdered on the falls road on the 13th of nov 1972 – 39 years next week. what i am asking can i put your pictures on my website i would be very greatful if i can display the for people to look at them. I think thet our great and for people to have there say on them. And i think there will be great reviews from people of Ireland. thanks stan. slan look forward to hering from you.

  2. Elizabeth Phillips Scott on December 9th, 2011 6:56 am

    I was so moved by the movie hunger I wrote the poem for Bobby Sands.
    I believe all polictical prisoners held should be treated with dignity and humanity.
    It is shocking this sort of thing happened here you would expect it in third world countries.
    Please may all political pisoners everywhere be treated with respect and dignity this I pray.

  3. Elizabeth Phillips Scott on December 12th, 2011 7:15 am

    Requiem for Bobby Sands

    It started on St Davids day
    and ended in the month of May.
    66 days on hunger strike
    it took you to die
    your voters could hear the cry
    to freedom.

    The Irish lined the streets for you
    like Michael Collins it is true.
    What you saw was unjust rule
    because of that you were no fool.
    You had to with all your might
    win the hearts and minds of the people
    with the hunger strike!

    Many followed after you to die
    and the whole of Ireland’s cry
    was that of liberation.

    Equal rights for policitical prisoners now!
    Ireland took that cause
    but came to pause
    for your funeral!

    You won your seat
    there was the English defeat!
    The right to political freedom and speech
    to your fellow countrymen and women
    you would preach!

    Even from beyond the grave.

    Bobby Sands they will never forget
    your engraved on the hearts and minds of them all.
    The freedom of every Irish man or woman
    whether catholic
    or prodestant
    will always hear your call!

  4. Эи Доэрти « Сюртук on March 28th, 2012 4:02 am

    […] После выхода из тюрьмы Эи говорил: «Я попал сюда республиканцем, а вышел республиканцем и художником. Мы остаемся такими, какие мы есть» («I went in a republican and came out a republican and a painter. We are what we are»). […]

  5. Michael Holland on February 6th, 2018 7:29 am

    I too was taught by Peter Leath in Parkhurst. He was a very generous man with his time and his help and I learnt a lot from him.
    I was a Category A prisoner, though not in the SSU, and I remember the IRA boys as the most politest of gentlemen. Harry Duggan was a quietly spoken man who I sometimes played badminton with; Billy Armstrong made the best ‘hooch’ in Long Lartin and I remember great nights drinking there, plus Noel Gibson was another gentleman who learnt me a lot about the IRA, their history and their beliefs.
    I didn’t keep the art up on my release but I know that all those that had the tutelage of Peter Leath had a good start.
    And my heart goes out to those men who gave up their freedom for their cause.

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