The commune of Grenay in Pas-de-Calais – home to Maroc British Cemetery – is not the first place you would expect to find Irish music and art.
However, not only is this small town – with a population of about 7,000 – twinned with the town of Ballyshannon in County Donegal, it has also commissioned Irish artist, Jim McKee to paint six large murals to celebrate the connection between the French, British and Irish in the area.
Jim, 46, who is also a singer-songwriter, has travelled to Grenay, which is also known for its annual ‘Slainte’ folk festival, for 14 years to perform Irish folk songs.
“I always loved France,” he said. “And I often visited. So when I was approached at a festival in Ireland by one of the organisers of the ‘Slainte’ festival, I welcomed the chance.”
Jim has built close friendships with people in the town, and continued to play at the festival. He even started to exhibit his art – despite being unable to speak much French. “My French is terrible,” he admitted. “But I absolutely love the culture here, the food, the people.”
In November 2015, Jim received an unexpected phone call from Didier Riez, one of the festival’s organisers.
“He told me that they had an opportunity for an artist in the town,” he said.
“I worked closely with the mayor and the committee to come up with ideas for six large murals, celebrating the history of our alliance.”
The murals, which display the slogans: “History will humble us; Culture will bond us; Sport will strengthen us; Art will enrich us; Community will nurture us; and Education will empower us,” were completed in August, after six weeks of hard work by Jim and a team of young volunteers.
“Every week, I’d have around eight volunteers, all aged 17 to 25,” he said. “They’d help fill colours, and even completed a bit of the design work.”
Painting the murals have cemented Jim’s connection with the area, and he has not ruled out moving in future. “I’d love to live here one day,” he said. “I absolutely love it.”