This essay considers the changes that have taken place in the murals of Northern Ireland over the past decade or so. It will be argued that although there have been important developments in the murals that reflect the consolidation of ‘peace’ during this period, the walls also tell a different story. It will be shown that, perhaps predictably, given the paralysis and stagnation that have characterised the power-sharing arrangements, and the disillusionment, cynicism and bitterness towards the political settlement which is now evident, a number of murals offer representations that indicate the growth of tendencies that present latent but real dangers.
El ensayo considera los cambios que han tenido lugar en los murales de Irlanda del Norte en la última década más o menos. Se argumentará que si bien se han producido en los murales avances importantes que reflejan la consolidación de la ‘paz’ durante este período, las paredes también cuentan una historia diferente. Se verá que, tal vez como era previsible, dada la parálisis y estancamiento que han caracterizado los acuerdos de reparto de poder, y la desilusión, cinismo y amargura hacia una resolución política que ahora es evidente, una serie de murales ofrecen representaciones que indican el aumento de tendencias que evidencian peligros latentes pero reales.
Irlanda del Norte; 2005-2015; acontecimientos politicos; hegemonía.
In a searchable online archive that covers the development of the murals of Northern Ireland from 1979-the present (featuring some 3000 images, with a further 9000 to be catalogued), I have attempted to register a remarkable, durable, and often contentious cultural phenomenon.1 Namely, the ways in which walls in Northern Ireland have been used as sites of articulation and contestation, locations where political modalities can be asserted, violence threatened, history interpreted, identities expressed, and jokes made (to name but a few of the functions of the wall-texts that have appeared over the past thirty-five years or so). Underpinning the archive is the belief that the murals in their entirety constitute a complex, changing, fascinating body of public art that brings an added element to the understanding of the conflict in Northern Ireland and the ‘peace’ that has followed. Taken together, these materials provide an important record that renders significant insights into the complicated and strange history of Northern Ireland as it has passed from a state of war to the unstable and as yet precarious ‘peace process’.
The focus of this essay is on the changes that have taken place in the murals of Northern Ireland over the past decade or so (effectively since the 2006 St. Andrews Agreement), and more particularly the past five years.2 It will be argued that although there have been important developments in the murals that reflect the consolidation of ‘peace’ during this period, the walls also tell a different story.3 It will be shown that, perhaps predictably, given the paralysis and stagnation that have characterised the power-sharing/division of power arrangements, and the disillusionment, cynicism and bitterness towards the political settlement which is now evident, a number of murals offer representations that indicate the growth of tendencies that present latent but real dangers.
The murals and their complexity
I have written elsewhere about the evolution of the murals of Northern Ireland both in terms of form and function.4 From the simplest beginnings – a flag and a slogan for example (fig.1) –
Fig 1 Lenadoon Avenue, Suffolk, West Belfast, 1979
the murals have developed into lieux de mémoire, to use Pierre Nora’s term, and now, significantly, form part of a burgeoning heritage industry that brings tourists to very specific parts of Belfast and Derry in particular (fig.2).5
Fig 2 West Belfast taxi tours Divis St., Falls, 2004
The relatively recent growth of mural tourism has undoubtedly had an effect on the form and content of artwork on walls in particular locations. On one of the main routes into Republican West Belfast, for example, at the junction of Divis Street and Northumberland Street, the ‘International Wall’ has become the site of a number of murals that address not just issues local to Northern Ireland, but topics of wider social and political interest (fig.3).
Fig 3 International Wall, Divis Street, 2014
While on Cupar Way, the Loyalist side of the Peace Line (fig.4)
Fig 4 Cupar Way, Peace Line, Loyalist side, 2010.
now features not just murals by local groups (fig.5),
The social effect of the influx of visitors that the murals have brought to specific areas is unknown though probably relatively limited since most tourists effectively hit the murals and run – especially on the Loyalist side. But this new phenomenon certainly engenders somewhat incongruous encounters. In the summer of 2014, for example, while photographing on the Loyalist lower Shankill estate (once the home of the notorious paramilitary Johnny Adair and still largely under the influence of the Ulster Defence Association), I noticed a coach pull up. The vehicle, which bore the name of its owners and their location – County Monaghan (in the Irish Republic), was rapidly emptied of its passengers, who turned out to be Spanish teenagers on a day out from their English language school in Dublin. Quite what those teenagers made of the murals – a mix of paramilitary images (fig.8),
Fig 9 History of the Shankill, Boundary Way, Lower Shankill, 2014
and mythical allusion (fig.10), is unclear.
Fig 10 The Red Hand of Ulster, Boundary Way, Lower Shankill, 2014
But it was evident from the number of selfies taken, that one of the murals was a particular favourite amongst these visitors. It depicts Martin Luther (‘Here I stand. I can do no other’) at the Diet of Worms in 1521 (fig.11).
Fig 11 Martin Luther, Boundary Way, Lower Shankill, 2014
Whatever else might be said about it, this was a complex cultural event: a coach registered in a country regarded as enemy territory by some Loyalists, delivered a crowd of English-language-learning teenagers, many of whom were presumably from (at least culturally) Catholic backgrounds, to an impoverished Loyalist heartland estate to sightsee its murals. The teenagers wandered freely around the area, taking photographs of themselves in front of the images, particularly one that represents one of the founding moments of Protestantism (fig.12).6 It is a scenario that would have been unimaginable in even the relatively recent past.
Fig 12 The Protestant Reformation, Boundary Way, Lower Shankill, 2014
For my purposes, what this event indicates is the intricacy of interpreting contemporary murals in terms of audience, design and function. But the historical and cultural complexity of the Northern Irish murals is hardly a new development, even if some of the circumstances of their production and reception are novel. Consider for example a mural which originally appeared on the New Lodge Road in 1996, which commemorates the experience of the Republican prison campaign during the war (fig.13).
Fig 13 Saoirse, New Lodge Road, New Lodge, 2010
Painted after the declaration of the second IRA ceasefire, but before the signing of the Belfast Agreement, the mural consists of a number of images – some of which were re-circulations of iconic murals painted elsewhere in Belfast – and a brief analysis will demonstrate its historically allusive depth. At the top of the mural the slogan ‘Free the POWs’ appears, along with a green ribbon and ‘Saoirse’ (‘Freedom’) – the symbol of the campaign for the release of prisoners – together with a dove of peace. These images are superimposed on a full moon, a reference to ‘The Rising of the Moon’ –the rebellion of the United Irishmen in 1798 and in this context possibly an allusion to an entry in Bobby Sands’s prison diary (‘the day will dawn when all the people of Ireland will have the desire for freedom to show. It is then we’ll see the rising of the moon’).7 Clockwise from the top, there are representations of a Blanketman, a Republican prisoner taking part in the dirty protest, writing a Gaelic lesson on the prison wall (‘Tá mé, Tá tú’), and another prisoner being strip-searched (these images were taken from a well-publicised photograph smuggled out of the Maze prison and a 1981 mural (fig.14)).8
Fig 14 On the Blanket, Finaghy Road North, Belfast, 1981
Beneath these representations are a series of reproductions of a number of important Republican posters, some of which were either based on murals or featured on murals later (figs. 15, 16, 17).9
Fig 15 The revolutionary, Rockdale Street, Belfast, 1981
Fig 17 Wanted, International Wall, Divis Street, Belfast, 2012
Across the bottom of the mural, there are another three scenes taken from media images: a while line protest during the Hunger Strikes; women announcing the death of Bobby Sands in the traditional bin-lidding way; and a snatch squad of British soldiers.10 To the mid left of the mural there is an image of an anti-internment protest, with Long Kesh in the background, while above there are two representations of Mairéad Farrell, the Sinn Féin activist and IRA Volunteer killed while on active service in Gibraltar 1988. One is based on a photograph from within Armagh Prison where Farrell led Republican women prisoners on a blanket and dirty protest and Hunger Strike, the other is a still from the banned film ‘Mother Ireland’ (1998), made for Channel 4 and dropped because of the British Broadcasting Ban.11 Finally, the mural depicts Republican prisoners in a rooftop protest demanding repatriation to Northern Ireland (an image based on BBC news reports).
Interpretation of this mural, which has now stood for nineteen years and which constitutes a mini-history of the Republican prison campaign, entails a considerable range of reference across a number of different popular cultural media – film, television, photography, and street posters. But there are other murals which evince a different type of historical complexity. Consider in this regard what might be termed ‘the uses of Cú Chullain’. The image of this mythical hero of the Ulster Cycle of the Gaelic tradition has long featured in Irish Republican iconography, often in depictions of his death when, mortally struck, he tied himself to a stone to face his enemies and a raven landed on his wounded shoulder signalling his imminent death. Used as a nationalist symbol during the Gaelic Revival (not least by Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats), the epitome of this figuration is Oliver Sheppard’s statue, ‘The Dying Cuchulain’ (1911), which now stands as a memorial to the 1916 Rising in the Dublin GPO.12 It is unsurprising therefore that representations of Cú Chullain have been deployed by Republicans from an early point in the development of their murals, as for example in an IRA memorial on Rossville Street in Derry in 1981 (fig.18).
Strikingly, however, Cú Chulainn is also used in murals commissioned by Loyalists in which the theme remains the same, yet the political and historical message is reversed. Here for example is a UDA/UFF memorial mural on the Highfield estate (overlooking Ballymurphy) (fig.22),
Fig 22 Highfield Cú Chulainn , High Green, Belfast, 2000
while another, atypically, depicts Cú Chulainn in victorious pose on a wall in the Lower Shankill estate (fig.23).
Such duality – Republican and Loyalist hero – is, at first sight at least, puzzling and can only be explained with reference to the Gaelic myths in which Cú Chulainn appears. For while Republican representations valorise him as a heroic Gaelic warrior who dies a glorious death (despatching his enemies even in his final moments), Loyalist representations focus instead on his role as a defender of Ulster against the threat from Connacht (a task which he undertakes brutally and successfully in Táin Bó Cúailnge). It is this perhaps that explains not only the figure of Cú Chulainn triumphant in the Lower Shankill text, but also the anachronistic declaration of identity politics that accompanies it (fig.24)13
As is clear, interpreting murals can be a complicated business since like any other cultural text they are both of and in the history that produced them, reflections of it as well as interventions in it. In that regard, one long-standing mural reminds us of an important lesson: that representations, particularly representations of the past, matter (fig.25).
Fig 25 History is written by the winner, Oakman Street, Beechmount, Belfast, 2014
This is hardly news in Northern Ireland of course since key moments in history have often been commemorated, not least on the walls. Examples include the Flight of the Earls(1607) (fig.26),
Fig 26 Flight of the Earls, Ardoyne Avenue, Ardoyne, Belfast, 2010.
the triumph of William at the Battle of the Boyne (1690) (fig.27),
Fig 27 King William, Shankill Parade, Lower Shankill, Belfast, 2008
and variations on 1916 (both the Easter Rising and the Somme) (figs.28, 29).
Fig 29 Thiepval Wood, Northland Street (Thiepval Street), Shankill, 2012
But I would argue that over the past decade, perhaps even less than that, there have been significant developments in mural work in terms of re-historicising. These have taken different forms and they represent distinct tendencies, but as is always the case with the walls, they articulate and play a role in constructing larger social trends and patterns.
One important aspect of this process has been the intervention of the State itself (either directly or at arms-length) in the commissioning and production of murals in Northern Ireland over the past decade.14 Primarily financed through the ‘Re-imaging Communities’ scheme, this has also taken the form of State sponsorship of local community groups or indeed specific projects through a variety of governmental and non-governmental agencies.15 On occasion the new murals were commissioned to replace paramilitary texts (figs.30, 31)
Fig 30 Shankill Original Belfast, Shankill Road, Belfast, 2009
Fig 31 Gateway to the Shankill, Shankill Road, Belfast, 2009
though elsewhere, they were simply additions (figs.32, 33).
Fig 32 Kids mural, Brompton Park, Ardoyne, Belfast, 2009
Fig 33 Plaque to Kids mural, Brompton Park, Ardoyne, Belfast, 2009
Considered from one perspective, this can be viewed as a tardy official recognition of the significance of the murals, and of the fact that they won’t be disappearing anytime soon. From another standpoint, it can be interpreted as an attempt by the State to engineer safe representations of the past, or of apolitical topics.
The evidence suggests that this is a somewhat ambivalent development and one that is connected to other changes. Recently, for example, a great deal of material related to ‘local history’ has appeared on the walls, particularly – though not only – in Loyalist areas (indeed ‘local history’ is one of the few growth industries in Northern Ireland). And much of this work is interestingly inflected, particularly in terms of the representation of class and gender. Consider for example a set of laminated murals – ‘The Thread of History’ – that have appeared on the Donegall Road, between the Loyalist areas of the Village and Sandy Row (fig.34).
Fig 34 Local History, Donegall Road, South Belfast, 2014
As well as significant historical moments for this community – the sinking of The Titanic, the Somme, the Belfast Blitz – the wall also presents feminist images featuring Ulster suffragettes (fig.35),
Fig 35 Ulster Suffragettes, Donegall Road, South Belfast, 2014
a declaration of gender equality (fig.36),
Fig 36 A Woman’s Place is Everywhere, Donegall Road, South Belfast, 2014
and women weaver poets (fig.37).
Fig 37 Woman Weaver Poet, Donegall Road, South Belfast, 2014
In addition reference is made to the area’s class profile with images of male and female workers (including a rather incongruous, and unacknowledged, quote from Bill Clinton on the need for work) (figs.38, 39).
Fig 38 The Thread of History, Donegall Road, South Belfast, 2014
Fig 39 Pathway through Childhood, Donegall Road, South Belfast, 2014
These are progressive images, and their appearance in this location is striking, not least given that Loyalist working-class areas are (often in caricatured manner) associated with reactionary social attitudes. And yet it is important to note that it would be impossible to deduce from many of these representations (figs. 40, 41),
Fig 40 Working Life, Donegall Road, South Belfast, 2014
Fig 41 Streets of Dreams, Donegall Road, South Belfast, 2014
that the local history that they depict took place in a sectarian, divided society in which one section of the community suffered discrimination in employment, jobs and housing. Sometimes, it could be argued, local history can be a little too local.
A further trend in the process of re-historicising can be noted in the appearance of murals that signal an imperative to represent not just key foundational moments like 1690 or 1916 (the Uprising and the Somme), but perspectives on the more recent past. Two nationalist/Republican murals can illustrate one aspect of this shift. The first, on Divis Street, advertising ‘political tours’ by Coiste, the Republican ex-prisoners association, depicts the 1964 Tricolour event in which the flying of an Irish flag in an election office in this precise location caused Unionist uproar (it was one of the early significant public appearances of Ian Paisley), the confiscation of the flag by the police – twice – and a riot in response (fig.42).