Political Murals and street art in Belfast
One of the reasons I wanted to visit Belfast was to see the political murals and the street art which are on every available free wall. From Falls Road to Shankill Road to Bank Street to Talbert Street; walls filled with colourful political and non-political messages. These large-format paintings tell us of the impact of Troubles in local communities, are a call for peace and make our dreams of a future in harmony.
Within this blog, I’m writing about walking the political mural walls in Belfast. In one sense, they are still seen as street art and a message for all generations. For these murals in the different areas of Belfast generate immense discomfort in society.
The messages that inhabit the city are multiple, and the preponderance of private messages is evident. These messages come in all shapes and sizes.
The political murals are equal in measure and reveal a would-be revolution. Political parties are given a manifestation of discontent through the murals that do not want to be seen by a societal fraction. The messages are hidden in plain sight, a percentage of individuals feel at ease with these idealistic messages and others that do not.
A mural is symbolising a similarity between the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the British occupation of Ireland demonstrating the solidarity between the two peoples.
In general terms, tourist mays not look deeper into the murals or the political message. They might see a message of love and cultural diversity. Everything communicates. The fact of painting the street is already a communication, and the message transmitted in it is read, taking into account the communication’s instance in all its dimensions.
What communicates in a mural is a discontent with society and in especial, authority and obedience. The street artists violate the law by placing their messages and their egos in the streets. In Belfast, certain areas are designated areas for political street art, that are authorised by the owners of the wall.
When visiting these murals without a guide, everyone sees and interprets what they want. For its part, the aesthetic contribution of urban artists – those who do street art – to cities is invaluable; they decorate the streets historically. Street art creates priceless works, which cannot be purchased by any collector, or donated to the conventional museum. It is art for the passer-by, for the walker, for everyone who crosses, for those who are not looking for art; It is the democracy of art.
Tourism in Northern Ireland has been revitalised since the peace agreements in 1998. Tourism activities are indicative of the tensions that remain between communities in Belfast. Attempts are made to promote culture away from diverse representations of conflict with tourist agency responses and public demand.
Don’t Walk but ride
Both traditional operators and associations and neighbourhood guides offer tours by bus, taxi, and walking on the theme of the conflictive history of the city. The tours proposed by the local associations are based on the personal experience of the guides, while the classic tours offer a “neutral” history of inter-community conflict.
Using Local guides
If you are a street art tourist, who doesn’t want to immerse yourself with research, then choose a tour guide: these guides are republican or loyalist. Republicans have an interpretation of the conflict centred on the beginnings of the Troubles in 1969. They describe the troubles in a long colonial history, since the invasions by Anglo-Norman in the twelfth century. The the colonial wars of the eighteenth century follow, and finally, the independence movements of the eighteenth to the twentieth century.
What else I noticed was that the republican rhetoric puts the stress on the dimension of anticolonial fight and defence of freedom, of political order, and which has not always opposed Catholics and Protestants. The independent guide mentioned that Ireland’s defenders of Irish autonomy in the 18th and 19th centuries were not all Catholics, like the figure of Wolfe Tone, leader of the United Irish people.
Pick a Side
The above mural attempts to draw a parallel between the Nationalist cause in Northern Ireland and Nelson Mandela’s anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. However, in recent years, the mural is understood as a symbol of peace and stability, in the aftermath of conflict.
Republicans develop an interpretation of conflict in terms of a minority’s struggle against political domination and place it in the long run of struggles against oppression.
Loyalist guides are more focused on the contemporary post-conflict period. They concentrate on talking about military figures who are often represented by the loyal soldier who gave his life to the nation.
Republicans appear to manipulate the history and culture of conflict much better to gain legitimacy internationally in their narratives. Maybe the guides use the tourists as political chess pieces to gain sympathy for their cause. Loyalists have refined their speech to reverse this negative image, but the Republicans draw the symbolism for their benefit, including through victimisation.
Safety while visiting the murals of Belfast
At no time did I feel intimidated or uncomfortable, visiting such areas. Neither taking photos, so walking to the sites is a must. I was free to divert and stop when I pleased. Others choose to visit the murals by the black cabs whose drivers serve as guides while touring the Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods.
I still remember all the television footage back in the 1980s and 1990s of the troubles in Northern Ireland. Getting off the ferry in Belfast at Midnight and driving through Belfast to be met by the British army in an armoured car telling me to turn around.
Thirty years on, the only reminder for me are the murals in Belfast of the past Troubles. I know many people lost their lives and how I see the Political walls are a way of keeping those memories alive.
Two Thousand Political Murals
These 2000 murals inevitably remind me of the conflict that turned Northern Ireland into a scene of horror and violence for many years.
It is not easy to talk about clashes that caused the deaths of thousands of people. Our guide I felt sided with one political party. He was keen to tell us one story and did not want to take us to one side of Belfast which associated with another political party. This may have been due to fear of being spotted. Whatever the reason, on my walking tour, I surely wanted to, and visited a pub where I was made welcome.
These coloured brushstrokes of history, are like tree roots which run in peoples lives in Belfast. As an outsider, I felt a sense of unrest, as a parallel to what Brexit would do to the peace settlement.
The murals of Falls Road
Falls Road is the epicenter of the Catholic quarter, and a visit to the International Wall is a must. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream,” mural, is bright and beautiful. Murals are showcasing the expulsion of Israeli diplomats from Ireland. The new prime minister, Boris Johnson’s funny spitting image character coming to life.
International examples are being mobilised, linking the situation in Northern Ireland with, Palestine or South Africa. Some of these political murals are signs of solidarity with countries suffering repression. Nelson Mandela with his fist held high, local leaders, signs of solidarity towards Palestine, invitations to join Amnesty International.
Dick and William
Murals in memory of Dick and William. Two men who died in Spain during the civil war and whose plaque presides over a large red, yellow and purple canvas. Yet a mural nearby denounces the exceptional laws and mass arrests in the Falls in 1971.
Hoards of people photograph and pay tribute to the figure of Bobby Sands. The first of the 10 IRA hunger strike prisoners to die in 1981. “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.”
Impossible to remain impassive before the sentence that accompanies his portrait, located on the side of the Sinn Féin headquarters on Falls Road. It’s an obligatory stop. The image shows a martyrdom of a young man with long black hair and smiling as evoking a Christ figure.
Sinn Fein Headquarters, Belfast
Catholic religious imagery is very present and attached to the figure of Christ. As evidenced in the Falls Road Memorial Garden, the war memorial with the image of a woman holding a man in the manner of a Pièta. With the quote of the revolutionary poet Patrick Pearse shot dead after the failed 1916 uprising in Dublin.
“The fools, the fools, the fools-they have left us for our Fenian dead; and while Ireland holds these grave, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”
The Wall of Peace
They say that in Belfast there are almost a hundred walls spread over 30 kilometres. The walls rose when the riots began to separate and protect the Unionist and Republican communities. These walls still standing. One of them, located in Cuper Way, is the so-called Wall of Peace that divides the Catholic Falls Road from the Protestant Shankill Road. Just walking there you pass by many walls celebrating the death of someone’s son, or husband.
Walk down Falls Road until you find Springlield Road. Continue on this street and turn on Lanarnk Way. The impressive presence of the cement and steel walls, topped by high fences, surveillance cameras, and metal doors will indicate that you have reached Cuper Way.
When I arrived, in the middle of the morning, dozens of black taxis were already circulating in the area. Many tourists approach this section of the wall to leave their messages of peace among a tangle of graffiti.
No more murders. No more guns. We hope that peace has no end — peace, love & rock ‘n’ roll.
The murals of Shankill Road
Shankill Road, one of the main streets of the Protestant neighbourhood, runs parallel to Falls Road. As I get there, wandering around Conway Street practically alone, the images that the news had filled years ago came to mind. It seems incredible that what happened in such a quiet area in the eyes of a stranger.
The rest of Shankill Road, a proletarian avenue full of fast food outlets, is an ode to the English monarchy with hundreds of ‘Union Jack flags’ blowing in the wind.
If you decide to walk this route, you will visit more interesting murals behind Falls Road. Same messages of unionism repeated along with images of King William III, of the Celtic hero Cúchulainn, facades that honour paramilitary groups such as UVF and the UDA. Murals highlight the right to education and that everyone treated with the utmost dignity and respect. Curiously, even the curbs of the sidewalks are painted blue, white and red so that everyone knows what terrain they step drive-in.
The Shankill district
The Shankill district has very long commentaries on recent murals and monuments. These murals represent the attacks that took place there, killing civilian victims. The main stops of the visit are the memorial of the bombing of The Bayardo bar in 1975.
The monument was erected in 2008 on the place of the missing bar and, nearby, the Garden of Remembrance (Shankill Memorial Park.) Built-in 1992 in memory of all the victims of the armed forces since the First World War. In the garden, a monument (an old gas spout) was added in 1993 to honour the memory of the innocent victims of the Shankill Road fishmonger attack and all the innocent victims of the Shankill neighbourhood.
“Nothing about us without us is for us”
Is a title of artwork which reflects a slogan used internationally, where social and political change has been paramount. It is understood that each change emerges only through true consultation with the community. That is the wish of the residents of Lower Shankill district. To affect social change and move forward through collaboration with decision-makers and government at every level.
The artwork was funded by the Housing Executive, working in partnership with the Lower Shankill Community Association. The artwork replaces previous murals depicting paramilitaries and one of the Northern Ireland Coat of Arms.
The Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden, located in Bombay Street just behind the peace line by the Greater Clonard Ex-Prisoners Association, is a must to visit. It commemorates the victims of the neighbourhood, mainly those of the beginning of the Troubles in August 1969. In the war memorial is added a fresco reminding visitors of the destruction of the neighbourhood, with added photos of the ten victims of this bloody episode displayed in the medallion.
The Chronicles of a People
The Chronicles of a People
From the burning ashes of a Clonard Street, is where I trace my own.
Not fifty yards across the wall my blood runs blue as well.
The red brick walls and darkened halls where secrets never met,
For fear a neighbor lent his ear to something he’d regret.
To the sharpened steel and concrete wall that separates our minds
Where the language of indifference knows never to be kind.
The towering church that rang its bells in a panicked cry for help
Drew boys & girls in fearless hordes, through the smell of burning felt.
Near fifty years of blood and tears, some said we’d never learn
To put the past behind us and embrace another world.
But Belfast streets refuse to give its secrets of the past
With the unrelenting notion that the die’s already cast.
My truth is mine and yours is yours, no need for compromise
When a monopoly of victims can hide a thousand lies.
When pain and years of suffering is just reserved for some
The ones we leave behind us will not escape the gun.
Listening to the guides recount Loyalist attacks on working-class communities in Belfast. I overhear them recall the memory of “whole streets burned to the ground.” The guides remember the men who committed themselves to save their neighbourhood and lost their lives.
The on-site booklet first recalls the names (with photos) of the combatants, then the list of civilian casualties and the circumstances of their deaths. The pamphlet states, the monument
“Honours the memory of those who lost their lives as a direct result of the conflict resulting from the British occupation.”
Written on the plaque
“This plaque is dedicated to the people of the greater Clonard who have resisted and still resist the occupation of our country by Britain…. Their names would be too numerous to mention, and their deeds of bravery and resistance are un-equalled in the history of our struggle. We, the Republican ex-prisoners of the greater Clonard, salute you, and your reward will only be a united Ireland.”
There are visible and palpable scars in the walls. These walls hold much blood in them from a not so distant time. Socking up the walls with paint of the dispute between those who supported membership in the United Kingdom and supporters of independence or inclusion in the Republic of Ireland skewed more than 3,500 lives.
Wall frescoes (murals) painted on the gables of houses, walls and any type of building in these popular neighbourhoods, in honour of paramilitary militias and victims of the conflict. They use a pictorial vocabulary drawing from the symbols of the struggle between the two communities.
It is similar to what John Lennon and Malcolm Foley (2000) describe as “dark tourism,” in which death, disasters and atrocities are associated with tourism products, beyond attendance. Well-Known sites for commemoration purposes.
This name covers the visit of very diverse places, cemeteries, prisons, battlefields, sites of natural disasters or sites of acts of terrorism or contemporary conflicts. It seems to us, however, that the notion of dark tourism is all-encompassing and contains a moral condemnation, as pointed out by Michael S. Bowman and Phaedra C. Pezzulllo (2009).
What I did take away from wandering in the Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods is a sense of uneasiness and a sense of change. The most belligerent murals are less and less represented; the new murals reflect cultural issues without political connotations that claim to add and not subtract. A good start, in any case, aimed at mutual understanding, respect and tolerance.
Gallery of Political Street art Murals in Belfast
Gallery of the political street art we found in Belfast. While on our own or in the group. I’m sure there is still plenty more which I did not discover, so no disrespect intended to anyone or any group.
Thank you to Laila Khan for proofreading the article http://www.transfigurephotography.co.uk/laila-khan-proofreader/
Here is a link to a very helpful website which has mapped out the murals http://www.belfast-murals.co.uk