105. The Murals of Northern Ireland

The Murals of Northern Ireland: In an apparent attempt to prove that they can make anything sound civilized, if not a little charming, the name the Irish have given to the North’s dreadful history of war and cyclical vengeance is simply, “the Troubles.” The Troubles are most frequently summed as a division between Catholics and Protestants, but it’s hardly that simple. It’s about politics, money, control, stubbornness, “racial heritage,” and most of the actual violence happens on the battlefield streets of public housing complexes and the main drags of the working poor. It’s also an issue of multi-generational poverty and inadequate education and it’s become so systemic that it’s hard to imagine what measure of change can really put an end to it. This is considered to be a time of peace between Loyalists and Republicans, with optimistic rhetoric offered by the politicians of both sides, but visual evidence of the Troubles lingers in the big cities of the North. It is captivating and chilling.

When I first joined Amy in Belfast, it was the beginning of the Protestant holiday week of the Twelfth Fortnight. Most Catholics (and many Protestants) of adequate financial means leave the North on vacation during this time. Those Protestants who remain celebrate their English heritage with parades, heavy drinking and massive – and I mean massive – four story high bonfires that are usually topped off with an effigy of the Pope. All in good fun, of course. We had the good fortune to be staying with the Belfast family of a Portland connection and the father of that family took us on a driving tour of the worst affected parts of Belfast. He calls it his Terrorist Tour but really it’s a kind of Grimmest Hits of the last forty years. Very entertaining all the same. Silhouetted against gloomy grey skies, we saw the high metal fences and locked gates that divide the city’s Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Where there are no fences but streets that divide neighborhoods, the wasteland between them is usually a row of firebombed and long-vacated homes and businesses. These hard-edged dividing lines, or “peace lines,” function as de facto demilitarized zones, with packs of teenage boys patrolling their respective borders in an attempt to tease out provocation from the other side. It was goddamn spooky, especially because so many people had left the city on vacation. The people we did see, mostly men and boys, carried an aura of mischief, or worse. A few people behind locked and barred windows peered out through lace curtains. Smokers huddled in the doorways of corner pubs, the only businesses keeping regular hours that week. At one point we rounded a particularly grisly looking border street, so I could photograph a row of paint-bombed and boarded-up homes, and we immediately drew the attention of a group of boys working the Protestant side. They started walking towards us. A few picked up rocks and hurled them at our car. We moved on.

The scene is similar in Derry, the site of the infamous Bloody Sunday incident, and in both cities, the most spectacular and haunting visual evidence of the Troubles are the wall murals painted by both sides. Equal parts memorial, propaganda and historical record, the murals are a prominent part of the urban landscape. Whether you agree with the message or not, their power and, in some cases their artistic beauty, is astonishing. Imagine yourself a child born in one of these neighborhoods after the worst of the Troubles. Walking past these kinds of images every day, ten times larger than life, indoctrination would be unavoidable.

There’s been quite a bit written about the murals, but here’s a Wikipedia page if you’re curious for more. Below, the first three murals (as well as the one above) are located in Irish Republican (Catholic) neighborhoods and the second three are from Ulster Loyalist (Protestant) neighborhoods. I have to say that based on what we saw, the Republicans have a substantially more polished message and style to their murals, while some of the Loyalist images are outright baffling – see the one that makes a direct comparison between the Loyalist cause and the Confederates in the American Civil War.


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