Scars on the Walls: The Troubles Murals of N. Ireland
This summer, I had the opportunity to spend a bit of time in Northern Ireland, where I sought out a bit more on the walls of Belfast, the city in which the majority of The Troubles centered.
Yes, the walls.
Walls have played an important role in nearly every modern conflict, whether they be the wall dividing East Berlin from West Berlin, the Separation Wall in Palestine, or concrete walls installed by Lebanese security forces in Beirut following mass protests. Not only do these walls provide a physical barrier to divide warring groups or confine a group to an area, but they provide a canvas for a form of protest art: graffiti and murals.
After a refresher course on Northern Irish politics and calming my father through his first left-side driving in a long time, I made it to Belfast.
Belfast is unlike any city I’ve visited. It boasts a long history of labor, as the Titanic was built in a Belfast shipyard, and residents of Belfast speak in an accent unlike any other I’ve heard. Guinness at Belfast bars is just as delicious a few hours north of its origin in Dublin.
Walls in Belfast are physical obstacles, yes, but they are also mental or political barriers. A physical representation of lasting political fractures facilitates continued division, but it’s still more than that. The walls of Belfast are covered in paint or hard fiber held down with nails. These images reinforce loss, anger, and perceived injustice on both sides. No one seems particularly interested in removing the murals and many people regularly maintain the art by repainting or cleaning the pieces. On the rare occasion that a mural is removed, it’s almost always to replace it with a new political mural instead.
There is a practice of a releasing of steam — an airing of grievances — that has kept some societies from warring internally. This means having an outlet for venting frustrations in a mostly public setting without too much fear of legal repercussions. This practice is partially what Orwell hints at in 1984 during the “15 minutes hate” and described as part of the social science that Lisa Wedeen explains in Ambiguities of Domination as “tanfis”, an Arabic word meaning something akin to “letting off of steam”. (I highly recommend this book. Additional reading on the topic from a former professor, Dr. Rebecca Joubin.) Tanfis allows a political regime or set of norms to remain durable, but keeps artistic transgression and a countercultural consciousness rich and flourishing.
This tanfis shows itself in Northern Ireland in the form of political murals for some and a yearly burning of effigies (sort of) for others. For the latter, there is always a period of major tension following the event.
Every year on July 12th, Protestants celebrate victory over Catholics in the 17th century through marches, demonstrations, and a burning of pallets. This event is celebrated pretty much as a holiday for Protestants, who call it simply “The Twelfth”.
As one can imagine, Catholics of Ireland are not as fond of the celebration. Nearly every year, this celebration/burning leads to some form of minor violence either through vandalism or hateful speech and counterprotests by Catholic Irish. This year, the police shot at Catholic youth with rubber bullets to quell angry protests in the wake of the events of the Twelfth.
Many Protestants celebrate this event as the day that William of Orange drove the Catholics back, and swear that it has zero connection to contemporary politics. Of course, this is ludicrous and ignorance of the politics of these celebrations is nothing but foolish.
I was in Northern Ireland just a bit over a week before the Twelfth and saw a few locations of the burnings. The driver I toured with told me that his friend in the pallet business struggles to meet demand of wooden pallets during the weeks leading up to the Twelfth, and that he has jokingly said that he wishes there would be more burnings so business stays good.
Both Catholic and Protestant artists and activists have painted or hung murals throughout Belfast to honor their dead, call for revenge, or point out injustice around the world.
While in Belfast, I toured many of these murals with a man who introduced himself as a cab driver who worked during the Troubles (the business of which was tough and, without knowing which roads to avoid, potentially deadly). The IRA ran a service of “black cabs” that provided jobs for people sympathetic of their cause, especially for those who had recently returned from jail. These cars were allegedly used as getaway cars, cars from which drivebys happened, and for troop transport across a city with regularly shifting blockades.
The first murals I saw were in direct line of sight from a fairly infamous loyalist sniper post during the conflict. The building that these shooters sat in still looms high above this section of Belfast, an area with noticeably less foot-traffic than most of the roads of similar size in Belfast.
The murals along this strip of Belfast cover a significant amount of politics of the Troubles and the years after it. Murals reference the Ballymurphy Massacre, youth lost to live gunfire, and other Catholic loss during much of the Troubles.
The murals at this portion of Belfast (just a bit down the road from the Sinn Fein office), also make statements about global politics and injustice abroad.
There are murals of children in Gaza, references to political prisoners in Spain, and calls for reservation reform in the United States. These murals, among others, are seemlessly placed between memorials to the students killed in Belfast, pictures of those who organized hunger strikes, and statements of Irish nationalism (Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdoms, while Ireland is its own country).
Part of this likely stems from a feeling of British or Protestant occupation. These links to Israel and to Spain serve to situate the struggles of Catholics in Belfast within the global narrative of occupier and occupied.
Continuing my trip through Catholic Belfast, I came upon a street of plexiglass conflict posters with the names of Irish children who had died to lethal and nonlethal force in Belfast.
At first, the military police were not allowed to use real bullets. They were also instructed to shoot their rubber bullets at the ground in front of targets instead of directly at them. The result was that rubber bullets would bounce off of the ground in front of a target and catch them under the chin or at the neck, effectively killing the target with nonlethal weaponry. Rubber bullets are more elastic than metal bullets and therefore have a higher rate of ricochet and often ricochet at more drastic angles than their metal counterparts.
A bit on the location of these posters: they were located on a street known by many during the Troubles as “RPG avenue” because the IRA in the area was armed with RPG-7s gifted from a number of places including Libya’s Qaddafi, who was sympathetic the the IRA’s cause (perhaps for irony’s sake but more likely because of their opposition to the British government).
One of the most central parts of remaining Belfast division is the most physically clear of physical barriers — the so-called peace wall. I rode in a car along the wall where graffiti, continued tagging, and calls for peace lined the Catholic side of the wall (I was unable to go to the Protestant side for lack of time, but I’m sure it’s fairly similar).
This wall is several of me tall in concrete, then a bit more of metal, and finally a bit of chain-link fence. Throughout the Troubles and the time after, the wall has grown as the community saw fit. The chain-link fence was added as a last crowning of the wall after youth resorted to throwing grenades and Molotov cocktails over the wall.
There have been several chances to remove the gate that leads into some of the Catholic neighborhoods of Belfast, but both sides have decided that they ought to keep the gate and walls in place “just in case,” my guide told me. The gate was previously closed before sun-down to physically stop raids from either side of the wall.
The wall is continuously updated by more art, but one thing is still visible from the wall, looming over the Belfast skyline:
My guide then took me to Shankill road, one of the most famous locations for the Troubles. Shankhill road is a main road through west Belfast and links the neighborhood for which it is named to the rest of the city. Shankill is a predominantly working-class loyalist neighborhood and was the scene of a brutal IRA bombing that left 10 dead and nearly 60 injured.
Shankill is home to some of the scariest political murals, including one where the barrel of a gun wielded by an Ulster Freedom Force (UFF) member follows you for the length of the road which he faces. There are also a good deal of murals of loyalist women armed with shotguns defending their husbands or defending themselves against “sectarian violence from across the border”.
Children watched me from behind the short fences of most yards in this area. The yards aren’t more than 100 square feet but often were decorated with multi-colored, small children’s play-sets as if the MP5 pointed from across the street wasn’t a constant reminder of violence visited upon the neighborhood less than 20 years prior.
References to Protestant history are popular in Shankill and the surrounding neighborhoods, including massive paintings of King William III (of Orange). This man displaced the English Catholic king before him and went on to win the Battle of Boyne against James II, the battle celebrated by Protestants in Belfast that I mentioned earlier.
The demonstrations, effigy-burning, and Catholic response to these Protestant actions serve to keep the Troubles on the minds of Belfast citizens through direct action and visible human bodies performing the politics of this sectarian struggle. The murals, on the other hand, keep these politics on the eyes of inhabitants of whichever neighborhood or in the peripherals of commuters as they drive down whichever thoroughfare all year long.
On one hand, the murals of Belfast are beautiful, eerie, and an interesting community project. On the other hand, though, they are lasting visual scars of a conflict that left many children and siblings dead. People who looked exactly like one another attempted to win authority through violence, and did so along pretty rigid religious lines.
The Troubles are often cited by political scientists, policymakers, and journalists alike as a successful peace process that has held firm for years, but, as with any post-conflict society, there exists a deep complexity to the political situation of Northern Ireland today. The murals are just one of the most visible of the symptoms of lasting protracted tension.