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Ireland's Political Murals

Opinion Piece. The author is a QUB Political Science honours graduate, a political analyst and has written on a variety of related issues

West Belfast mural commemorating Kevin Lynch who died during the H Block Hunger Strike in 1981

West Belfast mural commemorating Kevin Lynch who died during the H Block Hunger Strike in 1981

Commemoration and Resistance

Ireland's political wall murals are now world famous, and they receive thousands of visitors every year. In more recent years some of the most memorable murals have been replaced by less militaristic imagery, due at least in part to British government grant funding conditional on a 'toning down' of the murals, in keeping with their present normalisation policy. In the Loyalist areas of the north of Ireland, murals were a feature for many years, even previous to the Troubles. However, they were not on the same scale as they would have been in later years and generally took the form of a simple representation of King William of Orange or similar royalist imagery.

In Republican areas of the North of Ireland, political wall mural painting has mushroomed over this past 35 years and some. Examples of this, such the renowned Free Derry Corner in the Bogside proclaiming that 'You Are Now Entering Free Derry', have become local landmarks and world-famous sites of historical interest. Several books and academic studies of political wall murals in the North of Ireland have been published, perhaps the best known being those by local academic and human rights campaigner Bill Rolston.

Up until more recent times, there was a strong military theme to most Irish Republican political murals, with paintings of armed Republicans being extremely common. Memorial type political murals were and still are also popular, with many examples remembering the sacrifice of the ten Hunger Strikers, who gave their lives in the struggle for political status in 1981. Other memorial type political murals commemorate Irish Republicans who lost their lives on active service during the recent conflict.

Free Derry Corner

Free Derry Corner and it's message became a symbol of anti-imperialist resistance following the Battle of the Bogside.

Free Derry Corner and it's message became a symbol of anti-imperialist resistance following the Battle of the Bogside.

The Provisonal IRA's murals are by far the most numerous in Republican areas of the North, due to their fairly successful attempts at achieving near hegemony within Republican communities, especially in West Belfast. Murals in support of other groups do exist however and there are several striking murals sponsored by the Irish Republican Socialist Movement (IRSM) which includes the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) and the Republican Socialist Youth Movement (RSYM.) Three IRSM prisoners gave their lives in the 1981 Hunger Strike and many IRSM murals commemorate their sacrifice.

Other Socialist murals commemorate the Great Belfast Dockers strike of 1907, that saw age old sectarian differences being forgotten in an all too brief display of working-class unity against a common enemy. The Socialist mural in question is placed strategically on an old factory wall on Northumberland Street, a road that runs between the Protestant Shankill and the Catholic Falls Road and it's poignant message appeals for class solidarity once again. A new mural on the same 'peaceline' which divides the Falls and Shankill Roads, painted by the IRSP, on the 'Republican' side of the interface is dedicated to Republican Socialist prisoners.

Other anti-Stormont Republican groupings have fairly recently been painting murals in Republican areas, most recently being the Republican Network for Unity's (RNU) new mural on the world famous International Wall at Divis Street. To the best of my knowledge the Official Republican Movement (ORM) have only one mural in Belfast. The ORM mural is painted on the gable wall of their Falls Rd office, it commemorates Liam McMillan, a former Official IRA leader. (McMillan was allegedly shot dead by a youthful Gerald Steenson, who later became a leader of the now infamous but defunct, IPLO. Steenson himself was shot dead by the INLA.)

Many Republican murals are non-party based, for instance, commemorating the Hunger Strikes of 1981 or the 1916 Easter Rising. Some murals are heavily laden with images from Celtic mythology and are widely acclaimed because of their intricate design work. The world famous International Wall on the Lower Falls Road/Divis Street celebrates international solidarity with Liberation Struggles in Palestine, Latin America and the Basque Country.

Tours of the murals and areas of historical significance in the Irish conflict are often conducted by ex-political prisoners and are extremely good value for money for students of the Irish conflict and so-called "conflict resolution". Backpack bearing visitors from all corners of the world are a common sight in West Belfast on guided tours around the various murals dotted throughout the district. Community groups in west Belfast also paint murals as an alternative activity for teenagers, to counter graffiti and their work can be seen in many districts often warning of the dangers of street drugs and alcohol abuse.

Ulster Loyalist Murals

Murals of masked paramilitaries from the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Red Hand Commando (RHC) are still prevalent in Loyalist areas in the North of Ireland. Some Loyalist murals depict scenes of sectarian murders being carried out by masked UVF or UDA gangs. Loyalist murals are often seen to be reactionary and of much less internationalist appeal, due to their ideological links to far-right and racist groups in Britain, Europe, and the USA. Some Loyalist murals did include scenes from the heavy metal band Iron Maiden album covers and were a barometer of their political sophistication. However, in recent times mural painters in some Loyalist areas have attempted to depict their rather quaint concepts of Britishness and feelings of kinship with Zionist settlers in the Occupied Territories. How that dovetails with Loyalism's use of extreme right-wing emblems is very much in the eye of the beholder

Loyalist ex-combatants, like their Republican counterparts, conduct tours of their murals and there are now joint tours where tourists can visit murals in both Republican and Loyalist areas, retaining the same tour guide or with tour guides from both communities. During the recent conflict, joint tours where a Republican or Loyalist would take visitors across the Peace-line to view the other community's murals would have been impossible due to serious security considerations and lack of practical interface entry points. Community groups from both sides of the Peace-lines seem hopeful that there is a spark of hope for working-class unity, somewhere within ventures such as joint mural tours.

Loyalist mural in East Belfast dedicated to the UFF a cover name used by the Ulster Defense Association.

Loyalist mural in East Belfast dedicated to the UFF a cover name used by the Ulster Defense Association.

Loyalist mural at the junction of Beverley Street and Northumberland Street commemorating the IOF's Lt Col John Henry Patterson

Loyalist mural at the junction of Beverley Street and Northumberland Street commemorating the IOF's Lt Col John Henry Patterson

Loyalist UDA mural decorated with neo-Nazi flags

Loyalist UDA mural decorated with neo-Nazi flags

Touring the Murals

The North's political murals are a must-see for tourists to Belfast and Derry. There are various ways to see them, including mural tours and generalized tours of places of historical significance within Belfast and Derry's vast working-class ghettoes. There are walking tours conducted by ex-political prisoners which are highly recommended, they are relatively cheap and great value for money as your guide will be intimately familiar with both the area and the nature of the conflict in the North of Ireland. There are also black taxi tours and mini-bus tours available, usually from the same source. Open-top tour buses leave the city center regularly and these are popular too with visitors to Belfast.

It is also entirely feasible for visitors to conduct their own unassisted tour of Belfast's political murals and visitors will be completely safe, despite the north of Ireland's troubled history. Local people are generally only too happy to provide local knowledge and visitors will find that local people are walking encyclopedias on the Irish conflict. Visitors often call into some of the ex-political prisoners support groups offices in search of directions and places of interest to visit. Many visitors have reported that exploring Belfast and Derry's murals have been the high point of their trip to Ireland and many have become extremely fond of the rich local culture.

© 2019 Liam A Ryan

Comments

Liam A Ryan (author) from Ireland on September 27, 2019:

Go raibh maith agat, a chara

Paddy1916 on September 26, 2019:

Top class mo chara! I am glad to have found your articles. I am thoroughly enjoying your work! Good to find something worth a read. ✊