Belfast is unlike any other city we have visited, it’s struggles over the years have made is a place most visiting Ireland would steer clear of. Much has changed over the years following “The Troubles”, but one thing remains as a reminder: The Murals. Now one of Belfast’s most iconic features they tell the stories of this cities turbulent and proud past. They also remain a controversial landmark which represents a split within the city many outside would like to believe ended years ago. We went for a closer look.
Visiting Belfast as people from Manchester was a little strange. It was never somewhere in the past that I had on my list of places I really wanted to visit like I had Dublin. Sure The Giant’s Causeway had been up there for a while but Belfast always appeared harsh, cold and unwelcoming in my mind. Growing up with The Troubles in the media almost daily, stories from friends and family who served in Northern Ireland and of course the IRA bomb which rocked our city in 1996 had all left a lasting impression.
But one of the things we love doing is going to places not so popular with tourists and going with an open mind. Our experiences recently in Eastern Europe and in particular Ukraine have only cemented our view that most places in fact are very different to what the media would have you believe. In fact when this trip came about we were pretty excited to see a city we didn’t know that much about beyond what was on the news growing up and stories we would hear about it being a dangerous place!
But what I will say here is that the Belfast we found both lived up to what we had in our mind but also blew those misconceptions out of the water. In many ways the Murals played a big part in this. In the sense that Belfast doesn’t try and cover up its past, its scars are there to see and it wears them proudly. It’s lived through brutal and turbulent times but has still come out of the other end with a real warmth and a truly unique sense of humour.
I have spoken about my Irish ancestry before (Nic) but actually never gone into too much detail! I actually have quite a lot of Irish ancestors. But interestingly on my maternal side, my Nan’s family, the Bryan’s come from Northern Ireland. My Great Grandad was a protestant loyalists who would march with the Orangemen.
Then on my Grandad’s side, the Griffin’s, came from Limerick and were devout Catholics! Similarly on my Dad’s side my Grandmothers family come from Wexford and were Catholic!
So as you can imagine it is quite fascinating to come face to face with the history of my ancestry (I also have Maltese, Jewish, German and French ancestry…!) Especially given the cross over with Protestants and Catholics, to this day my family is pretty much half and half with those on my Nan’s being Protestant and my Grandad’s being Catholic!
It’s also hard to know how to feel here with that in mind. I’m English of course, but I have always felt a connection to Ireland as the home of my ancestors. I’ve heard stories of their struggles and the way they were treated by the English when they arrived.
I wrote a brief history of The Troubles in my Belfast piece so I will include this here also:
“Following on from the Irish War of Independence between 1919-21 the Northern Irish State is created and remains under British rule with Belfast as its capital. In 1968 the Nationalist begin to protest the rule of Stornmont ( NI parliament) as bias toward the Unionist and the British army move in, thus beginning the period known as “The Troubles”
The Troubles officially lasted from 1968 until the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998 (30 years), but violence did continue until the early 2000’s and even today there are minor upsets especially at times around St Patrick’s day and “The Twelfth”/ July 12th or Battle of the Boyne day which is when the Orangemen parade. The situation here is still one that needs nurturing and supervision by the people of Northern Ireland as it could quite easily be triggered again despite all the time it’s officially been over.
Some of the key events during The Troubles include the December 4th UVF bombings of 1971 which killed 15 people including 2 children. Then comes the infamous “Bloody Sunday” were 14 unarmed civilians are shot dead during a Civil Rights march in Derry by the British Army. In July 1972 was “Bloody Friday” were 9 people died in Belfast due to 21 IRA bombs detonating across the city.
Another major event was the death of Bobby Sands alongside 9 other IRA prisoners in 1981 who had their political prisoner status removed and so were allowed to die during their Hunger Strike. In 1988 3 IRA members were killed in Gibraltar and loyalist Michael Stone killed 3 mourners at their funerals during a gun and grenade attack. Two British army corporals are ambushed by a mob and shot by the IRA at their subsequent funerals.
The Good Friday agreement is signed in 1998 to give a power sharing agreement to the Northern Irish parliament and the removal of British troops from the country. However in August that year 29 people are killed by a bomb in Omagh by IRA dissidents.”
For us as Mancunians the most significant event was on the 15th July 1996 when the biggest IRA bomb on the British mainland exploded. Miraculously it killed no one but injured over 200 and left the city centre in ruins. As kids we grew up with the constant threat of IRA bombs with scares being a pretty regular occurrence, everyday on the news it was Northern Ireland politics, killings, bombs and The Troubles. It became that even the word “Northern Ireland” had something sinister and scary attached to it and the Manchester Bomb was a confirmation of that as kids. In the end the bomb had the most amazing effect on Manchester, it totally revitalised an underfunded and rundown city. The area where the bomb exploded was totally redeveloped and set off a chain of developments all over the city that leaves Manchester as the Northern hub of England.
So to visit Northern Ireland was quite a big thing and an important thing for us too. To get an impression from the real place and not the “scary place on the news”!
History of the Murals
Murals and political displays have been part of Northern Irish history for hundreds of years and as such cities like Belfast and Derry have become famous for them. They have become a symbol of both Belfast and Northern Ireland as well as a mirror for political change.
The most well known in the city are of sectarian nature and represent the city’s political and religious divisions as well as the culture important to that particular community. These murals are part of expressing an identity, values and a message as well as the marking of territory.
The murals in Belfast began as far back as 1908 when loyalists would paint King William of Orange as a sign of strength, unity and identity for the protestant community. Republican paintings began to become more frequent during the 1970’s when the reunification social movement was radicalised by the IRA. Since the 1970’s it is believed that over 2000 murals have been documents, the majority of these displaying the violent and armed struggle for dominance in this city.
Overall the murals are diverse and skilfully painted by dedicated local people who want their voices heard and the identities recognised. In many ways as much as the murals can often come across as violent one could also argue that they are in fact a way to air grievances and differences using art instead of violence, especially in the modern day.
Catholic/ Republican Murals
The falls road area of the city is best know for it’s republican murals, the most famous being that of Bobby Sands which sits on the side of Sinn Fein’s office in the area. The ‘International Wall’, which depicts the struggles of other oppressed people (such as Gaza) with which the republican’s sympathise, is also on of the most well known.
Other themes portrayed in the Irish Republican areas of the city include memorials to fallen IRA soldiers as well an innocent residents caught up in the fighting such as the protesters on Bloody Sunday. They also highlight events such as the 1981 hunger strike alongside other bombings and killings perpetrated by Loyalists.
Many often have a Celtic feel to them and also celebrate Irish culture in general. Often the streets around the Republican areas will have Irish street signs and the Tricolour will be displayed proudly, even post boxes are painted green as they are in the south.
Protestant/ Loyalist Murals
The loyalist murals around the Shankill and Newtownards Roads appeared to be much more violent in their portrayal of history. They often portray images of UVF paramilitary fighters dressed balaclavas and camo carrying AK-47’s, which can be quite intimidating. Flags of the home nations are also proudly painted in a show of unity, even street furniture is often red, white and blue.
Other more traditional themes are also commonplace in Loyalist areas such as commemorating the battle of the Somme and the soldiers who sacrificed themselves for Britain during the First World war. This was, of course, one of the major instigators in the Irish battle for independence when many Irishmen chose not to fight in “Britain’s war” and instead die on Irish soil fighting for their own freedom.
William of Orange and the cause of the Orangemen is also often displayed alongside memorials for those killed during The Troubles and in particular as a result of the IRA bombs.
Not all Murals are political however…
The murals have become the backdrop to the city, news flashes using them to depict the stories of The Troubles. Often these murals do promote and declare allegiances to paramilitary grounds such as the Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Volunteer Force but not all are about expressing hate and division. Many show support for other nations and people as well as displaying pride in the achievements of the city in sport and industry.
There are many that display historical events such as the Great Irish Famine, the building of the titanic and Belfast’s famous son George Best. Others portray neutral subject such as interpretations of novels by local authors or even actively encouraging peace and togetherness as well as images of local landmarks.
Future of the Murals
Many of the more shocking and violent political murals have be criticised for they way in which they still encourage division and dwell too much on the past. Others see these as an important part of the city’s history which is not to be forgotten and a way in which both communities can keep their identities. They have been often described as a “picture book that tells the story of the last 35 years of conflict”.
The murals however are also increasingly popular with visiting tourists wanting to get a first hand glimpse of the events which famously took place on it’s streets and as such are a draw for the city. As with many things in this city the decision on what to do with them moving forward will be one which will include lots of communication between different groups and a sensitive approach.
Seeing the murals was one of the thing we both were looking forward to the most when visiting Belfast. Having grown up at a time in which The Troubles were a constant talking point it was fascinating to see these places and speak to the people ourselves.
Venturing out into these areas we did initially feel a little intimidated. But what we came across was not hostility but in fact the same warmth we had experienced in the city centre. These murals go to show that there is still a division in this city and most likely always will be, but that it doesn’t always have to be a violent one. Instead it can be about diversity and pride, remembering the events of the past as a warning to never let it go that far again.
It did seem a little strange seeing a young school boy skipping along innocently, swinging his lunch box around as he passed an image of a man with an automatic weapon. But to people here this is just their daily lives and if these murals allow traditions and cultures to continue proudly without another bullet being fired then that just shows the true power of art!
How to see them
We ventured out on foot and ended up with blisters! If you want to do in on your own terms then leave at least a full day for exploration. Buses run frequently from the city centre out to working class outskirts where the murals can be found.
The North, West and East of the city are the most political and centred around Falls Road, Shankill Road and Newtownards Road. The international peace wall can also be found on Falls road/ Shankill divide. A large titanic mural can also be found on Newtownards road.
Check out these dedicated websites here for maps and exact locations of the murals:
The best way to see the Murals however is to take one of the “Black cab tours” of the city. This way you will be guided by a local on a unique one on one tour. These take a couple of hours and can be tailors to your interests as well as extended upon request. You will get a personal account of the history behind these famous murals. There are lots of companies offering this service as well as other tours in the black cabs. Check some of them out here: