Book review — The Writing on the Wall (Stuart Borthwick)

Book review — The Writing on the Wall (Stuart Borthwick)
18 May 2023

In The Writing on the Wall, Dr Stuart Borthwick takes the reader on a journey through the history of Northern Ireland as depicted in almost 200 murals located in the country. As Borthwick explains, “This book does not purport to tell the story of these murals, but reflects upon the story told by the murals themselves and provides an insight into the relationship between the past, present, and future within the North of Ireland.”

Source: Kickstarter

The book starts with a short introduction of the conflict and the role that the murals have played in it. Borthwick explains, with a reference to the work of Bill Rolston, that the tradition of mural painting started in Protestant communities with the annual celebrations of the victory of King William III at the Battle of the Boyne. Soon, the loyalist tradition of mural painting expanded and started to include other major events such as the two World Wars, the Easter Rising, and the Irish War of Independence.

In the 1980s there is a major shift in the content of the loyalist murals; the dominant theme in the loyalist murals became support for paramilitary organizations. At the same time, members of the republican community started to paint murals in support of the hunger strikers in 1980–1981. From this point on, murals from both communities would dominate the walls of working-class communities in Northern Ireland.

The murals presented by Borthwick in the book are located in such areas of major towns and cities of Northern Ireland. Generally, those murals are painted on the gable-end walls of terraced houses, on the sides of small blocks of flats, or on the exterior walls of commercial premises. Borthwick explains that the lifetime of a mural can be very difficult, depending on the paint used and the aspect of the mural. There are murals that only last for a couple of days, while other murals last for several years or even decades. Therefore, many murals are subject to frequent renovation.

The book is divided into eight chapters, each showcasing a range of murals that are linked to specific periods in the history of Northern Ireland. In chapter one, Ireland’s Pasts, the murals cover Irish mythology, Martin Luther, Oliver Cromwell, the Apprentice Boys of Derry, William of Orange, and the mass emigration of the 1840s. Chapter two, War and Independence, covers the struggle for Home Rule, the Easter Rising, the birth of the Republic, and memorials for the First World War. Chapter three, The Spark, mainly features murals connected to the civil rights movement.

Moving on to chapter four, Descent into Violence, the focus is on paramilitary murals and current events such as internment and the Ballymurphy massacre. Chapter five, At War, starts with murals depicting the events of Bloody Sunday and then showcases many memorials for paramilitary volunteers of both sides. Chapter six, The Prison Protests: Inside and Out, displays images of blanket protesters, hunger strikers, and other protesters. Chapter seven, The Long War, mainly features murals that serve as memorials for people and events involved in the conflict. Finally, chapter eight, The Uneasy Peace, shows murals that depict the road towards peace, references to other conflicts around the world, and images of a peaceful future, while also expressing hesitance towards peace.

Borthwick provides detailed background information on most of the murals, explaining the events that led up to the creation of the murals and the impact that they had on the conflict. He explains that while the murals tell much of the history of the Troubles, they do not tell the full story. Since the murals are painted by members of either the Protestant or the Catholic community, narratives provided by “the Brits” (the armed forces, security services, and British establishment) and voices of the local security services such as the RUC and UDR are missing. Borthwick furthermore explains that while many of the major events of the Troubles are present in the murals, some are missing. Nevertheless, as Borthwick describes, “The murals of Northern Ireland represent a stunning exposition of republican and loyalist values framed within a unique cultural form.”

Overall, the book by Borthwick is an essential read for anyone interested in understanding the Troubles and their impact on Northern Ireland. By choosing a different way of presenting history, through stunning visuals The Writing on the Wall is unique in its kind.

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