1690 / Cemented with Love. Donegall Pass, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

The murals of Northern Ireland are one of the more prominent reminders of its conflict-ridden past. In total, there are an estimated 2,000 murals in the country, of which 700 are located in its capital, Belfast. The tradition of mural painting in Northern Ireland is more than a century old, even predating the partition of 1921. Over the course of time, murals have taken on many different forms and functions, and they remain relevant in the post-conflict society of Northern Ireland.

Loyalist murals

Battle of the Boyne mural. Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

The origins of mural painting in Northern Ireland can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century. For the annual Twelfth of July festivities, people from the Protestant community would decorate streets to celebrate the victory of the Protestant King William of Orange (often referred to as “King Billy”) over the Catholic King James II of England, at the Battle of the Boyne. As a part of this, people started to paint images of King Billy onto gable walls, where they could be viewed all year round. In the years that followed, other themes — such as the Battle of the Somme, the sinking of the Titanic (built in Belfast), and the coronation of King George V and Queen Mary — also appeared, but they were not as dominant as the images of King Billy. After the partition of the island in 1921, the significance of these murals became even more important, since they sought to legitimise the British hegemony and political status in the country. Because of this, mural painting became a civic duty in Protestant areas, and they helped to transform areas where Protestants lived into “Protestant areas”.

By the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, the content of the murals from the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist (PUL) community started to change, reflecting the evolving political landscape of the country and the growing tensions between the Protestant and Catholic communities. By this time unionism was splintered, with some people seeing the need for liberalisation while others held on to the old ascendancy. The dominant images of King Billy which had symbolised solidarity within the PUL community started to fade away. Loyalist mural painters started to paint images of flags, shields, bibles, and other inanimate symbols instead of persons.

You are now entering loyalist Sandy Row / Heartland of South Belfast / Ulster Freedom Fighters / Quis Separabit. Sandy Row, Belfast. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

In the 1980s, the content of the murals within the PUL community changed once again, especially following the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which was met with fierce resistance from loyalists on the streets. From this point on, murals were no longer a product of the wider community but became an instrument for the different paramilitary organisations. Whichever paramilitary organisation dominated an area decided what was going to be portrayed on the murals. As a result, the dominant image now became UVF or UDA men, usually wearing balaclavas and holding weapons.

The murals during this period had many different functions. First, they portrayed a sense of protection to their community, by saying that the loyalist soldiers were willing and ready to protect them from any harm. Second, they were used as a reminder to the community to remain strong and loyal to their cause. Third, they were painted to advertise for military and organisational support of the paramilitary groups. Fourth, they were painted to send a warning to the republican paramilitary organisations. Fifth, they were painted to mark territories by saying that anyone who crossed the boundary would face radical punishment from the loyalist paramilitaries. The murals were specifically designed to be threatening and violent in nature.

The paramilitary murals would remain dominant within the PUL community, even during the peace process of the 1990s. A reason for this was the loyalist hesitancy towards the peace process. Many topics of the peace process — such as RUC reform and demilitarization — were not necessarily supported by loyalists. Furthermore, the loyalists often used the slogan “no surrender” in their murals. Showing images of the peace process in the murals would appear as though they were giving up.

Prince of Orange. Sandy Row, Belfast, Northern Ireland. (c) Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

In the years following the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement there came more and more pressure from within as well as outside the PUL community to change the content of their murals with images that better reflect the post-conflict society. There are some examples of community initiatives, but they have often been directed towards specific murals instead of a broader attempt to change the content. The state has also become involved in the transformation of the murals, most notably through its “Re-imaging Communities Programme”. This was launched in April 2007 by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, with the purpose of engaging local people and their communities in finding ways of replacing divisive murals and emblems with more positive imagery. Community groups could apply for funding of up to £50,000 per project, which the Arts Council measured against four criteria: shared future objectives, community support, quality of arts activity, and organisational and project viability. While the reactions to the programme have been mixed, several positive outcomes are worth mentioning, such as the transformation of many murals that previously promoted sectarianism, violence, or other forms of intolerance, as well as the promotion of dialogue and reconciliation between communities in Northern Ireland.

East Side mural. Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Many of the transformed murals show images of community pride in the form of local heroes, such as George Best and C.S. Lewis, or historical images, such as King Billy on his horse and the Battle of the Somme.

Republican murals

The origin of mural painting in the Catholic/Nationalist/Republican (CNR) community is very different to that of the PUL community. In the first few decades since the creation of the Northern Ireland state, there was little room for Catholics to express their cultural identity, given the unionist political dominance in the country. The Flags and Emblems Act of 1954 furthermore gave the RUC the duty to remove any flag or emblem from public or private property which was considered to be likely to cause a breach of the peace. In practice, this was almost solely used against the CNR community. Because of this, mural painting was seen as dangerous by the CNR community.

#THINK32. Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Therefore, one of the only CNR murals painted before the 1980s was a mural painted in 1969 in the Bogside area of Derry/Londonderry following a period of civil unrest known as the Battle of the Bogside. The slogan on this mural read “You are now entering Free Derry” and was an act of defiance against the British Army and the Northern Ireland Government.

Mural: Bobby SANDS MP. Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

In 1981 youths in CNR areas started to paint murals in support of the hunger strikers. These murals showed portraits of the hunger strikers either as victims of a brutal system or as potentially victorious. The best-known example of this is the mural of Bobby Sands, painted on the wall of the Sinn Féin political party press office on Falls Road in Belfast.

Ernesto Che Guevara Lynch. Political mural, Bogside, Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Following this, there was an explosion of mural painting within the CNR community. In contrast to the PUL community, the CNR community had a wide range of themes to choose from. One of these themes was the armed activities of the IRA. These murals showed IRA members posing with their weapons or in action. But the militaristic theme would not come to dominate the CNR community as it did within the PUL community. Next to this were many election murals calling on people to vote for Sinn Féin. The CNR community also depicted many historical events and mythological characters in their murals. These showed, for example, images of the great famine of the 1840s or of the mythical hero Cuchulainn. Murals connecting the struggle of the CNR community in Northern Ireland to that of other liberation efforts elsewhere in the world were also very common. Popular links were shown in these murals, such as to the Basques and Catalans in Spain, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and the work of Ché Guevara and Nelson Mandela.

Because of the broad range of themes within the murals of the CNR community, they had less trouble changing their images during and after the peace process. Following the IRA and loyalist ceasefires of 1994, the CNR community decided for themselves that they would no longer depict armed activists in their murals. The only exception for this were murals that depicted historical events or served as memorials to dead comrades. Slogans like “sniper at work” on republican murals were changed to “sniper on hold”. For the most part muralists from the CNR community held on to their broad pallet of themes after the peace process. Furthermore, murals now provided commentaries on public policy issues.

Since the peace process, there has also been an alteration in the location and targets of the murals. Whereas first the murals were mostly located inside the communities and not easily visible at the boundaries, they now started to appear in places visible to both communities. Therefore, the messages presented by the murals are not only directed at the internal community, but also at the wider society.

Other murals

In the post-conflict society of Northern Ireland, murals have also become a vibrant tourist attraction. Mural tours in Belfast operated by both tour companies and local residents are highly popular. Furthermore, murals are often used to market Northern Ireland as a tourist destination on websites, such as that of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.

Derry Girls mural by UV Arts, depicting five main characters of popular TV show. Orchard Street, Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Today, there is a “mixed economy” of mural painting in Northern Ireland. Next to the explicitly political murals of both communities, there are now murals on non-republican and non-loyalist themes. Especially in the city centres of Derry/Londonderry and Belfast a street art scene has emerged. These street art images can have a political message but are not linked specifically to loyalism or republicanism; most often, they do not contain a political message at all. This is an indication that even when people no longer feel the need to paint murals on the historical themes, the tradition of murals will continue, with themes shifting to issues that are relevant to the people in Northern Ireland today.

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