Perhaps the most distinctive thing you will see if you visit Northern Ireland is the presence of Murals in communities. Murals here are not simply pretty pictures – they all mean something, whether they be historical references, representations of current or recent community members, or messages. Murals within a community express aspects of community identity – although they are not always put up by members of the local communities themselves. I’ve been told that there has been a shift away from murals which glorify violence, although many murals of gunmen still remain.
Historically, the first murals were present only in Protestant communities – and they represented historical figures like Oliver Cromwell, or legends. This mural in the Shankill refers to the legend of “the Red hand of Ulster“.
This is one of the most violent murals I’ve seen in Belfast. It represents the Ulster Deference Association, the Ulster Volunteer Force, and their historical origins. The UVF gunman’s rifle appears to be trained on you as you walk by – a trick of the painting which represents that you are being watched as you walk through these tight knit communities.
Murals began appearing in Catholic neighborhoods in the 60s and 70s. They play largely the same role as murals in Protestant communities – but there is a greater emphasis on the similarity between the struggle here and other civil rights struggles around the world. This mural depicts the Israeli Apartheid wall and calls for an end to Israeli aggression in Palestine.
It took me a while to put my finger on what is so strange about the community murals in Belfast. I thought it was their glorification of violence, or their association with the history of the armed struggle. However, I think what is actually strange about these murals is first and foremost the fact that they are images put up by communities which refer to historical and ongoing focal points of that communities’ identity. This became most obvious when I saw a mural next to a large advertisement for a contemporary Hollywood film – I realized, we are completely used to seeing “murals” up everywhere – but we automatically assume those murals have nothing to do with the communities we find ourselves in – they come from the magical neutral place called “capitalism”. What is most transgressive about community murals is that they make it apparent that we are not in a “space” at all, but in a place – which has specificity, history, and a community which is not merely the random assemblage of people who happen to live here.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about whether the Belfast murals could be a model for murals elsewhere which could play a role in founding communities without emphasizing sectarian difference. I think perhaps protest murals could be appropriate in some communities – one on topics which would gain widespread support, and hopefully would not be considered offensive by those who disagree. I think topics like “Save Transit City”, “Fair Trial for Omar Khadr” might be acceptable. Or, murals that celebrate positive victories in a communities past – why not a Jane Jacobs mural? Or perhaps a mural to the founders of CCRI?
I think the thing I like most about the Belfast murals is their poor artistic quality – they are not “masterpieces”. The emphasis on what the mural means, rather than on the excellence of execution, is a refreshing difference from our contemporary obsession with artistic excellence – a realm where meaning sometimes gets lost.