Falls Road Mural Walk

Yesterday Mary and I took a walk up the Falls Road through nationalist West Belfast to see the murals in a Catholic and Republican area of town. Having walked through Protestant East Belfast and seen the militant Loyalist murals which dominate those areas, I wanted to see more clearly the differences between the roles Loyalist murals play in Unionist, Protestant communities and the role Republican murals play in dominantly Nationalist communities like the Falls Road. One thing that particularly struck me was the militaristic and statist iconography that dominates Loyalist murals, and I wanted to see if there was anything corresponding to this in Republican areas. Also, there was a strong feeling in Protestant areas that the murals were imposed on the community by a paramilitary minority, rather than a result of community involvement as with some of the murals in the East Belfast Catholic area of the Short Strand. I wanted to see whether I could find any militant republican murals or memorials which had this sense of imposition on the community, rather than representation of broad support and involvement.

On the whole, my initial suspicions about the differences between republican and loyalist murals were confirmed. I had already seen murals from both community’s last year on a taxi tour which visited the Shankill and the Falls road. However, it is quite different seeing the murals from a taxi to seeing them on foot. The only republican murals I saw from the Taxi were the mural of Bobby Sands outside the Sinn Fein offices, and the International Peace Wall. On foot I was also able to visit two IRA memorials, and see a much wider collection of murals both along the Falls Road and down side streets.

Overall, the experience of walking through Republican communities was very different to walking through Protestant East Belfast. Whereas most murals in East Belfast assert symbolically the force that loyalist paramilitaries still hold over those communities, the majority of murals in the Falls Road area have the sense of community consensus, and are often directed towards tourists with clear textual passages telling the story of the community. For instance, this mural commemorating the Ballymurphy Massacre is clearly directed towards tourists.

This style of presentation made me feel welcome and comfortable using my camera to capture images of the murals. (See all the images here) The C.I.R.A. graffiti next to it, however, suggests a different story. However, the fact that it is simply a piece of quick graffiti, rather than a full and complete mural with crests and gunmen expresses the symbolic weakness of non-mainstream republicanism along the falls road. While there were signs of splinter groups, you had to know what and where to look – the dominant narrative is clearly a story of Republicanism dominated by the P.I.R.A. and Sinn Fein. This isn’t a bad thing – the unity of the Republican movement made it possible to include in the mainstream political process (whereas Sinn Fein has rose to electoral prominence, democratic parties associated with Loyalist paramilitaries have failed to rise above fringe status).

Technically, this dominance of a narrative of Republicanism as having become encapsulated by a democratic political process does not mean there are no signs of militarism. Along the falls I saw two IRA memorials, one in the lower falls and one mid falls. In some ways, these memorials were similar to the UVF memorial I saw in East Belfast – they portrayed lists of volunteers killed in action, and they commemorate deceased paramilitaries as having died in a glorious cause. For example, the central plaque of lower falls IRA memorial reads:

this monument was erected by the falls cultural society on behalf of the residents of the falls road dedicated to those brave and gallant vols of d’ company 2nd Batt Irish Republican Army who made the supreme sacrifice in their quest for irish freedom

The striking difference, however, between this inscription and one you might find on a UFF or UVF mural is the involvement of the community – this monument was not erected by IRA volunteers, but by the falls cultural society, a non-politically aligned group. Moreover, while I am calling this an IRA memorial, it calls itself a “Garden of Remembrance” and is dedicated not only to volunteers but also civilians killed in the conflict. Also, it was not erected until 2001, so it never was a symbol of IRA resistance during the armed conflict. If you look carefully, you can find crests:

They fail to compare, however, to the prominence of crests and militaristic insignia in UVF and UFF murals. I found these crests on both IRA memorials I came across, as well as on some other murals. They are the crests of the 4 provinces of Ireland: Leinster, Ulster, Munster and Connacht. In the sense that these crests refer to the old kings of Ireland, and to Irish nationality prior to British rule and Partition, they might be seen as militaristic and statist. But they do not refer to a line of military institutions which the IRA sees itself descended from except in the general sense of understanding itself as the true army of Ireland. In contrast, UVF and UFF murals exhibit crests and flags not only of Ulster and Britain, but of the armed regiment itself, linking itself back to divisions in state armies like the 36th Ulster Division in WW1.

Incidentally, I was able to find on the internet a mural to the same IRA company remembered in the “garden of rememberance” which bears a high similarity to east belfast loyalist paramilitary murals. The fact I didn’t see it on my walk suggests either it has been taken down, or that in Republican areas, these more aggressive murals are hidden within housing estates rather than featured prominently on main roads.

Other mainstream republican murals which featured military imagery commemorated events which are decidedly past, such as this mural about the Easter Rising:

Again, we see the crests of the four provinces of Ireland, and this time an armed volunteer. The Easter Rising plays an important symbolic role in Irish Republicanism – each April 16th republican groups across Ireland to commemorate this moment or resistance against British rule. Even the small pub in Castletownroche  (near Cork, a traditional hub of Irish republicanism) had a framed sheet of newspaper from 1916 with pictures of volunteers placed dearly above the fireplace. Maybe it would be appropriate then, to compare this mural to Loyalist murals depicting WW1 regiments and the battles they fought in Europe. But it doesn’t come over that way when you see it – perhaps because the Easter Rising is not an imperial conflict between major european powers, but a rising of an oppressed people against a foreign power controlling their lives and lands. Moreover, the Easter Rising is not being mobilized, at least in this mural, to justify the existence of a local armed extra-statal force for the sake of protecting the local community. Rather, it is a symbol of the Republican struggle fore a united Ireland more broadly, a struggle which is being taken up politically rather than through paramilitary violence.

There were non-mainstream depictions of Republicanism if you knew what to look for. One thing that struck me was the lack of Irish Tri-colours along the falls road; there are a few along lower falls, but before you reach the Royal Hospital they have switched to Starry Ploughs, and the Starry Plough persisted on every single lamp post as far as we were able to walk. The Starry Plough is a flag of Irish Socialist Republicanism, flown by the INLA, the IRSP, the OIRA and the Workers Party, the Official Republican Movement, and probably many other Socialist Republican groups. According to its wikipedia entry, it is also flown by the PIRA and CIRA, but I believe that it is much more strongly associated with groups that identify as leftist than mainstream. Interestingly, of the Irish I’ve asked about this, some of which I would say have a high degree of understanding of the Republican movement and paramilitary structures generally, none knew what the starry plough was or recognized a description of it. My friend Mary who took me on the walk, who I would really consider a person with a lot of knowledge of these things, did not know what the flag was and thought maybe it was an EU flag. This suggests to me that the prominence of these socialist flags have more to do with the Workers Party being good at putting up flags, rather than any shift of community support towards socialist republicanism.

There were murals put up by socialist republicans, such as this one demanding human rights for socialist political prisoners, and another demanding the extradition of Sean Garland be stopped. Sean Garland was instrumental in the de-militarization of official Republicanism, and changed the name of “Official Sinn Fein” to “Sinn Fein: the Workers Party”, and later to simply “The Workers Party”. While the Workers Party today might be little more than left over Moscow-Marxists who co-opt rallies to their own message rather than build grass roots support through involvement in council politics, it is certainly an admirable thing to have moved them away from armed struggle.

The most surprising thing I saw on my walk was a crest on a house on the falls stating “Official Republican Movement”:

The official Republican Movement, or ORM, is a little known offshoot of the Workers Party from the 1990s (splitting either 1995 or 1998 depending on your source). They are related to “Group B”, the OIRA in the 1980s which after ceasefire in 1975 and the feud with the INLA were never properly decommissioned, but continued to conduct robberies which supported the Workers Party financially. According to “The Lost Revolution” by Brian Hanley and Scott Millar (which I reviewed previously), this group became less and less a political group and more a convenient assemblage of thugs which included Protestants, of which few Workers Party members were aware. The ORM seems to be the legacy of group B, having regained socialist republican politics, and which maintained a weapons cache inherited from the OIRA until it participated in the decommissioning process in February of last year. It is difficult to find contemporary information on the ORM – it seems to be lost amongst the sea of a fractured left.

I really shouldn’t be spending so many words on the fractured left, but I’ve done so to stress the depth of research you need to do to even recognize non-mainstream republican symbolism along the falls road. The vast majority of murals have the sense of community involvement, and tell a story for the community and for visitors, rather than assert a power symbology at them. The stress is on victims of the troubles and not on making distinctions between different value of victims according to their involvement or who did the killing. For example, this wall of victims makes no distinction between the status of the different people killed, and doesn’t distinguish whether they were killed by Crown forces or Loyalist Paramilitaries. The special section is dedicated to those killed by “rubber bullets”, which are not so soft after all, and includes two children who were killed at the age of 11 years old.

It was while I was standing in front of the wall of remembrance and taking this photograph of the mid-Falls IRA memorial that a passing car honked and an angry driver shook his hand in my direction. It was the first and only person (presumably) from the falls road area who showed displeasure at my walking through their neighbourhood and taking photographs of murals and memorials. The incident made me quite uncomfortable, and I insisted that we turn around and follow the side road we were on back to the Falls. Mary later pointed out that near to us there was a mural walking tour near to us, and it was quite strange and inappropriate of this man to get angry. And she’s probably right – after all the falls road community is putting a lot of effort into attracting tourism into the area, primarily through black taxi tours but also walking tours, and they can’t expect to do that without having people take photographs of their memorials. Still, for me the incident immediately changed the feeling of the place from welcoming to stand-offish.

Incidentally, the IRA memorial which I got yelled at for photographing is quite interesting. The crests of the four provinces of Ulster are displayed prominently on the outside. And while I didn’t get a chance to look around it in detail, I believe it is much more dominantly a memorial to IRA volunteers, whereas the Garden of Remembrance in the lower falls gives similar standing to volunteers killed in action, Hunger Strikers, deceased POWs, and civilians killed in the area. And featured prominently above this memorial is a placard portraying the faces of fallen volunteers, rather than their names and dates only as are written on the other. It is still a few steps shy on statist and militaristic imagery of the Newtownards UVF memorial. The important difference is that this and the other IRA memorial do not play a role in symbolically justifying the continual presence of paramilitary control over policing and justice in the area, whereas I believe that is a purpose of the loyalist symbology.

Overall, the impression of the Falls Road is of a neighbourhood with a militant anti-British past, but which is dominantly involved in moving forward through non-violent political action and involvement in the democratic process. This is complemented by an attempt to integrate the neighbourhood into the city economically and symbolically, by inviting tourism and using their community symbols to educate themselves and tourists in a particular narrative of falls road republican history which serves their purposes. In striking contrast with East Belfast, divisions are not stark and armed, but receded into the background and available only to those who know the symbolic language of socialist republicanism. And perhaps more importantly, the splits in the Republican movement insofar as they are quietly represented along the falls are not splits which aim to work themselves out with guns and bombs, but with elections. (I didn’t mention this before because it isn’t a mural issue, but also dominant along the falls were the presence of election signs from Sinn Fein, the IRSP, socialist independent candidates, and the Workers Party.)

I feel that my experience of Belfast is a little more well rounded than it was having only walked through East Belfast, but it remains very preliminary. I have spoken at length with Mary which has been extremely enlightening, but I feel that I should have similar discussions with people from different communities before I will have a properly varied sense of narratives concerning the troubles. Also, I have never ventured into North Belfast. Some of these things will require waiting for another visit. My other Belfast friend who I met in Toronto – Decklan – has offered to take me around North Belfast on Thursday. I look forward to that experience, and will try to give a similar report back to the blogosphere afterwards.

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