The Irish Political Mural Phenomena

Ireland’s political wall murals are now world famous and they receive thousands of visitors every year. In more recent years some of the most memorable murals have been replaced by less militaristic imagery, due at least in part to British government grant funding conditional on a ‘toning down’ of the murals, in keeping with their present normalisation policy. In the Loyalist areas of the north of Ireland, murals were a feature for many years, even previous to the Troubles. However, they were not on the same scale as they would have been in later years and generally took the form of a simple representation of King William of Orange or similar royalist imagery.

In Republican areas of the North of Ireland, political wall mural painting has mushroomed over this past 35 years and some, such as the renowned Free Derry corner in the Bogside proclaiming that You Are Now Entering Free Derry , have become local landmarks and world famous sites of historical interest. Several books and academic studies of political wall murals in the North of Ireland have been published, perhaps the best known being those by local academic and human rights campaigner, Bill Rolston.

Changes

Up until more recent times, there was a strong military theme to most Irish Republican political murals, with paintings of armed Republicans being extremely common. Memorial type political murals were and still are also popular, with many examples remembering the sacrifice of the ten Hunger Strikers, who gave their lives in the struggle for political status in 1981. Other Republican memorial type political murals commemorate Irish Republicans who lost their lives on active service during the recent conflict.

Irish Republican Murals

The Provisonal IRA’s murals are by far the most numerous in Republican areas of the North, due to their fairly successful attempts at achieving near hegemony within Republican communities, especially in West Belfast.  Murals in support of other groups do exist however and there are several striking murals sponsored by the Irish Republican Socialist Movement (IRSM) which includes the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), the Irish Republican Socialist Party(IRSP) and the Republican Socialist Youth Movement (RSYM.) Three IRSM prisoners gave their lives in the 1981 Hunger Strike and many IRSM murals commemorate their sacrifice.

The Republican Network for Unity (RNU), 32 County Sovereignty Movement, Eirigi and other Republican groups also have political murals in Belfast and elsewhere.  Other Socialist murals commemorate the volunteers from different religious denominations in Ireland who joined the International Brigades to fight Franco’s Fascism during the Spanish Civil war The Socialist mural in question was placed strategically on an old factory wall on Northumberland Street, a road that runs between the Protestant Shankill and the Catholic Falls Road and it’s poignant message appeals for class solidarity once again. A new mural on the same ‘peaceline’ which divides the Falls and Shankill Roads, painted by the IRSP, on the ‘Republican’ side of the interface is dedicated to Republican Socialist prisoners.

Other anti-Stormont Republican groupings have fairly recently been painting murals in Republican areas, most recently being Eirigi, the 1916 Societies and the Republican Network for Unity’s (RNU) new murals, some of which are painted on the world famous International Wall at Divis Street. To the best of my knowledge the Official Republican Movement (ORM) have only one mural in Belfast. The ORM mural is painted on the gable wall of their Falls Rd office, it commemorates Liam McMillan, a former Official IRA leader. (McMillan was allegedly shot dead by a youthful Gerald Steenson, who later became a leader of the now infamous but defunct, IPLO. Steenson himself was shot dead by the INLA.)

Many Republican murals are non-party based, for instance, commemorating the Hunger Strikes of 1981 or the 1916 Easter Rising. Some murals are heavily laden with images from Celtic mythology and are widely acclaimed because of their intricate design work. The world famous International Wall on the Lower Falls Road/Divis Street celebrates international solidarity with Liberation Struggles in Palestine, Latin America and the Basque Country.

The Mural Tour Industry

Tours of the murals and areas of historical significance in the Irish conflict are often conducted by ex-political prisoners and are extremely good value for money for students of the Irish conflict and so-called “conflict resolution”. Backpack bearing visitors from all corners of the world are a common sight in West Belfast on guided tours around the various murals dotted throughout the district. Community groups in west Belfast also paint murals as an alternative activity for teenagers, to counter grafitti and their work can be seen in many districts often warning of the dangers of street drugs and alcohol abuse.

Loyalist Murals

In Loyalist areas, many of the wall murals are militarist orientated, although there has been a recent trend in displaying less threatening images. During soocer legend George Best’s funeral from his parents home in the staunchly loyalist Cregagh estate, overtly militaristic and extreme right-wing murals were covered up. The ‘clean-up’ followed a quick cash injection from the Democratic Unionist Party-controlled Castlereagh council to tone down militaristic murals in the area, in preparation for the anticipated arrival of Manchester United soccer fans, who had come over from Britain for the funeral of their soccer hero.

Murals of masked paramilitaries from the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Red Hand Commando (RHC) are still prevalent in Loyalist areas, some disturbingly depicted scenes of sectarian murders. Loyalist murals are widely seen to be reactionary and of less internationalist appeal, due to their ideological links to fascist and racist groups in Britain and Europe. Some Loyalist murals include scenes from heavy metal band Iron Maiden album covers, which is a fairly good barometer of their political sophistication.  In recent times some of the more bellicose Loyalist murals were toned down in some areas, such as the notorious UDA/UFF mural in Sandy Row.  Yet in other areas brand new murals of masked Loyalist gunmen have appeared.  One of these recent Loyalist gunmen depicted murals bears bizarrely bears a quote from Dr Martin Luther King which sits rather uncomfortably with the supremacist subject matter.

Joint Loyalist/Republican Mural Tours

Loyalist ex-combatants, like their Republican counterparts, conduct tours of their murals and there are now joint tours where tourists can visit murals in both Republican and Loyalist areas and retain the same tour guide or have guides from both communities. During the recent conflict, joint tours where a Republican or Loyalist would take visitors across the ‘peaceline’ to view the other community’s murals would have been impossible due to serious security considerations. Perhaps there is the spark of hope for working class unity, somewhere within ventures such as those..

The North’s political murals are a must-see for tourists to Belfast and Derry. There are various ways to see them and links are included to the various groups and agencies offering political tours, mural tours and generalised tours of places of historical significance within Belfast and Derry’s vast working class ghettoes. There are walking tours conducted by ex-political prisoners which are highly reccomended, they are relatively cheap and great value for money as your guide will be intimately familiar with both the area and the nature of the conflict in the North of Ireland. There are also black taxi tours and mini-bus tours available, usually from the same source.

Open top tour buses leave the city centre regularly and these are popular too with visitors to Belfast. It is also entirely feasible for visitors to conduct their own unassisted tour of Belfast’s political murals and visitors will be completely safe, despite the troubled history. Local people will be only too happy to provide local knowledge and visitors will find that local people are walking encyclopedias on the Irish conflict and local culture. Visitors often call into some of the local parties’ offices in search of directions and places of interest to visit. Many visitors have reported that exploring Belfast and Derry’s murals has been the high point of their trip to Ireland and many have become extremely fond of the rich local culture.

International Brigades Mural, Belfast

Alex Mcguigan
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