Belfast and Derry, The War of the Walls
The first stop of our tour of the murals of Belfast was Stormont, the center of Unionist power since the six counties of Northern Ireland acquired separate home rule through the Government of Ireland Act, passed in the British Parliament in 1920. The Easter Accords of 1998 has since provided for a more equitable power-sharing arrangement between the Unionist and Nationalist communities.
I had few expectations of what it would be like to travel in Northern Ireland. All of the books and articles I had read in advance of our arrival provided ample information on the most interesting geographic and cultural sights to see, but there was little mention of the story told by the numerous murals painted on residential as well as the commercial buildings throughout the two largest cities in the North, Belfast and Derry (Londonderry). To me, these murals were some of the most profound and thought-provoking sights in these cities.
The large and often artistically-rendered paintings spoke much about the history and politics of this part of Ireland. Before our arrival, I would say that I had an average Irish American’s somewhat-biased but limited knowledge of the North’s political problems, known locally as the Troubles. These were the often continuous cycle of violent confrontations between the Catholic and the Protestant communities, which were at their worst during the 1970’s and 80’s. Eventually The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 finally brought an end to the sensational headlines depicting the atrocities committed by one side or the other. I hadn’t followed much of what happened there after peace was finally achieved, so this trip updated my understanding and appreciation both of the difficulties that this part of Ireland has faced for centuries and of how they are working to resolve them in the present. The history of this sectarian conflict is as old as the religious wars in Europe, which started with the Protestant Reformation back in the 1500’s. Add to these sectarian divisions the cultural hegemony, ethnic cleansing, economic oppression and Imperialism of neighboring England and you’ve got a very old and toxic stew of historic anger and resentment. In short, the politics of the North are complicated and require far too many words for a blog like this in an attempt to explain both sides of the whole story. But I can tell you that my interest in it began anew on this trip when I unknowingly booked an Airbnb for two nights in one of Belfast’s Protestant, or better described as Unionist neighborhoods.
The Unionists, I learned quickly, are those in the north who prefer to remain in the Union with England, as they have been since the beginning of the Ulster Plantations in the 1600’s. Like I said, a lot of history here. The counterparts of the Unionists are the Nationalists, or Republicans, most of whom happen to be Catholic and who would prefer to unite with the rest of the Emerald Isle to the south, known to the world as the Republic of Ireland. So into this muddle of historical adversaries we three nominally-Catholic Irish Americans arrived, barely appreciative of the depth of the divisions we were about to experience.
Our host at the Airbnb was a lovely woman named Julie-Ann. She suggested we use her neighbor John, who owned a taxi, to give us a tour of Belfast, in particular to see the numerous murals painted on the sides of buildings in both the Protestant and the Catholic neighborhoods. It was great to have John as a guide as he was a Unionist and gave us his side’s perspective on the political situation. Several days later when we arrived in Derry, we took a similar taxi tour of the murals and monuments there, but this time our driver Paul Doherty gave us the unvarnished perspective of the Troubles from the Republican side, which included some pretty graphic descriptions of the Bloody Sunday Massacre on January 30, 1972 in which Paul’s own father Patrick, was one of the 14 unarmed civilians killed by British paratroopers. It was pretty heavy stuff, especially as each of our guides told the story of the divisions between the two communities from his own personal and eyewitness perspective. We came away with the understanding of how very complicated situations like this can be.
The murals themselves tell the story in a more symbolic and ominous way. I would classify most of the murals as political propaganda or patriotic memorials depicting some of the heroes and casualties of the Troubles, but some of the more recent ones, especially in Belfast, paid homage to the 36th Ulster Division that lost over 2000 men in World War I’s bloody Battle of the Somme. As well, some were memorials to the Titanic, the ill-fated ocean liner that was built in the dockyards of Belfast. A very few murals, and perhaps the newest type, express the hope for peace, which, since the Good Friday Accord, has been tentatively holding on. The sentiment among all the people we spoke with about the political situation now in the North is that they don’t want to return to the violent days of the Troubles. The dividends of peace are starting to pay off since there are a lot more tourists like us arriving to boost their economy. We also learned that over the years since the accord, there have been many initiatives to build bridges between the two communities, in particular among the children. From the look of many of the murals, though, old memories and grievances do die hard, and there is still mistrust within the current generation. Perhaps someday the more militant murals will be painted over, but I suspect that will be for a future generation to decide.
One of the first murals we encountered was a bit spooky and ominous. This is one of many honoring the Ulster Volunteer Force, which was a particularly secretive and deadly Unionist group responsible for many casualties during the Troubles.
A particularly blunt message from the Ulster Volunteer Force in a Unionist neighborhood of Belfast
An homage to the Union Jack and the traditional members of the Union of Great Britain.
Carson's Volunteers were a Unionist militia founded in 1912 by Edward Carson to block domestic self-government or Home Rule for Ireland, which was then part of the United Kingdom. The Volunteers were based in Belfast in the northern county of Ulster. Like today, many Ulster Protestants feared being governed by a Catholic-majority parliament in Dublin and losing their local supremacy and strong links with Britain.*
A commemorative wall in Unionist East Belfast to Privates Fred Starrett and James Cummings who died in an IRA bombing on Belfast’s Royal Avenue on February 24th, 1988.
Parades are a big part of the culture; Protestant and/or Unionist groups called the Orangemen organize the majority of parades in Northern Ireland. In the past, the parades used to march through Catholic neighborhoods,which was an "in-your-face" provocation. Now there is a Parades Commission that exists to settle disputes about controversial parades, and many of the traditional routes have been altered to maintain the peace.*
One of the many murals in Unionist neighborhoods honoring the sacrifices by members of the 36th Brigade of Ulster Volunteers who served in the Battle of the Somme in World War I.
A less militant style of mural commemorates the connection between Belfast and the ill-fated steamship Titanic.
The "Peace Wall" along Shankill Road is a physical reminder of the Troubles and the divisions that still exist between the Catholic and the Protestant communities in Belfast
A Nationalist mural along Falls Road in West Belfast
A detail from the mural on Falls Road with a quote from Republican Nationalist James Connolly, hero of the Easter 1916 Rising in Dublin
On the right is a very strong expression of Nationalist sentiment
The headquarters of the Republican Nationalist political party Sinn Fein on Falls Road in West Belfast. The large mural honors Bobby Sands, a member of the IRA, who died in 1981 as a result of a hunger strike he was on while confined by the British in Maze Prison.
A Republican memorial mural in a West Belfast neighborhood, note the tricolor flag of the Republic of Ireland Derry (Londonderry) is one of the few remaining fully intact walled cities in Europe. The walls were built in the 1600's by the minority Protestant settlers from England and Scotland as a defense against the native Catholic Irish majority whose lands they had acquired through military conquest. As a result it has been the one of the focal points of sectarian divisions since these walls were built.
Ancient cannon on top of the Derry wall overlooking the Catholic neighborhood called the Bogside
This Bogside neighborhood of Derry from the historic city walls. This neighborhood was the site of the Bloody Sunday massacre in January, 1972.
The famous Free Derry wall in the heart of the Bogside. Derry was the center of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland. Inspired by the America civil rights movement of the 1960's, Catholics in Derry began to organize and march for the equal rights and against discrimination in voting rights, housing and unemployment in 1968.
A police crackdown followed, sparking months of violence and a reemergence of the Republican movement. The subsequent bloody riots between Protestants and Catholics marked the beginning of "The Troubles," the euphemism for the period of violence that would continue for years in Northern Ireland.*
The Irish Republican Army still is honored, and the desire for the unification of Ireland is still very strong among the Catholic communities in the North.
Reminders of the Troubles are everywhere in the Bogside
In response to campaigns by the families of the victims and the ongoing peace negotiations, in 1998 the British government created a commission to re-investigate the events of January 30, 1972. The Bloody Sunday Inquiry, also known as the Saville Inquiry or the Saville Report after its chairman, Lord Saville of Newdigate finally released its findings in 2010. The Saville Report stated that British paratroopers "lost control”, fatally shooting fleeing civilians and those who tried to aid the civilians who had been shot by the British soldiers.The report stated that British soldiers had concocted lies in their attempt to hide their acts. The Saville Report also stated that the civilians had not been warned by the British soldiers that they intended to shoot. The report states, contrary to the previously established belief, “that none of the soldiers fired in response to attacks by petrol bombers or stone throwers, and that the civilians were not posing any threat.”
As a result of this report then British Prime Minister David Cameron addressed the House of Commons where he acknowledged, among other things, that the paratroopers had fired the first shot, had fired on fleeing unarmed civilians, and shot and killed one man who was already wounded. He then apologized to the families of the victims and the Bogside community on behalf of the British Government.*
This poster confirms that the Republican dream of a unified Ireland is still very much alive.
In the center of Derry, an appeal for votes in an upcoming election
In this recent election, the results were that Sinn Féin, the largest Republican party in the North, was in a virtual tie with its largest Unionist rival, The Democratic Unionist Party. Hopefully this will keep the dialogue going.
An expression of the growing anti-sectarian sentiment among both communities since the 1998 Good Friday Agreements.
A more poetic and optimistic appeal for a peaceful future in this troubled land
*contains some content that was acquired from Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.com)
Keywords: Belfast, Bogside, Derry, Falls Road, Free Derry, IRA, Ireland, Londonderry, Murals, Northern Ireland, Scankill Road, Sinn Fénn, The Troubles, Ulster
Outstanding Job Paul!
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