As much a marker of an area’s allegiances as painted kerbstones or fluttering flags and bunting, the politically inspired murals of Northern Ireland are among the most startling sights not just in Belfast, but of the whole country. This ephemeral art form, which recycles the images and slogans of the Troubles, characterizes the violent struggles of the last few decades. Though many have been in place now for a decade, some of the slogans and murals mentioned here may have vanished by the time of your visit: new murals are painted over old ones or the houses they adorn are demolished. A detailed archive of Northern Ireland’s murals is maintained by the University of Ulster at wcain.ulst.ac.uk/mccormick and another large collection of photographs can be found at wwww.belfastmurals.net.
For most of the twentieth century, mural painting in Northern Ireland was a predominantly Loyalist activity. The first mural appeared in East Belfast in 1908 and, like many of its successors, celebrated King Billy’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne. Loyalist murals have tended to use imagery symbolic of power, such as the clenched scarlet fist, known as the Red Hand of Ulster, or flags, shields and other heraldic icons. However, the Loyalist response to the Troubles translated into what is now the most common form of painting, the militaristic mural. If King Billy appears at all, it is often with a guard of balaclava-clad, weapon-toting paramilitaries, accompanied by a threatening slogan. Inspired by the desire for “no surrender” and preservation of the status quo, Loyalist mural-painting is certainly less dynamic and diverse than its Republican counterpart. A typical example, on Hopewell Crescent in the Lower Shankill, shows two masked gunmen crouching beside a clenched red fist which is surrounded by the Union Flag and the flags of Ulster, the UFF and UDA – part of the slogan reads “Lower Shankill UFF. Simply the best.”
Recently, Loyalist murals have sought to undermine Sinn Féin’s role in the peace process by attacking the IRA – a striking five-panelled example on the Shankill Road recalls a number of IRA bombings of Loyalist targets and carries the slogan, “30 Years of Indiscriminate Slaughter by So-Called Non-Sectarian Irish Freedom Fighters”.
The greatest concentration of Loyalist murals is to be found on and around the Shankill Road, especially the Shankill Estate, to the north, and Dover Place, off Dover Street, to the south. Other areas are Sandy Row and Donegall Pass in South Belfast, and Newtownards Road, Martin Street and Severn Street in East Belfast.
Republican murals were at first limited to simple sloganeering or demarcation of territory, the best-known example being the long-standing “You are now entering Free Derry” in that city’s Bogside district. As with much else in Republican politics, however, the 1981 hunger strikes had a significant influence. Murals in support of the ten hunger strikers abounded and the (usually smiling) face of Bobby Sands – the IRA commander in the Maze prison who led the strike – remains an enduring image. Murals soon became a fundamental part of the Republican propaganda campaign and an expression of the community’s current cultural and political concerns, though militaristic images have never really dominated Republican murals as much as they have done Loyalist ones. Prominent themes have been resistance to British rule, the call for the withdrawal of troops and questioning the validity of the police.
More recently, however, Republican muralists have turned increasingly to Irish legends and history as their sources of inspiration and the only militaristic murals tend to be found in flashpoints such as the Ardoyne. Equally, artists have paid tribute to other international liberation movements, as in a striking series of murals on Divis Street just before the beginning of the Falls Road. Further Republican murals can be found nearby on Beechmount Avenue, on Lenadoon Avenue in Andersonstown, and on New Lodge Road in North Belfast.