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Space & Place

Street Art Culture in Belfast

When visiting Northern Ireland’s capital, it is hard not to notice the colourful paintings throughout the city, these paintings are more commonly known as murals and have come to represent the city’s culture, history and political views. Within the city there are two main types of murals: republican and loyalist. As many people know Belfast is divided into protestant and catholic areas, with the former residing with the East and South, and the latter in the West and North.

The strife between the two forms of Christianity began hundreds of years ago; however it reached its peak between the 1960’s and 1980’s, a period otherwise known as The Troubles. During this period the loyalists who were mostly Protestants fought the republicans who were mainly Catholic.

It is the murals that depict these moments in history, and they take the observer on a journey through Belfast’s history and each side’s opinions on the country’s violent past.

Each side had its own paramilitary organisations, the most famous being the IRA with its opposition being the UDA. The dispute was caused as members of the republican side wanted to become united with Ireland and the Loyalists wanted the country to remain part of the United Kingdom. In today’s society the same views are still shared however there is much less violence on the streets of Belfast. It is the murals that depict these moments in history, and they take the observer on a journey through Belfast’s history and each side’s opinions on the country’s violent past.

The murals differ to where in the city the viewer is located. If standing in East or South Belfast, the mural will more than likely reflect the areas allegiance with Great Britain. This is shown by the use of colour and the portrayal of flags. The colour of many of the murals will be red, white and blue and may contain a Union Jack or else the red hand of Ulster, which is the flag associated with Northern Ireland.

In the past few years, some of the murals have been removed or repainted. The most famous to be removed was one that portrayed a man in a balaclava holding a machine gun, the mural held the words ‘You are now entering loyalist Sandy Row, heartland of South Belfast Ulster Freedom Fighters’.

It has been speculated that the murals within these loyalist areas contain more violence than those in republican areas, as republican murals focus mainly on politics and remembering those who have died for their cause. However this idea can be debated as both sides of the divide have murals that depict violence as well as culture and politics. In the past few years, some of the murals have been removed or repainted. The most famous to be removed was one that portrayed a man in a balaclava holding a machine gun, the mural held the words ‘You are now entering loyalist Sandy Row, heartland of South Belfast Ulster Freedom Fighters.’ This mural has now been painted over and been replaced with a less violent message, as politicians wished to provide a calmer atmosphere within the city.

Republican Murals

Bobby sands

The picture above is a prime example of a republican mural as it pays tribute to a key figure in Northern Ireland. The person featured is Bobby Sands a member of the IRA. In 1976, he was arrested in connection with a bombing and given a prison sentence. While Sands was in prison, he pushed for many reforms to made in the prison service, he argued that people who had been imprisoned due to the troubles were not criminals but rather prisons or war, therefore they didn’t deserve the harsh treatment that was given.

It is important to note that the mural is not violent; instead it is representative of a key figure on Northern Ireland’s past.

Due to the failure of these reforms to be made, Sands went on hunger strike for 66 days which resulted in his death. However the hunger strike was covered by the media and Sands gained support which lead to him being elected into government even though he was still imprisoned. Republicans look up to Bobby Sands as they recognise him as someone who stood up for his beliefs and tried to make a change. It is important to note that the mural is not violent; instead it is representative of a key figure on Northern Ireland’s past.

Nelson Mandela

Although this mural does not detail Northern Ireland’s history or political view point it shows who they respect and that they look to Nelson Mandela as a role model. The mural quotes Nelson Mandela and beneath states that he is a ‘friend of Ireland.’ It is also important to note that the background shows the South African and the Irish Flag side by side.

The use of Nelson Mandela is important as the republicans represent his struggle, they realise that getting what they want will lead to sacrifices such as prison, however these must be made in order to reach an end goal. The flags in the back are also important. The Irish flag shows that the republicans want to be associated with Ireland rather than the United Kingdom, stating their political viewpoint. Murals like this one which celebrate other nations and recognise their cause can also be seen around republican areas of Belfast; examples of this include murals about Che Guevara.

Loyalist Murals

King Billy

This large mural is situated at the beginning of Sandy Row, a loyalist area close to Belfast City Centre. The mural shows another key figure within Northern Ireland’s history. This mural is different from the rest as it details a period in the seventeenth century; this is compared to most of the other murals that were about events in the nineteenth and twentieth century. The mural features the prominent figure of King William of Orange who fought against James 2nd at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. In this battle William of Orange won, this meant that a Protestant ascendancy would be secured in Ireland for many years to come.

This day is celebrated by Protestants in Northern Ireland every year on the twelfth of July. When looking at the bottom of the pictures, one can see that the bollards are painted red white and blue, these coloured markings also appear on road signs and curbs. This is a common sight in Loyalist areas of Belfast which reminds people which area of the city they are in and where that areas allegiance lies.

Red hand of ulster 2

This mural shows the flag of Northern Ireland which is known as ‘the red hand of Ulster.’ When one sees this sign, they are aware that the place they are in is allegiant to Great Britain and does not wish to see a united Ireland. The date on the mural is important; it is 1690 and reflects the events of the Battle of the Boyne which occurred in July.

Within Northern Ireland Protestants are usually loyalist and Catholics are mostly republican, therefore this mural reminds those who won this war.

This is significant as it marks the day in which the protestant army won over the Catholic army. Within Northern Ireland Protestants are usually loyalist and Catholics are mostly republican, therefore this mural reminds those who won this war. Behind the mural is one of the key sights of Northern Ireland, which is the Harland and Wolfe cranes, which in the Victorian era were Belfast’s main source of income and it is these cranes that were used to build the Titanic.

george best

This is a loyalist mural that depicts a key cultural persona in Northern Ireland. The mural shows George Best, a famous footballer that played for Northern Ireland and Manchester United from 1963 to 1974. As Northern Ireland is such a small country they do not have many key faces although this is changing now with the introduction of Rory McIlroy. At the peak of his career George Best was very famous and was widely considered an excellent football player, therefore this mural celebrates his life and success. In this picture the curbs and sign are painted red, white and blue again indicating that this mural is in a loyalist location.

Titanic

This mural is representative of a key part of Northern Ireland’s past. The famous liner Titanic was built in Belfast and the people of Northern Ireland are very proud of this. The colour scheme within the mural shows that it is loyalist as the colours used are the same as those in the union Jack. Therefore this mural as well as that of George Best shows the country’s culture instead of the troubles that Northern Ireland has faced.

No More Mural

This mural is very important as it shows that the people of Northern Ireland wish to place the past behind them, they want to end the fighting and trouble that has occurred for so long. In the mural two children from different sides of the divide are shaking hands. One can assume that the boy in blue is from the East/South Belfast as he is wearing a blue colour, associated with England, and the girl is from West/North Belfast as she is wearing Green, which is associated with Ireland. Hence the mural shows the peace process that is ongoing in Northern Ireland.

Although some of the images are rather haunting they detail the country’s history and the terrors that it has been through.

The Murals in Northern Ireland are extremely important and a vast part of the country’s heritage that many people come to see, especially the peace wall that has many signatures upon it, including Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama’s. Today, some politicians wish to remove the murals and the peace wall. However many people do not want this to happen. The murals are part of Northern Ireland’s culture, and by removing the country deletes part of its heritage. Although some of the images are rather haunting they detail the country’s history and the terrors that it has been through. As well as recreating the past, the murals also show the talent of the local people as these works of art are very detailed and colourful. In my opinion I believe that the murals should be kept in order to promote art and culture but also to show the history of Northern Ireland.