A Divided History on the Walls of Belfast
Story and photos by Tom Coote

It has been decades since the Protestants and Catholics of Northern Ireland spilled blood on the streets of Belfast every month, but the staunch divisions loom strong on the city's buildings.

Belfast trouble tour Northen Ireland

Thomas, out tattoo-covered Black Cab driver, wouldn’t say where he had grown up but claimed to have friends on both sides. This was still the exception in communities where both Protestants and Catholics continued to live in close proximity to the known murderers of their friends and families. New friendships may have been forged and murderous fantasies of revenge repressed, but forgiveness and forgetting were for the future: “not in my lifetime” according to Thomas.

Growing up in England in the 1970s and 1980s, the concept of terrorism was almost exclusively associated with Northern Ireland; and, more specifically, with the Catholic IRA. That Protestant terror groups, such as the UDA, were rarely thought of in the same way, says much about the British media at the time. Even when Protestants were murdering other Protestants in competing terrorist groups, it all somehow came to be associated with the unquestionable brutality of the Catholic IRA.

The mainstream media also didn’t do a lot to help Northern Ireland’s tourist economy: a whole generation grew up to associate Ulster—actually three Irish provinces more than just Northern Ireland—with grim council estates, barbed wire, and bombs. As anybody involved in the now booming tourist sector knows well, Northern Ireland has far more to offer. While tourists have gradually become aware that there are other natural attractions than just the Giant’s Causeway, and Game of Thrones has attracted huge numbers of international visitors both for the lavish TV production itself and for the popular themed tours, the other big attraction had become the troubles themselves.

While Belfast’s Black Taxis—run by separate associations for nationalist and unionist areas—started off as often shared transport strictly within religiously designated areas, they are now best known for their popular “troubles tour.” During the day they herd cab loads of camera wielding tourists between sectarian murals, murder sites, and cemeteries, in both Protestant and Catholic parts of Belfast. But come night, the gates across the “peace lines” marking sectarian divisions are still lowered. After the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, many had assumed that these “interfaces” would become a thing of the past but so far only 1 has been removed, while 109 of them still stand guard.

On the Belfast Troubles Tour

Before driving us into the Protestant Shankhill Road area, Thomas lectured us on the illegality of nationalist flags and sectarian murals. In areas of such sensitivity it seemed entirely sensible to avoid unnecessary provocation. We drove around the corner, to be presented with a long line of Union Jacks. In this part of Belfast it was as if there were a Royal Wedding every day of the week. And emblazoned along the end walls of almost every line of terraced council houses were vast splashes of lurid colors, depicting scenes designed to be as intimidating as they were sentimental. Apparently, the residents of these end of terrace houses had little say in the adornment of their walls, and the local authorities dared not enforce the laws forbidding such displays of allegiance.

Belfast trouble tour Northen Ireland topgun

A woman emerged, pushing a stroller, from a house emblazoned with romanticized depictions of gun-toting, balaclava-wearing, Protestant militias. Thomas drew our attention to the large commemorative mural dedicated to the memory of Stevie “Topgun” McKeag. Every year the UFF (Ulster Freedom Fighters) would award whoever had killed the most people in the preceding season with the title of “Topgun.” Apparently he won it every year up until his death in 2000 from a combination of painkillers and cocaine. Above a circular portrait, in which he sports a backward baseball cap and what appears to be a heavy gold chain around his neck, he is granted the title of “Military Commander.” He remains revered to this day.

Belfast Northern Ireland mural

In recent years some of the more provocative and militaristic murals have been painted over with less partisan artworks, featuring everything from historical scenes to revered Northern Irish cultural figures. To show me what had been covered up by a quilt themed mural designed to promote the idea that “Women’s Voices Matter,” Thomas showed me a picture of a skin flayed zombie soldier waving a UDF flag as he trampled over the corpses of the IRA. I recognized the image immediately; it wasn’t a vision that had emerged from Northern Ireland’s troubles but a re-hashed version of the cover from Iron Maiden’s The Trooper. While murals that idolized psychopaths remained proudly on display to all, the artwork from an early 80s heavy metal single had been deemed too offensive to remain. But even the most aggressive and militaristic of murals hadn’t really been removed. They had just been covered up, meaning the surface layer of civilization could be scraped back at any time to reveal what was hidden underneath.

Although Thomas seemed very knowledgeable about Northern Ireland’s history, I was surprised that nobody had previously mentioned where the un-dead soldier image had derived from. He also didn’t know what “John 3:16” referred to, although it seemed to be written on almost every other wall. (It’s a passage in The Bible about how God is so loving that he killed his only son for us.) I would never have expected him to make much sense of this for me but I thought that, as he saw it every day, he would have at least have looked it up to see what it meant. Or somebody would have asked him to. Or somebody would have told him.

The War of Images

A lack of interest in religious meaning does often seem to go hand in hand with defining one’s self through religion. While studying the phenomenon of political Islamisation in Pakistan, I was more than a little taken back to discover how little most students of Islam actually knew about the religion by which they defined themselves. And I suspect that the same is true for most Northern Irish who strictly define themselves as either Protestant or Catholic. Since even the Northern Irish themselves can’t necessarily tell who is Catholic or Protestant, it seems as if it is only through symbols such as flags, logos, and occasional fancy dress that they can tell each other apart enough to remain in conflict with an unconvincingly constructed “other.”

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Read this article online at: A Divided History on the Walls of Belfast

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2017. All rights reserved.

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