A Divided History on the Walls of Belfast — Page 2
Story and photos by Tom Coote

Northern Ireland troubles tour mural

This war of images and iconography rages on throughout the streets of Belfast. In some of the developed districts of the city, artistic skills once nurtured through political sloganeering have evolved towards the creation of some genuinely life-enhancing murals. But many of the murals still serve to glorify historical figures as saviors or martyrs.

Even today many Irish Protestants choose to idolize the image of King William the Third (aka William of Orange), the Dutch Protestant who seized the throne from Catholic James the Second in 1688. At the end of an otherwise unremarkable line of terraced houses, “King Billy” is depicted in bright colors, raising his sword triumphantly astride a rearing white horse. And every year the Orangemen still insist on provoking nearby Catholics by illegally marching through staunchly Catholic areas in order to praise the Dutch conqueror.

Belfast trouble tour King William Orange mural

One of the best known Catholic murals—painted on to the side of the Sinn Fein headquarters—is that of the “martyr” Bobby Sands. Looking like a 1970s Jesus Christ, he is still revered for smearing his shit over prison walls and starving himself to death. He inspired many others to do the same.

Belfast’s war of images is perhaps most active around the “peace lines” along The Falls Road. Almost every political group or figure associated with liberation struggles is depicted in some way amongst a chaos of political sloganeering and graffiti. A lack of logic or consistency appears to have done little to limit the range of free-flowing associations and willingness to take sides. As the PLO were seen to be fighting for Palestinian independence, their iconography was adopted by the IRA. So to counter this, the loyalists emblazoned the Jewish Star of David across their walls. They mixed this in in with head shots of popular proponents of peaceful resistance such as Bob Marley and Martin Luther King, various peace promoting slogans, and the logo of Amnesty International with a depiction of Nelson Mandela.

Hellish Prison Cells, Now a Museum

Northern Ireland trouble tour stop: Crumlin-Gaol prison

One thing that many of those depicted as saviors or martyrs did have in common is that they had been convicted of violent crimes and incarcerated. Of Belfast’s prisons, the Maze—and in particular the H-Block—became notorious for violence, dirty protests, and hunger strikes. Having finally been shut down in 2000, the future of the Maze site remains uncertain but the old Crumlin Gaol has now been reinvented as a popular tourist attraction. Although it wasn’t closed until the 1990s, Crumlin Gaol was essentially a Victorian prison, with Victorian era facilities, hygiene, and social values, where everyone from murderers to suffragettes was locked up. Rather than attempting to escape, visitors from around the world now queue up to take a guided tour of the sanitized cells, peer through the prison bars, take selfies in the stocks, and treat themselves to an assortment of prison themed tat in the gift shop.

Crumlin Gaol now also regularly hosts concerts—one upcoming attraction being The Bjorn Identity, an Abba tribute act—and the paranormal evenings and special ghost tours are particularly popular. But there seems little need for invented horrors: one of the staple stories of the tours is of how a hunchbacked boy, convicted of stealing post, was so badly bullied that he hung himself. Other stories tell of how prisoners would burrow through the walls at night, not to escape but to break through the literal sectarian divides, so as to murder other inmates of a different political persuasion.

Other popular attractions within Crumlin Gaol include the torture and hanging rooms, where about 800 executions took place up until the late 1950s, and the graves in “the Queen’s land” from which, until recently, the families of those executed would have to pay £10,000 if they wanted their relatives’ bodies moved to sanctified land. But this kind of dark tourism is hardly anything new in Northern Ireland: up until 1868 all hangings were carried out in public, events that attracted huge numbers of enthusiastic spectators.

Rubber Bullets by the Peace Wall

Belfast trouble tour POW mural

Towards the end of our tour, Thomas took us to the cemetery on the Catholic side of “the peace wall” and asked us if we had ever seen a rubber bullet. Like most people I had assumed that they were something far smaller and softer than they actually were. What he held out in his held out in his hand was several inches long and rock hard – not difficult to see how it could kill somebody when fired from a gun at close range. Following an uproar at the unacceptable level of fatalities, these rubber bullets were later replaced by smaller ones with a pointed end. These seemed just as dangerous. We then had a “Belfast conservatory” pointed out to us: not a sun-filled glass extension but a steel cage bolted on to the back of the homes next to “the peace wall.” It was designed to deflect Molotov cocktails and other missiles thrown over from the loyalist side.

The Peace Wall itself was a huge, prison-like structure, made less grim only by the scrawling of international graffiti offering political insight and advice. As all the other tourists, including several world leaders, had made their mark against this great divide, Thomas handed us a marker pen so we could do the same. Standing in front of the scrawls of a generation, we struggled to find the right words. After a lengthy pause, Arisa suggested “keep calm and stay peace.” Thomas shrugged, declaring it to be as good as any. We left our writing on the wall, and climbed back into the black cab, feeling that we had done all we could to resolve Northern Ireland’s troubles.

Tom Coote's first book Tearing up the Silk Road was published by Garnet Publishing in 2012. Voodoo, Slaves and White Man's Graves: West Africa and the End of Days was published in December 2013, and a third book Shadow Trails: Adventures in Dark Tourism was published in hardback on October 1st 2017. He has traveled independently in over 120 countries and irregularly updates his own site his web site at www.tomcoote.net.

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Related Features:
The Concrete Corpses of Cyprus - Darrin DuFord
Bouncing Back From Terror in Budapest - Tim Leffel
Finding Old Ireland Alive in Place, Words, and Song - Michael Shapiro
Complicated Crime and Punishment in Colombia - Tom Coote

See other European travel stories from the archives

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