Nothing sets Northern Ireland apart more to visitors than its unique culture of mural art. With over 700 found in Belfast alone, the mural is quintessential in any image or memory of the Northern Irish street. In a society whose troubled history remains close to everyone’s memory and identity, murals are inevitably political. The failure of mural art, then, is not in its political themes and celebration of beliefs, but its disinterest in questioning them.
The defining trouble of Northern Irish society to this day is its static sectarian division. Protestants and Catholics inhabit different social worlds; they attend different schools, play different sports and live apart from each other. Contrary to the promise of integration twenty years ago ushered in by the Belfast Agreement, Northern Ireland remains a segregated society. Murals only exacerbate this division. This problem extends beyond the most violent or aggressive murals to characterise the entire culture of mural art. Murals act to claim territory in an urban battleground fought between unionism and nationalism. A UVF memorial immediately signals a loyalist area in the same way a depiction of An Gorta Mór highlights a republican neighbourhood. These signals politicise everyday life in Northern Ireland. It is difficult to move through much of Belfast without encountering these sign-posts of segregation and, through them, registering the supposed allegiance of the areas around them. As a result, murals act as a criss-crossed network of political borders in Northern Ireland – they are, in effect, the physical scaffolding of community division.
The usual defence for murals is that they are cultural artefacts or sustain the memory of the past in a post-conflict society. As the muralist Danny Devenny argues, murals are supposed to help people to ‘learn about conflict and how to create peace from hundreds of years of struggle and opposing political positions. Devenny’s ambition is laudable; after the atrocities of the Troubles, genuine political culture in Northern Ireland must be self-questioning and self-critical. However, it is not reflected in the actual content of mural art. Learning from the past so as not to repeat it requires more than the simple, vitriolic ideas offered by murals. Christ-like depictions of Bobby Sands or Sandy Row’s glorification of King William are not critical lenses into a historical story: they are propaganda.
Moreover, the historical narratives pushed by murals divide history in Northern Ireland. Events like the Battle of the Boyne or the Hunger Strike form part of the convoluted, but shared history of Protestants and Catholics in Ireland; in the history pushed by murals, those events tied to ‘our side’ are depicted and those tied to the ‘other side’ are ignored. Murals divide our sense of history in the same manner they divide our communities.
Murals are tools of control in the struggle between unionism and nationalism in Northern Ireland. They act as physical sign-posts of the sectarian division that still defines Northern Irish society. While the opportunities for urban art to address conflict are limitless, the current role of murals is simple: to keep people divided.
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Photo courtesy of Ruth P. Peterkin