Published in ‘Honey, I’m Home: Writing on Property, Ownership and Access’ (RCA Publications, 2016)
There we both stood, in a housing estate spread out in the shadow of a beautiful green mountain, the walls of the houses around us all terracotta and cream save for this one display of colour on the gable in front of me. I had long clung to it, this mural I’d seen so many times before in books and in archives, painted in Ballymurphy, a largely republican working class area of West Belfast. It pictured three Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteers standing together, two killed during the thirteen-year period in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles, and one killed over a decade later. And yet there they were, standing together on the wall before me above a cheering crowd, a tricolour flag billowing in the background. The two peripheral men are positioned in nondescript uniform, holding shotguns close to their chests as they look out over the crowd. A plain-clothed hero raised between them lifts his weapon up into the air above his towering head, triumphant. His waistcoat swoops open, with nothing but empty space around it. We stood there, Joe and I, between buildings and no bodies other than our own. We saw no other tour guides or tourists pointing their cameras as they had done at the previous murals, and no one from the Irish republican community who supposedly lived there. The only audible presence was the sound of cars passing by up on the main road. It was a Monday afternoon — everyone who lived there must have been at work, while I stood with my feet on their footpath and my eyes on their home. I was happy to have finally found it, the real thing, the mural tucked away in Divismore Crescent, readily adorned with the crests of Ireland’s four provinces and framed by the golden celtic knot, crowned with the Easter Rising lily. An allegorical jewel in itself.
I had come up from Dublin to visit Belfast for this tour, unable to book my bus ticket online because, as I was told by someone in customer services, 'it went over the border' — although when it came to it I didn't have to produce a passport. Joe was my guide, a born and bred Belfast man who had lived through the conflict all those years ago, when civilians were shot, the city bombed many times over and the place so obviously split after the first peace wall was erected in the late sixties. We met opposite the bus station. I interrupted his preparatory cleaning of his black cab, which involved spraying it down with a can of chemical disinfectant that lingered for all of our two and a half hours together. I told him about my research, how I was interested in the gable murals painted right after the Troubles: who they were by, for and what they meant, then and now. Joe was friendly and knowledgeable about the city’s history but seemed to know little of the older murals I had come to see. They’re not as central, there’s not much demand. Instead of the gable walls he took me to some of the recently painted murals on the sides of abandoned buildings and on one political party office. We also stopped at a church, two gates, the peace wall and one memorial garden made entirely out of stone. I didn’t learn the history of the murals that afternoon, instead I came to realise just how much money could be made from their lookalikes that were still sprouting up around the city.
We spent most of our time visiting a selection of murals (generally patriotic and welcoming) recently painted around the city. Most of them mimicked the garish style of the city’s older murals with their blazing colours and coarse imagery — a style that emerged from inside prisons in Northern Ireland during the eighties. Inmates would spend much of their time crafting artworks designed explicitly with iconic nationalist imagery such as the Celtic harp, the rising phoenix, the Catholic cross and Irish republican heroes such as James Connolly, who famously fought for
independence from Britain in 1916. The murals looked so similar to me, both the old and the new. A likeness that satisfies the city’s tourists enough to maintain the taxi tours’ monthly cash flow of up to nine thousand pounds — a figure I arrived at after Joe told me he had worked every day that December, bar Christmas day. He gave four, sometimes five tours a day at sixty pounds each. This amount of business is not unusual, he assured me. People are fascinated.
Instead of signposting any staunchly religious or political allegiances within their communities, these recent murals either welcomed tourists to Belfast or advertised the mural taxi tours themselves. It didn’t take long to realise that the trail we were on was an entirely self-contained receptacle for tourists, one that was difficult to get out of with Joe, who seemed very reluctant to stray from his usual route and its accompanying spiel. I’d never know if it was due to respect or ignorance on his part. Perhaps he felt uncomfortable, exploitative even, taking tourists to the suburbs where the older paintings were on display alongside everyone’s very normal lives still stuck in the shadow of an infamous past. Or perhaps he just didn’t know anything about them.
According to the ‘Ulster University Conflict Archive on the Internet’, it is unclear when this Ballymurphy mural was painted, and by whom. A lot of the murals remain lost in this way. When I first came across it online, I thought it must have been painted by a group of young republican boys back in the eighties. That’s how many of the murals were painted, by angry male teens involved in local paramilitary groups like the IRA. Gables owned by the Housing Executive were often chosen as canvases. Even though the families inside these homes would not have had a say in the matter, the Executive would often opt to keep the murals up — a decision that was not unusual when the groups responsible for the paintings were known for violence. Members of the IRA were not only the community’s friends, families, students and neighbours idolised for their sacrifice, they were also members of a terrorist organisation that killed almost two thousand people.
My dad once told me about a trip he took to Egypt in the early eighties, how he haggled with a local tour guide of his own one day, without much success, until the guide discovered my dad was Irish. Upon this discovery he stopped and cried, 'Ohhh, Bobby Sands!', followed by the offer of a much discounted trip around the pyramids. Sands was one of (if not the most) famous IRA volunteers from Northern Ireland — a face that still features prominently on the walls of Belfast and a name I heard often growing up south of the indiscernible border. Sands’s name is widely revered and employed across the world for its revolutionary invocations: there’s a street named after him in Iran, a title that came after the country’s own revolution in 1979, when the government changed it from its former name, Winston Churchill Street; there’s a memorial for him in Cuba — a monument erected on the twentieth anniversary of his death by Fidel Castro himself alongside one of Ireland’s republican politicians Gerry Adams, a man rumoured to have ties to the IRA and who remains in government today. Like many other international leaders, Castro followed — admired, even — Sands’s dissent against the British.
Sands died on hunger strike in 1981. Like many others in Northern Ireland, he joined the IRA as a teen, believing that violence was the last and only way to make any real change for the Catholic community in Northern Ireland. They were second-class citizens, Joe explained to me as we sat in his car opposite the most famous Sands mural on the republican Falls Road, painted on the side of Gerry Adams’s political party office. Catholics were ghettoised, banned from speaking the Irish language, continued victims of gerrymandering and violence even before the Troubles officially began in the late sixties. Joe, a Catholic, told these stories with particular flare, as if he presumed (rightly) that I was brought up Catholic too, although he never directly addressed this assumption. He went to great story-telling lengths on our tour to ensure that I understood one thing: that all his community wanted was equality. One man, he told me as we sat there in the warmth of his car, stood in the street in Belfast not long ago as he was being harassed by another man for the colour of his skin. As a crowd gathered round, the victim of this harassment approached his bully. He waited until this man finished his slurs and quietly took out his pocket knife. He made a small cut on his harasser’s hand, and then on his own. 'What came out?' Joe asked me in all of his gusto... 'Blood!' His bravado now booming from the taxi, 'And what was it?... The same colour! We’re all the same colour underneath!' Joe fell silent for a minute, visibly pleased with his fable. It was then that he noticed someone struggling to park near to the Bobby Sands mural. Perhaps it was because he genuinely believed it, or perhaps he just felt the need to fill the awkward silence that fell between us, but he slapped me on the arm, pointed and laughed, 'Must be a woman!’
It wasn’t until 1977 that Sands was imprisoned, Joe explained to me after our brief history lesson, at a time when the British government had just revoked 'Special Category Status' for IRA inmates in Belfast. This meant that they were no longer recognised as prisoners of war. These prisoners, both men and women, were no longer allowed to wear their own clothes, to have regular visits, to receive post, to opt out of prison work. Sands led the hunger strike in order to reclaim this status for IRA prisoners, and in order to raise public awareness he asked for a 'painting and poster campaign', one that inadvertently started a new tradition in Northern Ireland.
The request began as a note smuggled from inside prison. Addressed to his family and friends, Sands asked for help but it wasn’t until after his death that the murals spread, memorialising Sands and other martyrs and strikes and tragedies for which the community had no answers. The British tradition of mural painting already existed in Northern Ireland, long before the rest of the country was ever made a republic. Traditionally, local artists would be commissioned by politicians to paint murals to be unveiled and celebrated at public ceremonies, a practice that dwindled in the years before the prisoners’ famous hunger strike. It wasn’t until over 150 republican murals spread across the city in the months after Sands’s death that unionists began to retaliate with their own brazen and violent imagery, much of which was explicitly drawn from pop culture: witness Iron Maiden’s 'Eddie The Head' striding over republican graves, armed with a rifle, teamed up with the grim reaper. This particular image I’d seen in photographs many times before, but it was one that my tour guide had never seen. The mural must have been removed he said, by property developers knocking down homes to make way for apartments.
At Divismore Crescent, Joe stood back, unusually quiet as I approached the side of that home in the cul-de-sac beneath the mountain. At least one elderly person lived there, I decided, because of a metal safety rail that lead up the three or four steps to the front door and the satellite dish attached to the wall outside the upstairs window. I wasn't sure if what I was standing in was a driveway or some kind of public viewing area. The side garden or patch of grass was raised above the tarmac where we stood, and cut into this grass was a brick-laid enclave about the size of a standard car. From here you could get a clear view of the mural and the words along the bottom that read 'In passing this mural, pause a little while, then pray for us and Erin, then smile.' I asked Joe if it was okay for me to go into this space to take my photographs. He shrugged and said 'sure', he and his taxi fixed to the footpath on the other side of the road. I took the shots as quickly as I could.
Edward Pearse Jordan, Edward 'Mundo' O’Rawe and Robert 'Bobby' McCrudden are the men depicted in this mural. Jordan, on the right, was killed by Northern Ireland’s police force when I was three years old, growing up in Dublin. Among others, he died under much disputed circumstances surrounding the alleged shoot-to-kill policy undertaken by police. Now, in 2016, his family is still going to court looking for answers, blanks that the community once tried to fill with colour and violence and late family faces. It’s always the working class people, Joe told me, who suffer the most. And it was the first time on our tour that his voice sounded less like a guide and more like a person, when he was emptied of talk on the opposite footpath. We stayed there silently for a while, in front of that mural. Neither of us had anything left to say to each other.
Unlike our previous stops that afternoon on which Joe had informed me of the artist 'Danny McVanny', a friend of his who painted these kinds of murals for a modest fee, the Ballymurphy artist was a stranger to him. Here was an artist who couldn’t have painted this picture as a teen in the eighties, because the mural itself was based on a DVD cover: Michael Collins, starring Liam Neeson, released in cinemas in 1996, nominated for two Oscars in 1997, twenty years later having grossed about eleven million dollars in total. The film has been criticised for historical inaccuracy, for being the story that ran away with itself in all of its drama. The sacrifice, the heartbreak... I watched it in my granny’s house, on VHS. Although I was only a child, I remember just adoring him, Michael Collins, the hero who told me I didn’t belong to any other empire, that I could walk on whatever ground I wanted to. This mural said the same up there on that gable wall, while everyone else was at work, and I was light on my feet.
On our way back to the bus station, Joe thought we could fit in a quick trip to the peace wall. Three miles long, the wall stands halfway between a line of modest back gardens, towering over people’s homes. The community doesn’t mind it, he told me, because it brings in so much money. We got there and it was covered in tourist signatures. Joe presented me with a marker. 'Would you like to make your mark?' he asked me. Much to his disappointment, I said no.