'Painting Landscapes: the place of murals in the symbolic construction of urban space' by Neil Jarman
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The following chapter has been contributed by the author, Neil Jarman, with the permission of the editor, Anthony Buckley and The Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University Belfast. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
This chapter is taken from the book:
Symbols in Northern Ireland
This chapter is copyright Neil Jarman 1998 and is included
on the CAIN site by permission of the author, editor and the publishers. You may not edit, adapt,
or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use
without the express written permission of the author or the publisher, The Institute of Irish
Studies, Queen's University Belfast. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.
Symbolic Construction of Urban Space
IN little more than a decade mural painting has developed into one of the most dynamic media for symbolic expression in the north of Ireland. On any journey, real or virtual, through the working-class estates of Belfast one is bombarded by a panoply of visual statements. In recent years these images have become increasingly elaborate and extensive in their design and professional in their execution. Nowadays scaffolding is often erected in front of walls which are to be transformed and painters may spend days working to cover a wall with symbols, icons and images. We have come a long way from 1970 when two men were sentenced to six months' imprisonment for painting a tricolour at Annadale Street, or from 1980 when a 16-year-old youth was shot dead while painting republican slogans on a wall by a policeman who said he thought the paintbrush was a gun. Nowadays such activity is largely acknowledged as an established, if not entirely legitimate, political practice.
Many people have recorded the growing number of mural paintings and analysed their changing symbolic content. But most such discussions focus purely on the murals as images and have only briefly acknowledged another important factor: the materiality of these paintings. For as well as being elaborate visual displays, the murals are also objects. As such they are more artefact than art. As artefacts they are produced to be seen at fixed sites and in specific locales, and an extension of their significance is generated by a semiotic dynamic which involves the images taking meaning from their location and the location in turn having a differing significance because of the paintings. As images they are always open to multiple interpretations, but as artefacts in public space they are also open to multiple forms of use, re-use and abuse. As images they always have had a functionality: as propaganda, as rhetoric, as ideological and symbolic markers etc., but as artefacts their use is potentially more varied. While on one level it is primarily the image that it is being used and transformed, on another level it is the physical artefact, fixed in space, which is the subject of activity; taken still further it is the public space in which the artefact is sited that is changed.
As artefacts all murals are site-specific. Not in an artistic way which suggests they might be designed with a particular location in mind, but rather, their power as political statements and as symbols is enhanced by their location. A sense of place can always be understood in terms of the content of the paintings: the juxtaposition and selection of the varied components and their framing situates each mural on one side of the sectarian divide or the other. But this is still to see them principally as images. To see them as artefacts demands some wider recognition of placing, of the area beyond the immediate frame or the edge of the wall, which all too often is the limit or boundary of photographic reproduction and of verbal analysis. To see them as site-specific requires awareness of the physical and social environment in which the images are produced and with which they interact. Meaning changes as the frame widens. The three-storey-high depiction of the Madonna and Child at the bottom of the Falls Road is transformed when one is aware of the military base, bristling with antennae, at the top of the adjacent Divis Tower, and the 20-foot high steel fence dividing the Falls Road from the Shankill Road on the other side. To regard the murals essentially, or only, as images is therefore to restrict their power. Their very location affects how they are interpreted and what they mean, while the location is used and treated differently because of the presence of the paintings. But as artefacts the power of the murals also extends beyond their immediate position. Many paintings are widely represented and thereby further transformed. Although they may be removed from their original context, they will always be reproduced in another location. The mode and medium of reproduction may in turn suggest a very differ- ent chain of meaning and interpretation.
The intention of this paper is not to focus on the symbolic content of murals or the developments in their style and form, as this has been dealt with extensively elsewhere (Jarman 1992, 1996a, 1997; Roiston 1991, 1992, 1995a; Woods 1995). Rather I will discuss the ways in which the murals are used as symbolic objects in themselves. Objects which are used and abused, admired and transformed, replaced and defaced and which, while they ultimately physically disappear, will often survive as reproductions, and thereby transcend their context in time and place. As artefacts they are always situated in an urban landscape which itself adds to, and is altered by, the presence of painted daubs on the walls. But emerging as a symbolic landscape, somewhat paradoxically it is no longer so physically grounded, or so anchored to place, but is itself a highly mobile signifier of violence and danger.
Some elements of the spatial relationship have long been established, if not widely addressed. The large number of murals that are prominently situated on parade routes, or mark assembly points for major gatherings, indicates how they are widely used within the community (Jarman 1993). In contrast it has been more widely noted how murals and other displays are sometimes situated as territorial indicators or as boundary markers - as a warning or challenge to the 'other'. Jeff Sluka addressed a further facet of the relationship between image and place when he described the challenge that has been issued from republicans by painting slogans under a military post on Derry city walls. He has also noted the negative reaction that some people have towards political paintings in their neighbourhoods. But this type of response he curtly dismisses as merely a 'bourgeois' view, and by implication without substance (Sluka 1997). Both of these examples illustrate the significance for their political meaning of the location of mural paintings, a point that is also acknowledged in passing in a recent paper by Bill Rolston (1996). However neither of these authors elaborates or expands on this aspect of the paintings.
This paper begins by considering the historic role of murals in
the construction of sectarian space in urban Northern Ireland,
before moving on to discuss the ways in which their use has expanded
in symbolising resistance and opposition to the state. I then
consider some of the recent developments: their use in redefining
distinct locales as political sites, as a subject of tourist routes
and then their significance as local memorials to those who have
died for their cause. Finally I will touch on more critical and
negative responses to the increase in painted gables, by looking
at mural paintings as objects which provoke both fear and opposition
from within the working-class communities.
Mural painting has been a feature of unionist popular culture since the early years of this century when images of King William III and other Orange symbols began to adorn the gable walls of the working-class areas of Belfast. They appeared as part of an assertion of the Protestant people's sense of British identity during an extended period of political crisis. In the later stages of the Home Rule campaign and, following partition in 1921, in the period of consolidation of the Northern Irish state, mural paintings were used to complement and extend the existing forms of Orange displays.
From the early years of the nineteenth century elaborate displays of flags, flowers and bunting were hung from houses and across streets for the July commemorations of the Battle of the Boyne. Each year wooden, metal or floral arches were installed in the centres of many towns and villages and in staunchly Protestant residential areas. These displays were highly formalised and showed little variation in their symbolic content from year to year or from place to place (Jarman 1997). Each area was content to affirm its loyalty to the memory of King William III, and celebrate the victory at the Boyne. Such displays served to mark out those towns, villages and streets which were loyal and Protestant.
These displays on the Twelfth of July marked the beginnings of a visible sectarianisation of place. But they were short-lived. Most lasted for no more than a few days and then the streets and buildings returned to their everyday appearance with no overt demonstration of collective identity. However the introduction of mural paintings in working-class areas of Belfast changed all this, making these hitherto temporary and seasonal affirmations of loyalty much more permanent. Streets could now declare their faith throughout the year. They were no longer simply rows of houses, but terraces of Protestant houses. The permanent displays visually confirmed a status above and beyond mere function. While this may have been a relatively minor step in areas which were already recognised as staunchly Protestant, and much of working-class Belfast was highly segregated, such displays helped to make explicit the fact of residential segregation.
Murals helped to transform 'areas where Protestants lived' into 'Protestant areas'. By implication this should also mean that some areas were accepted as 'Catholic areas'. Mural painting was soon recognised as an established feature of Protestant popular culture, and after partition in 1921, helped to define the political and cultural parameters of the Northern Ireland state. New murals, arches and other displays were ritually unveiled by politicians each July in Protestant areas across the north, but the law and the police were utilised to ensure that the nationalist population did not develop a similar tradition within a British Northern Ireland. Although an area could be acknowledged as inhabited by Catholics, it could not easily or readily be regarded as a 'Catholic area' since all Catholics were regarded as Irish nationalists and therefore a threat to the status of Northern Ireland. Gerrymandering ensured that Unionist politicians controlled some areas with a Catholic majority and no area could be regarded as beyond the actual, or symbolic, remit of the Orange state. Loyalist parades were allowed to pass through Catholic areas but attempts by nationalists to parade or erect visual displays were often highly restricted or banned outright. Even the temporary erection of the Irish tricolour was seen as a challenge and an affront, and more permanent displays were almost unknown (but see Rolston 1991, 72).
In the 1960s these inequalities began to be challenged by the Northern Irish Civil Rights Movement. The main thrust of the campaign focused on securing equal access to housing and employment but a challenge was also mounted to the Orange hegemony of the streets. Demonstrators sought to carry their arguments into towns which were regarded as the preserve of Protestants. They also began to challenge the 'traditional' rights of Protestants to parade wherever they wanted. As ideological and political arguments turned into sectarian violence and outright warfare, Catholic areas in Derry and Belfast were enclosed behind barricades. As the forces of the state were excluded, people began to exert control over their own areas. A key element of this newly claimed control was to redefine the symbolic identity and status of the estates. Allen Feldman has discussed how, in this situation, the areas behind the barricades and away from the interfaces became sanctuary spaces, places in which the nationalist community, and to a lesser extent the loyalist community, could begin to redefine themselves on their own terms. These sanctuary spaces then served as loci of cultural and ideological resistance (Feldman 1991, 36-9). Behind the barricades the power of the state was restricted and the agents of the state were excluded. Initially this included physical exclusion but principally this was symbolic activity.
When the first barricades were erected in the Bogside in Derry, in January 1969, the act of excluding the forces of the state, was proclaimed by the slogan 'You Are Now Entering Free Derry' painted on a gable wall in St Columb's Street. By the time the painting was re-done, professionally, for the visit of the Home Secretary, James Callaghan, in August that year it had become emblematic of communal attitudes and collective resistance (McCann 1980). The mural has remained in place throughout the reconstruction of the Bogside, and although the wall is now isolated on a stretch of dual carriageway, it is far from a passive memorial. The mural is repainted regularly and Free Derry Corner has been established as the focal point for republican commemorations within the city: the annual Bloody Sunday Commemoration march terminates in a rally in front of the wall. In the past few years several other large murals, some related to the early events of the troubles, others linked to the opposition to loyalist parades, have been painted nearby. Although the barricades are long gone and the original buildings are no more, Free Derry Corner remains a defiant public space. In contrast, the loyalist murals in the nearby Fountain area, painted by Bobby Jackson in the 1920s and maintained by his family for many years, were finally demolished a couple of years ago. The divergent fortunes of the two sites seem to encapsulate the dramatic changes in the relationships between the two communities and the city of Derry.
The Free Derry mural was an early example of the transformation of public space by nationalists through the installation of political imagery, but for a time it was an isolated example. It was not until the early 1980s that murals became a prominent form of street display in nationalist areas and the brush joined the armalite and the ballot box as a facet of political strategy. Republican strategy changed after the hunger strikes: the military campaign continued, but at the same time a more open political movement began, culminating in the success of Sinn Féin at the polls. This movement tried to emphasise the distinctive cultural base of nationalism, which was deemed to provide the secure foundations for the political movement. Numerous murals and political slogans appeared across nationalist Belfast, kerbstones and lamp-posts were painted, streets were renamed in Irish, and the tricolour flew freely to assert a permanent and visible, political and cultural dominance over the area. This development was exemplified by the transformation of the republican commemorations to mark the introduction of internment each August. During the 1980s this changed from a day of political speeches and rioting to a week-long celebration of Irish culture. Mural painting was encouraged as part of the new West Belfast Festival. Competitions to judge the best painting were held in the early years, while more recently paintings have been especially commissioned for the Festival. The images were used as a means of conveying political ideas, for displaying historical heroes and role models, and extending the parameters of the movement. As with the emergence of unionist murals earlier in the century, the paintings were a prominent part of a wider transformation of nationalist areas.
The development of a republican mural-painting tradition was matched by a resurgence of loyalist paintings so that at any one time there are well over 100 paintings on the walls of the city. Although these were always very public displays, the messages have been primarily directed at those broad communities of support which sustained the paramilitary groups rather than outside bodies of opinion. In the past, few paintings were visible from neutral areas or from the main thoroughfares that bring people in and out of the city centres. The paintings were used to situate the paramilitary political practices of loyalism and republicanism within the broader political bodies of unionism and nationalism. They were used to refine traditional beliefs in line with the changing circumstances of political and military conflict, to consolidate the support of the faithful and to give substance to an otherwise shadowy presence.
All murals create a new type of space, they redefine mundane public space as politicised place and can thereby help to reclaim it for the community. Place becomes an activated facet of the ideological struggle. Such paintings are therefore also a means of extending the message of resis tance. Murals can be used to claim and define new politicised places as readily as refining or restating old arguments on existing sites. In the period since the cease-fires many new murals have been painted on new sites. Some areas, such as parts of the Falls Road, the New Lodge, the Shankill and the Newtownards Roads in Belfast, and at Free Derry Corner in Derry have become repositories of dense concentrations of painted walls, where new images are sited beside, or painted over older ones to create a complex stratigraphy of ideological designs. In other parts of Belfast the cease-fires witnessed the first appearance of murals in areas which, until then, had appeared relatively uninvolved. Some surprise was expressed in the press when a large UVF mural appeared on the Woodstock Road in east Belfast, and a similar reaction greeted another UVF mural at Mount Vernon in the north of the city. This was both because of the threatening sentiments expressed by portrayals of hooded gunmen and because of the visibility of these painting from main thoroughfares. Less attention has been given to a republican mural that appeared in the lower Ormeau area in October 1995, but again its location has some significance. This is an area which had been without political paintings in recent years but which had been the scene of an extensive, and unresolved conflict over parading rights since the spring of 1995. While its location seems designed to confirm the identity of the area within republican political circles, the fact that the mural can be easily seen from the Ormeau Bridge, the recurrent site of confrontation, is surely not mere chance. While historically most murals have been painted to be seen from within the community of support, these recent paintings seem to be used more clearly to look out, beyond the community and into the wider society.
This use of murals, to speak to a wider audience, through their location at interfaces or from neutral spaces, is still a relatively rare occurrence. But at the same time it is important to recognise that while as artefacts the paintings themselves are relatively fixed, as mediated images they can be, and are, easily represented to a wider audience. As such the paintings have often had a complex social life (Kopytoff 1990). Once painted they are only ever partly under the control of the community that produced them and can be taken up and used by whosoever chooses. But the scale and the diversity of use, and reuse, appears to have grown as the importance and significance of their value as a form of propaganda has become more readily acknowledged. Although the painting of a mural may appear to constitute the finished artefact, it actually may be just the beginning of a complex social life, which may well continue long after the original painting itself has been over-painted or destroyed. The paintings themselves are always politically contextualised when they are situated on the streets of Belfast, but their physical presence also allows them to be readily removed, transformed photographically and electronically, and re-presented in a new context. These electronic virtual-murals can then exist in an a historical state, where they are often reproduced as no more than empty signifiers of timeless tribal divisions.
Despite their physical solidity there is a sense in which the murals have always been in a state of flux. They have always circulated in other diverse spheres. Their meaning is continuously extended and recontextualised by a variety of technological and electronic re-presentations. Although murals have been widely used as illustrations in party publications, as posters and postcards, and in other forms of political ephemera, their visual power meant that they were also co-opted and used to represent the ideals, intentions and sheer presence of the paramilitary groups in a much broader sphere. After the British government banned the broadcasting of the actual voice of supporters of republican and loyalist paramilitary groups, mural paintings increasingly became an easy way to convey the invisible presence of the gunmen. They could be used to allude to the threat of, or at least the potential for, violence that was concealed by staged press conferences and rational rhetoric. Murals became a staple item of news reports, documentaries, film and television dramas as well as newspaper and magazine articles on the Troubles. A seemingly endless chain of reporters posed in front of one of a number of popular republican murals as they recounted the latest litany of terror or murder (Jarman 1996b). The mural has become such a ubiquitous symbol of Northern Ireland that temporary examples have been painted in Cardiff, in Manchester and in Dublin by film companies who sought to authenticate their location filming of dramas about the Troubles. Although these paintings were disembodied and delocated, they were widely used to conjure up a sense of place. Once the media had established that murals were the pre-eminent symbolic signifier of the northern conflict, the idea of Belfast could now be conjured up by little more than a few frames depicting a painting of a hooded gunman or King William on his white horse. And by the same process it was almost as if a mural had to be included in every film or news report for it to be convincing, thereby establishing a self-perpetuating cycle.
While local, national and international media removed the images from their original, specific context in order to provide the veracity of 'being there', this practice nevertheless simultaneously extended the visibility of the painting and its message. The painters, producers and sponsors of the murals were clearly aware of the possibilities that this offered. In recent years they seem to have had one eye on the use the media make of these paintings, and have used this as an opportunity to extend the audience for their propaganda. Sometimes such a strategy is purely opportunistic. For example, in December 1995 republicans erected a hurriedly-prepared board mural over an existing mural on the Falls Road because it was thought that Bill Clinton might pass nearby and thereby provide a good press image. Furthermore the political representatives of both republican and loyalist movements regularly use specific murals as a backdrop to press announcements, for photo opportunities and sometimes for political rallies where there is likely to be a media interest. Both the Republican Press Centre on the Falls Road and the offices of the Ulster Democratic Party on the Shankill Road have murals on adjoining walls which facilitate this practice. The murals help to provide a sympathetic frame for the politician. In the Sinn Féin case the mural depicts a smiling Bobby Sands, leader of the 1981 hunger strikes, while for the UDP the mural is simply headed by the words 'FOR PEACE'. As backdrops they provide the broader context for the spokesman's newsworthiness. Even if the mural is only a partial image it is evidence of the roots or background of an often otherwise unfamiliar face. The murals act as indicators of place. They show that the political figure is in home territory and, even if place is only defined by which side of the sectarian divide one is on, the mural helps define the nature of that locale. Murals can therefore help to create apposite places for the photo-opportunity with a visiting celebrity. They provide a contrast with the more common political photo-opportunity in more formal or grandiose public setting. As Gerry Adams, in particular, is increasingly seen moving in the realm of international politics it remains important for him to generate balancing images which situate him within his local base. Photographed in front of the Bobby Sands mural helps to reassure that this erstwhile statesman is still a man-of-the-people, and retains his grass roots connections.
The power of the murals have meant that they have become a more self-conscious means by which to propagandise to a much wider public, while still primarily aimed at a local audience. For the global media these remain little more than relatively simple symbols of the Troubles and of paramilitary violence. On the other hand the local media have began to recognise the significance of the paintings, although they are not always sure how seriously to treat them. The local press now frequently reports the appearance of a new mural as a news item in itself. While they are still rarely prepared to analyse the message as offering an insight into paramilitary thinking, it was deemed newsworthy when a murdered loyalist paramilitary, accused of being a police informer, was not named on a UVF memorial mural which was painted on the Shankill Road in July 1995 (Sunday Life 30 July 1995). A few months later another UVF mural in east Belfast which depicted hooded gunmen and demanded 'deeds and actions' rather than words became a news story under the headline 'Tension Rising Among Loyalists' (Sunday Life 24 September 1995). However although there are occasions when a new image has generated a shock or a surprise it is still rare for the paintings to be analysed in any detail, or for murals to be considered collectively or as part of a body of work. The norm is still to use them as illustrations to a paramilitary story and represent them as little more than superficial images rather than regard them as a significant part of the political process.
For most people the images of murals that are available for consumption were (and are) mediated by professionals. Most people only see representations of the murals rather than the paintings themselves. And while the paintings are used in newspapers and on television to imply danger or a threat of violence, the images themselves are clearly also intriguing and attractive. The murals therefore have a tourist potential in a way that localised features of many war zones do. The paintings have had a seductive effect on many consumers who recognise them as a significant feature of the local culture of war. Viewing the murals for oneself seems to offer the opportunity to gain a personal and safe insight into what is otherwise often a confusing and dangerous situation. Part of that understanding in turn derives from the ability to see the paintings in situ, and therefore in context. Most tourist guides to Northern Ireland have studiously avoided any reference to conflict. They prefer to emphasise the natural beauties of the landscape or the opportunities for fishing and relaxation rather than draw attention to the violence and conflict (Rolston 1995b). At the same time there has always been a category of independent tourists who are attracted to sites of conflict, and there has always been a steady stream of. visitors doing the round of mural sites in nationalist west Belfast. For political reasons, however, loyalist areas were less attractive and less welcoming. In spite of a certain wry smile when yet another camera is produced, this tourist activity was encouraged by local groups. Mini-bus tours of mural and other sites have been organised as part of the West Belfast Festival for some years, and local book shops in Belfast and Derry offer postcards of murals and leaflets which indicate the location of, and routes to prominent 'war sites' and political murals for those who visit outside the Festival season.
Some commercial travel guides have also begun to acknowledge the significance of murals as a feature of contemporary life which should be seen by visitors. The 1992 edition of the Rough Guide to Ireland, which is part of a series aimed at the independent traveller, gave five of the 13 pages devoted to Belfast and its environs to describing the location of the best mural sites in west Belfast. Half of the section about tourist sites in Derry is similarly orientated to the murals in the Fountain and the Bogside. But while these guides indicate the main sites of interest they still expect people to make their own way into, and around, west Belfast and the Bogside. For many people, whose only experience of these areas is through news broadcasts or feature films, this is still a daunting prospect. However, fear for one's safety is not only a factor which tourists are forced to address, many local people respond to suggestions that one might walk through the Ardoyne or up the Shankill to see a mural with amazement. Let alone that one might walk from the Ardoyne to the Shankill. The high public profile of the murals and their 'dangerous' locations therefore made them an attractive subject for more organised tourism.
During the republican cease-fire of 1994-96, hopes that this would be the beginnings of a lasting peace, led to a resurgence of the stagnant tourist industry. Tourism was welcomed as one of the potential salvations for the heavily subsidised economy. Building started on many new hotels and leisure complexes as tourism surged ahead. One of the early successes was the extension of the various site-seeing tours of the city run by the local bus companies to include the working-class areas of Belfast. These tours proved as popular with Belfast people 'on a voyage of rediscovery of their own city' (Sunday Life 9 April 1995) as they did with foreign tourists and the media. The tour offered a social history of the Troubles with a local guide indicating the significance of key areas, however as David Sharrock acknowledged, writing in the Guardian, 'everybody agreed the murals which decorate the gable ends were the highlight' (Guardian 23 March 1995). In fact without the paintings to punctuate the tour, the Belfast estates would be no more attractive than those of any other urban centre. At the more prominent paintings the tour bus stops to allow the sightseers to disembark to make their own photographic record of their visit. While memories of the sites of bombings and shootings might produce no more than a shudder, images of murals are a visible reminder of the unique complexities of Belfast. And when they are put on display back home, the meaning of the paintings will once again be transformed and extended as they are placed in a new context.
There is a certain sense of opportunism as the tourist operators move into the working-class areas, but these tours also offer an opportunity to see the city in a different light. These routinised repetitions help inscribe new and distinct routes around the city, they help to link up and reconnect many areas that have long been separated. They may only make transient connections, but these tourist routes also offer the possibility of a new way of seeing the city. This is particularly poignant for those residents of Belfast who take the tour. In daily life, routes and journeys to and from the city centre, and between different residential areas, become hardened by routine. Avoiding 'the other side' people remain in the known areas, among their own. The bus tours re-open the possibilities of seeing the city from other perspectives. They make links between areas and across sectarian boundaries in a way that is often not acknowledged or which are made difficult by the blocked entries and the numerous peace-lines. On the bus the 5 sectarian boundaries are dissolved, at least for a short time. As the tours cross between Protestant and Catholic areas they are able to focus on and emphasise the commonality of experience over the past 30 years for those living, for example, in the two west Belfasts. The images on the murals may serve to symbolise the differing aspirations of the two communities, but their presence as artefacts also helps to indicate something of the shared history which may in the future provide the base for shared under-standings.
For tourists, many of the murals may suggest a romanticised view of the violence of recent years, even a nostalgia for the imagined sense of community which has provided the base for resistance and struggle, and at times encouraged sacrifice for the cause. For the communities themselves the walls have long been regarded as an appropriate place on which to honour and remember the dead and imprisoned. The working-class areas contain many small memorials which record the names of local individuals who have been killed during the Troubles. Although some will include the name of relevant paramilitary organisations many commemorate those not killed by chance or misfortune. A diverse array of small plaques, formal marble memorials, murals and free-standing Celtic crosses is scattered across the city, and permanent reminders to the price of the cause. While all of these memorials have an impact on the sense of place, the murals are probably the most assertive in demanding acknowledgement of their presence. Most formal memorials are self-effacing objects which, while they remain as permanent reminders to death, rarely confront or challenge the passer by. It is usually considered inappropriate for memorials to be colourful; most are constructed from solid, but visually dull stone. For most of the year the memorials merge into the background, forgotten and ignored at the fringe of social consciousness. They only become the focus of collective attention on rare occasions, usually the annual commemoration when they are brightened by floral wreaths for a few days before these colours too fade with the elements.
There have been a number of paramilitary memorial murals painted in recent years, and these have been added to since the cease-fires were declared. Painting a wall is a relatively quick and easy means of honouring a comrade and at the same time serves to reaffirm the presence of the organisation in an area. Many of these paintings were constructed around, and from, images that dominate the sombre rhetoric of formal commemoration: stone memorials, mourning soldiers, crosses, wreaths, plaques and furled flags. But their frequent use of bright colour, as backdrop, on wreaths, emblems and badges also situates them within the wider realm of paramilitary displays and celebration. And while many formal memorials exist in a liminal space, which is carved out and set aside from daily routine, and thereby furthers their invisibility, these murals are placed on main thoroughfares, adjacent to shops and houses, the sites of everyday life. These murals provide a constant reminder to a sacrifices and hardships that the community has put itself through.
Most nationalist areas have paintings which display a simple list of the local men who are imprisoned for paramilitary activity and there are a few republicans murals which are devised specifically as memorials, but recent paintings have tended to focus on the cultural base of nationalism rather than military side of republicanism. In contrast loyalist groups marked their cease-fires by a number of large, elaborate memorials to paramilitary volunteers. Three such paintings appeared in the Shankill area during the summer of 1995, and each was then incorporated into the broader practice of public remembrance by holding commemorative parades around the area. The UVF mural to Trevor King on Disraeli Street, painted adjacent to an earlier memorial to Brian Robinson, was the site of an extensive ceremony at the end of a parade, held to mark the completion of the memorial and the anniversary of his death, in July 1995. Numerous loyalist bands paraded in his honour and laid floral wreaths in front of the painting before an oration was given by Billy Hutchinson, a prominent member of the Progressive Unionist Party. As with the example of Gerry Adams, the emerging loyalist politicians need to retain their street credibility and keep the ear of their supporters. Having established a certain legitimacy as defenders of their community, the gunmen have since become honoured as war dead. Although this initial event was a more elaborate ceremony than normal, the holding of parades around the focal point of a painted memorial is now an established practice. Memorial murals such as these, help to restructure and redefine a hitherto bland and naked wall. They reconstitute it as something approaching a sacred site, analogous to an official war memorial, but always more grounded in daily routine. While many ordinary murals are often allowed to fade and decay, the most significant memorials are kept in good conditions, any graffiti is quickly painted out and there are repainted to keep the colours bright. Murals can and are being used to satisfy the emotional as well as the ideological demands of the political movement.
Although they have become an internationally recognised signifier of Belfast, it is not true to say that these paintings are loved by all those who live locally. In fact murals attract opposition from two quarters: from within and from without. The opposition from without has been well documented: murals have often become prominent targets for destruction from paint bombs and graffiti. The defacing of republican paintings has, on occasion, been carried out by members of the security forces (Rolston 1991), and paintings in both communities which express support for paramilitaries have been the target of graffiti from the other side. The damage caused by the security forces has usually been a deliberate, extensive destruction sometimes necessitating the complete repainting of a mural. In contrast, scrawling the letters UVF on the Bobby Sands mural on the Falls Road or the initials INLA on a UFF mural on Sandy Row is necessarily an elusive act. Whether in response to a challenge, a dare, and just an act of bravado, there is a obviously a distinct attraction in such symbolic assaults. But the thrill of entering the enemy territory and leaving your calling card continues to lead to recurrent incursions.
The opposition to murals and other such street decorations from within has been less widely acknowledged. During the early part of the cease-fire period local newspapers carried repeated calls for a similar cessation of paintings. Although Sinn Féin councillor Alex Maskey was quoted as saying that the murals 'echo the feelings of the majority of the people in that area' (Sunday World February 1995), for some the murals are too closely identified with the paramilitary culture and paintings are therefore not welcome. It is difficult to gauge how widespread opposition might be since few people have been prepared to put their heads above to wall to declare their objections. The acknowledged close association between the murals and paramilitary groups is both a reason to oppose the paintings and also a reason not to speak out publicly. One woman, quoted in the press, said that although a lot of people did not like the paintings, 'many people are too frightened to complain about offensive graffiti'. Most of the opponents of mural paintings who have been quoted have also remained anonymous. Those few who have been named have been women, perhaps having more licence than men in these matters, since they have more rarely been the targets of physical reprisals should they publicly challenge the authority of paramilitaries within their own communities. It is therefore too easy to assume that all the paintings are welcomed, that they represent the 'true' feelings of an area or that any opposition to them may only be concerned with property values. Clearly the paramilitary groups have their base, and considerable support, within the working-class estates, but these areas contain a wide body of opinion who oppose these groups as well. Sometimes such opposition can be more easily focused on a painting than a organisation. Interestingly most of those murals which have received criticism in the local press have been loyalist paintings. In particular the objections have been with the continued representation of paramilitary figures or emblems, rather than the painting of murals per se. These are images which have now largely been abandoned by republican painters.
The most extensive debate over a painting was concerned with a group of loyalist murals on the Newtownards Road in east Belfast. In April 1993, anonymous residents complained of the security risk that they felt was posed by the paintings on houses that were allocated to the elderly. In spite of appeals, by residents, by the local clergy and by politicians, to the police, no attempt was made to remove the paintings (Belfast Telegraph 6 April 1993, 12 April 1993, 13 April 1993, News Letter 14 April 1993). Furthermore in subsequent years the original paintings have been reworked and repainted and adjacent walls have been included as part of the overall display. In this case the dispute was not just about the content of the images but rather whether the site was appropriate as a locale for mural painting. The elderly residents feared that it might be assumed that they were responsible for the paintings and therefore the target for recrimination. For painters the site is always of importance, if permission is given to paint a wall then all well and good, but if not then prime sites might still be claimed and painted. The site on the Newtownards Road was one such prime site. The buildings offered an extensive frontage on a major thoroughfare, which was also on the route of a number of loyalist parades and not far from the only significant nationalist area in east Belfast (which no doubt added to the concerns of the residents). This was therefore an ideal location to publicise in visual form the ideals and aspirations of the UDA and to confirm their continued presence in the area. Not only were the protests ignored but this series of paintings has continued to attract attention because of the inclusion of Cu Chulainn, hitherto an Irish republican icon, who is here claimed for the loyalist cause. The publicity over this image has made it the most prominently reproduced loyalist painting of recent years. This has in turn helped to feed and stimulate a debate on the nature of Irish culture and the basis of a distinct Ulster identity (Fortnight 320, 32; Sunday Life 19 June 1994; Graham 1994). The publicity has also made sure that the murals are maintained and where possible extended, and has ensured that the paintings continue to attract a steady stream of visitors.
In another case, residents in Rathcoole actually took it upon themselves to paint out a mural to the Red Hand Commando, only for it to be painted back soon afterwards. This happened three times (Sunday Life 27 November 1994). In the end, the mural remained on the wall but over two years later the painting was still unfinished. An uneasy truce seems to have been reached between opposing viewpoints. Similar problems arose over a UVE memorial mural in the Cregagh area during 1996. A spokesperson for the Housing Executive stated that the 'overwhelming majority' of residents in the area wanted the painting removed, but also noted: 'It is a delicate issue. There is considerable artistic merit in some of the murals and it is not a case of removing unwanted graffiti' (News Letter 23 April 1996).
While it is true that the overall quality of mural paintings has improved in the past decade, decisions over whether they should remain or be removed are not about artistic merit but are concerned with the power of the paramilitary groups who sponsor them. In each of these examples, the Housing Executive (who own the properties) have ultimately chosen not to remove the paintings, but often the final decision has only been taken after consultation with the police. The Executive have apparently adopted a policy of not removing murals, in order not to put their workers at risk from members or supporters of the paramilitary groups. This issue was confronted however on the Ormeau Road in the summer of 1996 after loyalists had painted the kerbstones, on part of a disputed parade route, red, white and blue. This attracted extensive media attention after it was claimed that members of the RUC had stood and watched the men painting the kerbs, rather than trying to stop them. Residents in the area were concerned that these paintings would serve to raise sectarian tensions. It was seen as a deliberately provocative act, to claim what was a relatively well-integrated area as Protestant territory. In this case the residents were successful in getting the kerb paintings removed, but only after the end of the marching season, when passions had calmed a little.
Over the past decade street paintings and other forms of visual displays have increased in size, scale and number. They have become an established and prominent means of propagandising and elaborating political ideologies. Although some objections are publically voiced towards a few murals and other paintings, this has so far only affected a small part of the total and there is no indication that new paintings will not continue to appear in the coming years.
Considerable attention has been given, and continues to be given, to the symbolic content of murals, but less attention has been paid to their status as symbols in their own right. In this paper I have tried to show how, as objects rather than as images, murals have been, and continue to be used, as part of the political process, in the widest sense. As such murals have perhaps become the primary symbolic artefact of the late Troubles, a signifier and a symbol of place as much as they are bounded constructs of symbols and emblems. This is not in any way to deny their significance as images, but I have indicated that they are always more than mere simple images.
I have argued that murals are intimately related to place, and that some consideration of their location is required for a broader understanding of their wider power and meaning. But this is not to suggest that taking them out of their original context is to somehow limit their authenticity as symbols, because as Roland Barthes (1977) has illustrated, meaning is always contextual, the text always escapes the control of the author, and is always open to new interpretations. Furthermore place in the fullest sense is not a fixed space, the fact that murals can and are used as part of the political and interpretative process means that they are always being relocated, transposed to new locations, both phenomenological and technological, and therefore open to new sets of meanings. To move towards a fuller understanding of the contemporary practice of mural-painting demands some wider recognition of the fact that their power and importance is always in part derived from this capacity to resonate meaning both at a specific localised site and at seemingly endless other sites, at one and the same time. Of course this is not something that is specific or particular to mural painting, it is a factor in the versatility and vitality of both images and objects, and of images as objects, which always makes them so good to think with and so difficult to pin down.
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