23 September 2005

Painting a picture of Belfast’s history

The Irish News Online

**Shhhhhh!! For some reason today, the Irish News is letting you read everything w/o having subscribed. I was recently looking at their Scappaticci archives, and now I am on to murals and Bobby Sands. I thought I would reprint this old article and photo and whatever else interesting I find. ;-)

By Jenny Lee

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.us
Click to view - note the photo is before the mural was restored

Jenny Lee speaks to sociologist Bill Rolston, whose long-awaited third volume of photographs of political wall murals looks at the period 1996 to 2003...

While murals are seen by some as a backdrop to the Troubles or a tourist attraction, murals still very much continue to play a dynamic part in Northern Ireland’s on-going political process.

This is a fact that University of Ulster Professor, Bill Rolston is very much aware off. His third book on this topical subject, Drawing Support 3, reflects the period leading up to the Good Friday – Agreement and what he calls “the frustrating politics of transition”.

Every mural has a story to tell about a particular moment in history, or an important shift in power between the two sides, or about developing tensions within the divided communities of Northern Ireland.

In his photographs, Rolston keeps a comprehensive archive of this changes. Drawing Support 3 covers both loyalist and republican murals – 114 in all, reproduced in full colour, including a number of unique photographs of murals from inside the H-Blocks taken shortly before the closure of the prison.

The tradition of mural painting in the north of Ireland is almost a century old.

It began around 1908 with loyalist artisans who began to paint large outdoor murals each July, part of the annual celebrations of the Battle of the Boyne.

The republican mural tradition was born as a result of reaction to the hunger strike of 1981. After the ten of the striking prisoners died, nationalists and republicans took to the streets in support of the them and young nationalists began “drawing support” for the hunger strikers on the walls – hence the name of Rolston’s books.

With the end of the hunger strike, republican mural artists had a new-found confidence in this form of expression and found other themes such as the electoral strategy of Sinn Fein, international comparisons and media censorship. This variation in republican murals continued post-ceasefire to include themes such as sectarian harassment, memorials around the 20th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strikes, the RUC/PSNI and British Army, plastic bullets and international solidarity.

The variation of murals in loyalist areas were much more narrow and the primary reason why Rolston delayed publishing this third book.

“I kept putting the book off until the loyalists done something different. I kept lying in hope that their murals would change a bit,” he said.

Unlike republican murals, loyalist murals after their ceasefire of October 1994 made few references to topical political events and developments.

“Before the ceasefire, 90 per cent of their murals were paramilitary. With the increase in trouble, the quantity and graphic and brutal nature of them actually increased. Up until two years ago it was rare to find a mural without a hooded man and guns and even then you could count them on one hand,” said Rolston.

In short, loyalists murals were militaristic and overwhelmingly about territory, with many directly commissioned by paramilitary groups and some showing live loyalist heroes, such as UDA man Michael Stone or Johnny Adair.

Surprisingly, given the conflict over Orange marches, few murals referred to the subject – there were also no murals demanding decommissioning by the IRA or criticising David Trimble for doing too much or too little.

A significant factor in the decline of loyalist mural activity was the feuding between rival loyalist paramilitary groups. Rolston notes that in one area of Belfast, the Lower Shankill, there were, until recently, 14 murals, mostly containing paramilitary images. Seven of those have now been painted over, partly as a result of changes following the recent loyalist feud in the area and partly in response to pressure on loyalists to clean up their act.

Beyond the explicit and often threatening representations of armed men and mythological warriors recruited to the loyalist cause, there were memorials to dead colleagues and royalty.

However, the official recognition – and funding – of the Ulster-Scots movement in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement has provided a new source of commissioning, and hence a boost to the emergence of murals on historical themes.

“There is greater colour and vibrancy in republican murals who rose imaginatively to the post-agreement task,” said an enthusiastic Rolston, who doesn’t claim to be an artist. “I’m just an enthusiast who wanted to keep an archive of these murals which are so historic and could easily have been lost forever.”

In contrast to the loyalist murals, after 1996, the only guns or references to armed struggle contained in republican murals were now mainly confined to memorial murals commemorating dead comrades and celebrations of the role played by women in the struggle of the previous three decades.

In the same spirit of commemoration, murals appeared periodically referring to the 1981 hunger strike. This reached a climax in 2001 when for the 20th anniversary a large number of murals appeared reprising the themes and images of two decades earlier, with support for the hunger strike and Bobby Sands, as depicted on the cover of Drawing Support 3.

As before the ceasefire, mythology and history, including Cuchulainee, proved rich seams for republican muralists to mime, while reference was made to contemporary events such as the Holy Cross stand-off in Ardoyne. One mural, copied form a cartoon in the Irish News, depicted the plight of the nationalist Short Strand in east Belfast.

As for Rolston views on the future and whether the changing political environment will lead to the demand for a Drawing Support 4 being published, Rolston diplomatically says “the jury is out”.

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