Whitewashing Northern Ireland’s notorious murals

Belfast's famous murals; the city's colourful and controversial testaments to "the Troubles", are being painted over by the local authorities. Are they trying to whitewash history? Read more...


One of the murals which has been painted over. Photo: Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

Belfast's famous murals; the city's colourful and controversial testaments to "the Troubles", are being painted over by the local authorities. Are they trying to whitewash history?

With over 2,000 murals throughout the city, these multi-storey paintings are a feature of many Belfast residential areas. Some of the gable murals depict paramilitaries in balaclavas, some remember "martyrs" of both sides of the political divide who have died in military or paramilitary activity. They used to demark old zones of loyalty and were a form of communication when the media was tightly controlled.

Now, some believe that they have no place in modern, peaceful Belfast. According to Dominic Bradley, who sits on the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee at the Northern Irish Assembly: "It is time we removed all aspects of paramilitarism from society, and that includes murals". Already, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's "Re-imaging Cities Project" has spent £3.3 million [€3.9m] on getting rid of the murals.

But not everyone wants to see them go. Throughout Northern Ireland, the murals trace the history of the Troubles and, some would argue that they stand as a reminder of the perils of returning to the old days. In addition they have become a unique attraction on the tourist trail in Belfast, with tour buses passing through communities to view them. 

The tradition of murals in Northern Ireland is thought to have started in the separatist area of "Free Derry Corner"; the nationalist heartland of Derry, or Londonderry (as it was renamed by the London Guilds in 1613). The mural "You Are Now Entering Free Derry" sprung up shortly after the Battle of Bogside in 1969. Shortly after, slogans such as "You Are Now Entering Loyalist Sandy Row" appeared in Belfast in retaliation.

One of the earliest murals was painted in Derry in an area which declared itself an autonomous nationalist area between 1969-1972 at the height of the troubles. Photo posted on Flickr by "hiddentravel".

Today’s murals

A-Z of the Shankhill Road, one of the new murals, reflecting what it means to come from that area. There are memories of flute bands and football teams. Some disagree with this digital form of mural making. Photo credit: Belfast City Council.

Thy "international wall". Posted on Flickr by "hiddentravel".

World War I mural in commemoration of local men who died in the Great War. Photo credit: Belfast City Council.

In Derry however, where the murals originated, the message remains the same. This is the contemporary version of one the first ever murals, near what's now known as Free Derry Corner. Posted on Flickr by "hiddentravel".

“It's time to move on”

Ian McLaughlin is a community worker in the Lower Shankhill district of Belfast, a predominantly Unionist area. The association he works for has taken down 18 murals over the past year and replaced 10 of them.

It is time to move on. We want to reflect themes of what is important to people now.

It has been important for us to ask the community what they would like to see. Older people proposed murals relating to the local people who died in the World Wars [see below], while some of the younger members of the community designed potential murals about human rights, like ‘every child has the right to play'. A particular mural is the A-Z of Shankhill [see below] with about 40 images of what Shankhill means to the residents who made suggestions, from Queen Victoria to flute bands.

Besides each of the new ones, there is a plaque showing an image of the old one. What we call the ‘terror tours' with thousands of tourists can still come and learn about the history.

Despite the local media sabotaging the project, overall it has been very positive. We took it as a good sign when the new murals were not graffitied over.

The so called family murals however, in memory of particular individuals who died in the troubles, remain a sensitive issue. We won't be able to replace those for a number of years."

Murals under threat

A popular nationalist mural of Bobby Sands, a volunteer of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who died on hunger strike whilst in HM Maze Prison 1981. Photo posted on Flickr by chris.bryant (all rights reserved).

Unionist family mural. Photo posted on Flickr by chris.bryant (all rights reserved).

Unionist slogans: "Ulster will always remain British, no surrender". Photo posted on Flickr by chris.bryant (all rights reserved).

Unionist mural of Oliver Cromwell, the English Lord Protector who invaded Ireland in 1659. He remains a controversial figure in both Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland, where he is widely despised. Posted on Flickr by "hiddentravel".

A former Shankhill mural by the Ulster Freedom Fighters (loyalist). The mural is one of those which has now been replaced as part of the replacement scheme. Photo credit: Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

Mural remembering the Holy Cross dispute of 2001-2002, between the parents of the Catholic primary school who walked their children to school through a loyalist area, and the residents of that area. Posted on Flickr by "seanfderry-studenna".

“Getting rid of the murals is like bulldozing Auschwitz”

Danny Devenny is a nationalist muralist.

There murals are part of our heritage and it's important for the next generation and foreign visitors who come to Belfast to understand that history. Getting rid of the murals is like bulldozing Auschwitz.

The murals came out of a time when the British controlled the media and we needed a voice, when British soldiers were shooting at us. It is a myth that they demarked territory. Free Derry Corner was painted as a result of the Royal Ulster Constabulary besieging that community. It wasn't hostile. The message was 'we are free people and you are welcome! We are not ogres'.

The murals reflect things that are going on in our community, with the support of the community. The fact that they are never graffitied over, and that people approach me on the street to ask me to paint murals, shows how important they are. It is a total insult that politicians say they have been forced on the community.

Many of the murals are no longer about what divides: there is more that unites us. I have worked with Unionist painters in the city centre, which shows how popular they are becoming. I have done murals on the themes of joy riding and racism, and there is also the international wall with support for Cubans and Palestinians.

The Re-imaging Communities Project costs a fortune and some of the images are actually just plastic digital images printed and stuck on to the walls. That is not how the murals began. That is not the tradition of mural painting in Northern Ireland."