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The Murals That Make Ireland

Words:

Edd Norval
December 12, 2019

On this day - the 2019 General Elections in the UK - a debate rages as to the future of Britain and its constituent countries. While England yearns for one singularly powerful Kingdom, the people of Scotland remain divided on their future and relationship to this idea. Ireland, like Scotland, have had a tumultuous relationship to British political and legal bodies in their recent history. Interestingly though, one of the best places to understand the complex history of Irish politics is by looking at the many murals around the country.

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Ireland and England's relationship is fraught and incredibly complex. Historical revisionism is rife and depending on who you ask, where you are, or what pub you're in, you'll get a host of answers - none neccessarily entirely true or false, but all belonging on a gradient whose guarded or visceral retelling is influenced by all sorts of socioeconomic, geopolitical and personal factors.


Republicanism and Unionism are at the two most extreme ends of ideas of Irish sovereignity. Arguably one of the most intricate and passionate situations in global politics, akin to the Israel-Palestine situation, Irish people of all persuasions have found many artistic outlets for their thoughts.


Many of the world's greatest ever writers - from Oscar Wilde to Samuel Beckett - come from the Emerald Isle, incidentally two figures whose writing styles are similarly polarised and polarising, allowing us to interact intimately with the Irish psyche and sensibility.

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When we talk about politics though, there's nowehere else that we can see the allegiance of the people to a particular ideology, nor the very tribal and primitive declaration of adoration or hatred, than in the street murals that adorn walls in Dublin, Derry, Cork, Belfast and beyond.


It's in Northern Ireland, the hotbed of the late-90s conflict between the Catholic Irish population and the overzealous British constabulary, that we can still experience the sentiments that led to men taking up guns and women risking their lives to shelter them in their homes.


One way of finding out about incidents and ideologies is through the internet, but we can also find out about where we are and who stands shoulder-to-shoulder with us by simply walking through the streets - particularly in Belfast and Derry. Murals depicting the hunger strikers of Maze Prison can be found on walls of the Catholic Falls Road whereas portraits of William of Orange and the masked Ulster Volunteer Forces are dotted along the adjacent predominantely Protestant street Shankill Road.

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Instantly recognisable and now frequently visited by swathes of tourists in 'black cab' tours, these murals are more than empty attractions - they visualise the beliefs that many have died in search for. Like those who took part in the violent conflicts, or in the ideological and intellectual cores of each movement, the inherent romanticism of the Irish can be found in the glorification of their heroes into demi-God status in these mural depictions.


One of the most instantly recognisable of these doesn't feature a face at all though. In the Bogside neighbourhood of Derry, Northern Ireland, where a white wall at the end of a row of terraced housing reads 'YOU ARE NOW ENTERING FREE DERRY' in bold black lettering, we are introduced to many co-existing threads in the conflict.


Although the original source of its 1969 inception isn't verified, local activist and artist John 'Caker' Casey re-painted it for the arrival of British Home Secretary Jim Callaghn's visit later that year.


Surrounding the walls is a neighbourhood entrenched in the conflict, where the infamous Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972 - when British troops opened fire, shooting 28 unarmed protestors - took place. Many other murals in the area pay homage to the 14 people who were killed in that event, alongside those who partook in the Battle of Bogside three years prior - where severe rioting between locals and the British police lasted for three days on those very streets.


Irish history is complex, but accessible and a source of great pride for many of the island's inhabitants. Although the worst of it has seemingly passed - a peace treaty being signed in 1999 as the Good Friday Agreement - neither time, nor signatures and promises has done much to diffuse the tension. It's still there, manifesting more in displays like songs and these murals. It's in the island's art that, particularly experiencing it first hand, we can start to untangle the myriad perspectives, allowing us a clear insight into a troubling period of time.

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