Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

Hegemonic Shifts: The Latest from the Walls of Northern Ireland

Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

Hegemonic Shifts: The Latest from the Walls of Northern Ireland

Article excerpt


In a searchable online archive that covers the development of the murals of Northern Ireland from 1979-the present (featuring some 3000 images, with a further 9000 to be catalogued), I have attempted to register a remarkable, durable, and often contentious cultural phenomenon. (1) Namely, the ways in which walls in Northern Ireland have been used as sites of articulation and contestation, locations where political modalities can be asserted, violence threatened, history interpreted, identities expressed, and jokes made (to name but a few of the functions of the wall-texts that have appeared over the past thirty-five years or so). Underpinning the archive is the belief that the murals in their entirety constitute a complex, changing, fascinating body of public art that brings an added element to the understanding of the conflict in Northern Ireland and the 'peace' that has followed. Taken together, these materials provide an important record that renders significant insights into the complicated and strange history of Northern Ireland as it has passed from a state of war to the unstable and as yet precarious 'peace process'.

The focus of this essay is on the changes that have taken place in the murals of Northern Ireland over the past decade or so (effectively since the 2006 St. Andrews Agreement), and more particularly the past five years. (2) It will be argued that although there have been important developments in the murals that reflect the consolidation of 'peace' during this period, the walls also tell a different story. (3) It will be shown that, perhaps predictably, given the paralysis and stagnation that have characterised the power-sharing/division of power arrangements, and the disillusionment, cynicism and bitterness towards the political settlement which is now evident, a number of murals offer representations that indicate the growth of tendencies that present latent but real dangers.

The murals and their complexity

I have written elsewhere about the evolution of the murals of Northern Ireland both in terms of form and function. (4) From the simplest beginnings--a flag and a slogan for example (fig.1)-the murals have developed into lieux de memoire, to use Pierre Nora's term, and now, significantly, form part of a burgeoning heritage industry that brings tourists to very specific parts of Belfast and Derry in particular (fig.2). (5) The relatively recent growth of mural tourism has undoubtedly had an effect on the form and content of artwork on walls in particular locations. On one of the main routes into Republican West Belfast, for example, at the junction of Divis Street and Northumberland Street, the 'International Wall' has become the site of a number of murals that address not just issues local to Northern Ireland, but topics of wider social and political interest (fig.3).

While on Cupar Way, the Loyalist side of the Peace Line (fig.4) now features not just murals by local groups (fig.5),

but work by international artists-often in the form of tagging (fig.6), and graffiti by the multitudes of visitors brought by Belfast's numerous tourist-taxi firms (fig.7).

The social effect of the influx of visitors that the murals have brought to specific areas is unknown though probably relatively limited since most tourists effectively hit the murals and run--especially on the Loyalist side. But this new phenomenon certainly engenders somewhat incongruous encounters. In the summer of 2014, for example, while photographing on the Loyalist lower Shankill estate (once the home of the notorious paramilitary Johnny Adair and still largely under the influence of the Ulster Defence Association), I noticed a coach pull up. The vehicle, which bore the name of its owners and their location--County Monaghan (in the Irish Republic), was rapidly emptied of its passengers, who turned out to be Spanish teenagers on a day out from their English language school in Dublin. …

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