Murals of Derry
New collection of mural images shows that the writing on the walls is really changing
For decades the churlish backdrop of news reports and feature films on the Troubles, Northern Ireland’s murals are now in a period of transition. Increasingly old images of gunmen and paramilitary regalia are being replaced by social messages and celebrations of community pride in many working class neighbourhoods.
As a new book, Murals of Derry, published by Guildhall Press shows, nowhere is this change more apparent than on the walls and gable ends of houses in Derry city. This glossy, attractive publication - originally published, in 1995, as Seeing Is Believing - brings together colour photographs of murals from both the past and the present found in the city’s Waterside and Cityside areas.
‘The images in Murals of Derry record the evolving viewpoints and aspirations of both communities during a time when the relationships between Ireland and Britain, nationalist and unionist, republican and loyalist, Catholic and Protestant, are being explored and refined,’ explains Guildhall Press manager Paul Hippsley.
‘The range of wall art from across the city captures the ongoing experiences of its people over four decades, whether it is celebrating historical events, protesting against social injustices, or commemorating lost lives.’
Murals have long occupied a unique place in Northern Ireland’s cultural landscape. The earliest examples date from the turn of the 20th century when images of King Billy began to appear in many loyalist areas. After partition, these paintings became an increasingly important way for unionist communities to celebrate the existence of the state.
It was only during the Troubles, however, that murals became overtly political propaganda tools - support for the Hunger Strikes was regularly expressed on the walls of republican areas, while images of the Union Jack and the Queen appeared in loyalist neighbourhoods. In both communities these representations were often accompanied by threatening paramilitary figures and symbols.
Yet even then murals were rarely a simple marker of an area’s political affiliation - they were also used as a vehicle for commenting on important social issues of the time.
Reflecting on his introduction to murals, ‘Declan’, a painter whose work appears in Murals of Derry, says, ‘I was witnessing stuff that was not in the news or in the papers. We lived under a time of heavy censorship. The murals were a way of telling people or highlighting events or issues.’
Derry is home of the conflict’s most enduring and iconic mural – the imploration ‘You Are Now Entering Free Derry’ on a Bogside gable end – and Murals of Derry dedicates an entire chapter to paintings on Free Derry Corner over the past four decades.
Originally painted in 1969, the mural was transformed, in 1994, by artist Colin Darke who painted the wall a socialist inspired red and yellow. Since then Free Derry Corner has sported every conceivable colour – from pink for Gay Pride Week in 2007 to black prior to a Bloody Sunday commemoration in 2006 – and carried messages in support of a wealth of causes, including International Women’s Day and AIDS awareness.
The changing face of Free Derry Corner reflects a general shift in mural painting to embrace more inclusive, socially minded messages. As the photographs collected in Murals of Derry show, over the last ten years the blatantly militaristic and partisan political messages that once dominated the walls of many working class districts have gradually been phased out and replaced by new, community orientated images.
A chapter entitled ‘Community Murals’ showcases examples of this trend in Derry city – including depictions of children playing street football, the patron of Derry, St Columba and – no kidding - a killer whale that apparently surfaced in the Foyle in 1977.
The murals’ themes may have changed, but the impetus for painting them has not. ‘It’s about giving people a vehicle to talk about the issues that affect them and giving the community a sense that these issues are being dealt with at some level. Where once it was plastic bullets that were killing young people in these areas it’s now drugs. Where once it was the cops who thrashed our homes it’s drink,’ ‘Declan’ argues.
He sees plenty of benefits in continuing the tradition of mural painting – ‘it’s one of the ways in which young people can have a positive impact on their area and it gives them a sense of ownership. It’s great to see the faces of people who paint a mural. There is a feeling of achievement.’
The writing on the wall around us has certainly changed - Murals of Derry provides both a vibrant illustration of the extent of these changes and a bright, informative tour guide for anyone interested in the chequered history of the city’s murals.
Murals of Derry is available now and can be purchased direct from the Guildhall Press website at www.ghpress.com.