The Changing Face of the Murals

Now a source of community pride and celebration

The paramilitary murals of the working class districts of Belfast are vanishing. Fortunately, the tradition of mural painting is being maintained as a source of community pride and celebration, and the portraits of sporting icons such as George Best are slowly superseding the old illustrations of masked gunmen.

Mural painting in Northern Ireland began in Protestant areas in the early twentieth century as part of the Battle of the Boyne commemorations around the Twelfth of July. They developed into a weapon of political expression during the decades of the Troubles. 

Republican activists generated support for the hunger strikers through murals and graffiti. Loyalists proclaimed allegiance to Britain and the Queen through emblematic displays on gable ends. In addition, kerbstones and street signs were recruited to the displays with a fresh coat of red, white and blue paint. Elaborately decorated arches were erected in Protestant areas at the height of the marching season.

The mural’s prime function during these years was as a propaganda tool, free from the censorship that was present in mainstream media channels. Murals helped to energise the community into political and financial action and as recruitment adverts for paramilitary campaigns.

During the 1990s, the declaration of the main paramilitary groups’ ceasefires facilitated an optimistic burst of colourful peace murals by mural artists from each community, particularly in Belfast. Contemporary political murals painted in the new political climate aim to put important issues on to the agenda against the stuttering but undeniable progress of the political process. Innovative compositions were painted in support of securing a public inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday and to promote the use of the Irish language and Ulster-Scots.

In the twenty-first century, images of gunmen are being phased out as much of Belfast’s old housing stock is demolished and replaced. The newly built houses have been designed to discourage murals and graffiti with private side gardens and side doors to disrupt access to the gable end. Walls that once housed images of gunmen have been covered with displays on varied themes from Belfast-born author CS Lewis to Captain Edward Smith of the Harland and Wolff built Titanic.

Local football heroes of past and present are now more likely to be glorified in a mural than the menacing balaclava-clad figures of old. George Best’s dazzling skill or the commitment and passion of Celtic manager Martin O’Neill provide more appropriate role models for the next generation to look up to. Football and boxing are central to many areas of these districts and it may be some time before we see murals painted to celebrate the sporting contributions of Eddie Irvine and Darren Clarke!

However, post Good Friday Agreement politics need not spell the end of mural painting. Republicans are still actively using the medium to protest for inquiries into state collusion over high profile killings and to remember members of their own community killed in sectarian violence. 

Recent years have seen Loyalist paramilitaries directing their aggression towards their own communities in bitter feuds that resurface intermittently. Therefore, these mural artists have been more likely to be employed in painting territorial murals than creating paintings offering serious political comment. 

However, a new breed of murals are beginning to emerge from the loyalist painters which seek to challenge the government over public inquiries and embarrass republican politicians by highlighting issues such as the accusations of IRA intelligence gathering at Stormont. 

To conclude, mural painting is in a buoyant state and is currently demonstrating the diversity of the medium as a means of political and community expression. Whilst the gunmen on the walls may be facing extinction, collectively, the mural paintings are still worthy of examination to provide insight into these working class districts.

Dr Jonathan McCormick 2004