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Political Graffiti or Open-Air Art?

First, Derry

To tour Northern Ireland is to be awe struck by rolling hills and ocean vistas, to be thrilled by the island’s wildly moody weather, and to be heartbroken by the conflict that continues to define this land and trap its inhabitants.

Bogside area, (catholic) Londonderry

Touring the political terrain of Northern Ireland may seem a grim vacation to some, but it’s a good way to define on your own terms three decades of “The Troubles,” as the sectarian battle is often shorthanded by locals.

And to have faith that the continued implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, and the widespread revulsion among both Catholics and Protestants to the bloody 1998 car bomb in the border town of Omagh, can lead to peace.

I entered Northern Ireland from the west, having toured the rest of the Emerald Isle in a rented car. The roads become instantly wider, there’s more modern suburbs, there’s more litter, there’s loads more graffiti, murals and protest signs.

Green and white road signs in the Republic of Ireland advise that you are approaching Derry. But across the border red and white British municipal signs advise that you are approaching Londonderry, the first signs of disconnect in this headline-grabbing region.

A set designer specializing in Shakespearean tragedies could not have dreamed up a more dramatic city center than you’ll find in Derry/Londonderry, or “Stroke City” as many young people now call the place. The rampart’s stone walls, built by the English in 1613, dominate the city center, and old cannons still point out at the countryside. Near the city center is the Bloody Sunday Monument, dedicated to the 13 unarmed civilians shot dead by British paratroopers in 1972, launching a cycle of violence that has claimed upwards of 3,500 lives in Northern Ireland since.

I found replaying music group U2’s cry for peace, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” in my head a forward-looking way to appreciate the monument.

Belfast’s Peace Wall

While I was visiting, in April, a years-long inquiry into the tragedy was still unfolding inside the graffiti-covered, heavily guarded Guild Hall, but news coverage of the event was dwarfed by the war in Iraq.

To the immediate east of the ramparts lies the Protestant Waterside and Fountain neighborhoods. Murals, Union Jacks and red, white and blue curbs defiantly proclaim the neighborhood’s allegiance to the crown.

To the northwest lies the Catholic Bogside neighborhood, where murals advise “You are Now Entering Free Derry,” and hurriedly scrawled graffiti urges anarchy and allegiance to the Irish Republican Army, the once- active paramilitary arm of political party Sinn Fein, or one of its many splinter groups.

Included are “Real IRA” painted tags, the splinter group that claimed responsibility for the Omagh bombing and the only Northern Ireland group to remain on the US State Department’s list of terrorist organizations after 9-11. Other murals recognize International Women’s Day, celebrated widely in communist countries, a nod to the Marxist underpinnings of some Irish independence groups.  With an American accent it is relatively safe to walk around and take photos, but its best to avoid the issue of religious affiliation. And although there are many good books that will walk you through Derry and its turbulent history, nothing beats a guided tour.

Shankhill Road, Belfast

Several groups offer good tours of the town, by foot, bus or taxi, many of which can be found through the Derry Visitor and Convention Bureau, 011 028 7126 7284, which can also recommend accommodation, restaurants, car rental and air travel. Remember that Ireland is 8 hours ahead of California time.

On to Belfast

From Derry I took the A6 towards Belfast, passing roadside memorials to hunger strikers, and signs with quotes from everybody from John F. Kennedy to the Bible, used to urge agendas of all types.


In Belfast the best way to see the artful detritus of the conflict is to take a two hour Black Taxi or Black Cab tours– about $25 a car load, depending on the exchange rate, offered by a variety of operators. Black Taxi Tour at 011 0800 032 2003 does the job well.

“This is our culture” said Fred, my driver and tour guide, who daily revisits the pain of his country. “This is who we are.”

We first passed the Europa Hotel, for many a de facto symbol of the English crown (James Bond’s Roger Moore stays here when he’s in town) which has been bombed by the IRA 27 times since the 1970s. Across the street is the Crown Liquor Saloon, whose windows are bulletproof, and nearby is the Grand Opera, blown up twice by the IRA in the 90s, and rebuilt at great expense.

But the focus of the tour are West Belfast’s famous protest murals.

Muralists expressed full freedom of expression when painting the colorful images that ominously decorate the working class neighborhoods around Shankill Road, Protestant; and Falls Road, Catholic.

A “Peace Wall,” also covered with interesting images and writing, divides them.

Art as an Expression of Identity

The provocative murals are not homogenous, but are instead art as an expression of identity: I define myself by what I am not. I am with the British, or I want to rejoin the Republic of Ireland.

Many Shankill Road murals pay homage to the Ulster Freedom Fighters, the paramilitary branch of the Ulster Defence Association, and its “martyrs,” such as loyalist Billy “King Rat” Wright, who was stabbed to death in Maze prison in 1997 while serving time for several murders.

In nearby Belfast City Hall a stained glass window commemorates the memory of those who served in the Ulster Defence Regiment, the legitimate arm of the crown.

Other murals depict William of Orange and Oliver Cromwell, heroes of British nationalism.

Ireland’s Holocaust, Falls Road, Belfast

Across the Peace Wall in the neighborhood around Falls Road, are murals dedicated to the Provisional IRA’s Belfast Brigade, folk heroes immortalized in song; and hunger strikers, most notably Bobby Sands, who was elected to the British parliament while on a hunger strike in prison. He died soon after and the Shah of Iran named the street in Tehran where the British embassy was located after him.

Other interesting murals include one of the Irish Potato Famine, captioned “Britain’s Genocide by Starvation.” Some Irish blame the British for the famine, because the island was a royal territory at the time, and aid was slow in coming. Catholic murals here also invoke a common cause with the Palestinians in the Middle East and with the U.S. civil rights movement. In a sign of the times, many of the murals now criticize the minutia of the Good Friday Agreement implementation, instead of advocating a break from the crown outright

Both neighborhoods suffer high unemployment rates, and are hotbeds or organized crime, especially extortion and drug running, for whom the fight for national identity is just a cover, according to local authorities, tour guides and newspapers.

The Peace Wall, erected in 1968 by the British government, divides the two neighborhoods. Various graffiti and murals on the wall, painted and written mostly by international visitors, advocate peace.

People may stare at you while you’re walking around taking photos, but it’s once again relatively safe if you follow common sense, pronounce your status as a tourist, by, for example holding a map, and stick to daylight hours. However, its best to avoid the areas altogether during  The Protestant Orangemen’s Marching Season in the weeks around July 12.

If touring the murals on your own, its best to return to the city center first and then return to the rival neighborhood, as simply walking around the peace wall may be dangerous.

But, as evidence of the changing times, a youth hostel had just opened next to the peace wall when I was visiting. “The yanks all stay there,” a woman at my hotel said to me. “The Irish and British would be too afraid.” But it’s still a testament to how much safer the area is compared with just a few years ago, when armored British military vehicles patrolled the streets.

Although a look through one of several local newspapers, such as the Irish News, which leans Catholic, or the Belfast Telegraph, which leans Protestant, is all that’s needed to convince you that those working for peace have their work cut out for them as sectarian violence is still a daily occurrence for Northern Ireland’s two million people.

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