Belfast is the capital and largest city of Northern Ireland, located on the banks of the River Lagan. In the early 19th century, Belfast was an important port. It played a decisive role in the Industrial Revolution in Ireland, and soon became the largest producer of linen in the world. It was also a centre of Irish tobacco processing and rope making. Belfast is still a major port with commercial and industrial docks and has a leading aerospace industry. In the last decades industrialisation, economic growth and the inward migration have made Belfast Northern Ireland’s biggest city and a vibrant metropolis.
Belfast suffered during the violent times that followed the partition of Ireland, and especially during the most recent conflict known as “the Troubles”, that took place from the late 1960s to 1998. The conflict was primarily political and nationalistic. However, it also had an ethnic dimension and despite the use of the terms “Protestant” and “Catholic” to refer to the two sides, it was not a religious conflict. The main issue was the status of Northern Ireland. Unionists (also called Loyalists), who for historical reasons were mostly Protestants, wanted Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom. On the other hand, Irish Nationalists (also called Republicans), who were mostly Irish Catholics, wanted Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom and join Ireland. Probably the worst period of the Troubles was during the 1970s with rival paramilitary groups forming on both sides and bombings, killings and street violence characterising the life of the city.
THE HISTORY OF MURALS
During the Troubles, folk art played an important role in disseminating the ideas and beliefs of Belfast’s two rival parties, most notably in the Protestant Shankill Road and the Catholic Falls Road in the western part of Belfast. The walls of dozens of houses in the areas near these two roads have been decorated with almost 2,000 vivid murals expressing local political beliefs and ideas. In the same way the curbs on some roads are painted either in red, white and blue of the United Kingdom or in green, white and gold of Ireland. These walls are today called “peace walls”. The most famous of the “peace walls” divides the Falls and Shankill roads (that we have mentioned). It runs for several kilometres and is interrupted at several points by big gates which were used as security checkpoints in the past. The older murals could be divided into two main categories: the Republican and the Loyalist, both depicting ideas, political references and historical figures from each side. In recent years the new murals does not have a specific political background but address more general political and social issues
5 FAMOUS MURALS
It is almost impossible to catalogue all the murals in one article, therefore, we refer to 5 famous and characteristic murals that have become icons of the city:
Tribute to Bobby Sands :This a clearly Republican mural. Bobby Sands was a member of the Irish Republican Army and a member of the UK parliament. He led the 1981 Irish hunger strike and died while in prison.
The Red Hand of Ulster: The Red Hand is the official seal of the O’Neill, which was a leading family among the Unionists. It is believed to originate from a mythical tale wherein two men were racing across a stretch of water. The first one to reach the land, he would claim it as his own. During the race one of them cut his hand off and threw it on the rock in order to win.
The murals at The Falls Road: These murals also known as “The Solidarity Wall”, feature a collection of artwork expressing support for global causes such as Palestinian liberation and Basque freedom.
Nelson Mandela: This mural draw a parallel between the Nationalist cause in Northern Ireland and Nelson Mandela’s anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. However, in recent years, the mural has become a symbol of peace.
Our Wee Country: One of the many murals dedicated to football and the love of Belfast’s citizens for the game. This particular one is depicting the North Irish Football Association (which organised the Ireland national football team from 1880 to 1950, which after 1954, became the Northern Ireland national football team), and the Belfast-born players Warren Feeney and Grant McCann.
The best way to see the famous murals is by booking one of the tours offered by various cab companies and drivers. According to our opinion the best company is the Car Tours Belfast (with a 5-star rating on Tripadvisor after 1.749 reviews). Cab Tours Belfast are the only taxi tours company in Belfast co-owned by Protestant and Catholics offering black taxi mural tours. This joint cross community ownership means they can give travellers a fair and unbiased opinion and insight of Northern Ireland politics and the significance of the murals.
Belfast is a beautiful city and one of the rising tourist destinations in Europe. It is a modern city trying to heal the wounds of its turbulent past. If you visit it, a tour of the streets with the murals is imperative in order to understand its true identity.
*[Photo at the top by ptrabattoni from Pixabay]