While I can appreciate a good work of art, I am not much of an art museum person and would not exactly call myself an art aficionado. Rather, my most exciting experience involving art has been witnessing the giant politically charged murals in the cities of Northern Ireland this past week. The tension is still very much in the air, after hot conflict known as “The Troubles” occurred all throughout the area between Catholic unionists and Protestant loyalists from the 1960s to the 1990s. The violence, bombings, and riots tore the area apart, and neighborhoods are still visibly divided.
Last week I went for a 2-day, 1-night trip to Belfast with each member of my CIEE Dublin program. It was incredibly interesting to tour the City Centre, neighborhoods which had experienced so much violence, and even the dry dock where the Titanic was built. What made it even better was that I got to take it in with 32 friends. The most interesting section to me was the murals and the memorials surrounding the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods where violence took place. They were colorful and diverse in nature: involving memorials for murdered children, hatred towards the other side, people picking up arms, commemorating a bombing, international figures like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., support for Palestine, and general intimidation and territory-marking in what could essentially be considered a turf war.
We spoke in hushed tones during our tour, as the city is still vibrant and the effects still lasting. I could not get over how well done artistically many of the murals were, but also the differences in rhetoric between Catholic and Protestant neighborhood murals. While a Protestant mural might reference a heinous crime by a “republican murder gang,” a Catholic mural referencing the same event might commemorate the “heroic IRA freedom fighters.”
The only thing that could come close in tension to Belfast was Derry. I found Derry (called “Londonderry” by loyalists) to be even edgier, as it was a majority Catholic city in Protestant Northern Ireland. Therefore, the majority that felt repressed by the minority (where the famous “Bloody Sunday” took place) was very active in their speech and action against the British and loyalists. There was no shortage of fiery murals here as well. Included in this post is a picture I took with a pro-British mural, an obvious reference to British dominance and destruction of Catholics in Derry, taken in one of the small Protestant neighborhoods. There were murals of children approaching tanks, men ready for war, of more international peace leaders, etc. Some black & white and some in vivid color, some the size of entire buildings, and some accompanying a memorial garden.
I found Derry to be more interesting than Belfast, mostly because I was given a tour by my distant cousin from Galway, Joe McDonagh, who grew up hearing about new violence occurring in Northern Ireland on the news just about every other day. He gave firsthand insight of the importance of the sites, and helped me to understand how different the environment was less than twenty years ago. I also recently found out that a distant cousin of mine was an MP in English Parliament who fought for the rights of Catholics in Northern Ireland, named Bernadette Devlin.
My two escapes to the North were eye opening. We as young Americans can have such an American-focused view towards the world that we do not realize how much emotion and conflict can consume a country we consider to be well civilized and modern. The many murals in Derry and Belfast helped to give me this insight. I hope it is not the last time I visit the North, and I hope the next time I do, it will be continuing its journey to a peaceful society as it has been for the past two decades.