Northern Ireland has had a complicated political past, and while the region is vibrant and peaceful today, only 40 years ago, Belfast was a city at war. To learn more about this period of history, wander the streets to take in the sights of colourful murals depicting this time.
With unrest between Nationalist and Unionist citizens over the partition of Northern Ireland, which named the Republic of Ireland an independent state in 1921, and with Northern Ireland under British control, violence erupted between some citizens who wanted to reunite with Ireland and those who preferred to remain under Britain. This violence continued until the 1980s. During the conflict, paramilitary groups – both Republicans (Nationalist) and Loyalists (Unionist) – emerged, spreading violence across the country, with almost 2,000 wall paintings erected depicting these conflicts. Here is a look at some of the best murals in Belfast that illustrate this complicated history and the culture in this city.
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Nationalist and Republican
Irish Nationalism Mural
This mural has a tribute: “This mural is dedicated to the memory of those local Republican activists who devoted their lives to the cause of Irish freedom.” The portraits of hunger strikers create a border around an American and Irish flag, with lilies used to symbolise the 1916 Rising in Dublin.
Irish Language Mural
The Irish Language Mural is a Nationalist painting supporting Irish-language teachings, inscribed with the title of the famous song Labhair an teanga Gaeilge liom (meaning Speak the Irish Language).
Gaelic Football Mural
This mural depicts the culture of Irish-born sports, along with Liam MacCarthy, the London-born member of the Irish Volunteers who persuaded men to avoid conscription of the British Army during World War I.
Irish Window Mural
This mural on the Falls Road shows Ireland symbolised in an idyllic landscape, escaping through the cracks of Northern Ireland.
Tribute to Bobby Sands
Bobby Sands was a member of the paramilitary group the Irish Republican Army and a member of the UK parliament. He led the 1981 hunger strike and died while in HM Prison Maze.
This colourful mural depicts all the hunger strikers of the 1980s, including a larger image of Kieran Doherty, who died in 1981.
1970 Falls Curfew Mural
This mural celebrates the women of Andersonstown, who protested a 36-hour curfew imposed by British troops on the Falls Road by marching through the street and bringing food to those in the area.
Tribute to Frederick Douglass
African-American Frederick Douglass was a leader of the abolitionist movement, travelling to Ireland thereafter to become an advocate for the Irish Nationalist movement.
Nelson Mandela Mural
This mural attempts to draw a parallel between the Nationalist cause in Northern Ireland and Nelson Mandela’s anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, where he served as president of the country from 1994 to 1999. However, in recent years, the mural has come to symbolise peace and stability in the aftermath of conflict.
Unionist and Loyalist
Tribute to Jackie Coulter
This mural is a tribute to the Loyalist and member of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) Jackie Coulter, who was killed by a rival Loyalist group, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), in 2000.
Ulster Loyalist Tribute Mural
This mural is a tribute to all branches of Loyalist communities, including the UDA and UVF, together with their coat of arms.
‘Can It Change? We Believe!’ Mural
This Unionist mural depicts a family being evacuated from their home by Republican paramilitary groups, with the news report on the left. The right-hand side shows an empty newspaper symbolising an unknown future for Northern Ireland.
This colourful mural illustrates the modern tradition of Unionism, from marching bands to orange banners, which symbolise the Protestant religion, popular within Unionist Northern Irish populations.
Loyalist Entry Mural
This mural marks the beginning of Sandy Row, a predominantly Unionist residential area in Belfast.
King William III Tribute
King William III, colloquially known as William of Orange or ‘King Billy’ in Scotland and Northern Ireland, was a Protestant ruler. He waged wars against major Catholic rulers in the 17th century, including at the famous Battle of the Boyne in 1690, which is celebrated annually by Unionist communities.
The Red Hand of Ulster
This mural depicts the Irish myth of the Red Hand of Ulster, in which a boat race would determine the next king of Ulster – the first winner to place his hand on the rock would be crowned. Fearing he would lose the race, the mythical figure Labraid Lámh Dhearg cut his hand off and threw it on the rock.
Freedom 2000 shows the letter “H” to represent Cell Block H of HM Prison Maze, which upon its closure in 2000 released several Unionist prisoners from paramilitary groups.
Tribute to Stephen McKeag
This mural caused controversy when it was revealed, showing a tribute to paramilitary member Stephen McKeag, who died in 2000.
This mural shows all groups within the Northern Irish community looking towards the Parliament Buildings, Stormont. The word “progress” is used to symbolise a journey towards peace.
Tribute to International Struggle
The “solidarity wall” includes many modern artworks, including a recreation of Picasso’s Guernica to represent global struggle in our world.
Belfast Linen Workers
Linen was a major Northern Irish trade in the mid-19th century, with many young women working in the industry. A tribute to their contribution to the Belfast trade and the Northern Irish economy, this mural in West Belfast depicts the female workers of Ross’s Mill.
Tribute to RMS Titanic
This collage in East Belfast pays tribute to the RMS Titanic. Built in Belfast Harbour, it set sail in 1912 on its only voyage. The “Ship of Dreams” made Belfast’s dock the major trading post that it is today, improving infrastructure and the workforce in the region now named Belfast’s Titanic Quarter.
Tribute to George Best
In 1968, George Best was named European Footballer of the Year, on behalf of Manchester United, and remains a legend in Northern Ireland. This sporting star also has a city airport named after him and a collection of limited edition £5 notes with his portrait.
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