It does not take long for the gravity of what the murals in West Belfast represent, sinks in. Behind the thin layer of acrylic on the walls is a history written in blood. The images depicting a nation torn apart, its families scarred, each fighting for a cause and willing to die for it — a struggle as old as the rock cliffs on which these mighty islands rest.
It would have been straightforward to do the tourist thing and snap a few pictures of bold and colorful murals by both Unionists and Republicans and be done with it.
Easy it was not. Walking and driving along Falls and Shankill road, studying the murals and walls and gates, soon changed everything. It was different from being inside a museum — here, one could still hear the slow breathing of history winding down, finally coming to rest. This is where it all happened. People lived here, died here. And they still live here.
One was walking on hallowed ground.
An ordinary sightseeing tour had turned into a profound experience.
The murals first appeared in 1908, but renewed interest took off in the 1970s — celebrating and honoring those who had lost their lives on both sides of the divide.
The conflict in Northern Ireland dates as far back as the eighth and ninth century. The latest battle lasted for 30 years from 1968 till 1998 — often referred to as ‘The Troubles.’ Peace was officially negotiated with the Belfast Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
On the surface, the conflict is said to be between Catholic (predominantly Irish) and Protestant (predominantly British.) However, the Troubles run deeper than religious affiliations and conviction. It stemmed from the political desire of the Irish Republicans (nationalists, mostly Catholic), who desired for Northern Ireland to be part of a Republic of Ireland, and the Unionists (mostly Protestant), who insisted Northern Ireland be part of England to form a United Kingdom.
More than 3,500 lives were lost, and over 50,000 people were injured during the Troubles.
The walls divided western Belfast into Republicans and Unionists sections. Both sides would paint their walls, tell their stories, celebrate their heroes — two sides of a coin — similar, and yet, so different.
Many voices go up today insisting the walls must come down. An equally loud chorus push for keeping the walls: ‘Lest we forget. Let it be a reminder to our children to not repeat the blood-written history of our fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters.’
One of the most well-known murals depicts Bobby Sands, gracing the side of the building that houses the Sinn Fein offices on Falls road. Bobby Sands was elected in 1981 to the British parliament but died months later in prison (at age 27) after a 66-day hunger strike. He insisted he was a political prisoner and not a common criminal. (He was imprisoned for possession of firearms years earlier.) Nine other men also died during the hunger strike.
The then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher’s response to his death was, “Mr. Sand was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organization did not allow to many of its victims.”
The international response varied from extending condolences to open condemnation — how far did political convictions go and where did terrorism start and finish?
“Not everything has a name. Some things lead us to a realm beyond words.”
Heading back on Falls road one comes across a mural that seems as if it was marred by fire, stating unapologetically, Resistance is not terrorism. The entire wall sends a chill down one’s spine.
Walking down those streets, flanked on both sides by smaller, steeper lanes, its narrow apartments squeezed tightly together, its dark earth-tone brick walls and unforgiving chimney-stacks reaching heavenward added to the starkness and gravity of the murals.
As in any war, both sides are always ready to justify their stance to the last soldier. Even with an initial aggressor, once blood has been spilled and atrocities committed, the concept of right and wrong and innocent and guilty becomes blurred.
History is filled with examples of how an eye-for-an-eye policy has never brought about peace and harmony between nations, groups, or individuals. What makes this conflict cut even more profound is the fact how both sides justified their murderous intend, quoting scripture. That doesn’t make the Bible an evil book but only highlights the unwillingness of people, of leaders and their followers to find common ground. Bound by loyalty to kin and ancient feuds made it difficult to show any weakness or make concessions and become willing to sit down and to listen (peacefully) to the other’s side.
In the meantime, we, the visitors, the tourists, get to go home. The people of Belfast don’t have that option — they are staying. For them, the walls and the murals and the gates remain standing, monuments no less.
“I refuse to accept the view mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality … I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Those bold and colorful paintings on the sides and walls of buildings in Western Belfast signify how a people, once divided and at war, can reconcile and reach across an insurmountable divide. The murals are proof that the sheep can lie with the lion.
Let the murals be a daily reminder that hate can never drive out hate, only love and understanding and willingness can do that. It will come at a price — the price of forgiveness and eventual healing — the difficult, but better way.
© Danie Botha. 5 September 2019.
You can find more of my writing at daniebotha.com