Art has long been used as a commentary on the realities of life and politics and this is especially true in Northern Ireland. Since the 1970s, around 2,000 murals have been created throughout the region and many of these are found on our Belfast Day Tours, 2 Day Northern Ireland Tours, 3 Day Northern Ireland Tours and Private Northern Ireland Tours.
The majority, though not all, of the murals are dedicated to either Nationalist or Unionist philosophies – either advocating for a united Ireland or the continuation of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom. Others, particularly those made in the years since the Good Friday Agreement, have been art for art’s sake with murals dedicated to the Northern Ireland football team, the Titanic, and other aspects of life in the region.
For educators organizing group tours of Northern Ireland or simply for those of you who wish to read in more depth on this topic we highly recommend this page from the University of Ulster. For most visitors though, this blog post will reveal you all you need to know if you are interested in seeing the Belfast murals on your next Ireland trip!
C.S. Lewis, the Belfast born author of the Chronicles of Narnia, is depicted in two murals in East Belfast which also show scenes from his seminal novel, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. You’ll also find James Buchanan, America’s 15th president, on the Shankill Road in celebration of his Ulster-Scotch heritage while another shows America’s seventh president, Andrew Jackson.
The Falls Road features the famous International Peace Wall, one of Belfast’s newest tourist attractions, which features artwork of Spanish Civil War, the Arab-Israeli Conflict, the Iraq War, and other international conflicts past and present.
Often appearing on the side walls of private houses, the murals have become an essential part of any visit to the city. Yet while the bulk of these artworks have appeared since the 1970s, the tradition dates back to 1908 when the first Unionist mural, a depiction of King William of Orange’s triumph at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
The Battle remains the largest land confrontation between opposing armies in Ireland or Britain and saw the protestant William defeat the Catholic King James. It was a defining moment in the history of both countries and this is reflected in the number of murals dedicated to King Billy which have appeared over the decades.
As such, mural painting was well established within the Unionist community by the 1920s and some images from the period depict the Battle of the Somme or the sinking of the Titanic, yet most artist of these murals chose to show either the lifting of the Siege of Derry/Londonderry by King Billy’s forces or his victory at the Boyne.
This is the case because Unionist murals are traditionally created to celebrate the July 12th commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne which remains one of the key dates in the Unionist calendar.
Typically, Unionist murals relay images of strength such as a clenched red fish, called the Red Hand of Ulster – the province’s symbol. Images of banners, flags, shields and various heraldic symbols were also common but as the Troubles progressed, Unionist murals tended to shift towards more a militaristic nature.
King Billy, if he was shown at all, would be placed beside balaclava wearing, gun wielding paramilitaries with the mural often bearing a slogan designed to impart the key elements of Unionist philosophy such as the principal of ‘no surrender’ and the desire to maintain the status quo – namely, the continuation of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.
Arguably less diverse than Nationalist murals, Unionist designs from the period often depict gunmen wearing masks around the clenched fist with the flags of Ulster, the UK, with various paramilitary groups depicted around them.
The bulk of Unionist murals in Belfast are located around the Shankill Road and Shankill Estate but there are others around Donegall Place and Sandy Row in South Belfast and more on Severn Street, Martin Street, and Newtownards Road in East Belfast.
More recent Unionist murals have tended to undermine and mock Sinn Fein’s participation in the Northern Ireland peace process by depicting images of IRA bombings. There are also some comedic murals which often feature animals; the bulldog is popular (a testament to the British connection) as are mice, rabbits, and cats. One mural depicts a cartoon dog named Spike wearing a Unionist band’s uniform threatening Tom, shown wearing a Celtic scarf (the Glaswegian team is popular among Nationalists).
The most famous Nationalist mural is to be found in Derry/Londonderry, rather than Belfast, and features the slogan “You are now entering Free Derry”. Yet there are still many striking Nationalist images in Belfast and the tradition of murals from this segment of Northern Ireland’s population stemmed from a desire to mark territory or simply relay a slogan.
However, as the Troubles continued, Nationalist murals became increasingly intricate. Following the Maze Prison hunger strike of 1981 – a defining event in Nationalist politics in which those involved demanded to be recognised as political prisoners – many murals showed solidarity for the prisoners and the ten hunger strikers, most particularly Bobby Sands (often depicted smiling), an elected member of parliament who led the strike and eventually died as a result.
Hundreds of Nationalist murals were created during the first six months of 1981, often depicting H Block – where the prisoners were incarcerated – and many featured IRA fighters in support of the so called ‘blanket prisoners’. These paramilitaries are usually shown masked, making them indistinguishable from their Unionist counterparts if not for the flags and slogans around them.
Nationalist murals quickly became a key part of Nationalist messaging as well as a depiction of the community’s cultural and political concerns at the time they were made. With some notable exceptions, they tend to be less militaristic than Unionist murals, they nevertheless questioned the legitimacy of the police, urged an end to British control of Northern Ireland and called for the withdrawal of troops from the region.
Though the Ardoyne district of Belfast is home to a concentration of militaristic murals, more recent Nationalist images have tended to draw upon Irish history and legend as well as international liberation campaigns for inspiration.
Gaelic imagery is common but less so are notable Nationalists such as Padraig Pearse and the other signatories of the Proclamation of Independence in 1916. Nationalist murals have tended to draw upon international inspiration quite often, and certainly more frequently than Unionist murals, showing images of Palestine and the experiences of minorities around the world as a reflection and commentary on their own situation.
Despite the origins of the Belfast murals, it’s surprising how few have outright political messages and certainly the more recent murals depicting writers, footballers, and the Titanic have little or no sectarian motivation at all.
The Belfast murals offer an unparalleled insight into Northern Ireland life over the past century from both sides of the ideological divide and the art they have created. Any visit to the city will be enhanced by a tour of the murals and the commentary of the experienced guides who’ll take you around the city.