Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Walls of West Belfast

I went back to Belfast recently, and found it’s changed enormously since I was last there in 1994.  Most of it is change for the better; I was quite happy to be able to walk into the centre of town at night without being stopped by a British soldier saying “Good evening” as he swung his machine gun around to point it at me.  (This happened, last time I was there.)  But some of the things I found so intriguing about Belfast on that first visit are starting to disappear.  Is it a good thing, or a bad thing?  I can’t decide.

I`m talking about the murals.  There are two tradionally “working-class” neighbourhoods in West Belfast:  the Falls Road, the Catholic neighbourhood; and the Shankill, its Protestant equivalent.  When I visited in 1994, you couldn’t cross from one neighbourhood to another directly — there was a huge brick wall, topped by barbed wire, separating the two (ironically called the “Peace Line”), and you had to walk all the way back to the centre of town from one and head back out to the other.  I remember seeing one schoolyard that backed right on to the Peace Line, and thinking how sad it was that the children in that schoolyard would grow up hating the people on the other side of the wall — just because it had been that way for generations. (Now, you can walk between the two.  Parts of the  Peace Line are still there, but streets have been opened up again.)

Protestant Shankill
The walls in the Shankill were adorned with huge murals portraying UVF insignia (Ulster Volunteer Force, the Loyalist/Protestant paramilitary that you never hear about in North America), the “red hand” of Ulster, and letters 3 feet high proclaiming “No Surrender” and “Remember 1690”.  (That last is the year of the Battle of the Boyne, when Ireland came under English control; memories are long here.)  The walls of the Falls Road were adorned with Catholic imagery of Madonna and Child, IRA slogans (the Irish Republic Army, the better-known Nationalist/Republican/Catholic paramilitary), and words of warning to the British to go home, that Ireland would fight to the death to be reunited.
Catholic Falls Road

Many of those murals are gone now.  There are still a few left, and some new ones have been added —but the new ones are mostly about other causes (Palestinian or Basque nationalism, or environmental activism), and the old ones have in many cases been painted over.

Why is Che always there somewhere?
I tend to think that’s a bad thing, but that’s what I can’t quite decide.  I think that it is a dangerous thing to forget history (who was it who said, “Those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it”?) and wonder if it isn’t better to preserve these reminders of Belfast’s (and Northern Ireland’s) past, so that society doesn’t forget what it has lived through and slip back into that kind of division.  Belfast should keeps its murals for the same reason that concentration camps in Europe have been preserved and opened to tourism:  for people to see, and remember, and think “Never again”.  And it is absorbing, as a visitor, to wander the streets and take in the murals, as you think about the all-too-recent violence in this city, and I think Belfast would lose some of its identity if they were no longer there.

But is it better, for the people of Belfast, that they’re still there?  If you lived through a concentration camp in Europe in the Second World War, you might choose to go back and visit one day —but you don’t have to be smacked in the face with the reminder, day after day, as you go about your daily life.  The people of Belfast who lived through “the Troubles” do, as they walk the streets of their neighbourhoods and see the grim reminders of violence.  Should they be allowed to wipe those reminders away, and start afresh, without having to see it and relive it day in and day out?

That’s what I can’t decide.  What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. I think it's good that they've gone, as someone who grew up in Ireland during the Troubles. Having those sentiments front-of-mind day in, day out, could potentially re-ignite. Don't forget the Provisional IRA hasn't gone away, it's just gone underground and would use any excuse to ignite the old wounds. A fresh start and a new attitude is best. I think. One of the most emotional moments of my life (apart from the wedding, natch), was hearing the English anthem played at Croke Park for the 2007 Ireland - England rugby match. Looking forward is better than picking at old scabs.