This text was instigated at Paragon Studios in Belfast for the exhibition PALISADE.
(Part of the #Peacewalls50 Series of events)
It will develop over the course the exhibition.
/ Theory of Signs /
Belfast is a landscape of inscription. It is continually being over-written with new signs, symbols and texts to correspond to the ever-changing political situation. These scripts form a collective social response to the broader questions of governance played out in these territories. Through these signs and symbols, communities of interest parade their ideologies publicly, presenting a collective (but not always necessarily democratic) response at street level – direct in communication and always place specific: Flags, Emblems, Icons, Bunting, Demarcations, Heraldry, Memorials, Murals, Graffitti, Bonfires, Parades, Protests, Riots, Behavioural Patterns.
/ Marching Season /
In Bew, Gibson & Patterson’s (1979) analysis of the gestation period of political violence in Northern Ireland, they examine the transplant of the American Civil Rights practice of the the street march, into the context of Northern Ireland. While this form of protest had its immediate pedigree in the movement of American Civil Rights, and was intended to reference it as an image, its transplant to the context of Northern Ireland complicated its secular inspiration. In Ulster, marches in particular meant, and still mean, the assertion of sectarian territorial claims. So, while undertaking a secular march, this practice inevitably creates the conditions for territorial transgressions and incursions, both subtle and otherwise. Feldman notes that the “performative connotations of marching were disjunctive with the ideology of civil space advanced by the organisers of civil rights marches. Marching is and indigenous cultural practice of sectarian space with its own residual political meanings.(…) Protests meant to agitate for civil rights, civil space, and an ethnically neutral rural subject were received as assertions of ethnicity by both supporters and opponents”. This perhaps, may well be a reason why the early marches were so brutally repressed.
See: FELDMAN, Spatial Formations of Violence, p.21
/ Murals /
The mural painting tradition is Belfast is a long one, initially associated with public displays to coincide with loyalist commemorations of the Twelfth of July - the anniversary of Protestant King William’s defeat of Catholic King James II in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
The first mural in Belfast was painted around 1908, depicting this battle. Rolston claims that this tradition came into a period of crisis when the state came under siege, following the civil rights campaign of the late 1960’s and the British takeover of the 1970s and 1980s left Northern Ireland without a parliament. Without control of the state, loyalists sought to broaden their iconographic language to refer to inanimate symbols, flags and ‘Red hand of Ulster’ motifs. By the mid 1980s, in response to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, murals started to contain highly militaristic images of hooded and balaclava-wearing figures firing weapons. These new murals were intentionally anti-nationalist and anti-Catholic, were sinister and threatening, and were meant to be read as such. Rolston classifies loyalist murals into six categories: (1)Depictions of King Billy, (2)Flags and inanimate depictions, (3)Historical themes, (4)Military images, (5)Memorials, (6)Humorous, cartoon-style murals. Murals are traditionally painted in the run up to the Twelfth celebrations.
Nationalists traditionally did not paint murals. The emergence of a mural culture on the nationalist side dates from the run up to the hunger strike carried out by republican prisoners in 1981 in pursuit of their demand for political prisoner status. In the spring and summer of 1981 hundreds of murals were painted. These were supplemented by electoral murals as Sinn Fein started to contest elections in the region thereafter. Rolston classifies republican murals into six categories: (1) Hunger Strike murals, (2) Military images, (3) Election themes, (4 )Historical, Celtic & Mythological images, (5) Repression & resistance themes, (6) Solidarity images relating to political struggles globally. Murals are traditionally painted either at Easter (the anniversary of the uprising in 1916) or August 9th (the anniversary of the introduction of internment in 1971).
/ Burnt Out /
“Every night they were coming up the street further and further burning people out. We went around to the empty houses with kerosene, poured it on all the rafters, hooked the light switches to the water tanks or in the toilets. We cut right through the floor boards and poured kerosene over that. When they turned the lights on, the houses would blow and catch. Thats the sort of things we done, because we were being taken over.” (Protestant male community activist, Woodvale.)
See: FELDMAN, Spatial Formations of Violence, p.24