The writing’s on the wall
Belfast, Northern Ireland
By Cathal McNaughton
A five meter high mural of a gunman dressed in army fatigues and a balaclava, clutching an AK-47 painted on the gable end of a wall of a house in a residential street – people walk by and don’t even notice it.
In other parts of the UK and Ireland there would probably be outrage – but not in Northern Ireland, where young children happily play on streets with a backdrop of politically charged murals commemorating the violence and bloodshed of the Troubles.
These murals have become street wallpaper for the people living in this small corner of Europe who barely bat an eyelid at a gory depiction of a skeleton crawling over dead bodies that adorns the end wall of a house on their street.
Most of the hundreds of murals across Northern Ireland, which are not only found in major cities like Belfast and Londonderry but in small towns and villages, promote either Republican or Loyalist political beliefs, often glorifying paramilitary groups such as the IRA or the Ulster Volunteer Force with a roll call of the dead written large ‘lest we forget’.
However, since the paramilitary ceasefires in the 90s the distinctive Northern Irish artwork has seen a change. New murals have sprung up depicting local heroes like golfer Rory McIlroy who represent the changing face of Northern Ireland’s political landscape.
I have photographed murals on many occasions to illustrate the never-ending twists and turns of the North’s troubled history – often in changing times when people have something to say, they paint it on their gable wall.
So, I tried looking at them through the eyes of a stranger. To do this I visited the murals at times of the day I wouldn’t usually, such as sunrise and late at night and employed shooting techniques I wouldn’t normally use, such as the use of tripods and clamps with remote triggers.
As is the case with many of the features I shoot in Northern Ireland looking at my country’s past through my viewfinder, these paintings and graffiti show me how far we have traveled.
Now the 30-foot-high paintings are as likely to be of Rory McIlroy or our Nobel Peace Prize winners as of the traditional white horse of King Billy celebrating victory in battle in 1690.
It would be nice to think that one day there will be no need to paint any new murals to commemorate new victims of Northern Ireland’s Troubles – although with the Marching Season fast approaching and a New Year which saw the most sustained period of rioting for years, I think there will be a few more turns in the journey and fresh paint on the wall.