Fading fast, the murals that illustrate story of the Troubles


Splashed beneath gables and daubed across walls, Belfast's sectarian murals are an impassioned pictorial history of conflict in Northern Ireland.

But many of the pictures are crumbling, and some locals, keen to reinvent their public image, are painting over them. While new images constantly spring up, many are lost forever.

Now, experts in Ireland say there are "significantly fewer" sectarian murals than at any time in the last 50 years.

Their concerns are echoed by one of the world's leading art experts, Martin Kemp, Emeritus Professor of the History of Art at Oxford University, who has questioned the murals' destruction. "My instinct as a historian is that these are some of the most important public images of our time," he says. "People should see what they can do to preserve them. Someone should look seriously at them with a view to which ones should be kept and how."

Professor Kemp writes about sectarian murals in his forthcoming book, Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon, out in October, which explores the dissemination of famous imagery through popular culture. He highlights a mural unveiled in 1998 on western Belfast's Shiels Street, featuring an image of Che Guevara. The mural, meant to express Republicans' solidarity with the Cuban revolution, is flaking, and is split by a metal fence.

According to Professor Bill Rolston, of the University of Ulster, who is arguably the world's leading expert on Belfast's sectarian murals, there are now fewer of these works than at any time in the last 50 years.

"The problem is they are not seen as art, they are seen as political," he said. "They look like art but are not in the eyes of the people who paint them, so there is no pressure to preserve them."

He said that once the murals had served their purpose, they were often left to fade.

Indeed, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI) now worked with local communities and artists to paint over murals. "There's been a lot of research into the iconography which has been left in Northern Ireland and various agencies have looked at positive ways we can address that legacy," said Noirin McKinney, ACNI's director of arts development. "Some of them have come down, while some have been replaced with sculptures or landscaping. It's really up to the community".

The agency refused to identify how many had been destroyed.

Belfast-based artist Lesley Cherry, who works with ACNI, maintained that any artwork to be painted over would be well documented beforehand. "We usually incorporate a plaque showing what was removed, before the new artworks is installed," she said.

Earlier this year, large murals appeared on gable walls in Belfast depicting masked members of the Ulster Volunteer Force in black turtlenecks holding automatic weapons. This presaged the street riots in Belfast in June and a level of sectarian violence that hadn't been witnessed in the city for several years.

Kemp acknowledged it was probably still too early to discuss aesthetic matters. "But to some extent it's a matter of time," he added.

"Once something survives to become an antique it achieves a higher status. Street art can be analysed like other historic art but tends not to be. It is really difficult to conserve them and often impossible."

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments