Nature's full palette of colors springs off the hilltops surrounding Belfast on this sunny morning. The verdant slopes are splashed with shades of green, and white clouds drift across a brilliant blue sky. Suddenly, we are jolted from the bucolic scene as our taxi pulls in front of another work of art, this one painted on the side of a row house. A paramilitary figure, in camouflage and black mask, has us in the crosshairs of his weapon and in the sightline of his steely glare. It's impossible to tell which is more menacing.
This chilling mural is one of dozens of huge displays that adorn the gabled ends of otherwise drab, nondescript terraced houses and shops in the working-class neighborhoods of Belfast. While some Protestant loyalists and Roman Catholic republicans took up arms for their causes, others wielded paintbrushes. Underneath their graphic images and searing political commentary, many of these murals are incredible artworks, filled with colors as vivid as Mother Nature's.
This dichotomy of brutality and beauty befits Northern Ireland, where for nearly 30 years terrible acts of violence unfolded amid the gorgeous landscape. Today, nearly a decade after the historic Good Friday Agreement brought peace, the capital has emerged as a cosmopolitan city bursting with energy. In a true sign of progress, the Crumlin Road Courthouse, where thousands of loyalists and republicans stood trial during the Troubles, is being redeveloped into a 160-room luxury hotel.
While Belfast's boutique hotels, trendy restaurants, and thriving arts scene are drawing visitors from around the globe, so are the city's political murals. Amazingly, the sectarian neighborhoods, which were the epicenter of bombings and bloodshed, are now tourist destinations. Double-decker tour buses drive past some of the murals on their routes around Belfast, but a black taxi tour offers a much more personalized and in-depth experience. (Not all taxis are allowed to travel through both Protestant and Catholic areas, so confirm beforehand that your tour will include both sides.)
Our driver, Jimmy, picked us up at our hotel, and within minutes we were in the heart of the Catholic Falls Road area of West Belfast. Many of the murals in this blue-collar neighborhood honor the 10 Irish Republican Army hunger strikers who died in prison in 1981. The youthful face of Bobby Sands, 27, the first of them to die, gazes out from the side of the Sinn Fein office on Falls Road. Alongside his smiling visage, framed by his long brown locks, are the words: "Our revenge will be the laughter of our children."
A few republican murals take inspiration from the civil rights movement in the United States. Frederick Douglass graces a mural on Falls Road, and another in the Ardoyne district draws a parallel between the jeers heaped upon the African-American students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock in 1957 and a 2001 incident in which Protestant demonstrators shouted epithets at Catholic schoolgirls walking to the nearby elementary school. The iconic picture of a white crowd taunting Elizabeth Eckford as she strode into an Arkansas classroom more than 50 years ago flanks the image of a frightened Ardoyne schoolgirl, and the text reads: "Everyone has the right to live free from sectarian harassment. It's black and white!"
A series of republican paintings at the foot of Falls Road express solidarity with international liberation movements and present a scathing commentary on US foreign policy. The most striking one depicts President Bush with a fistful of dollars as he draws on a pipe feeding into the war-torn oilfields of Iraq. Black bubbles with dollar signs float from his ears, and the subtitle below reads: "America's Greatest Failure."
While republican murals certainly include their fair share of bellicose themes, those in the Protestant loyalist neighborhood along Shankill Road have a decidedly more intimidating and threatening tone. Images of masked paramilitary figures dressed in fatigues and pointing assault rifles can be found on block after block.
One mural makes a more emotional appeal. It includes scenes from the aftermath of five bombings, the last in 1993, of loyalist bars and shops under the title: "30 Years of Indiscriminate Slaughter by So-Called Non-Sectarian Irish Freedom Fighters." One scene is of the body of a toddler, swaddled in a blanket, being carried from the rubble of a 1971 bombing. An adjoining plaque lists the names and ages of the victims, including the child, Colin Nicholl, 17 months.
To say the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland has deep historical roots would be a massive understatement. (Northern Ireland was created in 1921 when Ireland was partitioned; it was made an autonomous region of the Irish Free State but immediately chose to remain part of the United Kingdom, which is its status today.) Numerous murals fiercely depict centuries-old events as if they happened yesterday. Several loyalist murals celebrate the Protestant victory over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Another features a portrait of Oliver Cromwell, a hero to some Protestants for conquering Catholic Ireland in the 1600s, and his inflammatory quote: "Catholicism is more than a religion. It is a political power. Therefore, I'm led to believe there will be no peace in Ireland until the Catholic Church is crushed."
With elements in the two communities still clinging to the ghosts of history, it would be unrealistic to expect centuries of anger and resentment to simply disappear, despite the significant achievements in the peace process. The most visible sign of the divide that still simmers is the ugly, 20-foot-high wall of concrete, corrugated steel, and chain link that separates the Shankill and Falls Road neighborhoods. Nearly 20 years after the Berlin Wall fell, Belfast's "peace" walls not only endure, but new barriers have been built in recent years across the city. Jimmy told us he doesn't see them coming down anytime soon. "They're going to have to be here," he lamented, "because the peace walls provide stability."
Still, both sides are making significant progress in moving the peace process forward, and that means some of the more violent, incendiary images may soon vanish. The government launched a three-year program in 2006 that gives communities as much as $10,000 to replace paramilitary murals across Northern Ireland with more positive public art. We saw one example of a repainted mural that features a rather unexpected subject: Andrew Jackson, bedecked in a military uniform and sitting atop a white steed. While Bostonians are thoroughly familiar with the Kennedy connection to the Emerald Isle, few may know that Jackson's Scotch-Irish parents emigrated to America from just outside Belfast.
Jimmy told us he never thought he'd see the day when he'd be giving tours though these neighborhoods, and he said the public and private investment that has flooded into the city means the dark days of the Troubles are gone forever. "There's no going back now. There's no going back to the way it was. Not a chance of it."
That optimism shines through in one of Belfast's newest murals, which depicts Picasso's antiwar masterpiece "Guernica." Its artists? A Protestant loyalist and a Catholic republican.
Christopher Klein, a freelance writer in Waltham, can be reached at email@example.com.