My hometown, Philadelphia, is well known for its murals and mural program; however, the friendly and (dare I say) sanitized mural art at home cannot even begin to compare to what I saw in Belfast and Derry.
Belfast is perhaps the most politically charged city in European history, save for the former East/West Berlin. Even today, nearly 20 years after the official end of the Troubles, there is a palpable tension permeating the air on either side of the “Peace” Wall. This, of course, was exacerbated by the fact that we were on a trip to learn about the lasting tensions from the Troubles.
The murals stood out to me, though, among all that we learned two weeks ago. The row on the Catholic side, standing in solidarity with other human rights’ violations around the world while commemorating those who fell in Northern Ireland, particular those who died in the Hunger Strike. The mural dedicated to the crisis in Syria particularly is memorable—it, to my mind, is indicative of the community’s global political awareness and great capacity for compassion. The Protestant murals seemed (to my biased/Catholic mind) to be more intimidating and even occasionally violent, but they appear to be based in the same nationalist passion that fires the Catholic community; they merely see themselves as part of a different nation.
The murals in Derry, particularly the wall of Free Derry, were equally poignant in their activism and political power. However, nothing I saw in the North of Ireland compared to the experience of the Annette McGavigan mural. Annette’s mural drove home, beyond anything else we learned, the true and lasting effect of the Troubles: the death of bystanders, whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. When our tour guide, Garvin, relayed the story of her father visiting the mural every day to talk to his daughter, I found tears streaming down my face—the memory of the story alone makes me tear up. It can be easy to get caught up in ideology, but Annette forces us to remember that behind every thought, action, and manifesto are human beings: some old, some young, and all simply seeking to live their best lives. When conflict and ideology impede the ability to live, it is time to reevaluate the ideologies that began the conflict in the first place. Or, in the more succinct words of a signature on the Peace Wall in Belfast: